Read the Label

The Pringle is “a piece of malevolent technical genius, as a product deliberately designed to engineer obesity.” Chris Tulleken

An ultra-processed food (UPF), according to doctor and author Chris Tulleken, can be defined as a product wrapped in plastic and containing at least one ingredient that would not appear in an average home kitchen. My Morningstar Farms veggie burgers, for example, come in a plastic bag and contain wheat gluten, soy protein concentrate, calcium caseinate, and small amounts of methylcellulose, natural flavor, soy protein isolate, yeast extract, and xanthum gum. That’s why they taste so good.

That line is not a joke. In his new book Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food, Tulleken writes, “Good cooks can enhance flavours (he’s British) and tastes by combining them, but I think UPF is the nutritional equivalent of speedballing.” Some additives, to be sure, increase shelf life, but many are engineered to mimic real flavors (I’m American) and textures cheaply. They insidiously tempt us to consume more product. Tulleken explains, “By speedballing different tastes and sensations, UPF can force far more calories into us than we could otherwise handle.”

To be sure, he’s writing about Coke in this passage, not veggie burgers, and I can’t say I’ve ever binged on veggie burgers, but the point is the same. Most of us are eating a lot of UPF, which is to say we’re eating a lot that isn’t food. Tulleken argues that this fact explains the British and American obesity epidemic now spreading worldwide, as well as many problems and deaths related to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, among other conditions. Sixty to eighty percent of the UK and USA diet consists of UPF. It’s not good for us.

Maybe try to cut down on your xanthum gum, for instance. It’s a “sugary slime” produced by the bacteria that creates black rot on vegetables. It’s used as a thickener. Xanthum gum feeds a new bacteria appearing in our gut, that is, a bacteria unknown in remote hunter-gatherer groups. Another new species of bacteria feeds on the byproducts of the first new species. Nobody knows the effects of these two new bacteria on our bodies, including our immune systems.

I frequently cook from scratch and eat a good amount of vegetables. I’m currently following a low-carb diet, which has managed to reduce my COVID-lockdown waistline. However, in my pantry currently are Ritz Crackers, McCormick Turkey Gravy mix, Nilla Wafers, Jello Vanilla Pudding Mix, and La Banderita Tortillas (mmm, xanthum gum!). All packaged in plastic, or something similar, and all containing a plethora of weird s—t.

I never imagined I would be a person writing on this topic, but Dr. Tulleken inspired me. He’s not only smart. He’s also funny and compassionate. (He deplores the stigma attached to being overweight, for example.) He makes no judgments on people and their choices. He merely provides information. I recommend his book.

This is the interview that made me request Ultra-Processed People from my local library.

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Stochastic Meandering

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Learning a word’s history at the same time as its meaning helps reinforce our understanding of the word and remember it more effectively. If you know, for example, that volition comes from the Latin word volo, meaning “wish,” you’re likely to remember that volition denotes relying on one’s will or choice, as in doing something of one’s own volition. Then the rarer, related word avolition is easy to decode, if you know that the Greek prefix a means “without,” as in amoral. Avolition, used in psychology, describes a profound lack of motivation, literally “without wishing,” a disinclination to, well, do anything.

Encountering two unfamiliar words in recent New Yorker magazines (I thought), I checked out their etymologies to help me comprehend and retain their meanings. Cynthia Ozick’s story “A French Doll” (7/2423) includes the word ukase. Its meaning is “command” or “edict,” but I had to know where that weird-looking word is from. In Russian, ukaz is a decree issued by the emperor. Because the story concerns Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, many of them Russian, that unusual and interesting word is apropos.

The second unfamiliar word appears not in a New Yorker short story (although I just reread an entire story trying in vain to find it), but in an online interview with author T. Coraghessan Boyle about his story “The End Is Only the Beginning” (8/14/2023). The story concerns the randomness of Covid and the randomness of fate. His main character, Boyle explains to his interviewer in a remarkable sentence, “is not me, or not entirely, but a shadowy simulacrum existing not in our terrifyingly stochastic world but in the orderly paginated one I have created in order to work out my own anxieties.” As it happens, I’m familiar with simalacrum and paginated, but not stochastic, which means “random” or “unpredictable.” This Greek-derived word, which appeared first in English in 1662, related originally to probability; its Greek root means “to aim at a mark, to conjecture, to guess.” Later writers have used it to mean “random.”

I was interested to see that the term, as many of you smart people probably know, is used in mathematics, natural science, physics, computer science, finance, linguistics, medicine, music, and other studies, including geomorphology. Regarding that last science, in case you wanted to know, the direction of a river’s meanderings has been studied as a stochastic process.

Some readers might be annoyed at T. Coraghessan Boyle’s tossing about of such rare and recondite words. Words that you have to look up, at least if you’re me. But at one time all words were unfamiliar to us. How else do we learn new ones? I ask you. And if you read the story, which I recommend, you’ll see that “our terrifyingly stochastic world” encapsulates his story in four perfect words.

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Lessons in Etymology

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Before I began reading my next book group book, a novel called Lessons in Chemistry, I glanced at author Bonnie Garmus’s bio inside the back cover, where I saw that her dog’s name is 99. I wondered if Garmus had watched the sitcom Get Smart as a kid. Garmus is 66, so it’s just possible.

My dad and I occasionally watched Get Smart, a clever send-up of James Bond created by Mel Brooks. Maxwell Smart, played by Don Adams, was a clueless spy, prone to drawing precisely the wrong conclusions. His partner agent’s code name was 99. The lovely Barbara Feldon, who played 99, caused many viewers’ hearts to flutter. It occurs to me now that she was the sitcom counterpart to the svelte Emma Peal (Diana Rigg) from The Avengers.

Several taglines survive from Get Smart, including “Sorry about that, Chief” and “Would you believe . . . ?” One that took hold in my family was “Good thinking, 99,” a compliment Smart would bestow upon his smarter partner. At our house, whenever someone figured something out, such as deciphering a hard clue on Saturday Review’s Double-Crostic, the response would be, “Good thinking, 99.” My husband and I still say this sometimes.

When I read Garmus’s dog’s name, I googled the phrase and found this explanation of its origins:

Maxwell Smart would always be quoted saying, “Good thinking, 99.” 99 is used because it is very close to 100 and is an indication of intelligence, because scoring 99 on any difficult test or project requires intelligence. It is a pop culture reference to an old television show that your parents probably remember.

Whoever wrote that should have asked his or her parents to explain the reference. How dare they overlook the significance of Agent 99?

This is an example of false etymology. Sometimes a similarity between words seems to imply a connection that isn’t there. History, for example, does not derive from his + story (i.e. narrative that leaves out women); rather, it’s from an ancient Greek word meaning “knowledge acquired through research.” Acronyms that sound too good to be true usually are, such as “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” to explain golf, which actually derives from some old Scottish word.

The online 99 explanation seems like something somebody just made up. The writer seems to be thinking, “99% is a pretty good grade, right?” Either way, I have to assume Bonnie Garmus’s dog is smart, because she’s either named after Agent 99 or scores almost 100% on every test.

Does your family use catchphrases from TV or movies? It will be interesting to see our generational (and other) differences.

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COVID on Our Bookshelves

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When I was working on A Grandmother’s ABC Book, I worried that sections about COVID would be old news by the time the book came out. Revising, waiting for feedback, and inevitable delays increased my worry. Unfortunately, as we now know, COVID is not quite passé. It’s hanging around in our world, with hundreds dying every day, and in our vivid memories of isolation and lockdown. And sometimes in our grief.

Of course, COVID is cropping up in books, and I’ve just read two good ones: The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, and Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout.

Because I hate to know anything about a novel before I read it, I’m not going to risk ruining these for you. I’ll speak generally. The Sentence is for people who love reading and bookstores. Set in a store very much like Erdrich’s Birch Bark Books in Minneapolis, The Sentence features a cast of original and sometimes hilarious bookstore denizens, including a fictional bookstore owner named Louise, who pops in and out of the story. The humor somehow holds its own amid the sadness of the pandemic and the horrors of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent violence, which take place very near the bookstore. The book ends with a long list of books “recommended” by the novel’s main character, a list worth the price of the book.

Lucy by the Sea features Lucy Barton, the novelist-protagonist of Strout’s earlier books, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Anything Is Possible, and Oh William. It’s helpful but not essential to have read the previous books in order to appreciate Lucy by the Sea. Strout fans will enjoy cameos from other books: Olive Kitteridge and Bob Burgess. (I may have found these appearances a little cute. Not sure what to think.)

The Lucy books are like peeling an onion. You perceive intimations of trauma in My Name Is Lucy Barton, but they’re nebulous. Each subsequent book reveals more about Lucy’s painful childhood. You’re brought up to date about her later life as well, including her marriages. Like the earlier books, Lucy by the Sea concerns, in part, parenthood. How do we raise children? How do we relate to them as adults? Aging and COVID force Lucy to confront mortality.

Both Erdrich and Strout evoke the ignorance, fear, and weirdness of the lockdown, as well as some of the blessings, if you were lucky. Sometimes isolation was a relief. Sometimes it got you out into nature. Sometimes it gave you time to read. And both authors vividly show how the epidemic has been much, much harder on some people than on others.

Here’s a list of some novels and other books set during the pandemic. Have you read them? Or is the topic still too close for comfort?

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Bad Air Quality

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Malaria’s in the news, because we’ve seen cases in the US transmitted on our own soil, not carried in by a traveler–the cases totalling eight so far. Worldwide, it’s still a scourge, afflicting almost 250 million people every year, killing about 600,000.

We know that the carrier is the mosquito, or “little fly” in Spanish. The tiny guys (and gals) of various species carry four different types of protozoans; the most dangerous is plasmodium falciparum, which basically means a plasma, or smeary liquid, made up of sickle-shaped cells.

The word malaria’s history is interesting in its simplicity. It’s just what it looks like: bad (mal) air (aria). People used to think the fetid air around marshes caused what they called “marsh fever.” Nobody knew to blame the skeeters.

In around 1880, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran, a French army doctor, spotted the culpable organisms swimming in patients’ red blood cells and received the 1907 Nobel Prize for the discovery. Quinine and then chloroquine (remember that?) were found to be effective treatments. In 1898 other scientists found that mosquitoes were helping the plasmodia get around.

Wikipedia shares this cheerful bit of information: “In total, malaria may have killed 50-60 billion people throughout history, or about half of all humans that have ever lived.”

Bad air, indeed.

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One More July?

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We’re now well into the seventh month of the year, so it’s high time we examined the history of the name July. The Roman Senate named the month in 44 B.C.E. to honor the assassinated Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar, who was born in July.

Well, to be precise, Julius Caesar was born in Quintilis, at one time the fifth month of the ancient calendar, which began in March. If March is the first month of the year, then Quintilis/July is indeed the fifth month. (Think quintet and quintuplet.) The year proceeded through ten months, ending with December, in which you can see words related to ten, such as decade and decimal.

Weirdly, between December and March passed sixty or so unnamed days. I always imagine the Romans hunkered down in their villas and insulae (apartments), tapping their fingers, huddling by the fire, waiting for the winter days to pass until they could once again reach an actual month (Yay! It’s March!).

According to legend, King Numa, who ruled from 715–672 BCE, gave those orphaned days their names, January and February, but originally, they remained at the end of the year, after December. In about 450 BCE (opinions differ) January was promoted to the first month of the year.

Which moved July down to number seven. It’s the quintessential summer month, usually the warmest month of the year, though it’s the coldest in the Southern hemisphere. I imagine the children’s writer Roald Dahl was thinking of the Northern hemisphere when he wrote, “”If I had my way, I’d remove January from the calendar altogether and have an extra July instead.”

How about it? Would you want an extra July?

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Writing and Reading Amazon Book Reviews

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An acquaintance recently told me that she might be able to help me do an author talk at the Thurber House in Columbus. The humorist James Thurber’s former home is now a literary center, with workshops, tours, and classes related to all manner of writing. Looking to break out of my Northeast Ohio bailiwick, I was also excited because I am a James Thurber fan from way back. One of my fondest reading memories is My Life and Hard Times. (I probably wouldn’t react the same way now, but in high school I laughed until I cried.)

After this kind acquaintance asked her friends at the Thurber House about booking me, she found that they no longer run a program dedicated to Ohio writers, and, more importantly, they seek out bigger game, more successful writers than me. She wrote, “You may need a bit more promotion of your book (more reviews, shown on Amazon).” A Grandmother’s ABC Book had been out only a week or two at that point, and there were no Amazon reviews.

Nobody needs to tell me that I’m not well known, but that Amazon comment is telling. A book title on Amazon with no reviews (and ABC is still without them) looks pretty forlorn. In order to acquire them, many writers and publishers send advance copies to prolific, highly rated Amazon reviewers ahead of publication, so that reviews are ready to post when the book comes out. That’s too much work for a small publisher like mine, and so, for past books, I have solicited reviews from friends, but also strangers. I searched around the Amazon site for reviewers, contacted them, and asked them to review my book (a process now underway for the ABC book). The reviewers get nothing but the glory and a free book. The writer takes a chance on some so-so reviews, but getting that space filled under your book title is the goal. The same process is more or less true of Goodreads.

This puts me in a bind. I want to support local independent bookstores, not Jeff Bezos’s lifestyle. Therefore, I discourage readers from buying on Amazon (though I believe the occasional desperate last-minute purchase is forgivable). Order from your bookstore instead. Also, provides an online avenue to support your favorite bookstore.

At the same time, I know that many readers perusing Amazon make judgments about books. I don’t want my books to look sad there. So, I’m in the weird position of asking readers to write Amazon reviews but not to buy books there. Booksellers have told me that some “customers” browse their stores, jotting down titles to purchase on Amazon when they get home. Don’t do that. Browse Amazon, including reviews, to collect titles of interest, and then call or visit your local bookstore to order them.

I probably wouldn’t have been invited to speak at the Thurber House anyway, because they, understandably, want more prominent writers. I can’t help but note, however, that the Amazon deficiency factored in to the decision.

The bottom line. Post reviews on Amazon, if you can in good conscience, especially for small books with a small following. (John Grisham does not need your support.) Do the same on Goodreads. Your local writers and poets (Yes! Review poetry!) will thank you.

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A Linguistic Kerfuffle

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My friend Jewel sent me a Washington Post article last week about Elon Musk and the term cisgender. In case you don’t know, cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity coincides with the sex with which the person was born. It’s in contrast to transgender, where one’s physical sex and inner gender identification differ.

It seems that Elon has his panties in a bunch over the term, threatening to suspend anyone from Twitter who uses it. Elon cites an anti-trans activist who maintains that a “pedosexual” doctor (who has been accused of pedophilia) created the term in 1991. On account of this tainted history, Elon regards the term as a slur.

The article describes a much longer history, leaving out the doctor altogether. As early as 1914, the prefix cis was being used by people researching gender identity and sexual orientation. The Oxford English Dictionary has traced the actual term cisgender to a University of Minnesota grad student, who used it in a 1994 paper. The OED officially added the word in 2015.

So, about that cis. It’s a Latin preposition meaning “on this side of.” That’s all it means. Cisgender people feel firmly “on the side of” the gender associated with their physical accoutrements. Others, such as transgender people (trans meaning “across, on the other side of”) feel as though these are two different sides–physical sexuality vs. gender identification.

To be blunt, the cisgender option permits us to avoid normal as a descriptor, which implies that trans, non-binary people, and others are not normal, which is indeed stigmatizing. The term pulls us away from judgmental sounding labels. There’s nothing debasing or dehumanizing about it.

Here’s a balanced discussion of the language kerfuffle in Forbes magazine. Please share your thoughts.

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J is for Jeans

At least that’s what A Grandmother’s ABC Book says. It’s on page 56.

Super patriots may believe that blue jeans and their name began in America, but non vero (Italian for “not true”). Both the word and the pants began in 16th century Genoa, Italy, the city that gave jeans their name. The fabric was dyed with blue indigo and was used for dock workers’ clothing. It was durable enough to stand up to the wear and tear of working on ships and docks.

A similar sturdy fabric, denim, was woven in Nimes, France. This similar fabric we know as denim, or de Nimes, meaning “from Nimes.”

Originally, the singular form jean referred to the fabric. As it appeared mostly in pants, the s was gradually attached (as in trousers, slacks, and so on).

My book explains that the letter J was originally a variation of I and was pronounced like our Y. The god Janus was a later form of Ianus, and, as you might remember from your high-school Latin classes. Julius, as in Caesar, was spelled Iulius. In 1524, a guy named Gian Giorgio Trissino decreed that I and J should be two different letters, and so they have been ever since.

The jeans we know and love are 150 years old. In 1873, a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis added rivets to denim pants to make them sturdier. He collaborated with Levi Strauss, a San Francisco merchant, to acquire a patent.

The two men could have had no idea what they had wrought. If you Google blue jeans today, you find a Georgia pizza shop, a song by Lana Del Rey, a software company, and lots and lots and lots of jeans. Lots.

Do you have a favorite pair?

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This Is Jeopardy!

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In a family Jeopardy game this evening to celebrate my son’s birthday, the Final Jeopardy category was “Science Language.” Here’s the Final Jeopardy answer:

Coined by chemist Van Helmont, the word ‘gas’ comes from this Greek word meaning ‘unformed mass.’

All together now! Everyone sing the Jeopardy tune while we all think it over, and don’t forget to make a wager! “Doo, doo, doo, doo doo, doo, doo, dooo . . . “

If you guessed chaos, you’re wrong, because you didn’t put your response in the form of a question! The correct response is, “What is chaos?” If you responded correctly, you may have won an imaginary $16,800, as I did!

The hyper-correct response is actually, “What is khaos?” That’s the Greek spelling. The Greek alphabet had no C, a redundant letter in that the letters K and S take care of its sounds. It shares a history with G, gamma, the third letter of the Greek alphabet. (You can read about this history in an interesting new book called A Grandmother’s Alphabet Book.)

Khaos did not mean only “unformed mass.” The word also named a deity, the first to emerge from the primordial ooze after creation. She formed the misty atmosphere surrounding the earth as it emerged, and thereby gave birth to the birds.

Jan Baptista van Helmont, a 16th century Flemish chemist, used the word to give gases their name. In the manner of the time, he’s identified not only as a scientist, but also as a physician, mystic, and philosopher. Gases are nebulous and amorphous, seemingly insubstantial. It took a mystic and philosopher to identify and name them.

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