The M Word

    With full awareness and in possession of all my faculties, and despite the danger of sounding dogmatic or, worse,  finding myself stricken from future invitations, I wish to spend the last few hundred words of the year meditating upon moderation.  The principle of restricting consumption is familiar enough, but what rankles most is the lack of further guidance.  When asked how I stay fit, or keep a well-edited wardrobe, or any number of other similar questions, and I answer with the m word, it seems affected, like some mystic riddle Yoda would annoyingly burble.  That’s not my intention; I just have faith in the unadorned principle of moderation.

    In the simplest sense, Beaujolais is good, but too much of it, very bad.  This is most obvious because young wines stain the lips and teeth and make for unpleasant mornings when drunk to excess.  Roughly the same applies to Champagne (without the astringent purpling of things), beer, and spirits generally.  In all these cases, the actual -OH functional group is as responsible for the ill effects as the other stuff; too much spicy tomato juice or sugar or any of the other compounds that create flavor and color are as offensive to the system as alcohol is toxic.  I won’t—I cannot—suggest volumes, but I can say that resisting that additional glass is a terrific strategy.  It’s easy to recognize why too much adult beverage rather quickly ruins lunch, a good dinner, a weekend, the month or, in the longer term, an otherwise pleasant life.

    Applied to other comestibles, the waters muddy.  The most obnoxious sentiment a physically fit person can muster is the familiar proclamation of calories in, calories out.  Is there truth to the this simple economy?  Sure, but it smugly circumvents the matters of desire and pleasure.  I am not a two-stroke motor, but if I were I would be rather particular about my oil and gas and the ratio in which I should receive either.  The food I eat might, indeed, fuel my body, but choices are governed more by what looks good than by the energy contained within.  This is why most branded diets are unsustainable: the substitution of science for common sense strips away any earnest effort to satisfy desire.  I realize the value in studying human nutrition, but I heartily object to the manic way in which fad diets bloom each time a smallish study reveals some unforeseen result.  Call me cynical, but the words data suggests have the same ring to my ears as step right up folks…  I have a much more sensible suggestion: whatever the desire—a well prepared steak, shards of dark chocolate—take pleasure in it.  Just not too much and not too often.

    Advocating moderation as pertains to material objects draws the advocate as near to unwelcome preachiness as the principle permits.  I will parse my words.  The difference between want and need is much finer than most admit.  This is best illustrated by considering something like shoes, of which multiple pairs are considered necessary.  A modest collection might be: two pairs for dressed occasions, three pairs for casual occasions and two for activewear.  The owner of this wardrobe might notice premature wear on some of these, and in an effort to prolong life, add one more pair in each category.  This is precisely how a good intention is slyly used to masque the slide from need to want, and functional numbers of things balloon into closets that bulge with unfamiliar inventory.  Ownership of anything is a burden, but ownership of vast quantities of things is an embarrassment.  Testing my thoughts on moderation, a friend the other day pointed out that I sounded like George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air, a cool-hearted modern man who speaks to auditoriums full of people about unpacking their self-imposed burdens, only to realize he, himself is unmoored entirely.  I must not have made my points clear enough: Moderation is not a purgative; it prevents the acquisition of excess from the start.

    Championing moderation attracts the most skepticism when applied to exercise.  How can one keep too fit?  If on these pages diction has ever really mattered, I think it is here: fitness is a state relative to the individual, whereas exercise is a particular activity.   The problem, as I’ve observed, is when exercise loses its place as a means to fitness, becoming, instead a preoccupation.  Signs that the shift has taken place are usually conspicuous:  specialized gear, the refusal to miss a workout, the insistence on particular regimens, the use of spreadsheets.  These things and behaviors aren’t inherently bad—just unnecessary for the gaining and maintaining of general fitness.  For that worthy goal only discipline and some basic knowledge is required.  Moderation, in this sense, keeps exercise loyal to the goal of fitness.  

    Unhappily, there are two problems, made worse in that they contradict.  Firstly, all this moderation only really works when practiced in concert.  One can’t pick and choose; moderation must be misted over the entirety of the human experience, preventing any one aspect from becoming cheap from overuse.   But the real wrench in the works is that strict moderation in everything is an obvious violation of its own principle.  Put another way, moderation itself should be practiced with some degree of moderation.  I realize so confounding a conclusion might undermine the premise (and purpose) of the essay.  But if thought of as a dynamic and restless approach rather than a set of commandments chiseled in granite, moderation might be difficult, but it is also a more realistic philosophy.