Tuesday, December 8, 2009

mind sludge: how soda and meat affected my mind through childhood

When I was younger, I struggled with a faulty memory. In high school I never have the interest and barely had the capacity to read a book, much less remember it. I could not keep my mind focused enough to read one page of a text book, without my mind wandering. I always turned in homework and extra credit and still had to cheat on tests to keep a B average. Learning was never fun.

As the years passed, I found my interests growing, my thirst for knowledge growing and a genuine basic understanding of simple things growing at large rates; and I could even retain some of this information. There are three major shifts in my life that I associate with catalysts for the improvement in my memory and basic intellect, those things are: college, quiting soda, and becoming a vegetarian.

In junior year of high school, I remember procrastinating all winter break, giving myself only 48 hours to read the entire book of the Grapes of Wrath. The test the next day was a majority of our grade, and I was already struggling with sub par scores. The memory sticks out like a glowing orb, because reading the Grapes of Wrath was painfully difficult for me, the pain was followed by an empowering sense of accomplishment, which was immediately followed with a feeling of actual enjoyment. I literally thought, in reference to reading an entire book, “I may want to do that again someday.” Pretty pathetic I know, but I realize now that my habit of eating, junk food and non existent sleep was starving my brain. In retrospect I am lucky to have done as well as I did.

During this time, when my eating was the worst and drinking soda was at its all time high (even despite the fact that as a cross country runner it was forbidden from our diet), I struggled in every class; except art. A good indication why I am a visual artist today. In high school geography I cheated on tests by writing the first letter of each country or state or body of water on my hand starting from the left side of the map to the right side of the map. By having the first letter of each answer, it helped me pull good scores on tests that I would have easily failed otherwise. My failsafe was writing the letters on my hand or shoe, where all I had to do was rub the area and the letter would dissappear, which was made easier by the fact that my hands were always sweaty when I cheated. In math and Spanish I would constantly bring tests up to the teacher and ask for assistance or to help understand a problem, prodding for clues into the correct answer. Much of my high school school day was spent trying to manage my ways into good grades without actually learning anything, for the prospect of actually learning seemed almost impossible.

College, while emotionally difficult, eventually opened my eyes to a new style of study. While I struggled with similar memory issues from my childhood, I made headwind in essays, research and group projects. I actually began to enjoy learning, even in classes which did not involve art; although my art classes still remained my favorite. At my fourth and final year at Winona State University, I finally realized that I: had the ability to learn anything, to make my own decisions, to be confident or shy, to be smart or dumb, and decide who I wanted to be. Again, it seems quite improbable that such simple basic truths took me 22 years to understand and grasp, but it is the truth. Not one year after college I was having art shows in my apartment, and I even went out got my drivers license, which represented my independence.

Creativity and motivation have been two areas that I have always excelled in, although neither could be effectively pointed in any certain direction. In fact, it was quite obvious that my creativity and motivation would be on something other than the primary objective, regardless of what the objective was. In grade school I designed and drew thousands of my own trading cards, copied them, and sold them to neighbor kids for loose change. In high school, when I should have been studying, I was up all night writing fictional wrestling shows on the Internet. Anytime I tried to apply myself to school or homework my eyes glazed over and my mind shut off. In college I was able to effectively put my motivation and creativity into my art classes, and learned everything from intaglio prints, to welding and plaster poring. For the first time in my life, my assets had aligned with my primary objective. It was during this time, it became clear I could use those skills in areas other than just art. My grades improved slightly and I graduated with a 3.52 GPA.

When I was 25, I had just begun a small business airbrushing murals on automotive vehicles. It was during this business leap, that I decided that drinking soda had to stop. I had been researching high fructose corn syrup for a while, thanks to hints mainly from my mother, and despite my severe addiction to the drink; I went for it. After quitting soda I had severe headaches for a week, and cravings that still show up on occasion today. Predicting such a response, I had set up a system up juice, tea and natural soda to buffer my transition. I am now a devoted tea drinker and am very happy to have given up soda. The idea to make this change was a direct result of the independence I gained from college; I did not want to be addicted to something proven to be bad for me and I was dedicated to change. Not long after this change did I find my capacity for new information began to increase, I began reading books, doing research on the Internet and giving myself homework assignments.

The homework assignments, often based on immortality research, and my new relationship to my girlfriend named Kelsey, led me strait to vegetarianism. Kelsey and myself went to protest the RNC convention in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2007 when a fellow protester handed her a pamphlet on ethical choices. Needless to say she was a vegetarian by that night and after staying up all weekend watching a documentary called Earthlings, a documentary about the inhumane treatment of animals, I was a vegetarian three days later. After all of my research on meat eating I truly felt like I had no choice. Since then I have written multiple papers and blogs on why one should quit eating meat. With just a little research and a two hour movie I had developed a terrible guilt about eating meat and the choice made me a more healthy person. Little did I know it would also greatly effect my memory and knowledge.

I still miss the taste of meat, but I did not have the withdrawals the way I did when I quit drinking soda. Quitting meat was incredibly easy for me, I have developed a great interest in cooking now and I have found a love for new foods like beans, curry, spices, and vegetables of all kinds. The decision basically obliterated my consumption of fast food, which was another positive side effect of becoming a vegetarian.

In high school, or even in college, there is no chance that I would have sat down on my own time to write a short essay about my personal experiences with my memory and diet. Like the one you are reading now. You could argue that my progress is part of a natural process of getting older and having experiences that accumulate into a vault of knowledge; however I can guarantee that my mind has been effected greatly by my diet. College built the blocks for an inquisitive mind, and soda and meat kept my mind dormant for the first 20 years of my life. I often wonder how my life would be different if I never ate meat, and never drank soda. I do believe that each person is different, and meat in certain situations can be beneficial in ones diet. I stand by the health and ethical reasons for being vegetarian, and all young people should make a great effort in finding learning systems which allow each individual person to find a joy in learning. Meanwhile, everyone should avoid partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, which can be found in junk food and soda. Make this a day to give up something that is bad for you, and stick to it.


itroy said...

I think it's great you gave up sugar ...I've significantly cut back myself and although I don't notice any sort of 'mental' shift, I do notice other physical benefits.

Meat though, although I don't eat a lot, is still occasionally on my plate. Someday perhaps.

You mention wondering how your life would be different if you started earlier ...but consider too that without the 'bad' stuff, you wouldn't be who you are today. Maybe?

Thanks :)

williamhessian said...

good point. its hard to put a value on that, but you are right it has made me who i am today. and that cannot be ignored!

Brian said...

Billy, this was one of my favorite posts of yours. I've put my self through a couple of challenges recently. I successfully completed the Special K challenge, where basically you eat 1 real meal a day, and for the other 2 you eat only Special K + a fruit (or vegetable), for 2 weeks. Then, this past summer I gave up soda for 75 days. I drink diet soda, so it has different "bad things" about it than regular soda, but both can be considered bad for you. Since then, I've returned to drinking soda, but not as much as I used to. I drink bottled water just as much as soda now.

I can never give up meat. I love it, and I don't share the same ethics as you in regards to it, but I respect your opinion and lifestyle. However, I would like to give up fast food someday (or maybe I can try to go 75 days without that?) I have it more than I should. Not because I crave it, but because it's so easy. Know what I mean?

On a side note, I'm glad you wrote those wrestling shows, because that was a very fun experience for us all, as silly as it seems today. Escapism in any form is appealing to all of us.

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