Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ode on a Belly: Mine


Introduction

As I’ve commented before in these pages, I find vanity distasteful in a male.  That being said, shamelessness is probably worse.  In this spirit of shame I must now fall on my sword.  (As you shall learn, it’ll have to be a pretty long sword.)  Can self-loathing actually take the form of an ode?  Decide for yourself.

The Poem

Ode on a Belly:  Mine

So, “Eat to ride and ride to eat” is said
By almost any biker you might meet.                       2
A pile of pasta bigger than your head?
That’s just the kind of thing we like to eat.

But age, in time, makes fools of us all
(Except your oddball masters racing geek).            6
Our training programs finally start to stall;
Our bodies falter when our will is weak.

So now, alas, my belly’s on a roll.
It’s now convex that always was concave.             10
Instead of being thin, I’m Moomintroll.
By gluttony I find myself enslaved.

For years I faked it, sucking in my gut.
The camera and the mirror were deceived!          14
But now my belly’s found a way to jut
Out sideways, all the time—hard to believe!

     I’ve never actually thought about a diet
     But now I think I’ll finally have to try it.           18

Footnotes  & Commentary

Title

As I’ve explained in a previous post, “ode on” sounds a lot more sophisticated than “ode to.”  But I couldn’t title this “Ode on My Belly” because that might summon the image of somebody lying on his stomach (i.e., prone).  And “Ode On a Belly” is misleading.  I have never cared about anybody else’s belly, certainly not enough to write poetry about it.  I want to be very clear that this is my belly we’re talking about.  A belly that never before existed.

Line 2:  biker

You might think I wrote “biker” instead of cyclist because I needed to conform to the iambic pentameter of the sonnet form.  But actually, being a veteran of this sport, I prefer the term “biker,” as it teases the relative newcomers who insist on being called cyclists.  (If you don’t believe me, check out this biking glossary I wrote all the way back in 2008.)

Line 3:  bigger than your head

This is of course an allusion to the excellent book Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head by B. Kliban.

By the way, you might think I’m exaggerating about how much I eat.  And while I can’t say with certainty that I ever ate a pile of pasta bigger than my head, I did once eat a giant hunk of tri-tip that was.  And that’s not all:  I ate it as tacos.  Like thirty of them.  The giant hunk of meat just got smaller and smaller until it was gone.  Years later, wishing I’d somehow verified this past feat of grilled excess, I had the great idea to weigh myself before and after a barbecue, with spectators.  The half dozen people present witnessed that I gained more than ten pounds in one sitting.

Line 5:  Age, in time, makes fools of us

This alludes to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come.”  Literary references like this showcase the kind of highbrow literary aspiration you can expect here at albertnet, even when I’m just grousing.

Line 6:  oddball masters racing geek

In case you’re not a cyclist, this refers to the “Masters” categories (35+, 45+, and even 55+ age groups) in American road racing.  As lamented here, there are some really fast old guys whom I assume made a killing in tech and then retired early, and have all the time and energy in the world to train.  These guys set the bar really high when it comes to physique.  It’s hard to cut myself slack with them strutting around (or more to the point, riding around) being all lean, reminding us what Lycra is supposed to be showcasing.

Line 7:  training programs

This line may be a bit misleading.  Most of the older guys I ride with—accomplished racers in their day—don’t follow a formal training program.  (As detailed here, only 4% keep up such a program year-round.)  Most of us follow the very general program of riding fairly often and jolly hard.  Based on this rather sloppy regimen, we feel entitled to eat whatever we want whenever we want, in whatever quantities we want.  The slop in the program works great until it doesn’t, which in my experience seems to be the second half of my forties—i.e., now.

Line 8:  bodies falter when our will is weak

This flips around the old ditty about “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (originally from the New Testament) that has been celebrated in an anecdote about artificial intelligence:  a computer attempted to translate the line into Russian and then back to English, with the comic result,  “The vodka was good but the meat was rotten.”

Line 9:  belly’s on a roll

Any suggestion of rolls of fat, and/or a jelly roll, is of course entirely intentional.

Line 10:  now convex that always was concave

If you have a hard time keeping straight convex vs. concave, try out this brain teaser.  That’s how I keep these terms straight.

Line 11:  Moomintroll

In case you’ve never heard of Moomintrolls, get thee to a library!  I didn’t want to steal a picture from the Internet because these books are still in print, so I asked my younger daughter to draw me a Moomintroll. 


To be completely honest, Moomintroll wears his belly a lot better than I do.  Not all weight is created equal.  Henry VIII was a huge man, but his size gave him an air of gravitas.  Falstaff was also very large but this just added to his bonhomie.  With wiry slow-twitch endurance athletes, though, the belly is just this isolated bulge attached to narrow limbs, which conveys neither gravitas nor bonhomie ... just a fit body going to seed.  Instead of Moomintroll, I perhaps should have compared myself to E.T., the extraterrestrial ... but I’m trying to be compassionate with myself.

Imagine a big belly on this guy...


Line 12:  gluttony ... enslaved

This line may seem so obvious as to be meaningless, but it’s not.  I think in many if not most cases, overweight people aren’t actually gluttons, but just have bad habits like drinking sodas or juice, resulting from lack of information.  But cyclists tend to know a lot about nutrition; we blather on about complex carbs and glycemic index, and know to drink sugary beverages only during exercise.  We’re just so used to indulging in gluttony without consequence that it’s hard to stop when the intensity of our riding naturally declines.  We know it’s wrong to keep up our gastronomic abandon, but we can’t help it.  See?  Slaves to gluttony.

I say “we” and “our” here because I’m trying to convince myself I’m not alone in my weight gain.  But actually, my biking teammates are holding up really well, and it’s wrong for me to try to drag down this community.  I could fix this, but I’m going to let it stand, as part of my shame.

Line 13:  sucking in my gut

As I alluded to a bit ago, when a cyclist does put on weight, it’s often extremely localized.  Some have theorized that we have oversized livers, to store all that glycogen.  Or maybe it’s the position we ride in that gives gravity a clean shot at our bellies.  Whatever the case, the thick midsection can even be seen in some professional racers, such as the German star Jan Ullrich:


The difference, in Ullrich’s case, is that he was thick through the belly while in top racing form.  So, despite his reputation for gaining more weight in the off-season than other pro racers, he could reasonably shrug and say, “I’ve just got a big liver or something.”  But since my own belly is obviously the result of slacking off at my exercise regimen, I have nowhere to hide.  And it’s not just my new physique that’s on display:  the extra weight slows me down on the bike, to the point where I’m reluctant to ride with my pals for fear of slowing them down inordinately.

Line 14:  the camera and the mirror

I discovered years ago that when a bunch of bikers line up for a group photo, a great way to invoke candid, genuine smiles is to call out, “Everybody suck in your gut!”  This invariably gets a laugh simply because it’s so absurd to think we’d actually need to do this.  In my own case, though, I hereby confess that I have actually been sucking in my gut in photos for at least a couple of years, to compensate for my gradual weight gain.  Case in point:  in this picture (from early 2016) I appear as flat-bellied as the rest!  (In case you’re an albertnet newcomer, I’m the guy third from the left.)


As for the mirror, that’s where things really get ridiculous.  I’ve long taken to being embarrassed by my own reflection unless I suck my belly in.  I’ve even dabbled in the delusion that all that sucking in would develop my stomach muscles and actually fix the problem. 

Line 15:  found a way to jut

Line 15?  WTF??  Since when does a sonnet have more than 14 lines?  Well, first of all, I never said this was a traditional Shakespearean sonnet.  Meanwhile, I decided that, excess being the major theme of my poem, I’d throw in a whole extra stanza, like that side of fries I didn’t really need.

I really do feel as though my belly were its own thing, not just a section of my flesh.  It’s like it’s got a mind of its own, like octopus arms or sea star limbs do.  I wonder if my belly dreams of escaping and heading for the door, dragging a trail behind it like a slug.

Line 16:  out sideways, all the time

When sucking in wasn’t enough, I found that by also raising my arms over my head I could look exactly like the weedy guy I used to be.  Now, even when I try this desperate measure, the fat sticks out sideways like little ears (or “love handles,” as they say).  I suppose I can still fake thinness while wearing Lycra, but not while also breathing (i.e., certainly not while riding).  My dad was visiting recently and while I was shoving stuff in my jersey pockets before a ride he remarked, “You still have a flat stomach.”  Two things instantly crossed my mind:  1) this flat stomach is an illusion caused by the fact that I literally suck, and 2) he might have been saying one thing to imply the opposite, whether consciously or not.  His remark could not have been made if the issue of my having a big tummy were not already on the table.  It’s not like he could reasonably say, for example, “Both of your ears are still intact.”

Line 17:  diet

The astute reader will notice the extra foot at the end of this line and the next (i.e., instead of 5 two-syllable metrical feet, each line in this couplet has 5½).  For extra credit, I challenge you to explain why I chose to do this.  (Answer:  like my extra stanza, this extra foot is symbolic of my tacked-on, interloping appendage.)

While I truly never have considered dieting before, my paranoia about a fat belly (or “aero-belly” as a teammate affectionately calls it) is nothing new.  Click here for an albeit slippery, quasi-fictional account of my past weight issues.

Line 18:  try it

In fact, I am three days into deliberately following the South Beach diet.  This isn’t my first time being on the diet; it’s my first time wanting to be.  As described here, I was involuntarily immersed in this diet years ago, when my wife did it and cooked our family meals accordingly.  This time I won’t be gorging at lunchtime to compensate.  So far, South Beach is working okay:  I’m down eight pounds.  (That may seem like a lot, but remember that ten-pound barbecue I wrote about.  For me, eight pounds is a rounding error.)

Stay tuned, because in the coming weeks I may blog about a) an epic road ride I’m unwisely planning; b) how the diet is going, or c) both.

Epilogue - July 24, 2017

You know how in the comment to Line 11, above, I asked you to imagine a big belly on Chris Froome?  Well, I was just looking at coverage of the final Tour de France stage, and caught a gander of this:


I wouldn’t say Froomie’s belly is huge or anything, but given how skinny the rest of him is, his thickness there is not insignificant.  Maybe a cyclist’s gut really isn’t fat ... maybe it is an oversized liver or just extra guts or something, or maybe the way we’re bent over creates a true illusion (since our bellies do tend to vanish when we stand up straight).

Or maybe, just maybe, all cyclists are extraterrestrials.

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