Monthly Archives: September 2009

Mesmerize Yourself…

I’ve been seeing a lot of the darker side of humanity this week at work, so it’s fitting that two of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen came my way in the last two days, just to maintain some balance. While I finish up a long week and regroup, please enjoy these delicious little bits:

First, Spider Silk:
spider silk
I heard this story on NPR over the weekend, on my way to a call. It was fascinating on the radio, and one of the first things I did once I got home was to check the web for images. The video on the museum’s home page (click the link or photo above) is definitely worth watching. All that’s missing? I really, really want to touch that fabric!

Second, this video is well worth the next eight minutes of your life:

Thanks to my brother for sending the link my way.
God bless the mighty interwebs.

You Can See Normal From Here

This post is part of Fight Back Fridays.

This post is part of Fight Back Fridays.

Recently, I had to make small talk with a stranger. For about forty-five minutes. These sorts of social niceties are easy for some people; I find them exhausting. Fortunately for me, she did most of the talking.

It was one of those oh-my-goodness-I-don’t-live-in-Kansas-anymore kind of conversations.

I find I have these moments more and more, as my lifestyle shifts farther and farther from the mainstream. Not too long ago, some out-of-town guests paid an unannounced visit, with three kids–3, 7, and 10 years old–in tow. They live about 12 hours away, but called 15 minutes out. I’d just finished making a big skillet full of mujadara, with a side of lightly steamed green and golden zucchini. I looked at the food on the stove, then at the Man Friend. “We’re going to have to go out to dinner, aren’t we?” Yep.

When they arrived, the eldest immediately strode from the front of the house to the back, looking in every room, appraising the place in that matter-of-fact way kids have. His inspection finished, he looked puzzled: “Where’s the TV?” Hoo boy. After that, the visit was one curiosity after another. No soda or juice in the fridge. Bikes in the living room. Meditation cushions in one corner of the sleeping loft (“Is this where the dogs sleep?”). And we walked to dinner, twelve blocks away, where the mac & cheese disappointed for not being exactly like the mac & cheese they were used to.

None of this is meant to sound critical or demeaning of this particular family. What I do intend to criticize is our culture’s delineation of who’s normal and who’s not, and how we so fiercely enforce it–especially since normal is killing so many of us.

I started off ahead of the curve, thanks to my upbringing. An accident of geography and sheer economic necessity meant I was raised largely on food my mother grew or harvested on our land–raw goat’s milk, fresh vegetables, wild-picked berries. When, in my twenties, the hygienist at my dentist’s office couldn’t believe I didn’t grow up drinking fluoridated water, I had no explanation for my straight, cavity-free teeth. I hadn’t yet read about Dr. Weston Price and his theories regarding the poison that passes for modern “foods”.

At thirty, I had to start paying attention. Even with my “healthy” diet–loaded with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables–and regular exercise, I was getting sicker and fatter with each passing year. Seeing photos of myself at my brother’s wedding was such a shock that it brought tears to my eyes. Who was that overweight, ashy, puffy, tired-looking person? As bad as I sometimes felt, physically, I wasn’t prepared to see myself like that.

On the same trip home, I had what turned out to be a pivotal conversation with my aunt. She’s lived with her own health challenges, and has always been courageous and proactive in directing her own care. She told me about a visit she’d had with a kinesiologist, who diagnosed extensive food sensitivities. After a rigorous elimination diet, she was seeing dramatic improvement in her own health and well-being.

Back home, I asked my endocrinologist and polarity therapist (yep, you read that right–love her!) for a recommendation. She directed me to a Kinesiology practitioner at the local woowoo clinic, and it doesn’t feel to dramatic to say that my entire life changed after my first visit.

After giving up wheat and making some other dietary changes, my body started to change, and fast. My weight dropped like a stone. My gut was happier. My skin was healthier. My sleep improved. All from just changing my diet.

As a group, we modern humans aren’t stupid. Our wisdom is implicit in our simplest of proverbs: You are, indeed, what you eat. We know that food is medicine. The problem is, we’ve been lied to about how to use that wisdom. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the range of all those lies, but the truth is out there, if only you are willing to look. It’s a topic I’ll be revisiting, but for now, click the logo at the top of this post to see some folks who have gotten a head start on me.

But back to my small-talking companion: She tells me she loves to cook, and thinks she’s pretty good at it. “What’s your specialty?” I ask her. She runs through a list of classic New Mexican dishes, making my mouth water: “Enchiladas–but with steak,” she emphasizes. “Posole. Green chile stew. Tamales–but they’re a lot of work.” Then she leans in closer and tells me a secret: “Anything is good with cheese. But I’ve learned that you have to pay for the good cheese.” Now we’re talking. I think about the brick of raw goat cheddar in my fridge, and my stomach rumbles. “That’s why I always buy the Kraft.”

In each of these not-in-Kansas-anymore moments, I have the same dilemma: how do I share what I’ve learned so someone else might benefit the way I have, without sounding condescending? How to indict normal without judging the person inside the normal? In this culture, we’ve made our bodies into manifestations of our every character flaw: too fat? Obviously, you’re lazy and you lack self-control. In this context, telling someone the truth about what they’re eating feels personal. How to share that we’ve all been duped?

My first step has been to simply chronicle my own journey, to write about what it means to let go of more and more “normal,” to answer questions when they come. People at work see my health improving, and they see what I eat and what I don’t. I don’t have to evangelize to communicate the great changes that are taking place for me–they’re self-evident. At this level, shouting it from the rooftops seems to put people off. I settle for small gestures, and save the shouting for the bigger picture.

My advice as a fellow traveller? Educate yourself. I’m still learning so much. Make small changes. Befriend a farmer. Eat greens. Listen to your body. Fight Back.

North Faulty Trail

The repeated commas
of wind-bowed oak
pause in untidy ranks,
reaching east.

The trail unwinds beneath
their thin, bent columns
tracking the contour of the mountain’s back
crosswise to the worn path of its wind.

Sunset-blonde leaves in a
limp, radiant carpet
await this season’s
harvest above,
still green but
paler
tired
flirting with gold.

Hesitant thunderheads mill overhead,
bellies grey and low.
Monsoon-weary
they are halfhearted harbingers
warning us to turn back,
or not.

An Abert’s squirrel
colored to match those clouds above
chitters and clucks its consternation
from this branch to that,
sure the rest of the forest is in agreement.

He hasn’t the good sense to hibernate
to mark the cold months
with his absence.
But around me
the asters are wilting through the
last of their purple,
the paintbrushes have dipped their
crimson heads,
the goldenrod sighs off the last of
its sticky pollen,
entrusting next year’s blooms to
some lured insect
some careless brush.

In winter’s fast approach,
only the bones of this mountain–
limestone sandstone mudstone granite–
seem not to have noticed.

One more winter,
brief as a passing cold breeze
on a sun-warmed day.

In a thousand of these
a stone may finally crack,
opening one more face of itself
to rain.

Boldness, Creativity, Survival

Last week’s Friday matinĂ©e was a screening of It Might Get Loud, a love-song-on-film for the electric guitar. Brainchild of producer Thomas Tull (who’s also behind this fall’s much-anticipated–by me, anyway–adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are), and directed by An Inconvenient Truth‘s Davis Guggenheim, it’s a finely crafted look at why anyone loves the guitar, through the eyes of three equally infatuated musicians: Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White.

In the film, The Edge describes his first tentative foray into songwriting, at Bono’s urging. He’s dubious that he can be anything more than “just a guitar player,” but he takes his friend’s advice and sequesters himself. The fruit of that brave experiment?

Sunday Bloody Sunday.

“Not a songwriter,” and that song is what came out.

That’s about as powerful an argument for creative risk-taking as any I’ve ever heard.

Of course “risk-taking” is just another way of saying “play”–one sounds scarier than the other (and thus, I think, keeps most folks from taking that leap), but they’re saying the same thing: you have to approach a task or problem or goal with an open heart, and the willingness to just see what will happen if I do this. You might fall down, you might break your own heart, you might end up right back where you started. Or you might make something that gives you goosebumps.

In his book Deep Survival, Lawrence Gonzales writes about the curious behavior of people lost in the wilderness. They’ve been known to cross paved roads and press on through the untracked forest, ignoring a chance for rescue. Lost persons will persist in utter commitment to a mental map of the world that is no longer valid, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. They have closed minds, and, barring any outside intervention, these closed minds are what eventually kill them.

Gonzales calls on the Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind to describe a fundamental attribute of all survivors. Whether lost in the wilderness, crawling from the wreckage of a plane crash, or going through an acrimonious divorce, survivors survive because they are able to operate from the Beginner’s Mind. Their attitude is, “What will happen next?”, not “This is the path, and there can be no other.” They see the road in the forest, and can follow it home.

A quotation widely (and erroneously) attributed to Goethe reads, in one translation:

Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

There’s wisdom there, but I’d append: seize the moment, but with an open grasp. Be bold but adaptable. Beginner’s Mind has its own sort of courage to it, because it’s hard to put yourself into the dynamic churn of the world. Whether we realize it or not, we all create static comfort zones for ourselves, little air pockets where we buffer ourselves from the constant flux around us. We all need a little refuge, to be sure, but the danger comes in trying to build that bubble with brick walls.

The Edge didn’t say “I’m just a guitar player.” His words were, “Am I just a guitar player?”. The difference between a period and a question mark is huge. Life-saving huge. A period can sink you like a stone; the question mark buoys.

I took the leap with this little blog here (or, to be more precise, by telling those I love that it exists, and inviting them to read), and while it hasn’t yet produced any hit songs, it has done something more simple, and more wonderful: it has renewed my enthusiasm to write, to play with words, to boldly experiment and flex my creative muscles. It is rife with question marks, which have bred more of the same.

Certain wisdom has been hammered home in neat little aphorisms so often that we’ve learned to overlook their meaning. “You reap what you sow” can be quite literally true–much as I might like it otherwise, a handful of wheat berries won’t spring up a field of dark chocolate and banjos. But to be more metaphorical, casting a handful of question marks into the universe is asking for something different to come back at you–answers, maybe, or suggestions, possibilities, more questions. Flinging periods is liable to just dig your particular rut a little deeper. The universe is very supportive–make a statement, and it hollers back an emphatic Yes! If that statement is something like I’m unhappy, My job sucks, or I don’t write very much anymore, guess what? You are, it does, and you don’t. You are just a guitar player, and will remain such until you can rephrase.

We’ve ranged pretty far afield here, but let me close with this: I’m tinkering with some attitude adjustments our here in Casa Jessie, and getting off my duff and visiting here is just one exception. Instead of the self-reinforcing this-patient-is-wasting-my-time-don’t-you-know-what-“emergency”-means-I-can’t-believe-you-called-911-for-this-you-moron running script in my head at work, I’m trying to ask questions. Like, “What does this person need from me, right now?” The answer is usually still mundane, but it serves me better, and it serves my patient better. It may not (and likely won’t) change anything significant in the world, but it keeps that door to my heart/mind/spirit open. It’s a creative tactic, and a survival technique, and a Zen approach, of sorts. It breaks the Grrr stagnation that fits like cement blocks around my feet and lets me walk a little farther into possibility. And, what’s probably most important, it’s more fun than the old script, and the answer is different every time I ask the question.

Stay tuned…

Working twelve-hour shifts tends to put a kink in the rest of your life. I’ll be back tomorrow, but for now, here’s a preview of some of what I’ve been mulling over and typing out in Notepad bursts between calls:

Because I Said So

The cover story of last week’s Newsweek (a publication I generally only read in waiting rooms) caught my eye this morning with its overly sensational (and rather misleading) headline: Is Your Baby Racist?. The article’s shocking conclusion isn’t so much that babies (particularly white babies) are born racists; it’s more that they are little people, not fashion accessories, and, as such, they very quickly and astutely pick up on the attitudes and values of those around them. Babies can naturally discern such basic differences between people as skin color, and as human beings also possess an innate, subtle preference for people who are like them. But this in itself does not set them up to be card-carrying members of the KKK if white. What does impact how they wield their powers of discrimination is (prepare yourself–it’s groundbreaking stuff) how their parents talk to them. Gasp! What a concept!

What I found most interesting from this piece is how intensely uncomfortable parents–white parents in particular–are discussing race with their children. And that is precisely our problem. The damage is done not so much by what we say or do, but by what we don’t say. Silence is the trouble. Remaining silent on the subject of race doesn’t produce an idyllic, colorblind generation of Benetton poster children; it produces children who have picked up on what an uncomfortable, taboo subject race is, and those children are far more likely to avoid others of different races. In the study profiled in the Newsweek article, just talking with children about racial equality radically changed their attitudes. Simple conversation is a powerful tool in that huge, impossibly important job we call parenting. The ability to perceive difference is a hardwired, biological fact. Prejudice is a learned behavior, and unless we are clear in the lesson we teach, children will fill in the blanks for themselves, sometimes to our surprise and chagrin.

It can be disturbing to find that we are sending messages we never intended to send, even more so when those messages are actively shaping another young mind. A recent taproom debate comes to mind: my friends are parenting a rowdy six year old (he as biological father, she as stepmother), and they are very much from the “we don’t hit to show that hitting is wrong” school of discipline. They’re parenting as they were parented, with Time Out and stern, reasonable talks about bad behavior. I, on the other hand, was spanked as a child and absolutely stand by it as an effective form of discipline. I argued (unconvincingly, for them) that spanking taps into a very primal part of the human brain–animals use physical discomfort to maintain order among their ranks, and such gestures retain that power and meaning for even our johnny-come-lately species.

Interestingly, I found this article in The New York Times just a few days later, and it makes a far more eloquent argument, backed by science, that supports my position. Time Out, or forced social isolation, is one technique from a broad class of parenting approaches that all directly link approval and love to a child’s behavior. Doing something bad provokes the withholding of parental love–the child is told, through the action of being put in Time Out, that he or she has become unworthy of love, at least temporarily. And while that might elicit more desirable behavior, it is deeply damaging to a child’s psyche. When what you do is the only measure of your worth, how can you learn that you possess any inherent worth simply for being who you are?

But perhaps I’m the one who’s sounding sensational now. Parental silence won’t necessarily produce the next generation of bigots, and Time Out doesn’t guarantee you’ll need to keep a psychiatrist on retainer once Junior hits high school. We know that the brain is constantly being remodeled, and that even something as amorphous as an attitude or an idea has a physical presence in the structure of the brain. Change the idea often enough, think new thoughts regularly enough, and you can change the wiring. But why not get the electrical system right the first time?

I don’t have children. I may never have children. For some, that gives me no right to even participate in the discussion. It’s none of your business, they might say. Or, you can’t really understand how it is if you’ve never done it. And they might be right, to an extent. But I live in this world, and I am affected, for better and for worse, by how you parent your kids. I know it might be downright un-American to say it, but parenting is not an entirely private matter. Not when the stakes are so high and the social impact of your parenting so profound. So I do have a place at this table, as do all members of this human community. We’re not here to decide who’s Parent of the Year and who should be forcibly sterilized. Making rules, setting guidelines, and passing judgments would get real sticky, real fast. But maybe together we can read the evidence, like what’s in the articles I’ve mentioned, and use the higher functions that god, evolution, and our forebrain gave us to make a correct decision. For the children.

What Am I Doing Here?

I’ve been asked a few times about my intent in nesting here in my little corner of the web. Admittedly, my purpose in nabbing my eponymous domain and setting up this little blog has been and is still quite nebulous: I hadn’t been putting pen to paper (so to speak) on a regular basis, and that needed to change. So I created an audience (and thanks, again, for being here!) to expect something of me.

But that’s still pretty broad, no? I really don’t know if this blog will ever evolve any sort of real focus–and I’m not sure I want it to. It will remain my writing gym, the place I go to practice my moves. As I reacquire some polish and direction and stamina, more writing will be going on behind the scenes, because this place, while already becoming special to me, was never the Point, capital P. I will be publishing in longer form, and that work probably won’t appear here except in the occasional brief excerpt. It will be incubating elsewhere, benefiting indirectly from what goes on among these pages.

And so as word gym, this space will likely remain unfocused. I’ll throw up a little fiction, a little poetry, a little commentary, a little cooking, a little essay. It won’t be a personal blog in the traditional sense–you won’t be reading too much about the five W’s of my every day. It won’t get too political, at least not on a regular basis (mainly because that sort of thing only gets me angry and/or sad these days). If you’re hoping for regular recipes, you’ll be better off checking out some of the sites in the Eat Something sidebar to your right. If you were hoping to hear how school is going, how far I rode last week, or what the family is up to, you should drop me an email. And I should tell you right now that work is pretty much off limits–privacy, and all. But if you would graciously lend me your attention now and again, I’ll give you a story or two (some true, some not), and beautiful or thought-provoking or curious miscellany. Think of it as a little surprise from me to you.

Thanks for being here. And if you’d like to take an active role in these proceedings, please feel free to make assignments. Give me a topic, a style, a first sentence. Draw something out of your hat, and I’ll build words around it.