Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why I'm Not Giving up Dessert

Chocolate Cassis Scone. Not so much chocolate you can’t taste the dark berry, but enough melty richness to feel plenty decadent. The outside has a perfect golden crispness, the inside airy, flaky, rich with the texture that only plenty of butter can bestow. I am savoring every morsel with my pot of Earl Grey tea in my favorite patisserie in San Francisco.

By common wisdom, I am doing everything wrong. I am eating everything I shouldn’t be: white flour, animal fat, and—capital sin—sugar. How many times have I heard the reductionist mantra “sugar feeds cancer” in the past two years? Can it really be that simple? And what about pleasure? Not simply gratification, but the intensely savored pleasure of something as wonderful as a perfectly baked good? While we’re throwing clichés around, don’t the partisans of the “Life’s Short—Eat Dessert First” school have something there?

There are perhaps no more treacherous waters to wade into in terms of cancer survivorship than the debates about what one should and shouldn’t eat. The shrill or evangelistic tone these discussions about diet take remind me of the same tenor and fervor that any question of not breastfeeding would take in parenting forums back when I had children of an age to nurse—or wean.

I myself have been—admittedly—on every side of this debate, from my post-diagnosis juicing regimen (beets, carrots, fresh turmeric root!) to my full-throated refusal to give up yet another aspect of my life that matters to me. Sick of quinoa and green tea, I’ve thrown up my hands and said “I can’t live the rest of my life like I’m on a cleanse.”

I’ve yet to meet a single person diagnosed with cancer or another serious disease that hasn’t attempted to radically change their food regimen. Anodyne recommendations about a “plant-based” diet become, through the lens of existential panic, an embrace of vegan aceticism; “moderation” a palliative for our missteps when we can’t adhere to the austere doctrine we’ve convinced ourselves will ward off another recurrence.

But what’s behind all this emphasis on food, I believe, is an illusion of control. The causes of cancer are obscure and complex, encompassing inherited genetics and myriad potential environmental factors; the biology of metastasis remains very poorly understood even today. We have little control over the course of our disease, and so we overemphasize—radically—the part that what we eat has to play.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Returning to Eden

On Sunday, February 23, my grandfather, the Canadian artist John Koerner, passed away peacefully in his home at the age of 100. I drank some champagne for him this week, as he once said that rather than put money in the stock market, he'd prefer to buy 100 cases of Veuve Cliquot and "sip it slowly." I also had the honor of speaking at his memorial in Vancouver last weekend, reflecting on our deep connection and how it grew and changed over the years. Below are my comments from his service. He is an eternal inspiration.

Johnny with Theo and Nathan, 2012. "Lighthouse" series painting in background.

Making it to one hundred is always a rare achievement, but even more rare is to live so well, with such lucidity and grace, as Johnny did for all that time. I count it among the greatest gifts of my life to have had my grandfather a close part of it for so long. In particular, I think often about what the last dozen years have meant. If Johnny had left us at eighty-eight, he would have still had an exceptionally long art career, a fifty-plus-year marriage, a loving family that included four adult grandchildren who could converse intelligently about his love for Japan, or his dislike of Schopenhauer; who could mix him a decent martini and try again at his insistence to read the pages of his adored Bô Yin Râ's philosophy.

I would still have been able to cherish childhood memories of Johnny telling us Bubbledog stories, teaching us to play checkers, gin, and even poker, and making wry jokes just when you least expected him to. He was a unique combination of European formality and an incredibly open sense of wonder. On the one hand, his precise gestures at the dinner table: pressing a finger to the wood-grain to pick up a stray crumb, always the napkin rings, tea cozy, rye bread. On the other hand, finding beauty in the pattern of wet leaves on a sidewalk, or a cast-off metal stencil of the number 5 that he turned into abstracted patterns in his paintings, or lighting up with his conspiratorial giggle. Once, waiting for the ferry to Victoria, when my brother Brian and I, with cousins Taylor and Jason, were playing in a playhouse pile of multi-colored balls, he took off his shoes and jumped in. Where there was joy to be had, he claimed it.

All of that stays with me. Yet the past decade or so has been a marvel.  First of all, I saw him fall in love—exactly like the proverbial lighting bolt or Cupid’s arrow—and I witnessed what an incredible thing it was for him to find such compatibility and happiness with his second wife, Lisa. You could see that rediscovering love at this time in his life was an unexpected revelation, and it was deeply moving to witness.

Secondly, my own children came to know Johnny. Nathan flew kites with him on visits to Vancouver and challenged him to a chess match during a stay in Palm Springs. Most recently, my sons were able to not only celebrate Johnny’s 100th birthday, but went around town making a movie called “Secrets of a Centenarian”—interviewing family members and friends on their favorite memories with him, and filming each other giving impromptu docent tours of Johnny’s retrospective in Penticton. Even Theo, only 6, could without prompting tell you that this canvas represented a kimono, but also looked like a gateway, and also a harp. They heard what Johnny was saying in his light-filled paintings.