Archive for June, 2015

My college physics professor once gave a lecture to a humanities class on the need for scientific literacy. At one point, he told us, “No matter what field you plan to go into, learn math. Math is how you know when you’re being lied to.”

I recently finished a book that makes the same point. How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking was written by a math professor named Jordan Ellenberg who does a nice job of explaining mathematical concepts without causing the reader’s eyes to glaze over.

I liked the book, but before you run out and buy a copy, I should mention that much of the material it covers seems unrelated to the title. Yes, it’s interesting to learn how some MIT students crunched numbers and devised a plan to guarantee themselves payouts from the Massachusetts lottery under certain conditions, but the chapter won’t teach you how not to be wrong … unless you’re designing a lottery, that is.

That being said, there are several sections that are relevant for people interested in the health sciences. Rather than write one very long post about those sections, I figured I’d cover one or two topics in a short series of posts. So let’s start with a topic near and dear to my heart …

Statistically Significant

As I mentioned in my Science For Smart People speech, when most people say an event or a fact is significant, they mean it’s important or meaningful. But in the world of scientific studies, significant simply means that based on tried and true statistical formulas, the result is not likely due to chance. It’s important not to confuse the two meanings.

In science, significance is expressed as a p-value, which Ellenberg explains in the book. If the p-value is .10, there’s a 10% chance the results were due to chance. For the results of a study to be called statistically significant, the p-value must be .05 or smaller. But again, significant doesn’t necessarily mean important.

Given a large enough sample size and enough data to crunch, scientists could say, for example, that cigar smokers have a higher rate of mouth cancer and that the difference is significant. But if the “significant” difference is one additional case of mouth cancer for every 250,000 people, most of us wouldn’t consider that meaningful or important. The actual odds of developing mouth cancer have barely changed at all.

Ellenberg makes the same point about the meaning of significant, then tags on some additional warnings for readers who don’t want to be bamboozled by media reports on the latest something-will-kill-you or something-will-save-you study. One of those warnings falls into the scientists are freakin’ liars category:

And all this assumes the scientists in question are playing fair. But that doesn’t always happen…. If you run your analysis and get a p-value of .06, you’re supposed to conclude that your results are statistically insignificant. But it takes a lot of mental strength to stuff years of work in the file drawer. After all, don’t the numbers for that one subject look a little screwy? Probably an outlier, maybe try deleting that line of the spreadsheet. Did we control for age? Did we control for the weather? Did we control for age and the weather? Give yourself license to tweak and shade the statistical tests you carry out on your results, and you can often get that .06 down to a .04.

Now imagine the numbers you’re crunching are for what was supposed to be a breakthrough drug and there are millions of dollars at stake. You get the idea.

But here’s what I consider the most important (and significant) point Ellenberg makes in the chapter: If the p-value is .05, that means the odds are only 1-in-20 that those impressive results were due to chance, right? Right … which means given enough chances, I could end up with impressive results that are significant, but still due solely to chance.

Ellenberg asks us to imagine 20 scientists running independent experiments to determine if eating a particular color of jelly bean causes outbreaks of acne. In 19 of the experiments, the color of the jelly beans consumed makes no difference. But in one of the 20 experiments, the subjects who ate green jelly beans had more outbreaks of acne – and those results are significant, because the statistical odds of them being due to chance are just 5%.

The 19 scientists who found no difference grumble, light a cigar, toss back a scotch, stuff their papers in their desk drawers, and go write their next grant proposal. The one scientist who found a significant difference proudly publishes his results … and a day later, there are media headlines trumpeting the now-established “fact” that green jelly beans cause acne.

The significant result was due to chance. But as Ellenberg points out, given enough chances, chance happens. That’s why the significant results of many studies don’t hold up and can’t be replicated.

So (and this is me talking, not Ellenberg) … now let’s think about how science is conducted for Big Pharma. Drug companies aren’t required to publish all their results, so they don’t. They aren’t required to share the raw data with other scientists, so they don’t. A good friend of mine has a brother who worked in Big Pharma and admitted to my friend, “We just keep running studies until we get the results we want.”

Given enough chances, chance happens. And if that p-value of .06 is the best we could get after multiple chances, well, perhaps a little tweaking here and there …

That’s why I don’t trust the results of studies funded by drug companies. Ellenberg doesn’t come out and say as much directly, but he does mention that industry-funded studies often can’t be successfully replicated.

Math is how you know – or at least have reason to suspect – you’re being lied to.

More mathematical-thinking examples from the book in future posts.


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A couple of podcasters who interviewed me recently asked if I believe we’re at a tipping point. I do. I’m seeing a major shift in what the public at large considers a healthy diet, thanks largely to the Wisdom of Crowds effect. It seems that more and more people are rejecting the decades-old anti-fat message and embracing real food – fat and all.

I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m just experiencing the Red Toyota Effect, which works like this: While shopping for a car, you make up your mind that you want a red Toyota … and soon after, you start noticing them all over the place, which leads you to think, “Holy moly! Everyone’s buying red Toyotas all of a sudden!” In fact, the red Toyotas were always there. You’re just noticing them now because owning a red Toyota is on your mind.

Sure, I’ve got diet on my mind. I write about diet, I think often about diet, I hang out in social media sites where the subject is diet. But I don’t believe I’m experiencing the Red Toyota Effect. I think there’s a real shift happening out there.

For starters, I keep seeing more mainstream media articles declaring that – surprise! — saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease after all. Here are some quotes from an article in the U.K. Telegraph with the headline No link found between saturated fat and heart disease:

For the health conscious reader who has been stoically swapping butter for margarine for years the next sentence could leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Scientists have discovered that saturated fat does not cause heart disease while so-called ‘healthy’ polyunsaturated fats do not prevent cardiovascular problems.

In contrast with decades old nutritional advice, researchers at Cambridge University have found that giving up fatty meat, cream or butter is unlikely to improve health.

They are calling for guidelines to be changed to reflect a growing body of evidence suggesting there is no overall association between saturated fat consumption and heart disease.

Earlier this month Dr James DiNicolantonio of Ithica College, New York, called for a new public health campaign to admit ‘we got it wrong.’ He claims carbohydrates and sugar are more responsible.

Admit we got it wrong …. Yeah, that would be awesome. Despite my optimism about a big shift within the public at large, I don’t expect a We Got It All Wrong announcement from the USDA anytime soon. They are, however, slooooowly backing away from some of the advice they’ve been handing down for the past 35 years. Here are some quotes from a Forbes article titled Fat Is Back: Time To Stop Limiting Dietary Fats, Experts Say:

The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – the government-sanctioned recommendations about what we should and shouldn’t eat – will include a game-changing edit: There’s no longer going to be a recommended upper limit on total fat intake. This hasn’t gotten as much press as the other big change – that cholesterol will no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern,” meaning that we can now eat eggs without feeling guilty.

But as the authors of a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association point out, the true game-changer in the new recommendations is that we won’t have to worry so much about the total fat content of our food. And this makes a lot of sense, since in many ways, fats are much better for us than what they’ve typically been replaced with in low-fat diets – refined carbs and added sugars.

For people who lived through the low-fat/no-fat craze that started in the 80s, this is big news. The change in fats recommendations has been coming for some time now, as studies have consistently shown that low-fat diets are in no way the beacon they once seemed to be, and can in fact be quite unhealthy over the long-term.

The USDA (ahem) “experts” are willing to admit that cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” but can’t quite bring themselves to say saturated fat is okay. However – and this is huge, since so many people get their dietary advice from registered dieticians – the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has already jumped ahead of the USDA. The organization’s official commentary on the latest USDA guidelines first praises the USDA for its efforts, then disputes much of what the USDA has to say.

Dr. Stan De Loach (who has been recommending a high-fat, real-food diet to patients in Mexico for years) summarized the points made by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

1. Cholesterol contained in food items is NO LONGER a nutrient of interest or concern. That is, limiting cholesterol (egg yolks, for example) in the food plan makes no sense because there is no trustworthy scientific evidence that it may produce negative or harmful effects on the human body or cardiovascular system.

2. NO scientific consensus or concrete scientific evidence exists that could justify the recommendation that the quantity of dietary salt (sodium) be limited. This long-standing recommendation to not consume salt freely has been overturned. Moreover, the Report mentions that probably and certainly “there are persons who are NOT consuming a SUFFICIENT amount of sodium.”

3. “Not a single study included in this revision of the dietary recommendations meant to prevent cardiovascular disease was able to identify saturated fat as an element in the diet that has an unfavorable or adverse association to cardiovascular disease.” The experts recommend de-emphasizing saturated fat as a nutrient of interest or concern.

4. The lipid/lipoproteins LDL and HDL are NOT appropriate nor adequate for use as markers of the impact of diet on the risks of cardiovascular disease, for example, in the scientific studies that attempt to measure diet’s impact on the risks for cardiovascular disease.

5. “The consumption of carbohydrates carries a GREATER risk for cardiovascular disease than that of saturated fats.”

6. “It is likely that the impact of carbohydrate consumption on the risks for cardiovascular diseases is positive (that is, their consumption INCREASES the risks).”

7. “Therefore, it seems to us that the scientific evidence summarized and synthesized by the Committee suggests that the most effective simplified recommendation to reduce the incidence of cardiac disease would be a simple reduction in the consumption of carbohydrates, replacing them with polyunsaturated fats.” Polyunsaturated fats tend to reduce the levels of cholesterol in the blood. Avocados, fish (tuna, trout, herring, salmon), some varieties of nuts (peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame), some mayonnaises, some salad dressings, olive oil, etc., contain polyunsaturated fats.

8. “The strongest scientific evidence indicates that a reduction in the consumption of added sugars (carbohydrates) will improve the health of the American public.”

Okay, ya can’t win ‘em all, at least not right away. The dieticians want carbs replaced with polyunsaturated fats. But this is still huge. Look at the basic message: Stop worrying about cholesterol, saturated fat and salt. Start focusing on reducing sugars and refined carbohydrates. If this keeps up, people will soon believe you can eat food that tastes good and still be healthy. Dr. Ornish must be terrified.

It isn’t just that people are no longer accusing saturated fat of a crime it didn’t commit, either. There’s also been a huge rise in the demand for quality food, food that hasn’t been processed into nutritional oblivion. Food manufacturers are wondering what the bleep happened and trying to adjust, as this article in Fortune magazine online explains:

Try this simple test. Say the following out loud: Artificial colors and flavors. Pesticides. Preservatives. High-fructose corn syrup. Growth hormones. Antibiotics. Gluten. Genetically modified organisms.

If any one of these terms raised a hair on the back of your neck, left a sour taste in your mouth, or made your lips purse with disdain, you are part of Big Food’s multibillion-dollar problem. In fact, you may even belong to a growing consumer class that has some of the world’s biggest and best-known companies scrambling to change their businesses.

“Their existence is being challenged,” says Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo of the major packaged-food companies. In some ways it’s a strange turn of events. The idea of “processing”—from ancient techniques of salting and curing to the modern arsenal of artificial preservatives—arose to make sure the food we ate didn’t make us sick. Today many fear that it’s the processed food itself that’s making us unhealthy.

It’s pretty simple what people want now: simplicity. Which translates, most of the time, to less: less of the ingredients they can’t actually picture in their head.

Steve Hughes, a former ConAgra executive who co-founded and now runs natural food company Boulder Brands, believes so much change is afoot that we won’t recognize the typical grocery store in five years. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years,” he says, “and this is the most dynamic, disruptive, and transformational time that I’ve seen in my career.”

So it’s definitely not the Red Toyota Effect. This change is real, and it’s coming to a Kroger near you. In fact, I recently found – for the first time ever – dry-roasted almonds in a Kroger where the only ingredients were almonds and salt. A sign above that section of the store bragged about the lack of additives in the several varieties of nuts, which you can buy in bulk.

As the Fortune magazine article explains:

Shoppers are still shopping, but they’re often turning to brands they believe can give them less of the ingredients they don’t want—and for the first time, they can find them in their local Safeway, Wegmans, or Wal-Mart. Kroger’s Simple Truth line of natural food grew to an astonishing $1.2 billion in annual sales in just two years.

The search for authenticity has led organic food sales to more than triple over the past decade and increase 11% last year alone to $35.9 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Data provider Spins found that sales of natural products across nearly every category are growing in mainstream retailers, while more than half of their conventional counterparts are in decline.

Perhaps more frightening for Big Food, shoppers are doing something else as well: They’re skipping the middle aisles altogether.

The war on fat is ending, with fat emerging as the victor. Cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern.” The low-salt nonsense is being abandoned by doctors, nutritionists and even the CDC. Consumers are avoiding foods with ingredients they can’t pronounce, and Big Food is both scared and scrambling to adjust.

Yes, we’re at a tipping point. Let’s hope the nation tips right over into better health.


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During the low-carb cruise, I interviewed Dr. Ann Childers about how diet affects mood and mental health. She’s a psychiatrist who works with children and has seen a real-food diet work wonders, so I wanted to get her on camera for the upcoming book and DVD companion. One clip I can pretty much guarantee will end up in the DVD is her describing when a teacher called to ask what new wonder drug she’d prescribed to a student previously diagnosed with behavior problems.

“Bacon and eggs,” Dr. Childers answered.

“Yes, but WHAT ELSE?” demanded the teacher.

Dr. Childers also mentioned something Dr. Weston A. Price observed during his travels around the world: people eating their traditional diets weren’t just physically healthier; they were mentally healthier too. Dr. Price noted many times how cheerful and optimistic these people were, and how quickly they rebounded from life’s setbacks.

I thought about that during our return trip home from the cruise, because it was the kind of day that could easily have produced a case of acute crankipantus extremitus in kids, but didn’t in ours.

We booked the cruise closer to the deadline than we should have. When we searched for return flights on Orbitz, our options were 1) a long day of travel or 2) an extra $200 per person for a short day of travel. We elected to save the $800 and endure the long day.

How long? Well, let’s see … we left the ship around 9:00 AM and were sitting inside the Ft. Lauderdale airport shortly after 10:00 AM. Our flight didn’t leave until 3:45 PM — and that flight was to Detroit to change planes. Three hours on that flight, then a three-hour-plus layover in the Detroit airport, then an hour-and-a-half flight to Nashville. Then wait for the luggage. Then catch a shuttle to long-term parking. Then make a half-hour drive to Franklin. By the time we walked into our house, we’d been traveling for 16 hours.

And here’s what surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have: the girls never got into a funk or whined about anything. They made a wisecrack or two, asking me if I couldn’t have found a longer and more roundabout way to get home, but they were laughing about it, not whining. (I told them I’d signed us up for the scenic route.)

They read, they played games on their Kindles, they commented on the view outside the airplane’s windows, they watched some of the in-flight TV offerings, they talked to us and to each other.  They laughed many times throughout the long day.  When the shuttle bus let us out in the long-term parking lot at the Nashville airport, Sara broke into a little musical ditty she’d written to memorize our row number. They were still cheerful when we finally pulled into our driveway.

They’re the daughters of two people who don’t much like whiners, so sure, heredity and upbringing both figure into how they handled themselves.  But I believe diet figured into it as well.  The long trip home was after a week of eating quality (mostly) food. During the cruise, they had bacon, sausage, fruit and eggs for breakfast – no pancakes, cereal, waffles or glasses of juice. Lots of meats, seafood and vegetables for lunches and dinners. They even ordered escargots in garlic butter several times for an appetizer.

Other than the couple of times we let them have sugar-free cookies as an indulgence, they were eating make-your-brain-happy foods all week. During our three-hour layover in the Detroit airport, we had dinner at a Texas Longhorn steakhouse. Then we sat for another two hours, waiting to board the plane to Nashville – again, with nobody complaining or getting cranky.

Now for the flipside …

Sunday was, as I’m sure you’re aware, Father’s Day. On Saturday, I went out in the 90-plus heat and high humidity and spent four hours mowing the back pastures. I was so soaked with perspiration, during one of my cooling-off breaks, Alana asked if I’d dumped a bucket of water over my head.

Hard work? Yup, especially in that heat. But after a shower and a change of clothes, I was re-energized and ready to go walk a few miles around the nearby Westhaven neighborhood, which sponsors an annual music festival called Porch Fest. (The bands play on porches. Nearly every house in Westhaven has a big front porch.)

Afterwards, we walked back to the Mexican restaurant in Westhaven for our Saturday dinner. That’s my “carb nite” meal most weeks. I eat the rice and beans that come with my fajitas, plus a few corn chips. It’s high-carb, but no wheat. I wake up Sunday mornings feeling no ill effects.

Yesterday morning was no exception. When Chareva asked what I wanted to do for Father’s Day, I replied that I wanted us to clean out the garage, sweep, and put away all the tools we’d let pile up during our big Spring Project. (Isn’t that every dad’s dream on Father’s Day?) So we did. It was 90-something and humid again, but my energy level was good.

After I showered and the girls gave me their home-made Father’s Day cards, I decided it was enough of a special occasion to head out for an indulgence meal. I put it up for a vote, and the consensus was that we’d go to Mellow Mushroom in downtown Franklin for pizzas. I haven’t had pizza since my birthday in November and probably won’t again until my next birthday, so I thought it was a fine idea.

As I often say, if you’re going to eat something you know is bad for you, at least choose a meal that’s worth it. The pizzas at Mellow Mushroom are excellent, and therefore worth it — assuming we’re talking about a very occasional indulgence, that is.

I was reminded today why I only eat wheat a couple of times per year. I slept nearly nine hours last night, but I’ve been low-energy all day. I don’t feel depressed – that would be stretching it – but I can safely call it a case of the blahs.  I drank three big mugs of coffee over the course of the morning but never felt totally awake.

Often after dinner, I run out to play a quick 18 holes of disc golf as the sun dips behind the tall trees across the highway from our property. Today the idea didn’t appeal to me.  Nothing requiring energy or exertion appealed to me.  If anything, I felt like taking an afternoon nap, although I didn’t because I had programming work to do.

In a previous post, I described how I considered myself a low-energy person back in my college days. I was also a regular wheat-eater in college. I felt today like I felt back then. Not exactly bad, but not good either. I certainly wouldn’t describe my mood today as optimistic, and if you’d told me to go push a lawnmower up and down a steep pasture for several hours in the heat and humidity, I can promise the reply wouldn’t have been cheerful.

The difference between today and my college days is that today’s low-energy feeling is temporary. I know the cause and the cure.

Good food, good mood. Not-so-good food, not-so-good mood.

Food equals mood.


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Like most people, I’ve long assumed whiskey can have a negative impact on memory. The first time I drank whiskey (as a teenager, I’m sorry to say), my only memory after the fourth or fifth shot was of a glowing star dancing in front of my face. I later realized, while helping my drinking buddy clean the room where we drank the whiskey, that the dancing star was the burning end of a cigarette. Neither of us remembered smoking the cigarettes, but we sure cleaned up quite a few of them.

My belief that whiskey affects memory was strengthened during my college years. My roommate and I mostly drank beer at parties, but occasionally indulged in Jack Daniel’s. The Jack Daniel’s nights sometimes led to a series of next-day phone calls intended to ascertain, say, why my car was parked in the middle of a courtyard, and why some guy I didn’t recognize was snoring in the back seat.

So yeah, I just always figured whiskey is bad for memory, at least in the short term.

Well, I should know better than to form medical opinions based on anecdotal evidence. Turns out whiskey doesn’t affect memory. I know this because I recently conducted a careful study comparing the effects of gin and whiskey on memory, and there was no statistically significant difference. That means we don’t need to be concerned with whiskey’s effect on the brain. I could even write a news article with the headline:


What, you say that’s a ridiculous conclusion? Well, of course it is. But it’s no more ridiculous than the conclusions from a study that generated this headline:


Beginning treatment with a statin was associated with a nearly fourfold increased risk of developing acute memory loss within 30 days in a retrospective cohort study …

Yeah, so that would lead me to conclude statins are bad for memory.

… but a similar increase in risk was seen in patients starting non-statin lipid-lowering drugs.

WTF?!! Does that somehow exonerate statins? Let’s read on.

Compared with non-users, both statin and non-statin lipid-lowering drug (LLD) use was found to be associated with acute memory loss in the weeks following treatment initiation, but there was no difference in memory loss when statins and non-statins were compared with each other, researcher Brian L. Strom, MD, of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and colleagues wrote online June 8 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

I see. So Dr. Strom compared the effects of whiskey and gin on memory loss and found them to be the same. No worries about whiskey, then. Next thing you know, Dr. Strom will be suggesting people who drink whiskey and gin just think they’re experiencing more memory loss.

The observation that all LLDs were associated with memory loss suggests that either all drugs used to lower lipid levels cause acute memory loss or that the observed memory loss in the study was due to detection bias, Strom said.

Head. Bang. On. Desk.

In a telephone interview with MedPage Today, Strom said it makes sense that patients on a new drug would be more likely to notice symptoms and attribute them to the drug, and they are also more likely to report such symptoms to their physician.

Riiiiight. Statins (and other lipid-lowering drugs) don’t actually cause memory loss, ya see. It’s just that people on statins who were going to have memory issues anyway are more likely to blame the drug. Kind of like one of those next-day phone conversations in college …

“Hello? Oh, hey, Mark. What? Of course I’m alive! Why wouldn’t I be? Uh-huh … uh-huh … I said WHAT?! YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! Well, hell no, I don’t remember! Look, just do me a favor and tell her it was the Jack Daniel’s talking!”

Several previous studies have shown acute memory loss associated with the use of statins, but others have not shown the association or have even shown improved memory in long-term statin users compared with non-users.

Strom noted that without the non-statin LLD control group in his study, the findings would have shown a strong association between statin initiation and short-term memory loss.

“In the absence of this control group, the finding would have been completely misleading,” he said.

Okay, to illustrate the deep and wide stupidity of that statement, imagine this quote about my whiskey-and-gin comparison study.

Naughton noted that without the gin-only control group in his study, the findings would have shown a strong association between whiskey and short-term memory loss.

“In the absence of this gin-only control group for comparison, the finding would have been completely misleading,” he said.

Strom said the study findings should reassure both patients and physicians who prescribe statins.

Naughton said the study findings should reassure both college students who drink whiskey and the liquor-store owners who sell the whiskey.

“This whole issue of short-term memory loss with statins is really a tempest in a teapot,” he said. “Statins are very effective drugs, and people should not veer away from them for fear of a short-term memory effect, especially given the data suggesting that long-term statin use improves memory.”

“This whole issue of short-term memory loss with whiskey is really a tempest in a teapot,” Naughton said. “Whiskey is a very effective drink, and people should not veer away from it for fear of a short-term memory effect, especially given the data suggesting that long-term whiskey use improves memory.”

Strom reported receiving research funding from AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb and serving as a consultant to Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bayer Healthcare, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis and Pfizer. A co-author reported receiving research funding from AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb and serving as a consultant to AstraZeneca, Bayer Healthcare, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Merck.

Naughton reported receiving research funding from Jack Daniel’s and Old Grand-Dad and serving as consultant to Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker and Jameson’s. A co-author reported receiving research funding from Knob Creek and Barton Reserve and serving as a consulting to Glen Morangie, Glenfiddich, Canadian Club and Bushmill’s.

Here’s the bottom line: beating down your cholesterol is bad for your brain, whether you do it with a statin or another drug. Comparing statins to non-statin LLDs doesn’t change that … any more than drinking gin instead of whiskey will explain why that strange dude is snoring in the back seat of your car.


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The hogs have returned home in the form of pork – lots and lots of pork.

Chareva drove down to the processing facility today to pick up the meat, which included roughly:

  • 100 pounds of sausage
  • 25 pounds of ribs
  • 5 pounds of picnic roast
  • 5 pounds of tenderloin
  • 50 pounds of pork loin
  • 35 pounds of pork shoulder
  • 40 pounds of ham steak
  • 25 pounds of back fat (from which we’ll render lard)
  • 30 pounds of Boston Butt

I’m pretty sure those hogs were never anywhere near Boston, so I don’t know how we got all that Boston Butt out of them.  I also don’t know what Boston Butt is.  I guess I’ll find out. In the meantime, it’s safe to say we’ll be eating rather a lot of pork this year.

We celebrated with a meal that almost qualified as farm-to-forks. Chareva made meatloaf that included ground beef, sausage, eggs and sage. Only the ground beef came from a store. (We ran out of ground beef from the grass-fed cow we split with The Older Brother.)

She also cooked up some Swiss Chard from her garden. Man, that’s good stuff.

As I’ve said before in interviews, a lot of us remember our grandmothers as fantastic cooks. Grandma probably was a good cook, but I think food quality had a lot to do with it. When Chareva plucks some vegetables from her garden and cooks them up for dinner, the flavor is amazing. A little oil, a little salt, and suddenly Swiss Chard is the most delicious thing ever. I suspect our bodies sense the nutrient density and interpret it as deliciousness.

Given the way her garden looks so far, we’ll enjoy quite a few delicious meals this summer.

On a less cheery note, we lost an egg-laying chicken. For more than week, some critter was getting into the hoop house where we keep chicken feed and enjoying a free meal. I suspected it was a raccoon, since we keep the feed inside a garbage can with a lid that requires a good pull to remove.

I’m okay with losing some chicken feed, but I figured given enough time, a raccoon would probably find a way into one of the chicken yards. So I set the spring-door trap that’s snagged two other raccoons.

The danged critter wouldn’t go into the trap for the can of cat food. Instead, he reached through the side and pulled out the food — three times, on three different nights. I tried creating a protective mesh around the trap with wire and nylon twine to force him to go inside, but he outsmarted me. He managed to tug and chew his way through the mesh to get to the food. Apparently he knew walking into the trap was a bad idea.

Two days ago, he found a low spot on the ground and tunneled his way into a chicken yard for a chicken dinner. Chareva spotted the mauled chicken while we were doing some work out there.  It’s always annoying to lose a chicken to a predator, but doubly annoying when a raccoon kills the bird, eats a few ounces of meat, then leaves a bloody carcass behind.  We tossed the carcass in one of our front pastures.  It was gone the next day.  Yup, there’s some nightlife in these parts.

We have some heavy branches sitting around that I cut into sections after a storm knocked them down, so I placed one of those against the bottom of the fence to discourage more tunneling. Since the trap wasn’t working, we picked up a spring-loaded contraption that closes on the critter’s hand if he reaches into it for food. We baited it with a sardine and attached it to a fence near the chicken yards.

Sure enough, as I was watching TV late last night, I heard the dogs run out and bark like crazy at the back of their fenced-in area. Well, we caught something, I thought.

The something was indeed a raccoon. I didn’t enjoy sending him to raccoon heaven, but it was him or the chickens.

That’s life in the country.

p.s. — I received an email from someone at a Japanese TV network who wants to do an interview for a news segment about Chareva the Snake Handler.  I’m starting wonder if Chareva is the only woman in the world who ever picked up a snake.


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Hi Fat Heads,

Well, looks like snakes are kind of a big deal, no?

I figured I’d come back and finish up the history of the Naughton men and snakes.

So, when I left off, Tom was rocketing towards the horizon in max flail mode, and Grandpa, Dad, and I were having a good laugh at Tom’s expense. I was especially looking forward to years of ribbing Tom as the owner of the lifetime title of “Naughton Family Snake Slayer.”

Or so I thought.

It turns out that “lifetime” is longer than you might imagine. I did have some years of fun with it. If anyone spotted a snake, or was worried about one, I’d volunteer “don’t worry, Tom will take care of it. Snakes are terrified of him, right, Tom!” This would generally result in some dark muttering on Tom’s part as I would cheerfully relate the story. Again.

[One point I generally left out was that, when Grandpa called “SNAKE!” and set Tom in motion, I was actually startled, too. My startle reflex, though, tends to break one of three ways:

1) Freeze. The brain just kind of overloads, and I just don’t do anything until it catches back up with the action. That happened to be my reaction on Tom’s Day of Infamy. I just looked unfazed.

2) Turn towards whatever caused my alarm. The Younger Sister found this out one night as a teenager when she thought it would be funny to hide in the bushes when I got home, then jump out and yell. I was startled, but she was the one with the big eyes as I whipped around facing her with my hands up. She decided maybe she’d save that treatment for Tom.

3) That’s a number 2 with an added shot at whatever the perceived threat is. The Middle Son caught that one as a pre-teen. He hadn’t discussed with his aunt the prudence of jumping out at me as I passed his room in the hallway on my way to bed. Without thinking or looking, my (open, fortunately) hand whipped out and caught him upside the head. I just kept walking. “Good night, Son.” “Uh, good night, Dad.”

Now, if you think of this from an evolutionary standpoint, none of those are what you would consider optimal compared to Tom’s more straightforward startle reflex. I mean, if that’s a sabre-tooth beast, Tom’s making tracks. I’m either frozen looking, or I pop it one on the nose. Probably related to why there’s not as many of us left-handers!

Anyway, time went on, we moved a few times, grew up, left home, started careers. Life stuff.

So, some thirty years after the Naughton Family Snake Slayer incident, I was working with Dad, and Tom was in the midst of his stand-up vocation, traveling all over the country.

The Wife and I decided to rent a small cabin in Merramec State Park in southern Missouri for a long weekend anniversary getaway. We’d been there a few times before with some of the in-laws and the growing broods of kids we were all generating; in campers and tents a couple of times, renting a big duplex cabin another. It was only a few hours’ drive, beautiful scenery, the Merramec River ran through it (from which we caught quite a few smallmouth bass the first time, but not so much on subsequent visits).

Everything was as perfect as we’d hoped. Some alone time together, did a little cooking, drank coffee and watched the sun come up, took some walks in the woods, went to a local winery for wine and sparkling mead.

Then about the third day, we decided to try our luck fishing again. Our luck turned out the same as it had the last few times — as in, none — so after a couple of hours, we were headed back along the path on the steep banks along the river. I turned to reply to something The Wife was saying, then glanced down to check my footing as I turned back. And my footing was about to include a nice-sized snake that was rapidly trying to vacate the piece of the path my foot was about to land on.

Those three normal startle reflexes?

Complete fail.

In my defense, number 1) wouldn’t have helped anyway — if I froze my momentum was still going to carry my foot squarely onto the snake. And I was already facing the damned thing, so 2) was out, and as for 3), well, I was highly startled, but no way was I going to punch a snake.

So my brain kind of overloaded and I made… a sound.

You couldn’t really classify it as a scream, because it was a lot more guttural. At the same time, my whole body jerked around as I made a last ditch (successful) effort to land my foot anywhere in the county other than on the snake. The fact that I was carrying three or four fishing rods in one hand and our tackle in the other added to the whole effect, whipping around as my arms wildly counter-rotated for balance.

The moment finally passed with the snake nowhere to be seen and me waiting for my heart rate to dip back under 400, when I heard another long, loud noise. This time I did turn towards it — it was The Wife, laughing hysterically. “Hey, it wasn’t that funny,” I explained, “That thing might’ve been poisonous!”

We continued on our way and enjoyed the rest of our little anniversary getaway, the incident in woods fading from memory.

Or so I thought.

Some time later, I came home one day at lunchtime. This was our normal routine — the office was only a few minutes away, and The Wife was staying home with the kids. So coming home for lunch was a nice break for me, good for the budget, and gave The Wife a chance to talk to another grownup. Except this day, The Wife isn’t anywhere on the first floor.


“Lunch is on the table,” I hear from upstairs.

Thinking nothing of it, I start looking through the day’s mail, and I see an over-sized envelope postmarked from South Dakota. Tom and I would talk by phone every once in awhile, and from time to time, he would send letters while he was out doing his standup. They were always interesting, sometimes hilarious (the Professor Woodbury Economics Treatise — which I talked Tom into putting on his other blog, is one of my all-time favorites), and The Wife and I would usually read them together.

“Hey! Tom sent me a letter from out West. He must be doing his standup out there. Cool. Wonder what he sent!”


I thought it was odd that The Wife wouldn’t be wanting to hear what Tom was up to, but shrugging it off, I opened the envelope — and out fell THIS:

I was shocked into stunned silence as the sheer enormity of the apparent betrayal sunk in.

“WHAT THE…?!?!,” I blurted, then “CINDY — YOU TOLD TOM?!?!? CINDY!?”

Then came a small reply from the top of the stairs…

“Um, Cindy’s not here.”

(“hee! hee! hee!”)

I was in a state of shock, as years of teasing Tom played across my memory. I couldn’t let this stand. It would be years of payback.

So, on returning to the office, lunch all but forgotten, I began thinking and scheming on how to mitigate the damage. The following is what I ca– ahem, excuse me, I mean what my counsel came up with and promptly posted back to Tom. I submit it for your review:


A Professional Corporation
%306 S. Grand Ave. West
Springfield, IL 62704

July 20. 1992

Mr. Thomas D. Naughton
Chicago, IL

Dear Thomas;

It has come to my attention that certain misinterpretations (possibly malicious in origin) have been attached to actions taken by my client, a Mr. G.E. Naughton, on or about the late afternoon of Thursday, July 2, 1992. I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight so as to avoid any further (perhaps litigable) dissemination of erroneous information, via recapping Mr. Naughton’s story as related to me, with exact quotes where appropriate. Mr. Naughton has sworn under oath that this accounting, despite any information you may have already received, is “pretty much almost exactly what happened, I don’t care WHAT my wife said.” To wit…

On the day in question, Mr. Naughton and his spouse set out with approximately $40 worth of newly purchased fishing lures, licenses, bail, and sundry tackle in order to prove conclusively that there are in fact NO fish over 3 inches in length in the Meramec River. The experiment was a complete success, which Mr. Naughton claims was in no small part due to his foresight in leaving all the old tackle – which could have skewed the results – safely stored in Springfield, IL.

Despite this extra initiative on his part, Mr. Naughton still gives his wife full credit in the study, even though she “mostly just sat there when she wasn’t shooting down a steep bank on her butt, which she somehow must think is the correct way to get to the water, since that’s what she does every time we go there, but which I’d NEVER, EVER go blabbing about to everyone I’ve ever met – even though it looked hilarious – because after all, it was our 9th anniversary and I wouldn’t want to embarrass her.”

Having spent a considerable amount of time drowning a collection of invertebrates to ensure that no Missouri Dept. of Conservation employees had surreptitiously sneaked any fishlike creatures into this otherwise “unspoiled” stretch of water, my client and his betrothed began making their way back through the woods.

Mr. Naughton was gallantly leading the way on the trail, carrying most of the equipment, when he was “momentarily distracted for about 20 minutes by the wife’s chattering about how much her feet hurt” (Mrs. Naughton was conducting an inquiry of her own into how fast you can get nasty blisters on the back of your heels from traipsing up and down rocky, hilly terrain in sneakers without any socks on).

After turning his head to convey his heartfelt sympathy for his wife’s plight while continuing down the path, he returned his gaze to the trail in front of him. Specifically to his right foot, which he was about to replace not onto terra firma, but onto the rather long, black tail of a snake which was in the process of somewhat furiously getting the hell out of the way.

Mentally calculating his options at lightning speed and thinking only of the safely of others, Mr. Naughton quickly considered and discarded “Oh, by the way, dear, try not to step on the snake I’M about to step on,” and “perhaps we should notify the park officials that there is a reptile in the forest,” and instead settled on an authoritative “BOOOOOOOOOO-AAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! – aaacckkk!,” simultaneously moving to a better vantage point approximately 10 feet straight up in order to more accurately assess the situation. Despite his cat-like reflexes, Mr. Naughton didn’t get a good view of the rest of the rapidly retreating reptile, although he has estimated, based on the last six inches he saw, that the serpent was probably in the neighborhood of 30 feet long.

Of course, no serious scholar of history would be surprised at the quick disappearance of the snake, as they would instantly recognize his outburst not as the outright terror his uninformed bride mistook it to be, but as the ancient Irish battle-cry which (Mr. Naughton assures me) “the great patron Saint What’s-His-Name used when he ran all the snakes out of Ireland.” His proud Gaelic heritage notwithstanding, Mr. Naughton was able, again owing to his highly trained reflexes, to control the volume enough to narrowly avert disaster – any louder and he “probably would’ve cleared the entire park of reptiles, and completely destroyed the delicate ecological balance.” My client, as you are no doubt aware, is intensely concerned about maintaining the Earth’s precious ecosystems just exactly as they are without ever letting anything change even a “teensy, weensy bit” – with the possible exception of the sneaky, slithering coward (being the snake, of course) which was streaking toward the Arkansas state line.

My client’s wife was apparently joined in her misperception by several other creatures in the immediate vicinity, particularly a pair of deer who were startled into flight moments later by my client and his wife. This too, was easily explained by Mr. Naughton’s natural stealth in the woods, and also partly owing to the fact that the deer in question were “apparently doubled over laughing their rear ends off over some completely unrelated matter’ when Mr. Naughton and his wife happened upon them.

The rest of their trek passed without incident, probably due to the fact that Mr. Naughton allowed his wife to carry most of the equipment after that, keeping his hands free for instant counterattack. Also, anticipating the next sneak attack to come from the rear, he gallantly allowed his wife to walk in front.

…This concludes my client’s version of events, which you will no doubt agree is a much more plausible explanation than what you’ve apparently been told. Having set the record straight, I wish to make certain demands on my client’s behalf:

Mr. Naughton has some concern that you may use this incident as an excuse to pass the title of “Naughton Family Snake Slayer,” which title you have retained for nearly three decades, earned as a boy of six in a completely dissimilar incident. Evidence of this intent is given by your delivery to him of an allegedly authentic “Snake Snare,” which, despite its Dakota postmark, appears to be simply a rawhide shoestring with a noose tied in it.

This has already caused my client severe mental anguish and stress after it was seen by his spouse and children, prompting particular derision from the person-like teenager (a.k.a., “The Keed”) inhabiting his residence. Further mental anguish resulted when he showed it to the Service Representative and receptionist at work, the bookkeeper, his parents, several in-laws, and assorted passers-by.

My client has also expressed considerable anxiety that you may make slanderous reference to this incident as part of your vocation as a standup comedian, causing further (reimbursable) harm.

In return for your discretionary silence, Mr. Naughton states he is willing to remain publicly quiet about your own reptilian adventure, also a certain humorous anecdote concerning yourself and an alleged ”witch,” and several other stories which he assures me he will make up in the absence of your cooperation.

We patiently await your reply.

Warmest Regards,

Ebeneezer Tattooehm
Attorney at Law

cc: Mr. G.E. Naughton
Ms. Cynthia “Snitch” Naughton


So now, as Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.


The Older Brother


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