Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Culprit Life


"The truth of it is, that there is not a single science, or any branch of it, that might not furnish a man with business for life, though it were much longer than it is."

-- Joseph Addison

Nutrition is a science. It's true. I checked online. You can earn a doctorate in the subject, from actual, legitimate universities. These are good schools not affiliated with model-weed-farming, Wilhelm Reich, naturopathic chiropractic, astrology, or divining. You can get a Masters from Johns Hopkins, people. I emphasize this as I understand your professional nutritionists can be a bit tetchy when challenged on their bona fides. This apparently happens all the damned time. Somebody releases a study that says coffee will kill you deader than dead. Somebody else releases a study that says a latte is all that stands between you and dementia, and --- fight. Seen more than one degreed nutritionist pop off at folks trashing the food pyramid or complaining that what supposedly caused cancer on Tuesday turned out to be good for babies and old folks a week later. First thing the nutrition scientists are apt to do is shout, "SCURVY!" even though I don't think actual, degreed nutritionists, or Johns Hopkins come to that existed when Admiral Nelson was tossing lemons from the crow's nest or however that went. Folic acid would frankly be a better rallying cry, but again, it was the English hematologist Lucy Wills who made the connection between deficiencies and birth defects in 1928, so... not an actual nutritionist. Still. FOLIC ACID! CITRUS! Yeah, boy!

I feel for anybody trying to study humans scientifically without being able to use controlled studies (you know, science.) Even when the professional nutritionistas have convinced people to participate in a proper study, even when the participants signed an oath in blood to not, I don't know, eat sardines for a month, two days later everybody's eating little tinned fish with the heads on, even if they never liked sardines before. Why? Because, as a species we are some perverse, suggestible, capricious animals, that's why. Must be maddening. So in the absence of actually being able to make us eat our peas or not according to the requirements of a proper study, much of what the nutrition-alchemists are forced to do is describe the elephant just by touch: "I got a tail this end!" "Me too!" We should all stand amazed that such methods can ever distinguish between tail and trunk, or apples and oranges to put it another way, and yet they do this all the time and sometimes they may even be right. Remarkable.

Having recently embarked on the stony road to kidney and gallbladder health, I was shocked to see some of what's now BAD for me -- because uric acid and or calcium -- even though these things were healthy choices mere minutes before I was handed my new nutrition guide: spinach, tomatoes, almonds, avocados... the list was long and deeply disheartening. WTF?! And that was just the kidneys. When my gallbladder joined the rebellion and threatened to blow up my abdomen unless its demands were met, suddenly citrus, dairy, liver, the list of banned substances ballooned to uncomfortable size. Basically, if I didn't want to die in agony I needed hereafter to eat only unseasoned beans and drink room-temperature water. I might have a wedge of iceberg lettuce for dessert -- no dark greens -- if  I was very very good and hadn't eaten a grain of salt since February. 

It wasn't all a Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I ought not to eat fatty meats. Well, no, I suppose not. Obvious if mean. Refined sugar isn't a friend. I get it. Again, I resent this, but I get it. Cheese may be second only to the printing press in my list of Greatest Human Inventions, but even I know one is not meant to eat one's weight in it annually. The weird bit was seeing so many old friends of a leafy green and vegetable nature on the nutritionist's new forbidden index. Really? Broccoli may be bad for me now? Broccoli?!?! Welcome to Opposites Day! Spinach may now be the worst thing you can eat. But I love spinach. Nope. Spinach may kill you. Spinach?! Will spinach kill me? It may.

Oh, that word, "may." That may be the nutritionists' favorite word. Scratch that. May is their favorite word. Ohmahgawd, they used it everywhere. Stone may come from eating X, or it may come from not eating enough Z. Eating less Y may reduce the risk of serious inflammation, or eating Q may cause the development of a third eye. The sun may rise, the sun may set, but who knows why "may" sounds so wet? 

Likelihood and possibility are perfectly respectable scientific terms, and yet modal verbs like "may" make doubters of us all. Science cannot prove that by keeping a loaded gun in your house you will be shot. It is likelier by a large number, but who knows? Maybe it will be your wife who takes the bullet, or a baby, or the dog. Maybe nobody dies. Does that mean the science was wrong? Nope. Sorry Gomer, you're still likelier to lose a toe to violence (or the sugar, statistically speaking.) Is it possible that there is life on other planets? Why, sure. Thrillingly likely. But that alien autopsy video from back in the day, that was still incredibly stupid though, right? Yes, yes it was. Remember: possibility, probability, straight-up stupid. As Americans, we are internationally recognized as unappreciative of distinctions, subtle and otherwise. A nation founded by slave-owners willing to sign a document proclaiming that "all men are created equal" is obviously a nation on whom subtlety -- and of course irony  -- long lost. Black and white. Left and right. Good and bad. Happy and sad. True and false.

So as an American I feel myself very much entitled to have a tantrum when told that spinach may kill me, and that porterhouse steak? That thing almost surely will. Okay, but spinach?! Seriously? Shut up! Stupid nutrition science. (Just so you know, everybody kinda hates you, nutritionists. Seriously, you are the dry carrot stick of food science. Wylie Dufresne, Grant Achatz, molecular gastronomists and kitchen wizards  making free-floating bacon-flavored smoke rings that circle poached pears that look like Saturn -- that stuff is super cool and tasty too. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and the whole Food Lab thing? That is beyond legit. It's like Richard P. Feynman made me a soufflé. Nutritionists? You're not even the lunch-ladies. You're the lady in the office who printed the cafeteria menus with the unconvincing exclamation-points next to the baked apple.)

I'm being mean now, but all this dietary restriction runs "contrary to the natural bias of our flesh," as puritan bad daddy Jonathan Edwards might put it. Contrary to mine, anyway. I can't smoke anymore. I was never much of a drinker. If memory still serves, the pursuit of sexual variety requires both more patience than I now have and better knees than I am likely to ever see again -- and now you need to download at least one more app, right? That is not going to happen. I don't play half the games I already have on my phone. Meanwhile, it really isn't an exaggeration to say that I genuinely love food. I certainly love it more now than it does me, but isn't that just always the way? So the idea that what wants to kill me now isn't a virus or or a carcinogen or an obvious danger like meeting new people or riding roller coasters, it isn't just the bad companions from the dairy isle and the deli counter, the soft cheeses and the cured meats, but almonds and berries and leafy greens... Well, the world really is a more hostile place than even I had ever imagined. Even the garden wants me dead.

Speaking of new apps, there is an advertisement that I see everywhere now and directed very much at my demo, i.e. my body mass, age, and general demeanor. It's a new kind of diet thingamy that's supposedly based on psychology rather than the more usual business of averages: weight and age and exercise and such. In the ads there are always at least one or two customers who enthuse that the app has helped them to understand their "relationship with food" and why, for example they eat what they do and when and so on, as if any and all of this was some unfathomable mystery. Now I may not be able to explain why a picture of that perfectly lovely and talented boy Timothée Chalamet does nothing for me and honestly always makes me think of rescued racing greyhounds, while all Harry Styles has to do to put on a sequence jumpsuit and I go all gooey inside. Doesn't much matter why, does it? That's a mystery. None of our lives are adversely effected by this. Doesn't need thinking about unduly. Whereas why I eat what I eat and when I eat what I eat and the whole business of cooking food and eating food and reading about food and thinking about food, about all of this I have thought much. Doesn't mean everybody ought to, but I have. I don't need a bit of new software on my phone to remind me that ice cream isn't always about sweetness or that prosciutto isn't just ham or that sane people do not dream often of gravy or make lists of the best macaroons they have ever eaten. It is not then that I am unaware, or even that I am all that inflexible. What I am is sad.

Every morning since I had the kidney stone surgically removed at the beginning of the year, I start my day with the juice of one lemon and two generous tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. (Mix with a cup and a half of cold water and down it like the sulfurous poison it is, soldier.) As unlikely as this sounds, it is. I do not seek medical advice from internet shamen nor do I dose myself based on what a guy I know was told by his cousin who "got over" kidney stones when he took up chewing betel. This breakfast beverage was perhaps my first serious foray into the alternative, because that is how bad kidney stones can be. This was nothing. Does it help? I do not know. Can't hurt. The foods that went from good for me to bad for me, however unwillingly I did as I was told and quit. Now comes a gallstone and the new gustatory puritanism takes on an even darker shade of dull, but I do as I am told. I do not like doing this. I resent doing this. I am frustrated that in doing this I guarantee nothing as this all may or may not help. I am all the grouchier having done this to learn three weeks later that I have actually gained a pound. (!) But I do it.

And now in a few days I will go into the hospital to have my gallbladder out in the sincere hope that this may right the sinking ship of me and possibly even restore some little joy to my diet. In surgery I have at least the comfort of hard science. Do this and this will stop. Even here though, the march of the medical "mays" goes endlessly on. I don't know if the dear reader has any recent experience with even minor surgery, but preliminary to any actual cutting comes the recitation of all that may kill you. The surgeon may slip and nick an artery. And then you die. The anesthetic may stop your heart. And then you die. Your heart may stop of it's own accord. And then you die. Going off blood-thinners even just two days before doesn't mean you may not bleed to death anyway, or have a blood clot or clots, or  a stroke. You could get cooties just being in a hospital because that's where the cooties live. The surgeon is legally required to recite all of this and more. Then the anesthesiologist does it again, as does the nurse-practitioner after doing the check-up to see if you will live long enough to even get the surgery. Come the day, I will not be surprised if the janitor feels obliged to describe an embolism to me or the receptionists form a Greek Chorus and lament the inexorable workings of the Fates. 

Don't really get to actually see my regular doctor nowadays. Since the pandemic she seems to be practicing largely from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Andes. Making an actual appointment to be in the same room with her now requires the burning of rare incense, various arcane rituals, and the kind of planning that brought off D-Day. Still, we occasionally chat on the phone. (We talk about boys we like and how much we hate gym and how girls can be really mean about our bangs when we don't get them really straight.) I was supposed to have a check-up with my general practitioner a week before my surgery. Her first available appointment was three weeks after the surgery, so that didn't work out. (I went to a clinic at the hospital.) Because of the difficulty of arranging anything through my health plan, when I manage an appointment -- any appointment -- I try to keep to the point. No time to be wasted as it might be another full cycle of the moon before the stars align again. Quick! The portal is closing!

Will this kill me? (Mark Yes or No.)

Can this be fixed? And if so, when?

If I am very lucky, before the doctor or nurse practitioner disappears in a puff of blue smoke, there will be an "action plan." Admittedly an awkward construction, but since inaction is the watchword of modern insurance practice, I find the words strangely comforting. The plan then is to poke holes in me and yank the offending organ out o' me. Ought not to kill me. Fingers crossed. (Sooooo many things can, you know.) and when the business is concluded, I will hopefully be home that same day. Whatever else happens, I am sure of only one thing. Soon as I get home, I am throwing that filthy "vegan butter" right in the trash and then I will go straight back to bed and dream of chicken livers in onion gravy, roasted rosemary potatoes, rice pudding, and... spinach. That's living, brother!  

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!
-- Emily Dickinson

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