I met a man in Israel in 2001. (Yes, I did actually travel to Israel in 2001, leaving very shortly after the air traffic restrictions were lifted following the events of September 11, 2001.) This man’s name was Avi. He had a profound and enduring impact on my life, although I only got to be with him for a few hours.

When I met Avi, he was 94 years old. He lived in the area around Jerusalem. He made hummus for a living. He had the perfect setup: He owned a well, a plot of chickpeas, a grove of olive trees, an orchard of lemon trees, a patch of garlic, a patch of sesame, and a large block of salt. (The salt, which he purchased, was the only part of the final product that Avi did not produce himself.)

I was taken to see Avi by my tour guide. He thought Avi was really an amazing fellow, and he was right.

When I met Avi, he was up a ladder in his olive grove. Remember that Avi was 94? Yeah. That’s amazing. I asked Avi why he was harvesting olives around 30 feet in the air at the age of 94. He replied: “Someone’s got to do it, and there’s no one but me.” (Technically, this was not true. Avi was surrounded by family. His sons, grandsons, and great grandsons were there with him on the hummus farm. But he never let anyone touch his olive trees except himself. They were over 2,000 years old, and they were his pets.

Avi was a Palestinian Christian. Whether by virtue of his being a Christian, or some other means that I could never figure out, Avi survived the expulsion of the Palestinians from the area known at the time as Palestine by the Brits in 1947 – 48. He remembered it though. Very, very well. He did not like to talk about it very much. He called it the Palestinian Holocaust.

Anyway, Avi practiced a traditional form of Christianity similar to Catholicism. Given the language and communication difficulties, I never really figured out the exact type of orthodox, traditional Christian that Avi was, but I quickly learned that Avi’s Christianity was very different from mine. He had a much more interesting and nuanced view of the bible than I did at the time, for example. He was intimately familiar with many other ancient texts, especially those of the early Christian writers (whom he regarded with equal reverence as the works of the New Testament).

The most interesting thing to me about Avi was his attitude about work and money. He got up at 4 a.m. every day except Sunday, and worked generally for about 5 hours until 9 a.m. During that period, Avi did everything that he needed to do to produce his daily quota of hummus. And hummus it was! Avi’s hummus was a work of art: Literally so delicious that it made you weep. And talk about demand! The folks who had been buying Avi’s hummus had been doing so for generations, and no one else was allowed to access this treasure!

As an American, I quickly saw the potential. Wow! You have a great product! You have tremendous brand recognition. The path is obvious. Buy more land! Plant more olive trees, chickpeas, sesame, lemons and garlic. Make more hummus. Make more money!

To which Avi replied: I don’t want to make more money. I make enough money. And I am done by 9 a.m. every day. The rest of the day is mine.

I will never forget that moment. My American capitalist pretensions collapsed in a heartbeat. I saw immediately that Avi’s way of life was better than mine in every way: He was happier, more at peace and less stressed out. Simply because he had let go of greed. He did not want more than he had. He had enough for today, and for him, that was enough.

Avi had an interesting approach to investment and savings as well. He did not try to save money, olive oil, or anything else. If he had more than enough of anything he needed, he gave it away to his friends and neighbors. For Avi, this was a form of savings. Why? Because if Avi needed anything, he could go to his friends and neighbors and they would share whatever they had with him.

With our individualistic American self-reliance mentality, this form of collectivism is inconceivable. It’s all on me. I have no neighbor who will share with me. I envy Avi that, as well as the other aspects of his full, rich life.

More later.

Sweet Poison

Anyone who hangs around me long enough has probably heard me recount a radio piece I heard on NPR. I am kind of an NPR fanatic. You know, sustaining donor and all that. So yesterday, I was rapping with my wife and I brought up this piece on sugar featuring Dr. Robert Lustig on Diane Rehm’s show. The whole gist of the show was about how hopeless it is to fight against obesity when you are eating a diet which is high in sugar.

Which gets into the whole diet thing, of course. You have to understand that I have struggled with obesity my entire life. My parents where both obese. My siblings were both heavy and struggled with weight issues growing up. And so forth. Of course, growing up in the 60s as we did, we ate a horrifically unhealthy diet. Including huge quantities of sugar, especially in the form of soft drinks.

Which gets back to Dr. Lustig. While I disagreed with Dr. Lustig on some points (performing stomach stapling surgery on children being one such point), he did make some other points with which I am in violent agreement. One of these was the way our bodies work with sugar and the flavor sweet.

Basically, if you want to get a baby to eat a salty or tart food, you must introduce it to the baby on average 13 times, and he or she may or may not ever accept it. A sweet food is accepted by babies immediately. Apparently, we are instinctively programed to like to eat sweet foods. According to Dr. Lustig this is because our bodies are designed to recognize anything sweet as safe to eat. Although Dr. Lustig did not point out why this is the case, I can reach into my Anthropology background, and give a very good guess: When plants include sugar in their fruit, they do so because they want animals like humans to pick them, eat them and cast the seeds in their stool. Many, many plants reproduce in this manner. Obviously, making the fruit poison would be counterproductive to the plants survival. For this reason, sweet food is always safe to eat in nature.

Enter the food industry. Dr. Lustig points out that foods like high fructose corn syrup defeat our biological programming: This food is sweet but it is definitely not safe to eat. Instead, in the long term, as can be seen in my own life, it is poison. Even the food industry knows this. But they continue to market this dangerous but wildly profitable food to the public.

I have read and studied so much on diet and nutrition that I figure I probably deserve an advanced degree by now. I have at least read the books on all of the major diet programs, and I have been on most of them. This includes Atkins, Priticin, Ornish, MacDougal, Sears, Fuhrman, etc. In my experience, these guys disagree on almost everything: Some say you should eat a diet low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat. Others maintain just the opposite: You should eat a diet high in carbohydrates and very low in protein (especially animal protein) and fat. But on one thing all of these guys agree, and that is about sugar, and especially soft drinks.

Everyone in the entire diet and nutrition field (with the exception of shills from the food industry) agree that high sugar foods like soft drinks and heavily processed snack foods are effectively killing us, and are telling everyone this including the food industry. In the process, the entire raft of human diseases that plague us at this point in history (diabetes, arthritis, auto-immunity, etc.) are consuming all of our wealth. You get the idea: Basically we are looking at the end of our civilization if we don’t change our ways.

This is a classic example of why Capitalism does not always work out to our advantage: The food industry has a strong financial incentive to produce and sell very profitable foods like high sugar soft drinks and snack foods. But these foods have a cost and that cost is very, very high. We must fix this somehow if we intend to survive.

More later.