Written Thanksgiving Eve 2013, from a chair in the hallway of a nursing home
This isn’t for vanity. It may have started that way, but it can’t be just about that any longer.
This is about our lives. Forget all the noise about personal responsibility and big macs and all the propaganda from pushers of poison about all things in moderation.
This is about the system, and how we’ve bought into it. How all around us, healthcare is devolving into a debate of who will pay the skyrocketing costs, meanwhile we take it as a given that costs are skyrocketing.
We blow our horns about the best medical care in the world, but ignore that we’re killing ourselves with our edible products addiction. That is a term I did not coin, but use, because food is too good a word, too rich, too sacred, to use for the sea of crap we’ve replaced it with.
Today’s eating habits in America are to food, what porn is to sex. A soulless empty substitute for something that otherwise gives life, health, and vitality.
Why is it this way? Blowhards all around, from self-righteous fat shamers to doctors who have given up trying, to drug dealers in nice suits with name plates, aka pharmaceutical reps, they all parrot the same line. And that line is fed to them by interests like coca-cola: if you’re unhealthy, eat less, take a pill. But don’t cut out industrial food, no that’s not it. All things in moderation, as if anyone has the first clue what that word even means.
My father’s father was born at a time when he saw the world change every minute. He saw the first airplane, then he saw us land on the moon. He was convinced that science was so amazing, that within his lifetime, all problems would be solved with a pill. He had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s when he died.
Better living through chemistry, we were promised, and we lapped it up without question. The promise of the industrial revolution went from our clothes, to our transportation, to our furniture, to our kitchens. And in the process, we became just another part of the process. Welcome to the machine. Cogs in the assembly line, no longer learning trades or crafts, work became even more toilsome with the machines than it had before. Instead of spending 12 hours a day creating from your own hands, now you could service the machine for 12 hours a day and have no spiritual, no emotional connection to your labors. Just repetitive stress.
When this mechanized disconnect came all the way to the center of the home, the kitchen, it was game over. We lost the last place where soulfulness, intentionality, spiritual connection, could be held in work. Now all those suddenly ethereal concerns were left to the idle rich or the flighty artist, not real working folks. Work itself had finally become divorced of all meaning. The industrial revolution was complete. And you’re damn right that this revolution would be televised.
Are you better off now than four years ago? Our politicians ask this when they want votes. Yet whenever we ask are we better off now than 100 years ago, we take it as a given that yes we are. Why? Because we have more amusements? More air conditioning? Less physical labor? Antibiotics? And how are we doing? We’re angrier and more detached than ever. In the words of Louis CK, “everything’s awesome, but no one’s happy.” We have made amazing progress in political and personal freedom, and nearly eliminating childhood diseases. We should be a civilization of greatness, full of strong, secure, healthy people. Does this describe the United States to you in 2013?
Today I am especially frustrated because I have visited my last living grandparent. Ruth Starr was born ninth of nine on a farm. She was one of those depression era kids who was poor but didn’t know it, because they made their own clothes and grew their own food. She got light duty as the one who would occasionally cut the heads off chickens. She was the baby after all. She moved to town when she got married, and looked forward to all the amazing conveniences that modern life would provide, that her mother never had. She still toiled day and night, as her PA Dutch tendencies meant if something was clean, it could be cleaner. I used to imagine that voices woke her at 4:30 am to dust.
She was a tough lady, a humble lady in the classic sense, but proud of her work. She was pious and faithful, but had no trouble using the term “shitbird.” Never coarse or rude, just salt of the earth. Her 8th grade education provided her a better grasp of the English language than the college graduates I know.
Ruth is decaying. She is alive, but not living. Her mind is devolved. When she used to simply smile and nod, we didn’t care too much whether she remembered our names. The sight of my kids laughing and singing for her was enough. When she got agitated, it became harder to visit. Now, she slumps in a chair, and when I sit in front of her, I force myself to smile wide so that what she sees in front of her, whether she recognizes or remembers it for two minutes or not, looks like kindness. Her only motion is one that is new to me. She kicks at me. My presence is stressing her out for some reason, and staying any further would be simply to placate my own agenda of saying I stayed to visit, so I can tell my Mom and feel like I did something. This woman who helped to raise me while my working class parents worked opposite shifts in the same factory, no longer recognized me.
This is her reality, as it is for countless others that fill the rooms and hallways of the facility that I am sitting in as I write this. It’s no wonder that most people refuse to visit here. Unless you have to, it is a monumental feat to get over the anxiety. You too may end up like this, and thinking of it goes against our baseline survival instincts.
Why is my grandmother suffering a neurological disorder? I do not know. Can I with certainty say it was this X factor or this Y behavior? I cannot. But I can see that the greatest generation has a high percentage of people who are alive, but not living. And they are the ones who trusted in institutions more than any generation since. These people answered the call to save the free world, and did it. They stood in ration lines for oleo margarine because there was a butter shortage. They did metal and rubber drives. They voluntarily conserved to support the war effort. They responded to posters like this:
Today we fight terrorism by shopping on Thanksgiving Day to prove how awesome capitalism is.
This same generation listened when authority told them that their old fashioned ways were for backwood hicks. Your farm animals stink, get them away from proper modern civilization. The wonders of industrialization will save the farm. Lard is for hillbillies and unsophisticated types. Modern people use crisco and corn oil. Who knew corn had oil in it? Thank God for the machines to show us how to get it out. Food is just another commodity. We can do it better inside the giant windowless building.
They obeyed. They kept vestiges of their rural heritage insofar as it provided nostalgia, but to really live like those old people, well that’s silly. By the time I was born, the backyard chicken was unknown, but chicken themed decor for your kitchen was all the rage. It was just like the suburban lanes and cul de sacs named for whatever used to be there: babbling brook, meadowlane, deer path.
She obeyed. When she was told her cholesterol was too high, she took their drugs. For years she took their drugs. When, in my naivete, I asked how a tiny skinny woman like her could have high cholesterol, the answer that I did not understand then at all came back: oh she’s genetically predisposed. Her body makes it. And not one of us questioned whether or not this was something we should mess with, because the medical establishment has all the nuance of Frankenstein proclaiming FIRE BAD! Now it’s CHOLESTEROL BAD!
She took their drugs and she ate like she was told, and the same modernity that told her that her ancestors were rubes, told her to eat these new products that would save her time. And she did. Packaged cookies were a staple at her house. Full of industrial oils, refined grains and sugars. This woman who proudly learned to bake from scratch, to process her own chickens from start to finish, was brainwashed alongside her whole generation to forego all that quaint nonsense for modern convenience. And now they have the highest rates of type two and three diabetes ever known. (Type three, aka Alzheimer’s disease.)
So we late twentieth century cyborgs, products of the digital subset of the industrial aged, raised on fruit roll ups, little debbies and snackwells, we who literally drink the Kool-Aid, we look back on ancestry.com with mysticism and marvel. We see pictures of these mythical creatures from the late 1800s who lived into their 90s if they survived smallpox, scarlet fever and war. We cannot wrap our heads around the idea that they lived that long eating bacon and eggs and lard. They must have been radical exceptions. No, in fact, they were the rule.
All around us, a generation is decaying, with those coming behind not much better off. The boomers are replacing joints at a rate similar to windshield wipers, and many are taking 10 drugs just like their wheelchair ridden parents in those nursing homes they hate to visit. And now young men barely 40 are slapped with prescriptions for lipitor. Type two diabetes is on the rise, and with your drugs you are given a prescription for a low fat diet full of whole grain bread.
This, for the lack of a more delicate word, is some serious bullshit.
This isn’t a hobby or a joy in finding conspiracy for its own intrigue. This is a pivotal point in the progress of the Western world. This is the time when we decide to keep going down the path of better death through chemistry, or decide to get at least a little bit Luddite and borrow an ad slogan from the apex of the chemical food movement, the 1970s: no, you can’t fool mother nature. You’ll kill people if you try.
This is a time to decide whether we want to measure life expectancy in years, or in quality of years. To borrow from Jesus, “I have come that you would have life, abundantly.” What good is it to live to be 90 if your brain is mush?
It doesn’t have to be a choice between quantity and quality of life. My faith keeps me secure with the idea that of course we all die some day. But while that life is here, it is a gift. Not quite as quotable as Jesus, iconic runner Steve Prefontaine said “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Life is a gift. It’s a gift we undervalue all the time. In the name of ease, we’ve given control over this gift to the manufacturers of non-food, and insulted the gifts that comes from the ground. They’ve been sacrificed at the altar of the god of commerce, convenience and modern life.
The lie of modernity is that all is reducible to parts. Animal proteins are the same from a pasture or a CAFO. Oil is oil. A fig newton is just like a fig. Does modernity treat the human individual with any more respect?
Modernity is slowly killing the greatest generation. I’ve been burying them for 15 years, nearly always of a degenerative disease that no one heard of 150 years ago. It cannot be an accident or coincidence that they fundamentally changed the way they fed themselves bearing little resemblance to the diets of their ancestors. It cannot be coincidence that as sugar consumption went up and butter consumption went down, diseases of civilization became known.
Maybe those crazy eyed ancients knew something after all. Maybe they knew not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. The man in the white coat. The man in the advertisements. Real food needs no ads. But hey, what do I know? Ads never lie, right?