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Fast Living

A diary of one bold reporter's self-imposed starvation.

by Joe Tarr

Dear Mom,
Thanks so much for the Hershey Kiss cookies. They look great. Unfortunately, I can't eat them. I'm starving myself for three or four days. It's supposed to be good for you.
Love, Joe

Sunday, noon: My last meal: a cheese omelet with salsa, hash browns, toast, and OJ at Sullivan's Diner. It's tasty. But I've had enough of food. I'm anxious to start fasting. I got the idea a few months ago, when a friend of mine told me that she'd gone 10 days without food, and that it made her feel better, intensified her senses. It got me thinking. So few people really see their world. We look for what we expect and want to find, and categorize and disregard the rest. It's natural and unavoidable. Those who see everything probably go mad. But walking down the cracked, littered sidewalks of Laurel Avenue each morning, I wonder what I'm missing, what I never see. Which made me want to tinker with my body's wiring to see if indeed I might see my world in a different light. Perhaps this heightened sensibility is a throwback to the hunter-gather days, when deprived of food, our ancestors became more attuned to their surroundings to help them better find it. According to a number of websites and natural health guides, there are physical benefits as well. Fasting will allow my body to flush out toxins that have built up in the fat, kidneys, liver and other organs, and afterward, I will feel refreshed, rejuvenated. The hunger, they say, lasts one to three days.

Sunday, 8 p.m.: Gulp. I have four gallons of spring water, five lemons (to squeeze into my water), and a box of peppermint tea. Alarmingly, it goes right through me. I thought my deprived body would absorb everything and anything I gave it. Forget water, it seems to say, I want food.

Monday, 1:12 p.m.: Almost more than the food, I miss the ritual of eating. It's wonderful to escape work and encounter people out in the world, some I know by name, others only by face. I miss going to The Tomato Head every morning for coffee and a bagel, and listening to Angela ramble about Dr. Seuss or driving through Canada. I miss hearing Terri at Crescent Moon beam "How are YA?" as she serves me her cheesy mashed potatoes, her bean and rice dishes, her vegetarian chili, her lemon bars. I miss going into the Brewpub after work and hearing Tim behind the bar say, "Joe, what do you need?" Well, Tim, today I'd like a beer, something dark and earthy, something filling.

Message from a friend on my answering machine: HEY! Vision quest...Did you see anything? Have you gained enlightenment? HAHA...Freak. Hippie. New age......How's your crystals doing?...Hippie. Click.

Monday, 7 p.m.: My cat looks so peaceful eating. I feed him the same thing everyday, but if I give him something different, he usually turns his nose. He's hooked on a concoction of poultry by-product meal, ground corn, brewer's rice, animal fat, corn gluten meal, and chicken liver. Yum.

Monday, 9:37 p.m.: Some of the best meals I've ever had came after a day of deprivation. Like after I've been backpacking for 10 or 15 miles, with some hefty load digging into my shoulders and spine. One backpacking feast is made by soaking a mixture of sun-dried tomatoes in hot water. Fry five or six chopped garlic cloves in olive oil, along with an onion, some basil or oregano, and some red pepper for a little zing. Boil pasta, preferably a small, chunky kind. Mix the garlic, onions, and spices with the sundried tomatoes (keeping the liquid, which will thicken slightly, for a sauce), along with some red wine. Lightly toast pine nuts in the pan, and add them and the pasta to the mix. Top with pecorino romano cheese. Oh, it's heaven.

Another great backpacking meal is instant black beans and basmati rice. Fry chopped onion, dried chopped chipotle or jalapeno peppers, and cumin in olive oil, and mix together. Throw some Wisconsin extra sharp cheddar cheese, aged 18 months, cilantro leaves, and a little salt and pepper on top. These meals taste best after you're exhausted, miles from any road, restaurant, or house, and forced to cook over an erratic backpacking stove on the damp, rocky ground. The key ingredients are exhaustion and hunger. A cold drizzle intensifies flavor. Prepared in your kitchen, these dishes will likely taste ordinary.

Tuesday, 8 a.m.: During a fast, as toxins are released from your body, you may experience fatigue; body odor; dry, scaly skin; skin eruptions; headaches; dizziness; irritability; anxiety; confusion; nausea; coughing; diarrhea; dark urine; dark, foul smelling stools; body aches; insomnia; sinus and bronchial mucus discharge; and/or visual or hearing problems. These symptoms are not serious, and will quickly pass.—from Prescription for Nutritional Healing

I can't get out of bed. My heart races, and I'm just lying here. But I can't sleep either. My stomach is dry, empty, trying to digest itself. My body aches. I have constant chills. My cat crawls on my chest and meows. Get off me, cat.

A friend of mine—a formally trained cook—worries about my fasting, says I'm too skinny, it might be unhealthy for me. She says that I haven't sought out balanced views from a doctor or nutritionist. She has a point. But when it comes to the body, especially your body, it's a crap shoot—we have to take what we're given, bad skin, faulty hearts, diabetes, crooked noses, big rumps, disabilities and all. Medical solutions for malfunctions and diseases usually hurt, and sometimes make life worse. The treatments for cancer have a chance of healing you, but may just kill you. Radiation and chemotherapy do not distinguish between good and bad cells, they destroy everything, and when your body is half dead, maybe the cancer will be gone, and you will recover. Maybe not. In the end, it's hard to say exactly what is best for a single human body.

You cannot trust your body. I feel like I'm at war with it. It's not a great body—bone-y, weak, susceptible to bronchitis, sweaty, with dandruff, acne, intestinal problems—but I'm not complaining and wouldn't trade it. It's held up well, considering that I've eaten lots of crap, smoked off and on for a few years, and exercise little. This morning, I panic that my stupid experiment has aggravated some unknown heart ailment, and that I'll wind up in a hospital. I touch the artery in my neck, feel blood thumping against my fingers, then trace the spaces between my ribs, feel the bottom of my bellybutton. It's so quiet. What's happening inside there?

Tuesday, 11 a.m.: Forget the people—I miss the food more than anything now. I can feel my teeth slicing into a warm Cheddar Head sandwich, then mashing the bread, tofu, and cheese into an indistinguishable mush of saliva and nutrients. Swallowing, I would follow it with a crisp, salty blue corn chip. Save the pickle for last. It tastes more real in my imagination than it may have ever tasted in reality. How about a large pizza topped with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms at Barley's? I crave a "pick-four" from Perry's—for which I'd order an extra scoop of their goopy macaroni and cheese and sprinkle pepper on top. I want to bite into a warm, dripping falafel sandwich at the Falafel Hut—which may be the best way to spend $3 in Knoxville.

Tuesday, 3 p.m.: Someone brought in a Sara Lee Butter Streusel Coffee Cake to work this morning. The remaining soggy piece droops against the flimsy cardboard box, with crumbs of brown sugar and cinnamon sprinkled around it. When this is all over, I'm going to buy me one of those cakes and eat the whole damn thing.

Tuesday, 6 p.m.: The walk home is rough. At each stop, my heart pounds, as if catching up to me. I make a cup of peppermint tea, spiked with a teaspoon of honey for a bit of energy. I've had enough of mere water: I want fruit juice. But on the way to the store, the hunger isn't there, and I'm not so tired. Sunlight warms the vinyl in my car, and a cool spring breeze blows my hair. I feel light. Maybe the worst is over.

Wednesday, 2:45 p.m.: I can't say that I'm no longer hungry. Hunger is there, a dull background noise that doesn't look to ever go away, not even when I eat. But I've gotten used to it, and almost enjoy its pestering. Anyway, I don't want to risk killing it with food yet. I go to The Tomato Head and order a pot of really gross tasting herbal tea, then sit in the corner nervously thumbing a New Yorker magazine. I don't belong here. My heart races, once again. It's chilly (fasting lowers your body temperature slightly). The guy at the next table is eating a salad, reading a newspaper underneath his bowl. A waitress counts her tips, and I follow the rhythm of coins as she slides them over the table, clinking into a pile. I read an article about someone who had heart-bypass surgery and imagine surgeons cracking open my ribcage to repair some grave malfunction. Brrrr.

Wednesday, 9 p.m.: I see a light, so dazzling it nearly blinds. I see several lights. They line the Clinch Street viaduct, these street lights, and they've never stood out the way they do tonight. Wind ripples the World's Fair Park lake, and I hear a woman's screeching voice echoing from the amphitheater below—a musical of some sort that from my vantage point feels like being caught in Alice in Wonderland. My senses haven't become extraordinary by any means. But things jump out at me. Like the siding on a house walking down Clinch Avenue. Or the way an old maple tree has been seared off on one side. The horizon over UT, a plane floating through. Noises are everywhere. But I can't see the whole picture, just bits and pieces, which float in and out of my awareness.

Thursday, 11:45 a.m.: My first taste—sweet and tart. A glass of apple juice, followed by a grapefruit. My stomach groans slightly, almost unsure what to do. Revenge, perhaps? I wonder if the citrus is too acidic. I've been told, "Any fool can fast, but it takes a wise man to know how to fast." I'm a fool.

Thursday, 3 p.m.: Spinach is bitter. I eat it with my hands from the plastic carry out container. No dressing, just spinach, mushrooms, red onions, shredded carrots. I look forward to food again, to meals, to lush, vibrant tastes, to Monterey jack cheese, sourdough bread with butter, to Sara Lee coffee cake. But for the moment, no food appeals to me. The pleasure of food is but some happy memory that I hope I will experience again very, very soon. For now, dry bitter spinach is all I care for.

Friday night: Beware of an appetite—Tricky.

Do you owe your body—I mean, yourself—a life of pleasure or a healthy long-lasting tenure? Tonight, I side with indulgence, but my body doesn't feel up to the task. Two beers make me dizzy, tired, weak. The shivers come back. I have yet to eat any cooked food, which is a no-no immediately after a fast. But I want to reward myself. I hurry to one of my favorite restaurants, Lula, right before closing and order a steaming enchilada, with crema squiggled over the top. I spear its body with my fork to steady it, slice my knife through its skin down to the plate, severing a small chunk. Black beans and spinach bleed from the wound. My teeth tear the flesh from the fork. It is creamy and the spices tingle my tongue. Oh, so good, my mouth thinks. My stomach, taut and timid, isn't sure. C'mon stomach, try another bite. And another. No, this isn't going so well.

On any other night, this would have been divine. But my stomach's just not in the mood and finally says, "No more." I'm sorry dear stomach. My brain is so cruel. I take it home in a doggy bag, barely touched. The night air is cool and my bones are tired, but I enjoy the walk.

So odd that denying myself essentials would make me see the world different, but that in a small way is what happened. I can't describe to you how it was different, I can only tell you that when you don't eat you question the whole idea of life, the consumption and burning of calories, the routine, and you can't help but ask the unanswerable question: Why? Why get up in the morning, why go to work, why try, why care, why take risks, why keep doing what you're doing? Even if you're happy and content, these questions seem worthwhile to ask every now and then (and one reason that I would fast again). A simple and not at all invalid answer is that sometimes (but certainly not all the time) it just tastes good.