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Archive for the ‘Spirit’ Category

My heart took a dive recently when I was asked to speak on the subject of humility, because humility, at least how I understood it as of a few weeks ago, was just about dead last on my list of favorite things. It was altogether too closely associated with bowing and scraping and making oneself pitiful. With not taking credit where credit is due, like women of my generation who were taught to say “oh gosh, it was nothing” of a towering achievement that might have been months or years in the making. And with unattainable role models like Gandhi, with his skinny little butt wrapped in diaper.

Humility is confusing. Definitions are often contradictory and there are a lot of associations floating around about it, a lot of feelings. And to complicate matters further, there’s a sense that we’re supposed to have a measure of it, but not too much. Like pride, and vitamin D. (Pride is confusing too, but on the whole it tends to be celebrated in our culture. It’s The Few, the Proud, not the Few, the Humble.)

imgres-2I looked first to metaphor and came up with Humble Pie. It seemed like a pleasant coincidence that this central image revolved around one of my truly favorite things, food.

Humble Pie, according to Miriam Webster, is “a figurative serving of humiliation usually in the form of a forced submission, apology, or retraction.” We eat humble pie. Etymologically speaking this is a bit off, for the term probably derives from umble pie, made from deer organs, and though that would not be my cup of tea, umble pie doesn’t necessarily connote forced submission.

But notice how potent are the food metaphors around humility, the images mirroring how being proven wrong is hard to swallow. “Eating humble pie” is the least of it. A stronger version is “eat crow,” like the carrion bird. There’s “eat dirt,” “eat your hat,” and of course the still stronger version, eat you-know-what. All of these refer to something awful we do to ourselves to demonstrate just how wrong we really are.

imagesWe could go further here and note the sexual analog – go you-know-what – but what I’d like to point out is how seamlessly we’ve slipped from humility to humiliation. We routinely conflate the two in our culture. They’re just four letters apart and share a certain bowed-head visual. A certain feeling of “less than” or “lower than.” The Oxford Dictionary concurs by defining humility as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance,” and offering meekness, diffidence, and unassertiveness as synonyms.

So let’s tease them apart, shall we – humility and humiliation – and maybe come up with an understanding of what humility really is, and how to live a life of humility that doesn’t have us facedown on the pavement.

Humiliation is a violation of one’s humanity that all too often involves nasty transgressions to the body – whether self-inflicted, as in eating humble pie or swearing allegiance to a god not your own on pain of death – or inflicted upon someone less powerful than the person doing the inflicting. Let me just remind us what we did to prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Humility on the other hand – whatever it is – is somehow a genuine virtue, and indeed one of the top seven – chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility – that stand in opposition to the seven deadly sins. “True humility,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I guess. But what the heck does it mean, and is it even relevant in the 21st century?

Usage peaked in 1830, declining since then to a mere trickle. These days, humility is mostly the province of religious and ethical circles, where it refers to one’s relationship to God, God’s purpose, and God’s power to fix what’s broken. In Catholic theology, humility is considered the foundation of the spiritual life because it subjects reason and will to God. Indeed, virtually every religion in the world counsels humility before a vastly greater power. So does the Alcoholics Anonymous program that has saved the lives of some of my best friends. The twelve steps begin —

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Aheirloomsnd so on. This is powerful stuff, but aside from religious and spiritual practices, the secular world does little more than give lip service to humility. It’s quaint – a musty antique wrapped in a dishcloth and smelling faintly of white pepper. It’s supposed to be valuable, like Aunt Marion’s china, but we have no clue what it is or what it’s worth.

To the contrary, we value bold individualism, aggression and achievement. We Built That, right? The Few, the Proud. The Greatest Nation on Earth. Where fortune favors the strong, humility is seen as weak, even pathetic.

But humility isn’t pathetic and it isn’t weak. In the work I’ve done recently to understand it, I’ve come to appreciate humility as a fine thing, subtle, necessary, and a great relief. Let me propose a paradigm shift in the way we understand humility. Not as a hierarchical, two-dimensional relationship, with one party down and the other up, but spherical, as it were – where we stand in relation to all that is.

Look at that [pale blue] dot,” writes Carl Sagan. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

palebluedotHarsh, yes, but oddly comforting in that it gives us no choice but to admit we are very, very small and not terribly important. Sagan is not all that different from my husband, who, when I asked him how he understood humility, lifted his cocktail glass and said, “Knowing that we are but a pimple on the ass of time.”

Then I asked my 25-year-old son, Sam, who is given to occasional bouts of colossal arrogance, but is also a student of philosophy who reads Plato in Greek and poses questions at the dinner table along the lines of “What is friendship?” That stuff can send you down the rabbit hole faster than you can say Alice in Wonderland, but I asked nonetheless.

Sam said that humility was knowing one’s worth – not conceited or arrogant, and likewise not too self-deprecating, but just right, like little bear’s porridge. Harder than it sounds, to be sure – and it does beg the question of how worth is determined – but I like how it evokes the sense of knowing one’s place, not in humiliation, like a slave, but balanced in the big, round scheme of things.

I consulted at last the font of wisdom, and so help me it all clicked into place. “Humility,” says Wikipedia, “is variously seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others – or conversely, having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.” And here all this time I’d been thinking of it only in the former sense, of lowering oneself in relation to others – and that, either to do it myself or see it done, I could not abide.

But once I made the shift – from humility as “less than” to humility as “in place” – then things started clicking. I began to notice all the ways it showed up.

ferguson-protestsLike many, I felt angry and bewildered by the lack of accountability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but as I saw the thousands of people streaming into the streets in communities throughout the country, and staying there for days on end, I had to recognize that though I might be sympathetic, and I have a pretty decent imagination, I also have what is often referred to as “white privilege” – the license, the freedoms, the opportunities I take for granted as a Caucasian. I am humbled by the courage I see in those communities and by the fact that I cannot not truly know what it’s like to be a young black man in 21st century America.

I’m also humbled by the recognition that I do not understand what motivates people to go shoot up the offices of a French satirical magazine, or kidnap Nigerian schoolgirls, or blow up an abortion clinic. Trust me, I feel perfectly at liberty to hate them and what they do – the failure of my imagination does not preclude taking a position – but I am not so puffed up that I can’t see that something motivates these folks, even though I don’t understand what it is.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot I don’t understand – like financial derivatives, or string theory, or how to knit – and I’m OK with that.

I am humbled by yoga, and not just in the classes where everyone else is 40 years younger than I am. I like to think of myself as strong, so I have walked into many a class thinking “I can do this, I can prop myself up on an elbow with one leg wrapped around my tricep and the other leg pointed at the ceiling” … and walked out with my back pinched and my shoulders in agony. Needless to say, this is no way to practice yoga. “Remember again,” says my teacher, and so every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday I go back to square one.

I am humbled by history – by those who suffered so I could vote, by those who took terrible risks so I could be free from disease, by everyone who had and still has the courage to bring forth another child into this terrifying world.

I am humbled by birth and by death, by seeing myself getting older and my kids grow up and away, and knowing that sooner or later, I will turn into compost and live only in the memory of a few people who themselves will eventually be forgotten.

Maybe it’s a choice. Maybe it’s a fragment of wisdom I’ve come to later in life. But I find all this comforting. “There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart,” wrote Saint Augustine, and so help me, I think he was right. It’s such a relief not to be in charge of everything! All that striving to be important and relevant and sure of one’s opinions, all that pretending you’re doing it all yourself, without help – that’s exhausting. I’m not one who believes that God has a plan for me, but I’m relieved nevertheless to sink into my comfy little nook in the universal web of all existence.

We’re really dealing with two questions here. The first is what humility is, and the second, and to me more compelling question is how to practice it, day after day. How are we to understand our own self worth and our place in context, and understanding all that, how are we supposed to put one foot in front of the other?

Carl Sagan answers the question in terms of the pale blue dot. “To me, [the distant image of our tiny world] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

imgres-4To me, the deeper answer is gratitude, the handmaiden of humility. Let’s circle back to food. It’s always my touchstone. I was given a little book for Christmas called How to Eat, by Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Buddhist spiritual leader.

In some traditions, monastics want to take their minds off food and focus on the virtues of a spiritual life. In my tradition, we do the opposite. We just focus on the food. We see the food as the cosmos. In the Catholic tradition, in the Eucharist, you see the piece of bread as the body of Jesus. In the Buddhist tradition, we see the piece of bread as the body of the cosmos. Everything is there. When you chew it mindfully, without thinking, you can see very well all that the piece of bread contains. That is why, when you take a bite of the bread and chew it mindfully, you are truly in communion with all of life.

Itadakimasu, yo. That’s the name of this blog and the special prayer Japanese people say before each meal, a blessing not only of the food but an expression of thanks to the sun, the rain and the fertile earth, to the farmers, the plants and the animals, to the truckers who drive our food to market, the shopkeepers, the cooks, and those who do the dishes. It is humility and gratitude all wrapped into one little tongue twister.images-1

Say it out loud: EE-TA-DA-KEE-MA-su. Say it loud and clear, with equal emphasis on each syllable until that last little su, which slip in like the shadow of an S. When you say it, imagine yourself as if from a far-away cosmic camera, sitting wherever you are, peering into your screen, maybe about to go have a snack. Imagine yourself as the precious little pixels you are, your tiny body poised to take in cookies, say, made from Nebraskan wheat, the carbon dioxide you exhale wafting out to the ozone hole, beyond which you can see beautiful ringed Saturn and the edges of the Milky Way. And beyond that, maybe 100 billion galaxies, where stars vastly bigger than our sun are being born right this minute. And beyond that – well, just the last decade, astrophysicists have figured out that all planetary and star stuff, all that so-called normal matter, is less than five percent of the universe, the rest being composed of dark matter and dark energy, about which we know almost nothing.

May you be humbled and grateful for your place in the universe and at table. It’s just right.IMG_1590

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As bedbugs feed, their abdomen extends to accommodate the blood meal.

When we talk about food, we’re usually talking about what we eat, but a recent, uh, experience has me thinking about what eats us. Yep, I’m talking bedbugs.

Used to be, or so the myth went, they favored low-income, multifamily buildings in big cities. Or so those who lived elsewhere liked to think, distancing themselves from the poor who suffered in unpublicized silence and could not afford the thousands of dollars in treatment and relocation costs. Could this be why shame piles on top of horror, because deep in our unreconstructed amygdala is the notion that bedbugs only show up in the dirty, cluttered homes of people not like us?

image 2

Exempt? I don’t think so. www.bedbugregistry.com

But suddenly, around 2010, they were everywhere, regardless of the price per square foot.

The 2011 Bugs Without Borders Survey conducted by the National Pest ManagementAssociation (NPMA)  and the University of Kentucky found that bedbug infestations have increased and are now found just about everywhere.

The New York metro area has the worst infestation in the United States, with more than 4490 bed bug reports.

The New York metro area has the worst infestation in the U.S., with more than 4490 bed bug reports.

Everywhere indeed, even at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, where rooms cost anywhere from $695 to $4,500 a night, and libraries all over the country. Most famously of late, they’ve been found in the New York City subway system, and the problem appears to be spreading.

But still, not at my house.

Certain signs of trouble appeared almost a year ago, in October 2013, shortly after I returned from a conference in Washington D.C., where I had stayed at the 4-star Hyatt Grand Regency Capitol Hill. An itchy bump here and there, and hard to think it was a mosquito that late in the year. It didn’t feel like a mosquito bite, either.

I called a local exterminator. He dismantled my bed down to the wooden slats, peering into crevasses and seams with a magnifying glass, and then declared — with a conviction, he said, born of a Masters degree in entomology and 25 years in the business — that we absolutely did not have bedbugs. “It’s an allergy, I’ll bet my career.”

What a relief! All I had to do was pick out the one culpable variable in my rather steady life. Not much changes around here in the way of product, but I had introduced a new laundry booster, so it went out with the trash. A brief period of relief ensued.

When they returned — just for me, mind — we did not speak of the red itchy bumps as “bites.” Why give it that negative energy? Just visit the allergist, who will administer a few expensive tests (net result = zero) and hypothesize that a viral infection had provoked my immune system to go into histaminic overdrive. Daily doses of antihistamines rendered me stupid for most of my waking hours but did not, alas, slow down the nighttime events.

First, around 2 a.m., a dim awareness of something annoying; I’m still asleep, but my hands travel to the site — my throat, my ankle, the inside of my knee. Then the awful dawning, as the sensation of itching swells to a 9-on-the-pain-scale intensity —  searing, commanding, impossible to ignore. Fully awake now, I stagger to the bathroom with my phone to record the evidence, as much for me as for others in the family who are unaffected and perhaps might think me imagining things. I see white, irregular welts, often in a cluster that will morph in the two or three or seven days to follow into larger, redder, rounder welts that look worse but mercifully itch a little less. I went to see a dermatologist.

You have bedbugs,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.

“No I don’t,” I countered. “The pest guy said so.”

“Nevertheless, you do,” he said, pointing to a row on my shoulder — “breakfast, lunch, and dinner!”

By now, seven months had passed, along with many tubes of cortisone and countless hours of unpleasant wakefulness. You might think me slow on the uptake, but no one wants to think they have bedbugs, especially when a professional has sworn up and down that they don’t. I called another pest guy, the affable, experienced yet blessedly humble Jesse, who took the bed apart just like before — and found them, an entire loathsome swarm, under the box spring.

us-health-bed-bugs-files

Bedbugs are attracted to body heat and to the carbon dioxide we exhale during sleep. They feed through the night, particularly between 2-5 a.m. when the host is deepest in sleep and least resistant, using a piercing, sucking proboscis to penetrate the skin, and injecting an anticoagulant to ease the flow of blood and an anesthetic to numb the host. Adult bedbugs can go for more than a year without feeding.

So many feelings.

Horror was paramount. Horror that blood-sucking parasites had infested the very heart of my home AND WERE SUCKING ON MY BLOOD. The disgusting sight (which I can never un-see) of bugs in my bed, and the implications of Jesse, in surgical gloves, gingerly placing my contaminated sheets into a sealed plastic bag. But that was just the beginning.

Jessica Goldstein found them partying in her mattress and managed to laugh about it, later.

Jessica Goldstein found them partying in her mattress and managed to laugh about it, later.

Then came an awareness of raw vulnerability, the sense — no, the knowledge — that my joy-sustaining illusion of security was forever blown. No defense, no safety, never again to drift off to sleep without wondering whom, or rather, what, I was sleeping with. No home, for it felt like I had nowhere to go. My situation was nothing like that of the many millions in this world who have truly lost their homes to war, bankruptcy, weather, or corruption; their emdr1suffering is beyond compare. But for a few days — especially when the treatment protocol involved the washing, drying, bagging, and removal of every last stitch of clothing in the bedroom and the poisoning of all that remained — I was shattered. It took a good strong dose of EMDR therapy to bring back the light in my eyes.

I considered feeling shame, but ruled it out; this was not my fault. But there is a social awkwardness that sets in, paired with responsibility. One must come clean to visiting friends and those one wishes to visit, and they, quite reasonably, might decline your company for the duration of your personal plague. I will be forever grateful to the friend who said “I just draw the line at Ebola.”

But humility? Yes, this is a humbling experience: it helps you know your limits. Bedbugs don’t look at your investment portfolio to check your worth as a food source. They don’t care if you live in a tenement or a mansion, or whether you’re an indifferent or obsessive housekeeper. I dearly hope you get through life without being fed upon by cimex lectularius, but if it does, heaven help you. You will need:

  • Money for professional pest control (my bill is already over a thousand dollars), not just once but three or four times, plus ongoing prophylaxis.
  • Heavy duty mattress covers.
  • A robust clothes dryer that can heat up to at least 120 degrees, and the time to put ALL of your clothes through a 40-minute cycle. Then you seal them up and wear the same thing for six months.
  • A good vacuum cleaner and about a thousand bags, because every time you vacuum — and you have to vacuum often — you should seal up the bag and get it out of the house.
  • The patience of Job, because this is going to take a while. It is wearying to body and soul.
  • Humor if you can possibly manage it. Some might enjoy Bedbugs!!!, the musical, though I prefer The OnionCracked.com, and my favorite, the Science Friday episode wherein producer Flora Lichtman offers up a side-splitting psychological reappraisal of bedbugs.
  • The support of your friends and family, especially those who can get you the hell out of the house, take you to dinner and a movie, hug you without flinching, and remind you that someday, this will be over.
  • Gratitude: when you get rid of the bedbugs (and you can, yes you can!), you might still have 99 problems but bedbugs won’t be among them. You don’t have Ebola. You are alive.
Bedbugs!!!, coming soon to off-Broadway, is an "audacious rock-’n’-roll concoction about mutant bedbugs that terrorize New York City."

Bedbugs!!!, coming soon to off-Broadway, “an audacious rock-’n’-roll concoction about mutant bedbugs that terrorize New York City.” Cue diabolical laughter.

October 2, 2014.

Tom Siani says "we have our friends in the city to thank for bringing in bedbugs and crime."

Tom Siani says “we have our friends in the city to thank for bringing in bedbugs and crime.”

Update, with gloves off, because another sleepless night and another dickwad exterminator. The guy who swore we didn’t have bedbugs, and thereby put me off the trail for months, was from Ehrlich Pest Control. Jesse from Siani Pest Control is OK, but his boss is not. I called this morning to inquire about the dozen crates of books we had packed up for treatment (yeah, they’re in libraries), and what I got was a rude tirade about how frustrated they were with me because they had done everything they possibly could and “you can’t treat something that’s not there” and “why would you care about inanimate objects [books] anyway?”

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IMG_5766I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. Having trotted out my sad story at the weekend block party, I know better. I’ll just sit here by myself with my Albeeats-inspired beet-banana-molasses mousse, weeping into my fair-trade organic coffee, mourning the loss of my kitchen comrade, my fellow menu-planner and grocery shopper, my inspiration.

coverBut first, congratulations: my daughter Alexandra got a terrific job in New York at The Atlantic. Fantastic! Millennial kid leaves the nest, lands on feet in the big city. Woo hoo!! This is what my husband and I have worked toward all these years, assiduously raising and educating our children to take flight under their own power, to enter the so-called adult world with courage, integrity, ambition, humor, and enough skills to get in the front door. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Of course I’m proud. She’s earned this. She is a smart, beautiful and creative young woman, working in her chosen city for an organization she can respect with colleagues she can learn from. This is how her story begins. This is also the good news I can impart to friends and neighbors who want to catch up on the kids.photo7M4HQR5I

Mazeltov,” they say, “you must be so happy!”

Of course I’m happy. I’m happy for her, for her new roommates, for the lucky folk who get to work with her, and for me and my husband who can enjoy a bit more elbow room on the home front. (I also won’t mind her new employer picking up the tab for health insurance or delivering the paycheck with which she can buy her own groceries.)

But is it too much to ask that a mother’s feelings be recognized as slightly more complex? I’m going to miss her like crazy. Her yearlong stay after college graduation was a rare and unexpected gift, for she took pains to be the world’s best roommate — happy to accompany me on my suburban rounds, happy to fetch the odd bunch of cilantro forgotten at the market, happy to teach me (and write down the instructions) how to use Netflix on the TV. She led the household on a bold adventure into plant-based eating that has transformed my relationship to food, sharing with us the imaginative recipes and gorgeous plating she has parlayed into Instagram fame. Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 2.53.15 PM
She has been less successful in convincing my husband that every leftover, however small or unshapely, should be decanted from its serving bowl into an appropriately sized Tupperware — he would prefer to slap a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl and call it a day — but she has his undying gratitude for setting up the DVR to capture every single Perry Mason episode ever aired. She enhanced our lives and never once made us feel like a pair of early-to-bed old farts. You bet I’m going to miss her.

photo 2photo 1Every Sunday, we used to plan the week’s menu, hunkering down with cookbooks and foodgawker, pulling up new recipes to try, weaving in the bounty of the season and our mid-week CSA delivery, and accommodating Bill’s lingering fondness for meat and dairy. We were thrown for a bit of a loop by the week-long visit of my Australian cousin who dines exclusively on beef, butter and beer, but that’s another story. All this planning was new to me, and I confess I did not take to it without a certain amount of griping about loss of spontaneity, but the result was a significant reduction in daily stress (e.g., fewer futile skirmishes with the family, hoping for ideas and ending up back at square one: “What would you like for dinner?” “Oh, anything you make is fine.”), fewer trips to the grocery store, and lower food costs. Here’s the Asian veg & peanut noodle salad we had on May 21, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg, page 71.

IMG_5671

Of course I’m going to miss her, but the loss is of more than my daughter. With her magnificent emergence into adulthood, I lose the illusion of still being in the juicy middle of my life. I see the circle of life wheeling around — the little kids sugaring up on block party cupcakes, the pre-teens off-site on a neighbor’s trampoline, the grown-up graduates and earnest new families, the vigorous seniors who are such reliable volunteers, and the wispy-haired elders — and have to acknowledge that I’m moving along the downward slope. I don’t mean moribund; I know I’m wise and vital, with a good long stretch ahead of me, god willing. But it is a transition, the ramifications of which aren’t quite covered by a congratulatory slap on the back.Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 4.16.50 PM

What to do? The best approach is not, I suspect, what I took the other night at a graduation party for Alexandra’s BFF Caroline Reese. I found myself speaking with one of Caroline’s friends from Princeton, an entrepreneurial senior who is marketing a line of “party proof” clothing and wanted to deliver a sample skirt to my daughter. I could try on the skirt myself, suggested the darling girl. “Maybe not,” I said. “I’m finding that certain things aren’t appropriate any more.” Fair enough, but I barreled on, blurting “Growing older is the weirdest fucking thing that’s ever happened to me” and very likely traumatizing this young woman whose only crime was being young.

photoBetter to put on my cowboy boots and get that pizza I built into this week’s menu underway. Yesterday’s tacos were pretty swell. I put chicken, cheese, and Greek yogurt out for Bill and Jadah, and everyone was happy. Including me.

Here’s to you, my beloved girl, my muse, my Alexandra Jane.

photo 1

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I am depressed about Soylent. Maybe it’s the future, in which case I’d like to check out right now. I know it’s not a joke because the New Yorker just gave it 6,000 words, about ten times more than the average parody, and because to my kids, with their ears ever tuned to the media, it’s old news. It is old news, another meal-in-a-bottle, another miracle powder offering a shortcut to longevity, but this time with traction.

In case you haven’t heard, Soylent is a powdered blend purported to contain all the nutrients needed to sustain human life, and it tastes, when mixed with water, like a cross between Cream of Wheat and Metamucil. To quote the website Soylent.me (“Free Your Body”):140512_r25001_p233

Soylent is a food product (classified as a food, not a supplement, by the FDA) designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort.

People are buying and drinking the stuff as we speak. The New Yorker calls it The End of Food, and that’s what really has me in a tailspin. In the beginning, writes Lizzie Widdicombe, three young men were living in a small San Francisco apartment, working on a technology startup that wasn’t going well.

They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas — supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy — but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden.” 

imgresRight off the bat, I’m deep in cognitive dissonance. I understand anxiety about the cost of food, and the tiredness at the end of the day that leaves no room for meal prep. Not everyone enjoys tearing cilantro leaves off the stem one at a time, but resentment that one has to eat at all speaks of an alienation from all I hold sacred.

I also understand that feeding the world’s population is a whopping big problem we’re far from solving. One in six Americans are “food insecure” — millions of hard-working people, children and seniors who can’t always make ends meet and have to choose to go without food. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, upwards of 850 million people worldwide are suffering from chronic hunger. But let’s face it — 850 million people are not going to pony up $70/month for 21 pouches of unpronounceable ingredients.

Meanwhile, the methods we use to produce food on a large scale are ruinous. We spray pesticides on our fruits and vegetables like there’s no tomorrow, and now, according to a new study published in the journal Nature, rising carbon dioxide emissions are making staple food crops less nutritious. As for meat, “the present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable,” understates Robert Martin, Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, “and presents an unprecedented level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise as food.”

Big, big problems, but Soylent?Soylent_green

The product is not, the company hastens to explain, ha ha, made of ground up humans as in the dystopian 1973 film. Scanning for additional word associations, I come up with soy, the tarnished workhorse of vegetable proteins, soil, about which enough said in an eating context, and lent — when Christians give things up. None of this is compelling.

Everybody suggested changing the name, Rhinehart told Widdicome. “Investors, media people, my mom.” But he liked the self-deprecating nature of the name, and the way it poked fun at foodie sensibilities:

“The general ethos of natural, fresh, organic, bright—this is the opposite.”

I’m not the only one in distress. Return of Kings blogger Pill Scout thinks that Rob Rhinehart is An Idiot — “a beta nerd and software developer with a clear bent for transhumanism and science fantasy. Nobody should be eating what he calls food.” Here, precisely, is what he calls food:

Complete-Soylent-Nutrition-Facts

 

 

Soylent, argues Rhinehart, is quick, cheap, nutritious, environmentally friendly (huh?) and “easier than food.” Because, as VICE blogger Monica Heisey explains,


0d778175af2eb31dadaff639b02cab84_vice_670You know what’s a complete waste of time, money, and effort? Eating. I mean, wouldn’t you rather just ingest a tasteless form of sustenance for the rest of your life and never have to go through that tedious rigmarole of opening and eating a premade sandwich or feasting on a pile of fried delicacies ever again?

 

Seriously. I mean, we could probably fit a couple of 27-inch iMacs in the space currently occupied by the dining room table, not to mention the kitchen. We could rent that sucker out. Sex is free, but, good grief, what a lot of time gets wasted getting down to business! Rhinehart tips his hand on that score.

Soylent is definitely a permanent part of my diet. Right now I only eat one or two conventional meals a week, but if I had any money or a girlfriend, I would probably eat out more often. 

In other words, if he had a life. Can you imagine Thanksgiving with no feast? Birthdays with no cake? Celebrations with no clinking of glasses filled with tasty spirits? What about give us this day our daily bread, even if it is gluten free? What about joy? Delight? Satisfaction?

No, I say. No to Soylent, yes to life.

We are most likely not, those of us within range of this post, suffering from chronic hunger. Due to the accident of our birth, we are among the luckiest people on the planet insofar as we have a roof over our head and enough to eat, so please — because we can — give us this day our crunchy toast, slathered with thick fig jam. Give us our basil, snipped from the potted plant on the windowsill, and the weird-ass durian we hacked open in the driveway for fear of the stench. Give us the harissa-spiced chickpeas with olives and raisins we prepared for the graduation party and the sweet, fresh pear whose juices still drip down our chin in a memory of childhood in Detroit.

Please? And thank you.IMG_5537

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My husband keeps a little notebook in the kitchen drawer in which he records the abundant malapropisms we hear in the course of our days. “It’s a mute point,” for example, “sleep depravity,” and “best to nip it in the butt,” which strikes me as the right thing to do with sleep depravity. My favorite — and the title of this long overdue post — comes from an engineer at Bill’s work who, startled by an unexpected suggestion, furrowed his young brow, clicked his automatic pencil a couple of times and said, “Hmm, that’s food to think about.”photo 3











I’ve been thinking about food more than usual for the past several months, thanks especially to my daughter Alexandra. She is my inspiration in the kitchen and on the interwebs, and will be yours too if you check out her stuff on Instagram and Tumblrphoto 4

For me, it started when Alexandra urged me to watch the documentary film, Forks Over Knives, which “examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” I never have eaten much processed food, but I do like my Loch Duart salmon and brown butter double chocolate chip cookies. I like going out to nice restaurants and over to friends’ houses for dinner, and Thanksgiving feasts with the extended family, and cupcake parties with the neighborhood girls. Also — having lived through (if not subscribed to) the macrobiotic 1960s, the Stillman 1970s, the Scarsdale 1980s, the Atkins 1990s, and the Rachel Rays, Cupcake Wars, Iron Chefs, Paleos, and Diners Drive-Ins and Dives of the oughts and beyond — I feel as if 1) I’ve seen it all, 2) most is nonsense, and 3) life is way to short to be doctrinaire.

 

photo 4That said, I’m a happy convert to a plant-based diet. It may be no more sound than the latest eyewear trend in hippest Brooklyn, but I don’t think so. There’s solid science behind it, including the massive China Study, plus Michael Pollan’s wise counsel to “eat [real] food, mostly plants, not too much.” I prefer the term “plant-based” to “vegan,” though it amounts to the same thing: fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, no meat or dairy. It spares me direct complicity in the horrors of concentrated animal feeding operations (aka CAFOs), helps me save on groceries, dramatically improves my digestion, and makes me feel good.

Here’s what breakfast looks like:

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Overnight oats with chocolate, chia and berries, fresh fruit and carrot juice

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Beet-banana smoothie with 4-5 frozen bananas, a good chunk of roasted beet, fresh ginger, blackstrap molasses and water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch:

Veggie sushi, veggie bowl

Spicy sweet potato soup with cashew cream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner:

Tacos with black rice, white beans, salsa, purple cabbage and cilantro with caramelized plantains

 

Mushroom ragu over polenta

 

 

 

 

 

Now tell me that doesn’t look fabulous. There’s a lot more I want to share with you, but as you may have noticed I’ve had some trouble being reliable about blogging. That’s another new leaf to turn over, along with the kale: to write more often. Are you with me?

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Home cooking

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The best thing my mother made was fried chicken. She would plug in her Sunbeam electric skillet — square with rounded corners, a black plastic beaver tail handle, and a domed lid made of thinner gauge aluminum that rattled tinnily when seated — and in it melt, I swear, four sticks of butter. She’d put flour, salt, and pepper into a brown paper bag, and my job was to drop the breasts, thighs, and drumsticks in the bag and, holding it closed in one fist, shake the bag like a tambourine until the pieces were thoroughly coated. Into the pan the chicken would go, its powdered white surfaces almost instantly overcome by noisy waves of swirling golden foam. I have no idea how long it cooked, or whether she covered the pan (it strikes me now that a lid would generate unwanted steam, certainly more than could escape from its  little pie slice vent), but the results were glorious.

il_fullxfull.297962321The other dishes in her repertoire, not so much. Hamburgers she would brown for just a minute or two in the Revere ware frying pan and then clap on the lid so they puffed up and steamed to death. Halibut entered the oven as a frozen rectangular brick and exited warm but still white and in much the same shape. For exotic, Mom made chop suey, with lots of celery.

The miracle is two-fold: one, that she cooked at all, and two, that she managed, in spite of a few lapses and America’s post-war love affair with TV dinners, to introduce me to real food — fresh vegetables, honest cheeses, and balanced, unprocessed meals — and to instill in me a welcoming curiosity about what bounty the world might provide.images

It can’t have been easy. Divorced at the age of 45 with a preschooler to feed and nothing in her disposition that might suit her to nursing or secretarial work, the other two choices, she became a teacher, earning $4,800/year. Our first apartment after the divorce was the second floor of a house in Birmingham, Michigan, that was covered in Spanish moss and owned by Mrs. Rogers, who smelled sour and had dark red horsehair couches in the room I’m sure she called a parlor. We had no kitchen, just a galley with a hotplate. Water came from the bathroom sink, and for refrigeration there was a porch. I remember milk, and watermelon, but Mom must have been depressed out of her mind, and the whole period is shrouded like the house in gray, coiling mystery.

Mom with jade pinIn time she renewed her capacity for delight. She loved Northern Spy apples, kumquats, young sweet corn, curries, tarragon, blueberries, trout, and caramel. Lightyears away from Brooklyn delis, she experimented with beef tongue and heart and kidneys. She steamed fresh artichokes and ate them in the kitchen, dipping each leaf into lemon butter and scraping its pale green pulp with her teeth. This was an astonishing sight to my friends in the neighborhood, at whose homes macaroni and cheese was the norm.Northern_Spy1

While there were days when I longed for mac and cheese in my own home, and for Coke  and chili dogs at the side of the road, I learned to appreciate her framework and am glad I never acquired a taste for soda or white bread. It’s not that I learned to cook from my mother: I lived on yogurt in college and was well into my 20s before I attempted to bake a potato. But she taught me to be open to taste and authenticity, and to fear no strangeness in the kitchen. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.images-1

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Loose Ends

photoIt’s been a long time, I know. We haven’t spoken since Rob and Sharon got married, she with the diamonds on the soles of her shoes. Turns out my friend Karen is the “rich girl” in the song, but that’s another story. My phone is bulging with photos of food, and my mind keeps haphazard watch over an evolving list of topics — pork fennel dumplings in Toronto, our neighbor’s garden, Passover, fat flushing, sweet spinach pie, planning ahead, forks, Costco, etcetera, etcetera. People have asked, what’s with the blog? I’ll get to it, I say. I want to feel inspired. My son charitably describes me as “more of a writer than a blogger,” thus attempting to transpose my unreliability into something lofty. I’ll take it, but it’s bogus. Like eating too much being OK if you’re wearing elastic waist pants.

I hoped to burst back on the scene with a clever post — wise, witty and well documented. But I am at loose ends, so we’ll talk about that.

Being “at loose ends,” describes a vaguely unhappy sort of restlessness, an inability to dig in to things that need doing (paying bills, painting the bathroom trim) or even things that in another mood I would like to do (reading old New Yorkers, trying out a new recipe, blogging) threaded with guilt about not doing those things. Perhaps you know what I mean. It will pass, but there’s a stickiness here in the midst of it such that unpleasant sensations attach to each other like circus elephants holding trunk to tail in a long, disspiriting chain.images

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

I am at loose ends for a slew of reasons, first world problems but still. As usual, it’s a combination of intimate disconnects — feeling cut off from the people and activities that sustain me — and impotent distress about things over which I have no control, such as the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent week of drama, the Senate’s inaction on background checks. Fill in the blanks.IMG_2899

Closer to home, my work is spotty, my freelance clients wrapping up projects or on hold or on vacation or on to another freelancer. My darling daughter (in the yellow dress) is in the throes of her last semester of college and so stressed that she had to say, “Mommy, I love your emails but will you hold them for a couple of weeks?” I send her goat cheese and gluten-free Larabars by express mail, but hold the messages. My son has decided to go to grad school in Austin, Texas, and while I’m fantastically proud and happy for him — and Bill reminds me that we’ve been working toward this since the moment he was born, gradually taking down the parental scaffolding — Austin feels like a very, very long way away.

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Waaa! Nobody needs me! 

Meanwhile, a girl has to eat.

Comfort food is called for, but real comfort food requires a degree of intentionality I don’t have when I’m at loose ends. Macaroni and cheese, for example. You need the mac and the cheese and the better part of an hour to do it justice, and there I days when I have none of those on hand, so I graze on almonds and chocolate chips.photo (2)

Wiser folk, like my sister-in-law Joan, make chicken soup. She brought some over the other day in a Greek yogurt container, wrapped like a Japanese present in a beautiful embroidered tea towel from Williams Sonoma. All I had to do was heat it up in a bowl. Warmth and the bowl are key.photo

I’m feeling better now, so undertaking to tea-smoke chicken in the grill. Here’s the smoke packet: with equal proportions Russian Caravan tea (smoky, like Lapsang Souchong), uncooked rice and brown sugar, plus star anise, five-spice powder, and orange zest. We shall see. I think I’ll serve it with black rice and coconut-sesame sauce, in a bowl.

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P.S. The smoking was a bit of a fail. The air smelled nice around the grill while I pulled weeds from the patio, and in the end the tea-and-spice packet was satisfyingly toasted, but the chicken, though juicy, didn’t have the slightest hint of smoke or orange or anise. So I juiced the orange into coconut milk with a splash of Siracha for a sauce and all was well. photo

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