Entry 4

Tom walking on the beach
Tom walking on the beach

Tom quit the institute today.

I met Tom at Burning Man a little over a year ago, when we happened to be living in the same theme camp (Asylum Village). He likes to say that our first date was 176 hours long, minus Port-a-Pottie breaks. The thing I love most about Tom is his attitude toward life—a blend of optimism, ambition, and vision. He believes that what we can imagine, we can manifest. This “vacation” was his idea. His friend Cliff, who was seriously ill with Stage IV melanoma, came to the institute because he thought that the radiation and chemotherapy were making him sicker than the cancer. That was 10 years ago. Though he didn’t stick with the diet, he claims coming here saved his life. I’ve met several people who claim they cured cancer, or lowered their blood pressure, or got off insulin by eating raw food.

That’s something we debate—is it necessary to live the diet 100 percent? Especially the bland institute diet, which repeats the same menu every two weeks. While it’s wonderful for cleansing, is it sustainable long term, especially on days like today when we have to move all 10 of the tall compost piles in the garden, shovelful by shovelful? Any kind of all-or-nothing thinking pushes my buttons. Having grown up in the Mormon Church, I am wary of cults, and some raw foodists border on cultlike fanaticism. If you cheat, it’s like sinning. I didn’t come here to find a new religion or tell other people how they need to live. I came here to replace cocktails, cigarettes, drugs, late-night parties, and general debauchery with constructive action. Drinking the wheat grass juice and eating raw food helps immensely. I feel full of energy after eating. Of course, then I get hungry again, almost right away.

Francesco shoveling compost
Francesco shoveling compost

I weighed myself this morning for the first time in a while, escalating my crisis of faith. The scale said 121. I’ve lost 18 pounds since I landed here in March. At breakfast (more energy soup) I told my friend Francesco, whom I mentioned in the first entry, that I feel like going to Pizza Hut. I want hot melted cheese and crispy olive-oil-infused crust in my stomach. I never went to Pizza Hut at home, but Puerto Rican cuisine is centered around meat. (I’ve never seen so much fricassee of goat.) There aren’t many vegetarian options. Except for a vegan place operated by Seventh Day Adventists, which is only open for lunch, our other options are all American strip-mall fare.

Francesco says not to worry about losing weight, that eventually I’ll start gaining again and come to my ideal weight. I feel like Rosemary Woodhouse in the film Rosemary’s Baby. Pregnant Rosemary’s emaciated, pale appearance alarms a friend who hasn’t seen her in a while. “Dr. Sapirstein says it’s natural, that later on I’ll be gaining, probably far too much,” Rosemary tells her friend, obviously not entirely convinced. Some people do gain weight here, strangely, leaving others to whisper behind their backs about whether they’re 100 percent or not.

Tom wanted to go to Pizza Hut, too, especially since he’d just quit the institute. (He wants to stay here in Puerto Rico and work on the farm, but he feels that the institute is too fanatical for him, so he’ll no longer be doing the work-for-food exchange.) But I wanted to hear a lecture given by Rhio, who lives in Manhattan and has just published a cookbook. “Do we have to go to church tonight?” Tom joked. But I wanted to hear her speak because I like her approach to raw food. She actually thinks it’s OK to enjoy eating and doesn’t believe that good-tasting things like raw pizza or lasagna have to be transitional foods that you eat only until you get used to the bland green baby food. We go to the lecture.

The meeting did turn out to be a lot like church. Papo, the institute’s handyman, played the guitar and sang, in Spanish, a couple of religious songs he wrote. Hetta, a 60-something German woman who competes in triathalons and Iron Man contests, stood up and testified that she has more energy now than when she was 40. (She looks better too, her husband interjected.)

Then Rhio, with her long white hair and radiant skin, told us we should be our own doctors. We can heal ourselves. (Most people who are here believe this. One woman I met suggested I write a letter to my ovaries, asking them to start releasing eggs again.) I admit I’m more skeptical of Western medicine since I’ve been here. I resent doctors’ tendency to get patients out of their offices quickly by, say, unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics or over-prescribing medications like antidepressants. I’d rather try alternative therapies first. Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried iridology (assessing your health by looking at your iris) and reiki (energy healing). I’m studying reflexology and practicing by working out hard, blocked spots on my feet. I’m also studying the use of medicinal herbs and oils. I fear I’ve traded one form of hedonism for another.

As I was falling asleep, my mother called to tell me my sister-in-law is pregnant—again. This will be her 10th grandchild. I secretly hope I can give her an 11th.