Outdoor Education

I am a person who does not like to be removed from human-made structures for extended periods of time.

So you may wonder why I would elect to fulfill my high school physical education requirement with the Outdoor Education module.

Odd as this may sound, it was the only gym unit that did not require shorts or running or sweating.

See, this was New York.  Outdoor Education was held in an indoor classroom and involved only sitting in street clothes and talking about the outdoors.

Now, sitting and talking are areas in which I usually excel, but the topics discussed in this class were completely outside of my experience and utterly beyond my imagination.

One day, for example, we considered the type of food that would help you survive if you got lost in the wilderness.

Our instructor, Mr. Gage, suggested that Spam would be the ideal alternative.  Spam?  I had heard of Spam, but thought it was a kind of fake food, not something you would really eat.  Like those inedible Christmas fruitcakes with the bright red and green chunks made from rubber or plastic or some other synthetic substance.

The whole conversation was just bizarre.  My classmates listed the alleged benefits of Spam.  It comes in a can.  It has nutritional additives.  It is chemically preserved.  It is high in fat, calories, and sodium.  These were the reasons they would eat Spam?  These were the reasons I would not eat Spam!  Besides, it was treyf!

But something was bothering me about the whole scenario.  Something about the big picture just did not make sense.  I raised my hand.  “Mr. Gage,” I said, “I don’t understand how we could possibly get lost in the wilderness.  I mean, what were we doing there in the first place?”

It was then I learned that people go to the wilderness voluntarily.  To do something called backpacking.  An activity which sounded even more dreadful than the camping I had seen on the television.  I was sure they were kidding me.

Soon, it was time for the final exam.  Had we been in Colorado, I am sure we would have been airdropped to the Rocky Mountains in the midst of a blizzard, left to survive with only a ballpoint pen and a pocket comb.  This being New York, however, our final was multiple choice, administered on those Scantron forms where you fill in the bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

Unfortunately, I did not survive even the first page.  It was question #5 that led to my demise.  A food question.  Spam was not one of the four available responses.  Upon encountering a patch of berries in the wild, I chose to “eat what the animals eat”.  In doing so, I made for myself a very painful death.  It turns out humans do not have the same digestive enzymes as other creatures of the forest.

Of course, I’ve never had the opportunity to apply these theoretical survival skills.  I get organic berries from my local grocer and eat them without reservation.  And I’ve never been lost in the wilderness.  Like I told Mr. Gage, you would never risk getting lost in the wilderness if you just stay where you belong, well within the borders of our natural urban habitat.

© 2017 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

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Ethical Eating

Living in the Bay Area so many years, you come to expect everyone you meet has got some kind of dietary “preferences” for reasons of health, ethics, religion, or neurosis.  At last year’s Passover Seder, for example, one of the guests wanted to ensure the matzah balls were made with local, organic, free-range eggs.  This kind of thing.

So I was at the airport, waiting at the gate for my flight.  Most people were screen-watching, but I was people-watching.  In particular, my attention was drawn to a group of Asian men who appeared to be Buddhist monks.  Well, they were styled as such with the red robes and the shaved heads.

The junior disciples opened some brown paper bags and offered containers of food to the senior monk.  Using chopsticks, the chief brought a plain green cooked vegetable to his face — maybe spinach or seaweed or kale — sniffed, but did not eat.  He seemed displeased and whispered a few words.  The novice monks took all the containers and threw them in the trash.

Though I knew very little about Buddhism, I assumed the food could not be eaten because it contained animal ingredients or was impure in some other way.  Anyway, some of the apostles left, presumably in search of more appropriate fare.

They were not going to find any vegan cuisine at this particular terminal, and it occurred to me that this might be the last chance the elderly man would have to eat for a very long time.  The airplane’s galley wasn’t likely to have any acceptable options, and it could be hours and hours before they reached their destination of Laos or Mongolia or wherever they were headed.

Soon, the young men came back bearing several personal-sized pizzas.  The leader opened a box, lifted a slice — pepperoni — and took a bite.  In a few moments, everyone was eating and laughing.  Clearly, they had not been the least bit concerned about the rectitude (or cholesterol) of their meal.  Really, the whole episode reminded me of a commercial for the Pizza Hut.

I was laughing, too.  Partly at the irony, but mostly at myself.  We all know what happens when you make assumptions.

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Summer Camp

They don’t let you exercise at Eating Disorders Camp.  They don’t let you do much of anything but sit around and eat and talk about eating.

And the food is really, really bad.  Hospital food bad.  If they are so desperate for you to eat, you’d think they’d give you some more appetizing options.  But they don’t.

They do give you options, but I cried “Kosher!” and pleaded “Vegetarian!” and so was able to choose the same menu every day.

For breakfast, I had raisin bran and banana and (whole) milk.  They don’t allow coffee; G-d forbid the caffeine might stimulate your metabolism a little bit.

For lunch, it was fruit plate; a soggy scoop of cottage cheese, slices of under-ripe cantaloupe and honeydew, a few red grapes.

For dinner, the cheese plate; a sleeve of Saltine crackers, a package of Kraft “cheese” squares, desiccated sticks of carrot and celery, some unspecified dip-like substance.

Of course, each meal was washed down with an Ensure chaser; a completely artificial, chemically-tasting form of liquid sustenance.  To add insult to injury, they would always bring me Strawberry, the most disgusting flavor by far.

Note.  You may be thinking I got off easy, that this menu would qualify as a weight loss plan by any normal standard, but this was not the case.  The quantity of food so exceeded even my non-anorexic diet that I gained weight at a depressingly rapid rate.

Each meal came with a paper form listing all of the items on the plate.  After ingesting what we could tolerate and rearranging the rest, an orderly would come around to complete the checklist by filling-in the estimated percentage we had consumed of each foodstuff.

If we passed and it was lunch, and only if we passed and it was lunch, we could go outside to the courtyard for the remainder of the hour.  This was a much-desired privilege; fresh air and sunshine, albeit for a short while, was a very welcome respite from the dingy, institutional environment.

During this recess, we were supervised, in order to prevent any unnecessary burning of calories.  There was a swing set, however, and on some of the days I was able to coax the Shaynas — three attractive, accomplished young women, all with the same name — to join me for a gleeful arc through the air.

Truthfully, I felt like something of a den mother.  Though past forty, I was not nearly the oldest; a few of the campers were into their fifties.  But unlike a fine wine, anorexics and bulimics do not age well, so except for the co-eds and me, the rest of our group was more-or-less inanimate.

One day, it happened they were short on staff and we were left unguarded during the after-lunch interlude.  A few of the girls took advantage of this unexpected freedom to pace the perimeter.  Others discussed strategies for making an escape, but were too sapped to scale the fence.

Suddenly, one of the prisoners called out that she had found a football.  A football?  How a ball of any variety had found its way into our gated community was a mystery of epic proportion and surely an act of subversion.  While uninteresting in any other context; to us, there and then, a football was sheer delight.

Immediately, I threw my arms in the air and shouted “Anorexics against the Bulimics!” and the girls started dividing themselves into teams according to diagnostic code.

As soon as the words passed my lips, however, I realized this was a very bad idea.  I mean, most of us anorexics could be knocked down by a mild breeze.  And the bulimics, well, more than a few of them were built to play the offensive line.

No, this would make for a very lopsided and dangerous scrimmage indeed.  It was my intention to reconfigure the field, but before I could say anything, our sentry was back on duty.  In an instant, the football was confiscated and we were led back to the sterile, florescent day room.

The weeks dragged and I didn’t get much from this supposedly salubrious setting.  The counselors weren’t terribly engaging and the campers were dreadfully disconnected.  Anyway, my issues were already well-understood, and in all honesty, dangerous as my disordered thinking might have been, I just really, really liked being anorexic.

Turns out that not eating was almost effortless for me.  Friends from shul would confess they couldn’t possibly fast a full day for Yom Kippur.  One day?  Please.  I never counted calories or looked for “thinspiration”.  I just ate very lightly and exercised very vigorously.

Most women have no idea how good it feels to go by the Macy’s Petite department and find a size 0 is too big.  I could do yoga like nobody’s business; it is very easy to twist about when there is nothing to get in the way.  My mind was free, no longer needing to worry about my weight all day long.

And the positive reinforcement was out of this world.  In the locker room at my gym, women — women! — would come over to say I had a beautiful body or to ask if I danced ballet.  Men appreciated me in a way I could never have imagined prior to achieving this sylphlike status.

Though I did not enjoy the constant medical attention, it was very convenient not to get my period.  Also, there is a slight light-headedness that comes with malnourishment that is surprisingly pleasant.  The euphoria overwhelmed the fainting spells, serious symptoms, severe side effects, and well-intentioned interventions.

While this was a miserable way to spend the season, my doctor had decreed the cost of my liberty would be 100 lbs.  It was an exorbitant price to pay, seemingly impossible, but like so many others sent to summer camp against their will, more than anything, I just wanted to go home.

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Buying Black

Whenever we needed any sort of professional services, my parents always got a guy from the shul.  The attorney, the dermatologist, the tailor, the whatever.  Except when we needed a dog doctor or a wall painter or a hairdresser.  These don’t come in Jewish.

Apparently this is a thing.  And not only among the chosen people.  The newspaper advertises real estate agents specializing in the Chinese community.  Maggie Anderson’s Our Black Year chronicles her African-American family’s attempt to buy from only Black-owned businesses for an entire year.

And Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blindspot acknowledges a bias that takes the form of a secret preference for your own group rather than any active discrimination against other groups.

Sounds about right.  Much as I hate to admit it, I am one of those otherwise egalitarian people with a tendency to favor my own landesman.  Certainly when all the other things are equal.  And perhaps even when they are not.

When my parents needed to buy a car, naturally, they went to a dealer from the synagogue.  A man my mother did not like.  OK, she didn’t like anyone, but she really, really did not like this guy.

My mother never referred to the dealer as Mr. ———, as was custom for business relationships in those days.  She never referred to him as Bob, though she would call other acquaintances from the temple by their first name.  It was always “that momzeh gonif Bob ———”.  Like “momzeh gonif” was his title.

Certainly, there were other lots in the area, but again and again, she returned to the lying thief.  Go figure.

It is this kind of irrational communal loyalty that has led me to make all kinds of questionable purchasing decisions despite the clear and present danger.

Like a few years ago, an eatery called The Roast Shop opened a few blocks from my apartment.  Kosher, closed on Shabbes, the whole megillah.  The only such restaurant in the neighborhood and only one of two in town.

Not a delicatessen type of place, they advertised as specialists in roasted meats.  In either case, not really my style, especially when there are so many wonderful Mediterranean and vegetarian options within a few blocks walk.

Also, they received terrible reviews.  The Yelp, the Chowhound, the Urbanspoon, the whole internet seemed to agree they were just awful.  And yet I felt compelled to go there and waste some hard-earned money.

As soon as I entered the restaurant, I wanted to back myself out the door.  The tables were empty, never a good sign.  They had been open a couple months, there should be at least a few customers.

Still, I ordered a plate and I tried to eat.  I tried but I did not succeed.  It was truly one of the worst restaurant meals I had ever been served.  And I have been served at a roadhouse in rural Indiana.  I have been served on a shrimp boat in redneck Georgia.  I have been served by a hofbräuhaus in Baden-Württemberg.

Though I have never tasted shoe leather, I am sure it would be a close culinary cousin to this so-called brisket.  Pure gristle.  I could not cut it with a knife.  I could not shred it with my teeth.  I could not be certain it was actually meat.  Feh!

The side of cholent was both flavorless and uncooked and contained bits of gristle.  I have eaten black beans by the Mexican restaurant.  I have cooked garbanzo beans by my own hand.  Beans are never supposed to be hard and crunchy.

The side of mixed greens — this is California — was acceptable.  Multi-colored and slightly bitter.  A few thin rings of red onion.  Nothing special but nothing to complain.  It was the only thing I could stomach.

The meal was more than $24.  Absolutely outrageous.  And I didn’t even get a Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry.

The funny thing — and the point of the story — is that I kept thinking I really should give them another chance.  Fortunately, and perhaps predictably, they went out of business before an opportunity presented itself.

Anyway, so it happened, when Bernie Sanders announced he was running for President, I was immediately drawn to his candidacy.

To be fair, my attraction was based on firm political footing.  I can’t count the number of times I have said, “I’m so liberal, I’m practically a Socialist”.  In my heart, I agreed with many of his proposals, such as Medicare for all, though I thought the rich people could very well pay for their own kids’ college educations.

Also, I was impressed that Mr. Sanders’ fundraising focused on small donations from individual citizens rather than big bundles from corporate interests.  But, let’s face it, the way he talks, a Jew from Brooklyn, it makes me to feel right at home.

Alas, the way Mr. Sanders seems to shun his Jewish heritage quickly cooled my keen.

OK, maybe the man doesn’t believe, he doesn’t practice, that’s his prerogative.  But, to refer to his parents as Polish immigrants?  They were not Poles, they were Jews.  It is not the same thing.

And when he speaks about his Jewishness, he is really describing humanism, which is not a bad thing, but it is, by definition, anti-religious.  My strong sense is that he is not being forthright about his feelings.

Even so, I wanted desperately to feel the Bern.  Hillary Clinton has her pluses and minuses, but I could muster no enthusiasm.  I would watch the debates to make my decision.

Indeed, it was those debates that finally convinced me.  It wasn’t anything that either candidate said, it was the non-verbal cues.  It was the way Mr. Sanders kept making faces and laughing and wagging his finger whenever it was Mrs. Clinton’s turn to make her schpiel.

It felt annoying.  It felt disrespectful.  It felt like something I did not want to watch for the next four or eight years.

So today, as we cast our ballots in the California primary, I am not “buying Black”.

I’m with her.

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Christmas in California

Like most regional ethnic groups, the New York Jewish people have their own special holiday traditions.  For Christmas, we eat Chinese food and watch Jewish movies.  Chinese food because the Chinese restaurants are open and uncrowded.  Jewish movies because the Jewish movies make us feel like we are the stars of the day.

Some of my Christmas-observing friends think this is a sad way to spend the “best” day of the year.  It is not.  Despite the sensory overload of the season, I do not feel left out of the festivities and I enjoy the solidarity of sharing the day with people who believe as I do.

Christmas arrived shortly after we moved to Palo Alto.  We ate Chinese at the Su Hong and saw The Garden of the Finzi-Continis at the Guild, both nearby in Menlo Park.  The restaurant and the theater were mostly empty, but still, it was comforting to keep the tradition alive and know that most of the other patrons were probably landesman “celebrating” the holiday in the familiar fashion.

The next Christmas, having spent a year in California, we were more assimilated.  We went mainstream, driving to the mega-plex to watch Titanic.  We planned to see the earliest show, but when we arrived, the place was positively jam-packed with people, the majority of whom were clearly not like-minded Jews.

Apparently, people of all faiths need to get out of the house after a few hours with the relations.

Anyway, the matinee was sold out so we got tickets for a later show and took the car to find a Chinese lunch spot.  Except we didn’t.  Find any Chinese food.  The only restaurant open for business was the always open Denny’s, where they didn’t even serve any faux-Chinese food like “Chinese chicken salad” or “Asian stir-fry”.  All in all, it was a very goyishe Christmas.

The next year, we felt a desperate need to return to our roots so we got tickets to Kung Pao Kosher Comedy in San Francisco, advertised as “Jewish comedy in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas”.  It sounded perfect.  The surprise headline performer turned out to be Margaret Cho.  Alas, her style lacked that, umm, Hebraic sensibility.

Each year, we tried a different approach, never quite recapturing that old heymishe feeling.  One year, we went to the JCC.  They didn’t have enough Chinese food for everyone — who ever heard a Jewish affair should run out of food?  A shandeh!  And if that wasn’t enough already, the projector failed in the middle of the Israeli film — alright, we all know a Jewish gathering where everyone can tell you how to fix whatever is broken but no one has any practical experience handling a screwdriver.

Perhaps no matter your heritage, no matter the holiday, things never turn out quite the way you remember.  But what could possibly be better than a new story (and a chance to kvetch a little besides)?

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Coffee Cleanse?

So I go to the kitchen to get some breakfast this morning.  But when I got there, the cupboard was bare.  Literally.

The pantry?  Coffee.  Coffee filters.

The refrigerator?  Skim milk.  A few adalimumab injection pens.  A box of Arm & Hammer.

The freezer?  Ice.  Plenty of ice cold ice.

Maybe you think I am exaggerating, but I am not.  Whatever it is that normal people keep in the house for emergencies, I don’t know, but I am fresh out of food.

Maybe you think I trashed all of the comestibles.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Maybe it wouldn’t even be the hundredth time.  But it would not be the case this time.

Tonight it’s the new year.  A time to wash slates.  Maybe this is a sign.  Maybe I should take a coffee cleanse.  Is that a thing?

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Five a Day

It’s no secret that I keep to a rather restrictive — ok, crazily controlled — bill of fare.  Everything is densely nutritious and super delicious, but truth be told, my menu does lack a bit in variety.  So when one of the main staples becomes unavailable, well, it can be a bit of a crisis because there is simply no acceptable substitute.

Alas, one my major food groups, fresh blueberries — even the conventional kind — are nowhere to be found in all of Palo Alto, except by the Whole Foods where they are selling a 4.4 oz. container of organic for $7.99.  Yikes!

Of course I am aware that raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries remain abundant and affordable.  But it’s not the same.  And yes, I have sampled the blueberry frozen, dried, freeze-dried, and preserved.  Feh.

Desperate to satisfy my crave, I venture to the big Safeway.  Their produce does not meet my stringent standards, but this is an emergency.  They were sans organic, but their 4.4 oz. package of regular was only $3.99.  Only?

As I am debating whether or not to sacrifice health, principle, and flavor to save a few bucks, I notice two Stanford girls pushing a cart filled with a few fruit essentials missing from my own basket: grape vodka, peach schnapps, and apple ale.

Good to know the future leaders of our nation are not neglecting their nutritional needs.  Five a day!

© 2013 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.