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Writing, learn-ing, jewelry, deconstructing t-shirts and reality - it's what I do. I live to be inspired, and to inspire.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The November Experiment a.k.a. Project “Don’t Starve. Thrive.”

Week 1 Groceries. Photo by Kelene Blake

This month I am starting an experiment. Each week I will go to the grocery store with only a $20 bill and attempt to buy healthy food to last a week. People say that eating healthy is expensive and to some extent that is certainly true. Buying organic tends to cost more. Healthier frozen meals cost more. Yet I don’t believe that all healthy eating has to be expensive, so I have given myself the challenge for November to eat healthily 5-6 times a day (3 meals, 2-3 snacks) on $20 per week. I’m doing this for 4 reasons:

  1. Because I told an acquaintance of mine that I would prepare a health workshop for low-income housing communities on eating healthy even with a low budget;
  2. Because this study (link) by Dr. Katz et al concluded that healthy food does not necessarily cost more and I want to see if it holds true for people with the tightest budget;
  3. Because many people’s food stamp benefits are being cut due to the U.S. government budget deadlock and people still need to eat, and eat healthily, but now have less money to work with;
  4. Because it’s just that kind of month (the kind where the less money I spend, the better). The struggle is real. But hopefully I can learn from it and benefit others too.

This isn’t a highly controlled research experiment. I am starting off with some food already in my pantry – mostly rice and peas/beans, seasonings, baking ingredients. This experiment is only for food and any non-food items are not included in that $20 grocery list. What I am doing is a real-world experiment. In the real world we don’t go to the grocery each week with a blank slate. However the reality is some people do go to the grocery store with very limited funds and they do their best with those funds to not go hungry. They are forced by their financial restrictions to buy cheap bulk foods just so they and their families have something to eat and avoid hunger pains, even if that something has little nutritional value. Instead of foods rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and other good things that help our bodies function well, the cheapest foods in most grocery stores have mostly empty calories, are nutrient poor and not particularly wholesome – made with white flour, sugar, chemicals, preservatives and unhealthy fats. It is a backward system where it is cheaper and easier to be unhealthy than healthy.

My hypothesis is that with $20 each week I can use the skill set I have to prepare for myself healthy, tasty meals that are nutrient-dense, full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals. It will be a mostly plant-based diet but will still provide enough protein and healthy fats. It will require more food preparation time than typical convenience foods, but with careful planning and efficient use of time I will be able to fit it into my schedule. I am hoping it will reveal what skills are most useful under these circumstances so I, as a health professional, can better educate the wider community. I also want to help those who have not experienced it understand some of the basic health challenges of poverty.

I already have my first week of groceries as shown in the photo. It came up to $18.91. I’ve already learned a bit in the process. I experienced quite a bit of anxiety on the way to the grocery store; worrying about whether I can actually do this, worrying what people would think of me, worrying about the embarrassment of going over budget and having to ask to remove some items at the cash register. That first worry I defied by actually doing it. The last one I combated by plugging each item price into my calculator to check the total to make sure I didn’t go over, and took note of which items were on sale to make sure they weren’t rung up at full price. And the one worrying about what people think… I came to the following conclusion: 

When you tie your self-worth to how others think of you or treat you, then you tie yourself to a burden that will inevitably drag you down. Your worth as a human being, a creative, intelligent, magnificent creature of this earth is intrinsic and unchangeable. No one can give you your worth. No one can take it away. All that remains is for you to see and accept your own immeasurable worth, wear it fearlessly and live your greatness.

The most difficult thing I learned so far is that in addition to the tangible hardships of life, these anxieties are a constant part of daily existence for many people in poverty. $20 U.S. a week, roughly $2.86 a day, on food alone for a single person is still more than millions of families around the world have to supply all their needs.  It is not fair. If this project can help people caught in this unfair system to lead healthier lives even with financial restrictions, then that is far more important than a little anxiety. I will keep you updated on this blog on how this experiment is progressing. In the meantime I have some food prep to do. Bless.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Insanity of Health Disparities

I knew from childhood I am susceptible to diabetes and have valued and studied health to give myself the best chance of avoiding that life sentence. I took for granted what turned out to be an important part of health – the certainty I had some control over my own wellbeing. I understood my choices and actions could affect how I feel and my health outcomes as I aged. Years of studying the human body, how it functions and how it functions best, led me to the conclusion that health is more than a personal issue, it is a social justice one. I took a closer look at health from this perspective. Here is what I found.

In the U.S., a person’s health is too often contingent on factors such as socioeconomic status, race, gender and education. The more money one has, and the more education, then the more likely you are to be healthy and the longer you live. Generally women live longer than men but when it comes to healthcare, women face unequal access and institutionalized sexism in the healthcare industry. The most dramatic health disparities are the racial disparities. In the U.S., African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans all have disproportionally higher rates of chronic diseases, higher mortality and poorer health outcomes than European Americans. Furthermore these minority groups have less access to healthcare and receive inferior care than European Americans.

The image shows graphs and information about life expectancy from the CDC’s “Health, United States, 2011” report. It suggests that the life expectancy for a black male in the U.S. is 8 years less than that of a white male and 6 years less than a Hispanic male. Life expectancy for a black female is six years less than for a white female and four years less than a Hispanic female. This is by no means a full picture because Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and people of mixed race are left out; but it does show the seriousness of health disparities in the U.S.

What does all that mean? Well it means that if you are a rich white woman with at least bachelor’s degree in the U.S. of A. you’ve won the health and lifespan lottery. If you are a poor black man who didn’t make it through high school you’re at the bottom of the health and lifespan barrel as a result of institutionalized classism and racism. Even then; despite the lifespan advantage a female naturally has due to gender, her access to healthcare is even lower than that of any male due to institutionalized sexism.

Health in the U.S. paints a messy picture and right now I am a can of paint about to be splashed all over the canvas. I am embarking on a career as a Health Coach and Educator and determined to make it more than “just a job.” I don’t know if I can impact enough lives to make a tangible difference in this situation, but I’m going to try. Five of the ten leading causes of death in the United States are preventable “lifestyle” diseases (heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes, kidney disease) and a further four can be influenced by healthy lifestyles (cancer, Alzheimer’s, influenza/pneumonia, septicemia) this means 9 out of the 10 leading causes of death can be reduced dramatically if people learn to lead healthier lives. I can help with that! (The remaining one is unintentional accidents.)

Institutionalized problems like racism, classism and sexism are big issues and the journey toward change will continue to be long and arduous. While that journey is taking place we can work from the ground up in changing our own mindset and culture when it comes to health; that way we’re not dying off from preventable diseases while we wait for the insanity of these inequalities to be fixed. I will not place the onus of oppression on the oppressed. Institutionalized racism, classism, and sexism all must be fought and done away with. Yet, I will use the one advantage I do have, my education, to wage battle on this problem from where I stand. That’s something we can all do isn’t it? We can use the gifts we have to make a difference where we are – improve our own lives, the lives of our loved ones and extend to our community. Hopefully if enough of us care enough to make a difference, the whole world can be different (better).

CDC’s “Health, United States, 2011” report
Chapter 24. Health and Medicine. Introduction to Sociology. Cragun R., Cragun D., Konieczny P. (Open source)
Chapter 19. Health and Medicine. Introduction to Sociology. Openstax College. Rice University (Open source)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Overcoming "Normal"

Normal is an illusion. What is normal to the spider is chaos to the fly.” ~Morticia Addams

It’s normal for a men to be given more money and resources than women. It’s normal for African-Americans to have lower incomes, health and education. It’s normal for a woman to put her husband and family above her personal needs, goals and dreams. It’s normal for a man to put his own sexual desires ahead of respect for a woman. It’s normal for certain people to be born into privilege, have more economic and political power, and for certain other people to be born into poverty and live the “hard life.” It’s abnormal to love or marry outside the bounds set by religion, law, caste, class or race. It’s abnormal for a woman to not be interested in pursuing marriage or to not want children. It’s abnormal for a young black man to be more interested in writing poetry than playing sports; abnormal for to walk down the street in an “English-speaking” country and hear residents speaking languages other than English. It’s abnormal for someone “different” to not want to assimilate, give up their culture and beliefs to be more like the dominant class.

Injustices, inequalities, discrepancies and double standards are passed off as normal – just the way it is – and people’s freedoms and rights are infringed on the basis of them not falling within the dominant class’s category of normalcy. Sometimes people are so afraid of change that they fail to realize that the “norm” is not the ideal but is actually oppressive to many groups. But when the current system gives you an advantage or stability, it is difficult to see its flaws. Even those on the wrong side of those flaws may resist change because, as the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Yet the “natural order” of things is not so “natural.” Humans have created these norms through patterns of domination and strategy, decisions and actions over the course of history. If we so haphazardly and very carefully created this world of haves and have-nots, then we can create a better one. People with power and privilege are not likely to want to change a system that gave them power and privilege, so we really need to stop waiting for those people to “do something.” Such people will appease the masses by giving an inch as they continue to take yards and yards.

One of the first things we need to do is change the way we think. If more people examine themselves, their biases, stereotypes, conditioning and apathy we can stop thinking what we’re taught to think and start thinking critically about the world around us. Critical thinking allows us to question the norms, recognize their flaws, change our behaviors and find solutions. It is crucial to transition from thinking to action

Changes in our every-day behaviors, choices, how we spend our money, how we treat others, all baby steps in creating a better world around ourselves. Actions that extend beyond, teaming up with others in finding solutions that can have positive impact on a larger scale, is also a big part of re-writing the norms. It’s important to focus on things you can do rather than get frustrated by what you cannot do (right now). The process is slow and uncomfortable – quite opposite to the convenient instant gratification that consumer society is trying to make into the “norm” at the expense of many around the world.

This world is not static and norms are not absolute. If no one believes things can be changed for the better then no one will ever change anything. But things can change for the better when people are determined to make these changes happen. Question “normal” and acknowledge the chaos it causes to those trapped in its web. Let us each commit to doing our part to make the world better than “normal.”

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Doing More With Less

Things are tight and many of us are learning to do more with less. There are things we all want to do one day. Dreams. Goals. When trying to accomplish something you need to be prepared to do so “in spite of.” The time will never be perfectly right. You will never be perfectly ready. What we often fail to realize is that achieving our goals isn’t a one-off effort: it is the culmination of many, many little efforts over a long time. 
There are always little things we can do every day that lead up to those goals. Some of these practical things can be tangible – like registering a business name or writing a blog post. Others are less tangible like reading a book, working out a timeline or putting aside money each month.

Money is the first thing many people cite as the reason they cannot chase after their dreams or achieve certain goals. Saving and making good decisions about money is important. Too many people have a mindset of getting debt and taking loans. This culture has turned debt and credit into a “good” thing that “responsible” people are expected to have. Horse-shit! I’m not a financial advisor but I am practical about money which is one of the reasons I’ve survived this long. The first and foremost thing I’ve learned is to avoid debt like the plague – save up for what you need or want. Below is some saving advice that can help you accomplish a lot with a little over time. It assumes you have an income – however small, large or indifferent.

·         Before anything else: subtract 10% of your paycheck every month for savings. This first 10% is savings. It may be savings for a specific purpose (like a car etc) or in case of emergency (like unemployment). Do not touch it for any other reason! Put it aside then figure out how to live the rest of the month without it. If you have to eat nothing but rice and beans for a while then so be it.

·         If you can do a second 10% then put that aside as investment/givings. This is multi-purpose and a bit more flexible, but still not for bills and typical life expenses. Put it into your children’s or nieces and nephews mutual fund or college savings; put it aside to invest in your future business plans; or give it to whatever cause or charity you feel like contributing to. Heck! Split it up and do all three of these things if that 10% chunk is big enough. Point is use it to invest for the future, your community, and to make a positive difference.

·         Next: pay your rent and bills. Include in here payment for credit card and loans. Do not pay only the minimum on debt. Pay as much as you can spare to get rid of debt. Debt is a blight you need to get rid of as soon as humanly possible.

·         Buy groceries. If you plan meals, buy groceries and budget for food monthly, you’re less likely to end up eating out (spending extra/wasting money).

·         If there’s any remaining, the rest is your disposable income. Dispose of it as you wish and try to have some fun. Sometimes you won’t have this and your entertainment might have to be staying in and reading a library book. That works too.

I know it doesn’t sound exciting; being smart and cautious never does. But savings and investment are truly important and key in helping you make things happen. You are in control of your money. It isn’t some willful thing that comes and goes into your life like an on-again off-again relationship. It is something you work with logically, not emotionally, and you make it work for you.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Starting & Finishing

The two most difficult parts of any endeavor are starting and finishing. Starting because it’s so filled with uncertainty, you don’t know what to expect, there’s a lot to make you anxious and afraid, sometimes enough to leave you paralyzed and unable to actually begin. There are the times you just have to jump in. You can submerge yourself like you’re trying to acclimatize to cold water at the beach. Or you can ease in, step by step, phase by phase until you are fully covered. Once you’ve made that first step despite the fear, uncertainty and challenges you have conquered a major part of the struggle.

Ending is also frightening because things can become overwhelming. I noticed a pattern at the end of both my undergrad and masters degrees. It was as if I suddenly developed some sort of attention deficit disorder and became unable to concentrate. It had a lot to do with anxiety for me. I have to force myself to do what I need to do to finish. I constantly have to tell myself “One last push, you can do this. Don’t stop now.” That last hill we climb can be a doozie.

The two hardest things are starting and finishing – yet they are the two most important things. Good intentions and ideas are nothing until you take action. Then when you start you need to follow through and finish. Giving up is not necessary and simply cannot be an option if something is important to you. Procrastinating, or not finishing leave you with a burden at the back of your mind. You drag this burden along and can get stuck. It can hamper forward movement and growth if you leave things unresolved. The psychological freedom of having resolved something gives you space to move forward and continue positive growth rather than staying stuck.

The thing with ending is that when one thing ends, something else begins. For me, when masters ended I officially became unemployed and my job search began. That in itself is scary and technically I haven’t properly started yet: still updating my resume and that sort of stuff. But again, I’m at that scary starting point. Uncertainty seems to be life’s only certainty – because everything has a start and an end, both of which are covered in the stuff.

So I guess the best thing to do is realize this is how it will always be – there will always be fear and uncertainty at the beginning, ending, and all up in the middle of everything you do in the construction and creation of your life. The thing is to not let that fear and uncertainty paralyze you – keeping you from starting and ending. We can take a note from the book of artist Georgia O’Keefe who said “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

So go on. Get started. Get finished. Fear ain’t shit compared to what you have to offer the world.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Kneading Dreams Part 2

Last week I posted the first of this two part list of lessons learned from making bread. (I know, that’s a bit random, but my mind wanders.) Here’s lessons 6 to 10 of that list:

6. Bonds will break. New bonds will form.
For the ingredients to become dough a chemical process takes place. Bonds are broken and formed with the mechanical energy provided by your kneading. Before you get where you need to be bonds need to be broken; new bonds need to be formed. Some of these bonds to be broken can be daily vices; your love for television or junk food, your hours spent gaming or social networking. Time-sucks, health sabotages, toxic behaviors and thoughts need to be cleaved off or at least minimized and controlled. Some of these bonds can be toxic people who are negative, who don’t like what you’re trying to do and make that a burden for you, who encourage you to do the toxic things you want to stop doing. Sometimes you may have to end the relationship. Sometimes it’s just a matter of minimizing contact: stop hanging around them, avoid talking or listening to them, become too busy to spend as much time in the toxic environment they bring. Form new bonds. Find like-minded aspirers. Find people who have achieved what you want to achieve. Find people who encourage and support you. Take up new habits. Break and form the bonds, habits, attitudes and behaviors that will take you where you want to go.

7. Give it time to grow.
You probably figured out from #6 that making bread takes time, it’s no cake-walk (though making cake has its challenges too). Reaching big goals takes time. The bigger the goal the more time. Bread can take one or two hours. Forming healthy habits can take months. Other goals – years. But the time was going to pass anyway, with you living the way you live now, accomplishing nothing new, so you might as well do something with that hour, those months or years that will result in accomplished dreams (or food for the week). But when you start toward your goals and dreams be in it for the long haul. Know that things do not happen instantly: you need to put your time in before you get something good out.

8. Be prepared to face the heat.
There’s always one last challenge. In order for the dough to become bread you have to apply heat. To make a diamond it takes high temperature and high pressure. To become more than the sum of your parts you need to face the hardships and obstacles – I prefer to call them challenges – that come your way right up to the end. There is often going to be a point when you’ve done everything, you’re almost there, destination in sight, and something will challenge you. This is when people often quit. You don’t. You never know which hurdle is the last but keep jumping them or ploughing through them until you get to that finish line. Your destination is real, keep moving towards it.

9. Pace yourself. Don’t get burned.
In addition to killing the yeast my first time I also burned the bread. Well actually the recipe I had told me to wait a length of time during which the bread burned. Needless to say I tweaked that part of the recipe as well. But it just goes to show, someone else’s timing may not be the right pace for you. Some people can make it on 4 hours sleep a night for years while others need that 7 or 8 hours to function. Work with your own needs, your own pace. Sleep, eat, take breaks, relieve stress as needed. It’s not a failure or a weakness to have to pause and catch your breath. In fact if you’re pacing yourself correctly you won’t have to stop to catch your breath because you’re working at a pace that fits your level of endurance. Indulgence, laziness, procrastination get you nowhere. But pacing yourself gets you where you need to be intact. You’re going to do a lot of growing and changing in the heat. You need to make sure the process doesn’t destroy you.

10. Enjoy the smell
There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread. It is the smell of comfort and warmth. For me it’s the smell of achievement. I will eat well this week. Enjoy the journey and the destination. The process is difficult. It’s rough. It’s stressful and tiring. But often time there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing because you’re doing the work of building your dreams. But in the heat, when you get those initial whiffs of success, you know you’ve done it, you’re doing it, and it’s worth it.

Photo by Kelene Blake: Yes it looks plain on the outside but it's filled with yummy spinach-y, tomato-y, mackerel-y goodness on the inside!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kneading Dreams

Last Sunday, my baking day, I made my first batch of bread for 2013. When you’re making bread by hand – kneading the dough until it is ready to be put aside so it can rise – you have a lot of time to think. I’ve learned a lot from baking, and from last year when life sent me in the strange directions that led to me baking my own bread among so many other things. Here are a few life lessons I came up with while kneading dough:

1. Figure out what you need before you begin.
In making bread and plans I’ve learned to be strategic. In both cases I learn from my mother and my friends. You can learn a lot from others’ experiences. Sometimes gathering the right resources can take time. Sometimes you have to find alternatives. But it is important to understand what raw materials you need – whether it is the right groceries, the technique, the equipment, the knowledge, the mindset – and get it if you are going to start right. Without the ingredients there will be no bread.

2. Begin
Jump in. I had been saying I want to bake my own bread for an embarrassingly long time before I actually got around to it. Procrastination is a tempting beast. If it is not pressing, required for basic survival, routine or crucial for maintenance of our precarious position in life, we will likely put it off. The only way to beat procrastination is to just start. Catch it by surprise. “Do it while you’re thinking about it” as my former professor M.K. Asante used to say. It’s like when you first step into a swimming pool or the water at the beach. It feels cold on your feet, so the best thing to do is just override you hesitation and submerge yourself. Whether your intent is to start a new career, start exercising, change your diet, pluck your eyebrows… whatever it is you’re putting off, start it now. Right now. You can come back and finish read this post after you’ve started.

3. Shit will happen. Learn from it.
I scalded the yeast to death with boiling hot water the first time I tried to make bread. The dough didn’t rise and the end result was barely edible rock bread. Since then, I’ve made sure to not do that again. I made a mistake. The world didn’t end (Take that Mayan calendar folks!). It made me better at what I was doing. We are programmed to fear failure. We’re bombarded with images of success, stories about the best, pressure to learn quickly and make the grade at the appointed time. We forget one of the most basic methods of learning is through trial and error. There is nothing wrong with not getting it easily the first few times. Each mistake is shedding the skin of inexperience. Be okay with it. Be patient with yourself. You’re learning.

4. Follow the recipe the first time, then tweak it.
I combined my Mom’s and my best friend’s recipe to make my bread. Then I further tweaked it to include honey and to enhance the fatty acid profile. Eventually I developed my own style of sandwich bun which I love. Other’s paths are not necessarily your path. You can learn from them, get the lessons, but there is no need follow fashion. Infuse yourself into everything you do. You already have your own knowledge, your own wisdom, and your own preferences. If you’re doing something for yourself, find out how it’s done, then do it your way. If you live your life always following other people’s instructions you will eventually question yourself and think you cannot do anything without instructions. Who wants to be that person?

5. Give it time to come together.
At first when you start kneading things are messy. The ingredients don’t automatically turn to dough. The first couple minutes you wonder if you did something wrong, why things are not coming together like they’re supposed to. Maybe you did make a mistake. This would be the time to figure out what’s missing and put it into the mix. But if you have the right ingredients in there, all you need to do is keep pushing and eventually things will come together and make sense. In any major overhaul in life you have to make a mess before you clean up. That’s why change is so frustrating. The first few times you exercise your muscles hurt. If you continue you’ll find they got stronger and they don’t hurt any more. But you only get that if you continue. If you give up at the first sign of pain, the first sight of a mess, the first hurdle, there is no way you are going to make it to your goal. Plough through until you get to the other side.

To be continued. Check back next week for 6 to 10!

Photo by Kelene Blake: One of my early attempts at making bread.