Sunday, June 19, 2011

Breaking my coffee addiction, one year later

“What in all fiery hell made you do something like that?” is usually the first response I get when I tell people about this adventure. The answer is simple. I was in my kitchen one morning, sipping a cup of my favorite brew – three ounces of espresso and powdered milk blended whipped in with a hand-held latte foamer – when I thought to myself “I don’t actually want this cup of coffee, I’m simply staving off an addiction.”

Truth be told, that preparation of coffee was – and still is – one of the most amazing things I’ve come across on God’s green earth. It combines the angry punch of an espresso with a sublime creaminess that starts with the foam at the top stays with you until the last drop, a concoction I developed over years in Caracas in with the help of my wife and many Venezuelan friends.

My thought at that moment, standing in my pajamas in front of the stove, wasn’t that I never wanted to drink coffee again. It was more motivated by the question “Shouldn’t I be able to drink coffee because I want to, and not because I have to?”

I could have of course just poured out the cup of coffee I didn’t want so that I could start to break my addiction. But I’d actually tried that before. Several years earlier, just to confirm I was in fact addicted, I tried to see what would happen if I just stopped from one day to the next. At that time I was drinking three or four dark shots of espresso a day. Let’s just say it didn’t go well. Yes, first the headaches, then the dizziness. Within two days I was constantly nauseous. The third day I was vomiting. As you can guess, the fourth day I was drinking coffee again. I can’t help but smile to myself when I see the coffee industry groups insisting caffeine withdrawal only causes “temporary, mild discomfort.”

That was enough to scare the daylights out of me. For the next six years I didn’t give the slightest thought to ditching my morning brew, even downing a few sips of warm Coke when I couldn’t find coffee on the road, or munching on chocolate covered espresso beans on camping trips. But over time the thought came back to me – do I really want to have to drink this stuff every day? Part of my problem is that I even when I was a regular coffee drinker, I had to constantly resist the call of coffee anyway. My metabolism only allowed me to have my own cup of coffee in the morning, which gave me the nice jolt I wanted. After that, coffee usually did more harm than good. Those slow, boring afternoons, when I was nodding off from a big lunch, drinking a cup of coffee would simply make my head swim. Granted, I don’t have kids, so I sleep pretty well, otherwise this might be a different story. So I thought, if I can’t try this now, when will I ever be able to?

And so it began. When things first started I was putting about two teaspoons of coffee into my little espresso pot, so I started to taper down while I kept the water constant. It was a slow ramp-down, but I could feel it. In the afternoons my stomach would clench up, and I’d have this irresistible urge to lie down on the floor. People asked me if I was sleeping OK. Most of the time I just told them I was tired (which was true). It was probably a period of two weeks or so where things were tough, but after that it got noticeably better. And, at the same time, the coffee was getting noticeably worse. By the end I was only putting in 1/8 of a teaspoon of grounds, which yielded a pale watery brew with a few grounds floating on top of it. The declining quality of the coffee was a deterrent to continuing to drink coffee. So I quit.

And to my surprise, I haven’t missed it as much as I thought I would. I do sometimes walk past a coffee shop and really feel myself being pulled in by the overpowering scent of roasting beans. And I so get up on Saturday mornings and have a cup of coffee with my wife while I read the paper, and I truly enjoy it. It becomes a special occasion with that absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder intensity.

I remember one dark early morning a few months later I had to get up at some godawful hour to return from a reporting trip, I stood in front of a coffee counter at the airport. I wasn’t sure if should take advantage of the moment to indulge in an espresso. Would the coffee keep me up on the plane? Or should I drink the coffee so I could stay awake on the plane and then get home and rest? Or would the coffee dehydrate me too much on the plane? And then I had a sudden realization, like clouds parting to reveal a brilliant sun – “I don’t want coffee!”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Our global food drama (redux)

I came to the conclusion that there’s not much of a place in the news world for what I think is the most overlooked issue of the debate over the world’s food supply: waste. Last week’s extensive investigation in the New York Times about how climate change is cutting into the world’s food production is one such example. A thoroughly reported, clearly sourced and well-written story outlining how demand for food is outpacing production and the consequences of this trend – yet without a single mention of the staggering inefficiencies and endemic waste at every level of the world’s food production (and consumption).

I mentioned this not long ago in my post about the FAO report that concludes that a jaw-dropping one-third of the world’s food goes uneaten. That post argued that the world prefers dramatic Malthusian tales of the human race slowly starving like castaways on a desert island over the much more prosaic reality that really solving this problem will require changes in how much consume food and not simply producing more of it at any cost.

I will admit that I’m falling into a trap here that I don’t care for, which is stirring up a debate about the debate itself – rather than a debate about the issues themselves. I find meta-debates problematic because they get people more cemented into their positions and less likely to think openly about what needs to be done. But this issue is sorely lacking in our consciousness of the problem, and it’s one that escapes the eye of blog and newspapers. The “We’re all gonna starve” script is simply more appealing, rich with its villains and heroes, its moral quandaries and complex ambiguities, its tales of oppressors and downtrodden, of profligate hedge funds stealing land from poor African tribes. In contrast, the mindboggling amount of food wasted each year can be boiled down to the eight famous words of American comic strip character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I’m glad the Times is looking at this issue of how global climate change will affect our capacity to produce food. But the trouble is that the more food we have, the more we waste – and the more we waste, the more convinced we are that we need more of it. There’s nary a mention of this in the Times story, which instead rings a lot of the customary alarm bells (passages of which I’ve included in italics).

“There’s just such a tremendous disconnect, with people not understanding the highly dangerous situation we are in,” said Marianne Bänziger, deputy chief of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a leading research institute in Mexico.

Ironic that this comment should come from Mexico, where 70 percent of adults are either obese or overweight – the highest rate among developing nations in last year’s OECD study. Obesity, as a rule of thumb, is a often a good sign that as society is not making very good use of food, or of the elements that go into making food. It is not caused by a person eating too much, it’s almost always a function of a person eating too much of the wrong things – processed foods, red meat, and rendered animal fat (of course a lack of physical activity is key here). These foods are notoriously inefficient in their use of planet’s resources, because, as we know, eating grains ourselves rather than feeding them to animals and eating the animals would save an order of magnitude of resources. Neither in this story nor in the debate about food in general is this presented as a choice we make, rather a fait accompli that we have to accommodate by producing more food.

… food and feed demand was starting to take off, thanks in part to rising affluence across much of Asia. Millions of people added meat and dairy products to their diets, requiring considerable grain to produce.

The Asian miracle is also an oft-cited reason for the rise in food prices, and China is not without reason proud that hundreds of millions of its citizens there are eating more than they used to. What doesn’t seem to come up is that China is by some measures headed down the same nutritional dark alley that the United States is stuck in – 15 percent of children between 10 and 12 living in Chinese cities are or overweight, and more than half of those are obese. If the Chinese want to eat themselves into oblivion the way Americans have, then I agree with the gloom and doom predictions one hears about the world’s shrinking food supply. Given demographic and geopolitical trends, it’s hard to argue that a 12-year-old Chinese boy is not a potent symbol of the world’s future. What we are not contemplating is whether the Chinese – along with Brazilians, South Africans and Indians – who want to escape the malnourishment associated with poverty can make the choice not to enter the over-fed, overweight, diabetic middle class living on unhealthy quantities of corn-fed meat and poultry.

These experts say that in coming decades, farmers need to withstand whatever climate shocks come their way while roughly doubling the amount of food they produce to meet rising demand.

Fixing a broken food system can’t simply rely on producing more calories. The system we have today provides so many calories to one growing minority as to make it sick, while systematically denying another growing minority the calories it needs to survive. The idea that this system will somehow be set straight by pouring more food into it is a bit like saying Donald Trump needs huge tax breaks or he won’t be able to pay the salaries of his army of minimum wage employees.

A wheat physiologist at the center, Matthew Reynolds, fretted over the potential consequences of not attacking the problem vigorously. “What a horrible world it will be if food really becomes short from one year to the next,” he said. “What will that do to society?”

Will we all die like pirates lost at sea, wasting away from scurvy, counting our last rations of hard-tack as we scan the horizon for signs of land? Or will we realize that we have more control over this than we’re allowing ourselves to believe?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Take the stairs!

I’ve discovered that most buildings have special devices that give you the exercise of a Stairmaster, only they simultaneously transport you from one floor to another.

People still look at me like I’m an idiot when I tell them I climb up the twelve flights of steps to our office instead of taking the elevator. It probably doesn’t help that I get into the office panting like a freak with a drop of sweat on my forehead. But I’ve managed to win over a few coworkers with a pretty simple explanation: it’s free exercise.

Modern existence has left most spending much of our days moving only our mouths and our hands for hours on end. We take great pains to avoid walking anywhere or doing any mild level of physical exertion. Then at some point we get motivated and join a gym, so can spend an hour or two making up for the previous eight to ten hours of ass time. I tried to think of a different want to do this – what if you could spread the exercise out over the course of the day?

Sure, I walk into work huffing and puffing, but I get to enjoy a slight tingling in my quads and a pulsing in my lungs as if I’d actually I’ve gotten a cardiovascular work out. The reality is I have, just a very small one. It doesn’t take more than three or four minutes to climb up all those stairs, but it leaves me with the sensation of actually having done something. This contrasts with the typical day that involves sitting in the office, sitting in a taxi, sitting at a press conference, and then sitting on the bus on the way home.

It also offers an alternative when you’re nodding off in the early afternoon. Those are the moments when I usually head for the coffee machine or go downstairs (in the elevator) to buy snacks. I find most of the time I do this I’m not actually hungry or sleepy, just really bored and needing a change of pace. Twelve flights down the stairs, a walk around the block, 12 flights back up, and I’m feeling a lot more awake. And with no snacks or caffeine.

I’ve started to notice the effects of taking the stairs. A couple months after I started this routine, I went on a hike with a friend of mine who was running half marathons, and somehow my lungs were holding up better than his. Friends started commented that I looked skinnier (I guess that’s not hard for me), even though I wasn’t doing much else in the way of exercise. A least a couple people in the office have said they like the idea, and talked about doing it themselves (mostly talk so far, from what I can tell).

Stairs can also teach you interesting things about buildings. Some buildings won’t let you anywhere near them. At my old office in Caracas I once stopped on the way out by security because I tripped a fire alarm by walking down the stairs after I got tired of waiting 10 minutes for the elevator to show up. Our Sao Paulo offices block them except in the case of an emergency. At a hotel I stayed at in Times Square, I spent a few days walking up and down the stairs, which involved wandering through service areas, walking past utility control closets and laundry rooms, nodding confidently to chambermaids as if pretending I really did belong there (eventually a staff member saw me doing it and told me to stop – seeing the fallout over the former head of the IMF I can understand why). My apartment building’s stairs serve as repositories for residents to stow whatever unwieldy objects like large packaging or strollers or broken chairs that residents don’t feel like leaving in their homes.

People sometimes ask me if taking the stairs is all part of, you know, that whole good-for-the-planet stuff I’m all into. Yes and no. Elevators do use a considerable amount of a building’s energy, and I like to think I’m reducing the number of elevator trips every time I take the stairs. The problem is that assumes that somebody else doesn’t take the elevator anyway – somebody might be pushing the button on the 12th floor just as I walk past the bank of elevators toward the staircase. The elevator would travel anyway, without me in it, which saves a bit of energy but not a huge amount. Unless several hundred people in the building joined the Take the Stairs Challenge ™, you would probably not see a decline in the number of trips the elevator makes. I’m under no delusion that that many people would consider doing this (and am not really upset about it).

At my apartment I may be saving my condominium owner a couple bucks every year by walking, since there are a fewer elevator trips and I’m generally alone in most of them. But that’s not really the point. The benefit is to me. And I can’t even begin to imagine the benefits that the occasional stair hike could provide to millions of people with heart problems, clogged arteries, obesity, or circulation difficulties. Or to people who are just plain bored in the afternoon.