Saturday, August 12, 2006
You Are What You Eat
According to a recent advert, you are what you eat. Which makes me somewhere between a pork chop and a pot noodle.
This afternoon I was a cheese sandwich. This evening I will be a stir-fry. Next week I will be egg, chips and a slice from Dave’s Cafe down the road. Last week I was a Chicken Jalfrezi at the local curry-house, with poppadoms, pickles, naan bread and Bombay potatoes all sluiced down with five pints of chilled lager and finished off with an after-dinner mint.
Actually the phrase goes back a lot further than that advert.
I first remember it as the title of a progressive rock compilation sometime in the late sixties. Back then it had all the radical edge of a right-on political slogan. It was associated with the burgeoning culture of the hippie movement - all wholefood co-ops and weaving your own yoghurt, squatting empty properties and not washing your feet - and attached to other lifestyle slogans of the time, such as “The Personal Is The Political” and “Pay No Rent”. Far-out guys in baggy flares and cheesecloth shirts were busy setting up wholefood kitchens at their local free-festival where they distributed garlic-flavoured lentil stew for free while raising their hands in the clenched fist salute.
“You Are What You Eat!” they would say - like that, all in capital letters - before slurping down a cup of hot ginseng tea and toking on a joint. “Yeah man, right on, far out, too much.”
Obviously there is a partial truth in this. The chemical constituency of what you take into your body must have some bearing on your physical make-up. If you eat healthily, chances are you will feel good in yourself. If you eat badly, chances are you will feel less happy.
Personally I swear by porridge. A bowl of porridge first-thing usually has me feeling tip-top until mid-morning. Not muesli, note. Muesli is made of uncooked oats and uncooked oats are bad for you, despite their popularity amongst the chunky sweater brigade. Was there ever a breakfast cereal so ridiculously misrepresented?
On the other hand, no matter what you eat, you remain generally a human being. The Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania spend months on end living off a mixture of milk and blood from their cattle, and seem perfectly healthy for all that.
All of which has only the most peripheral bearing on the subject of this week's blog.
The question is not: are you what you eat? It is: are you what you do?
It’s the perennial dinner party conversation isn’t it? You find yourself sitting next to a stranger, and after a cursory summary of the week’s news and what‘s happening to the weather, what else is there to talk about?
So one of you asks the question, “what do you do?” And that’s it: your conversation for the rest of the evening.
The trouble with this is that it is really a conversational ruse, and will tell you virtually nothing about the person you are sitting next to. So you’re a postman, an editor, a line-manager, a social-worker, an interior designer, a taxidermist, a political analyst, a dustman, a pot-noodle quality control inspector are you? All of which tells me how you make your living, not what you think or who you are.
Also, people tend to make judgements on the back of what they hear.
There’s an unconscious recognition of a hierarchy of trades that we all share. An editor is considered better than a postman. A line-manager is considered better than a dustman. Mental labour is considered better than physical labour.
For instance: you all know me as a writer. If I told you my main occupation was as a postman, would that make any difference to how you perceive me? I think it would.
And yet I have done many things in my time. I’ve been a dustman, a road sweeper, a machine operator, a barman, a cellar man, and many, many other things. This used to embarrass me whenever I was called on to write a CV. It made me look inconstant, not to say, inconsistent. It was the CV of a shirker not a worker, a grifter not a grafter, and was only passable as an aid to getting work by glossing over whole years in succession.
It wasn’t until I’d had my first piece of writing published that the CV looked respectable. It was precisely the CV of a writer.
The problem with the question “what do you do?” is that it is always understood only to refer to your method of paying the mortgage. And yet “doing” is what we “do” all the time. I was doing writing long before I ever earned any money from it. I am also “doing” thinking right now. Thinking is as important a part of the writing process as it is of everything else. You do thinking mostly when other people can‘t see you doing it.
Sometimes we do thinking while we’re doing other things. I can think while washing up. I can think while going to the shops. I can think while I‘m in the bath. I can even think while I‘m fast asleep. Sometimes my best thinking is done in this state. I go to bed with a problem, and by the morning it‘s all cleared up.
I have friends who do tarot and others who do magic. One of my friends does nature study while another does music. Are we what we do, or do we do what we are?
Let’s hear what the philosophers have to say on the subject.
Socrates: “To be is to do.”
Sartre: “To do is to be.”
Sinatra: “Do Be Do Be Do.”