Sugar babies

Dear Saint Valentine,

I’ve tried to learn about your life via a hasty scroll through Wikipedia—that’s something we humans use now (it’s 2020) to grapple with the unknown. Well, it’s something we use to review facts. It doesn’t help us know what to do, what to choose. For that, we have to look at the data and then be thoughtful about the result we want.

The facts about your life are pretty vague. Who you were, why you were killed, how that’s related to hearts and courtly love. It sounds like you had a knack for changing people’s perspectives. You healed your jailer’s daughter. You were killed for refusing to deny your beliefs, that seems clear. And there’s a creepy flower-capped skull at a church in Rome that is said to be yours. I saw a picture of your skull in a golden box. People come to see it to ask for help in love. I hope you feel okay about that.

I’m not in the habit of writing letters to people I’ve never met, or the deceased, or people who may be more than one person, but I’ve been struggling with some questions and sometimes it changes my perspective to write letters to inanimate objects. I thought it might be the same if I wrote to you (not to your skull, but to your soul). Also, I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of mail, maybe you don’t even know about all of this, maybe you’d be interested. (Hi, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you.)

I wonder what you’d think, do you know, that on February 14 every year in the US (it’s on a continent you didn’t know about, south, west and across an ocean from Thule), in your name we have a tradition of exchanging $18.2 billion dollars worth of cards, candy, and flowers with friends and loved ones. It sounds like the tradition dates back to Chaucer (a poet about 700 years ago). He wrote 700 lines and referenced an imaginary day celebrating romance and the tradition we know today grew from there.

As a tiny slice of modernity, here’s an example of one Valentine’s Day, last year. My two children, my daughter and my son, had painted cards for their classmates. They had spent time thinking briefly of each friend. This one likes dolphins, this one likes blue. Based on glitter density and heart color, they had selected a card for each friend, composed a unique, if grammatically vague, sentiment for each child, and addressed envelopes to pass out during their annual classroom celebration, ostensibly of love and friendship.

I sent them off to school in the morning (girls go to school now), cards in hand. Time passed. I went to pick them up.

Saint Valentine, as I approached my children, I saw that my daughter held an envelope filled with colored sugar. To eat its contents you lick a hardened sugar wand with your spit, creating a saliva adhesive for attaching the loose sugar onto the sugar rod, thereby eating the full pouch of sugar. It’s called “Fun Dip.”

She was eating the Fun Dip quickly, as if aware she risked its imminent confiscation. Her eyes were dark pools of emptiness, she could not answer basic questions.

Each child brought home a bag of treasure collected during the day from friends and teachers. Collapsing on the floor, my daughter emptied and pawed through the contents of her bag, tossing aside the various cards in search of seatrash (we exchange miniature plastic trinkets, often themed, that break upon contact with human flesh, and are eaten by turtles or alternately formed into giant sculptures at the zoo to illustrate the plight of the oceans. I know they’re vast, we didn’t mean to). She was hunting for some undiscovered marvel in the bag, or perhaps an eraser she will never use when, in addition to a number of empty wrappers, she discovered a ziplock bag full of candy.

I asked her to eat something, to introduce a protein-based substance into her endocrine system, so that life might return to her face. She was not hungry. “Did you have something to eat at the Valentine’s Day Party?” I asked, smiling, like I was merely asking out of curiosity, feigning a casual indifference so as not to put her on guard. “Oh yes,” she replied. “I had one and a half donuts, the big kind, two cupcakes, and three iced sugar cookies. They had a cake too but I didn’t try it.” Saint Valentine, I am not exaggerating for the sake of humor. I’m talking about a 50-pound child, one-third the size of an adult woman.

In 2013, a prominent group of physicians in America (we call them the American Heart Association) recommended that grown women consume no more than 100 calories daily from refined sugar. That is the equivalent of 10 jelly beans.

And this isn’t just a one-time deal, one extreme-sugar event on the day of your decapitation. In addition to Valentine’s Day, there’s Halloween, Winter Holiday season which extends from late November to early January, back to school celebrations, teacher birthdays, “making it fun to count things” (a common math curriculum), what they eat in France day, celebrating sweet foods of the world day. (And birthday parties outside of school, after-soccer Oreos and Capri Sun, hey its Sunday snow cones.) Trying to find an event or venue targeted to children without freely available sugar is like searching for Atlantis.

Val, I know you never tasted sugar. It’s kind of like honey but devoid of nutrients. Two hundred years ago the average American ate 2 (TWO) pounds of sugar per year. One hundred years ago, we ate 17.5 pounds of sugar per person per year. By 2011 Americans were eating 150 pounds of sugar per person annually.

Maybe you’re thinking, well honey is delicious. Maybe people eat more now because they can, it’s cheap and available. Americans also save more lives with medicine now than we did 200 years ago and nobody is complaining about that. It’s called progress lady!

Honey IS delicious. But here’s the thing: as much as we might wish otherwise, sugar’s really not good for us. One in eight Americans is diabetic now. Diabetes is a disease you never heard of because it pretty much didn’t exist until 120 years ago. That’s a lot of people dying younger, living less healthily, being predisposed to a bunch of other health issues.

And there is mounting evidence of the harm from sugar’s ascendancy: Diets high in sugar slow down the brain and damage synaptic activity.

Consuming sugar stimulates the release of serotonin (that’s why it feels so good). Seratonin is related to our feeling of happiness. When we consistently surge our seratonin, this not only depletes our body’s supply, but it means we need more. Once a body builds up a tolerance to sugar it needs more for the same “happiness” surge.

And researchers think that teenagers might be especially vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood.

So, contrary to research funded by the sugar industry and shared with the public for many years, it looks like sugar is probably not a health food, also probably not a neutral food, at least in the quantities we are consuming now which, again, is 75 times more than our great-great-great grandmother.

But life is hard (you surely know that), and sugar is tasty, and sometimes you just need to relax, have some fun, live in the moment.

My daughter and I sat down by her treasure bag. I looked at the cards, curious. Most were the cards I remembered from childhood, a platonically encouraging phrase like “Valentine, you’re the bomb” and a picture of Spiderman jumping away from a giant explosion (I’m sure they were bad guys so it’s ok). I’d show her a card, ask who it was from. No idea. She hadn’t read any of the cards, she had separated the wheat from the chaff immediately and had no idea who had given her the Fun Dip, or that sticky plastic guy that you throw at the wall and is coated with a mystery substance that helps him to sort of hop down at least three times before becoming seatrash. She hadn’t looked at the cards, they were like the tag on a new shirt, something to cut off and dispose of, irrelevant.

I remember reading the cards as a girl, wondering when Stephen Stout gave me a card that said “Valentine, you’re outta this world” with a picture of ALF giving a thumbs-up while mysteriously floating in space. Did Stephen pick that card just for me? What could it mean?

Val, my daughter spent hours writing cards to her friends. She was so excited to share them. And she didn’t even read the cards they gave her in return. Please do not think I am painting her as callous. I am drawing a picture of the strength of this substance. And thinking about the relationship between sugar, and trinkets, and connection – maybe the heart of my question. Does the sugar, do the trinkets, support connection, the very aspect of our nature that we honor with this day?

My son, five-years-old, had not had a dessert buffet with his class. They had exchanged cards and, yes, he received a few pieces of candy and several seatrash-items. But my son, after only moderate exposure to sugar, looked at every card. Felt very excited that Thomas had given him this one and Rosie had made that one. He brought them up to his room. My friends gave these to me, these little scraps of paper with their names on them. He seemed to cherish his cards. He still has them up there and it is many months later.

***

Saint Valentine, I have wrestled with these thoughts. Wondering if I’m just trying to have control in an uncontrollable world. Wondering in the grand scheme of life on Earth and all of the struggles of all of the people, does it really matter? It’s just a few cookies, no matter that we know now that rats addicted to heroine choose sugar in preference to heroine.

I’m afraid of the sugar. And I’m afraid of the fear of the sugar. I’m afraid we’re damaging their bodies. That we are training them, physically, to need this taste at the expense of all other tastes. To dull their palettes with sweetness so that nothing else tastes good, or even edible. So many of the children around me will not eat. Food, the kind that has a nutrient, does not taste good to them. They can’t taste it. They aren’t being stubborn, their bodies are trained that way.

I’m scared for their minds. Because I know what it is like to look for the next easy surge of pleasure. We do it all the time, every day, I guess every animal does. But we are smart animals and there is so much money to be made from providing quick, cheap surges, and so many smart people figuring out ways to give them to us. Whether it is a like or a beep or a drag or a sip or a bite, it is much easier in 2020 to drift from hit to hit, from tiny buzz to tiny buzz, looking for the next one when your chemical state changes. Sugar is so powerful. It carves a deep, strong bond to the pleasure centers in your brain so that, without it, pleasure becomes harder to find. And the more you consume, the more you need to get to the same level of okay.

And I’m scared for their hearts. Surrounded by sweets and seatrash, each little object a tiny surge of chemicals, each bite another surge, the slower burn of friendship, of human warmth, has trouble competing. What does it say to them when we teach that friendship needs a dessert buffet to be pleasurable? Does it? Is that what we think?

***

I wonder what you would think. I hesitate, somewhat ashamed after what I’ve described above, to tell you that one in six children in America today, 13 million children, don’t have enough to eat. They are hungry. This is another fact. Data that we can use to guide our decisions, or not.

And then about the $18 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on love, right? In my dream of the perfect world, we show kids first that love doesn’t cost anything and that it doesn’t need to come with a trinket, it’s how you treat people, how you make them feel safe and known. How you work to take care of something. What if we spent $18 billion each year showing that love is taking care of people, of a community, of the world, together? Wouldn’t that be an amazing legacy of connection to hand down to our kids?

Val, I realize that in writing to you I have been focusing on what scares me, what I don’t want. So here’s what I do want:

I want my children to know how to feel love, to feel loved. I want them to learn to be strong, to learn to be kind, to learn to feel hope. I want that for all of the kids.

So show them love, how to love, show your strength, treat them kindly, share your hope.

Is that what you would say?

With the evidence in front of us, we make choices. As a culture, we need to eat less sugar. We need to look at our patterns. Find better ones. I think we are trying.

My earnest prayer is that in our traditions and celebrations, we show that love is not four kinds of cake or a bagful of anything. That we learn enough so there’s more to share, or less to take. But also that we don’t live in fear, that when we find ourselves in the midst of a dessert buffet, we look for the love, share our joy, our warmth, and our laughter. Breathe. Help the children find their own ways in their own world, the one we can try to influence but will never control. A beautiful world where they are free to hold different opinions, as you, Valentine, were not.

I guess that’s all for now. Thank you so much for listening, that’s something a friend does. If I ever find myself in Rome, maybe I’ll stop by and say hello to your creepy skull.

With love,
Jennifer


This piece was written as part of The Stuffed Project (One woman’s quest to re-examine our relationship to the material world). My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

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