You wouldn’t know it from looking at me now, but as a child I was a very picky eater. I have an anecdote to illustrate just how picky an eater I was. And if you bear with me long enough, I’ll explain why I think that this discussion may be of broader interest.
I grew up in my grandfather’s house. There were nine of us—my grandfather, my aunt and my uncle, my parents, myself and my three siblings—and my great uncle who lived next door and was a widower, often ate with us as well. My aunt and uncle were siblings and single and worked full-time, she as an executive secretary and he as a diesel mechanic. The house was large, and when my grandmother died when I was about a year old, my grandfather asked my mother essentially to cook and to keep the house clean in exchange for our living there rent-free.
On my mother’s side, my ancestry was German and Polish, and on my father’s side, my ancestry was Austrian/Russian/Rusyn or Ruthenian (more on that in a still pending follow-up to a previous post). For a while when I thought that I had settled on the idea that I had Russian ancestry, I became fond of describing my German-Polish-Russian ancestry and then saying, “So if it sometimes seems that I am at war with myself, now you know why.”
But, despite this ethnic mix, there was one absolute point of almost universal agreement in our home—on food. Everything was fried. Even the mashed potatoes. The one exception was the vegetables, which were always boiled. And at every meal that didn’t feature some sort of beef or pork roast, or whole chickens or a whole turkey or ham, there was some sort of “-wurst.”
I don’t know if it was the colors—the various shades of brown and gray—or the fact that my mother fried them until the ends exploded out of the casings, or the effect on their taste and smell of her having fried them in Crisco, but I could not stomach the sight of them on my dinner plate. So while my grandfather, uncle, and father were savoring every bite and consuming link after link until the platter was empty, I would pick at the food on the plate around my half a link until one of the men jokingly pointed out that I hadn’t touched the best part of the meal, and then my mother would begin to lose patience with me.
Several times she made me sit at the table until bed time, with the uneaten link sitting alone on the plate in front of me and cooling into an even more unappetizing couple of mouthfuls, the fat in which it had been cooked becoming visible on the casing.
My mother could be very stern, but she was also both one of the kindest and one of the most pragmatic people whom I have ever known. After exhausting everyone’s ideas on how to get me to eat the sausages, she began boiling a hot dog for me every time that she was serving them. This worked for a while.
We got all of our meat from a neighborhood butcher shop, and, like our milk, cheese, and eggs, the meat was delivered several times a week to our door. The casings of the hot dogs, like those of the sausages, were actually animal intestines—not the thinner artificial casings that have since become much more popular as almost all of our processed meats have become mass-produced.
One night, I got a hot dog with an extra-thick casing. Thinking about it now, I am not sure if a thick intestine is a sign of an animal in its prime or of one well past its prime. In any case, when I tried to slice through the hot dog with the side of my fork, the casing initially refused to give way. So, as surreptitiously as I could at a table at which nine other people were eating, I started slowly to peel the casing off the hot dog.
Suddenly, I realized that all of the talking at the table had stopped. When I looked up, I saw my father staring at me with an absolutely dumbfounded expression on his face, and from my left, I heard my mother say with more exasperation in her voice than I ever heard in it before or afterwards, “For the love of God, Marty, can’t you just eat that hot dog?!?”
In fairness to my father, I should mention that he had grown up in a family that was poorer than my mother’s. His father had been a coal miner, and one day when he heard that I had been fussing over something that my mother had given me for lunch, he told me how every day he took a chunk of bread in his pocket to school for his lunch. He then added that, when they could afford it, his mother would spread bacon fat on the chunk of bread and then wrap it in wax paper.
So when it became clear that my own son was a very picky eater, I felt that it was simply a matter of the old axiom “what goes around comes around” playing itself out. But my wife has even less sternness in her than my mother had, and she very quickly acquiesced to our son’s very narrow menu selections. As long as he kept eating, she was fine with giving him vitamins and minerals to cover whatever he wasn’t getting from his meals. He took the exact same lunch to school every day for twelve years, and we ate chicken, rice, and corn for supper at least three evenings a week for dinner and chicken, rice, and peas on another two or three nights. On the nights when I couldn’t stand looking at the same thing again on my plate, my wife made something different for me—sometimes sausages—and our son ate leftovers.
By the way, our son is still a somewhat picky eater, but his diet has been expanding considerably—enough that his mother has expressed some concern that if he stops exercising as much as he does, he will start to look more and more like his father, in unflattering ways. And in case you’re wondering how I ever got as fat as I am, instead of taking dietary supplements, I supplemented my diet with what my wife referred to as “midnight manicotti.”
In any case, it should be clear to you why, when I came across an article in the Daily Beast titled “Pickiness: The Secret Eating Disorder That No One Is Talking About,” I did a double-take. Apparently, even before I knew that it had been designated as an “eating disorder,” pickiness had been given a more scientific name, Selective Eating Disorder, and its own handy acronym, SED. So, unless you have not been watching television for the last decade, you know where I am heading with this.
I want to make clear that I am not in any way seeking to make light of the serious medical problems caused by the relatively few people with truly severe cases of Selective Eating Disorder.
What I am seeking to ridicule is the recent practice of turning relatively trivial conditions, whether physical or psychological, into “conditions” that can then, not coincidentally, be treated with some new pharmacological concoction. Does “restless leg syndrome” ring a bell?
And it’s not all just a benign waste of money. I read recently that men who are consuming testosterone supplements to combat TD that has not yet manifested itself in ED but shows worrisome signs of heading in that direction, may be very significantly increasing their chances of cardiac arrest.
No surprise there. The television commercial for a psoriasis medication warns that, among a host of other more temporary if unpleasant side-effects, it may increase your risk of auto-immune disease and certain types of cancer. So, while I don’t wish to minimize the physical and emotional impact of having severe psoriasis, we seem to be fast approaching a point at which we are losing all sense of proportion on health issues. If one successfully treats psoriasis with a medication but then ends up with a cancer as a result of having taken the medication, those results hardly seem like anything close to an even trade off to me.
Moreover, I think that this failure to distinguish between relatively minor and commonplace, if annoying, conditions and real risks of serious and very debilitating illnesses is symptomatic of a broader pattern in our public discussions of social, economic, and political issues. There is often a very disproportionately intense focus on relatively trivial side-issues while the main issues go unaddressed or the discussion of them is considerably distorted by the strange directions that the discussion of the more trivial side-issues has taken.
For instance, there are very real issues about whom we should be supporting in Ukraine and why, and then how that support should be manifested. All of these are very complex and difficult issues to address, but there isn’t anything that we can do in that region of the world that is as dramatic as Putin’s military occupation of the Crimea. So, because there aren’t any easy talking points to be found in a discussion of the real issues, our political figures and media commentators have focused on what Putin’s actions might be said to indicate about Obama’s relative strength or weakness as a president and as a world figure. In effect, they are trying to turn this crisis into something comparable to the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation, into another Cuban-missile crisis. But it’s just not that at all; in fact, it’s not anything even remotely close to that. It may be a crisis, but it’s not really our crisis.
In effect, what we have done is create an issue over Obama’s handling of a situation that is at most only indirectly significant to our national interests—and even before it is entirely clear how he is handling it or exactly how it might yet play out. Even worse, it has pushed to the side the very serious issues that we are facing as we try to draw down our troop strength in Afghanistan and as we attempt to influence events in Iraq and Syria without becoming directly involved in the escalating violence in Iraq and in the outright civil war in Syria. And there are many issues in other parts of the world, beyond the Middle East, that have far greater implications for us as a nation than what is occurring in Ukraine. Likewise, we keep endlessly investigating what happened tragically at Benghazi, but no one is discussing what is happening now in Libya. How is that even possible?
If we treat side-issues as if they are the real issues, how will we ever be able to reach reasonable conclusions about how we should most effectively address the actual core issues?
In terms of higher education, the core issues seems to be maintaining access, affordability, academic freedom, and shared governance, and in order to address those issues, the major focus needs to be on the decline in state support of public higher ed, the ways in which we are using technology in instruction, and the correlation between the economic exploitation of adjunct faculty and the increase in administrative bloat. It boils down to who we are serving, who’s paying for it, how we are doing it, and who should be getting paid what to insure that it’s being done right.
Everything that distracts us from meaningful discussion of those core issues is the equivalent of becoming convinced that you ought to medicate yourself in order to become a less picky eater.