7am: Enjoying the oatmeal, PB (we're on a nickname basis now), and banana that will fuel me through a long training run in the Marin Headlands. Context: I'm an athletic and outdoors junkie. For me, the feat of running up a mountain or swimming in open water isn't merely physical, it's cerebral. I may (correction: I do) fall the first 15 times I try a new yoga inversion, but when I finally stick it, my courage is rewarded. I've empowered myself to aspire - and that translates directly to how I interact with the world through my work. The virtuous and addicting cycle of aim, reward, aim higher compels me to push my limits. If I never do, I'll always think I have them.
One of the experiments embedded in this Challenge, then, is how readily a body can participate in this cycle of physical challenge and reward while being fed the scantiest of fare. For if the answer is it can't, then perhaps, neither can that person gain the self-confidence I do from summiting Mt. Tamalpais, nor the social access that comes with it (eavesdrop on a group of cyclists enjoying a post-ride coffee while their carbon bikes rest nearby, you'll know what I mean) - and I get both, simply because I have the nutritional means to do so. Extrapolate that across years, and perhaps you'll agree that the ability to pursue physical challenges is more than a matter of personal health - it's a matter of personal economics. Could I make it through? 14 miles and 3000' of elevation later, I'd know.
9:15am: On the trail, 7 miles in, homemade granola bar in hand, overlooking the Pacific. This beats $25 brunch any day.
6:30pm: I've spent the past 24 hours in San Francisco and am getting ready to go home to the Peninsula, where a bounty of beans and a beautiful cantaloupe are sounding their siren song from my kitchen, when my fiance tells me he's not feeling well.
Invariably, the right thing to do is to say, "Of COURSE I will stay", and immediately go retrieve takeout chicken soup so that we can spend the evening contemplating which documentary to watch about outer space. Yet I can't extend that offer - I can't afford to. But it's not just that...I'm out of food. I want to go home to my cantaloupe. I need to go home to my cantaloupe.
No no, I say to myself, his needs trump a hunk of fruit. "I'll stay here," I offer with ill-concealed hesitation, knowing that I have to say it quickly or else teeter into temptation again.
7pm: He wants fresh air, so we go for a walk. We chat. And about every thirty seconds, my thoughts get interrupted by a bowling ball-sized piece of produce, clamoring toward any focus I might have going and knocking it to the floor. Cantaloupe. Cantaloupe, cantaloupe, cantaloupe. It is shackling my thoughts.
Strangely, I'm not even hungry at this particular moment. And yet I feel my face crinkling, my eyes straining, my brow furrowing. Why? Why is a piece of fruit intruding on my time with someone who needs me, why is it keeping me from being present, and adding further strain to his situation as a result? All of this while I don't even feel hungry!
And as I'm growing visibly upset about not being able to get to that piece of food, I realize my frustration isn't about wanting calories...it's about wanting control. I am witnessing myself become a captive to food, and I feel threatened - threatened because I'm watching this experience seize a possession I thought was invulnerable to any outside force: my mind.
I resolve that I must do something to gain power, to commit some act that will put control back in my hands. The best I can come up with, ironically, is to ask someone else to do that for me: to beg.
7:56pm: I casually enter unnamed coffee chain. I did my homework: I know the store closes in 4 minutes, I know they serve fresh food, and I know that food has an expiration date. I'm hoping that date is today. I do one final rehearsal of my lines and approach the counter.
Barista: "What can I get for you?"
Me: "Um, hi. I have a somewhat strange request. I know that you have to get rid of the fresh food when it expires, and I know you close in 4 minutes. Do you have any items expiring today that you'd give to me?"
Barista: "Um..." she moves quickly down the counter and rummages through a paper bag. "Yeah, I have a parfait, do you want that?"
A whole parfait? Good gracious, YES! I take it and fumble through some expression of gratitude: "This is huge. Like, totally huge. THANK YOU!" No doubt she wondered why the girl in the Nikes and Marmot jacket was begging for food, but I was too ecstatic to linger. I literally ran home to show my fiance my trophy. Never mind I'm partly lactose intolerant and would normally cringe at the prospect of consuming this sugar-laden indigestion inducer; today, I won. And I don't mean the parfait - I won someone's mercy.
As I savor the sweet spoils of shamelessness, I review with my fiance where my head has traveled over the past two hours. To his unending credit, he not only supports me in this experiment (how many people would simply say, "Ok" when you tell them you're going out to beg for food), on this night he sets aside that he's feeling lousy and seeks to understand what I'm experiencing.
"It's frustrating," I say. "I want to be fully present with you, I knew it was the most important thing I could have been doing at that moment, and yet a cantaloupe was intruding on that. A cantaloupe! How stupid is that? It's like...I felt trapped."
He doesn't miss a beat: "Now add a drug addiction, scabies, and a disavowed family, and maybe that's what poverty really looks like."
He's right on. I am only experiencing a fraction of poverty's challenges. And if this fraction is any indication, poverty is a trap indeed.