Of Sugar, Time, and the Serendipity of Wisdom

It’s the first session of the day and it’s still cool on this Autumn morning.  I shiver in my leathers, not entirely because of the venting in the Dainese suit.  The track still has patches of dampness from the fog which rolls in every night off the Dan River, but is drying quickly.  We’re helping it along with our laps.  The last track day of the year.  It’s going to be a good day.

The South Course at Virginia International Raceway has a hell of a long front straight.  More than half a mile.  Coming out of Oak Tree, the hard right-hander leading onto it – where legend has it that years ago the car racers used to deliberately rev their motors trying to shake acorns loose onto the tarmac – I’m in third gear on the GSX-R1000.  Deliberately over-gearing it, trying to keep down wheelspin.  Once onto the straight, speed builds in a rapid crescendo.  Even short-shifting – trying to keep the front wheel on the ground – I’m soon on the far side of 160mph.  God’s country.

Some of life’s experiences defy description.  Braking hard from those speeds, in what your mind tells you is an impossibly short distance, is one of those.  Those HH pads and the six-pot calipers provide what seems to be perfectly fine braking – really powerful braking – everywhere else.  Just not here.  Past the braking marker, two fingers on the lever, squeezing like the trigger of a rifle, the pads of those fingers feeling for the load on the front tire.  The rear end all light and softly shimmying, like the subtly-turning tail of one of those smallmouth holding station in the river over beyond the trees.  There are damp patches here, too, and one can’t help but wonder if we haven’t overloaded that front tire as we roll through them.  But, no, we’re ok.

You never think you’re going to make it.  The end of the straight comes at you like the earth towards a crashing plane.  It rises up like an unremitting wall, but with a rush like a cutting scimitar.  Only at the very end, just when you’ve nearly given up all hope, does it seem like yes, I think maybe I can  make that turn.  It always seems a surprise.

By late morning the chill is gone.  Now I’m sweating as each session gets underway.  I’m glad when noon arrives and the track goes quiet.  It gives me time to rehydrate some of the fluid I’ve lost.

My call home to Ginny is unremarkable.  “The Suzuki is running well,” I tell her.  “Be careful,” she reminds me as we hang up.  How many times over the years have I heard that refrain, sitting in the pits, calling from some racetrack far from home?

On the first session after lunch I go out expecting to continue the morning’s routine.  After a couple of laps to get some heat back into the tires I begin working the bike again.  I push aside the languor which envelops me.

On the third lap, past that long front straight, I begin working my way through The Spiral, a staircase set of esses which lead onto the low-speed right-hander called The Fishhook.  This is the most technical part of the track, the one with the most rapid left-right transitions.

All day long I have been ever mindful of the prodigious power of this motorcycle.  Of its otherworldly power-to-weight ratio.  It has already scared the hell out of me once – on this very track, a couple months earlier, when its brutal acceleration prompted an unintended wheelie at 140mph.  I long ago concluded that owning a bike like this is something akin to keeping a pet rattlesnake.

So, in a way, I’m not surprised.

Entering The Fishhook, I’m hanging off the right side of the machine, my knee reaching down towards the pavement.  Softly motioning the throttle, gently spooling the engine as I begin to lift the bike for the left-hander that looms just ahead, I’m apparently not gentle enough.

You can feel it when a rear tire breaks, when it first spins up.  There’s a tiny little release, a momentary fissure in the space-time fabric, that feeling of elastic firmness that wraps into our bones, when riding a motorcycle at speed.

The very best motorcycle riders in the world sometimes do that on purpose, deliberately breaking loose the tire and using the now-spinning and loosely-coupled rear end to square off the turn.  Leaving behind a long, black smear as the only evidence of their mastery.

I’m not that good.

The sudden softness surprises me.  As the rear of the bike rotates towards the left, my subconscious response is both immediate – and absolutely wrong.  I chop the throttle.  Even as the first neural signals flash through my brain of what is happening and how to respond to it, it’s too late.  The sudden removal of power has caused the rear tire to hook back up.  And the sudden reappearance of traction has caused the now-contorted-nearly-sideways motorcycle to turn into a catapult.  It launches me violently into the tarmac.

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Four weeks later the pain begins.  A sharp, intense, radiating, pain that begins in my neck, spreads across my shoulders, and descends down my arm.  It’s impossible to ignore.  But healthy all my life, I try and shrug it off.  It’s just a pinched nerved, I reason.  Must have tweaked something in that crash.

In a bit of twisted irony, it comes on nearly to the day that I am laid off, the company I work for becoming the latest casualty of the dot-com implosion.  I have no way of knowing that fifteen long, barren months lie in front of me before I’ll see another paycheck.

After ten days the strange pain not only hasn’t not gone away, it hasn’t diminished a bit.  It sits there, an angry intruder, acute in its intensity, chronic in its effect, touching everything in my life.  It’s on a ten minute ride on my other motorcycle, to get its annual safety inspection, when I have to ride nearly one-handed because of the pain, that I reluctantly decide I must do something.  The thought of not being able to ride is a darkness I cannot even consider.

A month later, after three doctor visits and an MRI, I have my answer.  Cervical spinal stenosis.  So much for something simple, something temporary.

And so begins my 10-year sojourn, living with pain as an ever present companion.  A sullen, unwelcome friend.  The new backdrop to everything else in my life.

A few years ago a hunting friend killed himself.  Brad was young and healthy and had everything to live for.  But he had been divorced and then he lost his job and his finances crumpled into disarray.  When he finally put the .45 to his head and pulled the trigger, I understood how it could happen.  Sometimes the pain just becomes too much.  You just want to be done with it.

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Almost exactly a year ago, a woman from one of the financial boards I frequent posted a topic “Is Sugar Toxic?”  It’s salient point was included in this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?_r=2&src=me&ref=homepage

Like I usually do with longish articles, I printed it off.  Settling back in my chair, I began reading.  And in that fifteen minutes, something happened.  An epiphany arose.  When I talked to Ginny a few hours later I gave her the news.

“I’m off sugar.”

To her credit, she didn’t laugh.

She probably should have.  Anyone who knows me knows I have a legendary sweet tooth.  I have since I was a child.  Pies, cakes, donuts, candy.  I consumed them with a regularity that today, in retrospect, I find astonishing.

For years, orange juice was our staple anytime-you’re-thirsty drink.  Go for a run or a bicycle ride or work out in the yard?  Come inside afterwards and rehydrate with a quart of fresh, ice-cold orange juice.  We thought we were being healthy.

For years, a Starbucks’ grande mocha was my evening reward for having finished a long day at work.  In the summer I would switch to a Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino.

Chocolate milkshakes were a special delight.  Not a week would go by that I didn’t have several.  As far as I was concerned, they were the only good reason for McDonald’s to even exist.  My decades-long ritual meal of ‘hamburger, small fries, and chocolate milkshake’ was always a joy.  And there was a particular, greater-than-it-ought-to-have-been disappointment that attached to the occasional reply from the cashier “sorry, our milkshake machine is broken.”

A proper serving of ice cream – that would be a pint or thereabouts – every night, for years, stretching into decades, had been my long habit.

We could afford to rationalize these choices because of great good fortune.  Ginny was a marathon runner and was forever out burning a prodigious number of calories.  I was the recipient of a genetic makeup that caused my body to seemingly be unconnected to caloric intake.  Tall and skinny as a teenager.  I remained tall and skinny as an adult.

Mostly.  I gained a few pounds in my early thirties when I quit smoking.  And I gained a few more as I entered my fifties, the gradual slowing of metabolism that the wear of time always brings to bear.  My waist line had gone from 32 to 34 and then to 36.  But at 6’ 2” and 180lbs I still considered myself to be in pretty decent shape.

Still, that morning after-shower routine in front of the mirror was one of increasing angst.  I had seen plenty of examples of men growing older to know that even my beneficient DNA endowment would not forever be proof against a bulging belly.  I saw the evidence every day.  That thirty-six I wore was increasingly becoming a snug thirty-six.

Against all odds, I remained firm to my new resolution.  In doing so, I learned a few things.

Sugar is added to nearly everything.  It’s actually quite hard to eliminate entirely from one’s diet.  Even where it’s not been added during processing, food products still often contain sugar.  The mixed nuts that I began consuming as a substitute for sweets, for instance, contain a gram or two.  Vegetables often have a fair amount.  And fruits, almost universally accepted as good for you, are loaded with fructose.

What I found is that, with a modicum of effort, I could keep my intake to less than ten grams per day.  Since that stood in such sharp contrast to the 100-200 grams I estimate I was consuming before, I figured that was good enough.

I made only a few exceptions.  Over the course of the year, I had but three proper deserts:  a piece of wedding cake at my son’s wedding, a piece of homemade cheese cake at a friend’s home, and a tiny piece of cake at my father’s 86th birthday a couple weeks ago.

It is astonishing how utterly exquisite a sugar-laden sweet is when you’ve gone months without.

Ginny, having been health-conscious for years, was more than happy to support my sudden turnaround.  Her efforts to buy and prepare no-sugar or low-sugar meals were instrumental.  About the only thing we disagreed on were fruits.  She continued to eat them in abundance.  I very much limited them.  So much so that one of my favorite memories was the simple afternoon when I steered the Harley to the side of a remote back road and sat down in the grass beside it to enjoy my lunch.  When I was done with that I extracted from my saddlebag a single, ripe peach.  Cold, pungent with sweetness, with juice that spread through my fingers as I ate it, it was the perfect capstone to a perfect few hours.

For the first few weeks, it was like my body didn’t know what to make of my new diet.  For the first time in my life, my blood wasn’t being subjected to vast amounts of sugar.

After about a month, I began to lose weight.  Slowly.  A pound or two per week.  Months later, after dipping into the 150’s, it stabilized.  “I’m back to my old high school, weight,” I happily joked to Ginny.

More importantly, that chronic pain in my neck and shoulders – my horned companion for a decade – slowly began to subside.  Today I still have moments of occasional discomfort, but for the most part it is gone.  Don’t ask me why.

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Like many people, the internet for me is a portal into a variety of communities.  Whatever it is you’re interested in, you’re bound to find a group of like-minded folks who share that interest, and with whom you can speak and debate and argue.  It’s fun.  And it’s enlightening.

What we don’t normally expect is for it to be profound.

And yet, for me, in the case of this one post a year ago, it most emphatically was.

Thank you, Wendy.

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