Hunger Games

With apologies to Suzanne Collins: This has nothing to do with that.

Hungry Robins

It recently occurred to me that I am drowning in food.

I have often remarked that during the Katrina crisis and the flooding of New Orleans, despite being displaced, I never missed a night’s sleep, and I never missed a meal.

What’s even more remarkable is that I don’t think I’ve missed a meal in many a year, and I could hardly remember what true hunger felt like. Until now.

Because of my metabolism and narrow frame, I’ve never been labeled obese. People still sometimes call me “Slim.” Nevertheless my doctor usually advises me to lose a few pounds. He’s a stickler.

Once upon a time, I was alarmingly skinny. I ate like a teenage boy well into my twenties, yet remained almost skeletal. I gained twenty pounds after getting married in 1993, and another twenty pounds or so upon moving to New Orleans in 1999. I got fatter, but it wasn’t all fat. Several rounds of strength training regimens added some muscle mass as well. But I was still eating like a teenage boy. Meanwhile my metabolism was catching up — a little.

Eating voluminous amounts of food became part of my identity. I would always go back for seconds or thirds. I was a human garbage disposal. Once upon a time I needed the fuel. Now it’s just habitual gluttony. If the average American eats like I do, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic.

But about a month ago something changed. As part of my seasonal purification rituals, I thought about fasting. Hmm, fasting, what a concept. That would involve being hungry.

And that’s when I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I was truly hungry.

I was never taught to fast. Fasting was not a part of the religious or secular culture in which I was raised. One might even say that I was taught never to fast, not explicitly but implicitly. The very notion seems to run counter to our national psyche. As Americans, we like to believe we live in a land of plenty. We like to celebrate abundance.

I went looking for information on the subject of fasting. Here a few resources I uncovered:

  • This month’s Harper’s features a relevant essay that looks interesting. You have to be a subscriber to read it, and sadly my subscription has lapsed. But the Tulane library has it and I hope to bike over there and read it soon. A friend who’s read it tells me that, “Apparently Mark Twain would always cure himself of cold and flu by fasting until it went away.” Intriguing.
  • The International Natural Hygiene Society is ostensibly grounded in science. Then again it may be pseudoscience; I haven’t done the research. They’ve got an article on “What to expect on your first fast.” I’m skeptical of orthopathy by reflex, but this seems like pretty solid advice, at least at first glance.
  • Associated: Fasting for Renewal of Life by Herbert M. Shelton who seems to be an authority on the subject. Shelton was a key proponent of the Natural Hygiene movement. The book is several decades old, which makes me wonder if the science is current.
  • A more recent volume is Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease (1998) by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
  • And there is a functioning Yahoo Group on the topic of Water Fasting.

I’m not sure I’m ready for a fast quite yet, because I’m exploring a radical new concept, namely eating less on a daily basis. This means experiencing a radical new sensation, namely hunger.

At a rough guess I figure I’ve knocked out about 10-20% of my daily calorie intake by the following simple measures:

  1. I’m not drinking alcohol.
  2. I used to eat a snack every evening before bed, essentially a fourth meal. Usually this was a small meal, a bowl of cereal perhaps. But it often was more substantial, especially if I’d a few drinks earlier in the evening.
  3. I’m not having second helpings at dinner, and I’m trying to keep what portions I do have at dinner modest.

In fact I’m aiming to follow the advice of fellow Hoosier Adelle Davis, to “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

But most of all, I’m learning not to mind being a little hungry, or even pretty darn hungry, from time to time. It’s not a bad feeling. It reminds me that I’m alive. Mindfulness meditation has taught me the value of simply observing such sensation, and realizing I have a choice to respond to them or not. And if the craving for food gets me too cranky, a glass of water or a cup of tea often helps.

What’s especially interesting to me is how quickly my standards have changed. After just one month, I’ve already noted that if I eat a large meal like I used to enjoy, I now feel bloated and overfull. In fact, even my standard lunch (carrot, sandwich, apple, water) is starting to seem like a lot. I no longer crave a cookie or something extra afterward.

Even more wonderful, I’ve noted that healthier food, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are more appealing when I’m really hungry. Ironically, something about overeating seems to make fatty and salty foods more attractive, to me anyhow; I don’t know how other people experience this.

Despite what I wrote above, these changes are not truly radical. They are incremental. But I think that’s for the best.

We may even save on our grocery bill.

Photo credit: Cropped from original, Four Baby Robins by Ruth Everson.

Forty-Nine Months

Face

Dear Persephone,

You are forty-nine months old today. I thought after your fourth birthday you might slow down, but no. You continue to develop at an astonishing rate.

A few weeks ago you drew your first real representational drawing. As a would-be cartoonist and visual artist, I consider this a huge milestone. I know I mentioned something similar last month, but that was a virtual drawing using an iPad app, and I coached you pretty heavily, drawing shapes first and then undoing them and letting you try. This time you drew with marker on paper, and I didn’t touch anything. I only suggested what to draw, “two circles for the eyes,” like that. And the result was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

I tried to teach you to draw a cat, but that requires triangles, and you don’t seem interested in mastering that technique yet.

A couple days ago I took you to the doctor for your annual checkup. You were due for a round of vaccinations, the last you’ll need for seven years. A dilemma: to tell you up front about the shots, or to wait until the last moment? The latter would seem to spare you some dread, but perhaps there’s value in confronting fear, facing it down. I kind of hinted that shots were a possibility beforehand, and then when we were waiting we discussed that more explicitly. And you handled it very well. You were brave, and only really cried after the fourth and final needle stick. And you so charmed the nurses neither of them wanted to be the one to administer the shots. But you got over it very quickly. In fact, you were mostly excited about the stack of stickers the nurse gave you.

Speaking of being poked and prodded, we recently had you tested by a couple child psychologists. It’s not something we would have done if left to our own devices. Nope, it’s just an attempt to grapple with the bizarre school system(s) in this city. And here’s where this gets tricky, in terms of knowing what to write here. I have to consider your privacy. So let’s just say we had you tested for smarts, and you came through with flying colors. In the end I’m glad we did it, no matter where you go to school, because it’s assuaged some of the fears I’ve had relating to lead poisoning. I take such tests with a grain of salt, but at the very least it’s an indication that you do well at tests. Perhaps you take after me; I’ve always done well on tests, and it’s made life much easier.

I do have to agree that you’re pretty quick on the uptake. For example, we’re now reading A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. It’s a bit over your head but you love it all the same. In the first or second chapter we came across the word “pupil,” which I figured you wouldn’t recognize, so I defined it for you. You’ve heard the word again in subsequent chapters, and apparently you’ve learned it, because last night you casually mentioned that “there’s a pupil in my class named Christian.” That led to a discussion of the word “vocabulary,” how each person has their own vocabulary, how it keeps getting bigger each time you learn a new word.

Finally, I wanted to mention that you asked me a question I’ve been anticipating, and also kind of dreading, for quite some time.

“Is the Tooth Fairy real?”

“That depends. What do you mean by real?”

“Real means that something is real.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“Well, I think the Tooth Fairy is not real.”

“I’m so proud of you for thinking about these things and asking these questions. Let me ask you this: Do you like the story of the Tooth Fairy?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a fun story, isn’t it? Sometimes that’s what really matters. Did you notice I never actually answered your question?”

“But Dada, will you tell me, is the Tooth Fairy real or not?”

And so forth. I never really gave you a straight answer. Maybe when you’re old enough to read this you’ll understand why.

Step into the Light

Equinox Truck

Now we enter that half of the year where the days are longer than the nights.

The equinox came this morning at fourteen minutes past midnight. I have to make an effort not to fixate on that single moment. I was asleep anyhow. Better to extend the celebration. The equilux was last Thursday here in New Orleans. Why not start there?

I got a second equilux this year, as I flew up to Philadelphia. The equilux, that day when sunrise and sunset are most nearly twelve hours apart, varies by latitude. It comes a day later there.

I went to Bryn Mawr College for the fifth Mindfulness in Education conference, which culminated in a full day of (mostly) silent meditation. I’ve never done anything quite like that before.

In retrospect, it was a great way to celebrate the equinox. Mindfulness surely cultivates balance. But I missed my family.

Then I came back home, and kept Persephone home from school Monday, so we could celebrate the equinox together. In addition to baking our weekly bread, we dyed eggs to decorate an “egg tree,” prepared a vernal-themed feast for dinner, and ran to the doctor for the girl’s four-year checkup and vaccinations. The meal was delicious: spring greens with sprouts, quiche, and charoset for desert. I also made black and white cookies, but didn’t get them done until later that night. By the time I finally hit the sack I was quite exhausted. I bit off a little more than I could chew. Not very balanced.

In the spirit of purification, I haven’t had anything to drink since Mardi Gras. (Well, actually since the weekend after Mardi Gras, but really, who’s counting? We had a visit from Ed the Meat Poet and I popped a cork.) I’ve been tapering off the coffee too, down to just a few swallows this morning. I hope to start on some dandelion-chicory root tea later this week. The idea of a seasonal detox session is appealing to me. In the same spirit I’ve even looked into fasting, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that quite yet. I am eating less, but that’s a topic for another post.

And if the spirit of the season can be maintained why not continue until Hellacious Saturday? Or Easter? Or Passover? Or forever?

Six months ago, at the autumnal equinox, I dedicated myself to a full year of discovering or uncovering my religion. This is the halfway mark, the inversion of that time across the mirror of the year. The dark half of the year is behind us for now, the light half ahead. The past six months have been fruitful, but my spirits have often flagged. I haven’t written about that much. The idea was to post less often and to write more thoughtfully, but to remain continually engaged in that process. Instead I’ve lapsed into periods of complete disengagement. Perhaps I need that reflective exercise to maintain a proper perspective.

It’s always a good time to begin again. Looking forward, I feel a buoyancy.

Blasphemers and Apostates

March 14, 2012: International Day of Action to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates.

I suppose I am both an apostate and a blasphemer, at least by by some definitions. I’m fortunate to live in a country where religious freedom, though constantly contested, is guaranteed by the constitution.

But things are very different in some other nations.

On the YouTube page for this video, you’ll find a great list of resources for more information.

Please support this cause.

Bread

So for the last seven months I’ve been baking bread pretty much every week.

It started on Lammas, also known as the Loaf-Mass, when Persephone and I baked mother and daughter loaves.

Mother Daughter Loaves

After that I decided to keep baking for a while. Xy and I are in the habit of making sandwiches for lunch at our respective workplaces, so my main aim was to make decent sandwich bread.

Based on a vague recollection, I decided to buy the Tassajara Bread Book. I baked through most of the recipes in the chapter on yeasted breads. Oatmeal bread, summer Swedish rye bread, cheese bread, millet bread. The author, Edward Espe Brown, advocates a sponge method which I found generated decent and consistent results.

Soon I was looking at some of the other chapters. The section on sourdough looked intriguing, but also suspiciously easy. Too easy. I looked online and quickly got intimidated at the prospect of starting my own starter from scratch. So I put out a plea via Twitter, asking if any locals wanted to hook me up with a few ounces of the good stuff. No dice.

Then, a month later, by strange coincidence, Michael Pearce contacted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in some sourdough starter. He never saw my request, but he noticed the photos of bread I’d been posting.

And so I found myself with a batch of starter — but more importantly I found a mentor.

Under his tutelage, for three months I baked nothing but sourdough. Now I seem to be settling into a pattern of baking with natural leavening one week and using commercial yeast the next. I’m now working my way through Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman.

There have been some mishaps along the way, hilarious in retrospect at least. I’ve managed to destroy a ceramic casserole, explode the lightbulb in our oven, burn myself a few times, and of course there was the time I put waaay too much cumin in the dough. Yet despite all these pratfalls, only that cumin batch has been marginal in terms of edibility.

Uh Oh

Whenever possible I try to involve my daughter, though as I’ve fretted more over technique I haven’t always done a good job of keeping her interest.

Baking bread is mostly a matter of technique, and I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a trip to look back at my first naïve efforts and compare them to what I’m doing now.

Loaf

Boule & Loaf

But perhaps the prime value I derive from baking is humility. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s always more to learn. No matter how much better I get there is always room for further improvement. And my mentor, who has been baking for well over a decade, feels the same way. He bakes some of the most excellent bread I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Yet he tells me, “I’m still waiting to figure out how to bake bread.”

In some ways, to bake bread is to be an eternal novice.

In fact, I’ll go even further: It is a spiritual practice and a religious ritual.

Offering

It may not look like ritual to some eyes, but to me it is. I suppose intention is a big part of it. As Waverly Fitzgerald writes at the School of Seasons:

Bake a loaf of bread on Lammas. If you’ve never made bread before, this is a good time to start. Honor the source of the flour as you work with it: remember it was once a plant growing on the mother Earth. If you have a garden, add something you’ve harvested — herbs or onion or corn — to your bread. If you don’t feel up to making wheat bread, make corn bread. Or gingerbread people. Or popcorn. What’s most important is intention. All that is necessary to enter sacred time is an awareness of the meaning of your actions.

Making bread is a fun activity I can do together with my family, for my family. It connects us to history, culture, science, and the natural world. (Not wild nature, obviously, but nature nonetheless.) And at the end we have a delicious and healthy food. More than just a treat, it’s the very stuff of life.

When I bake bread I feel that sense of reverence and awe and connectedness and wholeness so often described as spiritual or sacred. Not always, not automatically. But that is my intent. Like my levain, it requires regular feedings for renewal.