Lipids and Liquids: Minding Our P's and Q's
by Hillel Schwartz

A friend recently noticed that he could no longer buy a sixteen-ounce bottle of his favorite softdrink; he could only get twenty ounces, or thirty-two, or forty, or the equivalents in liters. I suggested that we are living in the Age of Liquids; forty years ago liquids weren't held in such high esteem and the containers (if not the drinkers) were more parsimonious.

Now I want to reconsider that casual remark. After some meditation, I am certain that we are living in the Age of Liquids, despite evidence to the contrary from solid state electronics and kitchen waste compactors. It is toward liquids, rather than solids or gases, that people in the '90s customarily look for salvation: toward bottled waters, for clear skin, good circulation, and detoxified colons; toward doctored drinks like Gator Aid, for relief from thirst and replenishment of salt and minerals; toward white wine, for romance and demonstrations of a sophisticated palate or cosmopolitan style; toward geothermal vents and geysers, for heat and helpful bacteria; toward oil deposits beneath the ocean floor, for energy and profitable investment; toward "liquid concentrate' detergents for clean clothes, floors, windows, sinks, toilets, carports, and cars; toward reformulated gasolines and motor oils, for better mileage and humming engines; toward soups (and ramen noodles), emerging as a gourmet food and as a base meal in Soup and Salad bars; toward liquid amino cocktails, super green algae shakes, ayurvedic ambrosias, aloe vera smoothies, and other unusually complexioned drinks, for long life, resurgent sexuality, sparkling spirits.

After further meditation, I would also maintain that we esteem liquids even more highly than did previous American generations, despite the twentieth-century constancy of Coca-Cola, the perfervid popularity of Pepsi, the manufactured furors between regular and light beers, and the cinematic play given to martinis (shaken, not stirred), whiskey, bourbon, vermouth, and other hard liquors. In the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties, athletes were dissuaded from drinking much of anything during practice or play, and some (high school boys, in particular) died of dehydration because their coaches feared that they would become "waterlogged" or "water sick"; since then, coaches have encouraged and then insisted that their players at all times be "well hydrated" (an expression new to common parlance). In the Forties and Fifties only health food "quacks" advised us to drink eight glasses of water each day; now people carry bottles of water or Gator Aid everywhere-to work, to sports, to PTA meetings, to diplomatic sessions-and Garrison Keillor does mock commercials for eight glasses of water a day on his radio show, The Prairie Home Companion. In the Fifties we drank water from the tap and argued only over the degree to which it was, or should be, or should not be fluoridated; today the numbers of varieties of bottled waters direct from mountain streams, artesian wells, or glacial melt-off threaten to deluge supermarket shelves, and those who most fear pollution from the industrial or natural chemicals and minerals in tap water attach expensive water purifiers to their faucets.

Indeed, our current esteem for liquids makes us all the more fearful of their power to devastate, either internally through contaminants, bacteria, and overly assiduous amoebae or externally through seepage, wastewater overflow, floods, tidal waves, and rising ocean levels caused by global warming. As usual in the realm of the magical, that which is most eligible to redeem us puts us in most jeopardy. Where and when, as here and now, liquids seem to flow with the secrets both of heaven and of hell, liquidity is a commanding metaphor and our foremost asset. Fiscal liquidity makes for surety if not certainty; social liquidity makes for personal mobility; political liquidity makes for easily shifted alliances where nothing and no one can claim enduring allegiance; intellectual liquidity makes for fluid recombinations of the multifold and discontinuous parts of a world that no longer stands securely or solidly on its own.

Solidity, of course, is what we once used to rely upon and seek out. A solid grip, a solid handshake, a solid footing, all these assured us of a solid understanding, a solid relationship, a solid deal, a solid moral universe. "Solid," however (as in "Solid, man") has become a hip term for a casual, temporary "OK." Solid has been soiled.

Soiled solidity brings me around to lipids. Say it: "lipid." A mid-twentieth-century word, "lipid" has the sound and mouth feel of something very liquid, like "livid" or "libido." But across the last half century we have come to suspect that lipids must always congeal, becoming solid, dangerous, and... soiled. Technically, a lipid is one of a group of chemical compounds (fats and esters) that are greasy to the touch and central to the maintenance of cell integrity and cell growth. If my thesis here were to hold water, shouldn't we therefore be deeply in love with lipids for their very liquidity and dynamism? No, because the other characteristic of lipids is that they are insoluble in water. Our Age of Liquids is, above all, an age of pure waters and perfect solubility, definitely anti-grease.

Physiologically, chemically, and culturally, lipids occupy the shifting middle ground between solids and liquids. Like most substances that are not clearly on one side or the other of a major cultural divide, they are as disturbing as they are intriguing. We do not quite know what to make of them, and in the meantime we live in terror that they may make us into something culturally insoluble and physiologically indefinable.

That is the status of fat people, whose lipidity renders them at once solid and liquid, a state of matter Americans describe infrequently in pleasant terms as a bowl of jello (the belly of Santa Claus at Christmas time), more frequently in pejorative terms as a tub of lard. Fat people (i.e., their bodies, with which they are completely conflated) are not consistently liquid otherwise they would be mobile and quick-witted, quite the opposite from the stereotypical American equation of fatness with immobility and stupidity. On the other hand, fat people are not immutably solid-otherwise they would be muscled and reliable, quite the opposite from the stereotypical American equation of fat with flaccidity and fickleness. Fat people meander and mope somewhere distressingly in-between solid and liquid, which explains in large measure how and why Americans can attribute to fat people such contradictory personality traits as stubbornness and lack of willpower, utter childishness and morbid melancholy, affability and anger, compulsiveness and unresponsiveness, stolidity and high lability (quick and strong changes of emotional tenor and temper).

Nonetheless, signs are everywhere today that we may soon be looking toward yet another and in-between state of matter for our salvation. Lotions, gels, and foams, all of which meander between solidity, liquidity, and gaseousness, are everywhere on the rise, celebrated for their powers to cleanse, beautify, calm, soothe, and heal. Plasma, defined by physicists as a highly ionized gas with some characteristics of a liquid and a solid, is now pronounced to be the major stuff of stars and galaxies; it may soon be the major stuff for our earthly energy needs in the 21st century, at the heart of the newest (still experimental) nuclear reactors. Our most sophisticated nuclear fusion reactor projects rely upon achieving a regular magnetic control of the positive ions and (negative) electrons of plasma, usually unpredictable in its flow and its energy levels. If this control can be achieved without a huge expense of energy to power the toroidal magnets, then we may have on hand in the next generation a source of energy that is much cleaner and less hazardous and wasteful than nuclear fission.

Would it be too much to predict that, like plasma, we also may personally and socially be looking toward lipids for our salvation? Recent findings of a significant correlation between aggravated morbidity levels and low cholesterol levels, as well as recurrent findings of a strong correlation between low cholesterol levels and stunted childhood growth, suggest that as a society we have been undervaluing lipids. Whether or not lipids can work wonders, it is already clear that we must mind the p's of lipids no less than the q's of liquids.

Meanwhile, we need to be aware of the outrages of our Age of Liquids-three outrages in particular.

First, the outrage of the use of liquid weight-loss diets as a central means toward new life, as if these work any better or longer than other diets, and as if the loss of weight were a precondition to a new life.

Secondly, in consequence of our faith in liquid diets, the outrage of the exportation of powdered diet formulas and dehydrated foods to infants and starving adults across the globe. Such formulas presume plentiful supplies of uncontaminated water, which is rarely the case in developing countries (and increasingly rare here, sadly, in many regions of the United States). Due in part to large-scale industrial developments financed by multinational American, Japanese, or European-controlled companies, and due in part to monocultures and hydroelectric dams encouraged by the global economic system, clean clear water in most places is either exorbitantly expensive or inaccessible; usually, therefore, the various food powders are mixed with unclean waters that produce diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disorders that lead to further dehydration.

Thirdly, the outrage of the commandeering of fresh water supplies for our own industrial, recreational, and agribusiness interests to such an extent that we are using up, at a wasteful, wastrel rate, those waters that our grandchildren will long for, in a globally warmed, parched, and desert planet.

One could (and I would) argue that our Age of Liquids, which insists upon 20ounce bottles rather than 12 or 16, is an age of ecological and cultural gluttony on the part of those who think themselves the leanest, healthiest, and most sophisticated. One could (and I might well) argue that this Age of Liquids must be on its way out... or else. One could (and I might) argue that until this Age of Liquids has pretty much evaporated, there can be no Age of Lipids to lubricate our path toward a more humane and more sustainable world for us all, fat or thin or somewhere, like most people, in-between. ß

HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the size acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.