News from the Cranky Canary, and Other Mundanities

February 13, 2011

Dear Family,

“But I won't be no runaway
Cause I won't run
No, I won't be no runaway.”

--The National, “Runaway”



Ben is so heavily into origami that you have to see him to believe it. His fingers are SO nimble, and he is putting in some serious time. Right now he is getting an incidental geometry education because he decided to work his way through “Genuine Origami” (Jun Maekawa) as far as he can go and in order, from Simple models through Complex. Recently we borrowed a kirigami (paper cutting AND folding) book, and now there is a whole windowsill full of intricate animals. There is no more space in our house to display things!

We are so, so lucky that Jeff has been able to work at home for much of the past year. There was a rare day last week when he worked downtown for seven hours, and by 4:45pm, Ben was practically jumping out of his skin. “WHEN will Papa be HOME?! he was asking me every thirty seconds. Finally he said, “Why has Papa been there SO FRIGGIN' LONG?! It's almost FIVE O'CLOCK.” ...Oh my child, you do not even know how lucky you are...

The concept of romantic attachment is still fairly obscure to Ben, but he is thinking about it more, especially since Auntie is getting married soon. The other day he asked me, “How did you find Papa?” I told him, well, we met in Carbondale, Illinois, lots of years ago, and we rode our bikes together for a long way. “But how did you know, right away, that you were going to get married?” Actually, I told Ben, I didn't. I just thought your Papa was a nice guy, and I definitely didn't think about marrying him on that first day we met. “But did you know you were going to have kids?” Ben wondered. (Then Jem added, Boys should have eggs in their bellies so they can have kids too!) Still trying to figure out the getting-to-know you thing, Ben's clarifying question was: “So when you _first saw_ Papa, was he just like a stranger like we usually see outside?”



Jem is developing a musical ear. He cocked his head the other day and said, “That sounds like 'The Runaway'!” And it turned out that it was a different song, but also by The National.

Musings on the nature of things: “If you poked a crab, they would bite you. They're BITERS.”

“I like that we're a kind of Aminal [animal].”

Outside in the snow: “I jumped into the slipperiness!”

Other notes on winter: “It freezed me up! An' it freezed up my snifflin'. An' I HATE that.”

In the middle of a frantic moment of chaos, during which I was fearing that Jem will grow up forever traumatized by the anxiety level in our house, I noticed that he was staring into the middle distance, not even paying any attention to the commotion around him. “How,” he asked, “do we see _really big things_ with our teeny eyes?”


Things Not to Do, from personal experience:

--Leave a metal waterbottle (full) in the car for forty-eight hours, during which time the temperature doesn't rise above ten degrees Fahrenheit. (The force of expanding water _can_ bend steel.)

--Brandish your dinky ski pole threateningly at a dog you meet in the woods. (You will feel very dorky later.)

--Spend 2.5 hours making fermented coconut cream, pour it into a quart-size glass pickle jar...and then lift up the jar by its lid. (Your son might think, due to recent past traumatic experience (see previous posts) that you smashed the jar on purpose because you were angry, and this will make you feel just about as bad as the wasted coconut cream does.)


Events of The Week:

Jeff and I finally watched a movie in its entirety all in one night: “My Bodyguard.” It was interesting and somewhat unpredictable, and now (completely incidentally) one of the major things I notice in movies is people's jaw and teeth development. (Turns out that movie stars are just NOT picked if they have malformed bone structure, so they're good examples of human physical potential.) Netflix Says: “Tormented by a gang of bullies -- led by Matt Dillon, in one of his first film roles -- sheltered new kid Clifford (Chris Makepeace) seeks protection from older student Linderman (Adam Baldwin), a burly loner who's rumored to have killed -- and possibly eaten -- his own brother. Martin Mull, Ruth Gordon and Joan Cusack also star in this coming-of-age story about an unlikely friendship between two outcasts...”

Last weekend, the boys and I checked in on the vernal pool. Somewhere underneath two feet of snow, we imagined the salamanders hibernating (or whatever it is they do). It's important to get outdoors at least once per week, so yesterday (six days later) Jeff and the boys went to the park. And then today (exceeding our quotient!), we had a spontaneous and amazingly successful morning spent sledding with friends. Baby steps...soon we'll be outside all the time, but for now I count the small successes.

Every so often, we come home from the library with a real dud. Tyrannosaurus: The Tyrant Lizard, by Janet Riehecky, is one you should never, for the sake of your self-respect as an intellectual person, subject yourself to reading aloud. It consists of copious, lavish prose describing a day in the life of a tyrannosaurus (the dino, excitingly, gets up from a seated position, makes the decision to take a bite out of another dinosaur, and then looks around him to notice how other dinosaurs look). At exactly the moment when I was about to exclaim, “Oh my God, this book is SO awful and horribly boring,” Ben and Jem said, nearly in unison, “This is a REALLY good book!”


Even my own patient mother is tired of me acting like some obsessive and whiny canary in a coal mine. She's much nicer than to say it like that, but I do get the point. (Although, I sometimes wonder why I'm not being more appreciated for all my useful, unsolicited advice. I offer it so freely! How much more generous can I be??)

“But Sara,” people say gently, “we've GOT great culture! Yeah, it's too bad that Ben's sick, but NOT EVERYONE is that sick. You really NEED to get out more. Maybe gut flora is a big deal, but quite frankly, I never thought about way back in the dark ages, nine months ago, before you started mentioning it in every other e-mail that lands in my inbox. You don't really think that human civilization and mental health is in decline just because of this freaky new diet you're on, do you? There really is more going on outside your kitchen--you have got to take a break.”

I know, I have a terribly big and opinionated mouth. Also, it's true that the brand of Sick in our house effectively isolates us (temporarily) from many cultural and community activities that do exist. And I do consider that nagging question: how come there IS so much great culture, and many currently-alive people enjoying pretty good health, if Weston Price's research and my own amateur and dire predictions concerning Western Diets have any merit at all?

The thing is, I'm more and more certain: good health is the keystone upon which everything else depends. All that comprises an empire can only have grown, over time, _when a population was healthy_. In other words: people enjoying a surfeit of abundant nutrition can create Music and Great churches and Not Too Much Crime and a More-Functional and -Peaceful Social Order--not the other way round.

And here's the other thing: most people in our industrialized society are currently living on borrowed time. (I thought I was being new and original with this idea, except that I've read three other authors in the past week using the exact same words to describe the disconnect we're facing in terms of food and health. Kind of like Peak Oil, but instead it's Peak Nutrition.) Up until fairly recently in human evolution, people ate incredibly nutrient-dense foods _all the time_ (consequence of not so-doing: perishing), raised countless generations of super-healthy babies and young humans, and used the rest of their free time, incrementally, to build empires.

Lately I've been thinking of it like this: over a period of 200,000 years or so, the human race has collected an enormous bank account of Health, always putting some “savings” aside for their kids and grandkids by stashing it in their DNA--the same way that many modern-day parents contribute to their kids' college funds. Some people are more directly descended than others from parents and grandparents Who Ate Really Good Food All Their Lives. This explains why some people are more likely to appear to thrive, despite their currently crappy diet: they are benefiting from what Cate Shanahan describes as their “_genetic momentum_, the ability of genes to perform well with suboptimal nutrient inputs for a finite amount of time.” In other words, some folks still have an ancestral inheritance that is not entirely depleted, and they comprise most of the healthiest people you see walking around today.

But for most of is, it's been several generations since our (great- or great-great-) grandparents regularly consumed super-nutrient-dense foods. (Not “3-5 Servings Per day”, but ALL of their diet consisting of nearly- or perfectly-optimal foods.) Ever since these hardy old folks passed on, each subsequent generation has been making mostly withdrawals from the family estate, and not nearly enough deposits. There is less and less Health Currency left in the bank after all this time--so is it any wonder that our skulls are narrowing, our bones are thinning, our gut flora is wacked, and our teeth are rotting? For many of us, this doesn't prevent us from enjoying Netflix, and Libraries containing superb literature, and Excellent Universities, and Modern Art, not to mention the making of new small humans. Unfortunately, nearly everyone these days, even those whose health conditions are virtually incapacitating and whose bank accounts are pretty close to empty, can partake (in an equal-opportunity sort of way) in the abundance provided by The Supermarket, and Processed Foods, and Flour, and Sugar, and Cherries in January.

In my case, my great-grandparents nearly starved in the Old Country. Their babies, my grandparents, came of age in the Great Depression, and bounced back a little--they grew tall, and moderately healthy, and subsequently fed their own families a lot of Modern processed food-like products. Once again, this probably pushed the bank account nearly to its limits. My parents started to pick up the pieces around when I was born, and learned to cut out a lot of this crap that the industry calls “food.” And we also learned, when I was growing up, to eat lots of fresh vegetables--and my parents told us that white flour and sugar were pretty much the devil. This must have added something back into our still-nearly-drained family account, and it was enough to get me through my first 30 years. But after a lifetime of vegetarianism, and two depleting pregnancies, and a slight but steady degeneration of my own health, I've only recently realized how close my own kids are to true Nutritional Bankruptcy--the point after which it is nearly impossible to sustainably maintain life without constantly thinking about and repaying our nutritional debt.

Cate Shanahan, in _Deep Nutrition_, has a term for the potential of kids like mine: “The Omega Generation.” I don't intend to let Ben and Jem remain on this nutritional Track for long.

See, once you've gotten this glimpse of the personal and immanent probability of having bankrupt kids...well, it's only just recently that I started to try to understand exactly how possible could be for my personal DNA train to just stop: right here, not at any sort of station or anything, but just here, in the middle of the tracks, no nuclear holocaust necessary. Myopia or mouthbreathing or connective tissue disorders or hypoglycemia doesn't necessarily impact your future chances of independence, and neither does it especially cut down on your chances of finding a mate, or having kids (even though these disorders and others like them aren't exactly enjoyable). But autism, many autoimmune disorders, many types of “mental illness,” hormonal issues and infertility, and countless diseases of our modern age, Definitely Impact All These Things.

The part that I never knew or noticed, back before last April, was the way that _almost every single health problem_, from dental issues to gastrointestinal problems to mental health disorders, all fit into this larger, population-scale _pattern_ of human degeneration. Most importantly: to a large degree, this pattern of declining health is reversible, and not “genetic,” and not even the early warning signs (dental cavities, for example, or PMS, or hyperactivity) are worth ignoring.

And this is why, after watching my child come closer and closer to becoming a CDC Mental Health Statistic, I am pretty much obsessed with one goal: increase our family's nutritional wealth and dietary wisdom. Make daily and hourly bank deposits. Do this for the rest of my life. Which is why I have nearly totally withdrawn from the Cultural part of the human experience while we get back to basics, spend a lot of time at home, cook and eat foods, and heal. It takes a lot of time to rebuild credit. Eventually, I'd like to help others to more easily and painlessly (and earlier) heed the warning alarm bells of degeneration, most principally by changing their diets. Yes, there are other factors that impact human health. But I think that on average, diet is about 90-95% of the equation.

I hope that soon our little family will be out in the world a little more, although I will be opening my big mouth constantly as we go, trying to raise a little consciousness around the issue of health and nutrition. Since food is such a huge part of community, I'd like my kids to feel comfortable and able to make food choices that will enhance their health, instead of degrade it. I'm trying not to dwell upon exactly how much unhealthy food is available at virtually every social event that currently occurs; or how, very, very soon it will be that my boys will be making their own food choices independent of me, outside the bubble of our home.

And in the end, it's true--not everyone (yet) is deathly ill, or autistic, or depressed. Not everyone is “as bad” as my son, or the kids who are even worse off than he. Many people can afford to live on credit for a long time yet, and their kids aren't so bad off that they can't put off considering of the whole thing till Later. But please, I beg of you, despite my big mouth and all the defensiveness that surfaces when you question lifelong dietary habits (I know a lot about this), this is the important part: _watch the trends_. Examine the graphs of health statistics. Think about what's happening now, acutely to a few people and chronically or indirectly to almost everyone, as a little warning bell. Try to imagine a world in which almost everyone you know _didn't_ suffer from myriad large and small mental/physical health issues.

And remember (that the whiny canary told you!) that we do not exist independent of the rest of our society, or those unfortunates who inhabit the least desirable ends of the statistical spectrum. After all, these people's children might, many years in the future, attempt to have babies of their own--maybe even as the spouses of your own kids. And at the point when humans are striving to pass on our DNA and make healthy babies, it's not the college fund or The Big House or The Solid Career that will matter very much at all. What counts then is having a robust and fiscally responsible nutritional bank account.

Also, it's not only about babies and reproduction and all that silly Grown-Up stuff. The sobering reality is that although it's possible to have a good life despite ill-health, depression, anxiety, or diabetes, there are more people than perhaps ever before who have these diagnoses and many others, and have to work really, really hard in order to have a fighting chance at an enjoyable life.

Cate Shanahan writes: “...If needing glasses killed us, we would no doubt pay keen attention to factors that render a child nearsighted. If having oral cavities killed us, we would steer clear of the things known to rot teeth as if our lives depended on it. If there were [immediate] deadly consequences from inattention to nutritional detail, our nutrition science would be so advanced that it would be, dare I say, effective at preventing disease and capable of promoting health.”

The problem, Shanahan says, is that “A constant stream of new technologic fixes continues to buttress our collapsing physiologic infrastructure, which has so far masked what would otherwise be obvious maladaptive consequences of that collapse.”

The more I learn, the more I realize I do not know--and I long to be able to learn enough, fast enough, for the sake of my children (and Jeff and me!). In “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,” Price writes:

“...When I asked an old Indian, through an interpreter, why the Indians did not get scurvy he replied promptly that that was a white man's disease. I asked whether it was possible for the Indians to get scurvy. He replied that it was, but said that the Indians know how to prevent it and the white man does not. When asked why he did not tell the white man how, his reply was that the white man knew too much to ask the Indian anything. I then asked him if he would tell me. He said he would if the chief said he might. He went to see the chief and returned in about an hour, saying that the chief said he could tell me because I was a friend of the Indians and had come to tell the Indians not to eat the food in the white man's store. He took me by the hand and led me to a log where we both sat down. He then described how when the Indian kills a moose he opens it up and at the back of the moose just above the kidney there are what he described as two small balls in the fat. These he said the Indian would take and cut up into as many pieces as there were little and big Indians in the family and each one would eat his piece. They would eat also the walls of the second stomach. By eating these parts of the animal the Indians would keep free from scurvy, which is due to the lack of vitamin C. The Indians were getting vitamin C from the adrenal glands and organs. Modern science has very recently discovered that the adrenal glands are the richest sources of vitamin C in all animal or plant tissues...”

Earlier in Price's book, there is a small snippet where he describes his interview with an older couple--the husband, an educated white man; the wife, an educated Inuit woman. The woman had birthed at least twenty children that she remembered, although nine of them had died, mostly from tuberculosis. The surviving children were enjoying every Modern Educational Advantage, but they, and the father, ate nearly exclusively of the White Man's Food and were suffering from horrendous tooth decay in upwards of 40% of their teeth, as well as malformed facial arches, etc. The mother had never stopped eating her traditional diet of seal, fish and minimal local plant foods. Even after the tremendous depletion of bearing and nursing all those babies, she had not a single cavity in her mouth.

I've recently been thinking about the origins of the Jewish kashrut, or dietary laws. The Torah is not the source for many of these rules, which leaves mere mortals ample opportunity to argue over their importance, application, origin, etc. But the not-eating of pork is relatively constant, a rule that even the most lapsed Jews have heard about, even those who enjoy their bacon regularly albeit with a slightly guilty conscience. Many people have also tried to work backwards to understand the prohibition: okay, pork is against the rules, so there _must_ have been because...pigs were unclean/had parasites/were unhealthy...right?

And yet, almost every religious tradition in the world seems to have had something similar to say about certain kinds of food animals--except that they're always different ones. I've heard some theories that the Hindus' eschewing of beef had a lot more to do with the the exceptionally valuable milk the cows produce (wanting to preserve cattle as a resource instead of risking their depletion by eating their meat), rather than because of any nutritional problem with eating beef.

In any case, it seems clear that many cultures have had to find ways both to pass down their extensive nutritional knowledge, and prevent their offspring from ending up like most modern Inuit and Native American populations that survive today, whose traditional foodways have been all but entirely severed, replaced with the White Man's food. These folks suffer even more hugely than average from the White Man's Diseases, and produce more kids, on average, who are destined to be members of Omega Generation.

So here's the theory of the origin of Kashrut that currently makes the most sense to me: by prohibiting the consumption of pork, especially in places where pork was readily consumed, for example, the Jews could separate themselves from others in the community, especially when they feared for the (moral) health of their children. If you can't share meals with someone, it's harder to be converted to someone else's politics and religious ideals, not to mention their diet. So perhaps...just food was a way to, for better or for worse, keep Outsiders Out, and strengthen cultural traditions for an exiled tribe trying to make its way in a tenuous, changing world.

Sometimes I think that GAPS is a kind of secular Kashrut. We aren't worried about the Outside influence of politics or religion, but are quite concerned about any errant double-chain polysaccharides.

Sometimes, I simply sit and stare at Price's photos of gorgeous native people, and their already-in-only-one-generation-deformed children (now already long dead, of course), and I think: This is way worse than the fabled smallpox blankets. Every one of us alive today is a beneficiary of a vast, starting-to-get-antique-and-faded store of potential wealth more valuable than any of our fancy houses with indoor plumbing, 401Ks, or overblown College Educations. And yet, with most every visit to your average grocery store, many/most people are unknowingly squandering this wealth. Sometimes, despite my sad understanding that A. It isn't possible and B. There is and has never been a Utopia in this world, I want to go back in time to one of the countless times and places where this wealth was continually cultivated and appreciated, and where I had developed a taste for moose adrenals back when I was just a tot.

No chance of that, I know.

But staring at Price's photos sometimes gives me hope. The fact that I'm _alive_ means that I am descended from humans who were hardy enough to withstand at least a couple generation's worth of shock to their (my) nutritional epigenome. There's no time like the present to pick up some more pieces, and start Investing In My (Children's) Future...

It's hard to explain about White Man's Food to my two little white boys, especially when our “Native Diet” is currently an ever-shifting figment of my imagination, a reinvention of the wheel that's still in progress. But since we're so close to the brink, so narrowly sidestepping our personal White Man's Plague of Death, I see no other choice than to stumble onward. I have to keep reminding myself that I am only a tiny link in the chain, one mama of two small boys, all of us inescapably connected to this balancing web of Human Life, which was built using incredibly awesome and miraculous brainpower and materials and wealth. It's our legacy. As long as humans are around at all, there's always a _little_ bit of available credit.

I hope, someday, to see you back Out there in the World. I'm happy to discuss politics, and subversive topics, especially along with my kids. We will gladly accept a taste of your grass-fed, pastured pork--but for now, we'll have to say No Thanks to even your unleavened bread.


Okay, Happy Sunday!