A Question of Identity
or "Who are you? Who, who, are you?"

Essay by
Kenneth Spell


March 2012


We were having dinner at Bobbye's house one evening in the fall of 1970, in a living room with orange walls lined with sticks of burning incense. I glanced up at a framed print of Van Gogh's self portrait as I waited for my meso soup to cool.

Don Stevenson did the cooking, stocked the kitchen at a discount from his job at Life Call Holy Foods, selling Macrobiotic and Natural diet staples. He loved the stuff, had an old yellow paperback of Sakurazawa Nyoiti's You Are All Sanpaku near the dinner table.

According to Don, a macrobiotic diet would increase longevity, provide extra energy to get through the day, mellow out your tensions and insecurities, balance your yin and yang elements, cut down on cholesterol and heart trouble. One enthusiast for it claimed it cured cancer and could treat radiation sickness, but Don didn't buy that. It might help you evade the unhappy fate of being Sanpaku, of having white showing under the iris of your eye, an indication you were spiritually out of balance and possibly fated for tragedy and violent death. (I bet some of you just glanced into the nearest mirror, didn't you?)

For whatever metaphysical and personal value it may have had, the soup had all the flavor of boiled air. Well, it was warm and the evening was cool. It seemed to do Don some good; he had the calmest manner this side of a pure Vulcan.

Bobbye had her doubts about the stuff. "I didn't like it, staying on it all the time. I didn't like being somebody else. That's what it was doing to me. I would get so quiet, all I wanted to do was eat and serve food. Whenever I remembered how I used to be, all I saw was this loud pushy noisy woman. I didn't like the way my diet was taking away my identity. Even more, I didn't like knowing that a few calories more or less could take away my identity."

I listened, and thought about fasting monks seeing visions, of Scrooge dismissing his first ghostly visitor as merely a badly digested piece of mutton, prison camp managers doling out just enough to keep their captives submissive and docile, jokes about saltpeter in school cafeterias. I remembered the author of the Rodale diet explaining how Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't fully responsible for his actions as he had a soft drink before shooting JFK, and was therefore "a sugar drunkard." If this diet of Don's had turned a wild woman all shy and demure, macrobiotics would be a consciousness altering substance. Was it possible everything was a consciousness altering substance? If everything could alter your consciousness, was there any way to know what an un-altered consciousness felt like?

Don looked up from his tea. "What are you thinking, Ken?"

"Heisenberg principle. How can you tell what normal perceptions are, when everything you ingest or inhale, even your act of examining those perceptions, may alter them?"

If you are what you eat, as the saying goes, Who are you when you stop?

In other words, who are you, underneath it all? Is anybody there? How much of you is absolutely yourself, and how much is chemical stimuli, parental influence, DNA, social molding?

There is a research project in altering moral convictions by applying strong electromagnetic impulses close to the brain. Apparently, a short spasm of these can shake up the moral certainties in the mind, make it fuzzier on whether something is ethical or no good at all. It may work, but there is no great call for it. Bartenders have always found a steady supply of volunteers willing to have their moral judgment softened into ambiguity. "That wasn't me, it was the drink."

I know that without caffeine and some sugar I simply slog through writing. My mind is dull without stimuli. This isn't as bad as some cases. Balzac reputedly drank coffee from sunrise to midnight for decades. He must have been wired. Balzac wrote the entire Comedie Humaine novels, filled shelves covering every level and corner of French society.

You are what you eat. You are what your parents taught. "It wasn't me, it was my mom." A friend of mine honored his late mother by saying that he is the man he is because of her. Another fellow I know might say the same of himself, but add, "that concludes the case for the prosecution, your honor."

You are who your culture and peers want. You are who you found inspiring enough to try to emulate. (This is not always a good idea. At age eleven in shop class, I learned that I could not become the Mighty Thor, tall and blond, by taking my little mallet and slinging it at the class bully. At nine or so I realized my black horn-rimmed glasses and being adopted did not make me Clark Kent.)

We imitate the people we admire, follow their moves and style, put them on like a suit. Writers often copy their favorites, usually to bad results. The mix of your idol and your own style tends to wind up like a cross between a badger and a kangaroo. (Doctors bury their mistakes. Writers are thankful for the fireplace and the shredder.)

You are how you behave when nobody's watching. The rest is partly an act for an audience around you. You are the lies you choose to put out there. They often say more about you than the small safe truths you offer. You are the books you read and the movies you watch, the music that affects you and the people you admire. You may well be a work of fiction in your social life. At least be an interesting one.


© 2012 Kenneth Spell

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