Why ‘Food Rules’ is Awesome, Part 2

I posted earlier this week about Food Rules, a book by Michael Pollan that offers 83 basic “rules” on what and how to eat for a healthier life. That post focused on the message and what I came away with. This post focuses on the book’s medium.

What do I mean by ‘medium’? I mean how the eponymous Food Rules are presented.

Here are some things the book employs in presentation that I admire, adore, and would love to or am already thinking about using myself someday:

  1. A concept-driven list. The 83 “rules” are all the items of a themed list, the driving idea being “eating better”. The introduction even offers a mantra that underlies all of the rules to follow: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Other books that do this include, among others, a personal favorite of mine: Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith, whose pages encourage alternately encourage readers to burn, tear, drag, throw stuff at and sew them.

    One of 83 of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

  2. Clean copy. Dividing different ways to accomplish the same idea into small, numbered items (a collection of “rules”) is genius: it has the same effect as taking a long-term, hard-to-visualize goal and breaking it down into achievable increments. The idea becomes not only accessible in aesthetic (i.e., not an overwhelming amount of text), but in practice. We can work towards the ends one step, one idea, one page at a time.

    A page from Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

  3. Marriage of word and image. Granted, the edition I picked up of Food Rules happened to be the illustrated one– it works. Maira Kalman’s paintings are colorful and engaging: a pleasure to view, and something more concrete to fix the ideas the book presents in our mind. Wreck This Journal does use some illustration, but relies more on reader engagement (i.e., commanding readers to poke holes in the page or spill something on it). It is my hope that a future project will combine the best of both image and reader engagement.

An illustration from Food Rules by Maira Kalman

All this said, of course, my gushing simply can’t do these books justice– go pick up a copy of Food Rules and Wreck This Journal see for yourself how awesome they are!

Forum Friday: Islands and Worlds

You may have heard the famous John Donne quote,

No man is an island.

And yet, another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, says this:

For the creator must be  a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.

Can’t be an island. Must be a world. Huh.

Likely this seeming paradox is just another resolved with the call for balance between extremes, but nonetheless I am curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter– and particularly on the Rilke quote above. What does “being a world for yourself” mean to you, as a writer (or artist)?

Or better, perhaps: What do you do to find a happy medium between the extremes: between being connected with others, but being able to turn inward and find everything you need?

A Crumb on Food

If you’ve glanced at my Goodreads box lately, you may have noticed the addition of a book called Food Rules by Michael Pollan. It is a brilliant, brilliant collection: so much so that I intend to write an entirely different post on the book itself and the medium it’s presented in. This post harkens more to the message of the book.

While the book has many great messages (it is full of adages and other wisdoms), a common theme I come away with is this:

You are what you eat.

This is not a new saying. We hear it often: you are what you eat, do, see, watch, listen to; who you associate with.

But when you start thinking of this in terms of grains and vegetables vs. maltodextrin, ferric orthophosphate, high frutcose corn syrup, xanthan gum, disodium inosinate, tripolyphosphate and red 40 (none of which my word processor recognizes as words, nor would my great grandparents recognize as food), the message doesn’t just resonate. It rattles. I don’t know about you, but if I am what I eat (that is, if my body absorbs it and it impacts my life and health now as well as over time), I would much rather be an apple or spinach or brown rice than a synthesized chemical. You know– punctuated with cookies and doughnuts here and there.

We live in a time when heavily processed and/or sugar-, salt-, and fat-injected foods are abundant and often more affordable than their healthier, wholefood counterparts. I did not realize to just what degree until I read Rule #13 in Pollan’s book:

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle

The rule elaborates: most stores are laid out the same, with fresh produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods around the edges and all the processed foods in between. Think about all of those center aisles. Think about how much of the store they take up. Are our diets like that, too? What does that say about us? And given that, is it any wonder, as Pollan says in his introduction, that

Populations that eat a so-called Western diet– generally defined as…lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains– invariably suffer from high rates of the so called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.


It gives one something to think about– and that’s just the introduction.

The book gives dozens of excellent pointers and pearls about what and how to eat from as many cultures and origins. Rather than tell you my favorite “rules,” I think I will just encourage you to pick it up– it’s a worthwhile read. But if I can leave you with anything on the topic, it would be this: your diet impacts your life. Make the most of it.

Writers: Are we all a bit mad?

I remember the ill-slept, thrilling and simultaneously stomach-turning first morning of Assistant Language Teacher orientation in Japan. It was then a lovely English girl asked the breakfast table, “Are we all a bit mad?”

No one had slept well.

But it wasn’t just jet lag. I can’t tell you how ridiculously torturous that first night in Tokyo was: everything was question marks. I had no concept of the place I would be living. Of what my job would be like. How to live day to day there, from grocery trips and operating a Japanese ATM to cultural etiquette, food staples, transportation. I was a stranger in a strange land, and in three days I would part with everyone else who spoke English.

So I loved the question when someone else asked it: Are we all a bit mad?

Writers– especially novelists, I think– live this way. Every book is a journey: a new land. New people, new language, new trials, new pleasures. It blights the mind trying to envision what a project will be like when in reality you can only handle it one page, one task, one day at a time. And we sign up for this! This long-term, sink-or-swim, learn-on-your-feet, by-the-seat-of-your-pants whirlwind! This madness! Again and again with every book!

Well. I may not know what comes next. But if it is anything like my time in Japan was, it will surprise and delight me in a thousand ways.

Kampai, as they say.

No Doubles

When I was younger, I used to think that the world was SO big and there were SO many people in it that, by default, there must be hundreds, maybe thousands of people like me.

I don’t know that I thought of these people as look-alikes, but I do remember thinking that somewhere– perhaps in Australia, since the water swirled the opposite way down the toilet there– there was somebody in a house just like mine, but backwards. Somebody saying the same things, making the same movements, thinking the same thoughts as me. A sort of mirror double.

I thought, at the time, that there must be infinity other ‘doubles’ like me– thought-doubles, action-doubles, house-doubles, haircut-doubles. I would think, ‘I wonder how many other people are thinking of how many doubles they have RIGHT NOW,’ and I would think, ‘Ohp! I bet I just stopped being somebody’s double!’ and I would get into these imagined contests in which I suddenly broke into a skip or karate-kicked or stuck my nose against the glass to get out of sync with these imagined double-people who had been my double all my life up until that point. I remember wondering if I would ever ‘lose’ all my doubles as time progressed and our thoughts, actions, and whatever suddenly diverged from one another’s.

It’s strange to remember this now (when I have both a better concept of numbers and the individuality/uniqueness of every human being). As a girl in her twenties really just stepping out into that plane of finding/making myself as a person– and especially as someone trying to be a writer/artist– I appreciate now more than ever that no two people make the same journey or have the same experience. And while having no real ‘doubles’ might seem somewhat isolating/island-making, it’s also kind of earth-shatteringly awesome.

May we each burn as brilliantly (and differently) as the vast and varied stars.

Where do you find (make) the time to read?

For those of us that write, reading is part of the equation. You have to read to know the art of writing, and the more you read and expose yourself to, the better your own writing becomes.

A teacher of mine once said, when the class was drawing seashells in pen and ink, that we should spend as much time studying a subject as producing it. I think the same holds true for writing (though the balance may not be a strict 50/50).

But life is busy– and writing is a time-consuming effort. Where are we to find (or make) the time to balance our writing with reading? I have my own answers, but I’m curious to hear yours: Where do you find and/or make the time to read?

Triple-berry bonus points for answers in Dr. Seuss/rhyme.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with fascination

Some mornings and some nights, I don’t know what it is– there’s just this feeling that gets into me. I might describe it like going outside after dark and stopping what you’re doing to draw in the world around you: the crickets, the owls, the velvet blue sky, lady moon, the wind in the trees, and, most spectacularly, the stars. There is nothing quite like the stars to remind us how vast and complex and intricate and haunting and beautiful existence is. I say ‘existence’ because I don’t just mean life; I mean our lives, those that came before us, those that will come after, and everything in and beyond our scope of understanding. Myths, civilizations, galaxies.

When this feeling comes over me I am filled with energy and reverence for all things. I want to read so many books, study histories, ancient cultures, maps, music, art, French, Italian, Latin, law, fashion, pattern, flora, fauna, genetics, psychology, etymology, anatomy, poetry, story, mythology, philosophy, paradox.

There is SO much in life and existence to explore, and in the age of the internet, with so much information so readily available to us,  it’s kind of a marvel to me that we aren’t all up to ludicrous hours every night filling our heads with pursuits.

What’s really exciting to me is when separate experiences overlap. You start seeing patterns, making connections– drawing a fuller picture from the pieces. Like mapping out an ancient culture from the relics they left behind.

Actually, I think that’s what prompted this post. I recently finished Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for the first time (one of THE BEST books I’ve ever read…top three, for sure), and today, while working on an art project, I fancied listening to something: a documentary. I did a quick search online and one of the first that came up was on the French Revolution.

So I’m watching/listening to this History Channel piece on the French Revolution, and not only do I immediately recognize elements consistent with Dickens’ portrayal of Revolution-time France (the storming of the Bastille and the Conciergerie; heads on pikes; “Citizen” instead of Madame/Monsieur; the reverence of the guillotine, and how it came to be used even against its proponents)– I start remembering what I’ve learned about Marie Antoninette (from various sources– admittedly, a large one being the Kirsten Dunst film).

What amazes me most is that three things–

1. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities


2. Marie Antoinette (2006) &

3. A History Channel presentation of The French Revolution–

all worked together to create this collaborative vision in my head of what this time and place was like. And it worked: the stories reached me. The scenes haunt me. I have distinct impressions, have experienced the collective likeness of a major historical period and I wasn’t even there.

If that’s not incredible, I don’t know what is.

Affirmation for the Artist

Since I decided to pursue my dream of being an author, a number of revelations have occurred to me. The one I want to share today is this: that as writers, artists, musicians, and other independents (at least in the vocational sense)– especially unpublished, un-commissioned, and struggling ones– our affirmation comes largely from within; and as such we must either be strong for ourselves or fail.

Paychecks. Publications. Praise. These things are all hard for the struggling artist to come by, especially in the beginning. How is one to go on when nothing– no money, no prestige, at times even no one– exists to validate our work? When we even have negative funds, reproach, and discouragement working against us?

I’d think the answer’s the same no matter where we are in our journey: our affirmation must come first and foremost from within us. We must believe in the work we are doing and the integrity of the effort we’re giving it. We must believe in ourselves at all times– especially when nobody else will.

I think, when one becomes comfortable with this idea– with relieving oneself of the need of the approval of others– it is immensely freeing. Yes, there will still be agents and representatives and business people and business deals and guidelines to be worked with along the way or at the end of Rejection Brick Road, but if you’re happy with who you are and what you’re doing– what else do you really need? You’re your own well, spring, and fountain.

And if you’re gonna be a fountain, you might as well look like this.

ALRIGHT, yes, a paycheck would be nice.

But you get the idea.

In Awe of Libraries

In search of material on obsessive-compulsive disorder, death and grieving, and Leonardo da Vinci– all potential story fodder– I made a trip to my local library.

There, clutching a scrap of paper with a few call numbers I’d penciled down on it as I traced the books to which they belonged, I stopped amongst the shelves and had a series of revelations:

Look how easy this is.

Look how much information is piled neatly before me.

I forgot my list and wandered among the shelves, inspecting spines.

Textbooks. Sciences. Languages. Cooking. Artists. History. Politics. Poetry. Foreign countries and customs. Gardening. Biographies. Flora and fauna. Pets. Nutrition. Medicine. Physical health. Mental illness. Memoirs, maps, records, scores.

Volumes upon volumes– categorized. Cataloged.

And all utterly at my disposal.

I can’t tell you exactly what order these thoughts occurred in– maybe it was all at once, maybe it was a gradual dawning. But as I wound between the rows, marveling, the collection reminded me:

  1. The world is a vast and incredible place full of fascinating things.
  2. I could read forever and not know 1% of everything there was to know.
  3. I could pick up a different book by a different author on a different topic (even if it wasn’t an original topic, every person’s experience is unique) and never, ever be bored.

How boundlessly amazing are libraries? They’re not just posterity, records, and places of entertainment– they’re community hubs, endless doors to endless places, cornerstones of education accessible to everyone. FOR FREE.

Anyone can walk into a library and walk out with something that will change their life.

That is all.