Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Slippery Slope of Nutritional Surveillance

Something new has taken hold of the vegan movement. It’s what everybody seems to be talking about these days. Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too? 

There are vegans who are taking a stand against oil. 
(“Oil will kill you, it will destroy you, even the teensiest little drop. It is artery-clogging, liquid death.”)

There are vegans who are blowing the whistle on dietary fat.
(“No, not just oil: all fat. I just tossed out my flaxseeds. I wish I could take back those sunflower seeds I ate last week.”)

There are vegans who are shedding light on the dark side of carbs.
(“Um, carbs are the real problem, not fat. Potatoes, rice, fruit, it doesn’t matter: carbs are the enemy and they will make you obese.”)

There are vegans who are exposing the world to the dangers of gluten.
(“Not all carbs are the devil. It’s just gluten that will destroy your gut, the foundation of your health. The rest is fine.”)

There are vegans who are pulling the curtains back on sodium.
(“Why is no one bringing up sodium?!”)

There are vegans who are leading the charge against sugar.
(“Oh, come on. Sodium? It’s sugar that is the real problem. Just a few granules and you will become instantly toxic.”)

There are vegans who are educating the world about acidic foods.
(“What you really need to be concerned about is alkaline versus acidic. That’s it. You cannot die if your blood is more alkaline. It’s a known fact. Acidic environments equal death.”)

There are vegans who are teaching the masses about the hazards of cooked foods.
(“Oh, please! Why are we all dancing around the truth? It’s all about enzymes: heating food over 104 degrees destroys the enzymes and then it is nutritionally void. End of story.”)

It used to be that vegans concerned ourselves with social justice and digging at the roots of unjust privileges. We worked at changing how society conceptualizes other animals, at getting people to finally see the unnecessary, systemic violence that is so pervasive and ingrained, it’s nearly invisible. We thought that we had a lot of work to do but it turns out that we’d been badly neglecting a whole sphere that deserved our attention: nutritional one-upmanship. No longer, though. Now it seems that so many vegans are consumed with policing each other and the world at large over carbs versus fat intake, the satanic properties of salt versus the sinister underbelly of sweeteners, that the real compelling message of compassionate living is lost in the swirling miasma of paranoia and disordered thinking.
I believe that this creeping demonization of our food landscape - the environment of shaming and judgement, posturing and rancor over nutrition - deeply undermines and restricts our efforts at building a culture of compassionate, dynamic veganism. 

Unless there is something radically and uncommonly wrong with one’s body, that person has serious allergies or addictions, no, a little oil, a little sugar or some carbs won’t likely kill anyone. It just won’t. This is absolutist and fear-based thinking that is not rooted in science or fact. Scaremongering does sell a lot of books, though. It is a hard sell for celebrity doctors and wellness gurus to build a base without demonizing something(s) - fat, carbs, cooked food - and they need a solid hook to be heard above the clatter of all the other competing celebrity doctors and wellness experts seeking their piece of the (low glycemic index, gluten-free, raw) pie. They realize, too, that the buying public needs a plan to rally around, one that’s easy to understand, to stay motivated. 

I have seen vegans become downright vicious as they slam others in defense of the specific dietary and health beliefs they hold to be true; I have seen vegans publicly attack each other in a cruelly personal, bullying manner, the likes of which I had not seen since middle school, over nutritional minutiae and body size as if their adversary were an animal abuser instead of, um, someone who occasionally eats rice. I have no doubt that our country eats too much protein, too much fat, too many processed foods, and that this is not health-promoting for anyone. I also have no doubt that the health experts have helped many who were at death’s door by exposing them to a healthier way to live. I am not disputing that and I have so much gratitude to those who have turned people away from meat and animal products to give them a new lease on life. I remain skeptical, though, that a little “this or that” is deadly or even injurious for most people. Followers make these assertions as though they were facts but passionate beliefs about something do not make it a fact. Instead, it becomes a form of zealotry and, because we are still a small minority of the population, this then becomes associated with veganism to the public at large, which already considers how we live to be extreme and requiring the discipline of a mountain-top dwelling monk as it is.  

The repercussions here are pernicious: the conflation of veganism - which has its core foundation rooted in convictions about nonviolence, equality and justice - with random diet plans that happen to be promoted by various vegan doctors or weight loss gurus. Veganism has nothing to do with being gluten-free, fat-free or raw and we need to be mindful about not intertwining it with whatever diet we consider to be optimal. Years ago, when raw foods was becoming The Big Thing, I heard a lot of confusion from the public due to this intertwining: Wait, so vegans don’t eat anything cooked? Is that right? I am starting to hear the same general confusion about vegans being gluten-free. Now are we to also believe that people are somehow “less vegan” if they are not oil-free? What does sautéing broccoli in a little olive oil have to do with the exploitation of animals? What does anyone’s Body Mass Index have to do with the institutionalized cruelty we inflict on animals? That’s right: absolutely nothing.  

We should be doing everything we can to remove the barriers to compassionate living, not putting up more arbitrary and personal hurdles that have nothing to do with it. There are already huge cultural and personal leaps that many people find overwhelming and intimidating: why would we make it harder by making veganism even that much less attainable? If people want this to be a personal purity club that revolves around restriction, dietary absolutism and body shaming, then that is what it is, but it is not helping the animals. It’s disordered thinking (no doubt fostered by our sick society) that has gotten wrapped around veganism and I have seen the shame, anxiety, confusion and isolation it engenders. For veganism to thrive and grow, it needs to be expansive and accessible, not the opposite. As time goes on, I’m more and more certain that being mindful and smart with our messaging has got to be our priority as effective advocates. When we use the same kind of righteous indignation for potatoes or olive oil that we do for violence against animals and the planet, something has gone haywire with our priorities. When we abandon the ethical argument - the one that we basically own - because we'd rather publicly berate each other over perceived nutritional shortcomings, we have taken an axe to our own foundation. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An Open Application for the Position of Pope

Dear College of Cardinals,

I am writing to you because I heard that there was a job opening and while I know that my precise qualifications may seem on the surface to be a bit of a stretch for the role, I would excell at the job of Pope.

I am well aware of the requirements of this position and so I understand that the issue of me not having a penis may be considered an immediate deal breaker. Oh, and not being Catholic. And just generally being undecided on that whole God thing, too. I get it; I’m kind of a mess from a Papal perspective. I’d like to propose, though, that we live in a world that is constantly evolving and adapting to changing mores. (I know the entire subject of evolution is in itself kind of a touchy one with you guys but maybe you can just let me run with it?) For example, thirty years ago, you could not have imagined that the President of the United States would be a bi-racial child of a single mother. Is it really such a leap, then, that a vegan, feminist Agnostic Jew (with pagan-Buddhist tendencies and a skeptical streak that kind of undermines all of the above) such as myself could be Pope? Think about it. Even on my worst day, there is no way that I would be as bad as Pope John XII (955 - 964 A.D.), a guy who turned the Vatican into a den of iniquity the likes of which Cagney and Lacey would gladly bust. I promise you that the Vatican I rule will not be turned into a brothel on my watch and I will not be giving away deeds to lands owned by the Catholic Church to my favorite mistresses. Nor will I likely be killed by an angry husband as John XII was, caught in bed with the man’s wife. The worst is behind you. I will never do anything like this.

Once you get over the stuffy notions of what a Pope should look like and how a Pope should behave, I think that you will see that I am actually quite perfect for the job. I may not be your father’s Pope but I have a proven track record of shaking things up, dating back to when I tried to stage an insurrection in my kindergarten class due to an outdated and rigid policy of enforcing the daily classroom nap time routine; I think that you will find that this kind of maverick leadership is just what the Church needs at the helm. I mean, Pope Benedict was nice and all that, but by most accounts, kind of a snore, right? Also, with all my various alliances to different communities, there are a lot of opportunities for crossover growth previously unexplored by the Catholic Church. I mean, had you guys even considered having an Agnostic Jew in the position of Pope before? How about an Agnostic Jew who is also a feminist, a vegan, and a woman? This is the kind of thinking outside the box I would bring to the job. There is so much value-added and possibility with re-branding with me as Pope that, wow, it kind of boggles the mind.

I sat down and scribbled some of my qualifications here and what I could bring to the Papacy.

* I am a hard worker, a good multi-tasker and a team player.
* I went through two years of Hebrew school so I have some religious training.
* I know Latin. (Ig-pay Atin-lay, but whatever.)
* I’ve cut way down on my swearing.
* I usually make all my deadlines unless there’s a retrograde happening.
* I’m a good cook and baker but I’m not really sure how this applies. Cookie Fridays?
* Even if a complete stranger sneezes in front of me, I automatically say, “Bless you.” Just like that. I was born for this job.

I have also outlined some of what I would change if I should become Pope. I mean, to be very  honest, it would be a complete overhaul, a gut rehab if you will, not just of the Papacy but the whole Catholic Church as we know it. I know that this might come off as kind of presumptuous for someone applying for a position to come in with this list, but, sorry. Or as my son - oh, yeah, I’m not a virgin - likes to say, “sowwy,” which is to mean that he’s really not sorry and he learned one that from me. (It’s the worst.) Anyway, please have an open mind. Even though I plan to change Catholicism from top to bottom, for my purposes here now, I will just stick to the specifics of the actual Vatican. We’ll get to the rest later.

* Okay, we will move the entire Vatican City operation to San Francisco. Why? Because I like it there. I can see from Google image searches that you guys like gold and shiny things and what city sparkles more than San Francisco? (I guess Las Vegas but, ew, I’m not living there.) Instead of blowing all that money on diamonds and gold, why not spend much, much less on glitter, rhinestones and cubic zirconia for much more glitz? So much more bang for your buck.

* I’m sure that you’re afraid that everyone’s going to be all freaking out about a vegan, feminist Pope but honestly, I think you should be excited to have the attention. Where else are you going to get a promotional bump as you would with this? In fact, as an attention grabber, with me, the whole Church should adopt immediate, unapologetic vegan and feminist standards of conduct as soon as I become Pope and anyone who refuses to follow the new rules would be ex-communicated.

* I am not wearing that hat thing. It would squish my curls, it’s tacky and it looks heavy. I would definitely consider all manner of tiaras, though.

* Speaking of, I am totally happy to maintain the tradition of wearing red shoes but mine will not be made out of animal skins. I have a sparky red platform in mind. I’ve provided a sketch.

* The Popemobile is a little funky in a way that I like, but I think it needs some modifications, like fans with streamers. It can be spiced up. I’d also like to be able to toss out condoms like they do in the Gay Pride parades. (I know - contraception is another issue we’ll have. We’ll get to that.) Also: vegan chocolates!

* Popes get a throne, right? I should really have a throne, I think. Bedazzle that sucker.

* The robes are made out of silk, I presume. That means silk worms would have been boiled alive and that is cruel. The robes would need to have a proper burial. You guys would have somoene to do that, right? Mondays are 30% off days at Unique Thrift and I bet I could find a killer outfit for much less. Saving you money again.

* Bulletpoint: Masses are boring from what I understand. Gangnam style? Are flashmobs too 2010 because that could be cool, too.

* One of the nice things about Judaism is that we’re not so hung up on the concepts of Heaven and Hell. I’d like to carry this over with me.

This is just off the top of my head. I am sure that once we meet, the ideas will just continue to flow.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also let you know some of my liabilities. I don’t consider the absence of a penis a liability so I won’t list it here.

* I tend to sleep in a little because I’m a night owl. Ideally, all Papal responsibilities could be handled after 10:00 a.m.

* My dog sometimes pees indoors if you don’t take him out right away. Is there someone to do this?

* I have a wheat intolerance so we should probably change Communion wafers. (What is communion about anyway? I should really learn about this.)

* I can be moody and mercurial sometimes but I forgive quickly, too. My husband knows just to stay out of my way when I’m in that kind of mood and I get over it. He can advise you.

* I think it may have actually just been one year of Hebrew school as opposed to what I wrote above. Who can remember? Boring!

As you can see, I would be an unorthodox but an exciting and different direction for the Catholic Church. I think I would rock it, quite honestly. You can call or email me with any questions or just leave a message in the comments if you are interested. I don’t do texting.

Thanks so much for your time,

Future Pope, Marla I

Monday, February 11, 2013

Saying goodbye...

How do you say goodbye? 

How do you say goodbye to the lady with the brown freckles on her soft arms and the girlish giggle? To the woman who couldn’t receive a compliment on anything – her sweater, her necklace, her vase - without offering it to the person who paid the compliment? To the tomboyish American girl who loved popcorn, baseball, candy bars and dime store novels and couldn’t understand how she could have given birth to a strange little bohemian girl? My mother was a post-war Capricorn raising a free-to-be-you-and-me Aquarius: it was never all that easy between us but we did our best. I still think she was secretly proud of me. 

My mother loved Lucy and Ethel; she loved Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, too. She wanted a nice house in the suburbs with pretty things in cabinets, a husband and two children, one of each, and guess what? She got them all. 

Our priorities were always different, the stuff we wanted out of life. She craved order, predictability, and organization; I craved freedom, change, and movement. Despite the many ways in which we diverged, my mother’s imprint on me is still unmistakable: neither of us could avoid crying if someone near us is doing it and laughter comes as easily as tears, often in the same moment. I am her daughter. 

My mom loved movies and we spent many Saturday afternoons at the Old Orchard Theatre watching matinees. When I was growing up, no one even considered a five-year-old’s potential emotional trauma, so we saw our share of disaster flicks: The Towering Inferno, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Two-Minute Warning and so on. If something was on fire or collapsing with lots of casualties, if there was a hostage situation and Charlton Heston might make an appearance, we were there, in the middle of the row in the middle of the theater. (Weird little coincidence: Charlton Heston’s mother actually lived on our block.) My mother would get the largest popcorn available every time, eat approximately five handfuls of it and then have had enough; from my seat, I would be making mental notes of the most direct route if we needed to immediately evacuate a burning movie theater. Dash marks, arrows, cutting across rows, hurtling seats. Saturday afternoons in the movie theater left an imprint on me, too, apparently, as even today I am always scanning the room for the easiest two exits whenever I am in a confined public space.

My mother didn’t like to cook – we lived on frozen chicken Kiev and spaghetti with meat sauce most of the time – and our house was filled with junk food: Ruffles, Pringles, Oreos, Brach’s caramels, Fudgsicles, cans of Pepsi. We had a Drawer of Gum that was always stocked with Bubble Yum, Big League Chew, Bubblicious, Big Red (yuck) and more. Before there were liquor cabinets or unattended cigarette packages to loot, there was our famous gum drawer, and all the neighborhood kids worth telling took advantage of it with my mother’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of consent. The kids slinked around our house and yard like indiscreet alley cats. 

Some images of my mother that will always stick with me, a choppy succession of snapshots like Polaroids or a crackly film in my mind: her lying on a lawn chair in the backyard reading Danielle Steel with a can of Tab and a tube of Bain de Soliel at her side in the summer. The one day she went to her hairdresser with black hair and came home with red hair. (She never went back to her natural dark hair: I was four or so and it was like I had a whole new mother all of the sudden.) Her charging up to the teenager from down the block who pushed me off my bike and slapping him across the face – oh, this was the talk of Romona Road for an afternoon. My brother, my mother and I watching a Frank Sinatra special while my father stomped around in a drunken rage about something or another. Her talking on the phone to her best friend, a half-smoked cigarette with a pink lipstick ring already stubbed out. My mother instinctively turning to the woman who was crying on the elevator at the medical building, a stranger to her, and saying, “Is something the matter? Can I help you?” Her eyes were welling up just at the thought of someone suffering. Years later, her watching the gaudy silliness of Let’s Make a Deal with a smile on her face from her room in our house. 

My mother was the president of the PTA and the president of the sisterhood at our synagogue. She went to lots of weekend luncheons (what a grown-up word: luncheons) wearing frosted lipstick and special occasion necklaces and she gave speeches in her shiny dresses. She was also my brother’s Little League coach, and if I recall correctly, her coaching consisted entirely of her yelling “Hit it!” and “Run!” and the team kind of did that, but not very well. She just made sure that everyone got a chance. Whenever an overzealous father would start shouting and jabbing his fingers in the air because he didn’t like how she was coaching his son, my mother would stick out her jaw, turn her back on him, and get back to reminding the kids to hit and run. I would look up from my book or sketchpad or cloud-gazing and be secretly proud of her.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking through her photos and it’s impressive to me how many are of her in the center of a group of her girlfriends: out bowling, sitting around a table at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House, wearing matching sweaters at an event somewhere. Her girlfriends were a huge part of her life; she adored them. Also noteworthy is that she was almost always in the center of the group. I never thought of her as someone who craved attention or needed to be the focal point but it is clear that my mother was a bridge between people. 

My mother never learned how to swim. She only started driving in her thirties and never learned how to parallel park: she could only park if she could pull in and pull right out of a spot. She could not catch or throw a ball. To say that my mother was uncoordinated sounds unkind but it’s true: she was klutzy at the cellular level. She was not the mother who would be putting barrettes and ribbons in my hair. Despite her lack of coordination, my mother still loved watching sports. One of the first signs that she was in the final stage of life, in fact, was when my husband tried to interest her in watching a Cubs game and she was indifferent. That was a sad, reverse milestone, so different from watching the milestones of a baby. A turning point all the same. 

Getting to that…

My husband was the first of my boyfriends who my mother met that she actually liked. She had intuitive, gut reactions to people that bordered on the superstitious: those initial impressions almost always stuck, and it turns out that they were also almost always right. She liked my husband right away and did not mind that he was a tall, Nordic goy from Minnesota because those things meant that he was handy, like he’d been born with some internal WASP fix-it manual we Jews didn’t have. Upon meeting John, my mother almost immediately set him to changing light bulbs and fixing clocks and answering machines as if these little tasks were tests for a future son-in-law. Even John simply changing batteries for her was a fraught with positive implications about her daughter’s future. She also liked his smile, warmth and kindness; she wanted her daughter to have a different life. My mother’s instincts were right, because this man whom her daughter brought as her date to a wedding years before would also be the one who tucked her into bed every night when she couldn’t remember most things, the one dispensed her medications and made conversation with her every day. He was also the only one who never made her feel stupid. 

Getting to that

In her mid-fifties, not long after my father suddenly passed away, my mother started getting terrible headaches. She saw specialists but no one could help her and she became distressed, thinking that no one believed her. Concurrent with this, her hearing also became very bad. She stopped going out with friends because she couldn’t follow what they were saying and she also felt like everyone saw her as a pitiful widow no matter how people treated her. I tried to encourage her to see her friends but she dug her heels in: she was very stubborn once she set her mind to something. She withdrew from nearly all of her friends and made it abundantly clear that there would be no other option. 

Her memory also started slipping. This woman who was so fastidious she once went to the library to locate a book they said hadn’t been returned (she was vindicated, her pristine record restored) started losing things and becoming careless. One day, she was blasé about having lost her wallet; she also started to leave dirty plates out, I’d find crumbled potato chips in her bed, clothes on the floor. This was not the mom I knew, someone who had something like an allergic reaction to disarray of any sort. How much it must have driven her mad when she was losing control of her mind, losing the peacefulness she found with being organized and having routines. I found four different address books of hers, each with my name and address written in it several times as though if she wrote it enough, she would be able to lock things into place, to regain order.

Alzheimer’s is a devastating process of saying goodbye to someone who is still here. Every time she could no longer do something she could do before, I grieved that loss of another bit of her, my mother. The mother I knew was blowing away bit by bit like a sand mandala on the beach. Years after the first signs of her memory loss and her developing dependency, she was finally in hospice at a nursing home. She could longer respond to me or anyone else. Her body was here, fed by tubes because she could no longer swallow, washed and massaged by gentle, kind people. She would inhale the most horrible raspy breath, making an “Unh...unh...unh...” sound on the exhale, but that was just her body. Her spirit – that sweet, freckled soul of hers who loved to make people laugh – had moved on. I would rub her shoulder and tell her that my grandparents were waiting for her.

For several years, my mother lived with us and my husband and I were the first line of defense between her and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. We dodged and averted and tumbled past this thing but, ultimately, we couldn’t outrun it. Alzheimer’s was inexhaustible, lurking everywhere, the ultimate boogie man. We gave it our best damn try, though. When my mother fell and broke her hip in late August, we finally gave up, feebly waving the white flag from the floor. Uncle. For years, we had cleaned her, dressed her, fed her, walked with her, reassured her, tried to reason with her, shopped for her and fought for her. We just couldn’t do it anymore. We were completely enervated. 

During her time with us, we learned that “the red thing” referred to her purse (this was a security blanket to her and we buried it with her). She had to be tucked in at night by my husband, officially put to bed, or she would wander the house like a lost child. We learned that there was nothing that a bowl of popcorn or a sugar cookie couldn’t soothe. She would still occasionally show startling glimpses of the mother I once knew: that trilling giggle of hers, a determined look in her eyes, an insistence on helping us match up socks after laundry. The moments were fleeting and I clung to them with far too much unrealistic hope (“Maybe she’s getting better?”) but they were there.

(During her time with us, I also learned many things about myself but this is one thing that may actually be of use to someone else: when cleaning an adult’s behind, imagine it as the baby’s buttocks that it once was, as this makes everything much better. Not that long ago - in historic terms - my mother’s behind was adored and powdered and pampered by my beloved grandmother. This was her baby and this little butt was perfection. I am a mother, too, so I know how such things can be. One day I simply saw my mother’s backside through my grandmother’s eyes and it made all the difference.)

She fell and broke her hip, though, and the social worker at the hospital leveled with my husband and me, telling us that we’d done all we could do. In truth, we didn’t need much coaxing. The one thing that frightened my mother more than death was living in a nursing home. I honestly think she took a look around as she was recovering from her hip surgery, understood that she was in a nursing home, and made that final sovereign decision she could make, and that was to check out. Like us, she waved the white flag, too. She closed her eyes and retreated inward to continue the final stage of her journey alone. This was something she’d have to do on her own, something we all have to do on our own, and finally, the time was here. 

The medications and night terrors and desertification of her mental landscape are not what I will hold on to, though. I will hold on to this: her flirtatious giggle, something she had with her until nearly the end. Her love of babies and children. Her pink nail polish. Her soft skin. Her generosity. The way she loved pretty things but was still profoundly non-materialistic about them. Her bizarre habit of sticking chewed bubble gum between the pages of whatever she was reading. The way she always had a compliment for the nurses at the doctor’s office. (The way they loved her.) Her childlike handwriting. Her gentle, squishy interior. The way she used to call me “Mar”: no one else has ever done this except for my Papa Nate. How she could never hold a grudge. How we might have an argument on the phone and I would stand there counting “Ten, nine, eight…” and she would call me to make up before I got to “three.” Her love for her parents, her siblings. Her deep devotion to my son, her grandchildren. Looking through her boxes of photographs, I found that she kept all the cards people sent her, everything from messy scribbles from her grandchildren to standard issue holiday greetings from her bank. This was my mother. 

When we get old, when we become diminished, we are seen as how we are presently and that is a shame. All I wanted to do was tell people that they didn’t know this woman, how strong and tender and capable she once was. She told me a year or two ago when I was commenting on her good effort at taking care of herself that all she wanted was for me to be proud of her. 

I am proud of you, Mom. I miss you every day and I know there will never be another like you.