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Some years ago, Susan and I went to visit one of her cousins, an older lady, at the assisted living facility she had moved into a year earlier. Unlike many seniors who have trouble keeping weight on, Susan’s cousin, who bore the faintest resemblance to Dick Butkus, had gained eighty pounds.


In a year.

Why? Because the facility where she was living fed her nothing but white carbs, three times a day, with snacks in between. Morning, noon, and night, she ate white bread, white potatoes, white pasta, white rice. Over and over again. Her processed food diet, which delighted her — who doesn’t like an endless intake of comfort food? — was ultimately nothing more than sugar, in varying forms, and nothing else, all day every day. When we went to see her, she could barely walk. I can’t recall whether or not she was a diabetic when she arrived, but by the time she left for the cemetery, I believe she was.

“At least I’m better off then she is,” this cousin said to us, pointing to a gaunt woman whose coloring could only be described as pearl gray. She sat alone, a surgical table pulled up to her chest, sipping Ensure — the first ten ingredients of which (barring water, which is number one) are sugar and fat — through a straw.

That day was a personal turning point for me; bells, lights, and whistles went off all at once. In this country — this great, proud, wonderful, modern, devout, deeply religious country — that is my home, we don’t care much for senior citizens. They’re not particularly cute and cuddly, like infants. They move more slowly, and sometimes can’t remember. They’re an afterthought, an annoyance, an inconvenience. They’re living longer — imagine the nerve — and thus they drain the system. (This is not my argument, but I have heard it repeatedly.) And so, we do everything we can to avoid them and the subject of them. By that, I don’t mean that seniors don’t show up in our political discourse; they do, in terms of social security and medicare. (These are not, as some folks like to say, entitlements; these are implementations of our human value system writ large. We take care of infants in need; if we are to call ourselves an ethical, moral society, we must take care of senior citizens. Period. WWJD, right?) 

But I’m not talking about government responsibility. Where seniors don’t show up is in our culture, and at the table. Once that assisted living facility door closes, and once that apartment door shuts, seniors are effectively removed from the world around them. We feed them cheaply, as though what they eat is simply fuel, devoid of cultural connection and sustenance. They grow isolated; they grow ill; they die, often alone, the links to their families and their communities of origin, broken.

A few years after our visit to see Susan’s cousin, I was contracted to write a book on this subject, about which I have grown passionate; I called it Beyond the Schoolyard. For months, I researched and conducted interviews; I read statistics and cohort analyses until my eyes crossed. And somewhere along the line, I came to the realization that this book wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — be about numbers; it would have to be personal, and experiential. Because the way we feed seniors — the largest, actively growing demographic in this country, with almost 50 million among our population at this moment — is a deeply personal issue. The story doesn’t start in the assisted living facility or in the apartment; the story begins at the table, in the homes of our childhoods and in the homes of our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. The story of feeding our seniors — bringing them to the table and keeping them there for as long as possible — starts at the most humane, human of places: at what the late Marion Cunningham called The Modern Tribal Fire.

Over the last year, I have written a monthly column for the Washington Post food section, called Feeding My Mother, about the vagaries of feeding an older parent — nutritionally, emotionally — who has had a peculiar lifelong relationship with the table. A few weeks ago with the help of Edible Reno Tahoe publishers Amanda Burden and Jaci Goodman, and Dr. Bret Simmons of the University of Nevada Reno, I was honored to give my first TED talk on the subject, at TEDx UNR, alongside other speakers from every walk of life and (thrillingly) both sides of the aisle — Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative — on every issue ranging from navigating the healthcare system from the point of view of a hospital CEO battling cancer, to fighting child sexual abuse, to being a football player and coach who happens to be gay. What bound us was not the fact of our seemingly disparate subjects; it was the intense humanity that plaited our subjects together. I’ll never, ever forget it (and not because I had to memorize my twelve minute talk and then deliver it in front of fourteen hundred people, without passing out).

Beyond the Schoolyard is on the shelf for the moment; I had to first finish my next memoir, Treyf, which is coming out in September 2016. But the issue of bringing seniors to the table is one that is not going away for me, nor for you. Beyond the Schoolyard will, I suspect, ultimately take a much different form, although the message will be the same: bring seniors to the table. Nurture them. Feed their souls and spirits, and you will not only nurture their hearts; you’ll nurture your own.



New Year, New Who?

January 13, 2016 · 29 comments


The new year started with a detox, which didn’t go well.

Day one was like being shot out of a cannon: a high-fat green smoothie for breakfast that tasted, as my friend Lisa says, like lawn clippings.

I was hoping that our new Vitamix would do something spectacular to it, like turn it into poached eggs on toast.

We can make it better, I said to Susan, who managed to drink the whole thing; I choked down two gulps and poured the rest down the drain, praying that the chia seeds didn’t hold a convention and plug it up.

Day two began with trepidation: a high-fat fruit smoothie that was more palatable. Even throwing a whole quarter lemon — pith, peel, and all — into the Vitamix didn’t turn me off. The result was pleasant enough — fruity, a little bitter — even though the chia made the consistency more like drinking almost-set jello than a smoothie.

Day three started with the same thing, except that it actually began on the night of Day two, when Susan dutifully soaked the chia seeds and the nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts) to make them more digestible. Which they were, mostly. Susan gets up every morning at five a.m. for a very long daily commute into New York, and the first few days I got up with her as a show of solidarity while she stood in the kitchen, bleary-eyed, and turned on the Vitamix long before the break of day. She put it on the smoothie setting, dumped in the ingredients, flipped the switch, and woke the neighborhood.


Lunches and dinners were easier; there was always a lean protein (4-6 ounces; I weighed everything), salads, greens, non-starchy vegetables, no grains, no dairy, no gluten, no wine, no fruit, except for the tomato that was part of one of the dinner recipes. It’s January in New England: Go find a fresh, non-mealy tomato that doesn’t taste like you’re chewing on cotton balls. There’s a reason why we eat food that’s fresh and seasonal; this is just a very small part of it.

We made it into day four; Susan’s mild sugar cravings had in fact slowed. Mine were non-existent to begin with because I have no sweet tooth. Never have. At the end of the four days, I had gained a pound; Susan lost four ounces.

We were depressed; we’d had enough.

This particular detox is part of a diet that I hold — and I’m quite serious about this — in very high esteem; the folks who have developed it did so as a way to help people unravel severe sugar addiction and blood sugar issues which come as a natural by-product of the SAD (Standard American Diet). It’s brutal — it has to be; even though we don’t eat the SAD in my house by a long shot, I experienced a massive migraine by day two and some flu-like symptoms that go hand-in-hand with detox — and for the people who desperately need it, I believe it works and results, ultimately, in saner, less deadly eating habits and lower blood sugar, industrial food complex be damned.

But in our house, like many detoxing households, we don’t have deadly eating habits; we have good eating habits. To be clear, it was not a total flop for us: we came away from it — even just four days of it — with a better sense of portion control and the ability to acknowledge when we’re actually hungry versus bored, which helps us make better choices about what, and when, to eat. And that’s key.

So the reasons behind our doing the detox were murky. Sure: we wanted to feel clean, and a bit lighter after the onslaught of rich holiday foods. But again, we don’t have the standard American diet; the quality of the food we eat is very high because we are lucky enough to be able to afford it; our portions are never outlandish, even at the higher end of normal; we don’t need to detox from sugar or dairy — I’m not much for either and even when I eat cheese, it’s generally only goat or sheep, and almost always raw. I eat gluten free because bad things happen if I don’t, and they have since I was three years old — this is not something I need to prove to some self-anointed, self-appointed naysayer (and if you are GF, neither do you) — and I almost always feel better when I eat more fish, less meat, and I move my body: walking, light running, yoga. Being outside.

So, why the detox? Why the diet?

Because, like many women of a certain age — I’m 52, and a former serious athlete (tennis, squash, swimming, skiing) — I look in the mirror, and it appears that my bubbe from the old country is staring back at me, even though she’s been dead for years. I’m carrying fifteen extra pounds that, no matter what I do — detox, no detox; five-day-a-week workouts; small portions; less wine; on and on and on — I can’t drop.

How’s the gym going, my mother asks every day when I call to check in on her. This is her backhanded way of asking: lose any weight lately? My mother is five foot five (she’s dropped two inches in recent years), rail-thin, slender, an ectomorph. She wasn’t always; as a child, she was round and chubby, and carried her weight in her cheeks and her belly, the way I do. She became a singer and a model; she starved herself into size two thinness, which is where she remains, even now.

Dieting works, she says to me, apropos of nothing. Just look at me. 

So I look at her. And I look at the magazines and blogs and books that dangle the promise of a different, more fabulous me over my parched, non-pouty, middle-aged lips like I was Tantalus himself.

Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, in the twisted part of my cerebral cortex that understands that skinny is better and beautiful is best and young is the prize that every woman wants, I have received and absorbed like a sponge the message that I am not thin enough; I am not pretty enough; I am not young enough. If I drop fifteen pounds, I’ll be thirty-five again. Almost certainly, my blood pressure will come down; I’ll get off my beta blocker and my statin, and that’s great. But that’s not why most women of a certain age, once a year, hit the reset button, and try again.

And it’s not why I do it.

This is the root of it; the gnarly spider’s web that catches us in its sticky threads and won’t let us go.

January 1st: we detox. We diet. We wipe the slate clean. We inhabit the promise of being someone else: the me without the fifteen extra pounds, the double chin, the aching joints, the graying hair, the dimming complexion.

We inhabit the promise of happiness, of acceptability.

We become the woman we used to be.

Would that we could simply take care of our bodies and souls as the years pass — eat well, be physically active, love, be loved, take time to breathe and slow down — and be who we are.





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