Monday, March 23, 2020

One Good Thing #7: I Am

As I sit here writing, I hear Ella, one floor below, sprinting from room to room, creating a "school," populated with LEGOs, L.O.L Surprise Dolls, and army men. I hear Owen's shouts as he guides the army men to "the library." I can hear music, the playlists Spotify somehow uncovers from the algorithmic chaos of Ella's musical tastes: Disney songs, Imagine Dragons, Machine Gun Kelly.

Right now, I hear Phillip Phillips' "Home," a song I played on repeat around this time eight years ago, when Ella was born. I can't listen to this song without feeling the intensity of emotion from that time, the soaring happiness and the inevitable reply: the bone-deep sadness.

In his poem, “Glory,” Uncle Dean writes, "some sadness has no origin."

I often repeat this line to myself, even as I try to discover the origin—some experience or image that might clarify why I feel sad. An upsetting conversation? A photo of my grandparents? Often, I have to admit: some sadness has no origin. More often, I discover an origin, of sorts: some irrational fear.

Obviously, in recent days, I've succumbed to fear more often than usual. I try not to dwell in this fear, though I've found it can grip me for minutes or hours.

Speaking of fear, Sharon Salzberg says in a recent podcast: I realized looking at my own fear that, unlike the pronouncement, I'm afraid of the unknown, I'm actually mostly afraid when I think I *do* know--and it's going to be really bad.  It's the stories I tell myself, that's gonna happen, that's gonna happen, that's gonna happen--that's when I *really* get going. And when I remind myself I *don't* know, this space opens up, and I think, 'Hey, I don't know.' Then I can relax.

As I sit here writing, Karen is drinking coffee two floors below. She is alone, browsing jewelry boxes online, enjoying a respite from the children's near-constant need for attention. We've seen the recent Jonathan Frakes Asks You Things meme, which equates Frakes' persistent odd questions to this new life at home with the kids. It's spot-on.

We're entering our seventh day of near-isolation. Throughout the past week, we've fielded an unrelenting stream of demands and proclamations from the children.

"I AM hungry!" "I want to watch something." "When is lunch?" "What can I do?" "I want a cupcake!" "I AM HUNGRY, Daddy. So MUCH." "Can I use your phone?" "If you feed me, I won't pull down my pants."

Karen is holding up admirably. Me? I give myself a solid C+.

So often, I feel my irritation cresting, and I see the children examining me, placing themselves in a holding pattern until they decipher my mood.

Is he angry? Is he sad? Is he happy?

I am all of these things, at once. Unfortunately, I often suppress my happiness, and instead, amplify my irritation, clouding the moment for the children, for Karen. Only later, often after dinner when I've had a glass or two of wine, do I see the harm of this way of being. George Saunders expresses this way succinctly in his essay, "Buddha Boy"

"You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?"

Yesterday, I sat with my son on the couch, holding him tight while we watched the terrible movie, The Wrath of the Titans. He must've looked at me once or twice per minute, searching my eyes, trying to interpret my mood.

It is terrible, in a way, and almost too much to bear: this awesome responsibility I have assumed, and largely ignored, as a father, to allay my son's fears--and not to be his fear.

I think this way so often, bound as I am in what David Foster Wallace calls the "natural default setting, of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."

But the God-honest sparkle in Owen's eyes, the enthusiasm he seemed to hold for the moment,  suggested the opposite: I was not unique, or alone, at all. My son was here with me, and he was offering me what I have so often failed to give him, a refuge from my fears, a simple reminder: This is life, now, and I am here, with him.

Since that moment, I have felt a strong urge to sob outloud. But I have also felt a sense of resolve building within me. Salzberg's wisdom helps, too. I don't know what's going to happen. And that's fine. It's always been that way. For now, I am home with Owen and Ella, with Karen. I am angry. I am sad. I am happy. I am all of these things, and more. So I just keep telling myself: I am. I am. I am.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

One Good Thing #6: Sulforaphane: A Powerful Plant Compound

In recent years, I have experimented with a potent plant compound proven to be an effective therapeutic agent in a variety of health contexts: sulforaphane. Found in cruciferous vegetables--especially broccoli sprouts--sulforaphane is a potent activator of the NRF2 pathway, which "regulates the expression of cytoprotective proteins that protect against oxidative stress due to injury and inflammation" (source).

That last quote is from the world's foremost sulforaphane champion, Dr. Rhonda Patrick. Her podcast, Found My Fitness, is a favorite in the wellness community.

Of note for sulforaphane is her discussion with the world's foremost sulforaphane researcher, Dr. Jed Fahey, who has pioneered sulforaphane research at Johns Hopkins for several decades.

I'm not sure whether I'm proud or embarrassed to admit: I've listened to this podcast (below) too many times to count.

Sulforaphane for Coronavirus?
Sulforaphane may be a powerful part of a coronavirus prevention regime--or, potentially, a coronavirus treatment plan. Obviously, the compound has not been tested specifically for the virus, and I am not a doctor. However, I believe the evidence for taking sulforaphane as part of a healthy regime is compelling.

For prevention, sulforaphane may help boost an aging immune system, clear damaged lungs, and induce powerful detoxification pathways.

As a potential treatment, sulforaphane has shown promise in inhibiting interleukin 6, the pro-inflammatory cytokine responsible for the dreaded cytokine storm of coronavirus.
Photo Source: "How to Grow Broccoli Sprouts at Home"
Perhaps the best way to consume sulforaphane is by eating broccoli sprouts. A good alternative is a quality supplement with pure sulforaphane, like Prostaphane, which is only available in France.
Rhonda Patrick takes this supplement.

Another option is a supplement that supplies glucoraphanin, a precursor to sulforaphane. Glucoraphanin is converted into sulforaphane in the body in the presence of an enzyme, myrosinase (which can be found in mustard seeds). Fahey recommends Avmacol, which I've taken to great (anecdotal) success. I consider this supplement a core part of my family's health regime, and I encourage all my loved ones to take it--especially now.

The podcast linked below mentions the positive effects of supplementation lasting several days. I took one capsule every two or three days.

More on sulforaphane. And Rhonda Patrick's podcast with Jed Fahey...


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

One Good Thing #5: Moroccan Chermoula Tempeh

I've just spent the last thirty minutes reading a variety of coronavirus-related articles, including recent news from South Korea, where cases have "dropped sharply" without massive shutdowns.

One suggestion: Do not Google "coronavirus positive news."

I had presumed the search engine would understand the intent of my search. Not so. For all the amazing complexity of Google's algorithm, Google delivered the exact opposite of my intent: instead of positive news, result after result of people (and a dog) who had tested positive for the virus.

Google fail.

In any case, I had a relatively good day. I went for a run. I spoke to some of my favorite students. I also spoke to my father, my sister, and my friend Henry, a comedian, actor, and longtime restaurant worker in NYC, who had made tempeh for the first time in his life last night--tempeh taco.

I often eat tempeh for lunch, and I consider myself one of the world's top tempeh advocates. Tempeh is essentially a fermented soybean cake with a unique chewy texture that rivals certain meat products.

I'm not going to make any special claims about the health properties of tempeh (as opposed to other unfermented soy products), but I will say, anecdotally, that I've found it to be a delicious, sustaining,  and incredibly easy-to-digest source of plant protein. Also, tempeh has appreciably more protein and fiber than tofu.

Read: "Tempeh vs. Tofu"

Today, in the spirit of trying new ways of eating (and using resources), I want to share my all time favorite tempeh recipe: Moroccan Chermoula Tempeh.

This recipe is adapted from Peter Berley's magnificent book, The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen. I've made it for public events, for legions of friends and private cooking clients, and, of course, for my family and children, who often trade their precious nuggets for tempeh.

Try it. I think you might like it. And lord knows--the supermarkets aren't running out of tempeh any time soon. 

An All-Time Great Cookbook: Peter Berley's Vegetarian Kitchen (Photo Source)

Moroccan Chermoula Tempeh 
½ cup extra virgin olive oil 
½ cup water
6 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons Celtic sea salt
 4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 pound organic tempeh, sliced in one-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Combine olive oil, water, lemon juice, spices, cilantro, salt, and garlic in a medium bowl and whisk well. Place tempeh cubes in a 9-inch baking pan and pour marinade over tempeh. Cover with tin foil and bake for 60 minutes.

Uncover and bake for 10 minutes, until browned. Serve with white basmati rice.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

One Good Thing #4: Gatsby's SCHEDULE

Yesterday, three days into my project, I failed to write "One Good Thing." I was feeling ill, a supremely eerie sensation at this time, and though I wasn't experiencing ominous symptoms, I felt incapable of even the smallest tasks, let alone writing.

Instead, I spent my time on the couch, trying to read The Great Gatsby, trying (and failing) to recover my lost sense of optimism.

I was sixteen, staying in Stone Harbor with my mother’s family, when one night after a pasta dinner, my Uncle Dean suggested I read Gatsby. At the time, he called it “the greatest novel ever.”

Dean had a copy of Gatsby on him, a paperback from my great Aunt Gloria. That night, I pulled my mattress onto the deck, flopped down, and under the yellow glow of an outdoor bulb, read Gatsby cover to cover,

When I rose with the sun the next morning, I was a different person, inspired as much by Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” as his “Platonic conception of self.”

Nurturing the delusion that I am of the Gatsby ilk, I’ve since read Gatsby every few summers, yet only in recent years, well into my forties, have I acknowledged: I’m more Nick Carraway.

That first summer, however, I fancied myself equal parts Carraway and Gatsby, half wry spectator, half extravagant striver, and since then I have tried to model my days on the optimism of young Jay Gatsby (née Gatz)--specifically, his SCHEDULE, the detailed account of his daily regime, printed at the back of a book called Hopalong Cassidy, and his GENERAL RESOLVES:

We had looked to yesterday to be the first day of our SCHEDULE. We had planned to outline our days by the hour, noting times for homeschooling, work, and play. But I was sick, and we failed.

Writhing in failure, I was comforted to see that many, many others online felt the same way. Day One: abject failure. A colleague from Villanova relayed a telling  anecdote from a student:

"A nursing student I'm working with has little ones popping in and out of the Zoom. She said she has no idea what time it is. Fed them lunch and her husband said: we're having lunch at 3???"

But today is a new day, and tomorrow. In this, I'm taking inspiration from another source, decidedly less optimistic but perhaps more appropriate for the moment: Samuel Beckett.

At the end of his novel, The Unnamable, Beckett offers the only advice I can take right now: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."

Sunday, March 15, 2020

One Good Thing #3: The Value of Boredom

My daughter Ella celebrated her eighth birthday yesterday.

When I was eight-years-old, I was a student at the Lancaster Waldorf school, the only school I'd known, and my day-to-day experience was not much different from my daughter's. I went to school, I came home. I lived for the weekends, for summer. Even then, I recall my middle childhood as a time of profound boredom punctuated by rare shots of excitement.

I cannot say whether all young children share this experience. My son Owen seems to live a life of near-constant excitement or agitation, of ceaseless energy.

But Ella is much like me as a young child: She dwells in boredom.

Ella's refuge, like everyone these days, is the screen: the games she plays on my iPhone, games like Minecraft and Roblox, which strike me, whenever I happen to look at the screen, as pointless and ugly.

Ella loves these games. Whenever she's played for some time, I can see in her eyes the serene, drugged look of an addict at the peak of her high, and whenever I attempt to take the phone away she lashes out in uncharacteristic ways, crying with outrage.

It's a terrible moment, when I force boredom upon her. Yet so often her boredom is generative, a space where imagination is made of necessity, where her own thoughts have the capacity to delight even in the midst of the most mundane of afternoons.
Very often, of course, Ella's boredom leads to an impulse to create.

In the coming weeks, we'll all have to lean into boredom, and I suspect, as usual, that despite my intentions, I will end up looking to my young daughter for inspiration and succor--instead of the other way around.

Below is a sampling of the fruits of Ella's boredom, beginning with her advice to herself for boredom...
You are bored so follow these rules: read, color, think, think about life,
if you have enough time, watch something
Screenplay: Written with Julia and Emma
Ella filled each page of this tiny notebook with a tiny drawing
Ella's first book: Sad (from the "Feeling Series")
The protagonist (?) of Sad
Five Bold Predictions for the Future: Balls will change, no more cars, new food, cool jobs, huge foods

Saturday, March 14, 2020

One Good Thing #2: Ella's Birthday

Based on the current numbers of cases and fatalities, the death rate of the virus is about 3.7%. I admit: Until today, I had found comfort in these seemingly low numbers--without thinking about the human consequence.

A single death is a tragedy--for a family, a community.

This fact is most apparent when celebrating a birthday. Today is Ella's 8th birthday. We celebrated at our house, with our family. Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop came from Brigantine. Aunt Chuck came from Lancaster. And, of course, the local family was here: Ella's grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

It was lovely to commune with the family, young and old. At first, we tiptoed around each other.

"Are we hugging?" we asked.

Hours later, as the party ended, we embraced each other without hesitation.

As I write now, with little time and much later than expected, Ella and Owen sit on the couch with their cousin Olivia watching Boss Baby. Karen is on her way home with chocolate ice cream and way too much wine. Soldier on, I keep thinking. Stay positive.

Happy birthday, Ella. We love you.

Friday, March 13, 2020

One Good Thing #1: Just Sing

Yesterday Pennsylvania's governor, Tom Wolf, announced several "guidance" measures for Montogomery County, including the closures of all schools, child care centers, and all non-essential retail facilities for two weeks. When I heard the news, I envisioned a Rocky training montage.

In the next two weeks, I hope to stay positive--for myself, my family, and my community--by spending time with the people I love, exercising in new ways, reading new books, cooking new recipes, and writing.

Also, to combat the moral panic of the coronavirus (for myself and, perhaps, others) I plan to post "one good thing" each day.

Too Much Media?
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, I have surprised myself with my resiliency to anxiety. Only a few years ago, starting after Trump's election, I lived in near-constant anger, fear, and anxiety. For the first time in my life, I experienced panic attacks.

I attributed my anxiety to the chaos of our life at home with two small children, which felt like an assault on my nervous system. I eventually realized something far more insidious at the core of my anxiety. I realized this during the Kavanaugh trial, in September 2018, on a Friday evening, on the day Jeff Flake made his momentous decision, delaying Kavanaugh's nomination--for a week or so.

I had been listening to the coverage for most of the morning, ignoring the habits that make my Fridays (my day off) feel so important: reading and writing. Instead of engaging the creative part of my brain, I had obsessively cleaned while watching/listening to the coverage on my CNN app.

That night at dinner, I compulsively checked my phone even as I spoke to Karen about the hearing.  The children, tired after a long day at school, vied for our attention.

At one point, I heard Ella speaking, as if from a distance. "Daddy?" she said. "Daddy?"

Looking at her, I realized I had completely ignored whatever she had said, and with the clarity of an insight I understood: I was wasting my life. Over the course of the following weeks, I decided to back away from the relentless Kavanaugh coverage. To do so, I limited my exposure to social media. I deleted all social media apps from my phone. I stopped turning on NPR first thing in the morning.

One Good Thing: Just Sing
Despite my recent resiliency, I still modulate my media consumption. This strategy may be the single most important part of my wellness regime: I never watch the news and I rarely listen to the news.

I only occasionally read the news, about one to two articles per day: enough to know what I need to know.

In recent days, I have comforted myself with the well-known statistics about the percentage of coronavirus cases that prove to be mild, as well as the seemingly low death rates for those below 80. Yes, I have been disturbed by the administration's slow response, as well as the consistent onslaught of negative news about mass contagion and economic ruin.

It wasn't until this morning, though, that I felt truly anxious. I made the dreadful decision to read an article in the Times about two young Chinese women, both infected with the virus. One survived. One died. After reading, it took several hours to regain my equilibrium.

I had to remind myself again: I must modulate my media exposure. Just turn it off.

Changing a habit is hard. As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article about habits: "A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life."

However, we can "hack" our habits by "finding ways to take will-power out of the equation."

Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction--essentially making our bad habits more inconvenient. This is presumably one reason why my media detox initially worked so well for me: I deleted the apps.

However, Groopman's article also describes another effective approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change.

Instead of consuming media, I try to read about wellness, denim, or JAWS. I try to talk to my children and my wife. Instead of listening or watching the news, I listen to music. I sing. I don't mean to sound trite, but I believe this is a good response to the current situation: Just sing.

Singing (or humming) stimulates the vagus nerve, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress.  Why not replace a stressful stimulus with an enjoyable, and altogether more human act?

Read: "This Might Be the Simplest Scientific Way to Get Rid of Stress You've Ever Heard Of"