Friday, September 18, 2009


Mornings in Seattle were always crisp as a Washington apple. In New Hampshire during summer, morning hints of a hot day to come when the air feels cool and heavy like a syrup sodden pancake left over after breakfast. I felt it one morning on the way to Via Lactia Farm in Brookfield, NH where I went to buy raw goats milk and whatever other animal parts could be foraged from a freezer of last year’s leftovers. I could see the summer’s fattening stock still grazing in fields dashing my hopes of bringing any beef home for barbecue other than as guests to share my smores with.

Unlike the renegades and rebels in other states selling raw products as ‘fish bait’ and ‘animal feed’ in order to circumvent homogenization and pasteurization laws, the folks at Via Lactea either have no psst! Program for selling raw cheese or the Tappers’ are just as suspicious of me, a foreigner in spite of my New Hampshire birth certificate, as the rest of the folks in town who reckon I’m a ‘flatlander’. Their ability to quote USDA Guidelines and their support of nitrites for cured bacon, of which they were sold out of anyway, was as suspect to me in this state where ‘live free or die’ is the motto, as it probably was to them that I could quote guidelines for selling raw hard cheeses based on aging. I had hoped a few more visits to the farmer’s market on Thursdays - a small huddle of tents, food, and family that look more like a reunion picnic - would send the whispered word of mouth to the Tapper’s that would earn me enough street cred for a password to some backroom refrigerator where they hoard the raw stuff. Raw, grassfed cheese is one of the few places I could get a worthwhile dose of Vitamin-K in spite of the Paleo camp’s stance on dairy in any form because it’s an allergen.

The one visit to their farm was the only day the sun would shine in the early summer of this little vacation destination. It stayed drowned by both economic woes and unseasonably rainy weather. The locals on the front porch and shuffling in the tight register queue of Lydia’s Café could focus on nothing else but the brutal weather at first. It had one farmer lament that he had bothered to plant his tomatoes rather than rice. I was upset that it had washed away my plans to do the Agni Hotra ceremony on my father’s little plot since his garden too was swamped.
Conversation percolated in this daily social gathering reminiscent of a quilting bee without the quilts - which I’d guess were outsourced to Bangladesh. It left hands free to clutch the better-than-average free trade coffee and underpriced bagel sandwiches. Folks discussed and weighed premonitions on when the water would let up. It would have had them flipping through the always-trustworthy Farmer’s Almanac if Franz hadn’t already pulled up Doppler Radar on his smart phone. After several days of foulness, the mornings gathering looked and sounded more like a Red Cross Shelter as we all huddled together and discussed the tragedy that was the community garden all rotten and limp. I assured the crowd that in cases of torrential downpour, my flip flops could be used as a flotation device. My pink sandals were a sunny standout among slickers and soggy baseball caps.

Lydia’s has a badly feng shui’d dining area with four cramped tables that encroach on traffic to the counter. It causes complex coordinated shuffling to access the coffee carafes – it looks like interpretive dance inspired by Tetris - but as a result I was often in the center of the action despite the angling of chairs that sometimes signal my ‘outsider’ status. Bob, a former Washington lobbyist and current discussion moderator, always pulled me in, introduced me around, and then interrupted most of what I said with persistent input that I don’t take personally. I liked him and so did everyone else even when his opinion was outlandish enough to be merely tolerated for the sake of harmony. His off-color comments described by him as a ‘turd in the punchbowl’ were followed by a few seconds of silence and a discrete change of subject. He’s a Baltimore Orioles fan and even that went without mention by most.

Bob knows many of the rumors in town simply because I think he starts them before he quietly slips off the front porch to get a walnut Danish at a table hidden in the bushes in front of the Yum Yum Shop –a bakery down the street. He has a particular taste for bad pastries and total strangers. I think he’s always bewildered on the days when he finds that both the Danish and the strangers are bland and stale. It makes it handy that he carries a handful of the day’s newspapers under his arm for back-up. There was no salvaging the pastry but, as for the company, a few frank comments always seemed to make things tastier. That and the Granite State News gives him something to grumble about.

Bob always starts with our group first though – even before the French club which, as far as I could eavesdrop, never spoke a word of French from the table in the courtyard. We were the social party he knew he sought until the mad scientist got the better of him and drove him to tinker with other peoples’ day.

Most mornings we had Cheryl who’s naturally nomadic but fenced in by a custody order. Intellectually she did all the wanderings that her feet couldn’t do. Franz and Louise who had the kind of strengths as a couple that, if you’re smart, would have you swearing an oath and traveling in their caravan. There was my other Bob, who found his struggle to remain optimistic surprisingly draining. His internal arguments over what not to say were more spirited than the arguments he would have started had he spoken his mind. Charlie was the misunderstood prickly patriarch with the sharp judgement to protect his soft heart. And, finally, Mark silently inspired us with all the passion of the gypsy musician he once was in the days he played with the Roma in Hungary.

At the end of the summer, my sister joined the group. To most, other peoples’ aura goes unnoticed but to Stacey, it sunburns. Is she fragile? No. But foul energy makes her own cantankerous spirit itch. She hears the voice of her intuition louder than any conversation in the room. It often drives her back to her comfortable home to an open book and a phone switched off. Knowing her the way I do, I could sense her own shifting energy as other people spoke about otherwise innocuous things. It was a polygraph of sorts. The only time I ever worried about walking into a shamanic stink eye or a voodoo curse like unwelcome wafts of perfume was when she was in the room looking anxious. Is there a secret symbol, an SPF, or an aluminum foil hat that could save me? Only she knows. And I think she really does know. I’m a little proud, slightly frightened and mostly fascinated by her.

Throughout the summer I kept accidentally running into I the writings of Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers in Positive Psychology, and I realized that the square footage of this little porch represented a chunk of my overall happiness. Seligman, who believes that happiness consists of positive emotion, meaning and flow, makes the point in his TED Talk that my porch party was important.

Said Seligman, “I've spent my life working on extremely miserable people, and I've asked the question, how do extremely miserable people differ from the rest of you? and starting about six years ago, we asked about extremely happy people, and how do they differ from the rest of us? And it turns out there's one way. They're not more religious, they're not in better shape, they don't have more money, they're not better-looking, they don't have more good events and fewer bad events. The one way in which they differ: they're extremely social. They don't sit in a seminar on Saturday morning. They don't spend time alone. Each of them is in a romantic relationship and each has a rich repertoire of friends.”

Of course, also playing a key role in my overall happiness this summer was my friend Lance Uppercut (his choice of alias’ not mine) who agreed to be my lifting partner and chauffeur as well as arranging for the spare room in his parents basement that would be my home. I worried at first, when scaled down exposure to Cindy (5 jumping pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 squats – five rounds for time) left him rolled up in an alarmingly compact ball for a man of 6’1” with a complexion so ashen I had to protect him from my Zombie Slayer nephew who was overzealously awaiting his first confirmed kill.

Lance is also freakishly flexible which would seem like a good thing but not always. In CrossFit, most skill acquisition would, after some practice, look like a replicable and precise movement. When someone is learning, the ‘bar path’ is a bit loose and variable at first. With a person who is hyperflexible and has limited spacial awareness – well let’s just say it increases the likelihood of unimagined outcomes. In other words, ‘bar paths’ that should not be followed by anybody at anytime and usually can’t be.

He practiced with an empty bar a lot. I held my breath a lot. No injuries ensued.
By the end of the summer he could clean like a champ, squat like a novice and deadlift like a man who should practice more. He beat me at a workout or two that required 400 meter run intervals - my little legs could not compete with his galloping stride - but luckily the summer ended before I figured out how to ‘accidentally’ anchor one of his shoelaces to the neighboring treadmill before yelling ‘go!’. Competitive I will always be. And it sounds a lot wiser when you can declare it using Yoda’s sentence structure.

My personal fitness goals – because I always have them – revolved around detox, recovering from detox and gaining and maintaining a strong foundation. Detox and rest had finally resolves some shoulder and grip issues but left some weaknesses. My happy little skip through India had aggravated food allergies due to a monotonous reliance on eggs and a coulda-been-anything protein powder as protein sources. Food sensitivities, beyond the standard allergen issues, are most often triggered by a lack of variety in protein which is why Paul Chek recommends a four-day rotation in his book ‘Eat Move and Be Healthy’. The problem, I found, was that it was expensive and frustrating to make this rotation work in a town where food quality was questionable and, in places like the Crepe shop, frozen, canned and preserved just short of a shellacking.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) listed the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides as follows: Peach, Apple, Bell Pepper, Celery, nectarine, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, Grapes, carrots and pears. Welcome to the entire produce department of IGA. According to their site, “EWG research has found that people who eat the 12 most contami­nated fruits and vegetables consume an average of 10 pesticides a day. Those who eat the 15 least contaminated conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables ingest fewer than 2 pesticides daily. The Guide helps consumers make informed choices to lower their dietary pesticide load.” Did they really just say ‘pesticide load’ like it was a flippant RDA sort of thing? Toxicity trumped rotation especially because I found that after the first couple of weeks Lance starved his way through fish day and I chose undesirable bean alternatives to pork. We started carving away the corners of these days by jumping the gun on the tastier beef/cheese days. We slapped grassfed cheeseburgers on the grill before the sun could even set on ‘fish day’.

The growing food sensitivities had weakened my core. I noticed this with the inability to stabilize the snatch. Paul Chek explains, “Internal organs borrow their pain-sensitive nerve fibers from the muscular system. This means that when an organ is in pain, the brain can’t determine if it’s the muscle or the organ that hurts. The brain only knows which segment of the spine the pain message came from. In return, the brain then tells all the tissues and organs on the nerve channel to behave like they’re in pain. Since pain always weakens muscles, the abdominal muscles generally lose tone and don’t respond to exercise like a muscle that doesn’t think it’s in pain.” Pg 121

This foundational work also gave me an opportunity to explore ‘flow’, a crucial part of Seligman’s ‘happiness’ and a place in which skill and challenge meet in a state of concentration where an athlete ‘forgets themself.’ A state of flow is most readily available when both challenges and skills are higher than average according to Mihaly Csikszentmehalyi , psychology and management professor at Claremont Graduate University who focuses on human strengths such as optimism, motivation and responsibility. By continually challenging myself with different rep, set, rest parameters, I was able to capitalize on my skills while experiencing the flow state by focusing on the finer details of technique.

Csikszentmihalyi talked about this in his lecture for TED and where he is described in his bio as the ‘architect’ of flow after extensive research on the subject. “Now, when we do studies, we have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people -- from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds -- who enjoy their work. And regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There's this focus that once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity, you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other, you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel time disappears, you feel part of something larger. And once those conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

Clean, snatch, jerk, squat, deadlift and press. Ecstacy.

Again I make the point that the more complex movements have more to offer and not just because of their mechanical benefits. It’s the combination of skill acquisition and sometimes the surrendering of complete control because of that complexity. Says Csikszentmihalyi , “Your skills are not quite as high as they should be, but you can move into flow fairly easily by just developing a little more skill. So, arousal is the area where most people learn from, because that's where they pushed beyond their comfort zone and that to enter -- going back to flow -- then they develop higher skills. Control is also a good place to be, because there you feel comfortable, but not very excited. It's not very challenging any more. And if you want to enter flow from control, you have to increase the challenges. So those two are ideal and complementary areas from which flow is easy to go into.”

Add a plate and a rep, baby. That’s all I’m saying.

In New Hampshire, the challenge in training could sometimes be provided by the facility itself. Like so many conventional gyms, silly exercise contraptions crowded the room so tightly that I always felt like the kid busting through the roof of the snow fort. Gordo was good about letting me shove around the apparatus artifacts for a little space but it still felt like cleaning on rails. Maybe that’s how Lance got so good so fast – he had no choice. Luckily, neither one of us ended up filling out an accident report but I had to be focused on form not pushing the ceiling on kilos. I learned to tear my eyes away from all the crazy-ass things people do in a gym and call ‘exercise.’ Even Lance turned into a bit of a movement snob when he watched people ‘squat.’

I started taking probiotics twice a day - morning and night on an empty stomach - as well as cracked wall chlorella and triphala. I used New Chapter’s All-Flora as a probiotic because I’ve used it before with good results. Don’t ask me to remember why I chose the brand in the first place. I’ve long since forgotten.

The argument for Chlorella was summed up by It’s healing benefits were also discussed in studies on PubMed - the legit peer –reviewed kind of study that appears in journals none of us have much access to otherwise and even when we do they’re a snore. “Chlorella is a powerful detoxification aid for heavy metals and other pesticides. Numerous research projects in the U.S. and Europe indicate that chlorella can also aid the body in breaking down persistent hydrocarbon and metallic toxins such as mercury, cadmium and lead, DDT and PCB while strengthening the immune system response. In Japan, interest in chlorella has focused largely on its detoxifying properties - its ability to remove or neutralize poisonous substances from the body.”

“This detoxification of heavy metals and other chemical toxins in the blood will take 3 to 6 months to build up enough to begin this process depending on how much chlorella a person is taking. Chlorella is a food. As such, it is almost impossible to take too much chlorella. It is also this fibrous material which greatly augments healthy digestion and overall digestive track health.” I’ve been taking the prescribed dosage for two months now so I have no final conclusions.

The Triphala is billed in much the same way but I’ll throw you a little chunk of PubMed from the abstract of ‘anti-diabetic activity of medicinal plants and its relationship with their antioxidant property,’ just to show you I wasn’t kidding and so that I get to look all sciencey. I’ll pretend for a moment that sciencey sounding stuff isn’t wrong just as often.

Methanolic extract (75%) of Terminalia chebula, Terminalia belerica, Emblica officinalis and their combination named 'Triphala' (equal proportion of above three plant extracts) are being used extensively in Indian system of medicine. They were found to inhibit lipid peroxide formation and to scavenge hydroxyl and superoxide radicals in vitro. The concentration of plant extracts that inhibited 50% of lipid peroxidation induced with Fe(2+)/ascorbate were food to be 85.5, 27, 74 and 69 micro g/ml, respectively. The concentration needed for the inhibition of hydoxyl radical scavenging were 165, 71, 155.5 and 151 micro g/ml, and that for superoxide scavenging activity were found to be 20.5, 40.5, 6.5 and 12.5 micro g/ml, respectively. Oral administration of the extracts (100 mg/kg body weight) reduced the blood sugar level in normal and in alloxan (120 mg/kg) diabetic rats significantly within 4 h. Continued, daily administration of the drug produced a sustained effect.”

These supplements will be part of a six month study at which time I’ll conclude my research with absolutely no clear conclusions based on the fact that I began this experiment with no baseline measures. I’ll offer results focusing on how I ‘feel’ confounded with lifestyle variables that further cloud my so-called results. I’ll still proceed partly because my gut says it will work fabulously and because what the heck else am I doing?

So far, I feel good. As a result of the Master Cleanse or coincidentally coinciding with it’s conclusion, I have no taste for chocolate at all, under any circumstances whatsoever. I do however crave black licorice which is used to treat adrenal fatigue when it’s not upping blood pressures and which still counts as ‘Candy’ though most people with a sweet tooth can’t even stand the stuff. This will count as an ‘outcome’. Might as well construct a vague measuring system of 1 to 10 while I’m at it. As unscientific and maybe even irresponsible as that is, my friend Michael Pollan would point out that all nutritional research is unscientific based, as I’ve quoted before, on the fact that we study nutrients but eat food. And black licorice is both weird and a little hard to find which, I’ve decided, makes it compelling data. I could cross-reference lunar patterns to see if that might have anything to do with it but for now, all I know is that chocolate and the persuit of chocolate no longer yanks me around.

My final nutritional challenge of the summer was to spend five days driving across country with Lance partly to see sights he’s never seen. He decided he wanted to test the marketability of his master’s degree in an urban job market. It’s a master’s in English Literature and the drive includes North Dakota. Between the two, disappointments were inevitable. Having both lived in Seattle and driven across country, I might actually be able to provide the kind of advice that could lessen the blows and the kind of disarming tactics that could wrestle the razor blade out of his hand before it reaches wrist. I also knew enough to map the Whole Foods markets from New Hampshire to Chicago and then plan for the lotta nada between Minneapolis and Seattle.

There are things you notice when you make that drive. First, do people in Gary, Indiana wear shock collars that keep them from leaving? I can’t think of a single reason not to leave that zip other than nobody told them they could go. Second, what is the connection between Pirates and Mini Golf and why do seriously landlocked states make any reference to pirates – ever? There are a lot of Pirate’s Cove Mini Golf’s in states that have no history of either pirates or coves. They have had and do have a native American population but any questionable reference is a ‘tomahawk chop’ sort of situation. Today’s pirates don’t seem to be sensitive to stereotypes. It will be funny when Seattle – the home of a lively pirate community and a whole lot people hyperfocused on political correctness – rise up and Mini Golf’s everywhere will have to retheme their parks around the only group we can stereotype these days – Bankers.

And of course my favorite thing to notice on stretches of highway so boring that Lance and I started to bicker just for something to do, is fast food, bad food and nonfood dressed as food being sold everywhere. It was especially bad on toll roads where travelers are trapped into using rest stops because it costs money to exit. Did I mention, too, that I was drinking a gallon of water a day thanks to ‘detox’? That added to the number of stops we made, I assure you. Whatever they said in Fiber Menace about too much water damaging digestion didn’t take detox into consideration.

After passing corn field after corn field, it’s a great time to mention Pollan as well by quoting his most recent article and his entry into the healthcare argument in a piece that appeared in the opinion section of the Honolulu Advertiser on September 12, “But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America's fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet.” If he lost you at the mention of farm policies he states the argument more clearly, “To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.”

After Minneapolis, I ate some canned sardines but otherwise starved. I didn’t know where to find organic food and only Albertson’s was visible from the highway. Lance, who grew up with a nasty case of Ulcerative Colitis, and a healthy suspicion of most food, was as lost as I was. We decided to step it up and get to civilization as fast as we could.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Oddly, my reaction to the small varmint I like to call a ‘chipmunk’ jumping on my head sometime after midnight didn’t include screaming. Instead, after it let go of my scalp and bounced to the floor, we both laid in the dark perfectly still, wide-eyed and hyperventilating. It didn’t scurry and in fact, it landed on the floor with a heavy and graceless oomph which convinces my friend Mark that it was a rat instead of the cute, Disney-style chipmunk I will continue to picture (fingers in ears, loudly repeating ‘LaLaLaLa . . .’) I began to slowly haul up the covers which I had noticed with delight no longer smelled like my cousin Bobby’s wet Golden Retriever until I realized I could be hauling my little friend back aboard like some search and rescue mission. I let the covers back out and ruled out any trips to the out house, the only facilities at my Dad’s rustic camp. Damn the two liters of water I drank and damn Paul Chek for making me drink them.

I was trained for this. A week earlier I bound out of bed with two simultaneous and incongruent thoughts: “That’s the biggest bug ever!” and “how the hell am I moving this fast!?” A beetle – much larger than a Japanese beetle and slightly smaller than a Farfegnugen – was crawling across my left shoulder without prior consent. I consider most of my person a no-fly zone and will protect my air space from all things incapable of at least buying me coffee first. I turned on the light and then scooped up the Jurassic bug-that-time-forgot between the heels of the sneakers I was wearing on my hands like mittens. I crunched it in a way that the Buddha would not approve of and it merely looked at me annoyed. I kicked it’s carcass to the corner, too tired to check if it was dead or face the fact that I just bought myself some seriously bad Karma. I’m so being reincarnated as a housefly for this.

Sure, they were the Cato Fong to my Inspector Jacques Clouseau but it served as a sort of Ninja summer camp. That combined with the special form of psychological torture of living in a house full of antique dolls would prepare me for my return to mat combat – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Anyone who knows antique dolls knows that they have all the charm of mimes, circus clowns and the original Grimm’s Fairytales. Grim. Most of them were made to appeal to the same children who sang ‘Ring around the Rosie’ to capture all the obvious fun and frolic associated with mass death by bubonic plague. The dolls that didn’t look like ‘Chucky’ plotting to slit my throat were debutant divas that dressed better than me and disapproved of my lifestyle. They judged me with their eyes. Everything else about living in the Uppercut's basement for the summer was amazing and wonderful but the dolls were everywhere and they creeped me out. Like the First Emperor of China’s Terracotta Army, it was Liz Uppercut symbolic defense against the oppressive dose of testosterone from three sons and a husband. My squat protocol was caught in friendly fire.

Also, working in a Crêpery – in itself testosterone suppressing – with a name so tacky it might as well have been a crepe-o-rama completed my psychological boot camp. My sister threatened to call often just to get me to answer the phone and have to say it. I hated her a little. And I tried, oh how I tried, but flipping fancy flapjacks to serve on paper plates was like wearing champion sweatsuits with Chanel. It didn’t work and I knew it didn’t work no matter how much I tried to focus on something else.

The owners got the idea for the pancake parlor at a ski resort lift-line in Breckinridge, Colorado where folks reportedly stood in line for 45 minutes for crepes from a kiosk. Most decisions made in sub-zero weather should be disregarded.

At Breckinridge, Kiosk crepes make sense where the ski-bum burnouts defy the social order by making bank in the x-games circuit. It’s an in-you-face to the elite who can afford lift-tickets and new equipment by ski bums who can’t afford to ski but are doing it any way they can, crepe kiosks included.

In Wolfeboro, serving crepes on paper plates and calling them ‘crapes’ with all the linguistic skill and class of a blue-collar middle-American ordering McDonald’s croissant sandwich is to do so without first bothering with silly stuff like demographics. Further, stuffing said crape with ingredients suited to a roach-coach taco is the sort of ‘close enough’ approach that’s embarrassing. It’s simple: Paper plate people eat hamburgers and mushrooms from a can, Crepe people use real utensils and have the kind of gentrified palate that makes listing Ragu Pizza Sauce among your ingredients comical. The only way to make sense of this would be to engineer a way to serve it on a stick out a trailer window at the state fair. I endured but not without my opinion periodically creeping across my features. I tried, but not hard enough, to be merely grateful for the extra income.

None of the locals who I had coffee with in the morning ever offered up their opinion of the International House of Crepes but they didn’t eat there either. I tried never to mention that we not only microwaved eggs but we did so in plastic containers, a practice as suitable for breakfast as gas huffing. We talked of other things while I drank my coffee suspiciously served somewhere other than the crepery. I even managed not to talk about the two twenty-something employees whose ADD, depression and OCD were all properly medicated while their sociopathic tendencies were not. That particular disorder which manages to dodge a landmine of meds will drive a future of blue-collar crime, tax fraud, shoplifting and high profile divorces. Perhaps my pain and suffering will net a tabloid payday when I can say I knew them before they were headlines.

I worked long hours which were detrimental to my training and my health. I even started to roll over cautiously in my sleep holding my arm just so to accommodate the spatula I imagined was still in my left hand. I wondered if my stomach was bothering me from the lack of sleep, the fourteen hour shifts or the celiac flare-ups from dreaming wheaty dreams of crepe assembly performed at a monotonous pace. I woke everyday to find the boss had ordered a completely new set of arbitrary, contradictory and nonsensical directions designed to trump the arbitrary, contradictory and nonsensical directions of days previous. I completely failed at the shrug-it-off resilience of the younger girls who giggled in the back room and messaged up-to-the-minute reports of drama and mayhem to laugh about later.

It’s funny now though.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” said Sir Winston Churchill but he didn’t mean to suggest that every opportunity is worth the cost of pursuit. A career in substandard pancake assembly was not a goal that inspired me. Even so, what motivates optimum performance from a team with varied skills towards a common goal even when teammates sometimes exhibit a questionable commitment to that end result? This is something I’ve dealt with frequently in coaching groups of athletes facing the same workout but with their own set of challenges. It’s helpful to first understand the concept of learned helplessness and how it affects perception given that things are going only as well as each person thinks it is.

Martin Seligman first explored this theory in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania in a series of experiments that would have PETA consider a Fatwa. He and Steve Maier shocked dogs giving some of the animals a means of escape and some no way out. After the first experience, dogs that previously had no escape were given options to dodge the shock but instead 2/3rds of the animals helplessly whimpered and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

Or in the less severe and the less-likely-to-be-covered-in-your-health-plan version, ‘once shocked, twice shy.’ This is the common reaction to facing something you’re bad at by avoiding it all together or by a justifiable lack of effort.

One third of the dogs handled the situation differently. “Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve Polyannaish optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent.”

I think I’ve seen this so often because CrossFit coaches push this button more than trainers who teach a more predictable ‘Fitness program’. The fact that the workouts create an environment in which the athlete has no control over the programming, means that coaches often end up managing pessimistic explanatory individuals displaying an exaggerated stress response in part because the experience is designed to be so inherently stressful. As it was explained, “People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly")—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman 1993).”
Because the movements taught by CrossFit coaches are complex enough to require significant practice before the athlete achieves mastery, the experience leaves an opening for the kind of pessimistic internal dialog that stymies a person. explains it this way:

How we attribute the events that occur in our lives has a significant effect on our attitudes and efforts in improving our lot. In particular there are three types of belief that affect us:

· Stable or unstable cause: If we believe that events are caused by factors which do not change, we assume that it is not worth us trying to change them. So if I believe my success is based on an unchangeable ability, it will seem that it is not worth my trying to improve myself.
· Internal or External cause: We can believe that events are caused by ourselves or something outside of ourselves. If I assume a serious car crash was my fault, I will be less likely to drive again than if I attribute it to a greasy road.
· Global or Specific cause: If we believe that events are caused by a large number of factors then we feel we can do less to change things than if we see few and specific causes

Trying to convince somebody who finishes their first CrossFit workout that they are not genetically blighted can be a tough task. Likewise, trying to get past the deflated “I can’t do anything right” attitude of a person who works in an environment in which seemingly random and sharp criticism is the norm is of equal challenge. I’m not trying to say, however, that either of these cases lead to chronic depression or, for that matter, pervasive pessimism but I am willing to argue that it can block further progress in any given area of a person’s life even if they thrive in other areas.

When I trained the soccer moms early in the summer, I was faced with examples of this mindset right from the start. What I saw as a coach were four women performing the workouts and experiencing the expected level of stress with little decay in form (objective event) while they saw something totally different. The argument I heard was that the workout was ‘too hard’ (subjective decision) in spite of the fact that they all finished the work in approximately 20 minutes without injury or changes in load or volume from the program originally prescribed. What I then asked was, “too hard based on what?” Simply, the DATA supported my argument not theirs.

The basis for ‘too hard’ is the set belief that exercise looks, feels, smells and tastes like ‘X’ and that anything else is wrong. David Diggle describes this in his e-book, ‘Mind the Gap, The Science Behind the Sporting Mind, “In order to reduce the overwhelming amount of information coming in through the five senses, the nervous system deletes, distorts and generalises this information to make it easier to deal with. It is those finer Internal Filters, formed and maintained by the unconscious mind, that instruct the Reticular Activating System. They specify what information to sort for, and it is usually those things that confirm an individual’s long-held beliefs and expectations.” In other words, CrossFit didn’t match ‘X’ for them and rather than seeing that as a challenge, they saw it as something wrong.

I pointed out that at any time the women could stop the workout if it was indeed ‘too hard’. But, I’ll admit that something about the ‘3-2-1-Go’ of a CrossFit stopwatch says otherwise and it’s tough to convince anyone that stopping is an option. Seligman did further experiments to prove what a difference that understanding can make.

“A similar experiment was done with people who performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. If the person could use a switch to turn off the noise, his performance improved, even though he rarely bothered to turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect (Hiroto and Seligman, 1975).”
If simply stopping was the answer, what would motivate an athlete to work through it? That’s where a good coach or a good boss recognizes that each person has a different set of challenges that require a different set of tools. Dave Diggle, a former Gymnast and Gymnastic Coach addressed this.

“When dealing with someone whose value system conflicts with your own, you feel it is impossible to communicate with them in their or your current state. By changing some of your behavioural traits either permanently or short-term you can align your behavioural compatibility, allowing you to communicate and influence their behaviour and development before returning to your preferred core values. A double agent if you like. Pg 65”

As a coach or a boss, that forces you to ask yourself the question, do you want to be right or do you want to be successful. If you’re concerned about being right because you’ve been a coach or a manager for so long and you have a certain amount of data that supports the fact that you know what you’re talking about, you may find yourself technically ‘right’ and in reality, unsuccessful.

That’s where having a goal and a clear ‘moving towards’ motivation matters. Having a clear picture of ‘success’ and the factors that would define success is a lot more motivating than a picture of the failure one hopes to dodge or the list of ‘don’t like’ gripes to avoid. And simply designing around potholes and pitfalls doesn’t give clear direction either.

Diggle says, “People move either toward or away from what they do or do not want in life. An example of this is we all know of someone who has tried to lose weight or get fit. Some people do it with ease, while others live on the diet and exercise rollercoaster, losing weight only to put it all back on and more. Oprah Winfrey is a famous and classic case of ‘away from’ motivation, although she talks very optimistically and passionately about her career, she continually talks negatively of not wanting to get fat again or being fat.”

“Those who are ‘away from’ motivated will constantly talk about what they don’t want or want to be. These are the people who say,” I don’t want to be fat,” or,”I don’t want to be unfit.” Sure, this holds some intrinsic repellant motivation initially, however the instant you are not ‘fat’ or ‘unfit,’ your motivation goes and the momentum slows down to a stop. This leaves you desperately short of motivation to continue on your path, and certainly with no room to excel.”

As in all things, balance is the key. Diggle describes the following, “People who move ‘toward’ their target too strongly or blindly may never get around to doing those unpleasant things along the way which are necessary, such as technique foundations or specific physical conditioning. This may leave you vulnerable long-term and expose you to injury. Alternatively, people who are too ‘away from’ motivated may never move until things get bad enough to force their hand. This could be too late to make up the lost time, and leave you wondering,”What if...?”

The key ingredient to motivation is balance and a willingness to be able to do the things that at first may appear unpleasant, while avoiding the relative comfort and safety of staying snugly in ‘average.’

This left me with some interesting decisions to make this summer. I found myself weak and struggling after doing a detox. I had tendonitis in my right knee, a souvenir of speed work in India, shoulder issues I’d been dealing with since my sleepless in Seattle days and undernourishment from a traumatized digestive system yet I didn’t want to lose any more ground.

Having to back down to my lowest point ever in a strength protocol was demoralizing for me. My friend Lance enduring endless ‘remember when’ details comparing my current ‘mortal self’ with the athlete I’d been. Not only was I unwilling to acknowledge my current condition but I was also unwilling to accept that where I’d been hadn’t been particularly great either. I was snugly average blaming all of my obstacles on genetics, age, IQ, social status, etc. trying to push forward in spite of the results I was getting. In truth, to become a better athlete than I was, and that’s the goal, would be to tear some things down to start over and to incorporate the missing pieces – rest and recovery – in a program that was smarter not harder.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, demonstrated the power of the default in his book Predictably Irrational and in his talk for TED in which he asks, ‘Are we in control of our own decisions?’ His studies show that, when it comes to answering complex questions or making hard choices, we tend to go with the default. He demonstrated this by showing that organ donation statistics vary in European countries from 4 to 100 percent depending on how the question is worded and what ‘checking the box’ means.

He also tested a scenario in which a patient was scheduled for hip replacement before the doctor discovered that the patient had never been prescribed a particular drug. In the case of one alternative drug vs. hip replacement, doctors chose to pull the patient back and try the pain killer. When the choice was complicated and there were two untested drugs, the doctors chose to go ahead with the surgery. The default was easier.

I see this all the time when I have a lengthy and maddening discussion about compound free-weight movements vs. Cybex only to see the person amble off to exercise with the cyborgs in spite of the sense I make. It’s predictably irrational that they can work out WHILE drinking coffee and watching the game. It’s the default.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Master

The first thing anyone raised in a small town will tell you is that there’s absolutely, positively nothing to do. It leaves most people with only two choices: find creative ways to continually complain about the nothingness or gossip about anyone doing anything other than complaining about it. What’s especially interesting in this neighborhood is that all the teenage boys seem to do their complaining while absentmindedly playing the guitars they taught themselves to play because there was absolutely nothing to do.

To combat the neighborhood malaise, my sister and I decided to make Easter a little more interesting by involving the Cul de Sac in an Easter Egg hunt. It included all the neighborhood teenagers, featured physical challenges for extra points and was followed by the stuffing of a record number of Peeps in their mouths. Dubbed the ‘peep smackdown,’ it rewarded the winner with not only bragging rights but still more peeps to eat at a more recreational pace if, at that point, they could still stomach the damn things. I vetoed the ‘Headlamps at midnight’ plan my sister devised for the hiding of eggs with the excuse that the candy inside would get damp in the dew when in truth, after hearing the caterwauling of a fisher cat nights earlier, I was more concerned with what I’d find hiding in the dark already.

My uncles left a wildlife book at my Grandmother’s house that Stacey and I used to paw through when staying over night. Unfortunately, thanks to its unnecessarily fierce illustrations, my sister felt certain a bobcat would attack through her second-story bedroom window. As a result, I have a pretty spotty recall of the fisher cat given that Stacey demanded all attention and fears be directed towards the all-powerful wall-scaling, insulated-glass-breaking and undoubtedly poorly mannered child-eating beast that is the bobcat. In fact, she whispering warnings of impending assault across the room one night until I was so scared that I stealthily tip-toed across the room and jumped in bed with her. My sudden pounce was so startling that it resulted in piercing screams from her answered by the piercing screams from me until me discombobulated dad came up to sort out the clinging mass of screaming noise under my sister’s covers.

Having heard a howling fisher cat just days previously screeching, screaming and trampling through the brush, me thinks her fears were misplaced. The sounds were far more threatening than anything slurred by a drunk on Seattle’s streets – the kind of midnight confrontation I’m more prepared to deal with – and I cared not to meet the maker of such mayhem. It aligns with my theory that the notion ‘bad things don’t happen in the country’ would be completely exposed as myth if bodies that went missing and mauled could actually be found. Mostly they’re not and murders go unsolved. The facts are then misrepresented in the statistics where ‘disappearances’ are barely noted. I prefer city stats where fatalities are more straightforward and where fewer people are dragged off by sharply pawed predators.

Instead, at 8 a.m., a time on Sunday morning that to a teenager is actually ‘mid night’, we hid the eggs sans headlamps and then sipped coffee until the ten o’clock start time when the neighborhood teenagers rolled straight out of bed into a groggy congregation in the living room for the reading of rules. Most of said rules were designed to keep the participants from ignoring the physical challenges I’d designed to stress diaphragms through higher heart rates rather than the mustering of competition-level belches which was a more common means of exertion.

By 11 a.m., all the calories expended by running, push-ups, squats and burpees were restored with medicinal doses of refined sugar plucked from plastic eggs as well as all the other edible prizes shared and scoffed down with coffee coolatas from a Dunkin Donuts run. And with that success and perhaps the contact high, I elected to design a scavenger hunt for my nephews because I was bored and so were they. I learned two things: I can’t think like a teenager and they have syrupy slow synapse.

The teenage years are for intracranial housekeeping, the sloughing off of synaptic pathways that have been ignored for some time to make way for sleeker systems without all the clutter. Apparently, they’re heads look a lot like their bedrooms though, unless skulls are more permeable than I think, probably aren’t saturated with Ax body spray. The junk, which is mostly movie lines and pop songs gumming up the works, gets swept out during sleep which is why teenagers need a lot of it.

I interrupted that very process with another ten o’clock start time and then challenged some of the threatened synapse of their downsizing brains by forcing the boys to run around town solving algorithms and collecting stickers all in the hopes of winning UFC on pay per view. My friend Chris and I thought it was a great idea and he even handed out stickers from the meat room at IGA where he cuts chicken and where the boy’s would find him when they solved an algorithm in the store with the answer ‘breastman’ which just proves what a good sport he was about the whole thing. It became less of a good idea as the afternoon wore on and I followed them around town offering hints to move things along. They got stuck in the condom isle of Rite Aid and Chris, recently sprung from his job among the cooling carnage, intervened stating that no teenage boy wants their aunt helping them with this subject.

During the design phase, I thought it was funny to send groups of boys into the drugstore to huddle around Mandelay Climax Control Gel but after waiting twenty minutes, I was ready to speed it up. The scavenger hunt was not intended to be a full day ordeal or require the purchase of mid-puzzle pizza to sustain the troops but here we were and there it was. The next time I’m bored and we do a scavenger hunt, we’ve agreed that all questions will be based on the same five movies that get watched every weekend.

Poking along the dial-up synapse in a group of teenage boys had me pondering a spring clean-up of my own sluggish processes. My digestive system had been limping along since India and yet, in truth, it’s always just sort of limped along. I didn’t realize how genetically blighted I’d been until I watched the rest of my family clutching their guts with various complaints. Gunnar and Dustin, though they have delicate systems masked by the no-holds-barred tussles they’re always starting and by generous slurps of the family aperitif Pepto, also suffer from Buffalo Chicken Amnesia in which they complain of some mysterious gastric upset that aligns perfectly with a trip to Huck’s Hoagies for a Buffalo Chicken Sub. Dockside Burgers stuffed with waffle fries seem to contribute to this mysterious malady unsolved by modern science.

Sandor Ellix Katz, in his book ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, Inside America’s Underground Food Movements’ quoted a 1999 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said, “Unknown agents account for approximately 81 percent of foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations,” [pg 61-62] Katz points out that food related illnesses doubled between 1994 and 2001, and pointed out that Genetically modified foods first entered the market during this period. For the sake of liability, I would like to point out that of that 81% of foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations, a very small fraction have actually eaten a buffalo chicken sub and even fewer have eaten them at Huck’s Hoagies.

“In the past decade, GM ingredients have saturated our diet in the United States through their widespread presence in processed foods. As of 2004, 85 percent of soy and 45 percent of corn grown in the United States was genetically modified. Try finding processed foods without either corn or soy.” [Pg 61]. That particular point was spelled out on food labels and made pretty clear to me even before I read ‘Twinkie Deconstructed’ or before Michael Pollan essentially asked the question, ‘what if we’re really corn’s bitch?’ And, yes, I’m willing to guess which side of the statistic’s buffalo chicken subs falls. I’m pretty sure they’re not organic and lovingly prepared fresh each morning at 3 a.m.

Said Katz, “Boosters of genetic modification point to the fact that we haven’t all died or experienced dramatic illness after a decade of widespread consumption of GM foods. However, the causes of disease are not necessarily obvious, dramatic, or immediate. Often epidemiology (the study of disease transmission) takes decades to understand the impact of certain practices on health, such as smoking tobacco or eating Trans fats.” Frankly, I’m not waiting for death or dramatic illness. I find abdominal distention uncomfortable and inconvenient enough.

Having eaten more processed food than I normally would, I was considering a detox as a sort of post-India and post-processed-debauchery reboot. My friend Taha had recently done the Master Cleanse again, a detox that involves a ten day monodiet drinking nothing but a concoction of equal parts maple syrup and lemon juice diluted in water and finished with a dash of Cayenne pepper. It didn’t sound like something I was going to love as much as tolerate but ten days isn’t a long time and it sounded just wacky enough to be backed by some mystical properties or profound healing alchemy. And its history reinforces that notion.

In 1941 Stanley Burroughs, a former vaudeville performer who gained attention by curing various illnesses with the use of color therapy, wrote the Master Cleanse to cure stomach ulcers in a moment of ‘divine inspiration’. Not only did his ‘Lemonade Diet’ treat ulcers, his clients were reporting that many other conditions cleared up or improved as well. This led Burroughs to conclude that his diet was a cleansing program and he wrote up his findings and recommendations. Since then many people have written about their remarkable results and celebrities have embraced the plan as a quick way to lose a few pounds.

Had it been anybody other than Taha, I’d have filed this somewhere between nephrology and shock therapy. Taha however does research more diligently than me including a successful test of multiple brands of digestive enzymes in small bowls of oatmeal lined up on his kitchen counter. And when pressed for answers I’m more of a library card-catalog of good resources, Taha can answer questions regarding health as if he designed the human body himself. His accent, courtesy of Kenyan prep schools, is also dreamy and makes me want to do what he tells me even when it sounds a little ‘out there’ (The value of vasodilatation caused by smoking half a cigarette post exercise was one of the arguments he offered which gets filed under, ‘requiring more research’ but, as I said, knowing Taha it’s probably right on.)

The other aspect that made it appealing is that Taha never seemed low on energy and lost none of his strength during the ten day fast. I remember the first time he did it, he jumped up on the pull-up bar a couple of pounds leaner after his fast and cranked out a personal record. Nothing about his experience sounded bad especially since I’d grown tired of the hunting and gathering and because my sister, who was preparing for an advanced yoga teacher training with Anna Forest, was just as eager to do it evidenced by her text message on April 23rd:

Stacey/7:33p Must do master cleanse. . . .fart . . . burp . . . . ugh

Me/7:38p I hear you. I don’t care if I ever chew or poo again. I’ve had it with the whole damn system.

Considering that all my salads were brought to me courtesy of South and Central America and my meat could have been wombat as far as I could tell, I had grown tired of the compromises. The hours it had taken me to fly and drive to this hamlet had been withering to me and I had NPR podcasts on my I-Pod to keep me going. My veggies were less travel-savvy and getting less nutrient-dense by the second. Being picked over at a local grocery store dying of loneliness since the locals abandoned it for a Super Wal-Mart was the last soul-sucking insult to my soon-to-be-meal.

With very few organic choices and no access to information on growing practices, my salads were surely dressed in pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and Cindy’s Kitchen Ultimate Blue Cheese which was the only one intentionally added to the list because it’s yummy. In Paul Chek’s ‘How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy!’ he notes that ‘a study of 110 urban and suburban children who ate primarily organic foods had significantly lower organophosphorus pesticide (nervous immune system disruptor) exposure than children on conventional diets. Out of the children tested, only one did not have measurable levels of the pesticide in their urine.” [Pg 57] My salads were all seasoned with pesticides and there wasn’t a lot I could do about it here.

According to Katz in The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, “The World Health Organization reports that three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in more than 250,000 deaths.” Though the most obvious impact is to the workers with the closest contact you have to wonder what damage is done even with trace exposure. Consider or at least spell and then pronounce dibromochloropropane. “In 2004 thousands of Costa Rican banana pickers filed a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles against two chemical corporations (Dow and Royal Dutch/Shell) and three fruit corporations (Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole) over exposure to toxic pesticide, dibromochloropropane, which was banned in the United States in 1979 but is still in use in Costa Rica. The chemical is suspected of causing sterility, testicular atrophy, miscarriages, birth defects, liver damage, and cancer when inhaled or absorbed by the skin.” Slap-on-the-wrist fines were paid. [Pg 113]

I crossed bananas off my shopping list and jumped online and got the basic directions to the Master Cleanse which seemed simple enough. I began a flurry of text messages with Taha in Seattle who would be my lifeline during the whole detox as well as my researcher-by-proxy. I know there are books explaining the Master Cleanse and even if I didn’t know, it was the books for sale that I first skipped over in my Google search for raw data. I was eager, I was ready and I had a few days off from work so I was jumping in without all that meticulous and time consuming data I was always busying myself with. The websites I skimmed urged me to go for it and even skip the prep since most of the anonymous self-declared experts said it was unnecessary. I cherry-picked advise from questionable websites written by people who could have said with equal authority that the cleanse allowed them to poop a demonic spirit and I’d have missed it or nodded like I was paying attention. “Mmm . . . demonic spirit . . . yep, mmm hmmm . . .”

The text messages began:

Me/8:42p Got the recipe for the master cleanse – skipping the ease-in and going for it J won’t be a problem except for, ahem, the coffee . . . .

Taha/8:43p Sweet. Use organic mp, lemons, and cayenne. Get the smooth move and consider enzymes for an extra boost.

SmoothMove tea is made by Traditional Medicinals and according to the website, “provides gentle, overnight relief from occasional constipation.” If by gentle they mean the following scene as described by my sister who was driving down the highway when ‘relief’ arriving in the form of cramps, upper-lip sweat, and the Rain Man style muttering of combined prayer and pep talk as she raced to the nearest gas station then, yes, gentle is the word. Senna leaf says the website, “promotes bowel movement by direct action on the intestine.* A single serving provides an effective dose of sennosides from senna leaf, which have proven stimulant laxative action. We include additional digestive support with fennel, orange peel, cinnamon, coriander and ginger to ease discomfort and reduce cramping.” After experimenting with various doses of this tea myself, I would suggest a more heavy-handed use of the ‘additional digestive support’ thanks.

Michael D. Gershon, M.D. author of 'The Second Brain' is less moved by its merits, “As I noted earlier, “natural” is not necessarily synonymous with good, or even safe. Plants are out there making all kinds of perfectly natural things that are toxic to people and animals.” Gershon continues, “Senna, however, has a following and carries a relatively low medical profile. There have not been many studies of its effects, but one that I remember well, presented at a gastroenterology meeting in England, showed slide after slide of distorted and dying enteric nerve cells removed in biopsies from the colons of patients who developed pseudo-obstructions after taking senna. Certainly, there is not yet any conclusive evidence that proves that senna causes harm. Still, when it comes to “regularity”, I think that a bowl of crudités – or, if worst comes to worst, prunes – has a lot to recommend it.” [Pg 169-70]

Taha/8:44p Also the tea company that makes smooth move has very good chicory and everyday tea that you can use.

Me/8:45p I can’t get organic lemons here – already tried. Maple is made down the street by a friend. Can only get organic cayenne 30 minutes from here.

By the way, it’s important to note that it would be unwise to inquire if the maple syrup in New England is organic. It’s boiled sap. It doesn’t get more organic. Inquiries such as this get you talked about a lot more than you would have been talked about anyway. But given that the fumes of processing Fenugreek generated by Frutarom in New Jersey caused a caustic cloud known as the maple syrup mist over Manhattan should have you reading labels for, if not organic, at least authentic. Who knows if fenugreek is used to make artificial maple but it’s known for encouraging lactation not detoxification which could lead to some unexpected results.

Me/8:46p Stacey has the smooth move tea – do you use that instead of the salt water flush?

Me/8:48p [in regards to the enzymes] I can pick those up this week. Is it ok to supplement like that? It doesn’t mess anything up?

Taha/8:48p Use salt water flush every three days. I did two of them.

Me/8:49p Not every night like they say? Cuz frankly that seemed pretty burley.

My impressions of the salt water flush were colored by a non-official website which described the downing of two tablespoons of salt in one liter of water to be consumed in one glug that will then pass straight through the imbiber. That sounded only slightly less pleasant than shot-gunning Schlitz or swallowing a Tasmanian devil and pointing him to the exit.

This flush recipe was the route I would take a couple of times during my ten days and before I read the book ‘The Complete Master Cleanse’ in which Tom Woloshyn said, “Please do not drink the quart of salt water all at one time, as you will probably throw it up and be disgusted with it. I take about ten minutes to drink my salt water, and I warm it to body temperature before consuming it,” the quart, not liter though the measure is damn near the same, of water was mixed with two teaspoons not tablespoons of salt according to Woloshyn who explains, “The salt water is mixed to the same salinity as your blood. When you drink this mixture, the salinity causes the water not to be absorbed into the bloodstream.”

Gershon discusses this method in The Second Brain and explains it as follows, “Another approach is to provide the bowel with a load of salt that it is unable to absorb. The laxatives that work this way are called saline cathartics. Milk of magnesia (magnesium sulfate) is a well-known example of such a laxative. The salt, which stays in the lumen of the gut attracts water by osmosis. The result is to increase the pressure inside the intestinal lumen, which stimulates the peristaltic reflex.” [Pg 168]

The correct measures as well as the explanation of why and how the salt water flush works were the sort of useful tidbits from the book I could have shared with my sister when she asked compelling questions like, “why do you do the saltwater flush and how does it work?” Instead, the answer, “I don’t know. It’s probably in the book,” or “I’m sure Taha knows” where the standard answers for the duration of the detox. Besides all the other things that Taha knows, he knew that all the information I needed was in the book that I clearly should have read first. This was mentioned in that very first text message exchange.

Taha/8:49p You should get that book . . . It does a good job of telling you how best to implement the mc. Eg how not to create large batches of the mixture and stuff like that.

Me/8:51p I know – I’ll get the book. I’m just eager to start.

Taha/ 8:54p Be not overly eager young jedi . . . Do it right, you will reap the benefits. Call me before you start for tips and tricks.

Me/8:55p I’m starting tomorrow :)

We started our first day badly by premixing the liter of maple syrup and lemon juice with the cayenne and then, with burning lips and scrinched noses, dubbed it ‘Swill’. By the end of the day and the end of only one of the two liters each, we both started our epic caffeine headaches at about the same time. Stacey went to her room where she tried not to notice how much blinking hurt and I practiced a squinty, thousand-mile stare from the couch. I spent that night feeling like my teeth were going to fall out if my head didn’t crack open first. She and I left the house at different times in the morning and I received the following message the next evening:

Stacey/ 5:41p Great we’re caffeine junkies.

Me/5:42p Awesome. Is it a gateway drug?

By then, I had started to experience leg pain that began like a little achy sort of antsy feeling and then escalated. I sent a message to Taha:

Me/5:45p My sister was throwing up last night, we both had splitting headaches and my legs hurt so bad I can’t sit still. Caffeine withdrawal – joy.

Taha/ 7:41p Nice . . . You’re detoxing . . . Hang in there . . .

Me/7:42p Dude – it hurts like hell. I can’t sit still, I can’t lie down . . . .

Taha/ 7:43p Take more enzymes and watch a movie or something . . . .

Me/ 7:52p In other words, “suck it up, sister.” Whatever happened to rubbing my belly and feeding me brownies?

My messages got more desperate as I became more sleep deprived.

Me/10:13a Ok, this is serious. My legs hurt so badly that I walked in circles all nigh and never slept. I can’t keep this up much longer. Is this normal?

Taha/ 12:11p Hun, there is no “normal” with the MC. Everyone has a unique experience. In the accounts I’ve read some people get extremely sick in the middle then improve drastically towards the end. NB that you are detoxing 38 years of toxification. Did you start taking enzymes? If you take systemic ones it might help with the pain

Interestingly, he called me ‘hun’ which is a word used only by experts of Norse sagas or raspy New England toll both matrons. And no, I hadn’t started taking the enzymes since the selection at the one ‘health food store’ was bleak.

Me/8:09p Did salt water flush. Um, thanks for the warning. Valuable 411. Wasn’t too bad. (He warned me that under no circumstances was I to pass gas unless I was sitting on the toilet since it would probably consist of at least eight ounces of water) My legs are still bad and I can’t sit still or lie down for long but I ran 400m plus 50 sit-ups for four rounds and still finished under twenty. It was the only time my legs felt ok

Taha/ 8:11p Um . . . that’s not light cardio you punk . . . .

Me/ 8:12p Oops. It’s the whole ‘go’ or ‘stop’ thing – can’t seem to find a middle gear. It helped for awhile :)

Taha: 8:13p Seriously . . . . take it easy or you’ll get sick . . . Either way you’ll learn about your body :)

Me/8:15p Yes. I’ve already learned my legs are a toxic waste dump. It explains the thick ankles – they were just polluted.

Taha/ 8:34p Haha . . . It’s like you’re going ‘green’ one limb at a time . . .

Me/8:37p Dude, I’m either going to be 100 percent clean or diagnosed with bone cancer. This is one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever dealt with and I’m just scared there isn’t going to be an end soon.

Taha/ 8:38p Doooood . . . . . . . Chhhhiiiiilllll . . . . .

Me/8:39 Gladly. Got a tranquilizer dart?

I realized that I was being a smidge dramatic but at the same time I’d been thinking about my mother through most of my experience and for some reason I felt as if the pain I was feeling was beginning to approach the pain she had felt through the last year of her life with bone cancer. There was no way in which I could be sure of that and yet that day I had started to feel a sense of awe for what she’d endured.

I later sent Taha this update:

Me/10:05p Stacey quit maple syrup after she threw it up six times on the first day. She’s drinking lemon water, using raw honey and swallowing a capsule of cayenne.

According to Woloshyn in The Complete Master Cleanse, “Maple syrup’s properties are what make it suitable for a cleanse. Maple syrup contains a number of minerals and vitamins, in trace amounts. Depending on where the syrup was collected, the amount of nutrients varies, as does the taste. Both are determined by mineral content in the soil and the growing conditions of the maple trees.” He then lists the nutrient content as: Potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, sodium, iron, zinc, copper, tin, sulfur, silicon, Vitamins A, B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, biotin, folic acid as well, as a trace amount of amino acids. I, of course, had no information to give my sister since I was still operating without the book and she elected to go with the advice of her naturopath who approved of the alterations. Probably a wise choice. I, however, was doing the Master Cleanse, was writing about the Master Cleanse and wanted to test the results of the Master Cleanse which didn’t allow me to go rogue. Taha, a scientist down to his last mitochondria, had the following to say:

Taha/ 10:09p They specifically tell u not to use honey because it’s bee puke. . . Jeez . . . There’s like 3 ingredients to this . . . You can’t just change 33% of the ingredients . . . . And expect to see valid results

Woloshyn spells it out, “You must never substitute any artificial sweetener, such as Splenda, Equal, aspartame, or honey (which has been predigested by the bee). Honey is created from nectar and natural sugar.” His argument against honey is the difference in nutrient density but for ten days this shouldn’t have too great an impact. Some practitioners allow their clients to do Agave Nectar but for no longer than ten days because of the nutrient deficiencies that occur.
Two days later, Taha checked in again:

Taha/ 1:14p MC status of the day?

Me/1:16p Tough sleeping but I’m ok during the day as long as I’m standing. No hunger, high energy. Everything is great other than the legs.

Taha/ 1:23p Nice . . . You’re working out of the whole kudos. . . It gets easier now.

Me/ 2:55p Oh, and my mouth tastes like ass no matter how many times I brush my teeth. I actually woke myself up with the foulness.

And not only did I wake myself up but the cat woke me up as well. Smelling what was obviously a rotting rat carcass and feeling it necessary to investigate, Lu Lu stuck her little snout in my mouth and jolted me to life sometime around 3 a.m. – the obvious height of my oral funk.

Taha / 4:07p Hahaha . . . . Is your tongue white?

Me/4:07p Give me a sec – I’ll go check . . .

Me/ 4:08p It’s completely white!

Taha/ 4:08p Wow . . . You’re doing such an amazing service to yourself

Me/ 4:12p Seriously. I’m blaming India for my HazMat status. I should be roped off with warning signs.

After seven days of not chewing food and not tasting anything but lemonade and an assortment of herbal teas that may or may not have been allowed since several sights supported non-caffeinated tea while Woloshyn allowed for only mint tea, my palate was ready for something new and exciting. Everything around me smelled wonderful and I began plotting my first meal the way some people plan for retirement. Taha and I talked about cravings on the phone the night before and it got my brain nibbling.

Me/4:11p Today I really wanted chocolate or Swedish fish or chocolate covered Swedish fish. Maybe coffee.

Taha / 4:24p Apparently . . . . As you detox . . . . You crave foods you had cravings for in the past

Me/ 4:40p Thin crust mushroom, onion and black olive pizza. Slightly greasy with pepperoni that’s crisp and curled on the edges.

Stacey, who I’d seen very little of as she traveled around teaching various yoga classes had been experiencing her own array of aches and symptoms and chimed in from somewhere up north with her own report of cravings.

Stacey / 3:53p I want a pretzel.

On day eight I took a dramatic nosedive for reasons I can theorize but never know. First, I’d been working out through the whole thing which ‘The Complete Master Cleanse’ has mixed advice about. The book reports people doing cleanses for a full year and training for triathlons during it but then suggests that you don’t do anything excessive or extreme. Helpful. Also, I hadn’t gotten the dosage right on the SmoothMove tea and wasn’t having the required number of bowel movements. I also had, coincidently or not, started using a ‘Fasting Support’ tea that could have thrown me under the bus. The exchange of text messages follows:

Me/3:27 Day 8 – random vaginal bleeding and a urinary tract infection. It’s 3p – just put my pjs on and a movie in. I was a walking environmental hazard.

Taha/ 3:33p Just looked into it and your menstrual cycles can reset. How do you know u have an infection?

Me/3:37p Urgent need to pee, small squirt of urine following by a gripping pain in the bladder. It’s funny, I just finished my period when I started the cleanse.

Taha/ 3:38p Thank u for the graphic detail.

Me/343p It’s a pretty powerful thing if I can get my period ramped up in eight days and ready to go again. As you would say, that’s some crazy shit.

Taha/ 3:39p Gosh if someone was reading my text messages I wonder what they’d think

Greater joy was to follow:

Me/3:44p Day nine – migrating back pain, bleeding from urethra, throwing up. No period – that was the UTI. Feel like death. Freezing cold. Not moving from couch.

Taha / 4:41p Wow. . So are you going to do it for longer then?

Me/6:19p I’ll finish up today since I’d rather not throw up solid food and then I think I’ll eat tomorrow. I have to work a double shift Thursday and I need to be ready.

Me/9:12p I finished today but I’m out of lemons so I just might wrap it up a day early. Today was bleak. Lot’s of pain. Threw up a couple of times and stayed on the couch.

Since I hadn’t squeezed in the second saltwater flush, I elected to do it on the morning of day nine which was probably my first mistake of the day. My second involved my reentry into the world of solid food. As much as I scoffed at the ‘ramp-up’ I was equally skeptical of the exit strategies particularly because I was leery of fruit juice which has always kicked my ass, sucked my energy and put me straight to sleep. On top of the UTI and my downward spiral, I didn’t like the idea of adding a bunch of sugar. I went with the admittedly ‘fuckit’ answer of a hardboiled egg, devoid of fiber I reasoned, and thoroughly chewed. I was optimistic when Taha sent me a text:

Taha/ 11:36p How’s the taper off coming along?

Me/11:47p Good. I was ok this morning. Did the salt water flush had some tea and then started in with hardboiled eggs. Still bleeding a bit though.

In the middle of that night, after several hours of suffering with chills and a cramp in my gut that felt as if the entire egg had reassembled itself and lodged in my intestines, I woke up my sister. We briefly discussed going to the hospital – something neither one of us ever really consider which could, at some point, catch up with either one of us – before she sat next to me on the bed, did some energy work and talked to me until I was ready to try and sleep.

This was how I began my next month as a zombie under the same roof as my nephew Dustin, self-proclaimed expert in surviving the coming Zombie apocalypse. Lucky for me he had yet to purchase the 3 ½ pound ax ideal for beheading – the only viable method of killing a zombie – as the weight has a decent bite but a nice graceful arc that’s easy on the arm when mowing down multiples of undead. It was on sale at Leow’s and I think he saw it as the ideal gift for his upcoming birthday. I turned to Taha yet again in the hopes that he had zombie anti-virus:
Me/4:37p Intestines didn’t recover and I wanted to pick your brain. I was up last night w/chills and cramps – almost went to ER. Also had some stuff to share of interest.

Taha/4:43p Oohhh . . . Not good . . . Yup we should chat

Me/4:48 Oddly, when I ate I became irrationally angry. My sister did reiki on me at 2a because I thought I had an intestinal blockage. It’s still troubling me.

Taha/ 4:49p I kinda though that would happen when u said you were going to eat boiled eggs . . . But I guessed you knew your body better than I did. . Evidently not :-P

The body I’d come to know over the next month was not only fifteen pounds lighter and considerably weaker, but one that would continue to operate like the undead I’d become. I went back on the master cleanse after two days of cramps, headaches, chills and fatigue simply to get some calories into my system. I drank lemonade for two days while fighting dehydration, a UTI and continued cramps that left me writhing, squirming and exhausted. Then I eased off of it with a vegetable soup cooked to mush in the Crockpot with ginger and garlic. In the next week or so I could make it through eight hour shifts at work nibbling on small meals of raw vegetables that I came to crave but was unable to eat any protein. Three days after the fast I started drinking coffee again – another sound use of ‘fuckit’ logic.

I tried hiding my big, ghostly hazel eyes and my pale lifeless face under the mop of unnatural black hair whenever Dustin walked into the room talking about tunnels under Garwood’s restaurant where team Fox Trot, his group of zombie survivalists assembled on Facebook, will hide until their escape to Canada where zombie’s and lovers of trans fat starve to death and where Fox Trot will begin the business of repopulating the planet. Had I been a mole, I’d be sending coded messages to my lifeless brethren, undoubtedly on Facebook saying, ‘eckchay arwoodsgay asementbay’ or something less obvious given the mad zombie extermination skills of my nephew.

I ate little. I slept a lot. I watched the entire first season of The Tudor’s on a bootlegged CD with the same sluggish synapse of a teenager. Karma, baby.

The percentage of protein to carbohydrates – so thoroughly skewed from my normal intake – had me up several times a night to go to the bathroom to pee urgently. It was hard to tell with the lingering urinary tract infection if that was a warning sign of blood-sugar crises but it wasn’t good. Also, the chills persisted usually late in the day. I was frustrated at the gym by the weakness I was feeling and though I understood that I was at where I was at, I was feeling like a ‘mere mortal’ for the first time in a long stretch of strong-like-bull antics. Where was my pull-up PR, I wondered as I dangled weakly from the bar one frustrating afternoon.

Oddly I felt like, for the most part, the detox was a good thing even though I had no proof that it did anything other than make me sick. And even that was in question since my execution of the Master Cleanse was so poorly done. I felt like I was on to something, and I ordered a detox kit from Dr. Mercola’s website that promised the Club Med of cleansing and I gladly drank the gritty, lumpy and swampy post-meal concoctions I would refer to as ‘bog water’ while my face naturally contorted into one of those expressions that mother’s warn will freeze that way.

Friday, April 17, 2009


The very idea that you can take one egg yolk and a cup and a half of olive oil and turn it into mayonnaise stretches my imagination. With this, I’m just a flat earth-er who would have been happy to persecute Galileo while he was under house arrest had he been going on about sandwich spread instead of heliocentrism. I’m assuming that’s why, in spite of all my culinary escapades, I’ve always sucked at mayonnaise.

I stood in the kitchen in my sister’s pink fleece Eeyore pajamas - the only article of clothing that, when paired with a XXL red Michael Jordon Hoodie stolen from a nephew, can beat back the relentless chill - trying to whip up a batch of olive oil mayonnaise the old fashioned way; with a flimsy balloon Wisk muttering the mantra ‘must not break mayonnaise, must not break mayonnaise . . .” My body swiveled like a dashboard hula dancer gyrating over frost heaves as I tried to generate momentum from the hip. It would have looked intense if I wasn’t all pink, fuzzy and floppy socked. It turns out, the only thing intense about it was the likelihood that the synthetic ensemble would ignite and catch fire given the friction, my own rising body temperature and a spark of frustration.

Apparently the fastest way to break an emulsion is to seethe while stirring much like the fastest way to get killed in a horror movie is to check out the basement. At about a cup of oil poured a tablespoon at a time followed by frantic whisking, my mayo curdled into grainy lumps – technically flocculation, which is roughly reminiscent of the expletive I actually used - polluting a pool like the tide that had finally come in on my Exxon environmental mishap. I might have saved it with an extra yoke but I let it flatline if only so my arm could rest and my pajamas could cool below melting point. Lite Olive Oil - $7 a bottle, Organic Cage Free Omega-3 Eggs – 31 cents each, Coleman’s Dry Mustard – a few pennies per tablespoon, being defeated in the kitchen by a flimsy utensil and a couple of ordinary ingredients – priceless.

I was left with fetal mayo suitable only for stem cell research and a thorough working of my last nerve anatomically positioned in my wrist. ‘Whipping mayonnaise with a flimsy wire Wisk’ even sounds like an expression of frustration one would use in New England where locals have been known to describe feelings with obscure references such as, “it’s like sucking swamp water up your ass with a bent flavor straw!” or so said my high school boyfriend’s father frequently as if I could totally relate to the futility of it. I think I couldn’t. Until now.

This was not my first failed mayo and yes, I have mayo baggage. The alchemy of emulsions escapes me always but my brother-in-law Rolfe eats so damn much mayo that I felt compelled to throw myself in front of his fork for the sake of his arteries. But for me, it’s easier to construct a fertilizer bomb in my sister’s kitchen which would have been no more dangerous to Rolfe than his mass consumption of canola and Soybean oil – the coming together of the two agricultural evils known as corn and soy, Boris and Natasha - and all the raw materials he’d need to plaster shut his aorta. Granted, all that fat had been stoking his metabolism without adding a pound of insulation to his tall, efficient frame. Rolfe, nicknamed “the mountain man” by my sister, has already wandered out to the tent platform in the backyard this week to sleep under the stars and inhale the smells of sprouting spring on the brisk unwilling-to-let-go-of-winter breeze while I stayed inside huddled under three comforters refusing to roll over and risk straying into unheated-sheet territory. I slept in the hoodie and refused to take off my bra to avoid the three seconds of chill while Rolfe headed outside with a pillow and only the one pair of socks. Boggling. It would be too ordinary to see the man felled by the food giant Hellman’s when he’d dodged hypothermia and the sort of snorting, drooly things that I’m convinced hang out just past the tent platform.

Besides my history of unstable emulsions, my tools were simply not up to task and I knitted my eyebrows and occasionally threw a stink-eye into the bowl when I’d pause to add oil as if I could intimidate my ingredients. Sure, I’d save him from canola only to give him indigestion with all the foul energy I was adding. Frankly, I should have left mayo alone but I had gotten cocky.

For weeks I baked for the bookseller testing recipes, swapping out the more harmful ingredients for healthier substitutes, locally sourcing products of greater quality, using as much organic ingredients as possible, making things tastier given those parameters and still keeping an eye on cost. I was beginning to fancy myself a chef but it was also an SAT word problem coming back to haunt me. At moments like this I think of Ludwig Von Beethoven who used exactly 60 coffee beans to make his coffee and he was, after all, a creative genius. I like to compare myself to him only at these moments but not as much when I’m reminded that he died alone, grouchy and with few friends. Perhaps the pursuit of perfection makes you a genius or being a genius makes you tolerable when your pursuit of perfection makes you a royal pain in the ass. Hmm, this opens up a new area of painstaking research.

Searching this town for real ingredients had already proven more challenging than you’d think so I started looking in obscure places just to be thorough. This included a curiously named ‘Ocean State Job Lot’ which is curious because it was here in the ‘Granite State’ while the ‘Ocean State’ was several hours south and it seemed just unlikely enough to qualify as the last stone one would tentatively turn. I got past the overwhelming stench of vulcanized rubber, and even that ‘high ceiling that leaks’ feel which I’d describe in those words like I was telling ghost stories in an attempt to capture the reason places like this freak me right the hell out for my audience. I grew up shopping in the depressing maw of Ames department store – the only department store - dodging the 30-gallon garbage cans catching spring’s thaw between water stains and racks of unnecessarily perky, stiff, pastel outfits warn by me, my classmates and famine refugees in third world countries benefiting from Red Cross donations.

Passing first the clothes racks in Ocean State Job Lot, I began to wonder if the only thing laundered here was money. The random collection of food items, unconvincingly labeled ‘Gourmet’ in case you weren’t clear that the price is a steal, hinted that these foods were either being punished for delinquent behavior on the assembly line or they were inadvertently exposed to trauma that nobody wanted to talk about. The website explained this odd collection in a tone that reminded me of some thuggish mafia heavy politely explaining the finer details of lone sharking, “Although we are known as a closeout company, we prefer to think of ourselves as opportunistic merchants."

Be assured that with no assistance from Ocean State Job Lot, I successfully concocted a maple sticky bun that took two risings under the woodstove and came in at a reasonable cost but only because the backyard maple syrup was donated. Otherwise, it was costly, labor intensive and left puddles of sticky maple syrup and gluey board flour everywhere. If it was my kitchen I would have seriously considered torching it for the insurance money after the first batch rather than cleaning it.

As it was, I’d been trying not to leave a huge environmental impact short of trekking out my own poop in Ziplocs. My sister was already waking up to a sink full of dishes which would lead me to believe that the secret to Abercrombie skinny is that my nephews only eat when they’re sleeping. Between that and hunting socks like wild game, there’s not a lot of time left over for hosing yourself down after a tarring and feathering with syrup and flour.

Some underutilized areas of the kitchen seldom made the cleaning roster after yet another sink full of dishes but luckily the main area of disregard was something I generally avoided entirely myself: the Microwave. Given the opacity of the door, it makes a lousy terrarium but farming is in our blood and perhaps that’s what inspired my sister to grow fauna in a ring around the rotisserie. Though I sounded like Kasandra continuing to yell the insistent and yet ignored alarm, I am sure that subjecting this already radiation resistant strain to continuing zaps like a single-celled Dr. David Banner will only make it stronger and maybe even a little angry.
Does the fact that this master race can already withstand two minutes on high better than singed popcorn left five seconds two long concern anybody but me? You’d have to think after all the hygiene violations in India; I’d be willing to spread this stuff on toast like Marmite. Maybe since I refuse to use the microwave I’ll not only avoid the obvious risk of infection but I’ll be spared as a sympathizer when it stages its coup. I’ve already spotted the advanced team holding position near the shower drain and once that’s secure, I fear the take-over bid is imminent. In the meantime, I just go about my cooking projects in the otherwise clean kitchen but pause to throw a few sacrificial crumbs in as an offering before quickly slamming the door.

One such project was a lemon bread that used so much zest that there was a growing pile of naked lemons littering the counter with that sad sheared-sheep look. I was embarrassed to look at them directly. I tried for awhile to make salads with a lemon juice and olive oil dressing but my consumption slowed and I instead watched them wither. I was too engrossed in the lemon bread geometry to stop and chew through lemony roughage.

The bread, a sort of pound cake, was a whole different kind of problem. According to Shirley O Corriher in ‘BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking,’ it takes a perfect balance of flour, sugar, fat and eggs to make a perfect cake. She explains, “Flour and eggs contain the proteins that set to hold the cake. They are the structural elements; however, they can dry the cake. When some of the proteins in flour form gluten, they absorb water, which removes some moisture from the cake. Egg whites are incredible drying agents.” My first task with this recipe provided by a local cook was to replace the all-purpose flour with cake flour which I believe yields a more tender cake.

“Sugar and fat, on the other hand, make the cake tender and moist but they can wreck the structure. Fat coats flour proteins to prevent their joining to form gluten, and too much sugar prevents proteins from setting, so that the cake ends up being pudding,” says Corriher. This cake was short on sugar but was glazed with a sweetened lemon juice glaze that made up the difference on the top of the cake but didn’t sink as much as I’d hoped even when I poked the whole cake with holes before pouring on the glaze.

Using Corriher’s cake math to tackle the problem, I started tweaking the measures. Why is it that I’m unwilling to balance my checkbook but balancing cake ingredients suddenly seemed like a necessary but long-lost life skill? “For a successful cake, the structural elements (flour and eggs) have to be balanced with the structure wreckers (sugar and fat). If you have too much flour and/or eggs the cake will be dry. If you have too much sugar and/or fat, the cake will not set. The perfect balance of the four main ingredients creates a moist, tender cake.” Pg 12-13 Oh, sure there’s the fancy footwork of adding a third of the dry ingredients followed by half of the wet followed by a third of the dry followed by half of the wet and finally a third of the dry. There’s also the one-egg-at a-time dance in conjunction with beating the butter like stepchildren but, once the flour is added, taking a manic mood swing towards tender-loving care.

Like Mayo, this requires an understanding of emulsifiers like eggs, butter and cream. Why bother? Because Continental Baking Co., the maker of Twinkies and other so-called food companies, don’t care to use eggs, butter and cream anymore and have moved on to synthetic emulsifiers and mechanized processes that are frightening.

After a disillusioning stint as a biochemist for Quaker Foods, Paul A. Stitt in ‘Fighting the Food Giants’ makes the comment, “Quaker doesn’t do animal feeding studies on most of its products anymore, because too often these tests show their ‘foods’ are incapable of sustaining life.” This is an observation Stitt made after finding a 1942 report in which rats fed Puffed Rice cereal died after only two weeks which was considerably faster than the rats fed nothing at all. When confronted with this information that by that time had been available for thirty-eight years, then Quaker Foods president Robert D. Stuart III said, “I know people should throw it on brides and grooms at weddings but if they insist on sticking it in their mouths, can I help it? Besides we made $9 million on that stuff last year.” Stitt surmised, “Why, they figure, should they waste money on tests that are just going to tell them things they don’t want to know? In reality most of Quaker’s research efforts are aimed not at finding new products or improving the old ones, but in cutting the cost of production.” Pg 65

“Proteins are very similar to certain toxins in molecular structure, and the puffing process of putting grain under 1500 pounds per square inch of pressure and then releasing it may produce chemical changes which turn a nutritious grain into a poisonous substance,” Stitt said in explanation of the health implications of puffed wheat. Regarding the extrusion process used to make other shaped cereals, Stitt was quoted in ‘Cereal Killer’ by Alan L. Watson saying, “[extrusion] destroys the fatty acids; it even destroys the chemical vitamins that are added at the end. The amino acids are rendered very toxic by this process. The amino acid lysine, a crucial nutrient, is especially denatured by extrusions.” Watson points out, “all dry boxed cereals are made in this manner – even the dry boxed cereals sold in natural food groceries,“ and yes, to be clear, those are the boxes you pay a couple of extra dollars for because they are ‘healthy.’

When it’s not the process that’s unhealthy it’s the additives designed to do what real food does at a fraction of the cost. One of the most mysterious and yet ubiquitous is Polysorbate 60 which, it turns out is corn syrup and palm oil that have both been hydrogenated, pressed, hydrolyzed, fractionated and hydrogenated to create a high-performance emulsifier added to Twinkie’s ‘creamy filling.’ To find out exactly what it is, Steve Ettlinger went to Uniqema under the Delaware memorial bridge and wrote about it in ‘Twinkie, Deconstructed’.

“Corn syrup and palm oil are pumped at a temperature of almost 500 degrees into six-thousand gallon reactor vessels and blended with a secret, proprietary catalyst for ten hours. What emerges are tens of thousands of pounds of thick, waxy liquid sorbitan monostearate, or SMS,” [pg 194] describes Ettlinger in a process that doesn’t sound even remotely ingestible. What makes PS-60 is the next step described by Ettlinger, “When chemists learned that the petrochemical ethylene oxide reacted with other chemicals to make them water soluble, they tried it on SMS, and polysorbate 60 was born.”

If you’re not scared already, Ettlinger said, “Ethylene oxide is an excellent but entirely unlikely food chemical, seeing as it is highly explosive (it was used in tunnel-busting shells during the Vietnam War), a known human carcinogenic, and a respiratory, skin, and eye irritant.” But I’m sure we would never be misled if it were discovered that PS-60 is really bad for you or something. Of course, when it comes to food, we only ever find out if the toxin kills you quick like a bunny. Not so much if it’s slow, painful, and results in healthcare profits.

“Ethylene and oxygen are mixed – carefully – in a forty-foot-long cylindrical reactor filled with a catalyst, a thin layer of silver on an alumina, silica, or ceramic base in the shape of thousands of 3/8-inch diameter pellets, packed into inch-wide tubes within the reactor. The EO is then cooled and liquefied so some can be shipped in special, protective cylinders to the polysorbate plants, but the bulk of it is used to make polyester fibers and PET, the plastic in our ubiquitous soft drink and water bottles. Much of the rest goes into ethylene glycol for antifreeze, polyurethane foam, and brake fluid.” Which I’m sure would make a great cocktail at your next mixer, if only it didn’t taste really, really bad.

“After some deodorizing and purification, out pours greasy, tan goo: polysorbate 60, ready to be mixed with oil and water. I’m warned not to taste a sample. It is so bitter, and the aftertaste on the back of your tongue is so cloying, that an engineer sternly cautions me, saying “You won’t be able to taste your dinner for a week,” wrote Ettlinger. Could I have been the only one who read this and wasn’t dying to put some of this stuff in lemon bread? Granted, PS-60 appears in very small amounts but without it, Twinkies would take much less than a year or so to spoil thus contributing to waste which in turn increases the cost to the manufacturer. This is why my lemon bread is $2.50 a slice.

Much like PS-60 replaces butter and cream, artificial vanilla replaces real vanilla in most if not all readily available baked goods. The difference in flavor is astounding but most people have so little exposure to real vanilla that the tragedy of it is lost. Were we to rely on real vanilla, which can take five to six years from the time it’s planted to the time that it’s sold, we’d probably purchase fewer baked goods making desert the rare treat as it’s intended rather than the accompaniment to every meal. We’d also enjoy it more.

In Seattle, I’d slice open three or four pods of organic vanilla and stuff them into a fifth of rum to marinate for a month so that I could have decent vanilla to bake with. The month of agitating the bottle every few days seemed like a painstaking process until I read how vanilla itself is pollinated, ripened and cured as described by Ettlinger, “Vanilla beans, which are actually not beans at all but the fruit of the only tropical orchid in the world to bear fruit – are famously difficult to grow and process. Vanilla only grows in tropical, equatorial climates, where the flowers are pollinated by hand in hillside gardens, a technique discovered in 1841 in French Madagascar. The delicate act takes place between dawn and noon on the one day in its life that the flower opens (the unlucky flowers drop to the ground). The beans first ripen on the vine for nine months before being harvested green and flavorless, when the curing process begins. They are dried for three to six months in special boxes and the open air, and are brought in each night and when it rains. Each pod is turned by hand as needed. Curing is an art but technically a way of inducing natural enzymatic action, or fermentation, to create aroma” (Page 203).

In contrast, artificial vanilla, or synthetic 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, starts with another flammable and carcinogenic component Benzene. “Artificial vanilla manufacturing starts a long way form the flower fields, with crude oil and one of its basic components, benzene, a colorless, sweet-smelling, flammable liquid solvent, one of the so-called aromatic compounds in flowers, fruits, and vegetables as well as in crude oil (the major source), natural gas and coal tar.” I can only imagine the chemistry undergrad who sat in the lab sniffing benzene while finishing up a midterm and deciding some time around 3 a.m. to put this stuff on ice cream. To her, that may have been a great idea.

“At the refinery, benzene is oxidized at the steam cracker and reacted with propylene (also from petroleum) to get cumene, an important industrial chemical, which is then further reacted to get phenol, a clear, sweetish-tarry-smelling liquid that used to be sold under its common name, carbolic acid, as a sore throat remedy (it was the first surgical antiseptic used by Sir Joseph Lister, who invented the mouthwash that still bears his name). Phenol is still used in antiseptic products; it was reacted with formaldehyde to make the first plastic, Bakelite, too, but is now mostly used to make polycarbonates (including CDs) and plywood glue, with leftovers going into artificial vanilla.” And, again, the food industry calls this innovation and even ‘product differentiation’ while the medical establishment calls it Pica.

In case you think we’ve reached the almost –radioactive end of the trail, Ettlinger continues, “The phenol is condensed into white crystals called catechol, an oily methyl ester used in photographic developers, which is liquefied and catalyzed into guaiacol, a yellowish semisolid, light-sensitive alcohol that has a slight smoky/woody/spicy vanilla scent. This is dried into off-white crystals or liquefied and sold by the major chemical companies to the major flavor companies for further processing into vanillin” (Pg 207).

The final step –by now I think it would have been easier to drink Hemlock though I’m not sure it tastes anything like Vanilla – Etllinger describes as follows, “Next, the guaiacol is reacted under high temperature and pressure, with a dash of the corrosive, solid glyoxylic acid so a sweet cherry hint (or “note”) develops in addition to the almost delicate, sweet benzene odor. And Bingo: bright, white, aromatic vanilla-smelling crystals drop out of the liquid. Pure vanillin, if you can call something synthetic pure.”

The final product is mixed with propylene glycol, also used in sexual lubricants, to moisten, smooth out and thicken the product as well as hint that your body has been totally screwed. Like the programmers at Microsoft that program little jokes into their code, this has got to be the kind of thing scientist’s who make this stuff chuckle about as they nibble macrobiotic lunches grown in biodynamic window boxes at their home. At very least, ‘artificial butter flavor’ hints that something about the product isn’t quite right, explains Ettlinger, “Packed carefully into twenty-five-kilogram drums and sealed with a layer of nitrogen to protect it from moisture and fire (it is so highly flammable that a vapor mixture can actually explode) it must be stored under refrigeration. On top of that, due to the strength of its apparently awful (but nontoxic) smell, diacetyl must be kept separate from other chemicals and treated carefully to guard against leaks. The containers are labeled “harmful if swallowed,” both ironic and ominous for a food ingredient” (Pg 212). Sure, they add more ingredients after this to ‘round out the flavors’ like, um, more chemicals and of course some lube to make your Twinkie experience more satisfying and no-less explosive.

I finally got my hands on fresh, real vanilla here thanks to Karen at the Bookseller and I was itching to make something with it. I suspected Gunnar had never had real vanilla and I greeted him at the door with, “Quick, what can you put whipped cream on!” which oddly didn’t concern him. He went with Brownie Sundaes and one again the ‘Aunt’ pummeled the crap out of the Personal Trainer and I was handing over my debit card for a quick trip to the store for ice cream and brownie mix. I didn’t even wince knowing I’d be making boxed brownies, a favorite that I haven’t been able to supplant. My nephews’ prefer a palate of hot, sour, pungent and sweet in the form of Spicy Buffalo Doritos, Super-sour gummy worms, pungent plates left under the bed next to equally pungent socks and Dunkin Hines Brownie Mix both baked and sashimi-style spooned straight from the bowl. I replaced the vegetable oil with butter and used yokes instead of whites to make up for the lesser emulsifier and tried not to mention the PS-60 in the ingredients to my smiling and momentarily full nephew.