Brain Food

September 18, 2009 § Leave a comment


I want to lose fifteen or twenty pounds, and every now and then I feel determined, certain I can cut my diet to the bone and get at least 2/3 to where I want to be, then reconnoiter. It wouldn’t take long. What’s a few months these days? I still think of 2001 as yesterday.

But the problem is I only feel this committed when I hate my body, and to keep up that state of mind 24 hours tends to make me sad. So I find something that fits and flatters me and come to terms with my image in the mirror. I go out for a long walk in the cool September air—in the excitement of New York in the fall when the students return, art and theater picks up all over the city, fashion glamors the streets and dealmakers shout in restaurants—and my resolve withers in the face of pleasure.

Being around people makes it worse, although if I’m not around them I’ll get dangerously lonely and decide that, really, a few pounds are not the issue. But other people eat. My husband, who was just visiting, eats annoyingly often. Others want to meet in restaurants, or I have to cook for them, and feel constrained to offer more than boiled vegetables. And it’s nice to see my friends and they make me feel loved and who cares about diet when cuisine is the product of thousands of years of human creativity and nurture?*

If everyone agreed to stick to my own silly diet (1000 calories, nothing after 6 p.m.) and were clever at finding ways to distract me from hunger pangs, then maybe it would work. One can achieve almost anything with mimicry. This is very different from encouragement or solidarity. I don’t want to chat with pals about our diets. I want to eat greens because that’s all there is and everyone’s excited by the garlic or the ginger. Diet is already a religion in America, but it’s a very inept one. More creative brainwashing is needed.

Meanwhile scientists are getting closer to a pill solution. Gastric bypass surgery may work in part because it affects hormones that regulate hunger. Certain people, mostly young, have something called “brown fat” which ups the metabolism.  The tinkerers have a lot to play with.

I’ve been reading a book called What’s Next?: Dispatches on the Future of Science,  a collection of essays by young scientists about the future. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University (what a cool job title, no?) writes about genetic enhancement, arguing that you need to understand why evolution didn’t select for a desired trait before you consider doing so yourself. Assuming you have the ability to fiddle with the genome, of course.

Consider brain size. We’ve all heard the theory about how our brains stopped getting bigger because women’s pelvis’s couldn’t handle big-headed babies, but Bostrom notes that the brain uses 20% of our calorie intake, and in an era of food scarcity—most of human history—it wasn’t worth it to be smarter and starve. Now that caesarian sections are so popular and cake and hamburgers even more so, a bigger brain might be feasible. What I think is that my head is just the right size and it’s too late to change it anyway, but if I could somehow shoot the calories from every snack in that direction and make my neurons hum and sizzle while my hips shrink, I’d be a very happy woman.

Crazy About Her Shrimp

We don’t even take time
To come up for air.
We keep our mouths full and busy
Eating bread and cheese
And smooching in between.

No sooner have we made love
Than we are back in the kitchen.
While I chop the hot peppers,
She grins at me
And stirs the shrimp on the stove.

How good the wine tastes
That has run red
Out of a laughing mouth!
Down her chin
And on to her naked tits.

“I’m getting fat,” she says,
Turning this way and that way
Before the mirror.
“I’m crazy about her shrimp!’
I shout to the gods above.

– Charles Simic, The Voice at 3:00 A.M. : Selected Late and New Poems, 2003

* One of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read

Lady of the Flies

April 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Love on the flyPeople are frequently interested in my romantic situation (husband in Florida, boyfriend in over his head). It is peculiar and not without advantages, though the good stuff tends to add up while the bad multiplies, but the oddest thing that’s happened, and this concerns me as a writer, is that I’ve wrung so much drama from the past 9 years (or it’s wrung me; I haven’t always been the prime mover of the theatrics), that sex, love and romance, while still powerful in my life, are no longer the heavyweights in my imagination. I’m far less curious about what other people are up to, about the ‘mystery’ of someone’s marriage or arrangement. I don’t think I know everything—I just think I know everything that matters to me.

And having said such a vainglorious thing, I’m not sure if I want to be right or wrong about this. It’s nice to think the future holds surprises (she said tepidly, sitting in a hardback chair on the stage, hands folded in her lap, as abysses yawn and monsters stalk), but then surprises aren’t always nice, are they?

From one of my favorite science blogs—this is about flies—

“The influence of crowds can even sway a female’s decision based on completely arbitrary factors. To show this, Mery dusted two groups of males with either green or pink powder, creating bodies that no female would ever come across in the wild.  She placed a voyeur female in a glass tube, and in an adjoining tube, she put a coloured male and a second virgin female. Inevitably, the two flies mated, providing a sex show for the lone female to study. Later, the couple were replaced with another pair – a male of the other colour, and a female that had recently mated and wasn’t up for it. 

After all this voyeurism, Mery gave the solitary female a choice between pink or green males. She found that the female was twice as likely to mate with males from the colour that she had seen having sex before. If she watched green males getting lucky, she favoured green males; if pink seemed to be the colour-of-choice for other females, she went with pink. If the partition between the two tubes was opaque, so she couldn’t see the neighbouring shenanigans, she didn’t have any preferences for either colour.”*

Fashion always wins. The other woman knows something you don’t. We’re all confused about what we’re supposed to find attractive. Choose your lesson.

It’s interesting how science, which would never have advanced so far so fast without our hyper-rational, individualist civilization, is quickly tearing down the intellectual foundations of same. The human brain, not much more advanced than the fly brain, is impulse-driven, fast and sloppy, and expert at making up justifications after the fact. This is the rule, not the exception. Economists have just learned this; it’s a big eureka moment for them. No wonder the market doesn’t work! People are nuts!

Reason and considered choice are on the way out as the trusted foundation for human behavior. We can handle this for now. Scientists can genially say they don’t believe in free will, in the self, or even in consciousness, yet have no problem using those sturdy constructs to function and thrive. Apples and oranges, they say. My work, my life.

Because they are scientists, and not writers or artists, this isn’t hard for them; they tend not to have spent so much time hanging around with their demons. They haven’t given them names and histories, or ceded them territory; haven’t created symbiotic relationships to coax a win from a lose; they haven’t, in short, fooled themselves that they’ve corralled their irrational side into a binding agreement (renegotiated every one to three years).

Once those of us with the big crazies stop believing in progress of the emotional kind, in incremental acquisition of control, once we realize we’ll always like the guy with the pink dandruff if the other females do, and no power in heaven or on earth cares, or thinks it’s fate, or is saving us jewels of happiness for later—then I think we’ll storm the laboratories, grill the scientists for dinner along with their experimental animals, and erect temples to Asmodeus (lechery), Beelzebub (gluttony), Leviathan (envy), and Belphegor (sloth).

And the whole thing will start again in several hundred years.

* Ed Yong, flies get the buzz on sexy mates from each other


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