Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Financial Obesity (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Financial Obesity

The 1970s were still an age of moderation, exemplified by the fact that for New York lawyers and teachers, starting salaries were about the same. In those days, the number of overweight or obese in the populace hovered around 10 percent. But by 2010, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services classified 66 percent of adults in the United States as overweight or obese. That same year, the starting salaries for NYC lawyers had ballooned to four times that of the city’s teachers. The DHHS goes on to point out the dangers of physical obesity as, “increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and some forms of cancer.”
The explosion of body mass has been blamed on everything from constant snacking, to junk food, to consumption of huge portions, and, more and more, on emotional disorders. At last, the question is being asked, “Why are we compulsively snacking? Why do we binge on junk food? And why do we eat such huge portions?”
Overeating has been associated with depression, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with interpersonal relationships and poor self-esteem.
The cause and effect is illuminated in an article from Britain’s National Health Service. It starts with an insightful quotation. “I have just finished with my boyfriend and now I’m eating chocolate. I know it’s not chocolate that I want. I want a kiss and a cuddle. I want him. So why am I trying to find solace within that sheet of silver foil?”
According to Professor Andrew Hill, a psychologist at Leeds University, that is precisely the question we should be asking if we want to understand overeating. To him the simpleminded approach to curbing obesity—by counting how many calories we consume and how many we burn—is guaranteed to fail. “There’s energy in and there’s energy out but there’s a person in-between,” he says. “You need to understand the emotional reasons for eating if you are ever going to change behavior.”
He points out that from infancy, food is directly linked to emotions: the breast not only feeds, but comforts; favorite foods are used to calm and reward. Sweets forever remind us of the sweetness of mother’s milk. This changes little as we grow older. “What does a man give a woman when he is wooing her? Chocolates. What do you give your family for a special occasion? You take them out for a meal or you make a special meal.”
It is then safe to say that overeating is not about filling empty stomachs, it’s about “a kiss and a cuddle”—it’s about filling empty arms.

The real problem is not what we are doing, but what we are not doing, while we’re doing what we do. While food becomes a fleeting substitute for someone’s loving arms, it unfortunately gets us no closer to what we really need. On the contrary. Overeating sets a vicious cycle in motion: the more weight we gain, the more self-conscious we become, and the more reluctant to go out and meet someone to love. So we become even more lonely, anxious, frustrated and depressed. And, to feel better, we eat even more.

While our society is understandably focused on the unhealthy effects of plain to the naked eye physical obesity, few have questioned a less obvious, but more disturbing disorder affecting not only those suffering from it, but demoralizing and dehumanizing us all. Significantly enough, this disease began to go viral at about the same time as did physical obesity, and quickly became a pandemic infecting the whole world. Its symptoms are similar—swelling and ballooning—but instead of hips and thighs, it’s of bank accounts. This disorder could be termed, without malice, “financial obesity.”
While overeating can be understood, it is less clear what voids over-earners try to fill. In other words, what drives someone to accumulate wealth beyond any possible use or need? What motivates millionaires and billionaires to work nearly night and day, with no concern for friends, family or society, focusing on some menial endeavor that most often involves nothing more mentally challenging than buying and selling with the single-minded purpose of accumulating more? Were this kind of behavior exhibited by another species—like our dog, say we found it running endlessly around the neighborhood pilfering a dog biscuit here, another there, then piling them sky high in quantities that he couldn’t eat were he to live to be a hundred—would we not be alarmed?
When looking for the “why” of over-earning, I think we have to dismiss comparison to eating disorder motivations—of trying to relive the sweetness of mother’s milk and her comforting breast, for few people I know were brought up snuggling Rolex watches or sucking hundred dollar bills.
While physical obesity results in damage to our arteries, liver and heart, it is more difficult to measure financial obesity’s damage to the organ it affects most: our brain. It’s fair to say that the vital neurological paths—those formed by frequent use, as we’ll examine in chapter 14—would be of the most limited kind, made up primarily of basic arithmetic: figuring gain and loss. Most other vital paths—curiosity, imagination, warmth, kindness and empathy—had they ever developed, would have all atrophied, from disuse, long ago. I think we can assume that, as every other human, the financially obese need “a kiss and a cuddle.” Lacking the qualities which are normally inviting—warmth, kindness, imagination—they continue to substitute with an inanimate satisfaction, one they can count, and count on: money.
The point of this discussion is a simple one: Since the explosion of financial obesity corresponds in time to the explosion of physical obesity, there must be some aberration in our recent culture that has caused them both. In other words, we can assume that the emotional problems—depression, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with interpersonal relationships and poor self-esteem—that lie behind over-gorging are the same whether the over-gorging out is of the physical or financial kind.
What, you may ask, has this to do with real life? Well, since most cases of obesity are caused by emotional disorders which we feel obligated to address and treat to save the patient, then are we not equally if not more obligated to identify and treat the emotional problems of the financially obese? Not just out of fairness but out of self-preservation. Decades of obsessive hoarding and unbridled greed have led directly to a near economic collapse; hence the emotional disorders of the financially obese affect not only them but have severe repercussions on the welfare of us all.
The first step is obvious: to recognize financial obesity for what it is—a runaway pandemic. Second, instead of admiring it and refusing to see its danger, treat it like any other emotional problem or mental disease: with attentive understanding and care.

And make sure we “kiss and cuddle” a hell of a lot more.

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Shallowing of Our Minds (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

The Shallowing of Our Minds

Recently my best friend ruined my weekend. He grabbed from his shelf a book published last year and said it might fit in with what I was writing. It was titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
            I had never read a non-fiction book in two sittings, but Nicholas Carr’s book I just could not put down.
            He starts off with anecdotal evidence by Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, who notes that since the switch from reading printed material in the form of books to reading books on to the Net a decade ago, he and many of his friends and associates have noticed a marked lack of ability to concentrate. Losing the thread of their thoughts, they are unable to handle not only attention demanding novels like War and Peace, but have even “lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article.”
            Surfing, skimming along the surface of things, taking “information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” some of them worry that they have become scatterbrains.
            Carr himself notes that, “the Net seems to be chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” And he goes on to lament the trend of the “calm, focused, undistracted, linear mind being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”
            He describes the typical new mind as that of a former student body president at Florida State University, a Rhodes scholar, who unabashedly states, “I don’t read books . . . it’s not a good use of my time . . . I can go to Google and absorb relevant information quickly.” And that from a philosophy major.
            The enormous difference between the two types of reading, Carr describes as follows: “To read a book silently required the ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to lose oneself in the pages . . . In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply . . . Quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement. Originality of thought and creativity of expression became the hallmarks of the model mind . . . For the last five centuries . . . the linear, literary mind has been the center of art, science and society.”
            All the above stands in stark contrast to a completely different neuro-involvement, in that, “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.” Not to mention superficial thought.
            Carr gives no example so I will illustrate his statements with an obvious comparison. The op-ed pages of the print version of The New York Times contained, until recently, almost no advertising. You could read without visual distractions about complex often crucial issues like the Start treaty, global warming, and the Rwandan genocide, assimilating the articles with what you already knew, filling in spaces with your own opinions, reinforced by sympathy, or even empathy, at the end creating in your mind a brand new and exhaustive bank of knowledge on the topic, a new “complex concept or ‘schema’.”
            No more.
            A few days ago I read an op-ed piece on the web-version of The Times. The topic was the plight of homeless Haitian children following the earthquake. The piece was not alone on the page. While reading about human suffering, I was invited by a colorful, page-top streamer of smiling faces to “Vote for my Favorite Under 25 Movie Star,” while being simultaneously coaxed by a fluorescent blue ad for “A full-body waxing for only $99.95,” all the while, a video in a little box ran a trailer for the film 127 Hours in which someone stuck in a hole decides to saw-off, or chew-off, or nail-file off his own arm.
            Was I confused? Not on your life. I recall every detail of how for only $99.95, the Haitian under 25 movie stars got to chew off their own arms last summer at Wax Camp.
            Now that is what I call power-multitasking.
            As for the Haitian children, if they really want my attention, they’ll just have to get their own page-top magenta streamer.

The trend away from linear reading to the visuals of the electronic screen is truly jaw dropping. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2008 found young adults between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, while putting in 8.5 hrs of screen-time, read only an average of 7 minutes a day. To put it bluntly at the risk of over simplifying, that’s 510 minutes a day of shallow thinking vs. 7 minutes of linear, potentially deep, thought.
            Some may shrug and say, So what? Well, as Carr reminded us, the linear, patient mind, ”as supple as it is subtle, has been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.”
            That prospect frightens me for a truly selfish reason. As you may recall, our childhoods were filled with parents, teachers and elders, advising us to slow down, take our time, think things through, sleep on it, come up with the best all-round solution. I must confess that in my case that had no effect but I’m sure that some of my very favorite people took it to heart. I met two, both doctors, both the directors of their respective departments at Cornell Medical School at New York hospital, one of whom was the “father of sonograms,” the other, the world’s best in his field. My experience with them after a freak accident ten years ago left me with a complete re-evaluation of the medical profession and taught me an unforgettable lesson about life.
            One doctor was in his forties, the other in his early sixties, and both had something nearly unearthly about them that in New York City stood out even more: an infinite calm. They translated that into patience and thoroughness, repeating the same procedure, double-checking, triple-checking, rethinking, reconsidering, until they were absolutely satisfied that not a flicker of doubt remained in their minds. They were determined to do the best job with a minimum of interference. Their aim in fact was to avoid any interference at all. And they did. The simplest thing would have been to perform surgery, but they resisted. They reflected. Thought “deeply, linearly, subtly.” Thoroughly.
            Will the Rhodes Scholar philosophy major, who has no patience for books, bother to do so? Or worse: would he, without the experience of reading and thinking profoundly,
even have developed the ability?
            Piling information atop information, without the wherewithal to have a broad overview; without the ability to consider all sides and all possibilities, without the experience for the kind of thinking we unconsciously develop while reading non-fiction or novels about complicated lives of complex people with often convoluted motivations, without that capacity for “concentration and contemplation,” will, I truly believe, lead to a plethora of knee-jerk responses from shallow thinkers, who are conditioned to only superficially “skim” their brains.
            It might just result in a society where thoughtless, often senseless outbursts will be the norm because our brains will have been physically transformed.
            If I understand neuro-physics, it all works something like this.
            Our brain cells—neurons—are separated from each other by barriers called synapses. The neurons communicate with one another through tentacle-like appendages called axons and dendrites. When a neuron is activated, a pulse releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, which allow the flow of an electric pulse from its axon to the dendrite of the next nearby neuron setting off a new impulse in that cell which is then, in turn, transmitted to others forming a whole circuit of paths. “Thoughts, memories, emotions,” Carr states, “all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons . . . The average
neuron makes about a thousand synaptic connections, and some neurons can make a hundred times that number.” This varied and unique “mesh of circuits . . . gives rise to what we think, what we feel, who we are.
            “As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through both physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones.” Either through generation of new neurons, or new terminals on the axons and dendrites, we form
“chains of new neurons . . . our mind’s true ‘vital paths.’”
            He quotes the British biologist J. Z. Young, “The cells of our brains literally develop and grow bigger with use, and atrophy and waste away with disuse.”
            In a brilliantly simplified experiment, biologist Eric Kandel who eventually won the Nobel Prize, tested the brain cells of sea slugs and found that with very little training of only forty impulses, motor neuron connections can be reduced from ninety percent to ten percent. So, Kandel wrote, “synapses can undergo large and enduring changes.”
            Well now. If forty delicate impulses can lead to abandonment of eighty percent of connections between neurons, imagine what the eight-and-a-half daily hours of constant screen watching do to our neuron connections that were once in frequent use with deep reading and deep thought, that allowed people to concentrate, to make “their own associations, draw their own inferences and analogies, foster their own ideas”? What has the deluge of staccato bits of unconnected information done to our “originality of thought and creativity of expression . . . the hallmarks of the model mind . . . the center of art,
science and society”?
            Maybe we should hurry up and tweet someone to find out.

But the bad news gets worse. It seems that we have two kinds of memory, short-term and long-term. Envision short-term memory as a revolving door letting things in and spewing them out. Long-term is more like a vault, where memory is kept for years or even life. The problem is that changing a short-term memory into a long-term one is no simple task. One essential element is repetition—“the neurons grow entirely new synaptic terminals” hence causing an anatomical change. And as Kandel states, “The growth and maintenance of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist.”
            The formation of long-term memory, or what he calls  “complex memory,” requires “system consolidation” or “conversations” between entirely different areas of the brain. This “memory consolidation” requires not only time—some scientists say hours, others days—but also attentiveness, “strong mental concentration,” in other words “intense intellectual or emotional involvement.”
            Kandel now writes his most important conclusion, “For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already established in memory.”
            The final element needed to create long-term memories is quiet time.
            With the continuous and intense surfing of the web, distracted by hypertexts, streamers, pop-ups, and videos, our minds are constantly bombarded by stimuli; our memory is on overdrive. There is no down time, no reflection, no chance for the mind to even begin consolidating, or forming “schemas.” And there is certainly no time for new neurons to be formed even if our poor brains could decide where to form them.
            So this is where our Rhodes Scholar who has cast away books goes wrong when he believes that instead of slow and considered reading, he can go on the web and “absorb relevant information quickly.” He may be surfing quickly, browsing quickly, even stopping to look at facts quickly but, for his long-term memory, for his complex memory he’s absorbing little or, nothing at all.

Aside from assimilating little, the active parts of the brain develop, while those parts left unused, wilt and atrophy. So let us go to an extreme. Let us say one browses the web all day, sends abbreviated e-mails, tweets, and texts, then goes home and plays a few video games; then, to “relax,” watches his obligatory five hours of TV. The only rest his mind gets, the only quiet time for complex memory to form, is while he’s brushing his teeth.
            The above, I fear, is much closer to the norm than to the exception. It is thus conceivable that one’s complex memory, the seat of one’s self, the source of thoughtful judgment and wisdom, is almost never engaged. Little by little, what small part had developed through the years, namely the complex part of our brain, shrivels. Of course, I suppose it could be slowly rebuilt, regenerated with use, but exactly when would this new, unaccustomed use occur? What would trigger it? And in a world made up of multiple screens and sound bites, who would even bother triggering it at all?

One final observation. Carr cites the work and comments of Antonio Damasio, the Director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. Damasio and his colleagues have found in experiments that the higher, more noble human emotions such as compassion and
empathy, are slow to form in a situation; it takes time to comprehend and feel the “Psychological and moral dimensions of a situation . . . If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.”
            Let us go back to the question I posed chapters ago; what happened to Wall Street? How could some of the world’s brightest minds bring the world to the edge of financial chasm? How could they be so stupid? What were they thinking?
            I believe the answer lies in neurons. First, the financiers of Wall Street were not stupid; they were brilliant. They were brilliant at browsing and surfing, at skimming information, at buying and selling at the blink of an eye, at reacting to blips on a screen, to two-word news flashes, to pop-ups and to flags. They were even superb at reducing the world to numbers where the only thing that counted, the only single goal was—at the end of the day—to have a larger number showing on the bottom of the screen. True reality, the rest of the world, countries, people, mothers, fathers, grandfathers and children, sad or laughing, suffering or happy, never entered what we can call, without malice, their “equation.”
            In other words, the working memories of our financiers were frantically and permanently “otherwise engaged.” Meanwhile, their complex, long-term memories, their wisdom, empathy and compassion shriveled day by day.
            Think of this new generation that grew up with remote controls, and video games, Web surfing and tweeting, constantly distracted, and often overloaded, when did it have time to form complex memories? When did it have time to rest, think deeply, reflect? And when did it have time to feel compassion, sympathy, not to mention empathy?
            Unfortunately a new study by the University of Michigan shockingly finds “almost never.” Analyzing the personality tests of 13,737 college students over a 30 year period, between 1979 and 2009, the researchers found a 48 percent decrease in empathy and a 34 percent decrease in perspective-taking—considering someone else’s point of view.
            The authors of the study note that the biggest changes have occurred since the year 2000, with the inundation of callous reality TV shows, and the explosion of social networks and texting, which allow people to disengage from others at the click of a key. They blame these “physically distant online environments” for encouraging people to “lionize their own lives” and “functionally create a buffer between individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others.”
            Mary Gordon, the founder and president of Roots of Empathy, also cites a “poverty of time” in families. “You have to experience empathy to continue to develop it. If children don’t have enough opportunity and parents don’t have enough time to be with their children, it’s really difficult.”
            As our lives accelerate, as our attention span is shredded, will there be any of us with a complex memory left? Will any of us have that unique set of schemas, the brain’s vital paths, whose infinite array of combined experiences—physical, intellectual and emotional—made each of us so miraculously unpredictable, volatile, spontaneous; unique? Without empathy and deep emotions, when we are only indistinguishable flickers of keys and gleaners of information, then how close do each of us come to being clones?

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Monday, January 7, 2013

Honor Thy Vegetable Garden (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Honor Thy Vegetable Garden (another excerpt)

Our relationship with food defines cultures, often starts and decides wars, and reflects not only our social status but our whole economy. It is also a profoundly emotional and social one as when we share meals with friends and family, and when we build comforting memories with our children.

Perhaps the oldest and most enduring food culture is that of China. The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang wrote, “If there is anything we are serious about it is neither religion nor learning, but food.”

To the Chinese, food and friends are inseparable.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Confucius dreamed and fussed about the art of cooking and enjoyment of life through the cultivation of the palate and delight of the senses. The art of cooking was much more than food; his culinary etiquette, social sharing, presentation and combining, are still considered to be the standards of today. (As is the cutting of food into bite-size pieces during preparation to avoid the need for knives—for obvious reasons—at the table.) He considered food as one of the beautiful and gentle things, which also contributes to the peace and harmony of society. His philosophy elevated cooking and eating from a dull daily chore to not only an art form but a celebration of life.

I think it is safe to say that our modern hurry-up culture has, in the past few decades, handily reversed that trend. We seem to grab any industrially-made whoknowswhat from wherever we can, then eat it, largely alone; on the run or even while we drive; eat it out of paper boxes, and plastic cups, or a dripping package; often while multitasking or watching the tube; seldom giving a thought to the food’s appearance or flavor—which, considering what we mostly eat, is not such a bad idea.

For some ancient peoples from the Greeks to the Etruscans, symposia—discussions involving eating, drinking, music and dance—were the main thing in life. The culture of food—not just its consumption, but also its growing and preparation—has remained the foundation of life for the Etruscan descendants in today’s Tuscany.

While we North Americans were brought up to consider true security to be the steady job, a house, and a cushy pension, our Tuscan friends have a completely different view of life.

When I asked my neighbor Ofelio, who just celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday, what made him feel secure, he recited a short list: a stack of aged fire-wood for the winter; half a pig put up in the cellar and freezer; a hundred liters of olive oil in a stainless vat; two barrels of wine; chickens and Guinea hens in the courtyard; then he raised his hoe and pointed down the hill at a vast vegetable garden, “And that.” And slammed his hoe back into the ground.

Ofelio has a Buddhist mentality to life: when he walks, he walks. And when he hoes, he hoes. His vegetable garden didn’t have raised beds or manicured paths; it was absolutely and completely utilitarian. It had big patches of onions, garlic, potatoes, and chard, rows of poled tomatoes, peppers, fennel, carrots, eggplant and zucchini, in fact just about every vegetable I can name.

He grinned at me with pride. “E il resto del mondo?” and he leaned his hoe against his chest to free up both his hands then gave the world an energetic Neapolitan salute.

With him, as with most Tuscans, the vegetable garden, the orchard, the olive trees, and the vines are almost always family affairs. Kids, uncles, aunts, nephews all come to help out during the vendemmia, or to pick olives or share in the bounty of the gardens. It gives children from a very young age a sense of identity, skilled hands, and a sense of belonging.

Since these gardens are such wonders, and the culture of food is such an all-inclusive, gastronomic and social wonder, why don’t we all have Ofelio’s garden in our yards? What happened to America’s once favorite hobby that also gave us fresh, organically pure and nourishing food?

A recent piece in The Globe and Mail cited twenty-five foods for health and longevity: almonds, avocados, beets, berries, black beans, broccoli, cabbage, dark chocolate, flax seed, garlic, green tea, kale, lentils, oats, olive oil (extra virgin), oranges, pomegranates, red bell peppers, red grapes (I substitute with red wine and lots of it), salmon, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and walnuts.

Now, unless you live on the North Pole, you can grow most of these in any normal yard with the aid of a modest greenhouse. I admit, the salmon is a toughie, the olive oil you’ll have to buy from us, the green tea from China, and I haven’t a clue what the hell flax seeds are, but the rest are a shoo-in. So why are we all inside lying on the couch instead of outside digging?

The National Gardening Association claims a quarter of American households grow some of their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries, so why not the other three quarters? Why is the money spent on lawn care products ten times more than money spent on the home vegetable garden? When the reasons for having one are so compelling—58 percent of gardeners said they do it for better tasting food, 54 percent to save money on food bills, 51 percent for better quality food, 48 percent to grow food
they know is safe—why is the vegetable garden not a coast to coast fixture?

The Joy of Soil

Twenty years ago a Los Angeles Times survey on favorite pastimes found over 60 percent of those questioned put gardening at the top, and while most of the guys probably meant doing wheelies on their lawnmowers, that’s still a huge difference from a recent CNN survey, where in a quarter million responses, gardening didn’t even make it into the top ten.

Yet many of our friends in big cities from New York to Milan still have a common aspiration: to own a square of dirt, and to get out on a Sunday morning, grab a spade, and dig. The need to have contact with the earth seems hardwired in our genes, if you don’t believe me, stick your toddler in the yard with a little spade and watch her instantly become a busy, tireless mole. She’ll dig feverishly and—almost guaranteed—she’ll start “planting” leaves and sticks in the tilled ground.

The urge to work the land seems to stick with us even in the most inhospitable places, almost no matter how unused to working the land we may be.

The countryside near Siena is hard and dry in late summer. With the wheat cut, the hills are bare and only small vineyards, olive groves and wooded ditches break the brownness of the land. We were taking a Sunday walk on a silent, dusty road, hadn’t passed a soul for an hour—there were only ruins in this valley—when amidst some olive saplings, we saw a middle aged man, in shorts and a tennis shirt, hoeing happily around the tree trunks.

He was bright and cheerful, a director of the Bank of Tuscany in Siena, who loves tennis and soccer, but, most of all, he loves digging dirt. He proudly showed us the patch of sorghum he planted for wild pheasants, the woods where he cleared the undergrowth and hoed shallow troughs among the poplars to drain off the water to create an ideal habitat for truffles; but most of all he showed us his grove of olive saplings, planted by his own hands. If you looked really closely, you could see the first cluster of tiny, pale green olives. He talked about growing things—vegetables, figs, anything you can eat.
“When you see the first fruit come out on something you have planted, it is such an . . . ” he searched for words. “Such an immense joy!”

Thanks to Candace who is the heart and soul (and callouses) behind our three vegetable gardens, we are able to celebrate a harvest nearly every day. To try and compare rationally anything you grew—planted, watered, nursed, protected from evil, watched ripen—with some fruit or vegetable grown elsewhere on this planet is a hopeless task; the others don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Yours, blemished and misshapen as they may be, will be sweeter, richer, have flavors never imagined, while the others will be a watery, tasteless, barely edible pulp.

I look forward each summer’s day to just before lunch, when I go out to the garden and pick the darkest, reddest tomatoes I can find. To bite into a homegrown, fully ripe tomato with the warmth of the sun still on it, is—well, what can I say—such an immense joy!

Fresh peas rolling out of the shell, or radishes just uprooted full of all the flavors that they have drawn out of the earth, or the apricot that you watch for days on end waiting for that perfect, ripest moment when it’s about to fall, when, as you touch it, it tumbles into your palm, warm, soft, full of nectar. That first bite—good God—is well worth waiting the whole year for.

Bye-Bye Miss American Lawn

There is a sense of vitality to food gardens, plants crowding, fruits bulging, colors exploding, things flowering, maturing, wilting, dying off, the autumn earth freshly tilled, and everything you touch, everything you see, you can eat. And, just as important, someone is out there planting, hoeing, tilling, in touch with the soil and with the cycles of nature.

So why do we pay astronomical sums for, over-processed, over-packaged, often insipid food, transported to us over thousands of miles when much of it we could have grown right in our own yard with much more joy and much less effort, pollution, and expense than it takes to cut, water, and fertilize the useless bloody lawn?

Who will have enough sense and intestinal fortitude to be the first to dig up the lawn and plant in its place a lovely patch of spuds? You can probably do it under one of two conditions: if you’re self-confident and just don’t give a damn, or if you’re armed with enough facts to convince your gasping neighbors.

There seem to be four excellent reasons to lay waste to the lawn: economic, nutritional, environmental and social, so let’s touch on them one by one.

Economic Benefit

Last year, CNN cited a report concluding that a family will get an average 25-to-1 return on its investment in a garden. By that count, a family that spends $200 on a medium-to-large garden, as Michelle Obama reportedly did, will save $5,000 in grocery bills over the course of a year.

According to the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C., the American family spends between 10 and 50 percent of their income on food. This broad range is created by the disparity in annual incomes, such that a family of four with an income of $20,000 spends as much as 50 percent on food, while the family earning $100,000 spends about 10 percent.

These figures bring up an interesting question. In the case of the poorest families, we can assume that the jobs they hold are not of the dream variety. Parking cars and flipping burgers are probably not on anybody’s wish list. If half of the earnings from these endeavors goes to pay for food, would it not make more sense to cut the time spent doing them in half, and instead—with much less effort—work a nice food garden?

(…) We can begin with small steps like a roof garden. Cities abound with flat roofs, ideal for the shallow six-inch beds needed to grow vegetables. The layer of soil provides two added benefits: insulation against heat and cold, and longevity, offering roofing materials protection from the sun.

Another alternative food source popping up in cities across the globe is the community garden. Our niece in North Vancouver is involved in three major projects promoting community gardening to ensure that residents—especially those in need—have access to a safe, reliable food source. One is an urban garden in the local safe house for youth, where the kids are involved in planting, growing and at the end, getting “free food.”

She is also involved in the Edible Garden Project, which supports the growing and distribution of local food, and, perhaps most interestingly, she helped to break ground for Vancouver’s first urban farm. On a piece of unused parkland donated by the city council, they’ll be able to produce and sell organic vegetables right in the city.

An already in-use idea is community-supported agriculture (CSA) While it’s not as satisfying as pulling a carrot out of the ground or picking a ripe peach in your own backyard, the system delivers seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables (and, now, even meat, eggs and flowers) that are pesticide-free and competitively priced. This food network—started in Europe and Japan in the ‘60s—is over 10,000 farms strong in the U.S. alone, and growing. Members share the risk and reward of each harvest by funding a transparent annual budget. This allows farmers to plan ahead and enforces a fair pricing system. Typical small, independent CSA farms sell their vitamin-packed tomatoes or juicy squash at farmers’ markets, or provide for pickups or even home deliveries. You may not know to cook kohlrabi or what to do with three pounds of zucchini, but you’ll soon find out.


Some will argue that planting a food garden will provide minimal savings because they eat very little fruit or vegetables. This bad habit is understandable if you don’t want to live long (remember the twenty-five foods for health and longevity), and is nearly justifiable given the bland produce sold at most supermarkets. How can anyone be enthusiastic over lettuce and tomatoes when they have no more flavor than the average tablecloth?

I confess I used to have very little interest in eating green produce until we moved to Paris and began shopping at a street market twice a week. My enthusiasm did not bloom into a mania until we moved to Italy and Candace began to feed us from the garden. Once I was introduced to real fruit and vegetables, I not only began to enjoy them, but began eating them much more frequently, abandoning processed, often horrendously expensive, snacks and substitutes that I had eaten in the past. In other words, my daily consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables went from about 10 percent of my total daily food intake to over 70 percent in a short period of time. If you add in my favorite fruit: wine, then it’s closer to ninety. It is thus easy to see how your savings from growing much of your own food can be far greater than you might at first think.

How much can we save as a society by bringing back the old victory garden? Well, for a start, we North Americans, who have elevated weight reduction to the national pastime, could save most of the $35 billion a year spent on diet programs and liposuction alone. Consider how much additionally could be saved in hospital bills for curing all the ailments caused by the eating of fats and junk foods, everything from diabetes, heart disease, and stroke to various cancers.


Eating well

“We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors 
and furniture polish is made from real lemons.”—Alfred E. Neuman

If you tried, by and large, to eat only what you grew, then you would have to say goodbye to Quarter-Pounders, Diet Coke, sugar Pops and Twinkies. What a blessing! The first week you might miss them; the second you will not believe you had ever insulted your taste buds and innards by ingesting such obscenities.

When was the last time you ate a real tomato? I don’t mean the red watery kind; I mean one that explodes with a hundred flavors as you take a bite. If you haven’t for a long time then that’s sad, but what is even sadder is that while some of us can at least remember a real tomato, most of our children have grown up eating only imitations. And worse than not being able to eat the tomato we once loved is never having eaten a real tomato at all. But how can we account for such a great difference in flavor?

First, it is estimated that more than half of all tomatoes—and many fruits—consumed in the US, are harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened with chemicals or radiation upon arrival at their final destination. No comparison in flavor with those ripened on the vine. Allow me to tell you something learned from twelve years of working our vineyards.

Our grapes turn a dark color; i.e. look good and ripe, sometime in early August. Do we pick them? Over my dead body. We wait. We wait all of August and some of September before I even begin testing the ripeness of our earliest maturing grapes: our Syrah. When the leaves start to yellow and the stem near the cluster has turned woody and brown (both signs that the vine is becoming dormant); when the seeds too have turned brown and taste toasted-sweet instead of bitter; when the color of the skin stains your lips, teeth and fingers; when the refractometer, which indicates sugar levels, reads a “perfect” 24, then the grape is ripe. That’s the time when I prepare for the harvest and—you guessed it—wait some more. I don’t know the chemistry of the why, but I know that with an extra week of maturation the perfumes and flavors take on a new intensity that simply was not there before. I do the same with the Sangiovese grapes for our Brunello. The results? Our Syrah was named Italian Red of the Year in New York, and our 2006 Brunello, just released, received 95 points from James Suckling who has thirty years of experience tasting for Wine Spectator.

Somehow, I don’t think we would have done so well had we picked the grapes early and “matured” them in a box with cyanide or a nuclear blast or whatever it is the “maturing” industry uses.

Second, we have to realize that in a culture obsessed with looks, fruits and vegetables are no longer grown for flavor but for appearance. Most of us don’t shop at farmers’ markets where we are enticed by the vendor’s cries to sample his sweetest, ripest or juiciest, but in supermarkets, where if we bit into an apple we would be arrested for unauthorized mastication. We are, in other words, expected to judge what we eat by looks alone.

Then there is the question of purity. About 500 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides a year are poured on what we eat. True, some of these toxins leach out, but some end up on our plates. Most of them have only one purpose: to make agro-businesses more profitable. In others words, if you grew your own food you could exclude these toxic delicacies from your menu.

But the above toxins used in growing are only a beginning. Next is the processing. Apart from genetically modified food, we have the above-mentioned artificial ripening either with chemicals or by radiation (have you ever checked to see if you glow in the dark?) plus a slew of antibiotics, preservatives, correctives, additives and food dyes. To describe their individual or combined dangers would fill volumes. The important point is that all of this ingestion of who knows what—not to mention salmonella and e-coli, distant food poisonings by oils pills and even nuclear contamination—can be avoided if you grow your own.

Some may shrug at this and say, “So what’s a little pesticide, preservatives and a bit of poisoning? And so what if things don’t taste as good as they could?” But it is not as simple as that. Apart from the health hazards of agro-food-chemicals there’s another factor. The flavor of the vegetables and fruits we eat is not merely luxury. It is just as connected to our lives and the world around us as the air we breathe or the water we drink. If we do not learn about, if we are not exposed to, the hundreds of unique flavors our fruits and vegetables can provide, then we will never learn to love them. In the same way, if we have never seen or smelled the clear blue sky of a winter prairie or a summer mountain, we will unquestioningly accept our filthy city air. If we don’t know the thrill of a forest, we will learn to accept our moribund, concrete cities. That is why we should fight tooth and nail for a real tomato; full of flavor, full of sun.

The Environment

“Year by year, the energy cost of each mouthful of our food has increased, 
until now we are using about ten times as much energy as our meals contain.”—Roger B . Swain

Lest we forget, or never think of at all, the way we cultivate, transport, process, package and market our foods results in staggering quantities of avoidable pollution.

Farming is no longer farming, it is agro-industry based on agro-chemicals. These agro-chemicals pollute not only our bodies, but cause vast collateral damage during their manufacture and application, and “increase health risks to agricultural workers, harm wildlife, and pollute groundwater.”

Then, of course, there is the great god of modern times: transportation. The average food in North America travels a staggering eleven hundred miles. In your back yard it would average about eleven steps. A Worldwatch Institute report warns of devastated economies and unlivable environments if we continue to mass-produce and mass-transport food. In a sustainable world, where carbon emissions must be cut by two-thirds, we “cannot be trucking vast quantities of food thousands of miles.”

But the amount of pollution saved from eliminating transport pales in comparison to the pollution caused by food processing, packaging, and marketing. To be specific: the farmer receives on average only 25 cents of each dollar you spend on food. The other 75 cents go to . . . ? Exactly.

Eating only food you grow would limit you to eating what is in season. Is that so bad? Do we have to eat strawberries in November or watermelons in January? Can we not build our excitement as we do for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Do we have to have everything all the time? How dull. As Goethe said, “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.”

Social and Personal

Even not counting the above three factors, social bonds—whether within the family or with neighbors—and the personal benefits that a food garden can bring, is enough justification for us to go and dig.

Spending most of our lives nearly as inert as a corpse—apart from our twitching fingers on joysticks and keyboards—we have become so unaccustomed to even walking that to call our current lurch a “waddle” would be an insult to a duck. Hence the robust actions of working the soil will feel like a return to Eden for our bodies. The complex movements of constant stretching, bending, twisting, swinging and hauling, all those barely noticeable movements you do while in your garden, are both physically and emotionally rewarding. Candace hasn’t set foot in a gym. She just turned sixty and hates exercise. All she does is look after our fruits and vegetables; the rest of the garden she never touches, and she has firm hard muscles and weighs exactly as much as when she was twenty: a hundred and six pounds on a five-foot six-inch frame. The benefits of such work do not end when we step out of the garden; they continue to give a zest and limberness to our daily lives. They remind us that we are a mobile species designed and built to make miraculous motions: to run and jump, spin and dance. Working a garden lets us regain one of life’s greatest joys: the joy of movement.

When we work our gardens with others—family, friends, lovers—those movements take on a yet more special meaning: we move together. There is a kind of exhilaration when working with someone in close quarters: taking care how we swing our hoe without doing them harm, making sure we don’t leave a rake where the other can trip over it—seeming stupidities—but when we have to think about allowing others a space to move, when we anticipate their moves, and blend our moves with theirs, it’s a kind of basic choreography; a kind of primordial dance.

The importance of this is not in the artistic or aesthetic, but in the profoundly human: we share. We learn the beauty of working together, of achieving results together we could not have reached alone. We learn the joy of community.

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!