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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bad Boy

This Saturday we returned from Sea Isle, the Jersey beach town where we vacation each year with Karen's family. We stayed on 48th Street, steps away from the boardwalk, which stretches north to south from 57th street to 29th street, a span I ran, up and back, a mile and a half each way, every other day.

On our final morning in town, a hot Friday, I walked with Owen and Ella and their cousin Katherine to the Island Breeze Casino, on 37th Street, where the kids spent quarter after quarter on the claw machines and various other games with impossible-to-master directives, which all issued strips of five, ten, or possibly twenty tickets as a sort of consolation for defeat.

This pittance of tickets, of course, could later be traded for the mementos one expects from these places: Whoopie cushions, plastic green army men, or the Pinky Hi-Bounce Balls I remember from my childhood vacations in Stone Harbor, when my brother and I tossed the balls back in forth in the water, crashing ourselves into the waves, making the easiest of catches seem impossible.

We got all of these mementos and more, for we won, incredibly, thousands of tickets.

On a whim, to assuage my growing impatience, I put a quarter in Owen's favored game: a truck game, whose purpose was to shoot a quarter down a slot into one of three truck's trailers, each overflowing with quarters. If you hit the trailer, you won some tickets. I aimed at the trailer, but I hit a lever which forced one of the trucks to dump its load.

The game issued an alarm. Lights flashed. Owen looked at me, confused.

"Uh oh," I said, smiling. 

When the tickets came, a seemingly endless train, Katherine and Ella came running from a nearby game. We stood watching, laughing, gathering the tickets in our hands.

Owen jumped in place, excited, his fists balled at his sides, but I sensed his confusion, even alarm, when I said, "When will it end?"

He looked at me, then, and I realized he was worried.

Had we done something bad? Had we broke the machine?

At least since he could speak, Owen has expressed a fascination with the distinction between good and bad. When playing any sort of imaginary game, he assumes the part of the bad guy. Darth Vader. Ultron. Sinestro. He relishes the war, the mayhem and destruction--I've taught him to associate all of this with "bad guys."

Yet I recall more than a few seminal moments from his early youth, when I shouted, in frustration, "bad boy."

And now, I think, he has internalized those accusations and my attendant anger, for he clearly wants to be a good boy. He often feels compelled to say, "Daddy, I'm good." And he often asks me, "Daddy, am I being good?"

So it was at the arcade. I could see Owen trying to interpret my mood, placing himself in a holding pattern until he knew, for sure, my emotional state. Had something bad happened? Was I angry?

I realized, then, that he'd been doing this for some time, looking at me at opportune moments, and that I had likely clouded many moments for him, for I am so often a melancholy, rueful person, and I can not help but reveal my emotions.


This moment at the arcade returned to me on Saturday night, our first night home, when I sat with Owen on the couch watching his"videos" about the heroes and villains of America's superhero culture, all enacted with the little Imaginext and Play Skool figurines he collects. Marvel. Star Wars. D.C. Comics. This video happened to be about Batman and Mr. Freeze.

I have been a vocal opponent of these videos. "They make you crazy," I have told Owen. I usually forbid him to watch them, but vacation with his doting extended family had normalized the devices, for the time being, and now Owen was experiencing an unprecedented moment: He was welcoming his father into his own world. 

As we watched, he continued to glance at me, searching my eyes, gauging my reaction moment-by-moment. The sincerity of his probing expression. The hope he seemed to hold, which battled his fear, which I guessed to be of my disapproval, or worse, my outright dismissal.

It was almost too much to bear: this awesome responsibility I had assumed, and largely ignored, as the father of a son, to allay his fears--and not to be his fear.

"Look," I said to him, finally, my eyes widening. "That's so cool."

"So cool," he said, burrowing his body close to mine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Perfect Diet

In America views on healthful eating fall on a spectrum defined by two opposing ideologies. On one side, people like Dr. Mercola, Sally Fallon (founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation) and Professor Loren Cordain (founder of the "Paleo Diet") recommend the consumption of high quality animal-based foods, such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, or raw grassfed butter. This side also typically advocates abundant raw vegetables and fermented foods. Excessive fruit consumption and grains, on the other hand, are discouraged. (The Weston A. Price foundation advocates soaked and cooked grains.)

On the other side, people like T. Colin Campbell, the author of The China Study, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn argue that animal-based products create disease, that there are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants, and that the best health-promoting diet is a low-fat, vegetable and grain-based diet--a vegan diet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Art of Not Eating

A few years ago, my good friend Kevin started a cleanse. He bought a cleansing kit. He took the cleansing pills and fiber for ten days. He refined his diet. For breakfast, he ate berries. For lunch, he ate salad. For dinner, he ate baked salmon and steamed broccoli. More importantly (for him at least), he did not drink his micro-brews, and he did not eat his favored hard pretzels.

Kevin felt light and optimistic. He also felt insatiably hungry. So he called me.

"I need to eat more food," he said.

"So eat more food," I said.

"Like what?"

"A sweet potato?"

"But that sounds good."

"So?"

"Shouldn't I be suffering?"

The Faces of Fasting: Kevin
Kevin's attitude is not unique. Most people, I believe, equate cleansing and fasting with suffering. We look at a cleanse as a Great Giving Up. We give up our favored foods and drinks, our preferred ways of eating. Why do we do  perform this fanatical act? We think it will make us feel better.

"That's it," we say, "I'm never eating wheat again."

Then we wake up, have a bagel.

Sometimes, though, we just stop eating.

If you're like my friend Kevin, though, you go out and buy a cleansing kit. You give up carbohydrates. You give up bread, ice cream, red meat, beer--everything you love. You willfully suffer.

To many, this is a cleanse: Suffering. To many, a cleanse is penance. For eating too much. For drinking too much.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trust Thy Gut: Healing in the Age of the Microbiome

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in May, 2002. On the day of my diagnosis, I refused my doctor's prognosis, as well as the drugs, and commenced a journey to heal—a twelve-month experiment, absent any conventional medical guidance whatsoever, that ended midway through my honeymoon, when my new wife admitted me to the ER.

For twelve months, I devoted my life to an obsessive and fastidious investigation. Hunched over my desk, I spent day after day Googling. For a phrase like “ulcerative colitis natural cure,” I'd click twenty pages deep, reading every word on every site—every blog, every forum. Certain opportune comments led to new searches in new windows, fresh rounds of clicking.

When I risked leaving the house, I’d visit the book store, where I’d scan the indexes of books, seeking the slightest reference to "colitis," or "autoimmune." Inevitably, though, turning from my screen, or trudging from the store briefly lifted by some tidbit, I’d come to think of the only definitive cure: death.

I do not believe my obsessive investigation, nor my despair, were unique. In my experience, most people who experience illness--from colds to colitis--engage in some form of this fanaticism. And many, discovering confusing or contradictory advice, have yielded to despair. My search led to life.

I've learned to heal my symptoms--without drugs.

And yet, each year for many years, around March or April, just as the weather warms, I would suffer a relapse, or "flair." The severity of these flairs varied--yet I knew how to recover.

In May 2013, however, I suffered a particularly bad flair. My go-to remedies--a horridly wine-free lifestyle, VSL#3, and Metagenics--seemed to fail. Worse, the severity of the symptoms transported me back in time, to 2002, when I felt my despair most acutely.

My wife, who witnessed my behavior over the years, acclimated herself to my eccentricities. But even she was startled, that year, when I walked into our infant daughter's nursery, and pointed to the dirty diaper laying on the changing table.

"Save that," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"Save that," I said, and to state the case plainly, I added, with conviction, "I'm doing a fecal transplant enema."

Nearly all DNA in our bodies belongs to microorganisms: they outnumber our cells nine to one.

- Burkhard Bilger, writing in The New Yorker 

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Art of Eating

"Tell me what you eat," Brillat-Savarin wrote, "and I will tell you what you are."

You might know this quote from the Japanese Iron Chef, where it appears in the opening sequence of each episode, accompanied by a solemn overture from Hans Zimmer's "The Arsonist's Waltz," which quickly cuts to the show's brash theme song, another Hans Zimmer song, "Show Me Your Firetruck." Both songs originally appeared in the 1991 film, Backdraft--an odd choice for Iron Chef, if you ask me, but also complementary to the odd spirit of the show.

(If you're interested, here's an a cappella version of "Show Me Your Firetruck.")

After the opening bombast, any viewer of the Japanese Iron Chef will quickly see: the tone of the show is bombastic, too. The show's most famous image occurs at the end of the opening sequence, when the host, Chairman Kaga, bites a pepper. From his quizzical expression, it's hard to say, exactly, what Chairman Kaga is thinking or feeling. In any case, it's a distinctly Japanese moment: to a Westerner's sensibility, bizarre and inexplicable.

Although the Brillat-Savarin quote feels apt for the show, the opening sequence, with its bravado and flaming torches, does not offer an entirely accurate association for Brillat-Savarin, let alone the tone of his masterwork, The Physiology of Taste.

In fact, Brillat-Savarin's work is equal parts bravado and self-parody--a fitting combination, I think, for any discussion of food and eating.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ella Loves Kindergarten

Ella has no talent for evasion. She reveals her emotions without the slightest artifice. Her happiness is so obvious, so transparent. She smiles, laughs, and skips--actually skips--across the room. When she is angry, the emotion is no less obvious, and the source is unmistakable. Often, I catch her glaring, with hooded eyes, at Owen. When angry with her parents, she retreats to the corner and pouts, her anger determining our mood like a bad weather pattern.

Since starting Kindergarten, in September, she has revealed new emotions, most notably a strong sense of self-esteem, obvious in her posture, how she straightens her back and tilts her chin upward when speaking about her lessons: counting and writing and coloring in the lines--oh, the profound importance of coloring in the lines!

I love it. I love everything about her school. I love the principal, Mr. Mac, who visited our house in August to read Ella a story. I love her classroom, with its primary colors, the gleaming metal pegs where she hangs her backpack, the low chairs, the smell of crayons and pencil shavings and books. I love picking her up after school, at late care, when we walk the corridors, poking our heads into classrooms, or the library, or the gym, which smells of decades of sweat. (The school was built in 1969, the year my brother Scott was born).

Ella loves it, too, though she spent the entire summer dreading it. One night in late July, before Mr. Mac had come over and after we had watched Spider-Man 3, she woke around 5:00 AM and padded into our room, crying.

"Mommy," she said, half asleep, "I dreamt of Venom. It was almost as scary as the principal coming to our house!"
But he came. And she survived. And now whenever Mr. Mac sees her, he shouts out, "Ella!"

Recently, when I picked her up on a Friday, after Mr. Mac had shouted across a hallway crowded with kids, "Have a good weekend, Ella," I stopped in my tracks to stare at Ella. She was shaking her head and smiling as she tightened her backpack straps to her chest.

My God, I thought. She is so proud.

I loved it. I loved her. It felt like the best moment of my life.

She looked up at me. "Daddy," she said. "STOP."

She knew what I was thinking--for I have no talent for evasion. In the hallway, surrounded by children, she was embarrassed by her father. And I loved that, too.


Originally posted on Facebook.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Thirteen-years Married

Thirteen-years-ago I married my high school sweetheart. Unreliable online data suggests high school sweethearts account for only 2% of all marriages. And less than 2% of people who marry their high school sweetheart earn a college degree.

That last statistic is significant (to me) for a simple reason: After I graduated high school (a year before Karen), we survived a five-year long-distance relationship. I lived in Bloomsburg. Karen lived in D.C. In a box in our bedroom closet, we keep a testament to this time: hundreds of hand-written letters.

The most difficult period, by far, was our first separation, during the summer of 1995, when Karen traveled to Mexico for six weeks and I entered Bloomsburg's "summer freshman" program. I dormed with Anthony, a football player, a truly unintelligent person, who had yet to discover the bacchanalian freedom most summer freshmen had abused for entire high school careers. Making up for lost time, he boozed nightly and rarely slept. Sleepless and depressed, I abused Tylenol P.M. I drank too much bad beer. I found sleep, though not of the restorative sort. Even then, no torment equaled my summer-long paroxysm of lovesickness.

Jerry Garcia died that summer: August 9. That night, when Jerry’s noodling droned in countless iterations from a hundred dorm room windows, the sound was indistinguishable from the mountain-rich blur of bugs, yet I recall walking across campus, from Shroomin's room to my own, excited for my appointed call to Karen’s host family’s place, and catching a snippet of “Box of Rain.”

Oh, how I hated the Grateful Dead. My feeling was: Good, stay dead. But Karen loved "Box of Rain."

Hearing the snippet was enough: I burst into tears. On the phone, minutes later, we cried together, not for Jerry, but for ourselves, for the lonesomeness of our long-distance call—one of many despairing, lovesick calls which reduced both of us, on any number of humid summer nights, to sobbing.

And that was just the first summer. Anyways: Here's to high school sweethearts!


Originally posted on Facebook.