Posts Tagged ‘humanity’

Feel deprived? Throw a hearty ‘fuck you’ at American culture

What the fuck.  I live in the most abundant age, and in the most abundant place, that this planet has ever known.  As mentioned before, there are more choices in my life than I could ever, ever possibly imagine.  And yet: I feel as though I don’t have enough.  I can’t eat enough.  I can’t consume enough.  I can’t do enough.  I can’t be enough.   What the fuck is going on?

Someone once pointed out to me that we were raised in a culture in which our grandparents and parents suffered deprivation.  I acknowledge this point.  My father, for example, is an extraordinarily frugal man because of the frugal and tenuously stable environment in which he grew up.  I’ve learned a lot from him, and I’m grateful for this experience.  But my father feels more secure and content than practically every person I know.  I think this “Great Depression” theory is a pretty poor explanation for my feelings of deprivation.  If I really were feeling the pains of that time period, or of the giant monetary burdens I am shouldering during this century’s own clusterfuck of an economy, I might, instead of feeling deprived, be overjoyed at the abundance of cheap choices available to me.  Indeed: it seems to me that those who lived through such frugal times do not quail at the abundance of our culture, but instead (I think) tend to happily proceed on minimal means and take advantage of whatever benefits come their way.

So, big deal.  People are deprived all over the world.  The problem really is is that we exist in a culture designed to make us want more.  Choices are abundant, and we live in a sea of variety, such that every time we make a choice, we end up regretting the choice we did not make.  I feel this pressure in a big way in deciding which graduate school to attend in the fall, and I feel this pressure in a more mundane way when choosing what foods to eat a buffet.  And since this problem is more mundane, it effects more of my daily life.  Still using the buffet for an example, I always try to get as much of it as possible, because if I don’t try every food then aren’t I being deprived of something I could otherwise have at minimal cost?   Think about the PIES for god’s sake.  Apple, blueberry, strawberry, mixed berry, pumpkin, banana cream, key lime, lemon meringue… jesus christ thank GOD I am paleo and I don’t have to make that kind of choice anymore.   Even worse, this tyranny of choice doesn’t just apply to my taste buds but to my sense of nutrition: if I choose to go for the seaweed because of its iodine content, I am instead missing out on the lycopene in the tomatoes!  Woe is me!  How can I ever be healthy?  How can I ever be satisfied?  How can I ever meet all the needs society is insisting I have?

Commercials, advertisements, companies, even schools, universities, and governments… they depend on us feeling deprived.  Its our deprivation that makes us consume their products and services.   Don’t have enough education?  The University of Phoenix is here for you!  Too fat?  Try my food!  Too ugly?  Try my eight billion dollar cosmetics industry!  Chasing progress (but not perfection) is all well and good, but American culture positively pounds it into us.  If you don’t have this new thing or that new fad or God knows what popular personality trait, then you’re just not cutting it.  You need to be perfect to find happiness, to find a lover, to be complete.  This sucks.  Idiots.

This is present in all aspects of our lives, and in all forms of consumption, but it is particularly striking in food culture.  What kills me the most is that…well, we have this abundance.   We have established that this can lead to unhealthy thought patterns.  Even worse, however, is that we are given feelings of inadequacy to go along with the deprivation. We see commercials and advertisements and friends with freakishly mutant genetics and start to develop a crazy idea: other people have what I want, but they don’t suffer negative consequences.  That woman on the TV can eat chocolates and not have fat thighs!  My friends can eat dairy without developing acne!  My brother can eat pounds of ice cream a day without nary a negative side effect!  Why am I so unique, and so deprived, and so incapable of having the same pleasures as everyone else?  We are simultaneously bombarded with signals that scream: “you need more products and variety!” and signals that scream: “these people are perfect, why aren’t you?” and it tears at our souls, it really does.

Our culture of abundance is structured to make us feel deprived, and it is these exact feelings that give us patterns of disordered and binge eating (not always, of  course, but often enough.)  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this thought, or had friends or clients share it with me: “I’m tired of eating what I’m supposed to eat.  I’m tired of eating when I’m supposed to eat.  I’m tired of following rules and having to watch myself so closely and censor all of my food choices.Honestly, I hate this more than anything.  I feel it intensely, and I acknowledge its power, but I still have a hard time getting over it.  Why can my roommate eat five times a day?  Why can she eat carbohydrates?  Why can’t I?  why can’t I?  Why can’t I?

This is because there is SO MUCH out there telling us to eat more, tempting us, telling us its possible to eat these awful things without having negative consequences, and making us feel like our dietary choices (re: a paleo diet with regular meals) is a deprivation diet.  Ugh.

What this says to me is that what we really need is psychological freedom.

We need to acknowledge that our feelings of deprivation are external in origin. And not only that, but they are deliberately instilled in us by consumer culture.   How dare they?  How dare we?  What the fuck are we doing to ourselves?  Is there a solution?

Well.  There are a few.  They’re not panaceas, but they do help, some.

First, acknowledging the power of this cultural machine is a big help.  Once you acknowledge what kind of sway food culture has over you–whether it’s by advertising, by the abundance of choice (like me at a Taiwanese buffet!), by friends who eat conventional diets and seem to do just fine, or by people who pressure you to partake in unhealthy foods–you can fight it.  You can see it coming and dodge.  You can hide.  You can use whatever strategies you have in your arsenal, from outright anger to, again, hiding from the media, to help alleviate the psychological pressures.  One way in which I’ve really helped myself feel better is by moving away from America.  Honest.  And I don’t watch TV.  So I am no longer ever confronted with images of beautiful, leggy, clear-skinned, elegant women all over advertisements.  I don’t spend time wishing I were them.  Another way you can do this is to make a point of never, ever watching commercials.  Every time they come on the TV, put it on mute and open up a book.  Or stop perusing those horrific Self or Cosmo or Shape magazines.   Pay attention to what they’re saying to you: the message is always “indulge, indulge, indulge,” because they already know, and are trying to cultivate, your feelings of guilt and deprivation.  They’re not helping you, no matter how much they insist this is true.  Instead, they are deliberately crafting their self help magazines to make you keep needing their help.  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it all.

Another solution, though not an easy one, is to turn it around.  Instead of feeling deprived because you can’t partake in this food culture, feel sorry for everyone involved in it.  Your diet is right and your lifestyle is awesome and it’s actually (really, it is) quite sad that they don’t have a truly healthful, fulfilling diet.  If you’d like, permit yourself to partake in this culture occasionally.  Writing yourself off from it entirely might make you feel even more deprived, and you don’t want it to have this kind of power over you.  Philosophies of asceticism are abstaining are dumb (*usually).  Life is short.  Instead, be the ruler of your own mind and your own body, and exist above popular ideas and consumer culture.  Come down and mingle with it from time to time, show it who’s boss, and then head on back up to your lofty spot of awesome health.  You are in control of your health and your diet (or at least most of the time!) and that is a completely badass, empowering fact.  Every day you choose to follow the paleo lifestyle (or a similarly good one) because it is right and it feels right and it’s so good for your body.  Fuck cookies!  They taste good but they destroy your liver.  You don’t need that shit.   Your diet is not just tasty but is awesome for you, and I feel sorry for all the idiots out there who are deliberately ignorant of these facts.

Finally, I know that this is easier said than done.  But I really, strongly believe that feelings of deprivation are huge components of disordered eating.  They make us crave fulfillment and indulgence and immediate pleasure, and food can give us that.  Especially when the exact thing we feel deprived of is, in fact, food.   Try not to view your healthy diet and your progress away from bingeing or grazing behaviors not as a step into deprivation but a step forward into the light of psychological freedom.  Without food on the mind, and without that desperate wishing and need so common to disordered eaters, we are free to feel all sorts of new positive emotions.  This is perhaps the most wonderful and empowering fact of paleo dieting.  It is a long and a hard road, sometimes, but increasing our awareness of what’s hampering that progress does nothing but compel us forward.

And, like I’ve said perhaps a million times, though a million is surely never enough: progress is the true goal.

Columbus (the idiot occasionally had one or two eloquent thoughts) once wrote:

“Following the light of the sun, we left the old world.”


Leave the ugliness of consumer culture behind.  Transcend its call, and rise to a life of progress and holistic health.  You’ve got the tools.  All you need is a bit of attitude, a confident swagger, and a eye on continually building your self-love and progress.

And Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Taste sensitivity: an adaptive strategy

Editor’s note: My apologies to anyone who read this article between the day I first posted it and February 13.  I wrote it at the end of a couple cracked out sleepless days, and my ability to produce and discern quality writing was vastly inhibited.

I am currently reading the text Food preferences and taste: continuity and change by Helen M. Macbeth.  It comprises all of the papers presented at a European conference on tastes and foods from 1997.  The conference covered a range of topics–from the history of the potato to the glucose sensitivity of great apes–and I’m finding it a fascinating read.   More than that, too, I’m looking forward to engaging follow up studies from the interesting questions they raise.

I just finished the section on taste sensitivity.  What I learned is that cultures vary in taste sensitivity depending on their nutritional needs.  Some taste sensitivities, such as bitterness, are universal across all cultures.  Others, such as sweetness, however, are more spatially varied due to habitat and culture.  This trend applies to non human primates as well.  The unfortunate part is that scientists still struggle to ascertain the extent to which these traits are genetically influenced and the extent to which they are trained behaviors, particularly in cultures in which taste sensitivity varies between genders.

One culture studied for taste sensitivity was the Inuit of Greenland.  The author of this study, Claude Marcel Hladik, focused on salt.  The fact that salt’s concentration in the natural environment varies so much around the world (think coast v: plains)  means that it is a great taste sensitivity to study for more information on comparative genomics.

The Greenland Inuit diet consists primarily of seal meat and fat, with occasional starches throw into the mix.  The seal meat is always boiled in water and not salted.   This is an important practice.  Living off of the sea, it is easy to consume too much salt, and the Inuit are always wary of this.  They safeguard against it with a number of mechanisms, including: not salting their food, using the freshest drinking water possible, and keeping very well hydrated.   The importance of this last point is further increased by the high protein content of their diet.  A diet high in protein induces higher levels of dietary induced thermogenesis (DIT, or TEF, thermal effect of food) which in turn creates a strong need for proper hydration. Therefore, the Inuit very carefully control their food and water preparation.

The most important way for the Inuit to do this is to use the freshest possible drinking water.  They find this water with the help of their tastebuds, which are nearly super human in their salt detection abilities.  The Inuit can discern minute concentration differences water, and they outscore nearly every other culture’s sensitivity by an order of magnitude.

The Inuit obtain this fresh water, traditionally,  in a very particular, almost sacred tradition.   They trek up into the hills where the freshest waters can be found.   They look for the deepest blue-green colors.  Then they test various ices for salt content, based on taste alone.  The colder the material tested is, the more difficult discerning the taste is.  Wow.  Cool.  Sensitivity is key.

This taste sensitivity is vastly more acute in Inuit women than in men (though both genders still are lightyears more sensitive than the rest of humanity).  This is most likely due to the fact that ice gathering is a typically female task.   What this fact doesn’t tell us is the extent to which this adaptation is genetic.  It is possible that women were selected for their ability to discern salt concentrations.  However, it is also (more?) plausible that this is a trained behavior.

What’s more, coastal cultures in Papua New Guinea experience similar effects–they also have salt sensitivities higher than the other, more “normal,” “western,” or landlocked cultures–but not to the same degree.  Hladik concludes that this is because the New Guinea tribes consume less protein than the Inuit, and therefore have decreased hydration needs.  This tells us that taste sensitivities are a direct result of necessity.  Very cool stuff.

Nonhuman primates have no sensitivity for sodium, save for macaques.  This fact is interesting, because it demonstrates a clear link between the macaques and their relatively new coastal habitat.   Other primate species tend to ingest sodium in small quantities by other means, whether by geophagy (consumption of clay) or by eating termites.   In this case, the sensitivity is likely absent because the risk of over-consumption is absent.

What about sensitivity to other tastes?

Hladik looks at newborns to explore innate taste sensitivities.  He doesn’t have much a choice, and in fact anyone who studies taste generally doesn’t have much of a choice, either.  Beyond infancy, cultural norms become increasingly important, and it becomes difficult to discern a genetic predisposition from cultural conditioning.

Newborns of both human and other primate species have a very narrow range of sensitivity to bitter tastes.  Nearly every human being experiences bitterness the exact same way.   The few species that vary outside of this range, such as the primate Callithirx Argentata, have different adapted digestive systems.  They have a low sensitivity to bitter substances because their guts are more tolerant of poisonous chemicals.

Humans, on the other hand, have a very specific intolerance of bitter chemicals.  For this very reason, infants easily identity and have distaste for tannins.  This adaptation prevents against the risk of being poisoned.  Tannins also inhibit intestinal absorption when they bind to proteins, which makes this universal adaptation even more important for health and survival.

The comparison of taste thresholds varies widely among primates for sugars, however.  This is because sugar is far less toxic, for example, than hemlock.  Fructose sensitivity appears to vary based on both genetic and cultural factors.   This is demonstrated in one experiment comparing sensitivity between African tribes.  In pygmy tribes that reside in heavily-fruited forests, fructose sensitivity is fairly low.   Just about all fruits taste the same to them, and they do not actively seek out or have to expend much energy to gather these fruits.  Fruit is one of their staple foods, and is plentifully available, so it is not necessarily prized.  Cultures outside of the forest are much more sensitive to the taste of fruit.  This indicates that some sort of selective pressure for fruit sensitivity is at work outside of the forests, where fruits are scarce and more important to detect and eat.

Non human primates also demonstrate a wide range of fructose sensitivity due to different levels of access to the fruits.  Some primates live among the trees and have great access to fruits, and therefore have a lower sensitivity.  Other primates, such as macaques and chimpanzees, must travel great distances and expend a lot of energy to obtain fruit.  It is thus of paramount importance to them that they consume a lot of fruit, and that they can detect it easily.  This is assured by hedonism.  Macaques and chimpanzees love fruit.

As a final point, positive responses in non-human primates are not limited to sugars.  Chimpanzees in Gabon “obviously take great pleasure in cracking ants under their teeth and reducing them to a juice.”  According to Hladik, “this activity requires attention and skill, and the reward must be adaptive.”  Again, we are pointed to great rewards–this time outside of taste!–for the sake of necessity.

So what does this all mean?  Well.  We have genetic adaptations for certain tastes.  This is really cool. They help ensure survival and proper nutrition.  However, taste is an enormously complicated subject, tied up in biology and culture and tradition, and we still have a lot to work through on the effects of all these things.  This information on sensitivities just gives us a bit of background to our food stories, and helps to contextualize our sense of taste and our cravings.   I like thinking about history when I eat, and this is another cool way to spin on that.



02 2011

Addressing the psychological: What is your relationship with food?

I put up a post a while back about the physiological components of binge eating.   It discusses how I believe that much of my life’s struggle with food has been driven by hormone fluctuations and brain chemistry.  I still believe that this is the case.  Fructose is an appetite demon, and I want it to stay away, away, away.

But I acknowledge–and I acknowledge whole-heartedly–that diet is perhaps 65 percent of the battle.  Absolutely, cutting sugars and eating more fat decreases appetite, but does it make my bad relationships or my debt go away?  My unemployment?  The America’s Next Top Model re-runs I like to watch with a pound of cheese cubes on hand?   There exist a number of factors that sour relationships with food, as a disordered eater or not, and no amount of fat in the diet will ever change that.  What follows is a very brief discussion of the most common ways to get tripped up (I do not, and I dare not, address serious disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia).  Increased awareness can help us mitigate any problems we identify.  Then hopefully we can move forward towards the best kinds of peace the paleo movement has to offer.  Later posts will touch on specific strategies and behaviors for helping out with these various roadblocks.

What are the most common ways to have negative relationships with food?

Clueless Eating
According to Lloyd Glauberman, PhD and clinical psychologist, this is the most common form of unhealthy eating.  And when I first heard this idea, I thought: Duh.  Yet clueless eating is something I hadn’t thought about before.  I’m obsessed with nutrition.  I’m willing to bet you’re not a clueless eater, either.  However, many, many Americans are.  This makes me sad.

Trance Eating
Trance eating refers to a form of negative multitasking. We do this when we zone out.  It makes us oblivious to what we’re consuming.  Finish off that bag of pecans before you even noticed your hand was in the bag?  Munch your way through a whole drawer worth of carrots while writing that term paper?  Eating while distracted is a fun way to keep our hands and mouths busy while our brains are active.  It is also a nice way to get a steady stream of insulin and serotonin pumping through our systems.  Bad news, this is.  It eliminates feelings of hunger, and, more importantly, true feelings of satisfaction.

Sleep-Deprived Eating
Do you eat because you’re tired?  An insomniac?  Trying to stay awake?  Sleep deprivation ramps up appetite. Put on an eye mask and get some Zs, n00bs.

Control Eating

Do you carefully monitor everything that goes in your body?  In an obsessive way?   In a way that has less to do with a happy and healthy lifestyle, and more to do with discipline?  Do you ever make it a contest to see how long you can go without food?  Do you practice intermittent fasting such that you go a long time without food and then end up overcompensating when you break the fast because you got so hungry?

Diet Eating
It is well known that fa diets and such do not work, and that they make us relegate food to the realm of “things that fuck us up”  rather than “things which nourish.”   We all want food to be nourishing.  Diets, if they induce feelings of deprivation, can lead to all other sorts of disordered and emotional eating habits.   What’s more, we if only ever adopt diets for a given period of time, and then resume our old habits afterward, we never make progress.  The paleo world knows this well.  Life is about consistent health.  Physically, and mentally.

Emotional Eating
Of all the substances that we ingest to make ourselves feel better, food is most often the drug of choice. We eat when we’re anxious, sad, depressed, angry, worried, annoyed, ashamed or guilty.  Boy oh boy, am I ever familiar with this one. Coping with difficult emotional states is no easy task, but that’s no excuse for constant abuse of food.  I believe that this is the most mentally disruptive form of disordered eating, and more treatment of it follows.

What are some indicators of emotional eating?  How can I tell the difference between real and emotional hunger?

According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, there exist five primary distinctions between real and emotional hunger:

1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.

2. Emotional hunger is usually more specific.  When we eat to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, we often crave a specific food, such as ice cream, and only that food will meet our needs.  However, we can also have general “I need food!” (“I need serotonin!”) feelings in response to stress.

3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly; physical hunger can wait.

4. Emotional hunger doesn’t stop when we’re full.  Duh.  You can ask my empty cheese drawer about that one.

5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when we are physically hungry does not.

These are important insights and situations worth keeping an eye on.  Do I all of the sudden require a parfait?   Why?  Yet while the emphasis that the University of Texas places on different types of hunger is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  So what?  I crave foods when I’m not hungry from time to time.  Does that mean I’m a disordered eater?  I dunno.  Does it?   Probably not.  A more important question to ask ourselves, I believe, is: “Do I experience emotional hunger more than I would like?  If so, why?” A whole shit ton of people have ideas about why.

Common emotional eating triggers:

Stress. Anger.  Depression.  Anxiety.  Boredom.  Futility.  Filling a void.  Making up for previous deprivation in life.  Fear of deprivation.   Fear of change.  Nostalgia.  Denial.  Obsession.  Loathing.  Hyper self-criticism.

Ring bells?  I’m sure they are at least familiar to you.  Each deserves a post of its own.  For now, it’s probably enough to just focus on reflection.  Do different psychological aspects of my life compel me to eat?  Has it happened to me before?  How can I mitigate these feelings so it happens less often in my life?

Millions of different self help books and common sense guides recommend strategies for mitigating emotional eating.  These strategies are, far and away, behavioral.  Go for a walk.  Meditate.  Keep your mind busy.  Keep your hands busy.  Do something kind for others.  Hide problem foods.  Drink lots of water.  Chew gum.  And they work.  They really do.  But the most ideal way to handle emotional eating is to get at the root of the problem.  Figure out exactly what compels you, and then work on strategies to eliminate or mitigate that stressor in your life.  For example, I wear earplugs when my roommates are fighting.  This very simple practice does me wonders.  I also try to be less critical of my self.  Easier said than done.  But it is an evolving process, and isn’t life supposed to be about the journey or some shit like that anyway?

Does the paleo world exist above these problems?

Kind of, and no.  In some respects, definitely not.  First, this is because, as I’ve discussed with so many people, it is still possible to binge on healthy foods.  Satiating aspects of fat and protein be damned.  They’re not angels, and they don’t save everybody.  It’s easy as hell to eat an entire chicken or a bucket of guacamole if you’re fucking with or ignoring your hippocampus.  If you binge on healthy foods such as fats, you’re not alone.  It’s okay to have this problem.

Second, though the paleo world is ridiculously mindful, it is still possible to use food to medicate.

And finally, the most healthful among us can fall prey to traps of excessive discipline and criticism.   Did I eat an omega-6 fat?   Or some nuts or some dairy, which I usually avoid?  Fuck it all.  I suck at eating and don’t deserve to be nourished.  Or: will I spend an hour doing sprints tomorrow because I think I see a new layer of fat on my hips?   Paleo practitioners usually swear by decreased exercise time and the benefits of HIIT, but it’s possible to lapse into perfectionism as such an aware individual.  It is one thing to keep track of how much energy we’re consuming and how much we’re expending, but it is another thing entirely to allow negative feelings to become a part of that.

The paleo world is full of successes, but it is also full of people who are struggling with weight or serious health issues.  For them, it is important to remain positive, and to acknowledge that progress is made in increments, not in leaps.  No self loathing allowed.   Be good to yourself.   Three steps forward, one step back.  No big deal.

So what is a healthy relationship with food?

I don’t know.  You tell me.  It seems to involve eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping when you’re full.  It has to do with the necessity of nourishment, but it also has to do with pleasure.   It has to do with healthfulness, and mindfulness, and gratitude, and forgiveness.  It has to do with having a free mind, and using food to fuel that beautiful, free mind.

I don’t know how to define relationships with food.  What’s more, they are always changing, and are always situated with a social context.  It is unlikely that ancestral man suffered eating disorders.   And perhaps in a few centuries, modern man won’t either.  Unlikely.  We have become a neurotic, consumption-driven species, and I’m not sure I see that changing any time soon.

Is there a typically paleo relationship with food?  I could hazard a few guesses.  I think that paleos tend towards mindfulness, tend towards gratitude, and tend towards good, pleasurable relationships.  Given that paleos have appetite-sating diets and eat with their health first and foremost in their lives, I am, on the whole, quite impressed.

What do you think about Americans and food?  Paleos?  Yourself?  Chime in.  Make me thoughtful, make me smart.


02 2011

The tyranny of choice: Pangs for a hunter-gatherer world

If I happen to decide to buy a candle today, I have the option of going to perhaps nine home decorating stores within driving distance of my home.  Once I choose a store, I will encounter five brands.   Let’s say I choose the Yankee Candle Company.   They offer eighteen different scents this season, paired with eighteen different colors, which come in a choice of five different sizes, labeled 100 hour, 50 hour, 20 hour, 10 hour, and mini.   I do a little bit of math before I leave my home, and I realize that I could purchase 4,050 different candles today.  Wahooo!  Pepper for the win!  Out of 4,050 candles, there has got to be one that’s just perfect for me.

Yikes.  As countless magazines and self-help books have begun taking serious note of, American society is today faced with more choices than ever before.  We have TV channels and books and blogs and foods and shampoos and just about everything else, not to mention jobs and hobbies and exponentially multiplying college majors.  This is not just a trend from which we can be saved, moreover, but is in fact a scientifically mandated phenomenon.   The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe moves towards an increasingly disordered state.  Today’s vastly diverse choices are a part of that process.  Entropy wins, and there are absolutely no ifs ands or buts about it.

Choice is a good thing, and I’d be the first one to line up behind the “having choices” ticket counter.  But psychologists can tell you pretty definitively that this will make me one of the less happy campers.  Choice stresses us out. It puts pressure on us to make the right decisions.  Sometimes, this means that we end up avoiding making decisions at all.  Other times, it means that we make choices but then live in constant ambivalence, wondering if we made the right choice or not.   Sometimes we are deliriously happy with our choices.  But I do not kid myself into thinking this is always the case.

One realm that this plays out in a super interesting way is marriage.   Comparative psychologists have begun to explore that fact that not only do arranged marriages have better divorce statistics, but they also have more happily married husbands and wives. A study in Jaipur, India a few decades ago found that people in love marriages were more in love for the first five years, while those in arranged marriages were more in love for the next 30 years.  Some have chalked this up to our inability to make good decisions ourselves.  The theory is that when friends who love and understand us choose a mate for us, they are making a better decision than we might make for ourselves.  I get this line of reasoning, and I don’t think we should dismiss it.

However, I often wonder if part of the reason Americans have such a high divorce rate is because we live in a paradigm in which we can always seek greater happiness.  In an arranged marriage, a wife often enters into it knowing that it is going to be her life until she dies, so she commits to making the absolute best of it as she can.  Without questions and without doubts, contentedness can settle in.  This is not the case in American society.  Choices and temptations and new lifestyles abound, and we live sometimes, I think, in a bit of a jittery, unsettled, and perpetually unfulfilled mess.

More than anything else, I think about this phenomenon in my own life.  I loved my high school sweetheart very, very much.  And I know with absolute certainty that if I never left Detroit, I never would have found new cultures and people that fit me better.  I would have been astronomically happy building a life with him.  But the potential for greener pastures beckoned, and I hopped on a plane faster than Justin Bieber reaches for second base.  Choice is a very powerful and awesome God, and I would not go so far as to say it’s ruined my ability to love–I’d say the opposite, in fact–but it has without question made it more difficult for me to be content.

So if I lived in a tribe, I probably wouldn’t have these problems.  I wouldn’t be stressed out by a fucking candle, and I would certainly be content with the friends, lovers, and family members I had.  If cavemen had anything right, this was it.  We’ve got to emulate it.  Simplify.  Relax.  Accept things as they are.  Certainly I’m not giving up my things or my freedom any time soon, but I have vowed to never buy a candle ever again.


02 2011

Eating paleo in the midwest? Fuhgetaboutit.

Want to be a n00b?  A pariah?  A goddamn tree-hugger?

Move to Detroit.  While you’re at it, tell your friends– or, better yet, the supermarket managers– that you want to eat raw dairy.  Maybe even a grass-fed cow.  WTF?  GTF out of here, you uppity fucking hippy.

This isn’t to say you can’t find animals or vegetables to eat in Detroit.  You can, absolutely.  You won’t even get crazy looks.  Paleo is absolutely, 100 percent possible in the midwest–or, I daresay, anywhere in the world (more on Taiwan later)–and Detroit does in fact have grocery stores just like every body else.  But in Detroit, healthy and unique foods are either 1) hidden gems or 2) completely absent.  Some things that can never be found include: coconut products, coconut oil, a single iota of unpasteurized anything, locally raised animals, or grassfed beef.  There are, moreover, no seaweeds, no unique cuts of beef, nor avocado or macadamia oils.  Not a single person clamoring for them, either.   It is a Faygo world, here between the Ohio River Valley and the Louisiana Territory, and there’s no telling how long this is going to last.

Fitness in Detroit leaves something to be desired, as well.  Sure, metropolitan Detroit is scattered with Anytime Fitness gyms, but the midwest lacks what I’ve come to view as a uniquely coastal adventurous edge.  YES, people in northern Michigan snowmobile, and Minnesotans hunt (wahoo!), and in the summer midwesterners out in the country spend some pretty solid hours rocking contentedly on their back porches, but no one explores anything new in the outdoors or in the fitness world.  There exist two REI stores in Michigan, twenty-six Crossfit affiliates (compared to sixty-one in New York: not too bad a difference, all things considered), and perhaps six hiking trails.  That said, the midwest is a little bit stagnant, in food and in the outdoors and maybe even in life, and unless you live in an especially wealthy or liberal area, you’re not going to find anything more exciting there than a scene from Everybody Loves Raymond.

Which is perhaps what my trouble with living in Detroit has been all along.  Ever since I was a very young girl, I knew I needed to flee.  I didn’t fit.  I began collecting brochures for distant colleges the second I finished the multiplication tables.  When I realized that I wanted more than what Wal-Marts and movie theatres had to offer, I had no choice but to extend my reach by several hundred miles.

Why is it that the midwest has so much inertia, relative to the rest of the country?

Beats me.  Does it have to do with fundamentalist religion?  Maybe a little bit.  But I find this to be unlikely.  As much as fundamentalism colors the deeper parts of the midwest, such as Dubuque, Iowa, it certainly isn’t much more than a fly on a horse’s back in places as urban and suburban as Detroit.

Does it have to do with the relative lack of urban centers?  The decreased population density?  Hm.  Yes, maybe.  It’s only three hours to Cincinatti and five to Chicago, but beyond Chicago it’s another ten to St. Louis, and then where to?  Minneapolis?  Twenty hours and five tanks of gas later, sure.   This hypothesis, however, jives with the fact that places such as San Francisco and Bend, Oregon are equally as distant from other pillars of civilization, and they are practically drowning in liberal thinkers.

And what about socioeconomics?  Here, perhaps, we are getting warmer.  I know that coastal areas are rife with poverty, and my heart breaks for that fact, but they also contain, I believe, critical masses of people who have the luxury to explore different lifestyles.   The majority of people living in suburban Detroit are lower-middle class, with a fair share of working class and middle-middle class thrown in.  These conditions, coupled with political conservatism and fundamentalist-type religious views, make for very little interest in uppity hippy fads.

All in all, this is pretty frustrating business.  Change always happens in the midwest last.  (Unless you were a woman at Oberlin College in 1833!) And it does have a lot to do with money and with politics and with religion, and with a general stubbornness I sometimes loathe with a fiery passion.

However, it also has to do with a general sense of contentedness.  The one thing I used to hate about the midwest is now something I totally dig.  Midwesterners don’t make wild changes to their lives because they’re pretty happy with what they’ve got.   Why fuck with a good thing?  Midwesterners love themselves some beer and gunracks and McDonald’s.  This means that they’re not exactly the healthiest kids on the block.   But they have families they honor, and they have hometowns to which they have great loyalty, and this speaks to feelings acceptance and peace that I really admire and aspire to.

Religion scholar Huston Smith argues that cultures with more traditionalist, home-based lifestyles are ultimately the happiest.  Perhaps he is on to something.  The midwest is full of contentedness.  There’s no change here.  No questing.   Or, as they would see it, no bullshit.  Only life.   And, so long as I am no longer living there myself, I think that’s a really beautiful thing.


02 2011

Animal Rights and the Zeitgeist

Something that I’ve been wondering about for a long time is the future of our moral zeitgeist. What is a zeitgeist, you ask? Well. We evoke the evolving zeitgeist every time we look at a given time period. For example: Can we condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves, given the cultural context in which he lived? Another solid example is the Bible. Today, we see the Bible’s ideas as…well, a bit commonplace, I guess. Love him like my neighbor? Sure thing, duh, whatever. But at the time that the Bible was written, it was hugely revolutionary. Way ahead of the state of humanity’s zeitgeist. While the vast majority of people were primarily concerned with crucifixions and warring monarchies, Jesus was preaching Love. Today we don’t really understand how amazingly revolutionary that was. Jesus was ahead of the curve. And, like most people ahead of the curve, he was feared. Think also re: Socrates, Voltaire, or Galileo.

So that’s the zeitgeist. Humanity, we like to think, gets better over time.

What I wonder about a lot is the evolving allocation of rights. First (again, in a western-normative world) we gave rights to rich white men. Then we gave rights to slightly less rich white men. Then came white men of different religions or land holding classes. Then we inched forward with minorities such as the Irish, Catholics, and the Japanese. Then slaves. Then women. Then – still evolving and always evolving–even greater rights for minorities and for women and for African Americans. And now gay people. And handicapped people. And the poor. And homeless. We are increasingly extending our arms to liminal cultures. But where tf are we going to go from here?

I wonder about apes. I wonder about pigs. And I wonder about dolphins. (Even more interestingly: I wonder about clones!). As neuroscience marches forward, humankind is learning that animal intelligence is a fair bit like our own. We wonder if animals can be said to “possess consciousness,” but we do not know how to define consciousness, let alone delineate which species have it and which do not. As a matter of fact, recent discoveries in the sex lives and communication abilities of other animals such as bonobos and dolphins are some of the biggest confounding factors in defining consciousness. Who is sentient, and who isn’t? And once we decide, what do we do about it?

I believe absolutely in living naturally, and in being a part of the food chain. I embrace all parts of my genes and my natural humanness. In fact, throughout most of my life I have wished desperately that I was raised in a Native American tradition, so that I could more deeply express and be a part of that profound cyclical gratefulness. Yet I wonder: when we start mapping the brain patterns of cows, and if we determine that they feel pain and sadness and have a sense of identity, do I want to hunt them? I’m not sure. And will the rest of humanity? Or will most people want to stop? Might we forbid meat eating for the sake of our brethren? I have no idea what the future will hold, but many decades down the line, we might be facing these questions without a hint of flippancy.


02 2011