[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
July 1998

Officially Fat

The month of June was noteworthy. First, we sold several components which caused loud rejoicing at our accountant’s office. If you read this column recently, you know the freeze on sales had been so deep, it was almost time to eat the dogs. Thanks to low-key begging on my part, we are able to mush on again, sled team intact.

Secondly, the US government chose June to embarrass me impersonally. Despite exceeding drugstore weight-scale guidelines for fitness, I always pictured myself as "in shape." I was chagrined to learn that Uncle Sam considers anyone, regardless of body type, who stands 5 feet 11 inches tall (in shower shoes) and weighs 184 pounds to be officially fat. With a Seppuku sense of shame, the old samurai admits to a Body Mass Index* of 25.8. The .8 was a long time coming. I fear it will be a long-time going.

To one who has exercised off and on for four decades, the government’s measure of fatness seems like a cruel hoax. A BMI of 25, which separates the thin from the plump, is almost impossible for a well-adjusted person to attain. Is the government encouraging weird, anti-social behavior? Having tried dieting years ago, I know that losing weight requires one to sew his lips shut, or else catch a life-threatening disease. My present condition may take even stronger measures, since I have to lose the equivalent of 23 quarter-pounders with cheese. The task is doubly daunting because I never eat at Mickey D’s and have no idea where all the fat and gristle came from in the first place. Could it have something to do with a sedentary audio lifestyle?

In my case, life is a sitzkrieg. Five days a week, I ignite the old stereo campfire at 8AM and extinguish it 12 hours later. Though having chores to do, I continually visit the music room, where I imitate still-life for stretches of time. When seriously assessing new components, cables, or loudspeakers, I sometimes spend hours in a low-slung chair, wielding nothing heavier than a remote control. Thank goodness the compact-disc transport requires a walk-over once an hour. Using a multi-disc CD player might cause me to seize up like Tin Man on a rainy day. Apparently, the bureaucrats in Washington who proclaimed that health ends at (BMI) 25 are active, outdoor sportspersons. They certainly can’t be audiophiles. Can they?

I thought about this as I launched into yet another new training program, during long morning walks before breakfast, while grasping a lunch-hour dumbbell, as I cracked open the single allowable beer of the afternoon: Are audiophiles overweight? Certainly, based on my case alone, the answer is yes. But I am not convinced the truth is found within oneself. Some reference should made to the outside world, should it not? (I Kant be sure.) Presuming a need for information, I chose to survey the hardest-core group of audiophiles I know--the people who write for SoundStage!

This was no mean task. SoundStagers are a breed apart. They ask no quarter and give none. My first request for information was ignored by 15 out of 17 writers. The other two sent testy replies. Clearly, the survey was too burdensome. I decided to streamline it from three questions to two, which encouraged a few serious answers. Finally, I offered to desist from posting to SoundStage!’s Talk Online for a week and this trade-off met with almost unanimous approval. In total, 15 cohorts finally divulged age and BMI (actually, height and weight, since most of our staff are metrically-challenged). At this juncture, it wouldn’t be fair to mention the names of two writers who never acknowledged the survey, but their initials are Richard Seah and Steven Rochlin.

What to do with the mass of data? I called upon our in-house statistics expert, Bruce Bassett, to help interpret the numbers. Overnight, he decided that average age was a red herring. The oldest person surveyed had a near normal body mass index, while the youngest had the highest BMI on the list. The idea that increasing age meant increasing mass was not borne out by the survey, unless middle-age spread now begins at 21. Instead, Bruce determined the median age of a SoundStage! contributor to be 36, and the median BMI as 27.3. He performed these calculations by tossing out the youngest and oldest ages, the highest and lowest BMI, and subtracting a fudge-factor for non-respondent Rochlin, who neither eats nor sleeps, and is all skin and jewelry.

In my mind, the numbers presented a bigger picture. Over Bruce’s objection, I postulated that the median age of a SoundStage! contributor (36), is equal to the average age of audiophiles worldwide. This equation is a priori, and not worth quibbling over. Moreover, the median SoundStage! BMI (27.3) accurately portrays the physical condition of your typical hi-fi hobbyist, from St. Croix to Siberia. This conclusion is derived from a partial understanding of "standard deviation," which seems to say the numbers read any way you want, with a 50% chance of error.

Ergo, it’s even odds that audiophiles resemble the people who write for SoundStage!. Based on what I know of my colleagues, the ramifications of this finding are instructive. First, audiophiles are in the prime of life. Secondly, they eat and drink to excess and get little exercise. Thirdly, the thin ones are crazy and the fat ones are under-loved. Fourthly, they are not about to change their habits for anything or anyone. Finally, if they would only use their powers for good instead of evil, they could change the world. Fortunately, the latter is not about to happen. Spouses will go unshod, children unclothed, and dogs unfed, as long as audiophiles need new equipment. These are my people, and I am grateful for their existence.

Now, for those alarmed by a burgeoning BMI, I know several methods for getting back into shape. First, walk 30 minutes a day, a simple job involving 14 hours of boredom a month. No way, Josť. Second, join a gymnasium and go there to pump iron three times a week. Ick. Third, eliminate alcohol and desserts. Yeah, sure. Where does that leave us?

May I suggest we ignore the body mass index, at least as it applies to audiophiles and other human beings. We should respect it as an ideal, but ignore it as a commandment. For those of normal BMI, let it provide bragging rights (but how big are their amps?). For insurance underwriters, let it yield higher premiums. For audiophiles, let it molder along with THD measurements and quadraphonic sound. One’s lifestyle is what it is. Changing it for the sake of government guidelines won’t matter one whit in the scheme of things. Ultimately, the contentment we feel within ourselves is all the matters. In my case, there has always been a fat man inside of me dying to get out. He may be gradually emerging, but so what? I’ve never been happier in my life.

As make-weight, consider a recent experience with Henry. As soon as the BMI came out, I sped to the gym which Henry owns. We began to discuss body-mass index and other means of gauging fat. He pointed to an ad for an electronic device which measures the impedance of flesh and calculates a muscle/fat ratio. This information seemed like grist for the mill and I mentioned the SoundStage! column to Henry, who was intrigued to learn I wrote about audio. "I have some equipment at home, " he confided. After months of exchanging pleasantries with Henry, I finally learned he is an audiophile, and a potential customer for Casa Saxon.

The point, however, is that Henry is a weight lifter and judo expert. He is about 40 years old, and has bulging muscles and a flat belly, yet his body mass index is 27.3. This is another reason to ignore the BMI. It’s too simplistic. There are body masses and then they are massive bodies. Henry pondered his statistical deviation a moment and shrugged. Does he care about the what the US government thinks? No, sir. He is probably healthier than anyone who works at the Department of Health. And besides, he’s an audiophile who lives in Paradise, which are two good reasons to be content.

...James Saxon

*To derive Body Mass Index, divide one’s weight in kilograms by the square of one’s height in meters.

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