In the spring of 2007, around the time I was making the switch to a vegan diet, I noticed some black spots on my back molars. I called up a dentist and made an appointment.
I had never had a single filling in my life.
This dentist told me that I had around 19 cavities to be filled. I told her I had recently switched to a vegetarian diet, and I asked if my diet could have caused the tooth decay.
“No,” she said,”that’s just what happens.” I got the fillings. My teeth had never hurt before in my life. From the day I had the fillings put in, onward, my teeth have been sensitive and at times extremely painful.
I’m going to talk more later about tooth issues, but at this point in the story, I ignored my teeth and went on with my life.
Let’s back up a bit to somewhere between 2005-2006. My roommates began talking about the “raw” diet. A lot of transient types were coming in and out of our house all the time. Fascinating, creative people who were fearless, at least outwardly. All of them, when you took a moment to take them in, bore one scar or another from a past or current situation.
One, with wild long and curly blonde hair, thin as a rail, looked disdainfully at an herb garden I had been growing, tongue-in-cheek, from a kit they sold on television which someone had given me. He said, “No way I’d eat that, its got to be full of toxins!” Then he gave everybody chocolate balls he had made. I asked what was in them. He said with absolute relish (and a little arrogance), “antioxidants!” He was into the “raw” diet.
I didn’t think about it for a while. At this point, I was swamped in the trenches of finishing my education degree and still trying to maintain my playing, which is a very difficult thing to do. My roommates, on the other hand, had switched to anthropology from music because it was the easiest degree program to finish. They had lots of time to lie on the couch dreamily, to do spontaneous things like light our coffee table on fire, and think about things like the raw diet. I didn’t have the time, though I enjoyed all those eccentric pastimes, too, when I could.
When I had time, in the summer of 2007, I started thinking about it.
I need to explain how I got to this point.
I liked the idea that the raw diet was weird and obscure. As veganism, a food paradigm dramatically different from the mainstream, had given me profound results, I was ready to question the dominant culture further and at every level.
Looking back, I realize I was always ready to question it, anyway, because the dominant culture never really earned my loyalty, deep down. You see, I carried a lot heartbreak and sadness, much of it unacknowledged, throughout my childhood. Though my parents were loving and nurturing, much of my childhood, outside of the home, was miserable. I never had a single friend at school, ate and played alone. Was constantly teased and bullied. If I ever fought back, I was the one who got in trouble. I, like many children likely do, lived in fear of adults, and never questioned them or their systems of control. As a result, I internalized much of their negative energy and redirected it onto myself, blamed myself.
I found all the school work extremely easy, so I secretly read books all day at school under my desk. I always resented the math curriculum which forced us to go through all the tedious steps, in mindless repetition, over and over again, for problems I could solve in my head in a few seconds.
And I started gaining weight. Sometimes, I would be walking, say at summer scout camp, past a group of kids in a pavilion. These kids, complete strangers, would yell out things like “Hey, fatty!” Once, our scoutmaster’s daughter, my age, told me I needed to wear a bra. All of this, as an adult, is easy to shrug off. When we see kids treating each other this way, we often don’t do anything. I can tell you, as a teacher, that it is often very easy to see how the child who gets bullied can bring it upon themselves. The other kids smell it (sometimes, literally), and pounce on them like a pack of wolves. But punishing that child is not the solution. You help them understand how they are bringing it upon themselves, and you help the other students understand how hurtful their words are. This has to be taken seriously.
A great teacher I know says “Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words will break my heart.” Also, and this is an equally serious problem, these behaviors manifest themselves in adults. Think about it.
Years later, I realized how it all went down. I was able to simultaneously acknowledge the pain of it, but also laugh at the absurdity. I don’t believe most adults know that this opportunity, to forgive yourself and others for the past, is available. Actually, I think many are afraid of this possibility.
Ram Dass talks about the need to have your heart broken, because then you get rid of the brittle shell, and you get to the deeper, softer part underneath. Many brittle layers of my heart have been chipped away over the years. So I was receptive.
The raw food subculture is really quite something. There’s a whole host of mini-celebrities who go around inspiring people and telling them what to eat and think while taking their money. There’s a lot of euphemism for this blatant profit motive. They call the money “abundance” which they are “invoking” into their lives through the “law of attraction.” I think many of them are sincere and honest. But I have always felt very uncomfortable about these attitudes.
I went to high school in a low income neighborhood, and intimately knew many people trapped in cycles of poverty. I have worked in public schools with very high poverty rates. I have worked with children who are emotionally and physically damaged by no fault of their own, nor their parents, but by cultural and economic patterns we haven’t addressed as a society which have been with us, in the United States, since the 1700’s. Having this perspective, I often find this sort of willfully blind new age optimism, and I say this with respect and love for these people because I don’t believe it is intentional, unhelpful and often arrogant.
The Buddhist concept of Dukkha, suffering, I feel, should be honored in our thought, words, and behavior towards others as we attempt to relieve the suffering of all, including ourselves. We all have or will share in the experience of suffering at some point in our lives, and we should not think ourselves superior or different from others, because, in any particular instance, we feel we have been more clever at avoiding it.
On the other hand, at times we hold our suffering over others as badges of pride and superiority, we wallow in it and relish it. At such times, we aren’t able to acknowledge the profound love, beauty, joy, and ecstasy that is possible in life. It comes from trying to reify, trying to own, to objectify happiness. When we have this attitude of separation from others, if we believe happiness and achievement have to be earned by an individual, and we see another who is happy, we don’t identify with that happiness, because we believe the other person owns that particular happiness. Exclusive property rights. Well, the truth is, happiness is not something you can possess at the expense of others. Unconditional love is when you see this.
We must honor both the Joy and Suffering that will always be present in our lives.
The basic idea of the raw diet is that when you cook something above 115 degrees Fahrenheit, it undergoes a chemical change. It does seem to make sense on a common sense level that heating some foods is a waste of energy and would degrade the food. Who in their right mind would want to cook a watermelon? Or lettuce? Foods which taste good uncooked tend to be pretty healthy, as it is.
There is a concept called the “junk food vegan.” The junk food vegan eats processed vegan food. Chips, cookies, meat substitutes, vegan ice-creams. A lot of this vegan food actually tastes better than mainstream food, so this is a real danger. It is luxury food, sold to a luxury niche.
I saw the trap of being a junk food vegan. I saw my weight plateauing, and the organic dark chocolate bars with pictures of happy farmers on the back, and trips to Chipotle increasing. I needed a new direction, and the raw diet was a possible candidate.
So I tried doing a sort of hybrid. Brown rice and beans in the evening, but lots of raw fruit and vegetables during the day, with the intention of trying a day, and then multiple days completely raw. I rarely made it longer than a day at a time.
The worst thing is this, you have to eat a lot of raw food to emotionally numb yourself the way a giant burrito can. So, at a certain point you actually stop eating. Then you have to face the real world, which, as I said, can be frightening. I could never get there, psychologically. I always wanted to just sit down with a big pile of something and eat until I was full and could then pass out at the end of my workday.
And the raw diet sales pitch never really landed. Many of the people promoting it for a living have really good genetics, so they look beautiful, with exuberant extroverted personalities. These people would still be gorgeous if they ate Kentucky Fried Chicken every day. They had all sorts of theories, many of which were bogus.
There are several approaches to raw food. I think they can all be put into one of these three categories:
1. High sugar. This is the basic diet that most people mean when they are talking about the raw diet. Pounds of fruit. Sweeteners like honey, maple syrup (which isn’t raw), and agave nectar (not raw, and actually worse for you than corn syrup). This is the easiest raw diet, in my opinion, to stay on, because sugar is almost like a drug in its ability to both satisfy and addict. When I was able to be raw for an amount of time significant enough to see weight loss, it was on this diet.
2. Low sugar, high greens other vegetables. This diet takes a lot of work. You have to grow sprouts, clean lettuce, make juice, clean your juicer. I never quite went all the way with this one.
3. The magic powder, supplement diet. This is a diet where you spend a lot money on expensive, exotic powders, liquids, and capsules. Some of the products are really fascinating, actually. Some are bogus. An example; for a while, a lot of raw food people were paying hundreds of bucks for this stuff that was basically diluted battery acid. A friend gave me a small bottle of it, which I never touched. You have to be careful, and look for a history of human use and real science to back it up.
Of the three, I think the second is the closest to being reasonable in terms of actually promoting long-term health. It is a diet of extreme austerity, however. Do the benefits outweigh the cost? That is always one of the questions. Some of the people who encourage the low sugar, green diet cite their primary motivation as spiritual. Think of it as a lifelong fast. It’s going to take commitment.
Mahatma Gandhi actually tried the raw diet during his life. Even he, the man who could fast you under the table, concluded that it left him too weak and deficient.
But there are some good things about the raw food concept that I picked up. One of the main things is that in terms of health, preparation matters. What is going to be more healthy? Deep fried kale? Baked kale? Boiled kale? Kale salad? Juiced kale?
Another major lesson was that fresh green foods are pretty much the best food there is.
I feel great about the raw foods I do eat. There’s something gentle about them. They don’t make me feel bloated and lethargic the way most of the vegetarian cooked meals do.
Another key lesson I obtained while looking into more extreme diets was the idea of probiotic foods. Sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles. Probiotics are critical, and have to be raw, because cooking, as we all know, kills bacteria. I believe science is pretty conclusive there.
I also learned about “cleansing.”
DIRECTIONS: Prepare a full quart of luke-warm water and add two level teaspoons of uniodized sea salt. Do not use ordinary iodized salt as it will not work properly. Drink the entire quart of salt and water first thing in the morning. This must be taken on an empty stomach. The salt and water will not separate but will stay intact and quickly and thoroughly wash the entire tract in about one hour. Several eliminations will likely occur.
During the fall of 2007, I took a job substitute teaching while Sue Ellen finished her student teaching. Subbing is a fantastic job once you get the hang of it. No responsibilities once the bell rings. Go home, live your life, be yourself, knowing that even if you faced a tough classroom full of kids who see you as an adversary, and you’re an introvert who went into teaching out of love for your art and sharing it with others, not to deal with violent children, you don’t have to go back.
It’s often a very sad job.
But you do get lots of time to read and daydream, of which I took full advantage. It was during this time that I started researching all those weird health writers and diets in addition to reading a bunch of fantastic novels.
In January of 2008, Sue Ellen and I moved to Madison, where I began graduate school. We lived downtown, so I walked all the time, which is my favorite form of exercise. Still a strict vegan, I didn’t lose any weight, but I didn’t gain any, either. There were too many good vegetarian friendly restaurants in Madison to go raw, but I kept thinking about it.
And I was able, once, to stick to a raw diet for more than a few days. Summer of 2009, after finishing my masters degree. I kept it up for about a month, and got down to 200 pounds. Then, I went to a friend’s wedding where they served delicious, 100% vegan food. I fell off the wagon (or is it on the wagon?).
Which was just as well, because I had developed a serious problem with fruit. I ate whole pineapples, watermelons, scores of apples and grapes. Too much fruit, too much sugar. Sugar is a disaster.
In fall 2009, I took a job with the local school district. Though I did get an education degree, and I do love teaching, being a public school teacher exclusively was never something I had intended to do. I was heartbroken, artistically, at this point (this is a subject for another series of blogs). I steadily gained weight for the next four years, partly due to that heartbreak, a slow festering one, and also due to having not found any truly practical and effective answers to both my nutritional needs and psychological eating issues.
I simply had many lessons to learn. Sometimes things take time. I had to let go of a number of held preconceptions in order to make way for the new.
And at a certain point, certain foods start coming to you. Certain ideas. You no longer seek them out. You no longer have to. They are what you are looking for, even though you aren’t intentionally looking for it. The next leg of my health journey has been coming to this state.
The Zen poet Robert Aitken wrote:
Watching gardeners label their plants
I vow with all beings
to practice the old horticulture
and let the plants identify me.
Lao Tzu wrote:
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus, one of deep virtue knows without going,
sees without looking,
and accomplishes without doing.
And Rilke wrote this astounding poem, (better I’m sure, in the original):
As long as it’s yourself you’re throwing to,
all is skill and trivial gain.
Only when your hand suddenly catches the ball
an eternal female partner threw
right at your core in a trajectory
that is an arch in God’s vast edifice —
then is ability to catch a glory —
not yours; the world’s.
And if you should possess the strength and daring
to return the shot —
no, still more wonderful, if you forgot daring and strength
and had already hurled the ball
(as an old year throws swarms of migratory birds
across the world that aging warmth tosses to youthful warmth) —
then only in such risks your playing matters.
Now you no longer try for easy prizes,
nor do you strain for what is hard and flatters your prowess.
Out of your hand rises the meteor
and speeds into its spaces.
- Before going vegan. Spring 2006 About 250 pounds, I felt thinner than I ever had in my life at this point. Sue Ellen had just switched over to a veg diet.
Late summer 2009, we had just moved into our Monroe St. neighborhood apartment. I felt extremely healthy that summer, had been eating a diet high in raw foods, and had been going hiking in the woods nearly every day.
Early summer 2009, making Sauerkraut
Probiotic foods. Kombucha and sauerkraut.