Just a little more on the meaning of life, real quick

The odd thing about being a human being is that we mostly live out our lives in a state of absolute mad delusion. We set arbitrary boundaries and apply them as if they’re real. We create representative concepts and then treat the representation as if it’s real. We dutifully perform rites and rituals that have been handed down to us, which are totally divorced from any actual purpose they might have once served. And our standard for mental health is to be someone who does all of these things cheerfully and unquestioningly, as if being anxious or depressed is necessarily a state of dysfunction, rather than perhaps telling us something really important about the dislocation between the lives that our minds and bodies are meant for and the way that we most often live today.

Of course, what we’re “meant for” is an interesting question too. I think the question of whether God exists is really a question of meaning, and the meaning of meaning. That is, really, positing the existence of a divine creator and arbiter is really a declaration that meaning is inherent in the universe, that it wells up from a source like water from a spring. And I think that’s a comforting thought for people who are afraid that otherwise the world is cold and meaningless. But actually, you don’t have to believe that meaning springs from the font of a beneficent divinity in order to believe that meaning exists in the world. Because we can find meaning, make meaning, with the shape of our lives. And to me that is a much lovelier and friendlier concept than meaning being in the charge of some ineffable deity who hands it down from on high.

And since we’re social beings whose primary impulse is to create and sustain relationships, you’d think it would be an easy sell that the meaning of life is to love and be kind to one another. But there’s that wrinkle of the mad delusion, where we also have an unfortunate tendency think that imaginary concepts are as real and important as actual beings and the actual world around us.

So I think that’s maybe the root of good and evil, right there. We do good when we act for the benefit of each other and other living beings. And we do evil when we harm each other and other living beings, whether that’s for selfish benefit or for the sake of abiding by some arbitrary schema or to pay alms to the altar of some imaginary construct. That’s what corporate greed is, in a nutshell. That’s how the glass spires of financial empires are built. And of course the same could be said of any institution whose primary purpose is to serve its own interests first and its constituents second (and innocent bystanders not at all).

Jealousy, envy, and …assumption, maybe?

Over the past couple years, some roller-coaster personal circumstances have given me a lot of opportunity to think about jealousy and envy, what they are and what they’re not, and the difference between the two. I’m not an especially jealous person by nature, but I know all about envy. I used to conflate that with jealousy because it was what I understood. I could see jealous thinking as a trap, but I couldn’t really get how people were caught in it.

But here’s the distinction as I’ve come to understand it: Envy is wanting what someone else has. Jealousy is wanting someone else not to have something. That could be something they do have, or it could be something they might have. You might want the thing for yourself, or you might not, but you definitely don’t want them to have it.

More recently I’ve been thinking about the subtler trap of thinking that you want something because other people want it, or want it for you. Is there a word for that? There must be, right? It’s the feeling that exists somewhere in the intersection between gaslighting and FOMO and comforting familiarity and normative assumption. I’m not really talking about broader cultural normative assumptions (e.g., “girls want boyfriends” or “boys like sports”) but individually-specific assumptions, like I’m good at math and I want a career, so I ought to study accountancy, or everybody puts red onions in salad and that’s how I’ve always made mine, so I’m going to keep putting red onions in my salad even though somehow I always end up with a lot of onion left at the end that I then throw away. And then one day you look up and think, you know, I actually fucking hate accountancy, or hey, these onions are crap.

And it turns out the upside of envy is that it’s one of the triggers that can wake you up to this type of trapped thinking, if you’re paying attention. Because if I envy so-and-so’s career or their choice of salad, maybe that’s a feeling I can learn from. I don’t have to be hung up on that — I can just use it to understand myself better.

On the fundamental nature of love

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: I don’t believe that there is a “meaning of life” in the sense of a master plan or a grand design, but I do think that life has meaning in that we are ourselves creatures who are deeply engaged with meaning. It’s inherent in the way we construct the virtual reality we live in (for which we typically use words like society, economy, culture, etc.) — in order to be able to engage with conceptual constructs as if they were real and tangible, you have to have a capacity for meaning. And we have worked out a bunch of different cultural frameworks over the millennia for what we say gives meaning to life, which we also then typically muck up with a bunch of unnecessary rules and prescriptions and exhortations and taboos.

But I think you can actually simplify radically simplify it that the meaning of human life, the purpose of our existence, is to love. Not love as a noun, but as a verb: to love. To love each other, the world, our selves. It’s fundamental to what we are as social creatures, and it’s always our best and highest calling.

Life as a fruitcake

It has been a basic defining fact of my life, since I was a pretty small kid, that I don’t like fruit. I’ve had a million iterations of this conversation: “Yes, all fruit. Haha, yes, I know that covers a lot of variety. Oh, a few exceptions, like I’ll sometimes have raspberry jam or orange juice. Yes, haha, I do eat tomatoes, you got me there.”

I’ve also spent most of my life feeling at least a little unwell. I’m a little embarrassed by this, and it feels totally self-indulgent and maybe melodramatic to talk about. I’m not going to enumerate a full list of petty complaints, but suffice to say I could come up with one that would make a hypochondriac blush. But, for instance, I recently mentioned to someone that I remember repeatedly having the experience in childhood of almost throwing up, pretty much at random — feeling my gorge rise and swallowing hastily, and being pleased with myself to catch it in time. I thought this was a common childhood experience, so I was a little unprepared for her reaction of complete horror at the very idea. So, huh, maybe not normal.

I was aware of the phenomenon of fructose malabsorption, in part through reading up on the low-FODMAP diet. Some people have less ability to absorb free fructose directly through the gut lining, which means that it passes down to the lower intestine. Too much excess fructose, or a bad balance of gut bacteria, and fermentation of that fructose can contribute to significant digestive distress.

I also probably had encountered the common caveat, “Fructose malabsorption should not be confused with hereditary fructose intolerance, which is typically diagnosed in infancy and can cause kidney and liver failure and even death if left unrecognized.” So, ok, I’m not an infant, and I’m not dead, so that can’t apply to me, right?

Except now I’m wondering.

Hereditary fructose intolerance is indeed a very different problem, where fructose is absorbed just fine but cannot be fully metabolized due to an impaired ability to manufacture the necessary enzymes. It’s not a gut issue at all. It’s an inability to efficiently clear partially metabolized fructose, which can cause liver and kidney damage if left unchecked.

There are known examples of HFI remaining undiagnosed until adulthood … because the affected person developed a strong aversion to fructose- and sucrose-containing foods from childhood. Aversion to sweets limited their exposure, and it only came to light later in life.

Now, that’s not exactly me. Because although I have a strong aversion to fruit, I also have a sweet tooth for sucrose-containing foods. I am definitely not an obvious candidate for classic HFI, having seemingly eaten enough sugar in my life to have killed me several times over.


I started to wonder, is there such a thing as partial fructose intolerance? And with some careful sifting and poking around, I was able to turn up an article from ten years ago that suggests this might be possible. The authors include a reference to a case study from the 1990s where a patient experienced severe effects after being given fructose intravenously during clinical-surgical management of other conditions. A liver biopsy of that patient showed that F1P aldolase activity was 30% of normal, and FBP aldolase activity was normal (where typically in HFI patients, these values are 0-6% and 10-50% of normal, respectively). The authors tie this to other unspecified examples from their 20 years of clinical practice to suggest that acute symptoms of HFI may appear only after massive fructose intake in previously asymptomatic patients who carry an incomplete set of HFI gene mutations.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s me? Because maybe “asymptomatic” can also mean “nothing that has landed you in the hospital.” If you’ve had years of relatively mild complaints that could be attributed to any number of things, then I can’t see how you would ever be tested for this particular genetic condition, unless maybe you happened to have a family history. Whereas for me, the only hint in this direction is that I have a lifelong visceral aversion to fruit.

And the thing is, I suppose I could take all this to a physician and see if I could, what, see if I could finagle some advanced genetic testing? Get a liver biopsy? Do a fructose tolerance challenge and see how my body reacts?

Or … I could just cut out sugar.

I mean, really cut out sugar. Militantly. Not just fruit and fructose, but anything with sugar in the ingredient list, or where sucrose is the main component sugar (because sucrose = fructose + glucose).

Have you ever tried to do this? God almighty, so much label reading. So much repeatedly looking things up. So much having to question and rethink every assumption that goes into making food choices.

But my birthday is coming up at the end of the year, and I’m going to call this my birthday present to myself. I’m going to the hard work now to give this a shot. I mean, from a health perspective, there’s really not any downside to meticulously cutting out sugar for a couple months. And maybe, just maybe…

Maybe I’ll end up feeling…good?

On oils (the cooking kind)

I’ve read a ton of stuff over the last couple years on cooking oils — some highly credible and research-based, some full of witch-doctory, all extremely sure of itself. I have developed some opinions, naturally, both as a person interested in nutrition and as a home cook whose chief priority is making tasty food. Here are the top things I think about when deciding what oil to use:

1. My current go-to all-purpose cooking oil, if I had to pick just one, is avocado oil. It’s a monounsaturated oil like olive oil, and (unless you’re buying a farm-to-table bright green version) it has a very neutral taste and smell. You can cook with it, use it in baking, or make it into salad dressing — definitely a jack of all trades. Having said that…

2. You can use olive oil, coconut oil, or ghee for just about anything, and the results will also be delicious. Sure, they each have a distinct aroma and might go especially well with certain recipes, but don’t fuss too much about what oil to use. If your recipe calls for one, and you substitute in another, just take note of any difference and see what you think, but don’t worry that it’s going to “ruin” your results. Sometimes a little hint of different makes it that much better.

3. The above four oils are the ones I use. I like sesame oil and peanut oil just fine, too, but I no longer bother to buy them. Oil has a shelf life — it needs to get used. Ideally you want to use up that newly opened bottle of olive or avocado oil in, say, three to six months. (Depends on how big your bottle is, right?) Monounsaturated fats aren’t quick to oxidize and turn rancid, but they won’t stay good forever. (You’ll know when it’s gone off, as rancid oil has a distinct musty odor. Trust me, you will notice.) Coconut oil and ghee are both rich in saturated fat, which makes them shelf stable for longer — making either a good pantry back-up option.

4. In general, buy oils in glass jars or bottles. I don’t make this an absolute rule (e.g. we buy big bulk containers of coconut oil from Costco, which are plastic), but I definitely would prefer glass wherever it’s an option, especially for liquid oils. I think there’s both a campaign of misinformation defending plastics and a circus of “clean eating” scare-tactic nonsense around the dangers of plastics, and I have no idea where the truth lies. But have you ever pulled an old, cheap bottle of oil out of the back of a cabinet, and it’s weirdly sticky and crumply? That’s the result of the oil slowly degrading the plastic as they sit in contact. Oils and plastics seem to interact in some funky ways. This is a non-issue with glass.

5. Don’t worry too much about cooking temperature. It’s true that a really good olive oil will be most nutritious unheated, but you’re not going to “ruin” it by using it to cook. Use what you’ve got. To get the most virtue out of your cooking oils (and your food in general), don’t cook over high heat. High heat is for boiling water. If you’re sauteing or pan-frying, medium to medium-high heat is all you need. I prefer coconut oil or ghee for frying, but I consider that a matter of taste. If you’re roasting oil-tossed veggies or potatoes in the oven, no need to crank it up to 400F+. You can roast veggies beautifully at 350F, better for the veggies and the oil you’re using to roast them. All the high-heat warnings around oil aren’t so much a warning about the oil as they are an indicator that cooking at very high heat is hard on food.