a cozier ecology

a cozier ecology

I’ve struggled with IBS, the allopathic doctor’s catch-all term for “We have no clue what’s wrong with your poo’ing system,” my entire adult life. But being at home on a sort of grown-up winter break, I started doing some fresh reading, and I stumbled on this whole thing about the human microbiome.

It sounds very sci-fi, but the idea is that we have billions of little microbes living in our gut that not only handle the mail, process returns, and tut-tut over that cream donut as it passes by for Fred to deal with. They also manage a lot of our hormonal activity, our serotonin levels, and coolest of all, they communicate directly with our brains.

Remember at Costco those little suction tubes that the cashiers put canisters of cash into, to be whisked away to some bookkeeper in the Back Offices? We have an entire community of creatures, most not possessing any human DNA, by the way, doing that from our gut to our brain all day every day.

For years, my family and friends have implied, some more gently than others, that my digestive issues may be related to the fact that I’m a sensitive worrywart who thinks too much. And I usually agreed, but I wasn’t sure how much more I could do about it. If my life was any calmer at this point I’d be dead.

What changed when I read this research was that I stopped thinking about how my brain talks to my stomach and started thinking about how my stomach talks to my brain.

It made me start wondering what it was saying.

The beauty of this scientific research into the human microbiome is that it is, on an individual personal level, mirroring what is going on in the entire planet. My tummy is a noisy, quaking landscape full of smog and acid rain. If my intestines were a country, the Red Cross would be collecting donations to save it. And yet I ignore all these rumblings exactly the way we’ve been ignoring the changing planet.

Why? Because we’re creatures of comfort. We like treats made of white flour, and gas-guzzling SUVs, and made in China slippers, because they’re comfy. Cozy, even. When people hear phrases like, “climate change,” their eyes glaze over, not because they don’t care, but because it’s horrid. The sight of a dying polar bear is horrid, toxic waste signs are horrid, a bay black with oil is horrid.

And because they’re horrid, we get defensive. The dialogue about “saving the earth,” to a Westernized mind, has become one of “humans vs the earth.” It’s like our takeaway from all those ABC news programs and Ted Talks and Avatar is that in order to live harmoniously on this planet, we have to accept a dirty, hippie, pagan, sandlewood-scented existence full of disease and ravaging wolves and barefootedness.

Since most of us don’t want that, we’ve subconsciously decided, Why bother? We can’t win. May as well drive our SUV to the mall to buy an $11.99 sweater made in a sweatshop, and cinnamon roll scented antibacterial hand sanitizer, before waddling home to drown our confusion eating cheese sticks off Styrofoam plates.

We don’t listen because the answers feel overwhelming.

So here’s what I think.

Red panda by Ritchie Valens

Red panda photos courtesy of Jim Bread and Ritchie Valens.

To your health, Julia

To your health, Julia

What is health, these days? If, like me, you started answering that question by sitting on your butt reading articles online, you find out that health is yoga girls doing handstands surrounded by cacti, the rippling muscles of Paleo-powered weight lifters, and beaming food-gurus holding up clean salmon-tumeric bowls.

Health is illustrated on Instagram and Pinterest and the interwebs in general with these fabulous human specimens because we’re supposed to find them inspiring. And I assume a lot of people do. But I find it just kind of odd. Who wants to spend all day in Lycra or upside-down or at the gym? Who wants to smile like that? #healthyglow

What if I don’t want to be that happy or that Californian or that thin, but just, like, normal? Or is that a silly question in this country?

I was asking myself those questions today because I woke up the day after Christmas feeling like it was officially time to get my $@% together. I’ve been in this vicious cycle for a couple years now of feeling badly and then doing things that make me feel worse. I’m tired so I don’t go for a walk; I’m blue so I eat foods I don’t tolerate.

A few months ago I went to the doctor to see if she had any theories. As I listed my symptoms, weighed down by the litany of ickiness, I started slumping off the bench, finally collapsing in a puddle on the floor buried under maternity magazines as the doctor gave up and left.

“Can’t test for that,” her glazed eyes and lowered pen imply oh-so-clearly. “Insurance doesn’t cover lameness. Go… pin something.”

Now if you read all these health articles you discover that the lame, icky, lethargic, fat way I feel is pretty much how most of America feels. The causes are always described in compelling, scientific ways, but after you’ve read a few of these articles, you realize all they agree on is that all the best things in life are too blame.

Coffee, alcohol, binge watching shows on Netflix, bread, cheese, fried foods, deep fried cheesy bread with Netflix… the yoga girls and the California nutritionists and the #focused weight lifters all agree that everything you love is making you fat, miserable and, yes, un-Instagrammable.

The current list of villainous foods would seem reasonable except that I was raised, not that long ago, with a food pyramid built on carbs. I was advised in high school to choose the bagel and avoid the bacon. Today, bacon is having a glory moment not seen since 1953 and bagels are practically illegal.

Were the dieticians right before, or are they right now? Add to that all the terrible things we know are done to and with our food, from how livestock are raised to what they’re injected with to all the mysterious ingredients Michael Pollan has opened our eyes to, and one finds oneself wandering the grocery store looking for anything one could buy in good faith. This is usually celery.

And then there’s the question of your overall diet, the combinations of things. You can’t just eat stuff because it’s good, you have to pick a plan. Red meat may not cause heart disease, maybe, but you can’t just eat meat and bread and dairy.

You may find a nutritionist who will allow you to, but the foods will be limited to clean foods, or super foods, these foods that justify their consumption by not only having lots of nutrients but also looking great styled in a blue bowl in front of a San Diego sunrise. I’m talking kale, brown rice, quinoa, salmon, beets. I think maybe you can put a few nuts, seeds or pickled things in there. No cheese, no sauce, no dressings rich in polyunsaturated hydro-whatsis’s. Just the fresh, clean flavors of dry roasted beets and plain grilled salmon and, mmm, nutty quinoa.

As always in moments of severe personal crisis, I reach for Julia Child. My personal favorites are her Julia Child & Company books, from the 70s. They’re very chatty, like she’s dropped by to spur you on to make the cassoulet. It will be fun, she implies, in text accompanied by color photographs of pork feet.

Reading Julia reminds me that we have gone insane. She didn’t need to ask, Is my food clean? Is it super? It was just food. She started cooking in France after the war when the market was full of people selling produce and meat they’d caught or harvested themselves only a few miles away. And you walked to that market and you walked back home to prepare it all by hand. Even in the 70s when she was writing these later cookbooks, industrial agriculture was only just being conceived. There wasn’t soy and corn buried in every ingredient list. We didn’t yet have generations raised on prepared foods so salty and so sweet they had actually destroyed our taste buds.

Yes, it’s true, Julia Child knew what an apple tasted like without having to spend three dollars on an organic Honeycrisp.

Some day we will trust our food again. We will trust ourselves to eat a variety of foods in moderation, and know they were raised humanely, grown ethically, and that we can eat them without weeping or upgrading our health insurance plan. (Because yes, in this fantasy future, we have health insurance.)

In the meantime, about that cassoulet…

Currygiving, or, fixing Thanksgiving

Last night I enjoyed a tasty slice (or three) of pizza at a local spot known for its arty, gourmet pizza combinations. I realized I was tense… but why?

Oh, right. Thanksgiving is two days away. I’m not even doing the whole Thanksgiving shebang this year, but just the angst of year after year of gunky food and bizarre family interaction has left me with a sort of mild turkey-induced PTSD.

If someone invented a holiday involving gorging oneself on sushi, I’d be an early adopter. I’d love to A/B test a holiday involving endless amounts of curry. Enchilada Day? I’m there, heap on that guac and let’s party!

As it stands, it’s a foodie’s nightmare. Turkey is the meat most well-known for its chemical propensity to put you to sleep. Stuffing is made of stale bread crumbs. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce? Bland, smooth, gelatinous. This is food for people who have lost their teeth and have to gum their way to nourishment.

As for the day itself? Let’s play this out, pretending you’re a single thirty-something like myself or half my friends.

It hasn’t even started yet and you’re already stressing.

You stare at the closet, wondering what to wear. It has to be ironed so you don’t scare Grandma (Oh dear, look at that crease, she must be unemployed again). That’s the older generation covered, but what about the younger? There will be forty-two small children running around, the offspring of various spouses and cousins you can no longer track without some kind of GPS-enabled app. This means your ensemble has to allow for the “magical” moment when you kneel to “bond” with the seven year old who has pumpkin goo in her hair and wants you to experience the awesomeness of her latest iPad game.

The fashion criteria so far is smooth yet kneel-able (it’s a word now). Just when you think you’ve nailed it, grabbing that pink blouse you hate and the skirt with the elastic waistband, you remember this a holiday about eating. You may hate all the food, but admit it, gorging will ensue. You’d better reach further back into the closet for the skirt that not only has the elastic waistband but is also very stretchy… everywhere.

Okay, good start. But you slump as you don this outfit. You are single on Thanksgiving. You’re wearing the Mom Outfit, with the safe earrings, and the we-might-play-touch-football loafers…

God, is there anyone you don’t have to please on this holiday? This is what made Hillary Clinton such a train wreck.

– too soon?

…and the super-stretchy formless skirt. You’re dressed like a mom. But you won’t have the joyous, warm, rewarding experience of driving home afterward with your children and your exhausted but sympathetic husband, all of you bitching the entire way about how crazy everyone was and all the shockingly horrid things Uncle Fred said.

At least that might offer catharsis.

What you’ll have is coming home to the cats. Let’s be honest. You’ll start peeling your Church Lady outfit as you walk through the door. You’ll beeline it past your furry roommates for whatever cupboard you stash the liquor in. You’ll start to look for a highball, and then give up and pour the cocktail in a nearby juice glass. Downing it, you’ll glare at the birthday card on the fridge. The birthday card from one of these relatives. The card is covered in flowers, false sentiment, and now, the memory of that relative stuffing turkey in her face while espousing the need to kill everyone who ever lived in, visited or even bought online from a Middle Eastern country.

Your cats watch you drink long and alone. Carrying the second round and continuing your de-clothing, you walk to the bathroom and wipe off the eight pounds of makeup you put on to compete with the anorexic cousin who always makes you feel like you’re still an overweight, pimply fourteen year old.

Exhale. It is over.

Finally, free of the Mom Outfit, you carry your cocktail into the bedroom. The cats are waiting for you, stretched comfortably at their appointed corners of the bed. You climb in to join them, lift the remote, and turn on some old sitcom. Because, at the end of a day like this, that’s all you’ve got left. Just: where do I drop my earrings… move your furry paw out of my face… remember to buy more orange bitters… zzzz.

In my mind’s eye, I can see indigenous people introducing us to a new land. In my mind’s eye, we take the cornucopia from these people, and then… we hand it back.

Here. It worked for you. Thank you so much, but keep this. Keep this for you. We’re going to invent something that works for us. A holiday that doesn’t involve stealing your bounty, land, and life.

A holiday that with all due respect doesn’t involve THE MOST BORING FOOD ON THE PLANET.

We may, as family, be stuck with each other. That fact may even be worth celebrating. But does it have to be doused in yams?

We’re going to invent a holiday that includes being honest with each other without judgment or anger. A day without Mom Outfits, even – especially – for moms. A day when nieces and nephews wipe the pumpkin goo from their hair, just for the bitchy aunt who lives alone with her cats.

And goddammit, a holiday based, even if I die fighting for it, on curry.

a bit of Shana and Donny.

“I feel like any conversation I have with any man right now is going to end with him mentioning a girlfriend… or just being a weirdo,” I said to my brother on the phone yesterday. “Maybe it’s a full moon thing, like that one Archie comic, you remember, when he dressed up in a wig and dress to escape the crazies?”

Yes, yes, my brother said. I had just finished listing all the “weird” male behavior I’d witnessed in the past two weeks: the Distant Friend who said he’d like to hear how I was doing, and then didn’t respond for several days, the married penpal who appeared to be sending me provocative poetry, someone I’d met online who, when I suggested we meet for a beer, asked, “Should I bring my overnight bag?” the guy who kept staring at me during a recent BBQ but turned out, at the very end of the evening, to be dating a girl he hadn’t so much as brushed elbows with the entire time I was there, a likable photographer I met with my boss for a work project, who had just moved from Rochester to Buffalo to live with his girlfriend, and a guy named Charlie who leaned all over me at Goodbar last weekend, buying shots and cracking jokes, assuring my wingwoman that he did not have a wife or girlfriend, but who didn’t even respond to a casual but friendly text message a few days later.

“Candi said he might have been so drunk he didn’t remember who I was,” I told my brother, “But he was just a liquor store guy!”

“Maybe this is because you talk to the guys at the bar who wear Wheeler’s Used Cars t-shirts, and not the guys in suits,” Ian suggested.

“No, I did talk to a guy in a suit lately, that friend of Plumtopher’s,” I reminded him. “He freaked me out.”

My brother had nothing more to offer, but I invited him to continue brainstorming reasons why every interaction I had with men lately had either mystified me or contained that dreaded line, “My girlfriend…”

At the same time, I’ve been watching a lot of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a late-eighties, short-lived English comedy starring Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) and Stephen Fry, that guy who’s in everything. After lusting over House with my mom for the past couple years (you can find proof on this blog’s very first entry) I would probably watch Hugh Laurie read old grocery receipts and enjoy it. Still, although they’re genuinely funny actors, their skits in A Bit tend to wrap up with a joke that’s always a bit too tidy. They set up two engaging characters, play out an amusing conversation, and end it with one elbowing the other while the live audience laughs. It’s forced.

And, so is my life. In order to convey this properly, I will now switch to present tense.

I rant to my brother, release him from the phone conversation, finish work, and walk home to gather taco fixings and a leftover six pack to bring to my friends’ house. The three of us eat chicken tacos on the front porch and drink too much while watching a comedy I love dearly but which put Dawn to sleep, ending the evening a bit early.

I say my goodbyes, gather up my salsa, and head home. But as I reach my corner I pause, tempted by the sight of the bar across the street. It’s only eleven-thirty and I’m not quite ready to go home yet, so, warning myself to behave, I go on in. Ordering a vodka and settling in at the discreet, far corner of the bar, I admire a muscular guy playing darts with his friend, make unfair assumptions about the couple sitting next to me, and keep an eye on the bartender. The bartender wears huge glasses, skinny t-shirts, and full sleeve tattoos on both arms. I have actually met this bartender before while drinking vodka with a man I was very sorry to wake up with the day after Fourth of July. But I can’t remember his name, and this saddens me, because he has a big smile and those great tattoos.

A seat opens up in the middle of the bar and I move down, ready for fresh people watching. A female bartender appears, complimenting my earrings and introducing herself as Shana. Next to me, a man with bags under his eyes and white hair curling over his ears asks Shana if she approves of his Hawaiian shirt. He holds his shoe over the bar to show her that it matches his shorts, and she assures him it’s all very tasteful. He glances at me and, immediately deciding he’s the most entertaining person in the place, I tell him the shirt may be okay but the comb-over is a mistake.

We engage in acceptably distant banter about his hair, his grasp of the French language, a bad joke about cannibals. Then he offers to buy me a drink and I tell the tattooed bartender, sorry, no can do. A bit more banter, but I’m also watching Meryl Streep laugh with Stephen Colbert on the TV over the bar. I can’t remember why the elderly man started to unbutton his Hawaiian shirt to show me his chest, but I look at nearby Shana for help and she waves her hands, saying, “No, no, come on, let’s at least keep the nipples covered.”

Buttoning his shirt with great reluctance, he moves on to heritage, trying to guess what I could possibly be if not Irish. Somehow that leads him to announce that Obama is going to ruin this country, being a socialist leftist mumble mumble who’s trying to take credit from Bush for ending the war. I gasp and tell him Bush did no such thing and the war is very far from being over, at which point my Hawaiian-shirt wearing buddy exclaims, “F*** you!” flings his drink over the edge of the bar and storms out.

I look around, astonished at how quickly he’s vanished, and turn back to see Shana pouring beers, asking, “Where’d he go?”

“I don’t know,” I say, “I defended Obama and he said f-you and stormed out.”

She rolls her eyes. “Thank you.”

We joke a bit about him, she returns to tending bar, and the tattooed bartender takes her place. “So did you really not want another drink or did you just not want one from him?” he asked.

“Not one from him,” I respond, telling him about the Obama thing. The bartender shakes his head with a big grin, saying, “He hasn’t been president that long, it’s too soon to judge. And besides, I’m just happy he can string together a complete sentence.”

We bond over our enthusiasm for Obama’s command of the English language, and the tattooed bartender reaches his hand over the bar, introducing himself as Donny. We keep talking and he says, “Is your hair naturally red?”

“No, I dye it.”

“Because my girlfriend has red hair and she can’t tan like you are…”

I could just hear the English audience laughing.