Ring of Fire: Pepper Avoidance and the Personality

In response the the daily challenge: Ring of Fire:

I can eat anything and not suffer “the ring of fire” (such a gross but fitting euphemism for what spicy food does to some people’s butts.) I adore stuffed jalapenos. I pickle peppers each summer. I cook with scotch bonnets. If I turn down a fiery meal, it is only because the flavor has been lost behind the heat, not because I have whimped out.

See? We link our personalities to pepperdom. In the same way kids challenge each other on how high they can jump their bikes or skateboards before either dying or giving into fear, diners define strength by the depth of heat we can stand. Think of the contests held for pepper sauce, hottest chilis, or even the number of peppers one can consume in one sitting. I recall a story of a man who killed himself in a pepper-eating contest in Texas, where a hole literally burned open his stomach. I keep hoping this is an Urban Myth. (Or in Texas’s case would that be called a Country Yarn?)

Either way, we Americans beat our proverbial hairy chests with the pepper.

My husband’s stomach is actually much more tender than mine. I know this only by observation. He will still eat anything and everything spicy or otherwise without complaint, never acknowledging defeat verbally. We both love a great plate of Pad Kee Mao, (Do not hold the spice) at Atlanta’s Little Bangkok. My hubby proudly out-spices his wife, as he should, being the more powerful male diner of the species.

My tough little Irish Grampa adored spicy food, introduced to it long after he lost his hair. Didn’t matter how much sweat he mopped off his bald head, he was not going to knuckle under to a mere bowl of chili.

My mother-in-law daintily admits that she simply can’t stomach even a little spice. She always gives a feminine flutter of her hand as if she is swishing away a distasteful image in front of us, when she turns down the grilled peppers in fajitas. A dear friend of mine, a southern gentleman so Anglophile, so Shakespearean expert that he almost has an English accent, proudly brags that if even a trace of black pepper, the mildest of our seasonings, touches his lips, he bursts into flames of pain. Raw cinnamon has also been a nasty culprit.

Histrionic, much??

Like some sort of ring-of-fire rite of passage, my sons and father bond over finding the best, tongue-destroying spicy pepper sauce: “Oh, Maaaaaan, You think THAT’s hot. . .waitayoutry THIS one!”

Doesn’t matter that my Dad suffers not the ring of fire, but the ring of Pompeii when he eats certain foods, not just peppers, but onions, potatoes, even apples. But, hey, what sort of man would he be if he feared an apple, let alone a pepper?

So he willingly gobbles up the spiciest food. That would even be anything with the Wai-Wai pepper, a plant cultivated by the indigenous people of Guyana, The Wai-Wai (and also by a botanist friend of mine in North Carolina with the license to grow a few pots of the pepper each year.). The fruit of the Wai-Wai has a heat index far higher than any pepper you can find in any market in America. Just touching the flesh of a freshly cut pepper and then your tongue is unbearable. Even unbearable for me, for my husband, and if my sons and Dad would just be honest, for them. The botanist, however, is a real man; You can use a half teaspoon of the fresh pepper to season super spicy chili, but he can eat it straight without too many tears.

I am sure, given the proper Licensure, the Wai-Wai tribe could become billionaires of this export as people world wide prove their superiority through their Wai-Wai consumption. Restaurants would prosper. So would all the tall tales.

(By the way, I lied. I do suffer when I eat cayenne. My bladder for some reason gets mildly enflamed. But that’s just between us. Don’t tell anyone. I have a powerful reputation to protect, you know.)

I (don’t) Eat, Therefore I Am

God’s Guide to Food. God Sex Food. Women, Food, and God. All are titles of recent books. I figure most of them are about diets. I don’t really care. What I notice, though, is how many people seem to believe that if they can just get the right combo of foods. . .they will go to heaven. By people I typically mean my dinner guests. And by Heaven, I mean any wondrous place other than who they are right now.

And, as a person who likes to cook for others as a way of showering them with love, I am mighty weary of this crap.

My cook’s nightmare begins in grade school. Children younger than school-age dislike the typical gaseous cruciferous veggies because their tongues typically abhor the garbage after taste. This is true of all babies, pretty much. But visit any school and you will run into kids who dislike steak, or all things orange, or strawberries, or Cheetoes or anything that they can hold up and say, “I am the kid who Hates XYX; it is what makes me more special than you!” When you raise a family, you can watch your own kids try to board this trend when they ask, “Hey, Mom! Is there any food I get hives from?”. And they are disappointed when you answer, “No.” Worse, they start saying things like, “You know I can’t eat anything with leaves!” Uh, since when? Since you met that intriguing kid who can’t eat anything with eyes?

Since when did what we avoid on our dinner plates become the new vanity plate?

Now shift this to the college campuses, where students drink beer like water, cling to sushi stools like birds, and avoid animal proteins (other than raw fish), and any of its cosmetic byproducts like anthrax. Again, trendy identity qualifiers. Woah to the kids who actually eat burgers with their fries!

My own children have a mom who was rarely allowed to dislike any foods; I sneered at spinach for the bitter scummy feel it left on my teeth, and I had to eat it anyway; now I actually love it. I was reared by a Mom who almost always served a meat and three, along with a starch, while we travelled the world with an Air Force Dad; we children pretty much ate everything and liked it. But my own boys have a Dad whose pickiness was catered to: his mother served him “eggs and chips” whenever the rest of the family was enjoying a curried shrimp or a wine soaked rabbit. He wanted me to allow the same avoidance in our own children. When my oldest son squirmed at the veins of a chicken leg, his father defended him rather than point out how rude it was to reject the food we had paid for, and I had worked hard to serve.

Not that I condone guilting kids into eating. But what happened to acceptance and etiquette? Instead, their Dad (my ex) expected me to either cook several meals depending on the current wishes of each member of the household, or make eggs and chips every damned night. I fought this battle hard, and luckily my sons now have broader palettes than their father. But to give him some credit, though he still eats with a sniff and a sneer at many home meals, with his British roots showing, he learned to be politely accepting of whatever a hostess serves him when he leaves his own home.

Not so with, it seems to me, everyone else I know. . .

And like I said, I am certain that much of it is some sort of mass identity crisis. We have a friend who is a tier in the fruit-chewy, vitamin-pyramid trend out west. On a camping trip to Yosemite, while the rest of us enjoyed whatever the chow meister served, she was forcing greens on us through sweet green candies. All I saw her eat were these gummies. So just how does one gummy bear, provide all the nutrients, anti-oxidants, calories, and fiber of a nice, roasted crown of broccoli? And how are these different from store bought vitamins? Don’t ask her, or she’ll paper you in jumbled reports from labs (paid for by the company she represents. . .)

Most of all, she will come close to convincing you that she feels transcendent after a rainbow of chews. This diet defines her. I won’t even bother describing her negativity about our fireside S’mores, the anti-sugar personality is so recognizable and rampant amongst us.

As is the gluten free personality. It is so prevalent that even my bag of Almonds advertises itself as gluten free in order to make itself more marketable. (I love Seth Rogan’s interview with Terri Gross, where he pointedly makes her feel awkward about her avoidance of gluten. Track it down if you can) Yes, there are people who truly can’t handle gluten, just as some people can’t survive a bee sting. But for those of us who are not allergic, it has no ill effects. I know there are popular reports that defy my statement. Just as there are many that support it.

But just what makes so many people so willing to turn away from a grain that has carried humanity through millennia of its survival? Think Djokovic, the tennis phenom who, when he gave up gluten, was unstoppable on the majors track. Maybe if we give up gluten, we too will be and feel more god-like. (Never mind that he suffers Asthma, IBS, and a number of allergies, specifically to gluten, where many of us do not.).

Enter the Vegan. A choice that could be respectably a moral one, a physical one, or. . .as I am lamenting here, a personality. An identity. Sometimes it’s the victim voice, sometimes it’s the superior voice they use when the rest of us eat steak while they enjoy a grilled portabello, but either way, it is quite a vocal banner they wear. “Look at me, I’m a Vegan!”

Overall, I watch so many people I know (more often women than men) jump on these bandwagons for what they say is their health. But it feels very much as if they are seeking a new self, hoping for miraculous change. A friend of mine stuck to a gluten free, vegan month. She was hoping for something notable, some new vigor, dare I say, a whole new woman. She challenged herself and at the end of the month, she returned to lobster and filet and said: “Thank God, I am me. Take the last five years off my life. . .I’d rather have cheese.” She didn’t find a new her, but embraced herself.

Now my point isn’t that sugar, animal fats, salt, gluten, red dye number 666, are fine. Of course most of us will feel better if we enjoy moderation and daily exercise. Instead, I am arguing that abstinence is often trendy and over-controlling of others.

Bowl games 2014. I am often the cook for gatherings of friends, partly because I am good at it; mostly because few others cook (which is a topic for a later blog). I try very hard to create a menu that pleases people and meets their needs.

My sister-in-law has a shifting, never quite cemented, long list of foods she cannot (read:will not) eat. No meat (which may or may not include fish) No sugar. No soy. No Dairy. (unless she goes to Steak n Shake where she will completely ignore these rules, though she fully expects me to comply at all times. I love her, so I try.) My mother can no longer eat fish. My brother-in-law avoids red meat and sugar and cheese. A dear friend is sometimes Kosher. His wife is gluten free. My husband and I joke about another friend’s love life; our first question is always what is the latest woman in his life free of? Probably carbs, to round out our menagerie of “There’s nothing left to eat” fools.

One party where my fish-free Mom came, too. I wanted to make something warm and hearty ahead of time. We served chicken chili, gluten free corn muffins, a salad. I had already asked my SIL what I could make her, and she said not to worry. The people who were to bring a sugar free dessert “forgot”. The gluten free woman “really didn’t like chicken” so wouldn’t eat the chili The one for whom I made it in the first place because he loves chicken chili, enjoyed it, but also whined: “You know, if you had used soy crumbles then maybe______could eat it, too.” Whaaat, she CAN eat soy? I thought she couldn’t. I was offended.

Next party. Fish-free Mom wasn’t coming. I decided on shellfish stew, red based, since a few couldn’t/wouldn’t handle a cream base(though we all know a lobster bisque with sherry and cream is to die for). I chose this for my SIL, (no meat, no cream) who then wouldn’t eat it because the broth just wasn’t one of her faves (though she eats tomatoes, drinks tomato juice, and eats tomato sauce). I ended up grilling her fish and veggies (same ingredients from the stew).

At a gathering in the mountains, a guest didn’t eat asparagus because of the pee-changing effects. Another likes chicken, but not from the grill, could I pop theirs in the oven?

At a brunch last weekend held in honor of an out of town guest, addressing everyone’s issues, but also choosing something that didn’t require me to stand at the stove, I made a seafood quiche, using shrimp and crab,( SIL faves), and Eggs Beaters (to help the BIL’s cholesterol). I left off cheese on half of it since SIL can’t handle dairy, but a few of us embrace cheese. I also said-screw it-and made butter and sugar-laden cinnamon rolls from scratch. And I served fresh fruit, which was almost ignored.

Well. . .BIL sighs: quiche is not his favorite, but he’d eat it. Dairy-free SIL-happily and knowingly serves herself the side with cheese, which doesn’t leave enough for the cheese eaters. The cheese eaters had to take a cheese free slice.. But SIl also moans about eggs. . .another of her possible no-no’s.

And EVERYone devours the rolls, the anti-sugar, anti-gluten, anti-dairy alike.

The only thing consistent with our guests is their inconsistency.

I give up. I told my husband I am no longer cooking for friends and family. I cannot meet their needs obviously, and these typically sweet people allow their FOOD IDENTITIES to overrule etiquette and manners to the point of rudeness, and even confusion. And for what? To belong to some trend? To feel superior?

Just when I reached that boiling point, I saw an Easter Dinner commercial from Walmart. Two women are setting a table. One remarks about place cards. The hostess explains how she has to strategically place the vegan, the meat carver, the gluten free, and the sugar free away from or near certain foods.

If Walmart can mock this food identity issue, it must be so common place, that I am not the only cook suffering this silliness. The fact that guests now believe it is okay to treat hostesses like restaurants is a true problem. I am finished with asking people what they prefer to eat. I don’t care what your relationship to food and your God is. Take the initiative to tell me if there is a food that will cause you to swell and die in under 2 minutes, and I won’t kill you. Otherwise, bring your own dinner, host your own parties, or eat my food without a peep.

To Twist a Maxim: Musings of a Happiness Dependent

I just finished reading yet another reposted secret-to-life-list on Facebook from helpful friends, explaining the 10 to 30 essentials one must learn in order to be happy. One of the most-oft repeated is the stickler that goes something along the lines of “Don’t look to others to be happy; be happy within yourself.”

Ahh, the foundation of co-dependents anonymous everywhere.

Upfront, let me say, being a happy human being all unto yourself, free of others, sounds divine. Oh. . .wait. . . the word “divine” comes from “of God” which implies that something I deem divine is heaven sent, thus, not independently created.

Let me try again. Upfront. . being happy with simply your own amazingness to light up your life sounds. . .well, crazy. Sort of sociopathic.

I know what the helpful advisors mean: don’t let others bring you down; don’t let others steal your light; don’t let others control your destiny beyond your bliss. . .etc. etc.. Those are good pieces of advice, even if I do say them somewhat sarcastically. BUT those admonitions aren’t the same as the advice: “Don’t look to others to be happy.”

Interestingly, the folks who most commonly share that on FB are the people who are entrenched in the accomplishments of their kids, their peers, their church, their mates. Ironic that they espouse independence. It’s become almost trendy to say it, a sort of holier-than-thou-ism that sounds so good on paper, but has absolutely no actual meaning to them.

Before you try to enlighten me, by shooting holes in my cynicism, let me say I have chewed on this co-dependency issue for a long time. What is the difference between healthy independence with joyous relationships, and codependency? What is the difference between co-dependency and healthy dependence? I am not always certain. I doubt those “listers” are, either.

If my husband ever has a fatal heart attack, it will break my heart. If my sons fret over a broken relationship, I want to cry with them. If my Mom suffers when she struggles with her memory, I want to soothe her brow like my baby’s. Genuine disturbances in the world of the people I love are going to effect me, and make me unhappy. I’d be emotionally stunted otherwise.

And the opposite is true. A special wink from my hubby makes my toes tingle. An award for my son’s artwork sparks my pride. Listening to my older son laugh with his friends in the next room, brings me pleasure.

My happiness depends on the happiness of others, as does, often my disappointment. If I make mistakes at work, and others know it, it is not unhealthy to be embarrassed by this. If noone wants to buy your video game idea that you spent years devising, you can tell yourself a million times that it’s all good, but that isn’t really true, is it? You can see yourself as the world’s greatest singer, but if folks plug their ears in your presence, and mock you, you’re going to be hurt. . .a little.

We do not live in vacuums. The nature of the human being is to find happiness with others, to entwine our lives with each other means that we cannot always see where joy is ours or theirs. And I am weary of the world dismissively pretending that there is something wrong with this as stated in a pithy fridge magnet-maxim.

But it isn’t that simple either: if my husband does nothing to protect himself from heart disease, and I lament and fret and worry meal after meal. . .well that’s a different story. If my Mom eventually fully enters the woods called Alzheimer’s, I will still need to sleep and accept it. If my sons keep choosing silly girls, well, at some point I can only sigh. Otherwise, I’d be codependent.

Enter the dangerous flaw in the design of the maxim. It is both true and untrue depending on how it is applied.

I have an alcoholic, drug abusing brother, who has been his own worst nightmare, who still has not hit rock bottom despite several arrests, one neck-breaking accident, and the near loss of his daughter to multiple semi-suicide attempts. When I was young, a teenager, I was of the mind that if I rescued him, I was gifted and emotionally superior to lessor beings. I outgrew that. I feel compassionate toward him. Any addiction is a painful dominatrix. But I also learned that he is his own victim, that only he can take whatever steps he can to sober himself fully, whether his state is rooted in genetics or society. It doesn’t matter; it is still his job. I no longer lie awake at night with worry. My happiness doesn’t depend on his sobriety.

My father however, drinks my brother’s drama like a warm cup of cocoa; pure enjoyment. He would vehemently disagree with me, and claim that he suffers deeply at my brother’s “lifestyle” (and the spawned drama of my niece who is a carbon copy of her father.) Yes, my father does suffer; he cries and loses sleep from his pain. However, he also relishes the adrenaline of being called in the middle of the night and running to the rescue. He adores the adoration of his son and his grand-daughter when they tearfully thank him (only to turn around and continue the shenanigans.) He loves having a subject to discuss that has weight, that has him as the hero in the center.

When I try to explain the dangers of this sort of co-dependency, nothing makes my Dad burn with rage faster. Isn’t a father supposed to help his child in any way he can? It has taken years (YEARS) of “rescues” after shocking events. . .And years of my hammering away on the co-dependency nail, before an eensy glimmer of understanding sank in. Dad resisted the concept that not helping IS help, because after all, isn’t his happiness a direct result of his child’s safety and happiness? (I couldn’t begin to get him to understand that no, his happiness was a direct result of his child’s chaos.)

My father was randomly reflecting on the concept of spanking a child. I can’t recall why. Some debate on talk radio? He argued that rewards and punishments work just as well; why spank? He began his lecture on the beauty of positive reinforcement. Somehow I was able to shift the angle of his argument back to my brother and this time, Dad didn’t see it coming. I said, “Every time Brother has made a really poor choice, what did you do?” He saw it immediately.

“Wrecked his car while drunk?” Bought him another.

“Broke his neck?” Paid hospital Bills.

“Went to jail?” Hired his lawyer.

“Lost a wife? . . .almost lost a child?” Bought him a house.

My father’s argument on the effectiveness of rewards and punishments suddenly dawned on him. Each time my brother has come close to what should be his “bottom”, Dad rewards bad behavior, reinforces it by resolving the “negative”. Classic. My father was speechless for the first time in my life. His need to fix was possibly undoing life’s natural fix.

But there’s the definition of co-dependence. When the structure of one’s life . . .one’s identity is reinforced by other people’s failure (or for that matter, success), one creates a cycle that keeps it all in perpetuation. In other words, Dad feels more like Dad when he saves my brother, so he wraps his life around this drama. My niece, who is on the verge of being diagnosed with border-line-personality disorder, lies constantly to my father, even from the occasional mental institution. Dad seems blind to it, because visiting her often and openly worrying about how to rescue her, (and fantasizing that he will save her) gives him meaning (and reinforces her behavior.)

He would say he would finally be happy when each is safe in body and sound of mind. I say, hogwash. He would disappear because they are not the kind who would remember to call him when their lives are fine. Does he subconsciously know this? The phrase “Don’t look to others for happiness” speaks directly to him, for THIS is codependency

It is the wife who keeps the household running smoothly while her husband drinks their world into oblivion. She will say she wants the drinking to stop, but somehow that order and power she has, makes her feel superior; she doesn’t leave. That buddy of yours who can only pull herself together if she talks to you at 3 am, who tells you every nasty detail of her debauchery with utter shame and never follows your advice, but goes on and on about how you are so awesome, and what would she do without you. . .each time you tell her, it’s okay; she has value; she deserves love too, when she breaks up with yet another horrible guy. . .believe it or not, you relish being the one she turns to. You deserve the 3 a.m. repetitive phone calls. THAT’s codependence. The fact that you know which friend will fall off the diet wagon at Bruster’s with you, and you blame each other . .THAT’s codependence.

But “looking to others for your own happiness” is not necessarily the hellion codependence. Because, like I said, to live so independently, so free of the needs and happiness of others is simply sociopathic. Those who are codependent will not break their own inexplicable pain until they learn the other people they keep expecting to change, should not have this much power over their happiness. My own codependence shows when I repeatedly expect my Father to see the light, when I am angered at how much my brother still hurts my parents. Because contrary to what I have said here, it is nearly impossible to turn a blind eye to the ones we love.

Underlying that truth is the other codependents anonymous truism: expectations are disappointments waiting to happen. I hate that phrase too, only because it and the happiness maxim have both been abused and twisted. Yes, my father expects my brother to see how much he is loved whenever Dad rescues him, and then wake up and change. But Brother doesn’t change, so Dad is then deflated. Expectation is disappointment waiting to happen.

But in any relationship, we have expectations. The danger is when we use these maxims to slough ourselves of the responsibility of other people’s feelings and expectations.

I listened to a woman (who was well-versed in the co-dependent anonymous mantra) argue that she should be allowed to hang out with any man she wants, and her husband should be okay with this, because “his happiness isn’t her job. He needs to make his own.” (Tadah. . .Maxim twisted.) My grandparents lived for each other’s happiness as they believed was the rule of a covenanted marriage. Well into their nineties, they never slept apart, they focused on each other, and they were still holding hands. I cannot imagine either of them ever spending time with anyone else that made the other uncomfortable. They would have laughed at the concept of independent happiness. I am sure anyone with these romantic expectations entering a marriage with someone who is not inclined to meet them will be unhappy, but does that mean they are wrong in their expectations?

My first husband who couldn’t carry on a conversation to save his life, once told me that this was how he was built, and if I wasn’t happy with it, tough shit; I needed to find something else to entertain myself and stop expecting him to do it. (badda-bing.. Maxim twisted) Well, I divorced him and eventually found a man who does talk to me about everything and anything. It didn’t make my ex-very happy. Yet he was right. I did find my own happiness, but it was still bullshit for him to say it wasn’t his responsibility. Don’t enter into relationships if you truly want that much independence, right?

This expectation-to-happiness ratio is why financial advisors say don’t lend money: give it. Lending it means you expect to be paid back; then suddenly you are unhappy when they don’t pay you back. Solution? Give them the money so you don’t have expectations. But still. . .is this really the solution, to just flat out avoid expectations? I shouldn’t expect faithfulness from husband and friends? A boss shouldn’t expect employees to do their job? Parents shouldn’t expect their children to pass their classes? Based on these two maxims, no. Or if you are disappointed by them, recalibrate your choices, or you are codependent. . .

These are complicated maxims: That we have to find happiness within ourself; that we can’t have expectations of others without facing disappointment. Are they simply a bungled version of “love yourself or noone else will”? Or an attempt to unburden oneself from the needs or expectations of other people? Do they free us from being judged? Or do they help extrapolate folks from the jaws of codependency? Whatever truly, they create a sticky wicket.

Maybe both combined should be phrased like this: Your happiness depends on others, but if they are not making you happy, only you can fix that, but you cannot fix them, and trying will often make things worse; you are not ever completely independent and you have certain responsibilities to make others happy sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t count. And if your spirit is broken: Don’t sit around waiting for other people to fix you, because, you my dear, can let go and find something out there joyful.

A mouthful. Not so simple as “listed.”