Reading and Walking

Part of this new 2015 chapter in health and fitness should be about eliminating multitasking, I think. And while reading The New Yorker from cover to cover in the process of getting to an 11,000 steps daily goal on the treadmill might qualify as dual tasking it will have to remain. These days it is impossible for me to just sit somewhere and read. It is similarly impossible for me to simply be on the treadmill, staring at the display and getting really good at multiplying by 9 (1 g of fat = 9 calories). So I’ve decided that the two activities belong together.

I used to read on the bus while traveling to work in NYC. Now I don’t travel anywhere and The New Yorkers were piling up. I am finally getting to read each one, having found the perfect complementary task.

But here’s the thing about the articles in this magazine – you can’t just read something and move on. What you read within these pages resonates well beyond the final page turned. Reading Nick Paumgarten’s article about Conde Nast’s move from midtown to downtown had a deep association for me since I have always worked for their competitors in and around the same neighborhood and I get nostalgic about the same sights and sounds and can identify with beautiful Nick Paumgarten phrases like “accretion of intent”.

In the next engaging article you read about Yitang Zhang an unheralded mathematician who bridged the prime gap. The article starts by Alec Wilkinson’s admission that math has always been somewhat beyond him. But despite this admission he is able to interview Zhang and explain what Zhang managed to do, so that most people reading the article could get some sense of Zhang, the magic and mystery of prime numbers and the unhurried and focused way in which this mathematician approaches every problem. I was amazed that I didn’t tune an article about prime numbers out after reading the first paragraph! Imagine there are prime number fetishists! 2 and 3 are neighborhood primes, 41 and 43 are twin primes, prime numbers that are 4 numbers apart are cousin primes and the ones that are 6 numbers apart are “sexy” primes! Who knew? Not I. I’ll never forget this one 700666007 – a beastly palindromic prime! Also that any prime number that contains 666 is a beastly prime. How fascinating!

The last article that I got to read before reaching my steps goal was about food safety in the US. It is always surprising to me that no matter what phase of life one is in, there is always something in this magazine that complements your thoughts and actions. What you read then amplifies your concerns (which can be bad) or helps you realize that there is some merit to your choices. In this case, the more I read about food safety in the US, the more I realized how unsafe food in our supermarkets can be.

I am a newly minted vegetarian. I have been meat free for 30 days now. I decided to stop eating meat because I was appalled at not just the conditions within and without the farm but the very concept of factory farms; their raison d’être. I felt good about my decision. Now, reading about Salmonella Heidelberg and E Coli contamination and the reluctance of FDA/ FSIS to call E Coli an “adulterant”, makes me feel even better about my decision.

The article talks about how FDA and FSIS have evolved since inception. How FDA was supposed to oversee everything except meat and poultry and FSIS was supposed to oversee meat and poultry except catfish, for some reason, catfish belongs to FDA. There are no clear distinctions anymore about the roles of these two watchguards over our health and well-being. They say this is where these agencies are now, having grown in this manner. Why would they be allowed to grow in this manner? When responsible parents raise their kids don’t they try to ensure that their kids grow right, with straight teeth, straight backs – no scoliosis, an education, immunity etc. Why does the government allow its agencies to grow helter-skelter?

It made me think of the time I was in Portugal for a business trip, all those years ago, and noticed how the buildings looked old and moldy, so many things looked like they were falling apart. I was new to America then and my eyes were younger, willing to believe, and quite in awe of the newness, the shine, the lack of unkempt sights. Photoshop didn’t exist back then, but in retrospect I feel as though what I saw in the US then was a photo-shopped or airbrushed reality.

When you read about FEMA screw ups, FDA and FSIS screw ups, special interests lurking everywhere, you wonder if things are, in reality, falling apart like the moldy buildings in any country that isn’t an airbrushed United States.

I think this passage from the article is the scariest thing about food safety one can come across:

“When another court ruled in favor of the F.S.I.S. decision to declare E. coli an adulterant, the ruling included a passage to prevent the F.S.I.S. from applying the same label to other bacteria: “Courts have held that other pathogens, such as salmonella, are not adulterants.” In response to that decision, in 1996 the F.S.I.S. enacted a series of new rules to curb pathogens like salmonella. For whole chickens, the salmonella “performance standard” was set at twenty per cent, meaning that one in every five bird carcasses could be contaminated. That standard has since been lowered to 7.5 per cent, but the performance standard for salmonella in ground chicken is much higher—44.6 per cent—and for ground turkey it is 49.9 per cent. “Which means that almost half of all your ground chicken that goes off the line can actually test positive for salmonella,” Urvashi Rangan, the director of food safety at Consumer Reports, told me.

Some products, such as cut-up chicken parts, have no performance standard at all. A hundred per cent of the product in supermarkets may be contaminated without running afoul of federal limits. Rangan told me that she was stunned when she discovered this, just recently: “We’ve asked the U.S.D.A. point blank, ‘So does that mean there aren’t standards for lamb chops and pork ribs?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we don’t have standards for those.’ ”

Can one still look at the meat aisles the same way in one’s supermarket?

I had to hop off the treadmill just before the “Fiction” in this issue, that comes tomorrow.

I can’t think of another publication out there that could fascinate and engage a reader in this manner.

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