Monday, March 23, 2015

Learning to Live Toxic-Free: My Favorite Products

My quest to find, or make, my own beauty and home supplies stemmed first from a desire to avoid products tested on animals. In the early days (remember, I'm 44 years old), this was no easy task. But, over the years many companies have realized that this is important to their customers. They've also seemed to jump on the "Green" bandwagon which has lead to a lot of green-washing. Unsuspecting consumers flock to expensive natural food stores looking for labels emblazoned with words like "natural", "organic", "eco-friendly", "vegan" without a clue that none of this means a) that it's true and b) that it works. Trust me, I was one of those consumers.

Over the years a few other things became important to my health and well-being. I wanted products that were truly natural, vegan, eco-friendly and not tested on animals but I also wanted them to be simple, easy to find or make, effective and free of synthetic perfumes. After suffering from some female related health issues including heavy bleeding along with severe and debilitating cramps, which lead to a procedure called endometrial ablation, I found that the cramps were not subsiding. I have a pretty high threshold for pain but these bad boys had me in bed, or seeking the ER, on more than one occasion.

Some exhausting research lead me to several websites and studies that spoke about estrogen mimicing chemicals which are found in many of our everyday products. Seriously, these things can wreak havoc on both the female and male bodies...ladies and gentlemen of the jury I give you moobs (man-boobs)...not to mention plenty of other serous health issues. You can find xenoestrogen in everything from plastic food containers to sun screen to pesticides on our foods...even makeup, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent and anything with synthetic fragrance added.

So, how did I deal with it?

I read a lot and did even more research. I experimented on myself and succeeded and failed through trial and error. I compromised in some areas, and still keep an open mind as I continue to learn about ingredients, science and my own body's reactions to things. I also cross referenced products with the Environmental Working Groups website to ensure they are truly non-toxic and eco-friendly.

Eating Right: I'm not suggesting everyone eat like I do but I do think the easiest and most effective improvements to overall health comes directly from what we put in our mouths. I eat vegan at home and allow a little wiggle room when eating out with friends and family. I will always choose plant-based but, on occasion, well-meaning family members have inadvertently added butter or maybe even eggs to a dish they prepared specially for me. It happens. But the main point is, I eat clean (for the most part...I'm no saint) and that means whole foods, mostly organic, tons of fresh veggies, grains, home-cooked beans (not canned), sweet potatoes, fruits, etc. I eat what works for my body...instead of forcing it to accept foods my mind craves but might cause issues in my gut. I avoid canned foods of any kind, pre-packaged or convenience foods, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, animal products and by-products, etc. I've learned to enjoy making many things from scratch like kombucha, almond milk, coconut milk, salad dressing, almond milk kefir, almond meal flour, salsa, peanut sauce, jaggery syrup, and lots of different home cooked meals. And, it may sound like some new-age mumbo-jumbo but cooking with intention and with a heart full of gratitude and love makes a difference. If nothing else, it helps with attitude. =)

Adding flavor to my homemade kombucha (and repurposing an old store bought bottle).

Skin Care Cleaning and Moisturizing: I've tried a lot of different products and have settled on making my own facial cleanser. It's simply a 50/50 mix of Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild (no scent) Liquid Soap and distilled water. Every so often I will add a pinch of baking soda in my hand first, which acts as a mild scrub. And when needed, a little sesame oil is my chosen moisturizer (sesame oil is the preferred oil in Ayurveda and ranks low as a non-comedogenic at a 2 out of 5). For moisturizing the body I suggest my friend Ambika's line of ayurvedic oils which you can find here. I also recommend The Seaweed Bath Company brand  which offers fragrance free lotions, body wash and shampoo. I really don't believe the hype behind the ads that suggest we need multiple products (sometimes specific to a.m. and p.m. routines) to achieve healthy skin. It starts with what we eat and doesn't need to be complicated, or expensive. Be nice to your skin...very, very nice and it will soon glow.

Skin Care Dry Brushing: I'll admit it now...I do not shower daily. For those of you who aren't aware, my husband and I live in our 32 foot RV and have been traveling the country for the past 2 1/2 years. Showers are, at times, a luxury because we often go "off-the-grid" for long periods. This means we must ration our water usage. I've found that dry brushing helps keep my skin healthy between showering. But even if you do shower every day dry brushing has some excellent health benefits. Honestly, I don't believe all of the claims (read about the how to's and why's of dry brushing here) but it does feel really good and we can all use a little more self-care in our daily routines.

Deodorant: Like you I have tried everything under the sun, crystals, baking soda, expensive natural products like Jason's, Tom's and Primal Pit Paste and none work nearly as well as the chemical laden, *possibly* cancer causing products available at Target and Walmart. But dammit...I will not be deterred and I will not give in to Proctor & Gamble any longer. I've come to terms with this dilemma and have settled on a homemade concoction. There are tons recipes available online (Google is my friend) but I tend to keep it simple... 5 TBS melted coconut oil, 1/4 cup non-aluminum baking soda, a few drops of essential oil of your choice...mix it up and store in a small jar (a baby food jar works well). Many recipes call for cornstarch and/or arrowroot powder so you might have to experiment to find the perfect balance for you. Over the course of a month of exclusively using baking soda and coconut oil my body has adapted fairly well (combined with clean eating you'll find it pretty darn effective as a deodorant).

Makeup: Truthfully, I use very little makeup these days but when I do, I tend to chose T.W.I.N.K. products (available here on Etsy) which are hand made, inexpensive and offers minimal packaging options. I use their mineral foundation and eyeliner and love them. In a pinch I will opt for certain e.l.f.. products which are available at many drug stores and even the dreaded megastore, Walmart and are very inexpensive (their studio mineral infused mascara scored a 2 on the EWG website). Boots and Physicians Formula products also rank fairly low on the EWG site (the lower the better) but are not vegan.

Hair Care: Traveling in the RV and staying in remote, wild places has many of them being that I rarely have to "do" my hair. It lives in a ponytail...a lot. It gets washed maybe 2-3 times a week. I know, some of you may be appalled! But hey, I'm saving a ton of money in salon fees, straighteners, curling irons, magic products and rejuventation treatments I would need to combat the torture all of those things put my hair through. For you "all-natural purists",  I've never, ever been able to go poo-free. I tried, believe me...I tried. For 4 months I did the ol' baking soda and apple cider vinegar thing only to have my hair turn to straw and my head smell like a salad gone bad (or Easter eggs being dyed). It just does not work for me. After getting about 5 inches of damaged hair cut from my head I vowed to go back to "traditional" shampoo and conditioner to avoid having to shave my head completely. But I still knew there were better choices out there. After using myself as a guinea pig and spending who knows how much on this product and that product I finally found one I love...Everyone Hair Shampoos and Conditioner. I use the Nourish version personally and my scalp feels very healthy. My runner-up choices would be The Seaweed Company and Free and Clear. All are available on Amazon. Oh, the only other thing I use in my hair is argon or jojoba oil if necessary.

Hair Dye (TBD): I've been battling this issue for 2 years. Part of me wants to just let my hair grow out naturally and the other part, which is bigger, meaner and much more vain, refuses to give in too long. I'm *only* 44 yet I'd venture to say I am half grey. It seems like a lot of grey for age and I'm just not ready to come to terms with it all. However, hair dye, even at studio, can be one of the most toxic and damaging things you can do to your head. When the time comes I will be experimenting with T.W.I.N.K.S. herbal hair dyes and I promise to report back with the results.

For the T.W.I.N.K. website.
Laundry Detergent: The biggest eye-opener for me came when I switched to dye- and fragrance-free laundry detergent and eliminated the dryer sheets. Even in my late 3's I was getting breakouts, especially along my jawline, back and chest. Nothing worked...not Proactive, not acne battling body washes...nothing...until I changed my detergent. And then, like magic, my skin became clear within days. Be sure to wash everything including towels, bedding, and everything that touches your skin). I'm not joking. My mom, who is in her 60's, recently switched to fragrance- and dye-free detergent and experienced the same results. I wish I had known this trick back in my high school days! My suds of choice is now Ecover or Seventh Generation Free and Clear (depends on price and availability).

Dish Washing Soap: We don't have a dishwasher in our home (the RV)...unless you count me. I've tried many types of soaps, most of which made my hands extremely dry and itchy and some which seemed to add a greasy feel to the dishes rather than remove it. I've settled on Method brand (found at Targets across the country). While it does have fragrances added it seems to be the one that reacts less to my skin. I should probably invest in some pretty rubber gloves regardless.

General House Cleaning: I pretty much make all of my own cleaning products. Google it and you will find pages and pages of recipes to tackle all of your problem areas. I keep it pretty simple and generally clean everything with the same concoction: water, white vinegar, Dr. Bronners and sometimes a little baking soda. Adding a few drops of you favorite essential oil is a nice touch too. But by far, my very favorite thing to clean with are my Norwex Clothes. They are amazing and use only water...plain old water...for cleaning and disinfecting. You read that right...and I encourage you to do some research, watch some videos and find out for yourself how great these clothes are. They seem a little expensive up front but think of all of the money you'll save not buying 10 different cleaners at the store. And lets not forget the chemicals that you'll be avoiding! This is an added benefit for anyone with kids or pets who might get curious about what's stored under the sink. P.S. Norwex has saved my glass shower doors...they always look brand new now!

Air Fresheners: Sorry to say but all of those "plug-ins" and sprays and carpet fresheners (just save an old Parmesan cheese container or buy a nice glass one and fill with baking soda, add a few drops of essential oils for a nice scent) are polluting your home and might be messing with your hormones. They're toxic buggers that trick you into thinking their good because they smell like pumpkin pie or the beach or snickerdoodles. Do not be fooled! An easy spray freshener anyone can make is one cup of water, 1/4 vodka (it's okay to use the cheap stuff for this recipes) and 20+/- drops of essential oils of your choice in a spray bottle, voila. The vodka acts as a disinfectant and helps the water and oil blend. Another option, which I love, love , love is a diffuser. There are tons of them on the market but since I'm very new to all of this essential oil stuff I chose an inexpensive, but highly rated, diffuser and a few essential oils from a well-respected company. Since our home is only about 300 square feet in total one diffuser is perfect. Add a little water and just a couple of drops of EO and you have a fun and great smelling abode.


These are just a few changes we've made and I can honestly vouch for how well they've worked for us, including pretty much getting rid of my allergies. I encourage you all to read up how everyday, seemingly ordinary products, are screwing up our hormones and, quite possibly, causing (or at least exacerbating) issues such as depression, allergies, acne, insomnia, thinning hair, man boobs, middle-age "spread, early childhood breast development and menses, restless leg syndrome and a myriad of other problems.

Please do your own research...I'm only sharing what has worked for me. This post is not intended to offer any type of medical advise.

Further reading:

You can also read my original post on our travel blog at Tales From the Mutiny which offers additional insight into the products we feel are safe and non-toxic and that we actually use

We rely on Amazon Prime deliveries for many of our products. The product links above will take you to our affiliate page where we earn a very small commission (at no cost to you) should you make a purchase through the link. As always, we appreciate you reading our blog and we thank you in advance for using our Amazon links.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Learning to Unlearn...

I'm not a big fan of "self-help" as it is traditionally defined. In the past, the books I've read, the counseling sessions I've attended, the workbooks, journals and seminars I've participated in have all been focused on my past...looking for a cause and effect as if finding the source of my depression or anxiety would miraculously make me less depressed or anxious. There might have been some positive thinking sprinkled in there for good measure but I often felt like my "problems" were my fault because I was too weak (minded or willed) to have dealt with them as they were emerging. So, I have been living in the past for a very, very long time.

Every time a relationship failed I thought about the past...the boys I 'let' mistreat me, the approval I constantly sought from my alcoholic father, the not-so-happy marriage my parents struggled through. And every time I sat on the side lines...a wallflower of sorts...never sticking my neck out for anything (be it a cause or promotion or recognition for work well done) I thought again about the past...the competition I created with my sister who was very outgoing, the girls in my class who were called pretty, the times I felt invisible or was picked last in games and being laughed at or ridiculed when I did fail. For every shortcoming I had I was directed to look at a specific event (or person) to place the blame...leaving me (and many others) sure that if only I could receive a sincere, heartfelt apology I could become whole again...why else would we search so hard for the source?

But by always focusing on past "mistakes" or past "reasons" I was basically inviting the same results in to my present.

Every rejection and break-up solidified my self-worth. Every success was chalked up to sheer luck. The self-help books I was reading at the time felt like weights around my ankles keeping me aware of my short comings (and perhaps creating more) with no real direction to move forward other than writing letters to those who hurt me and thinking positive thoughts or looking at myself in the mirror and saying "you are beautiful" over and over. Those books also tried to make me feel better by saying I wasn't alone...constantly trying to equate my pain with others...or attempting to diminish it by saying some people have it worse.

And while I understand that there are people around the world who do have huge challenges, who are abused, or sold into slavery and starving I also know that these facts do not just take away the pain someone is feeling. We can't 'cure' ourselves by stepping on (or using) those who are also struggling. Comparison can be dangerous...being sad about a pet who died is okay, one doesn't have to "put it into perspective" and try to diminish those emotions because some else, somewhere in the world suffered a "worse" tragedy. All that it does is make us feel selfish and wrong for our feelings of sadness. And now we are back in the cycle of needing to be "fixed" because we've learned our emotions are inappropriate.

I think there is a better way...a way to reflect on our past (not live in it) and use it to change our now (and our future).

I cringe when I hear people say things like "well, nobody's perfect" and "everyone has issues". Not because it isn't true (most likely it is) but because phrases like those are often used as crutches to justify a  kind of giving up, the kind that comes from accepting our condition and allowing our minds to remain in the rut we've created.

What I mean is...when we are always accepting (and expecting) a certain outcome (or emotion) we might be creating a pathway for the same thing to keep happening "to us" over and over again. I used to get panic attacks which were often work related. It got so bad that by Sunday morning (I was off on the weekends) you could find me curled up in a dark room crying because Monday was looming over my shoulder like the Grim Reaper. It wasn't that I had some horrible task to take care of Monday morning that I was was simply that the weekend was ending. Sure I hated my job...but not only was I unhappy at work but now I was unhappy at home because I was constantly thinking about work and evoking those horrible feelings even when things were "okay" in the present moment. Of course, by the time the work week started I would have a miserable time and the days would feel like weeks. Again, there wouldn't necessarily be any horrific 'thing' that happened but my mind created (and recreated every Sunday morning) a disaster of a week. And the week almost always lived up to my expectations.

My weekends were no longer a source of relaxation and fun...they became almost as unbearable as going to work. I would look forward to having two full days off only to then torture myself by counting down the hours until I had to go back to that hell hole. The same thing would happen on vacation. Imagine having a week off, splashing in the pool, drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it only to break down in tears because you realized that every sunset wasn't beautiful anymore because it was really a dreadful reminder that it was now one day closer to the vacation ending. I became sullen, depressed and inconsolable. A real Debby Downer.

I've recently read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and although it is geared toward the creative process I was moved by the chapter Resistance and Healing. In it, Pressfield writes about the subculture of healing being  the belief that one needs to 'complete' his healing before he is ready to live his dream. He goes on to say:

"Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work."

To me, the work can be anything from painting to writing to composing music...but most importantly it's living. Living in the here and now...not rehashing the hurtful thing some high school kid said to you 25 years ago. Not giving more power to a selfish or addicted parent who was too busy (or drunk) to have taught you about self-worth. And certainly not judging your work ethics by the actions of some asshole who thought it was impressive to fire you on the spot for asking to take a break after leading trail rides for the past 5 hours without stepping out of the saddle. Whew...I guess THAT one still stings a little.

The book I'm currently reading, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Joe Dispenza, takes things even further by explaining how we can become addicted to feelings we experience which means we continually seek out more experiences which produce those feelings. For instance, if at some point in our lives we've been called lazy or hot tempered or maybe even labeled as emotionally unstable (I was "diagnosed" as manic back in 1987 at an in-patient hospital but never since) we tend to start identifying with those things which causes us to "claim" those traits which then forms our personality. Over the course of 10 or 20 years we believe we are lazy or introverted or ugly or a binge eater or just not good at sports (regardless if these statements are even true!!) and this emotional state (our way of thinking and feeling) becomes becomes who we are. We even begin to define ourselves as these things..."Oh, I'm just a lazy person, always have been, always will be"..."I have a hot temper and I just cannot control it".

You see, we resign ourselves to be whatever we were told (or told ourselves) in the past. And no amount of "positive thinking" (or medication) can change 20 years of proving them (or us) right. But there is a way to rewire our brain...and part of the process is through meditation.

Now that I am becoming aware I am even more convinced that we turn over far too much of our lives and well-being to other people. We get labeled by friends, school mates, parents, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, etc., and then allow those labels define who we are. We seek out experiences that "prove" those labels are correct. We let our minds wonder with thoughts of the past or even future events that haven't even happened to simulate the feelings that keep us trapped in our current state of being.

Looking back at my earlier story about the awful dread I felt on Sundays I can see now that I was using past experiences (perhaps a particularly bad day at work) and rehashing it in my mind until I felt as bad as I did the day it occurred. I was then projecting that I would continue to have this kind of bad day every day...building up the anxiety. Going to work with that amount of anxiety meant I often missed out on the good parts of work, I was tense and on edge...actually having a physical response to the chemicals my body was releasing due to my anxiety. I couldn't get out of my own way because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, certain that anything positive was an illusion rather than the scenario I kept creating in my mind and body.

Although I am not quite finished with the book, I feel a weight has lifted off of my shoulders. I'm beginning to question some of the labels I've accepted and/or placed on being an introvert, an over-planner, "mousy-brown", invisible, prone to depression, ad nauseum. I feel like I've been given "permission" to step outside of that box I created and become who I am supposed to be...someone without paralyzing fear and self-doubt...someone who doesn't finish things...someone who is often sad for 'no reason'.

Until then, here's a little video that might peak your interest in this "new" research. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Idiocracy Meets the American Diet

I'm not a nutritionist or health expert. I don't profess to be the smartest or most educated person you'll ever run across and I am certainly not infallible (there's a reason this blog is named Learning Curves). However, I do have a bit of experience with dieting. I've done Atkins, the Rice Diet, Nutrisystem, the Master Cleanse (aka Lemonade Diet) and everything in between. I've even done calorie restriction to the point of becoming anorexic. I lost weight. I gained weight. I beat myself up and placed my personal value in that magic number on the scale. I also almost died.

What did I learn from spending countless dollars on books, programs, special "diet" foods, sugar-free this and fat-free that and carb-free mystery foods? Well, what I unlearned was how to eat, what it felt like to be hungry and to trust my body's needs and abilities.
We eat because the clock says it’s time to eat. We fill our plates with too much food because the plates are large and that’s what everybody else is doing. “We confuse thirst for hunger and food for love,” May says. {excerpt from an interview with author Michelle May, a physician turned health coach}
I unlearned so much of what is supposed to be innate, the simple act of supplying my body with fuel, that I have yet to relearn it after declaring myself "diet-free" a few years ago.

My thoughts...and this in only my that the diet industry, along with Big Ag and those genius marketers, have basically brainwashed the average consumer into thinking humans cannot survive by simply eating food when their body indicates it's hungry. We've been convinced to ignore our cravings (which can often indicate a true nutritional need) and substitute food-like products in an effort to "trick" our brain into thinking it's satisfied.

We eat low- or no-calorie "desserts" (sugar-free jello, for example) as a way to fill our ever expanding stomachs while depriving our body of actual nutrients. Which means we will have to eat even MORE lo- or no-calorie foods in an attempt to make our stomachs feel full. And if we ever go back to eating "real" foods we will have trouble feeling full on "normal" serving sizes.

We convince ourselves that bacon is "good for us" because some caveman supposedly ate a high protein diet thousands of years ago (but he didn't drive to work in a car, sit around and watch TV for hours, and play on Facebook all day). So, we bastardize a diet like Paleo to include processed meats as long as they "hold the bun". Of course, my philosophy is that we convince ourselves bacon {or insert your favorite food here}is good for us because we want to believe we will do anything to get healthy but really, we won't. It would be like eating the same foods and calories of say, Michael Phelps (who sometimes eats around 12,000 calories a day when training) but never swimming a lap...and then wondering why we don't have his physique.

Battered and then deep fried Twinkies are used for "buns" on this bacon burger...and why not...this is 'Murica!
In this country (U.S.) the "gluttonous movement" has gotten to the point of being a ridiculous (and embarrassing considering how many people across the world, and our own country, go hungry). It's as if people are trying to give a big F-you to health and purposely eating the most fattening, sugar laden abomination of "food" ever imagined. There's even a series from Thrillist called Fat Kid Friday which publishes "this week's most ridiculous eats". It showcases real menu items like Porky Cake Batter Ice Cream Sundae (cake batter ice cream topped with caramelized pork belly bites and chicharrones tossed in cinnamon and sugar, then drenched with bacon-caramel sauce) and the Breakfast All Day Burger which is a hamburger topped with fried hash browns, a fried egg, bacon and maple syrup.  

I mean, it's like we can't stop ourselves when it comes to shock-value regarding our food! People think it's funny to push the 'envelope' when what they are really doing is destroying themselves. Even Subway, whose profits soared with the Jerad campaign, has resorted to offering Frito loaded sandwiches! We think we have free will but based on the number of people I see jumping on this bandwagon I beg to differ. Can anyone tell me what exactly we are trying to accomplish?

The human body is highly adaptable, which is one of the reasons we are still here. But it also has it's limits when bombarded with garbage on a daily basis. There's pollution, the highly processed foods we eat and the chemicals/hormones/drugs/toxic bug sprays that cover our not so highly processed foods, the 'fragrances' added to our shampoos, lotions, soaps, deodorants and the toxins that get released from the plastic packaging our apples and carrots come in or Glad containers we use to store our leftovers.This accumulation now has a name...chronic inflammation...and it's been linked to a plethora of illnesses.
 Our bodies have become virtual dumping grounds for the tens of thousands of toxic compounds that invade our everyday world, setting the stage for a slow decline in health. The EPA estimates there are more than 20,000 chemicals that our bodies cannot metabolize. Unable to be excreted from the body, chemicals find their way into our liver, and then migrate to fat cells throughout the body where they are stored. Studies show that most of us have between 400 and 800 chemical residues stored in our cells. {Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine}
There's also emotional stress, something many people don't want to deal with because we think it's a sign of weakness. And some people are "happy" being prescribed drugs to mask their symptoms because it's 'easier' and deflects the feeling of responsibility. Somehow it's understandable to 'blame' the diet industry and marketing minds behind Big Ag and the conflicting research behind the USDA for our choices (I can't remember if eggs are good for us now or not) and our desire to eat like crap but it's a mark against us, as individuals, to admit that somewhere along the way we also forgot how to express our feelings, were made to feel even worse if we did so and lost our ability to cope.

So now we are really screwed. We don't know what to eat and can't get out of our own way to go back to the basics because we can't trust ourselves to do so. We've been told to trust our doctor even though she may be working off of old science (and might not be the picture of health herself). We are so conditioned to dismiss any "new" scientific research that puts the responsibility in our hands instead of the surgeon's knife or pharmacy's pill. And we will believe any new fangled diet book that comes along and revere it as if it was the word of God even if we have no idea who the author is as long as it promises us we can lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks without exercise and without giving up our favorite foods.

We also still can't seem to wrap our minds around the fact that the foods we eat can affect our emotional state and our stress levels which contributes to our chronic pain. And this often creates a vicious cycle.
I guess my point is that we can take back control of our minds. We can educate ourselves (it's really not that hard) and climb back into the driver's seat. Some people will want to do so...and some will continue to complain, whine, and seek attention by playing the perpetual victim to 'things' beyond their control. But it's within reach for all of us because we are born with the innate ability to not only survive but to thrive. There are things we need to unlearn and others we need to relearn but the path has been cleared for those willing to take that walk.

Further reading:

“Perfect Weight” and “What Are You Hungry For?” by Deepak Chopra

“Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung

“Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful” by Susan Albers

"Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health", "The Thrive Diet" and "The Thrive Cookbook: 150 Plant-Based Whole Foods Recipes" by Brendan Brazier

"Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything Else" by Geneen Roth

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food by Michael Moss (full article)

"Death By Supermarket: The Fattening, Dumbing Down and Poisoning of America" by Nancy Deville

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine's Day Gift for My Sister

circa 1975
 My sister and I have always had a strained relationship. You can call it sibling rivalry but as a kids (and into my teens) I thought she hated me. She did the normal older sister stuff...hiding under my bed to scare me at night, telling me I was adopted (I wasn't) and tricking me into saying cuss words ('Hey sis, sing Yankee Doodle but use "F" as the first letter of each word') and then telling on me. And yes, my mom believed in punishing foul language with a bar of soap in the mouth.

But I was (and still am) very sensitive so I thought she was intentionally cruel when she wouldn't let me sit next to her on the school bus and the bus driver refused to go until everyone was seated (and I was the only one standing) or when she kicked me out of the car miles from home and left me there.

One thing we did share was our disdain for the first day of school.
Even in adulthood we struggled to be friendly to each other. We could be civil but it took work and left me drained (I'm sure she was equally put out). We were polar opposites in every.single.way.

She's blonde. I'm brunette.
She's and extrovert. I'm an introvert.
She's funny. I'm reflective.
She's tall. I'm short.
She's driven. I'm laid back.
She's loud. I'm quiet.
She's beautiful and I am Mousy Brown.
She's smart. I'm smarter. (just seeing who's paying attention)

But both of us felt the need to compete with each other and our relationship always felt on the verge of collapse. With all of their faults (and who doesn't like to blame their parents for everything bad) I'm not sure what we put our parents through was "fair" in the name of sibling rivalry. My sister had on-going issues that led to her no longer being welcome in our house and I had which led to being hospitalized for 4 months. But both of us put enormous amounts of pressure on ourselves to excel at academics and sports (mainly competitive horseback riding).

There's a lot of truth in this's not a means to place blame but to move forward and break the pattern.
It was the kind of pressure perfectionists place on themselves that make parents worry and drive away potential friendships. I was, in particular, very much a loner....excelling at solo ventures (be it gymnastics or debates) but had no social skills because friendships were superfluous. I couldn't relate to people my own age because I had aged myself through academic and physical discipline (and later with food restriction) not realizing that one could be social and successful. My sister took a slightly different route. Although she was(is) quite the overachiever she was also just as self-destructive with questionable relationships and "shock value" escapades.

So I think we surprised each other when somewhere in our late 20's and early 30's we found that not only were we both still alive, but we were thriving. She was forging a very successful career in the Army and I was moving up through the highly competitive, all male dominated, automotive industry. But that disconnect was still there and on the rare occasion we found ourselves together (there had only been a handful of times) it felt like we were teenagers again...bickering, competing, and feeling less than.

Our family (Japan 1972).
Our dad died in 2009 after a horrific car accident. My sister and I had a huge falling out in the week before he died and remained in a coma. At the outset, this tragedy tore at the already fragile seams of our relationship, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was right when it came to her (I judged her initial blowup as an unwarranted attack at an inappropriate time...somehow growing a spine during this intense moment in time). I had spent the entire 39 years of my life feeling inferior to my sister. She was everything I wished I could be...but I couldn't tell her that. Instead I had to pick apart her faults, rehash the past and basically make myself miserable by trying to 'out do' her.

My parent's car after being hit head on by a reckless drive.
During a second round of heated battles (tragedy brings out the best, and worst in people) my sister told me that she had felt this same way...inferior to her little sister...and no matter what she did, she could not gain the approval of our parents. And now, with our dad in a coma, dying, she would never have the chance to even ask him if was proud of her.

Marylou and our dad at Disney World.
The tables had turned and for a brief moment we were able to see into each others' pain. Four decades of struggle, four decades of pulling out all the stops looking for approval, four decades of focusing energy on a rivalry that should have never existed, four decades of competing with an illusion. She was me and I was her. This was life changing. My sister's honesty was a catalyst for the direction my life has taken since that dreadful week in October 2009.

My dad's headstone.
I just spent 6 weeks with my sister camping in the New England area this past fall. Although our entire adulthood (actually, since I was 15 years old and she was 17) has been spent living thousands of miles apart we've found ourselves at the same place emotionally. We are seeking {and finding} a peace and balance in our relationship which has spilled over into all other facets of our lives...or maybe it's the other way around.

Along the Maine Coast...looking for balance {literally}.
I feel like we've been part of a "twins separated at birth" study. Both of us, far removed from our childhood past, far removed physically from each other and still traveling down different paths in some regards (like politics). But those paths are actually parallel to each other and constantly meet and intertwine, separating briefly and meandering back together more often than not. We are both now vegetarians and aspiring yogis...spiritual and inquisitive, grounded yet still dreaming, goal oriented but much more forgiving...not only of others but of ourselves.

Marylou and me at Squaw Valley Ski Resort for my wedding.
For the first time in my life I can say, unequivocally, that my sister is also my friend. I trust her with my innermost secrets free of the feeling that I will be judged or that they will used against me one day. As a matter of fact, I know that no matter how outlandish my thoughts, feelings or confessions are, when I expose them to my sister it will only draw us closer together.

My sister and I actually goofing off and having fun...together!
Befriending my sister and accepting our similarities rather than trying to force superior airs has been one of the most liberating experiences in my life. The time we recently spent together has only strengthened our bond. We spent hours practicing yoga side by side...sometimes in below freezing weather and sometimes dripping in sweat. I really believe our connection has deepened from both the tragic death of our father and the light and love we expressed in our shared yoga space. There is comfort in the fact that I know she will always be there for me, and I for her, not just because we are sisters but because we are friends.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Finding Compassion in the Pause

Sunrise yoga for one...North Carolina.
I am trying to be a good student of yoga. I have a passion for it, not just because some of the poses are challenging and "impressive" but I really, really feel a connection deep inside. The more I practice, the more I meditate, the more I sit and look at the beauty and wonder and ever changing miracle of life around me the more connected I feel. It's a kind of peace and love and warmth that isn't just inside of me, but inside of everyone I meet (they might not all be nice at first but I can feel that there is something good in all of us).

Still though, many times during the day I catch myself being negative and judgmental. I try to use each instance as a lesson to either release the thought (recognize it as a habit of thinking, see that it serves no positive purpose and then let it go) or to find the root (am I projecting my own insecurities, am I harming someone else by speaking negatively just to boost myself). I might not be successful in eliminating these thoughts but it is important to think on them...and even more important to do so before speaking or reacting. Not something easily accomplished in our fast paced, instant gratification based society.

With the advent of social media, like Facebook or Twitter we are becoming blinded to the fact that with the simplicity of that 'share' (or retweet) button we can affect hundreds, or even thousands, of people. With barely a thought about what it is we are actually sharing (which often doesn't take into consideration the possible impact it can have on who the "share" is about) we are actually providing insight into our own character that might not be so flattering. In some instances we become a propagator of misinformation or a free mouth piece for whatever "cause" we are for or against, helping to perpetuate the division in our country, our cultures, our races or our religions. And sometimes we are hurting people...real people.

We complain about bullies and post horrendous stories (sometimes our own) of the pain and/or suicide of it's victims, and then we post a "funny" picture of a 'fat' girl in too tight shorts. The comments make us laugh and we justify our behavior because it's funny...perhaps to everyone except that girl. We 'bend the rules' to fit our lives because we think we are special. We post pictures making fun of other people but how would it feel if somehow, someone posted an unflattering image of us and that it had made it's way around the internet? Even strangers have feelings, believe it or not.

Caitlin Seida found herself "Facebook Famous" after this picture was spread across the Internet. "Why are people like her allowed to exist" was one of hundreds of negative comments about her body left on her picture. Not so funny anymore, huh? (Source)
It's nothing new really. We've always 'bent the rules' to make it work. Otherwise there wouldn't be a $20 billion weight loss industry. Allow me to simplify things here for the sake of argument...thanks to marketing, food additives and media/societal perceptions on weight and/or beauty most of us have forgotten how to eat to live. Now, we want the perfect body (or maybe not even perfect but with 80% of American women unhappy about their appearance we are striving for "better" than what we currently have) but we want to still bend the rules. We want a diet that allows us to eat bacon AND chocolate...preferably with little to no exercise. And when that doesn't work we can blame everything else except ourselves. For the majority of people there's a pretty clear cut way to lose weight, but it's not easy because we can't just eat whatever we want and as much as we want.

We do it with religion, a subject so taboo I won't delve too far into it except to say that we tend to pick and choose which principles we want to follow. A good question to ask before reacting (or posting on Facebook) is how is this going to reflect on my principles and intentions? If my religion is appealing because it is steeped in generosity and non-judgment, will posting negative remarks about another religion reflect those beliefs? Will posting a deeply spiritual sentiment about God's grace have any real meaning if it's followed up by a negative (possibly slanderous) meme about a political figure you disagree with that has no factual basis but it's sole intent is to harm (it's the same as "gossip")?

This bending of the rules (or, as I see it, thinking I'm somehow more special and therefor it's okay for me to do) is something I've become more aware of lately. I recently read a post by a young lady (and devoted Buddhist practitioner)  who says she wants to take her vows to become a Buddhist nun yet she disagrees with the requirement of shaving her head and refuses to do so. I understand the dilemma, I would look awful with a shaved head. However, I cannot imagine putting my vanity (call it a symbol of feminism as she claims but we are female without hair too) above a calling like becoming a nun. I wonder if this woman is really trying to make a stand against what she calls an "outdated ritual" or if this is an example of wanting to have our cake and eat it too? If my calling was to join the military surely that would mean wearing a uniform and abiding by the requirements about hair length even if olive green isn't my color, right?

As our world speeds up and our information stream and subsequent learning becomes more and more condensed we are facing the possible loss of our true intentions and authenticity. We want things to be 'better' but we don't want to have to be the ones to put in the effort. We want bullying to end but we still want to laugh at the People of Walmart. We want to get healthy or lose weight or get off our blood pressure meds, but we don't want to give up our favorite foods, even if we know they are bad for us (we would rather believe the food manufacturers whose sole purpose is to make a profit, not look after our health). We would rather believe lies that help justify our behavior (be it hatred and prejudices or the need to be "right"), and even spread these lies rather than do what might be uncomfortable yet rewarding beyond measure.

This blog is called Learning Curves for a reason. I am learning as I go...and as I grow. I am guilty of doing everything I just talked about but am learning to live with more compassion. I try to pause and ask how my comment or reaction or speech will be of any benefit (or harm). As cheesy as I always thought those "What Would Jesus Do" stickers were I can now see that they serve as that same pause. That's a pretty precious moment, that pause, it's there for all of us to use wisely if we so choose. It's that moment between the inhale and the exhale where we can make massive changes. Even if we don't think we have time to meditate, we can meditate upon that pause thousands of times a day by asking how our thoughts, actions and words are going to be of service before we react, speak, type or hit that 'share' button. Get to know your own pause and see if it's in line with how you want the world to see the real you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Story of a Runner Turned Yogi...

When I come to my yoga mat every morning I try to leave my expectations behind. This is a practice, a blending of breath with the flow of movement, not something to conquer or master or dominate but something to experience and embrace. It wasn't always that way and I'm not always successful at doing so. Yoga started off for me as a way to earn P.E. credits in college and later turned into a means to "force" myself to stretch when I became a runner. I sought out the more aggressive videos like power flow and later, P90X so that my yoga days would feel more like a workout than a time suck...I mean, can you really count 60 minutes of stretching to spa music as working out (especially when 5 of those minutes were laying on the ground in corpse pose doing nothing)?

My previous mentality...
 In my mid 30's I felt that I was no longer running for health benefits but more as a way to run away from life. I was disconnected from my body and mind, pushing myself into injuries and brushing it off as 'true dedication'..."See how committed I am?? I'm running with a torn hip flexor and fracture in my foot!!". After finally being forced to take 6 months off (via a cast) I found other forms of exercise to fill the void...boxing, cross fit, kettle bells, HIIT, P90X, Insanity, BodyRock, etc. before turning back to running. Yoga took a back seat again (actually, it got left behind at the rest stop). But the disconnect still persisted and I was faced with results that weren't fulfilling me mentally or physically.

I earned my orange headband completing Tough Mudder Norcal.
Crossing the finish line with my BFF Coleen at the Rock n' Roll San Diego Marathon.
 Although I do love the mental and physical aspects of the events I participated in like a full marathon and Tough Mudder, I also knew that these types of physically demanding challenges weren't something I aspired to maintain for the rest of my life (and yes, I am aware of the 100 year old man who completed the Toronto Marathon as well as the 80 year old man who has run 19 NYC Marathons). I'm no wimp, don't get me wrong...but I don't want to continue to dedicate the amount of time and effort into training for marathon after marathon for the next 40+ (God willing) years. My last marathon did a number on me...breaking down muscles and mentally challenging me during long and lonely 18+ mile training runs. While it was an overall positive experience which I am proud of, it's just not sustainable for me.

SIddha Yoga Ashram in Oakland...a turning point.
Over the past couple of years I've learned that yoga has so much more to offer than a limber body and a means to work out the kinks. A visit to an ashram in Oakland opened my eyes to the true meaning of yoga as well as the 7 other limbs to enlightenment...something I was in desperate need of at that point in my life. So, about a year ago (a little while after we officially hit the road as fulltime travelers) I stopped running and committed myself to practicing yoga almost exclusively. And this time my yoga practice would incorporate more than just asanas (although I am going to post pictures of some of these poses, because asana is one of the limbs).

Practicing pigeon pose on Glaveston Island, Texas
In that time I have felt a definite and positive shift in my health and mental well being. I've also not only maintained the muscle mass I had previously acquired but my aches and pains have diminished (specifically in my back, sciatic, hips and knees...some of which have troubled me since I was a teenager). My core has strengthened as well as my upper body and my balance has improved. But the biggest change has been more profound. I feel very connected to my body...its changes, its  needs, its sensitive areas and places of resistance.

Taking an amazing class in Contoocook New Hampshire...possibly my favorite class to date.
I also feel an interconnectedness with every thing around me...the wind, the trees, the water, the seasons...even people I encounter. Rather than jumping to harsh judgements I embrace that pause between seeing and completing a thought and instead, imagine the struggles they are going through...and even if they aren't struggling I can imagine the journey it has taken me to get to where I am physically and mentally and remember that no one can map out another person's journey nor can they force another to even embark on that journey.

Headstand in the Pocono Mountains
Yoga has provided me the peace and serenity that previously came only from a pill or the sheer exhaustion of over-training. I am not begrudging anyone who runs or boxes or finds enjoyment from intense physical activity as I still do enjoy riding my bike, hiking and kayaking when I can...I even ran a 5k distance last month and felt exhilarated. I also still have some big dreams and goals, perhaps to climb a mountain or learn to surf. But for me, yoga has provided the missing element of joining body, mind and spirit (with the side benefit of maintaining or even improving my fitness).
Morning self practice in Pennsylvania
Some days I leave my mat in tears from emotions which have been stirred from syncing my breath and movement with an open minded willingness to to just just listen to my needs. Some days I leave my mat with so much energy that I ride my bike or go for a hike or clean the entire RV or even add an additional round of practice complete with arm balances and handstands. And some days I leave my mat content, even happy...a feeling that continues throughout the day and spills over onto the people around me.But I never leave my mat with regret for having taken the time to breath and connect with something deeper than myself, for having taken time for myself I have found the link to every thing around me.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Lessons From My Mother Through the Eyes a Self-Righteous Daughter

My older sister, me and my mom circa 1972 in Tokyo, Japan.
I've always loved my mom...but I haven't always respected her. Those are hard words to type and actually bring tears to my eyes. I mean, I don't have to confess this to anyone. I am ashamed of myself. But I've learned so much about her, and myself, since my dad died that I want to scream from the roof tops how amazing she is...and it just wouldn't makes as much sense without telling you that it wasn't always this way.

I've always gotten along with my mom...she's fun, super nice, always in a good mood and seems to never tire until after her family's needs have been tended to. She talks to everyone and always offers a heartfelt compliment...cashiers, bus boys, toll takers, TSA agents...everyone. She's also a great listener and is the type of person who, instead of trying to turn the conversation around to talk about herself, will ask more questions of the speaker allowing them to remain in the spotlight. She's affectionate and thinks nothing of hugging me and kissing me whenever the urge hits her, even in public (and no matter if I am 6, 16 or 42).  If she feels like showing her love she just does it. And her laugh is see it in her eyes and you feel it in the air...there's nothing fake about it.

Our family lived in a kind of vacuum. My dad was in the Air Force and consequently we moved frequently, about every 3 years. Growing up without an extended family around and changing friends regularly meant we pretty much relied on each other as company. The older I got and the more we moved, the less likely I was to try to maintain old friendships and make new ones. I am an introvert and the effort was too much.

Our little family...I have no idea why I'm the only one not smiling...
Without the influence of other relationships and without the ability to observe other family dynamics the foundation for what I would perceive as normal was laid for me by my parents. Don't get me wrong, this isn't the old blame game...just an observation. My parents did everything they could for my sister and me...including getting us horses. We always had food, new clothes every school year, pets to play with and we always sat down to dinner together. We played games like Yatzee or watched sitcoms in the evening. We took family vacations...normally to visit family in Pennsylvania meaning a major road trip at least once a year, but we also went camping, visited Disney World and saw pretty much all of the tourist attractions in whatever area we happened to be living in at the time.

So, how is it I lost respect for my mom? Well, my dad was an alcoholic...a functional alcoholic, but an alcoholic none-the-less. I don't know when that happened because in my lifetime, he was always an alcoholic. He grew up on a farm and it was hard work, he dropped out of school in the 8th grade, he was the one who found his father dead of a massive heart attack, he went to Vietnam and saw things no human being should see, early in his career he struggled to provide for his family and he also went undiagnosed as bi-polar for almost his entire life. These aren't excuses but realities. He was the only man I knew and the only man for a very long time who would have any influence on my life and experiences. And he took his suffering out on my mom by belittling her in front of his children.

My mom visiting us in Santa Cruz.
I doubt he understood the harm he was causing from his behavior (god, I hope not) but his disappointment with my mom for various, sometimes petty things seemed never ending. In time I learned that his disappointment was really about himself , something my mom and I talked about during our last visit.

My mom rarely stood her ground, at least not that we could see. The more it happened (which equated to the 'worse' of a drunk he became and the longer he went without treatment for his mental health disorder) the weaker my mom appeared in my eyes. Us kids would test the grounds ourselves, offering a few disrespectful comments here and there, speaking down to her and ultimately feeling superior or maybe smarter than her and we felt no repercussions from our behavior. I don't believe we were ever cruel nor was this an intentional act but more like a learned behavior. Also, it is not abnormal for there to be a sort of  'power struggle' between teen girls and their mother as part of the growing process.

But what gets me is that somewhere down inside I knew my dad had a problem. Yet, I chose his relationship style over my mom's. I saw my mom more and more as a push-over and people pleaser rather than a parental figure and a loving, sensitive person (who also needed to be loved back). I guess I thought that in  order for me to be a success I needed to be more like my dad. After all, he was a middle school drop out who had managed to earn his master's degree while working his full-time job in the military (and still earning promotions) and raising a family. He was smart, driven, sarcastic, condescending, judgmental (yet afraid of confrontation) and moody. He was my hero...and he was kind of an asshole to my mom.

My parent's wedding day...August 26, 1967.
 I know he loved her, provided for her and even she will tell you that if she wanted for something he would be sure she got it. But apparently, his need...the need to feel feel superior and less like a failure due to his own insecurities...required him to belittle her. And she took it. And I wondered why she didn't leave him even though there was no where for her to go. She had sacrificed her own dreams and career to follow him around the world as an Air Force wife. They were married in 1967...things were different then and women just didn't up an leave, especially since my dad's alcoholism was our family's secret due to his military career. The longer she stayed with him, as he spiraled further into the abyss that is alcoholism, the more I wanted her to leave.

But she did stay...for 42 years. And one day they were in a car accident and my dad died. And my mom became this amazingly strong person right before my eyes. Perhaps that strong person was always there but the shadow my dad made snuffed out the light she needed to blossom or for us to even notice.

Doesn't my mom just glow?
I spent 6 weeks with her this past spring and I finally talked to her about all of these thoughts I've had. I confessed to her the misguided judgements I had passed even though my own life was far from perfect and some of my own past relationships were perhaps worse in comparison. It's so easy to tell someone else how to improve their life rather than work on your own.

She spoke to me of the lack of emotion from him early on in their relationship which she led her to shower us with the love that not only she had but also what he felt for us, but could not show. She didn't let his fear of people and crowds (he was painfully introverted) diminish her love for them and she always had friends. She didn't let his moodiness be cast on her like a wet blanket but instead let her joy show not only in her smile but in her entire being. She didn't let his irrational and spontaneous ideas (he once bought a show car with money he had pulled out of an investment with steep penalties for early withdrawal...without telling her) take away from the needs of her children, always finding ways to make ends meet even though it was she who often got blamed for over-spending.

You see, I found that my mom, in a way, has learned something a lot of us struggle with daily. We have the ability (and the right) to choose how happy we want to be...even if we are surrounded by unhappiness. Although she chose to 'stick it out' with my dad, she did so under her own power and with her own principles in mind. Surely she wasn't always happy...and perhaps she wondered about the 'what-if's'...don't we all? But she took a bad situation and not only lived through it but a strong woman who is still so full of joy and goodness.

My mom made the bouquet for my wedding in Tahoe.
I don't look at my mom as a weak person anymore. She is strong beyond belief. While I was full of self-righteousness and thought she should be better or different than what she was, she was accepting of all of us just as we were. Trust me, there is a lesson in that. She deserves my respect and then some.

These days, while I still long for the approval from a dead father who was never one to show emotion anyway, I find myself ever thankful that my mother has shown me that it doesn't really matter and to just be happy with what it is I am doing. My hope now is to one day be as strong and loving as my mom.

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