A Sustainable Pantry?

February one year ago, I shared with you how Franca and I had declared war on sugar a couple of years prior and I thought that with the three year anniversary of that  eye-opening event having passed recently along with our one year marking of Lia’s diagnosis of diabetes, I’d open the door once again and peer inside our pantry.

To do that, I think, it’s important to share our philosophy on food. What is that, you might ask. Well, put simply, it’s a way of thinking about what we eat with the same level of care that we ask ourselves, what do I want out of life. This degree of careful reasoning, of course, takes much more than just listing what foods we like to eat. That would be like saying what I want out of life is to have a nice farmhouse and a family. That’s not a philosophy. Those are things, and like other things — a good job, perfect health — they make up the goals we set for ourselves on a daily basis. As such, it’s difficult to look past them and know that all of the energy, passion and effort expended in their pursuit fits into the much grander scheme. That is, are the things we are doing helping us achieve what we want most out of life. A philosophy helps answer that question and further guide us and keep us on track, by taking a much broader view of the question and focusing on the one thing we believe is the most valuable.

In writing this post I challenged myself to boil down my philosophy of food into one, most valuable word (MVW?). The first one that came to mind was healthy, but I discredited it almost at once as I refuse to fall to the ludicrous marketing strategies of so many food providers, to whom if they had their way, we’d be buying up boxes of cookies and chips for their life-saving nutritional content. To our credit though Franca and I, and to a great extent our children, do spend a great deal of time thinking about the healthier aspects of the food we eat. Most of our grocery budget, in fact, is spent at the outer aisles of the grocery stores on fruits, vegetables and fresh seafood, far and away from the misleading slogans printed on cardboard boxes and cellophane packages.

The next word that came to mind was taste. Whenever we compliment one another on something made in the kitchen, what we are usually referencing is the food’s  taste. But to classify taste as a philosophy is to ignore the mechanics of how the body and mind works in relation to food. One of the most notable findings we experienced when we outlawed sugar and again later in learning how to treat type 1 diabetes was that eating sweet foods seemed to encourage the eating of more sweet foods (this is the short of it, the real culprit here is insulin). Or, to put it in more appropriate terms, after a few days of not eating sweets, we found we stopped craving sweets, thus letting our body reach and enjoy a happier state of equilibrium (homeostasis) that it has evolved over millions of years to work toward. For us, I suppose, in this century and the last, sugar became the preferred method food producers use to get us to like their product. In the eighteenth century it was probably salt. Smells like marketing again. That rules out taste as a philosophy.

After taste failed to stand up to the rigors of philosophy, I thought maybe convenience would serve well. We are a family of five. Both parents work. The kids are actively involved in school and building relationships, and with our free time we’d rather spend it outside on a walk or visiting with friends than cutting up vegetables at the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, how we spend a great deal of our free time is cutting up vegetables at the kitchen sink. That’s just how it is when you choose to shop the outer aisles and prefer your meals made at home. When you add in taste as factor, well, the time required seems to double. I might wish convenience was our food philosophy, but it’s not and likely will never be.

With healthy, taste and convenience out of the picture, the only other word that could possibly describe the most value we search for in food is that it must be real. But what does that mean, real? Doesn’t any food you can touch, smell, taste qualify? You’d think, but that’s not the case if you believe like Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book, In Defense of Food, that only food that our great grandmothers would recognize as food is real. All that other stuff, he says, is wrought by scientists in lab coats, not by nature, and once it’s pumped up with nutrients, so as to market it better to a society confused and mega-driven by expert advice and false health claims, the pre-packaged result only resembles an “edible foodlike substance”. It’s not real, it’s not food. And it’s making us all sick (here is an in depth article on this very fact. I strongly urge everyone to read the first part about the Afghans. You’ll find it sadly fascinating).

While real most approximates the way we think about food and would serve nicely as our philosophy, honestly, if you were to look in our pantry — a word, by the way, derived from the Middle English term panterie; which is taken from the latin word for bread, panis, and therefore suggests that what’s kept in it is not real — you’d find more than a few processed things. Cereal. Pasta. Crackers. And of course, juice boxes, sweet tarts, dark chocolate and a small corner shelving what can best be described as “bags of stuff”.

So there you go. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, summarizing our philosophy of food into one simple word; and I guess that’s the point and the trouble with formulating a philosophy. It’s not meant to be easy. If it were, people wouldn’t be on their death beds wondering how they had let themselves get so distracted and had failed to achieve all the things they had wanted out of life. A philosophy keeps you on task, so you don’t, in fact, mislive. But as our own pantry shows, a philosophy — even a dependent and loosely, knotted one as that involving food — without an effective strategy designed around a grand scheme, there is the chance still you won’t succeed.

There is the chance, too, as anything a writer may write, that I’ve given this way too much thought and have digressed to the point where I’ve lost you. Maybe a picture would’ve worked just as well….


But I doubt it (other than the fact that it’s noticeably empty, which should give you a clue into what our refrigerator and freezer must look like).

The point is, food and the choices we make about food are just too important (maybe even more important than medicine or science) to our overall health to leave it to clever marketing and profit-driven nutritionists.

Despite all the recent attention (and some old), the truth is not much has changed about our pantry. It still takes knowledge, willpower and a diligent, concerted effort on all of our parts to root out the hidden perils in the foods being offered to us. It can be done, and the dangers of not doing so are high. But it’s a shame that we have to spend so much time in deliberation and worry over it. Our great grandmothers would be shocked and more than a bit saddened considering their unique perspective of having made their own life’s journey and left knowing what really matters.


A One Sea Reality

But first, a funny and embarrassing story. Several years ago I had a truly terrific doctor. I mean a one-of-kind physician-that-you-only-read-about who got to know the well-being of your mind and spirit at the same time he learned of your body’s. He would call — yes call — with the results of whatever blood tests he’d ordered and before handing over the details he’d ask about my wife and kids by name. He followed my work and my writing and seemed genuinely interested in my, and indeed all of my family’s, pursuits of happiness.

Dr. Murphy is gone now, moved on to a different town and practice. Every once in a while I’m reminded of him and his interesting ways, the following of which, I’m sure, will illustrate. I was there for my annual physical and near the end, when the discussion turned to the issue of a prostate exam, he must’ve assumed because of my youth (40’s are the new 20s) and the look on my face, that I was unfamiliar with the procedure. Or maybe he was just having fun.

“You ever play flag football?” he said.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Well, you know how after the quarterback snap.” He assumed then the half-crouched position of a quarterback snapping the ball. ”He steps back and if you’re a defensive lineman on the other team you have to count to five Mississippi before you can rush?”

“With you so far.”

“Well, this will be like that. Once we start, all I need is five seconds.”

I looked at him, wondering how in the hell that was supposed to make me feel better. There’s a lot of ugly, unwanted things that can happen in five seconds or less. Accidents, pregnancies, hurtful words. Suddenly I wished he wasn’t so damn considerate, or funny.

Next, apparently questioning my honesty and experience with flag football or unsure of my ability to relate time in my head, he felt the need to further demonstrate. Holding the quarterback pose still, he hiked the imaginary ball and took a step back and started counting, “One Mississippi.”

He stepped one leg forward and counted “two Mississippi” and extended his right hand and size 12 index finger in a smooth, upward motion, from his waist to the sky. Mississippis three, four and five culminated the experience with him holding that pose and effectively sealing the deal, and quite possibly our relationship. He dropped his arms to his side and looked at me.

“Just like that,” he said with a smile.

I stared back at him, in a slightly new and different way. “I get it,” I said, “but I don’t know where you played flag football. Where I did we kept our pants on.”

I share that story today for two reasons. One, this week is Earth Day and if ever there was a need to drop our illusions (sorry, couldn’t resist) and get down to the nitty gritty (pun here is definitely not intended), it is in the unprecedented times of environmental change that our world is presently facing. Seriously. Dying rivers. Farms that don’t produce food. Climate-related illnesses. Whatever side of the myriad Earth Day debates you fall on, the facts are alarming (I encourage you to click on the links. I think you’ll find the information both remarkable and inspirational):

The need for involvement goes well beyond the three R’s of Refuse, Reuse, Recycle (these are very good places to start, however). It will take more effort, more sacrifice, and dramatic change to the way we think, how we vote (with our spending as well as our ballots), and how we live our lives, all things which, by the way, as people used to dealing with diabetes, we are already and quite effectively accustomed to doing. It calls for a collective voice and an action on each of our parts as equally unprecedented as what brought us here, because the reality is that no matter where you call home there is only this one world. One sea. One mountain. One opportunity to make it a better place for ourselves and those who follow behind us (for some ideas, see some suggestions from The Nature Conservancy below).

The second reason I shared the story of my doctor is to more directly reiterate the belief that the platform we all speak personally from — one of health and diabetes — should not be dismissed as a non-player in the challenges and struggles facing the planet. True, buying veggies grown locally may not seem related to diabetes care but every time you do so you are voting against genetically modified foods, which the American Academy or Environmental Medicine has suggested “pose a serious health risk”. I would argue that the individual and collective effort and experience of the diabetes community advocating  for better care, better science, and better practices makes us perfect stewards for this call to action.

The effort you put in is up to, and it doesn’t take much to get started, a few seconds the next time you go to the grocery and choose one tomato over another. It may seem small, but like Dr. Murphy showed me: There are a lot worse things you do in those five seconds.


Easy Things You Can Do To Help Our Climate (from the Nature Conservancy):

1. TIP: Travel light. Walk or bike instead of driving a car. Cars and trucks run on fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you’ll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

2. TIP: Teleconference instead of flying. For office meetings, if you can telephone or videoconference, you will save time, money, and carbon emissions. Airplanes pump carbon emissions high into the atmosphere, producing 12 percent of transportation sector emissions.

3. TIP: See the light. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. These energy-efficient bulbs help fight climate change because they reduce the amount of fossil fuels that utilities burn. You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent, over the life of the bulb.

4. TIP: Recycle and use recycled products. Products made from recycled paper, glass, metal and plastic reduce carbon emissions because they use less energy to manufacture than products made from completely new materials. For instance, you’ll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle. Recycling paper also saves trees and lets them continue to reduce climate change naturally as they remain in the forest, where they remove carbon from the atmosphere.

5. TIP: Inflate your tires. If you own a car, it will get better gas mileage when the tires are fully inflated, so it will burn less gas and emit less carbon. Check your automobile monthly to ensure that the tires are fully inflated. Follow this tip and save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive.

6. TIP: Plant native trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and use it as their energy source, producing oxygen for us to breathe. A tree in the temperate zone found between the tropics and the polar circles can remove and store 700 to 7,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime. A tree that shades a house can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

7. TIP: Turn down the heat. Heating and air conditioning draw more than half of the energy that a home uses in the United States. Turn down the heat or air conditioning when you leave the house or go to bed. You can easily install a programmable thermostat that can save up money and carbon.

8. TIP: Buy renewable energy. Electricity generation produces 40 percent of carbon emissions from the United States. A growing number of utilities generate electricity from renewable energy sources with solar panels, windmills and other technologies. If your utility offers renewable energy, buy it. If not, send them a message asking for clean energy.

9. TIP: Act globally, eat locally. If you shop at a supermarket, the food you buy may travel in a plane from the other side of the world, burning fossil fuels the entire trip. Shop at a local farmers markets and you will find fresh and healthy food, and help save our climate.


Speaking of Dogs

Take diabetes, for instance. In many ways, raising a dog is a lot like controlling blood sugars, minus of course the extreme health risk. You study the science. You learn the technique. You get up every day determined to do your best and when things go the way you had planned you celebrate. You applaud and pat yourself on the back. Maybe you even dance and talk silly. Whatever shape it takes, you know in that very moment you’ve done something right. And if it goes the other way and not as you’d intended? Well, you might wonder perhaps, as I’d done with the dog: What on earth did I do wrong.

I find myself doing that more than I should and I hope that my feelings of underachievement go by Lia unnoticed. It is something that comes with parenting, I think. Wanting the best for your children, disappointed when you fall short. Even when something like blood sugar can’t always be explained. Trying to understand why it goes up or down is like asking Jake to account for his running off and then, because knowing why is only half the battle — it still doesn’t fix it, you have him describe what he saw. He just looks at you.

The alternative to that is easier, but frankly no less productive. Such was the case when Jake finally returned and I saw him out front in the yard, tearing through the trash bag containing the shells of moules à la marinière we’d had the night before. I stomped and got blistering mad and banished him for good to the outdoors. By dusk I was over my anger and went out to clean him up, only to find him gone once more.

Oh, were yelling to work with diabetes. I could curse and threaten and abandon all thought of ever showing it kindness again, but it would not listen and before the day would turn over, I’d have shed myself of the disillusion and disappointment and let it back into my heart because so much of who we are is not chosen but given or comes to us freely. In learning to accept that about diabetes, I have also learned to love it.

That is a strange thing to say. I love my daughter’s diabetes. I don’t, of course, love it. I hate it. I despise every moment that I or my wife or Lia, or anyone else, has to spend trying to understand and outwit it. I wish it were different for all of us, and especially for Lia, but wishing won’t change anything and if it could there is one thing I would not want for and that is that she were any other child or I any other parent. I love her and so love all that comes with her.

As for the dog?

Commitment. Loyalty. Obedience.

Two out of three isn’t bad.

The Fixer

I am having a problem with our dog. You might remember Jake. I wrote about forgetting him as we left from a holiday weekend visit with some friends at their lake house. Jake is a pretty mellow dog. He follows me around the house, lays under the desk while I write, and other than shedding, sloppy drink habits, and an audible and extremely aggravating nighttime routine of self-cleaning, he’s fairly easy to accept as far as most family pets go. But lately he hasn’t been listening.

Now, before you say anything, I know this is probably my fault. Like most everything in and about this house, he doesn’t get enough attention. I know that. We worked with him a good deal when we first brought him home from the pound, struggled hard to get down to the bare bones of what makes a good dog tick, and for a while he did really well, and us, too, with his training. With some basic behavioral understanding and simple commands, we could get him to sit and lay down and come to a whistle. Some days he did better than others. Some habits we simply couldn’t get him to break, such as chasing after cars if one happened to invade his immediate space. Other things, for whatever reason, like learning to shake, were difficult to grasp and took a great amount of effort on both of our parts. With practice, however, we managed and eventually even the hard things became simple, too. But something in the last year has changed. I just noticed it in the last few weeks, but I think it’s been building up over time, this will to not do what we say.

In the likelihood that some animal expert out there will suggest it, I’ll be the first to say, I get what it is that I ask for. And all that I ask for from Jake is the same that I’d ask of any addition to our family: play nice. In return, I don’t make of him ridiculous requests, or ask that he do something that’s impossible, as in, say, talk like a pirate or go get his own damn breakfast. I give him his freedom to act like a dog and he gives us his love and companionship. It’s a shared responsibility, which is why yesterday morning when I asked him to come and he looked at me and saw what I wanted but just stood there staring back at me, until I told him to come once more, in a voice more suited for commanding authority, and he turned and ran away — and then stayed gone for hours — that I simply could not believe it.

How could this be? We had worked so hard. We had an understanding. We had accepted him and his imperfections and though our arrangement with him was not ideal, what with the lack of time and attention, there was never a shortage of need or respect.

They say a dog’s motivation is tied closely to its social order, that is, how goes the pack goes the animal. If that’s true, and I believe that it is, then we do have ourselves to blame. But it’s not the question of blame I am searching to fill. I just want what’s wrong to be fixed. I want him to listen. I want what we have in our lives to play nice and if not, at least have a good reason.

Perhaps if we could trade places, Jake would see that I only want what’s good for him, too. The world is a dangerous, sometimes godforsaken place. It is full of  unwelcome things that want to invade our space. It’s important we all stick together. And on my end, I think maybe it’s time to dust off those books and training manuals, because in them, I’m sure, there is something I missed and like anything else in this life, if you give a thing an inch it’s bound to take a mile.