A world before the fall

I’m writing this post on the last day of Summer, so this could just musings on the transience of the seasons. And yet, today’s post is a brief history of the 30+ year experiment in “healthy” eating that is my life.

Beneath the nutty quest that took me from every extreme food ‘religion’ to another was the idea that there is a pre-ordained way for people to be. That there is some kind of imaginary Eden in which people lived and ate a certain way that was perfect for all human minds and bodies. That if we could only rediscover or reconstruct this paradise before the fall, we could live in perfect harmony and health.

This idea first crossed my path when I was thirteen, probably from one of my mom’s healthy eating pamphlets.  I promptly decided to become vegetarian. Teenage rebellion and a rejection of my father’s hunting ways surely had a part to play as well. So for the next four years I followed a vegetarian diet, which was in those days highly unusual and rarely catered to. I didn’t know much about nutrition, so I just ate a lot of bread, cheese and spaghetti with tomato sauce. I was a pasty, un-athletic punk living a nocturnal life, but had the innate health of a lanky teenager, so I was basically OK.

When I was 17 I came across a book extolling the virtues of living on raw foods only, and this is when I got serious about the idea of discovering the “perfect” human diet and increasing up the nutritional content of what I was eating. Raw foods seemed to make sense – after all, that’s how animals eat; cooking seemed like a wrong turn that mankind had taken by mistake. I switched to a diet of huge salads, lots of fruit, raw milk and soaked and sprouted grains. This worked quite well until I moved to London in the depth of winter, surviving in a youth hostel with not a lot of money. I lived off fresh and dried fruit and yogurt until my teeth started collapsing in on themselves. I still have gaps in my molars from those brutal days.

I didn’t put two and two together then, blaming it on poor dental hygiene. I added more foods such as gigantic amounts of vegetables, olive oil and sprouted grains. I ate and ate and ate, and still felt hungry all the time, even though I was so bloated that I couldn’t sleep. I was freezing continuously, and pale and tired, but it was Thatcher’s England after all; I was poor, and worked long hours in fast food joints, so I didn’t think to blame my diet.

I spent a few months in Southern India, living off Indian Vegetarian food, got a stomach bug and came back with a BMI of 16. I  worked in cafeterias and had crazy binges late at night. I blamed myself for my lack of self-control, not realizing that my body was fighting for survival. I added back “bad” cooked foods, mostly bread because digesting huge amounts of vegetables was painful. For years after I basically lived off bread, boiled vegetables and a bit of fruit and yogurt. That I didn’t get sick is a miracle. I worked during the day, went to classes and studied at night and weekends, often falling asleep in my bed with my books. I had so little energy.

During college, without a kitchen I tried my hand at veganism, subsisting mostly on whole wheat bread, fruits and vegetables, with a bit of peanut butter thrown in. What saved me then was an insatiable, and totally explicable desire for smoked mackerel. I beat myself up over slipping from my almost-vegan ways. My body was craving fat, protein, omega 3s. Again, I was often tired, and also quite timid and very scared in general of my much more confident, well-educated and affluent fellow students. I spent much time in hiding, studying, walking, rather than fully engaging in student life in Oxford. This is still look back on as perhaps the greatest waste of my life. Food was only a part of it but it didn’t help. I don’t live life with regret, but if I could rewind any part of my life, this would be it.

Over the next few years I added a bit more variety, like beans, hummus and tuna. But I didn’t escape from this dietary limbo until my thirties, when I met my husband who is an excellent cook. It forced me to straighten out my bizarre and highly deficient diet. But right up until then I still thought I my diet was exemplary and supremely healthy, and pretty close to perfect.

Things got better since then, apart from a dalliance with low carb eating which left me weak, tired and emotionally flat.

Then, in a final tussle with dietary dogma I started eating a paleo diet two years ago. Once again, a diet that promised to deliver mankind from original sin, by literally encouraging to eat as we would in some imaginary Eden.

I still do believe that the basic tenets behind paleo eating are sound if you mean unprocessed food, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, starches. But to appropriate and brand this kind of eating – which encompasses a very broad range of foods and ways of preparing them – seems silly to me in retrospect.

I’m finally waking up the idea that the idea of chasing some kind of ideal is ridiculous, given the broad diversity of healthy and thriving populations across the globe. That civilization isn’t just some malignant intrusion on primal perfection and that pleasure has always been a fundamental need, and isn’t an enemy of living “right”.

Also, please don’t think I’m criticizing vegetarianism, veganism or raw food eating. I’m sure there’s ways of making them work, but I couldn’t. They just made me dogmatic, obsessive and forever guilty about not sticking to them 100%.

Oh, hindsight …

But our lives are our lives, with all their wrong turns, seeming dead-ends, discoveries, revelations, obsessions and reversals. I’ve learned a lot on this crazy journey, and thank god I came out just fine.

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Source: creationmuseum.org

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What are you afraid of?

I wandered through big cities by myself day and night, going to concerts and the movies when I was in my mid-teens.

When I was a teenager I quit high school one morning, got myself a factory job, and went home and told my parents.

I went on a television quiz show when I was 17 to make enough money to run away.

Instead of going to work, I took the train to another country, without telling my family beforehand

A country whose language I didn’t speak very well and where I knew no-one.

After working many menial jobs I applied to a famous university and got accepted after finishing high school in evening classes.

I moved to New York City where I knew no-one.

I studied art in my thirties even though I didn’t have a background in art.

I’ve photographed almost a hundred strangers whom I found on the internet.

I regularly present to large audiences, CEOs and senior business leaders.

I quit my job a few years ago and started a freelance career even though I am the main breadwinner in my family.

I’m no daredevil. But I have no fear of big decisions and big changes.

So why the hell am I so deadly afraid of putting on even just a couple of pounds?

Crazy, irrational, self-destructive, bizarre, ridiculous fear.

What are you afraid of?

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The art of walking

“Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I’ve been a walker all my life.

When I was little, I walked from necessity. I spent my childhood outdoors, and to get from home to anywhere you had to walk.

When I got a little older I woke up to the liberating power of walking.

I walked hundreds of miles on the streets of Berlin when it was still fenced in, still somewhat pockmarked from the war, wistful and forlorn. I walked the ruins, I walked the East, I walked the West. I saw it transform over the years, but every time I walk I still discover places I have never seen. I walked there from loneliness, I walked from curiosity, I walked from boredom.

I walked all over London, freshly arrived as a teenage runaway, I kept moving, to grasp the city, to understand England, to understand a culture that was entirely foreign to me and quite hostile. I walked many evenings and nights when I had nothing else to do, when I just wanted to be among people. I walked the East End, I walked the canals, the river, the old industrial areas, the docks, the cemeteries, the Metro-land suburbs.

And I fell in love with New York by walking endless hours until my feet were swollen and blistered, because I couldn’t possibly stop  – the streets were so exciting, so busy, the people so beautiful and odd. I walked the Bronx, the outer reaches of Queens, every neighborhood in Brooklyn from Maspeth to Gravesend, and every block in Manhattan.

Many of my literary heroes used walking for epiphanies, for transformation, for understanding.

Louis Aragon, who wrote so well about the chance discoveries, the peculiar magic and mystery of Paris, creating a larger framework for experiencing the world.

WG Sebald whose books are from the perspective of the solitary walker, the solitary traveler.

I thought nothing of walking 10, 15 miles at a time, and I would have walked longer if my feet wouldn’t give out.

But the point is, I walked because I wanted to.

When I first got a pedometer I was intrigued to learn how much I actually walk. But when I started to set goals everything changed. I began walking for mileage. Five miles every day, six miles every day, eight miles every day. I walked circles in the neighborhood, circles in the park, circles in the cemetery because I had to hit my goal. I’d pace up and down the apartment just hit a round number.

I no longer walked for pleasure, for curiosity, for loneliness. I walked just to walk.

“And once had, the data mind is hard to shake” writes Craig Mod in his essay Paris and the Data Mind, where he describes the abject disappointment of climbing the Eiffel Tower and then realizing that he forgot his Fitbit, making the trek not count.

“Part of me wanted to cab it back to the hotel. Cab it back and clip on the Fitbit and do the walk again. All of it. Mirrored and remapped. Climb the Eiffel steps once more. Ground it. Make it real in the ether.”

I’m trying to rediscover my old way of walking – open to what’s around me, ready to be transformed, open to detours and adventure, unconcerned with mileage.

The basic rules are:

To never walk just for exercise

To walk into the uncharted

To walk with my eyes wide open

To lose myself

“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away … to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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When I was happy #2

Back in the day, before I was married, before the child, I used to sometimes take the train instead of the plane back from business trips. My favorite trip ever took me from St Paul-Minneapolis to Portland on the Empire Builder in the middle of winter, a trip that takes almost two days. Much of the journey took us through snow-covered prairie, through towns where traffic had come to a standstill, completely snowed in. Only the train kept persevering, day and night. Nights were clear. We had a full moon and many stars, and could not stop staring up at the sky from my little sleeper compartment berth.

I felt so safe, so isolated, so cocooned, so without any responsibility or worry, utterly, insanely happy as I was cradled to sleep by the rhythm of the train.

In the morning the sleeper car attendant would bring by the local paper of what little town we passed through. I’d also talk a little  to other passengers in the dining car (meals were free with the ticket). One guy, a park ranger returning from a job interview, who was going back to Whitefish, Montana, asked me if I wanted to get off with him at his stop, and change my life and his in one instant. I said no, inevitably, but was charmed by the possibility of changing the course of my life so suddenly and dramatically. He left behind a long letter. I didn’t have the courage to read it.

Life-changing moments

There are a few moments in every life where an unexpected fork opens up in the road. Whether these new roads are truly new directions or whether you would have arrived at the same destination anyway is a matter for debate.

In any case, here is one. Once I had dropped out of school I spent several years working in factories, fast-food restaurants and cafeterias. A few years into this life one of my roommates (an aspiring eye doctor) mentioned that I should consider going to university. I had then no idea how one would go about doing such a thing, given that I was still years short of graduating high school. But it sounded interesting; by then I had realized that fame and fortune would not simply be heaped on me out of the blue.

So I went to the bookstore, to see if I could find a compact guide to help me figure out how to get to college. In the relevant section I came across a slim volume “How to get into Oxford and Cambridge”. Not “if” or “whether”, but “how”. Images of Oscar Wilde comedies, Brideshead Revisisted and Lytton Strachey came to my head. I think the book cost about 9 pounds, but I bought it anyway.

As soon as I read it I realized that getting into Oxford or Cambridge was harder than just following some “how to” instructions. However, the book did spell out in detail how the process worked, the requirements, the exams, the interviews.

I’ve always had the power of dreaming fierce dreams that I make come true through sheer willpower. This became one of them. I began taking evening classes to do my A-levels. I underwent the requisite interviews. I got conditional offers – perhaps because the admission officers were sure they’d never have to make good on them? In those days people who got their A-levels from adult education did not apply to Oxford or Cambridge; it was still a relatively closed club open only to the finer public schools and a few  top-notch comprehensives.

In any case, I got the grades required by the conditional offer, and got into Oxford.

Happy ending?

Well, I wasn’t very happy there. I was shy, intimidated and felt way out of my league. I was surrounded by confident, articulate, extremely bright young people. They seemed to live on another planet than me, a slightly older, poor ex-runaway, with a foreign accent.

I should have gone somewhere else and studied something else.

But I loved the countryside, the old buildings, the choir, the chapel, the music, apple orchards, the botanic garden, the darkrooms, punting. I cycled many miles every day. The smell of the Oxfordshire countryside in the late spring is still magical and transcendent to me.

It was the wrong decision, the right decision, the wrong decision and the right decision.

I gave me the confidence to believe that I can force visions into reality. It helped me get considered for what was a pretty great, very-hard-to-get first job. I wish I could say it fired my love of learning, but I have to admit that a lot of my studying was superficial, reproducing old knowledge rather than creating new. It took me a long time to learn how to do so later.

Anyway, just another chance encounter in a bookstore.

The saddest song in the world

When I was still living in London, in a blitzed out, wistful little corner of Limehouse, I had an upstairs neighbor from Colombia. He was studying the shoemaking business at Cordwainers College so that he’d be able to support his father who owned a shoe factory. Most days he would be fairly quiet but occasionally he’d get quite drunk late in the evening, and he’d play music at full blast. Unfortunately, Stairway to Heaven was the first song that would start off these fits of melancholia. There were other songs however. He had a fondness for Gardel, for example. There was also one song he’d play that I found mesmerizing (the ceilings were that thin). It was sad, determined, monotonous, hypnotic and long. It had some kind of Latin rhythm.

And then one day my neighbor left for Colombia and I vowed to myself to find out what that song was. Surprisingly, I struck gold early on. In the early 1990s Portobello Market used to have many vendors selling bootleg cassette tapes. At that point I had no knowledge of Latin music whatsoever so I ended up with some Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, merengue, and a live recording called “The Montuno Sessions“,  live broadcast from Studio ‘A’, 99.5 FM, NYC, later released by Mr Bongo. The song I was after was on this tape, a version of Oriente by Henry and Orlando Fiol.

This is what Stephen Mejias from Stereophile has to say about this song:

 But what really caught my heart was the plaintive, urgent, yearning sound of Henry Fiol‘s  restoration of Cheo Marquetti’s “Oriente.” The song delights me, troubles me. I say without doubt that I’ve never been moved this way. It’s stifling. Time-stopping. Indeed, Fiol’s “Oriente” is a wash of sadness and beauty, ten fleeting minutes of churning, swaying, and pleading; tres locked in dance with guiro, delicate piano backed by heartrending trumpet lines, and, above all, that mysterious, otherworldly croon: “Yo me voy a morir / Caramba, me voy a matar.” It’s magic. I could cry.

I don’t want to leave the impression, however, that “Oriente” is morose. It’s not. There is hope, pride, strength in its many movements. It ends where it begins, with a wave and a graceful turn. It, this song, feels so true to me, I’m nearly afraid no one else will understand. The thought is painful. It’s difficult to imagine another person being lifted, moved, possessed by this song in the same way.

I happen to feel exactly the same way about this song, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Live from Studio A version of the song can’t be found free online (which is just as well), only the studio version which is a little overproduced. This performance gets close but lacks the full hypnotic length.

Oriente, an indestructibly beautiful song, was actually written by Cheo Marquetti, one of the great unrecognized heroes of son. A man who was connected to some of the greatest bands of his age, but kept moving on – who knows why? – and died early in semi-obscurity. There is a beautiful version of Oriente by Conjunto Chappottin with Cheo singing.

Where did that deep sadness come from? Cheo Marquetti wrote other beautiful, classic songs – Sonero, Amor Verdadero, Labrando La Tierra – but none are as yearningly obsessed with death. If I had to select a single song of all the world’s songs to last me to eternity, I would pick this one.