Thursday, May 20, 2010

5/22 The Passion of a Generation

"What was I going to do with Italian? It would be more practical to learn how to play the accordion. But why must everything always have a practical application? Is this lifetime supposed to be only about duty? In this period of loss, did I need any justification for learning Italian other than that it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now?" from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Passion.  It's difficult to define this word because it means something different to everyone.  It's used as loosely as the word love, and it has just as various meanings.  Everyone can agree that, as humans, we should possess it.  

 In Gilbert's passage above, she hits upon a very controversial topic, especially amongst my generation (those just getting into the work place).  We have watched our parents and their parents work their asses off for our benefit, yet this seems to have had a phenomenal effect.  Their progeny have the desire the work less, play more.  For the most part, we see our predecessors as workaholics.  Everything they do in life has a practical function.  The "American Dream" is not being pursued by my generation the way it was pursued by preceding generations.  

I like to attribute this change to passion.  People are more passionate about living nowadays.  Our parents criticize us for traveling so much (which is likely a reflection of jealousy if you ask me), taking "time off from school", resisting marriage, and delaying baby-making.  In my case, it's as if my parents have totally forgotten what drove them to love the 60s (I have pictures to prove that they loved the 60s).  My generation seems to focus more on the individual as opposed to fulfilling the "American Dream" --> house with a picket fence, happy family, and a steady job.  Instead, we gravitate towards the unknown.  We are curious about the world, and there is very little that scares us.   

My parents are passionate about me.  I'm passionate about the world.  I haven't lost my idealistic views of the world.  And I'm out to conquer the world.  I'm certainly looking forward to having a career, family, and children, but the exact framework for this future establishment is not so clear.  In fact, it almost seems as if those things will be possible only if I pursue my own interests in the meantime to ensure that my person is safe and sound before I set off trying to make a woman happy and raise children.  This seems radical to my parents:  "Why aren't you married yet?"  "You've been with that girl for so long, when are you getting married?"  "Don't you think it's time you settled down?"  "Are you a doctor yet?"  "Can you take a look at this rash?"  

My response to these frequent (very frequent) questions is always the same: I'm not ready, and I'm in no rush. 

My generation is bent on figuring out what it is that they are destined to do before they pour any concrete.  In my opinion, this pursuit is both beneficial and detrimental for our society.  The benefits are many.  If you don't know yourself, or if you're not comfortable with yourself, how can you possibly support others?  Furthermore, those who are most comfortable with themselves and their place in the world also seem to be the happiest.  In my generation, more people would find greater satisfaction in making less money as long as they enjoyed what they were doing.   

The problem with this approach is that finding something you're passionate about takes a lifetime.  We all have our quirks throughout life, but to find something that we couldn't live without is more difficult. To say that we are truly passionate about something means that it is just as important to us as life itself.  Take dancing for instance.  Passion defies judgment.   If dancing is your passion, you can do it any place, anytime, anywhere and feel wonderful doing it.  You're PASSIONATE about it!  

Our parents found passion in their nuclear family.  The idea of "working hard now to play harder later" wasn't lost on our parents' generation.  My parents are just starting to explore hobbies and other interests now that my sister and I are leaving the coop.  But my generation insists on pursuing the hobbies and dreams early on, rather than waiting until retirement.  And they certainly didn't pursue the career that they are most passionate about.  Rather, they pursued the career that offered the best benefits to their family, the passion they established early on, for better or for worse. 

Hopefully, the predicament is slowly revealing itself to you.  We are all evolutionarily hardwired to want a family, but what about the individual's desires?  It's impossible to fully discover ourselves - to be totally comfortable with our attitudes, beliefs, and ambitions - at 25.  But if we dive right into family life, we may be cutting ourselves short.  From observing our parents, it seems impossible to devote ourselves to our families while simultaneously maintaining our personal identities.  And it doesn't help that many of our parents' generation are divorced. 

Obviously, hindsight is difficult over the course of a lifetime.  It would be hard for somebody to look back on life and argue that they should have focused more on themselves.  As humans, we adapt well, and it's easy to change our positions in life, so we often don't live with elaborate regrets.  When we graduate from college and contemplate getting a job, we are faced with this dilemma: What do I want in life?  The obvious answer isn't (always) the American Dream.  The rigid constructs of a wife, family, and career is scary.  So we travel.  We take time off.  We start dressing like hipsters because we have no better solution.  We delay the process in an effort to "find ourselves".  But it ain't happening.  Not at 25. 

You have your whole life to figure out what exactly it is that makes you tick.  I think we would all be better off if we began practicing balance in life from an early age.  If any one of your physical, mental, emotional, or psychological needs aren't being met, you're in for a rough road ahead.  The more experiences you get while you're young, the better, but this doesn't mean you have to cease personal reinvention throughout your entire life.  Use your powers of adaptation to take risks and try new things in an effort to fine-tune your self-definition until the day you die.  Maintaining your own personal identity is just as important as maintaining the welfare of your family, and, in fact, your significant other and family may actually be instrumental in helping you find your path in life if you got off to a good start while young.  Finding your passions in life should begin when you're young, snowball in through middle age, and distill when you're an old, healthy man or woman. 

Start early, finish late, reconfigure along the way.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

5/18 Crappy Chemicals and Crappy Food

Nicholas Kristof.  If you don't know who he is, Google him.  He's one of the most brilliant writers on staff at the NYTimes, and he has written some of the most compelling, inspiring stuff that I read.  I suggest that you always read Kristof's pieces in the NYTimes.  His blog can be found here.

He recently wrote an article about the President's Cancel Panel's recent (and surprising) posturing against chemical food additives. 

The panel, established in 1971, consists of three people appointed by the president who report directly to the big guy.  Anyways, for years, the organic food movement has struggled to gain ground because many of our nation's big whigs have paid little attention to the industry's claims that pesticide-laden, chemically altered/laced foods are largely responsible for the constantly rising cancer rates in our country and elsewhere.  But now that the President's Cancer Panel has supported these claims, our grocery stores might change a lot. 
The Panel's statement will hopefully lead to increased nutritional education in schools, reformed cafeteria menu planning, and improved subsidies for organic farmers.  This might be a key step towards getting people to consume more healthy, chemical-free produce.  And towards starting children out in a healthier world from a young age.

In addition to buying organic, read food labels carefully.  The more "whole" your diet, the better.  We didn't evolve with preservatives, so there's no telling what all of those multi-syllabic chemicals are doing to you.  If you can't pronounce it, it's probably don't more harm than good.

The Panel's other suggestions for staying chemical-free in your daily lives are:

>Particularly when pregnant and when children are small, choose foods, toys and garden products with fewer endocrine disruptors or other toxins. (Information about products is at or

>For those whose jobs may expose them to chemicals, remove shoes when entering the house and wash work clothes separately from the rest of the laundry.

>Filter drinking water.

>Store water in glass or stainless steel containers, or in plastics that don’t contain BPA or phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastics). Microwave food in ceramic or glass containers.

>Give preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and growth hormones. Avoid meats that are cooked well-done.

>Check radon levels in your home. Radon is a natural source of radiation linked to cancer.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

5/5 Why do we exercise and diet?

Before you start reading, answer this question: Why do I exercise?

It seems like a silly question.  And there definitely isn't a right answer, but it's certainly important to have an answer.  Why do you wake up every day and go to the gym?  Why do you count calories?  Why do you worry about your weight?  Why do you feel guilty for not participating in local road races?

Exercise isn't easy, but it should always be fun.  Furthermore, you should always be able to justify time spent designing your workout plans or diet.

The Pittsburgh Marathon was this past weekend, and I can't tell you how many people came in to Fleet Feet for supplies, begrudging the fact that they "have to run the marathon on Sunday".   Even after the race, people say things like: "I'm glad that's over with".  If it's so terrible, why the hell are you doing it?

The fitness industry has drawn many into its ranks, and, simply by following the beat of some unknown drum, many of us have fallen into a routine of dieting and exercising without asking ourselves: Why?

I have thought hard about this, and I have compiled a list of reasons that I think people work out and diet:
- to lose/maintain weight because you think other people like your "fit" look
- to lose/maintain weight because you like your "fit" look
- to improve athletic performance
- to mimic the look/behavior of a celebrity
- to improve your body's regular functions (e.g. complexion, digestion, hormonal function, energy levels)
- to simply remind your body what it feels like to be mobile
- to ensure that you live a long, healthy life
- to try to fit into your wedding dress

There are obviously an unlimited number of responses to this question, and I certainly won't try to convince you that one of these is the correct answer.  But there is some truth to the suggestion that one or more of these reasons could lead a healthy activity to become an unhealthy one.  Those people that diet and exercise in order to lose weight could be doing it because they know that diet and exercise are part of a healthy lifestyle, and skinny, toned bodies must mean healthy bodies, right? (wrong)

The fitness industry has been built around precisely the idea that skinny = healthy.  Unfortunately, it just isn't so.  90% of runners think that - since they are runners - they can eat whatever they want.  They pound down calories, but they never put on any weight because they're burning so much through their run training.  Unfortunately, the hidden dangers of poor omega 6s: omega 3s ratios, insulin insensitivity, lower brain function, atherosclerosis, reduced liver function, skewed gastrointestinal function, and kidney failure are just a few of the hidden dangers that come with a poor diet.  If you're skinny, then congratulations!  You burn more than you eat!  The fitness industry has preyed off of this concept for years.  It's always about weight-loss.  Magic pills sold at GNC that equate to little more than legalized speed bring in billions per year. 
The same could be said for body builders.  They are drawn into the fitness industry by meat heads with biceps bigger than watermelons on the cover of muscle magazines.  It's unclear as to whether or not these guys (you know who I'm talking about) are doing it with health in mind as opposed to a new bench press max.

While diet fads come and go and while exercise strategies ebb and flow, there is some advice out there that has persisted over the years: 
- everything is ok in moderation
- some things are better in excess; others are better left alone
- the body is an amazing machine, capable of amazing things
- vegetables are good for you
- sugar is bad for you
- if you read an ingredient on a food label that you can't pronounce, it's probably not good for you
- listening to your body has always proven effective in deciding what's right for you
- logic almost always prevails
- a well-performing body is a well-rested body
- moderate stress results in large increases in performance
- form follows function

Ask yourself why you exercise and for what you purpose you eat whatever it is that you eat.  If you are exercising to burn off those cookies you ate the night before, you are exercising for the wrong reason, and you probably ate those cookies for the wrong reason, too.  Working your ass off in the gym isn't going to change the source of the problem, which is your relationship with food and exercise.  Developing these relationships starts with asking yourself: Why?  From there, you can slowly begin to love exercising and eating better foods. 

I diet and exercise in order to live a long, healthy life.  Why do you do it?