Faint Winds

Faint winds blow warm, cool; warm, cool,
No sign for the reason why,
Captured by welcome fascination,
With moments of sparked elation.

Circulating, embracing, raw, and fleeting,
Drawing on colored boundaries,
Subject to induced reception,
Growing in an instinctive direction.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe…,”

Says the guy to the woman he was walking with as I passed them on a busy crosswalk of 23rd at 5th Ave/Madison Square Park in New York yesterday.  Since we were moving in opposite directions, a split-second glance at his face told me that he was engaged in an intent explanation.  And who wouldn’t look purposeful uttering the idiom ‘my heart of hearts.’

Whoever wrote this didn’t add the heart as a source

Shakespeare supposedly gave us this phrase, but he used the singular version, ‘my heart of heart.’   We like many hearts to proclaim something at the core of our beliefs. As emotional beings, we like to express depth and profundity.  It helps convey a level of certainty.

We invoke the heart, or hearts, because we love believing in things. Believing in something self-assures us that we are not idiots.  And if we can believe profoundly, it helps us feel that we are not on shaky ground.

It’s said though, that the only thing we can truly believe is our ability to change.  All other beliefs are built on experiences, which are somewhat like fantasies.  And like snowflakes, everyone’s belief structure is unique.

Heart of hearts or a 10 of hearts, we love our hearts

I believe that the world is flat until I find out it’s round and that it’s round until I learn it’s a spheroid.  And, I believe that what I’m doing at this very moment is positive and healthy.  In fact, I believe from the bottom of my heart, which must be somewhere near the gut, mixing itself in the intestinal instinct fluids.

A belief that reaches the depth of our consciousness, the core of our hearts, helps conquer empty space.  The trick, since beliefs are self-constructed, quasi-realities, is to prevent them from growing too rigid or giving them too much validity, lending them to be more heart healthy.

I’m not sure where my heart of hearts lies.  I can’t think of a conviction I’ve got that is so profound.  If I had a gun to my head, I would proclaim with a certain degree of certainty, ok, my heart-of-hearts, at least for the near future, that the New York Yankee’s will win (something) and that dogs will remain man’s best friend.

Biodynamics to the rescue

While somewhat of an obscure farming method, even though it’s been around for decades, biodynamic, not to be confused with organic, has been slowly creeping into vineyards, orchards, and farmer’s markets.

There is no question that the demand for organic food has been on the rise.  The proof is in its availability.  You can now find organic edibles in many local markets. Organic is mainstream.  Even in rural China, organic specialty foods have made an appearance.  But is organic worth the purchase?  There is no shortage of opinions on both sides of that question.  The answer may be, “it depends,” and also whether we care about ecosystem sustainability, nutrition, flavor, long-term biodiversity, residual synthetic chemicals in our bloodstreams, yadda, yadda, yadda.

from field to store, JD manages a certifiable process

As we were chomping down on rare cooked, organic, 1.5-inch thick grass-fed sirloin steaks during a small family gathering recently, discussing the relative value of animals (humans included), the topic of organic crops came up.  Nephew JD, who works as a produce broker, coordinating business between large grocery retailers (such as Whole Foods) and dozens (or hundreds) of small SE Pennsylvania farms, enlightened us about the smoke-and-mirrors of organic.  Perhaps because I’m a tail-end product of the hippy generation, I’ve been somewhat trust-worthing-ly naive about the “certified organic” label. Throughout the 80’s/90’s organic foods gain popularity as a valid alternative food source.  The standards in those days, I’m told (by Waldorf University agriculture students), for Certified Organic were stricter.  During the last two decades, with lobbying from the food industry, compliance for organic certification have been relaxed considerably.  As JD pointed out, organic food can be sprayed with pesticide and still be certified organic.  The pesticide may not be (as) synthetic as conventional farming, but it’s a pesticide nonetheless.  Additionally, organic has different standards internationally.  An organic tomato from Mexico is different from an organic tomato from the USA. 

Still, the point is we tend to think organically grown is healthier.  In many cases though, if it is, it could be marginal.  JD assured us though, that while the label isn’t what it seems, we were still not throwing our money away by buying organic.

To be fair, he explained, conventional farmers must go through a multi-year process, purging the soil of synthetic fertilizer to achieve organic certification.  Once they do though, their reward is a higher price yield. Still, organic has become marketing at its finest.

Biodynamic to the rescue.  Maybe.

A few years ago GV and I went to a wine tasting close to home in NYC where one of the California vineyard owners proudly and passionately served us samples of his biodynamic wines.  “They are alive,” he said.  One test, he said, was to loosely cork an unfinished bottle without the need to vacuum it.  After a couple of days, unlike traditional wine, it would be as vibrant and flavorful as the day it was opened.  He was right.

Union Square farmer’s market in NYC

In NYC’s Union Square farmer’s market, a few local farms now label their products certified biodynamic.  Apparently, this is a stricter level of certification where no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used.  Moreover, biodynamic farms must be regenerative, not degenerative.  In other words, there must be little to no reliance on imported (to the farm) products.  The idea is a holistic, ethical approach to farming and raising food, where systems are considered interconnected, the ecosystem balanced and diversified.

Are there critics of organic and biodynamic foods?  Sure.  There are plenty of studies showing doubt about various benefits of both, but none looking at long-term effects of pesticides or the subtleties of food language.  No studies are looking at the molecular makeup of what is produced and how it affects us over a lifetime.  We are finding out that what we put in our mouths passes chemical information to our cells from what they contain.  So if a plant or animal was raised with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, then those coded messages are passed along in what we eat.  It’s subtle, it’s deep, and more than likely, beyond most of our conversations.  It’s beyond the guy writing this post.

I’m a sucker, trusting this marketing bait

I bought fish last night labeled organic because it sounded healthier, although it’s more likely I was caught in a hocus pocus marketing ploy. [Hint: organic fish ≠ wild caught].  However, I remain hopeful that certified organic still means the absence of hormones, antibiotics, and GMO ingredients (GMO being another worm, er.., rat hole).

As in last week’s post, our decision to eat conventional, local, natural, organic, biodynamic, or growing our own, boils down not only to how we grew up and what we’ve learned along the way, but also to a healthy dose of our own self-constructed (sometimes quirky?) logic, combined with a dash of gullibility, with a pinch of trust.  For now though, when I see an organic or biodynamic label, I’m a certified sucker.

Logic didn’t make this chart

 

Oil logic

More specifically, food oil logic.

Most of us are not food experts.  After all, we are products of the post-industrial age.  We don’t know any better.  We’ve become ok with GMO, foods grown with pesticides, meat containing antibiotics, sugar infused anything, and, foods cooked in and laced with vegetable and seed oils. In short, we’ve become expert at making dirt cheap food, not necessarily making and delivering the most nutritious.   

It’s the vegetable and seed oils that have confounded me recently.  I hadn’t given two thoughts to seeing canola. sunflower, or soy oil in an ingredient list of prepared salads or dressings/sauces until reading about the potential downside.  Nor have I batted an eye about eating foods cooked with these oils.  We’ve grown comfortable with many of the prepared foods we eat.  And most have oils of some sort as an ingredient.

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been mass-producing cooking oils.  These new oils, such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and canola, had never been used on the scale we use them today.  They’ve become a large part of our diets, whether we realize it or not.

No food market is without a generous selection of vegetable oils, a recent essential staple

What many studies are recently revealing is that the cheap, highly processed oils have undergone molecular restructuring, essentially making them more unstable.  What that means, the studies show, is they cause oxidation stress by way of excess free radicals.  When we use them for cooking, the results are compounded.  In other words, what these studies show is that most processed oils, which have had their chemical make up manipulated, are, in effect, toxic.

The problem is, many smart nutritionists and advice givers say that vegetable oils are good.  Then there are others who now say they are bad.  What, and who, to believe?  I’m not a biochemist, so I, like most of us, can only make decisions based on logic.

Oils we buy are processed in one of two ways, they are either,  1) cold pressed (actually pressed or centrifuge), such as olive, avocado, coconut, or peanut, or 2) extracted through heat processing.

Why not take olives and add a dash of corn?

Logic says that if we squeeze or cold press food to extract its oil, then the oil may be nearly as good as the raw food, the nutrients remaining relatively intact.  Olives, for example, a fruit, have been cold pressed for thousands of years.  It’s well known, that extra-virgin cold pressed olive oil, unheated, is quite healthy, rich in antioxidants.

On the other hand, oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and canola are processed to extremely high temperatures, washed with petroleum solvents, bleached, then deodorized.  Because we can produce these raw materials so abundantly and cheaply, the resulting oils are ounce for ounce, considerably cheaper than cold-pressed oils.

Industrial food companies are not studying the health risks of long-term use of manipulated, processed foods.  Rather food companies are profit centers.  Like those of us in the apparel business, food enterprises look for the cheapest way to make something.  The long-term consequences are off the radar.

In North and South America, as well as most of Asia, cheap oils have become a kitchen staple, at home and in virtually all restaurants.  We can’t live without the stuff.  In China, no home is without a 3 or 5-liter bottle of soy or corn oil.  Restaurants use the stuff by the boatload.  Almost all foods are cooked with these oils, which, just a couple of generations ago, were not available.

There are no shortages of food experts with opinions all over the place.  Therefore, it’s not easy to know who to trust.  We’ve got to rely on what makes logical sense.   And logic says that oils intended for human consumption that are washed with solvents at high temperatures, bleached, deodorized, colored, and perfumed, are best left avoided.

Staying modern

An ever-changing, sometimes elusive, interpretative state of being.  Whether the topic is medical, engineering, fashion, government, technical, or scientific, the adjective modern receives its share of use.  This current attribute seems to be popping up all over the place lately, or maybe it’s just booming louder in my eardrums,…modern equipment, modern practices, modern way of life, our modern world.

Most of us like to think and describe ourselves as modern.  Unless we’ve hit that comfortable bar we don’t want to cross, we, as individuals and organizations, don’t want to be, nor can we afford to be, out-of-date or old-fashioned.

Modern is not quite an anachronism.  But it could be.  When we describe recent history as it’s taught in (Western) schools, the Modern Era started during or with the Renaissance.  Some say it started with clock time, during the 16th century.  The history books call our current age, post-1945 to the present, as the Contemporary phase of the Modern Era (the present, evidently, is whatever year the definition is being read.) What will our history books call the years surrounding 2017?  Will it be another version of modern?

A soon to be modern?

Most of what we know about the universe, both beyond our planet and within it, we’ve discovered in the last few decades.  Still, our knowledge outside our natural sight, in our current modern world, is not much.  Those who study what we can’t see, say that what lays outside our current modern comprehension is enormous.  It’s estimated, (as much as we can estimate a percent without a firm grasp of the whole), that we may know less than 3% of what this earth, and the universe, is about.  For now, though, we are as modern as it gets.  Just don’t blink too often, because modern has been gaining momentum and is moving faster than ever.

A few hundred years ago, not much changed between generations.  By comparison, the last few have been moving at warp speed.  In our modern day of just twenty-five years ago no one used the internet.  Apple’s first iPhone launched only 10 years ago in 2007, starting the smart-phone revolution.  Now, almost everyone on the globe spends precious time bowing to those devices.  A mere 10 years ago, our modern-day had no apps, Facebook and Twitter were just coming onto the scene.  Instagram and WhatsApp were born just seven years ago.  WeChat, introduced a mere six years ago, now dominates in China not only as a must-have social media app, but also as a platform for the majority of everyday purchases and currency transactions.

In the fashion world, so that we don’t overuse modern, we circulate other descriptives, like current, contemporary, up-to-date, in-trend, chic, fresh, fashionable, cool, hip.  In fact, modern gets a new definition every season.

What was modern yesterday, even ultra-modern, may not be tomorrow.

Every generation in history has lived in modern times. Current practices and knowledge will soon be dust, considered ancient and antiquated.  Future humans will look back to our present day, 2017, and say, wow, do you remember when people actually drove cars, sat in traffic, made cheap industrial food, and polluted the atmosphere without regard?  How crude and barbaric.

But hey, we can’t get hung up on modern.  It’s only an overworked adjective trying to be helpful.  So what that modern’s description has become fleeting.  The good news is, it won’t take much effort to stay relevant.  We are all on the modern fast train, and it’s just pulling out of the station.  We have little choice.

Modern Art. A move from tradition to experimentation. Country Road by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Travel while you can

But don’t fret, you’ll still be able to travel later.  It will just be more crowded.

In the year 1500, the world population is estimated to have been less than 500 million.  It took 300 years for that figure to double to one billion.  In 1960, the world pop was three billion.  By the year 2000, 40 years later, it had doubled to six billion.  You could call that explosive humping.  Today we are at 7.5 billion.  The rate of growth has eased a fraction, but still, given current trajectory, simple math puts us around 10 billion by 2050, a short 30 plus years from now.

When I first visited Cancun, Mexico, and Phuket, Thailand decades ago, they were beach outposts, minus the proliferation of high-rise hotels and the antiseptic feeling of an overrun tourist destination.  Similar outposts are fast being built to attract newer avid travelers.  And they will come.  Most major airports around the world are bursting at capacity, thick with worm-hole lines to check-in, security, customs, and immigration, while short of gates for arriving planes.  Many flights are delayed for takeoff because of congestion at the destination airport.  When I flew out of LAX in April, as we were sitting on the runway approach going nowhere, the pilot announced that we were number 12 in line and it would be another 20 minutes or so before takeoff.  As we turned the corner to liftoff, there were another 12 behind us.  

Chang Mai, Thailand

There are may places in the world, like the Inca trail between Aguas Calientes and Manchu Picchu, in the Andes of Peru, a typically four-day hike, that was independently treck-able not long ago. Because of its mushroomed popularity, the only way now to hike the old stone path built by the Incas a millennium ago is with a guided group tour. (It is still a spectacular hike)  

Not only will we be adding another 30% to the world’s population over the next generation, but consider also that two most populated countries, China and India, together more than 1/3 of the world’s pop, have been experiencing highly dynamic economic growth during the last decade resulting in hundreds of millions rising out of poverty and joining the middle class.  Tens of millions in these two countries are now financially wealthy.  These millions with new money will eventually be looking for destination feathers to stick in their travel hats.

A couple of generations ago, those who traveled wrote letters, books, or passed their travel exploits by word of mouth.  Today we have instant information streaming at our fingertips for virtually every spot on earth, complete with photos and detailed instructions how to get there.

Instant gratification for all

By adding up the following:

  • the earth’s ballooning population of homo sapiens resulting from our relatively recent insatiable urge for planting human seeds 
  • instant access to information about anywhere
  • significantly improved infrastructures coupled with more developed trade relations among most countries
  • the swelling class boom in China and India and their eventual yearn to spend,

and a solid long-term business may be owning a hostel or hotel in a lazy, soon to be overrun, tourist ghetto.

The day the new Dubai airport opened it was already too small.

Fluently Fluenz

Although there is still much more about our brains that we don’t know than we do, what those who study our noggins have discovered is that learning a language is an activity that pays relatively high dividends.

Learning a foreign language creates more connections

For most of us, because of the complexity, learning a new language is not easy.  It takes time, thought, effort, recall, and lots of practice.  It’s kind of like aerobics, resistance training, and yoga all combined into a well-rounded mental workout.  And like physical exercise, the results are proportional to the effort we invest.  When we learn a language, brain scans are showing the firing of neural synapses actually help expand the plasma membrane where we need it most — memory and recall.

Good advice, but may not be too helpful for actually learning the language

As an added bonus, brain heads are also detecting a host of extra side benefits from learning a language, such as an increase in creativity, flexibility, openness, focus, and an improvement in general cognitive skills.

This seems to be about my speed

Having been in rural China (on and off) for a few years means that getting to know the basics of Mandarin not only makes life a bit easier but also a tad more enriching.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, most business communication is conducted in English, giving me an excuse and an out.  Still, I’ve poked around at several different learning methods, from podcasts, to classes, to a book and CD — each one improving my rationalization skills for avoiding the mental workouts.  I even tried using a stone of the rosetta variety, but nothing was sparking the neuron stimulation I was looking for. Then I found Fluenz.

While I’m still well entrenched in the beginner stage, it’s kind of thrilling to be able to direct a taxi and order food without pointing to everything like a dumbo.  After a few years, that’s not saying much.  Anyone with normal intelligence would be a lot further along.  But the fact that I’ve found something that is not a chore is thanks to the structure and format of this online and downloadable course.

This must mimic my own circuitry — minimal

The co-founder, Sonia Gil, has developed a method that actually makes learning the language engaging.  The premise of Fluenz is that each language requires a slightly different approach, at least for English speakers. I can’t speak for their other courses, but the Mandarin version consists of three levels, each one with more than a couple dozen sessions.  Each session is broken down into many, aptly named, workouts.  The exercises include a short dialogue with and without translation, explanations, matching words with photos and sentence structures, practice writing what you hear with the correct inflection (pinyin), and more. The sessions are pleasantly mixed and diverse enough that the learning process is stimulating.  Additionally, the iPad and iPhone versions are appealingly interactive.  The course also includes digital flashcards in a variety of formats, mobile podcast practice, and a short dictionary.

My rationalization skills for avoiding study time are still well-honed.  Many days spent justifying why not studying Mandarin is in my best interest has made me an expert at fooling myself.  The one phrase I’ve got memorized for the Chinese people who try to speak to me is “tīng bù dõng” which in essence means, I’m clueless about your language, so it’s fruitless to talk with me. But because I’m an oddball in their world, the locals are curious.  They want to converse. By not trying, tiny grains of richness evaporate, so it doesn’t seem right that I deny them, or myself, those scattered yet potentially wholesome morsels.

With luck, if the gray matter is not too thin and I can somehow overpower the phony excuses, I’ll eek out of baby phase at some point and into toddlerhood. If so, I’m hoping to eventually savor some of those residual benefits.  I won’t hold my breath, but if there’s a chance, it will be thanks to the Fluenz course.

And if I can power through, I just may pick up another Fluenz language and chalk it up to encephalonic health care.  Not being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the effort.  Daily mental calisthenics with so many perks could be a worthy commitment.