Tryptophanatic

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, March 31, 2013

Shortly after my father is fired from Boeing in the early ‘70s along with half the rest of the workforce, he decides not to go back to work but stay at home instead, much to my mother’s great and lip-pursing chagrin. It’s a big enough house not to see each other all day, but even so.

What she sees in her future, like a dark zeppelin of a cloud, is a withering line-up of sandwiches at noon, holding flashlights, standing at the base of ladders, listening to efficiency-expert pep talks and being shown new ways to do things she’s been doing for 30 years. Like organizing a coat closet, for instance. Or peeling a potato.

Dad has lots of time on his hands but is never idle, not on your life. In addition to vegetable gardening, an infatuation with apple farming (a dream he never realizes), an obsession with newly minted NASA patents and learning early computers, he becomes a health food fanatic — long before the rest of the world has, except, of course, for the fine folks at Prevention Magazine, which we subscribe to, and with which I, in turn, become obsessed at the age of about 16. In 1974. I just can’t get enough.

What Prevention gives a neurotic girl in Catholic school is a sense that in every single vitamin on the shelf lays an answer to any number of problems one is sure to have. Nerves. Shyness. Romantic fantasies. Bad skin. Low self-esteem. Lethargy. The desire to run away. Unbridled yearning. It all seems so straightforward: If zinc can’t do it, maybe tryptophan can. If tryptophan or any other freshly gel-capped supplement can’t, well, then, there’s food combining, fermenting, sprouting, juicing, fasting. There is hope in the health food store, eternal, bottle-and-gadget-grabbing hope.

Dad, fearless in matters of blazing forward, gets so worked up on “Diet for a Small Planet” and the revolutionary new staples (like millet and rye) with which he’s re-organized our kitchen cupboards (insert wife’s frown here), he starts boning up on biochemistry at the Seattle Public Library. Day after day, for months and months, he sits in a carrel until finally, one night at dinner, he shares this before-its-time gem, this eureka moment of Gray’s Anatomy beauty: the human body’s need for electrolytes is of utmost importance! No one seems to be addressing this glaring omission!

Thus, Analysis Research Associates (my father’s personal do-anything-he-feels-like corporation) enters the vitamin race.

Cut to giant drums of potassium gluconate and magnesium citrate arriving at our door, and the birth of a cottage industry, which leads to the very first bottles of K+, a potassium-based supplement, and their distribution, for a limited time, to health food stores in the Seattle area.

The vitamins are house-made, 123 at a time, in a contraption dad makes out of Lucite with his drill press, glue and scroll saw. Gel cap bottoms are placed in holes and filled with powder and then tamped down using our ebony chopsticks, (I still use them). We pack up 12-per cartons and dad starts peddling his wares, old school and in person. Miraculously, we start filling orders and then get busier and busier with it. There is a second product based on magnesium, and we spent even more time at the kitchen table, the three of us hilariously sweat-shopping around a 5 by 12 inch piece of Lucite.

There is no branding, no real logo, no catch phrase, no market research, no strategy; there is just my father selling cases of beloved product, one at a time, in the early days, before electrolytes begin to flood not just health food stores but grocery and convenience stores — in the form of increasingly ubiquitous sports drinks.

Now, as I pop milk thistle capsules twice a day for a springtime liver cleanse and consider further anatomical housekeeping measures for the coming off-season, I think back on my larger-than-life father and his enthusiasm for knowledge and entrepreneurship, his persistence, his optimism, and his refusal of cynicism, and I hold it all close.

In the spring, cleansing of the body feels like the foundation of a good spring cleaning of the heart and spirit, for an annual purging of all that never has and never will serve us, the emotional dark matter we insist too adamantly is ours for the duration. Is it really ours for the duration? I don’t know about that.

Because in the spring, as the lambs drop and begin instantly bounding on the wick fields, as threadlike roots blindly displace hundreds of pounds per square inch of clay and dirt, I feel a simple sort of radiant hope and the spirit of my father shine through me, helping the process along. Thanks, dad.

2 Replies to “Tryptophanatic”

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