Private Lives:Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our lives.
I was into health food before it was cool. There were only two other people I knew who frequented my neighborhood health food store in the late ’80s: an emaciated man with a gray ponytail and a woman with a surprising amount of underarm hair, who smelled of B.O. and patchouli.
The floor there was crowded with bins filled with grains, granola and dried tiger’s milk. And on a small shelf in back was a smattering of organic produce: tiny apples with black spots and a couple of balls of spinach so caked in dirt you had to wash each leaf separately and check for worms.
But sometime in the mid-’90s, everyone who made fun of me for being a health nut was suddenly calling for advice. Which was better, organic or local? How did I germinate sprouts? Even my grandmother, who thought I was going to die when I gave up meat as a teenager, wanted my recipe for mock chicken soup.
And now, in the Whole Foods era, as I push my shopping cart down spacious aisles stocked with nonprocessed, gluten-free, non-G.M.O., heirloom, grass-fed, free-range and artisanal goods, I am pleased to know that I was ahead of my time.
Imagine my shock, then, at my last physical, when my doctor told me I had hypothyroidism, common in women over 40. When I got home I looked up the condition on the Internet and found a list of foods to avoid. Kale, which I juiced every morning, tops the list, followed by broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and collard greens — the cruciferous vegetables I consumed in large quantities because they are thought to prevent cancer, which runs in my family. And flax — as in the seeds — high in omega 3’s, that I sprinkled on cereal and blended in strawberry almond milk smoothies. Also forbidden: almonds and strawberries, not to mention soy, peaches, peanuts, corn, radishes, rutabaga and spinach.
And then, as if my world was not sufficiently rocked, I went to the dentist, who said I had five cavities and asked if I snacked on candy and sodas all day long. I was insulted. Indignant. What did he take me for? No, I answered. I don’t eat sugar and drink only fresh vegetable juices — no longer kale, of course, but carrot and celery, which I’m still allowed. And filtered water with lemon.
“You’d be better off with chocolate and cola,” he said. Apparently the natural sugars in fruit and vegetable juices can cause decay, and lemon, though high in vitamin C and bioflavonoids which may prevent cancer, had eroded the enamel that protected my teeth.
I argued that I always brushed afterward. “Worst thing you can do,” he said. “That’s when the teeth are most vulnerable. Always wait half an hour after eating or drinking anything before brushing your teeth. And don’t brush more than twice daily. You’re destroying what little enamel you have left.”
I thought he might collapse when he asked what toothpaste I used and I said non-fluoride brands from the health food store. He steadied himself on the arm of the dental chair and let out a long sigh before sending me home with a prescription for an extra-strength fluoride toothpaste, which I had no intention of filling because I was worried that fluoride, even in the smaller concentrations permitted in over-the-counter brands, might be harmful.
But by the time I got off the bus in front of the Walgreens by my apartment, I had changed my mind. I bought the toothpaste. You never know what you’ll do when you’re scared. I’d read “The Cancer Prevention Diet” by Michio Kushi, who brought macrobiotics to the United States in the ’60s. In the book, he presents numerous case studies of cancer patients who refused Western treatment and healed naturally, through macrobiotics. But when he was told he had cancer himself, he went under the knife.
I got home and looked up my new toothpaste on the Internet. There I read that fluoride is linked to hypothyroidism. In fact, it’s been used as a medication for hyperthyroid patients, who have the condition opposite to mine.
Which should I choose? My thyroid or my teeth? I suppose in the long run my thyroid is more important, though the image of my grandmother’s dentures soaking in cup of water flashed through my mind.
I considered my dilemma as I opened the fridge and took out the milk my husband puts in his coffee. Not soy, rice or almond milk — but dairy, from a cow. And then I remembered the box of Twinkies my husband had bought — not to eat, but because they were being discontinued and might be valuable one day. It was on a shelf in the hall closet, behind the old typewriter, the dial phone and his stamp collection. Carefully, with a kitchen knife, I removed the top and admired the perfect cakes of my childhood, side by side in their individual cellophane covers, like little sleeping bags. I tore the first one open.
Jennifer Berman is a writer and sign language interpreter living in New York City.
A version of this article appears in print on 01/05/2014, on page SR12 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Kale? Juicing? Trouble Ahead.
I’m not Jennifer Berman, the sex therapist. Or the cartoonist. Though if I were, my cartoons would be exactly like hers. My favorite is the one of a huge auditorium with only two people: a man seated in front and a woman way in back. The banner for the event reads: Adult Children of Normal Parents Annual Convention. And I love her drawing of a cat that moves when you click on the links on her homepage. Which brings me to my point. Jennifer Berman, the cartoonist, scored the website JenniferBerman.com. A blond realtor in LA snagged JenniferBerman.net. All that’s left is .org, which makes me sound like an organization, and .info, which I think is fine, but my tech-savvy friends say I’ll come up last in searches.
Not that it matters. I can always give out my web address. It’s not like people I don’t know will be looking for me. And if they do, they’ll find the cartoonist’s site first and have a good chuckle.
The most famous of us is the sex therapist. She was a regular guest on Oprah, and evenshe couldn’t get our name and had to settle for DoctorJenn.com. The cartoonist beat us all to it. I’d love to meet her. Not only is she hilarious, but she looks friendly and down to earth. Like me, she’s an animal lover. She’s pictured with two of her four dogs on her bio page, has cats, and even miniature donkeys. I’ve thought about writing her. But what would I say? I’m Jennifer Berman, too?
I did once write the woman who has the email address JenniferBerman@Gmail.com. She signed up first so I had to use my middle initial in my Gmail account. An uppercase “L” is fine, but lowercase it’s just a thin line that totally gets lost. People will say they sent me something and then realize they forgot the “L.” So I emailed JenniferBerman@Gmail.com, introduced myself, and asked if she’d forward my messages. But I never heard back.
I asked her if she was the one in publishing. She said no, but didn’t volunteer what she did. I guess I’d hoped we’d swap Jennifer Berman stories and maybe become friends.
A guy once asked me out on my voicemail and I kept trying to figure out how I knew him before I realized he had the wrong Jennifer Berman. Which was a shame, because he sounded cute. I called him back—in part because it was the nice thing to do, but mostly because I thought maybe we’d hit it off. But when he didn’t answer I just left a message explaining the mix-up, without leaving my number.
This year at temple on Yom Kippur, before the service started, a woman ran over to my seat and said she’d given me the wrong ticket. It was for another Jennifer Berman who was waiting out front. I found her at the check-in table. She was young—about 30 and pretty, with long, gold-streaked hair. I asked her if she was the one in publishing because I’m frequently mistaken for her. She said no, but didn’t volunteer what she did. She wasn’t particularly friendly and seemed to think I was a bit of a nut. I guess I’d hoped we’d swap Jennifer Berman stories and maybe become friends. At first I thought maybe she didn’t share my excitement because she got our last name through marriage. But that wasn’t it. She was born Jennifer Berman, but meeting me meant nothing to her.
A friend suggested that I add a suffix to form a domain name, like JenniferBermanNYC.com. But what if I leave New York? I was thinking of something like JenniferBerman-the-last-person-in-the-world-to-get-a domain-name or JenniferBerman-late-to-the-party.com.
The truth is, I’m not sure I’m ready for a website. While the cartoonist was building a body of work, I didn’t yet know that I wanted to write. Websites, like alumni magazines, are a good showcase for those who have stuck to one thing. But to be nearly 50 and beginning a third career—my life doesn’t translate well to an About Me blurb.
I’d like to wait until I’ve published more essays and maybe a book. But they say you don’t exist without an online presence. A website is the business card of yesterday. It’s like how we now have Facebook, when we used to have friends.
I once read an article about Betty clubs. Having the name is the only requirement to join. They had a convention in Hastings, Neb. Sixty-four Bettys bonded, sang the Betty Anthem (sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), and chapter leaders reported on their groups recreational outings and charitable projects organized in their name.
The cartoonist, the sex therapist, and I—we could organize the first Jennifer Berman convention. I could host it in New York. The cartoonist could make the invitation—like my favorite cartoon, except instead of a nearly empty auditorium it would be packed with Jennifer Bermans, in seats and standing in the aisles, talking to each other, laughing, hugging, excited to pool our creative resources and do great things in the world. The banner would read: The Jennifer Berman Annual Convention, and in small letters at the bottom we’ll include our website: JenniferBerman.org.
June 4, 2012, 3:00 AM A Birdnapping By JENNIFER BERMAN Victor Kerlow Dear Diary: METROPOLITAN DIARY More Reader Tales From the City » Last Sunday, I was walking with my husband and his mother on West 97th Street, when I stepped very close to a bird. “Look!” I said to my husband, “It can’t fly.” We looked […]
Dalmatian Club of America Encourages Euthanasia of Deaf Pets by Jennifer Berman Published October 29, 2012 Roger Cotton Tennessee Safety Spotters’ founder Patricia Belt poses with her two deaf Dalmatian dogs, Lottie Dot and Izzy. Both dogs work in Belt’s non-profit, which provides educational and therapeutic programs. Mary Ellen Mack, 39, was researching getting a new Dalmatian after her […]
Deaf Pets and Their People by Jennifer Berman Courtesy of Cathy Miller Saye In honor of Deaf Pet Awareness Week (September 23rd through September 29th) we celebrate the unique bond between deaf pets and deaf people. Domino and Anne When Anne Tomasetti, 38, decided to adopt a cat she knew she wanted it to be deaf like her. She searched […]
Volunteer Tail: Animal Shelter Volunteer Antinya Monroe Makes a Difference by Jennifer Berman Courtesy of Jennifer Berman Animal shelter volunteer Antinya Monroe, pictured above, is making a difference in the lives of shelter cats. If cats could design their own shelter, I imagine it would be just like Mid Hudson Animal Aid, a non-profit no-kill sanctuary […]
Considering Euthanasia: When It’s Time to Let Go by Jennifer Berman When Catherine, my beloved Abyssinian cat of 18 years, was diagnosed with advanced renal failure, I hoped she would go peacefully in her sleep. It would be a natural end to her long and happy life, and I wouldn’t have to make the heartbreaking decision […]