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Wicked Happy

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Happiness has been on my mind a great deal lately.  It was one of Momalom’s Five for Ten themes.  It is the sole subject matter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I’m currently devouring.  And it comes up on track 12 of the soundtrack from Wicked which has gotten significant airtime in my car since we returned from New York nearly three weeks ago.  While all three of these venues have addressed the topic admirably, it is the last one which has crawled into my mind and been poking at me with irritating regularity. 

I’ll spare you the context for track 12 (which is properly entitled “Thank Goodness”) because for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Glinda (“the good witch” as most of us know her) hits on an uncomfortable truth.  Gretchen Rubin would probably tell us that these lyrics address the “arrival fallacy” of happiness (p. 84 in THP, for those of you following along at home).  And she would be right.  But for me these lyrics hit me at more of a gut level than an academic one.  I care less about why they scare me, and more about the fact that they do so in the first place. 

That’s why I couldn’t be happier
No, I couldn’t be happier
Though it is, I admit
The tiniest bit
Unlike I anticipated
But I couldn’t be happier
Simply couldn’t be happier
(spoken) Well – not “simply”:
 ’Cause getting your dreams
It’s strange, but it seems
A little – well – complicated
There’s a kind of a sort of… cost
There’s a couple of things get… lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn’t know you crossed
Until you’ve crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn’t thrill you like you think it will
Still – With this perfect finale
The cheers and ballyhoo
Who wouldn’t be happier?
So I couldn’t be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn’t it?
Happy is what happens
When your dreams come true!

So there you have it: the one minute of a four-ish-minute song that I’ve listened to over and over and over again for three weeks, trying to understand why it’s plaguing me.  After much head scratching I’ve come to the conclusion that these lyrics bother me because they are true.  Glinda addresses the fact that when we get what it is that we think we want, we may be surprised at how the experience isn’t just as we pictured it.  More bothersome still, Glinda’s approach to this truth – skittish and furtive – almost says more than the words themselves.  She almost goes there – to that place of full-bore disappointment – but stops short of it, not treading past the allusion.

This is a frightening truth to broach.  We want to believe that when we achieve whatever goal we have set for ourselves that happiness, pure and unadulterated, will pour forth into our lives.  Yet rarely is this the case.  My friend Aidan touched on this very phenomenon in a post of hers just last week, causing me to contemplate it further.  This whole premise feels much more frightening when someone you know personally (rather than a witch in a musical…) is experiencing it in real time. 

I have goals and dreams and ideas about my future.  Naturally, in my head the attainment of said goals and dreams comes equipped with clouds parting, angels singing, cartoon birds sitting on my shoulder (a la (500) Days of Summer), and sickeningly sweet bliss at every turn.  With a finish line like that on the horizon, why wouldn’t I run full speed ahead toward my goals?  But understanding that actual finish line may be something more bittersweet I pause to think carefully about the goals I have set.

I turn back to Gretchen Rubin for a life-line.  She writes:

The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth,” in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present.  … the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness.  To the contrary.  The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal.  Friedrich Nietzshce explained it well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the meolody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.  A parable.”

And so it turns out that the means is the end.  Leave it to Nietzsche and Gretchen Rubin to explain this fearful premise in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a gift with a bow on top.  Now someone just needs to explain this to Glinda.  Perhaps it is the kind of philosophy that would resonate better with Elphaba.

Life After Yes

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Other than the Harry Potter series, I’ve never paid any attention to when or how a new book was released.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think I realized that books outside the Harry Potter series even had release dates.  And until I struck up an online friendship with Aidan Donnelley Rowley last fall (which was recently and deliciously consummated in person over white wine and guacamole) I knew not a thing about the process of publishing a book.  Now, several months, blog posts, and e-mails later my knowledge has grown from just North of nothing to just South of something.  On her blog, Ivy League Insecurities, Aidan has generously taken us along for the ride as she journeyed toward publication.  And on May 18th her book was born.

I felt awkward pestering the staff at Border’s to unbox this new release a mere two hours after they opened on May 18th.  And I felt awkward blabbering on about how the author is a friend of mine and I wanted to make sure her new title was properly displayed.  But no amount of clumsy conversation could have stopped me from completing my literary mission of the day.   

I plowed through Life After Yes in about a week, gobbling it up in small chunks during IEP’s naps, before bed, and one last push to the end over lunch yesterday.  After months and months of anticipation I had developed some sense of what LAY’s pages might hold, but for the most part my list of expectations was short.

Life After Yes tells the story of young Manhattan attorney Quinn, affianced but afflicted about whether or not her life can withstand the structure of marriage.  Hers are the problems of privilege, but no less real or distressing to Quinn because of it.  Rattled after losing her father on September 11th she lives her life on the third rail, full of destructive habits that she’s forced to confront as she considers bringing another person into her life for good. 

I was happy to discover within the first few pages that the strong narrative voice I’ve grown to love on Aidan’s blog comes through clearly in her fiction writing as well.  She works clever metaphors into tiny places, and her hallmark affection for alliteration (and assonance?) is subtle but ever-present.  In addition to quick and flitting nature of her writing, the plot had much to offer as well.

It was the glimpse into experiences I never had myself that brought me the most enjoyment from this book.  I have long understood at an academic level that for many brides the foray into marriage is fraught with fear.  But my own experience was quite different.  In a long-term, steady, and decidedly non-dramatic relationship, GAP’s and my decision to marry was a slow one.  By the time we finally married the fear had subsided, the questions had been answered, and we were confident about our path together.  So walking in Quinn’s shoes for 340 pages gave me insight into an experience about which I’d previously known very little.  Her story may be fiction, but her story is also true. 

Quinn’s losses became mine.  Her fears became mine.  Her mistakes caused me to feel shame and her success caused me to feel pride.  Aidan lifts the outer layers of external perfection from her heroine and carefully reveals a creature who is initially less – but ultimately more – enviable than you thought she was based on her exterior. 

If the novel deserves any criticism at all it would be that it left me wanting more.  Aidan’s deft descriptions paint rich and colorful pictures.  In several scenes I wished for longer, uninterrupted passages that would allow me to really soak up the settings before commencing with the next plot point.  The narrative didn’t feel rushed, necessarily, but there is an eagerness to it that in some ways augments the agitation Quinn feels, but also occasionally left me needing to pause for a breath.  I hope that in her sophomore effort (which I understand is in the works!) Aidan takes her time and allows the characters and readers just a bit more space to get settled in before being ushered through the story. 

I’ve recommended Life After Yes to several friends and colleagues already.  And this weekend I’ll be giving away my extra copy to a dear friend for whom the characters of Quinn and Avery will hold special significance. 

It was a treat to read this book; to flip through its pages feeling a special connection to the woman in the story via the woman behind the story.  It’s not many of us who can count published authors among our friends.  I’m happy to be in the minority.

So Long, Suburbs?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

While looking unsuccessfully for an article on something else entirely, I made an important discovery the other day:  There is a Freakonomics Blog!  How did I not know this?  I immediately aborted my previous search and started poring over their archives, and drooling in quantities greater than what is socially acceptable.  It’s a complete goldmine of brain candy!  After frenetically combing through several sets of search results I resigned myself to the fact that this would become a time-consuming discovery and modified my expectations of reading it all right then

Of all the posts that caught my eye, the one that caused me to waste the most time at work was this one.  It is a quorum on suburbia, wherein the blog authors have tossed the question of suburban future to several topical experts.  As a lifelong suburb dweller (minus the six months of my semester abroad) I am fascinated by the idea that my lifestyle is an unsustainable blight on human evolution (or so say some of the respondents).  More fascinating still is the idea that within my lifetime said unsustainability of suburban life will reach its tipping point and the suburbs themselves will either radically evolve, or die off altogether.    

In reading the responses from the quorum participants I was struck by the range of perspectives.  From the apocalyptic to the reasonably foreseeable there is no shortage of ideas about how and where we will live in the future.    

  • There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. … People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future. I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead (Kunstler).
  •  Government services such as police, fire, health, and public works will increase exponentially. To pay for the expanded services, taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual paychecks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury (Antus).
  • The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated. … Lots of lesbians and gay men now view the suburban home with a white picket fence and a family with 2.5 kids as their version of gay equality (Gates).
  • Skyrocketing gas prices will lead some households to reconsider their long commutes, introducing an “anti-suburbanization” force that favors denser, more compact cities (Brueckner).

These quotes are just a taste of the positions represented in the post.  Having no idea of my own how realistic any of them is, I find myself feeling like I’ve stepped into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book where I’m making decisions the ramifications of which I don’t fully understand.

I have a love/hate relationship with suburbia.  I love living on a quiet block where kids play in the street.  I loathe having to drive everywhere.  I love not sharing apartment walls with neighbors.  I loathe the mega-market mentality of the suburbs.  I love clean fresh air and being able to let my dogs out the back door.  I loathe the distance, both literally and metaphorically, that separates me from the cultural epicenter of urban hubs.  But in spite of all the time I’ve spent thinking about my own experience in the suburbs, I’d never stopped to consider the broader implications of the lifestyle I have (if by default?) chosen.

It seemed obvious to me once it had been pointed out, but prior to reading the referenced post I’d never really thought about the premise of cheap energy on which the suburban concept is based, nor longevity (or perhaps more accurately, lack thereof) of that concept.  Reading through the respondents predictions I was struck by fear (could that really happen?) and incredulity (that could never happen!). 

After walking away from the post for a few hours I began to postulate my own theory.  Based on an amount of information that is just North of nothing I weighed out what I believe to be some realistic scenarios.  My overriding suspicion is that enough Americans have become so supremely entrenched in their suburban lifestyles that the ‘burbs will not, as Kunstler suggests, become wholly abandoned slums.  Rather, I suspect that suburbs will still exist, but perhaps in the vein of the small town – accessible by train, including infrastructure for foot traffic, and including more small-scale shops than super-sized retail outlets.  Perhaps more suburban office workers will telecommute, which will perhaps prompt an increase in single-car families.  These smaller city centers might pop up around larger urban centers (or evolve out of today’s existing suburban landscape).  Or, perhaps with the flexibility of working remotely small and medium-sized towns will grow as the members of the suburban exodus look for something with the convenience of an urban center, but without the price tag.

These are all just my mental musings.  Mostly, I find this topic fascinating and am enjoying pondering the cultural evolution of the only lifestyle I’ve ever known.  I’ve long thought I might someday end up living in a large city.  But I never dreamed it would be because energy prices forced me out of my current locale.  Clearly, I’ve got some reading to do.

Vegetarian Update: The New Normal

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

I did it.

Well, almost.  Provided I make it through today without caving, then I can say I did it.  But given that I’ve made it this far I think I can count on myself to complete the day without wrecking my vegetarian experiment in its final hours.

When I last reported on the status of this project I was hitting some proverbial bumps in the road.  I was drooling over the smell of meat on grills, and puzzling over the nearly immeasurable role that food plays in our cultural landscape.  Since then I’ve bounced back a bit, thankfully.

My second book of the month, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was an interesting read.  If Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma felt like a fascinating lecture from your best college professor, then Eating Animals feels like a freakishly well-sourced rant from your smartest activist friend.  But all of the propaganda was studded with incontrovertible facts that I couldn’t have dismissed even in the context of the most vitriolic rhetoric.  Nevertheless I think the strength of Foer’s bias ultimately proved counterproductive for me.  Not that it undermined his premise altogether, but I think I would have found his positions more compelling if presented in a more objective way.  He draws comparisons between people and animals that I believe are quite a stretch.  Many of his arguments ultimately rest on the assertion that animals are entitled to the same rights as humans, which I don’t believe.  I believe they are entitled to a respectable degree of welfare and a life free of suffering.  But I do not believe they are equal to humans.

One thing I did appreciate about Eating Animals was that Foer included passages from other stakeholders in the food industry.  In their own words he represented the arguments of a factory farmer, two family farmers, an agribusiness man, a PETA worker, and others.  These voices, alongside Foer’s own, painted a more complete picture of the competing perspectives in the larger food source landscape.  These are complicated problems and while Foer certainly pushed a particular agenda, I appreciated that he turned a few of his pages over to the voices of others.

So, where does this month leave me?  The short answer is, I’m not entirely sure yet.  Inasmuch as this experience has affected me throughout its course, I’ve tried very hard to prevent myself from drawing long-term conclusions prior to its close.  Now that I am here I have some mulling over to do.

There are some things I know for certain, and other things I haven’t yet worked out.  As for the things I know for certain:

  • The old maxim about 21 days to break a habit is true.  I hit a rough patch around two and a half weeks, and then things got much easier.
  • It is quite a challenge to get enough protein without meat.  Meat is a highly convenient protein source.
  • I will not forego meat altogether.
  • I will be much more selective in the meat I choose to eat.  I will try to find locally raised organic meat that was not subjected to factory farming methods.
  • I will select vegetarian options in most restaurants.
  • I will cook more (but not exclusively) vegetarian meals at home.
  • I sort of agree with Michael Pollan’s quote of the old French custom that any dietary restriction is bad manners, and will graciously eat any meal that is prepared for me by someone else without quibbling over its source.
  • I will not beat myself up if I occasionally slip and purchase/eat food that I can reasonably suspect was raised in a factory farming environment.
  • I will also pay more attention to the produce I eat, choosing regional or locally grown organic fruits and vegetables when possible.

As for the things I haven’t quite worked out yet:

  • How much am I willing to inflict my new beliefs system on my husband and son?
  • What impact would be brought to bear on our budget if I tried to buy only organic food?
  • How inconvenient will it be to change my shopping habits?  Is this a change I’m willing to make all of the time, some of the time?
  • How can I convey the importance of this issue to other people without sounding like a goody-two-shoes or a pushy evangelist?

So, yes, I have some thinking to do.  The last thing that I know, though, is that I’m glad I did this experiment.  I’m glad I know that I can go a month without meat and not feel too burdened by it.  I’m glad I’ve explored the dark side of the food industry and can make my decisions based on greater information than I did in the past.  And I’m glad that I’ve seen this project through and can feel satisfied with my (albeit minor) accomplishment.

I’d love to leave you with some pearl of wisdom; something poignant that will make you want to explore this topic for yourself.  But there are a couple of problems with that.  1) I have a very low tolerance for evangelism and I believe that what we put into our bodies is a highly personal decision.  What I’ve learned this month makes me believe that we are facing a system-wide problem that calls for broad attention and action.  But my little voice in the blogosphere is all I’m willing to offer.  You must decide for yourself what your beliefs are and how to comport your life accordingly.  2)  I’m still working much of this out myself and I don’t feel qualified to close this post with any statement so definitive when my own thoughts are still in their nascent form.

So I will close this post by saying, I’m glad to have learned what I learned.  I’m honored that you’ve followed along with me.  I hope I’ve sparked your curiosity on this topic.  And I hope you’ll explore it further on your own.

Vegetarian Update: Cultural Connotations

Friday, March 19th, 2010

I won’t lie to you.  Wednesday night was rough.  It was a beautiful day – 60 degrees and sunny.  I got home from work a little earlier than usual, so IEP and I took the dogs for a walk.  We were chatting with each other, pointing out leaves, trees, and squirrels.  It was a perfect spring evening… until the halfway point of our two-mile loop.  It was faint at first, but with each step it became more distinct.  Someone was cooking out.  You know that smell: the first savory waft of meat on a grill after a long winter of propane and charcoal hibernation.  (If you don’t know that smell, woe is you.)  I usually cheer that smell.  It means that winter is officially behind us.  We’ve taken to our backyards with tongs in hand.  Hooray!!

Not so much for me, though.  For me that smell was just a tease; a nanny-nanny-boo-boo to my current vegetarian imperative.  Rather than slowing my pace to bask in the scent of sizzling hamburgers I hastened to move into neutral air space as quickly as possible.  Instead of being excited I was sad; sad that I couldn’t participate in one of my favorite springtime rites of passage.

This whole little episode, while brief and anecdotal, was a strong reminder to me of why so many of us have willingly turned a blind eye to the dark side of our food supply.  Meat tastes good.  Not only does it make us full gastronomically, but it makes us whole culturally.  Consider the extent to which meals are the lynchpin of our biggest cultural moments.  And consider the extent to which meat is the centerpiece of those meals.  The Thanksgiving turkey.  The Christmas ham or rib roast.  The ballpark hot dog.  The backyard barbecue.  Without meat these events would hinge on stuffing, Brussels sprouts, peanuts, and potato salad, respectively.  And while I love each of those things, they hardly get me excited enough to loosen my belt a notch to make extra room.

This, for me, is the biggest conundrum of my vegetarian experiment.  I want to be an informed consumer whose actions reflect her understanding and beliefs.  But I do not want to sever myself from the culinary components of my culture which make me feel a part of something significant and enduring. 

In a moment of blogging kismet, one of my commenters alerted me last week to an upcoming episode of Oprah that would feature my author du jour, Michael Pollan.  I set my DVR and watched it later that evening.  Mr. Pollan said a number of things I found valuable, many of which were also included in his book.  But one point I heard him make for the first time was the following (I’m paraphrasing).  “The great thing about this issue is that we get to vote.  And we don’t vote just once.  We vote with our forks three times a day.  And you don’t have to get every one of those votes right.  But if you get even one of those votes right each day, it will eventually amount to real change in the way our food supply is managed.”

Sweet relief!  I don’t have to be perfect!  I can pop into a McDonald’s on a road trip without dismantling my entire values system.  I can go to a cookout at a friend’s house without nitpicking over the source of the meat they’re grilling.  I can live a normal life and still uphold my beliefs to a reasonable level.  Pardon me a moment while I exhale. …  Whew.  Okay.  I’m back now.

As for my reading assignments, I have finished (mostly) The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  (Full disclosure:  I skimmed the second half of the third section.  To take his intellectual premise to its logical extreme, Pollan spends the third section of the book actually hunting wild boar and foraging for mushrooms.  Since these are activities that will never factor into my own food chain I didn’t devote the same time and consideration to them that I did the sections on industrial and organic farming.)  And it was completely fascinating.  Perhaps my fascination stems in part from the fact that my level of interest in this topic includes me in a self-selected pool of people who are inclined find this book fascinating.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.  It reads like the transcripted version of a lecture by a really interesting college professor.  He takes agricultural theory and brings it to life.  Topics like corn subsidies, grass species, and the dimensions of organic baby lettuce beds could be mindbogglingly dry.  But Pollan doesn’t just provide the facts.  He tells the story, and it lures you in.  He writes with a slant, to be sure; I was never confused about his position.  But when you consider that the slant I’ve been subconsciously provided by the food industry for 32 years tells a very different story, I don’t think a bit of impassioned positioning from Pollan discredits him that much.

I am more than halfway through the month of March now.  I am craving a hamburger.  My creative culinary juices are running thin and I’m missing my normal kitchen routines.  But I have another book to read and nearly two more meatless weeks in front of me.  I don’t presume that I’ve learned all I can on the topic of our food supply and its reverberations throughout our society.  So for the next 12 days I will continue to forge ahead.  Perhaps I will find myself energized by Mr. Foer.  I’m about 50 pages in and, again, riveted.  Perhaps I will sate myself with mental meat, rather than the hamburger I’d rather devour.

Vegetarian Update: Enlightened, Not Enraged

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I am ten days into this adventure.  I had hoped that by now I would have some sense of the effect this experiment is having on me.  Perhaps evangelical transcendence, utter frustration, or something in between.  Sadly, so far my response is the lukewarm: I think it’s going fine, which is in itself frustrating.

From a strictly dietary perspective, I’m doing pretty well.  I’ve tried many new recipes that might have otherwise lingered online without my ringing endorsements (travesty!).  I’ve felt happy and sated after each of my meals, and have not once gone to bed feeling underfed or undernourished.  I’ve only really craved meat once (and that was shortly after a six-mile run, which I’m sure had something to do with it).  And for the most part I haven’t felt overwhelmed by this challenge.  I am not bored with my diet and I’m not unreasonably out of my comfort zone without meat.  I am a bit concerned about my protein intake.  So this week’s recipes include more eggs and tofu than the first week’s menu.  But other than that, I’m slightly sorry to say that so far the effects of this transition have been relatively trivial.  (I’m not sure what that says about me.  Was I looking for drama?  Am I just highly adaptable?) 

From the bigger-ecological-picture perspective, I’m finding myself surprised and enlightened, but not yet enraged.  I’m about 175 pages into it, and with the exception of the early chapter entitled “Corn Sex” (no kidding) The Omnivore’s Dilemma is proving fascinating.  I have learned about the economic causes and effects of commoditizing crops (the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon cut a deal to increase the price on corn exports to Russia that altered the entire incentive structure for corn farmers to value yield exclusively and indefinitely).  I now know that nitrogen is the single biggest component of fertilizer; that inert atmospheric nitrogen makes up something like 70% of the nitrogen on earth but is useless to crops; that a process invented by a Nazi called “fixing” said inert atmospheric nitrogen enabled both the invention of chemical fertilizer and the extermination of thousands of Jews.  (Do I sound like a complete nerd yet?  No?  Okay, I’ll keep going.)  I have learned that feeding corn to cattle on feedlots has changed the levels of acidity in their stomachs and rumens (I’ll spare you the explanation of a rumen) which has prompted the emergence of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”  And I have learned that if all cattle were exclusively grass fed they would rarely get sick and agricultural veterinarians would be out of work.  Okay.  I’m finished now… at least with the really nerdy stuff.  

I had some sense of the sins of large-scale agriculture (if you’ve never driven past a feed lot, count your blessings) before I started reading.  But I had no sense of the magnitude of the marketing ploy that buoys “industrial organic” (think Whole Foods) agriculture.  As it turns out, we consumers are gullible pawns, and if someone posts a glossy placard next to a wedge of cheese stating that it came from Farm X, and that the cows on Farm X drink Evian, play croquet, and have bridge clubs, then we will pay $18/pound for Farm X’s cheese.  I’m not altogether humiliated yet, but I am starting to feel a bit foolish.  I haven’t finished the book yet though, so I imagine that humiliation is forthcoming.

At this juncture in my journey I’m reluctantly playing a prediction game.  I’m attempting to foretell in what ways I will be changed by this month of vegetarianism.  And yet, I don’t want to jump to conclusions that will influence my experience as it unfolds.  I don’t believe that I could ever permanently exclude meat from my diet.  But I am finding the reach and influence of “big ag” to be pervasive and disturbing.  If I have any integrity at all, I will have to find some means of reconciling these facts.

And it is this conundrum of integrity – of reconciling my actions to my beliefs – that I suspect will be most troublesome for me.  The food industry is buttressed by decades of economic policy that has facilitated the creation of a dietary economy geared solely toward making my food purchases convenient and affordable.  To find food sources that defy the juggernaut food industry almost by definition requires that my purchasing habits become inconvenient and expensive.  (Intellectual curiosity is starting to sting a little bit.)  I hope that by the time the month ends my selected authors (Pollan and Foer) will not only have opened my eyes to these problems, but also offered some solutions.

In the meantime, bring on the tofu.

Eat Your Veggies

Monday, March 1st, 2010

When I started this blog exactly two months ago I had a few goals in mind.  The most significant goal was to shift my paradigm; to look at the world in new ways and keep my mind fresh and engaged.  To keep myself accountable for that goal I stated it clearly and on the record.  At the same time I offered up some smaller resolutions for the year in front of me.  And as it turns out that large goal and one of the smaller resolutions are about to jump into bed together.  Or, perhaps more accurately, into the kitchen together.

Throughout the past several years our culture has paid increasing attention to our food sources.  A whole punditry of dietary and nutritional hawks has emerged.  In 2001 Fast Food Nation was written by Eric Schlosser.  Morgan Spurlock tackled the dubious challenge of eating nothing but McDonald’s for a full month in 2003’s documentary Super Size Me.  Michael Pollan further explored our food sources with his 2007 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  And 2009 brought us another documentary, Food, Inc. from Schlosser and Pollan, as well as the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  In addition to these larger works, a smattering of magazine articles on related topics has also been published, such as this one in TIME about the real costs of food, this one in the New York Times Magazine about our cooking habits, and this one in Rolling Stone about the putrid realities of hog farming.

As a girl who loves to cook, a girl with a wee bit of an earthy streak, and a girl who grew up hearing the refrains of Wendell Berry echo through her home, I’ve started to feel a bit guilty about the ways in which I contribute to crimes committed by big agriculture and large scale food distribution.  Couple this guilt with the paradigm-shifting purpose of this blog and my resolution to eat more fruits and vegetables and you get:

Gale is becoming a vegetarian for a month.

(For the record, GAP is not excited about this…  Supportive, but not excited.)

Starting today, and throughout the month of March, I will abstain from all meat, including fish and seafood.  I will continue to eat eggs and dairy, though.  Veganism requires more fortitude than I can muster at this point.  (And I have a soft spot for milkshakes.)  To keep me company on this journey I am summoning the likes of Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer and their books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals, respectively.  I chose these two titles specifically because they are well-respected works that I believe will help me better understand the larger implications of the dietary decisions I make each day.

I am prepared for the fact that this experiment may take me down a path that is inconvenient and expensive.  Buying chicken breasts priced at four dollars per pound from the grocery store down the road from my house is a very easy way to live.  At this point I don’t know where that chicken comes from, or what its living conditions were when it was alive.  I suspect that my prescribed reading for this month will dispel my ignorance, which may not be an easy realization to accept.

Some of my shopping and eating habits have already changed.  I stopped buying farm-raised salmon many months ago after reading an article in The Economist (which I couldn’t find online) about the damage that salmon farms have done to the tributary ecosystems on the East coast.  I started baking my own bread after an incident last spring when I inadvertently bought two loaves at once and after six weeks on my shelf the second loaf still hadn’t molded.  (To me, food that won’t spoil is scarier than food that has spoiled.)  And I make all of IEP’s food from scratch so that I can ensure that he isn’t exposed to the skyrocketing levels of sugar, salt, and processed fats that exist in many packaged foods.

So I’m not walking into this completely blind.  But, I do not buy local produce.  I do not buy organic.  And I have never intentionally excluded meat from my diet.  It will certainly be a challenge.

I would also like to mention that I recognize that I am not unique in this decision.  Thousands (millions?) of people have gone years without eating meat.  I am here making a bit of a fuss about this experiment because, for me, it is a significant change.  I live in the Midwest where meat is the centerpiece of nearly every meal.  But many, many people have traveled this same path – for reasons both noble and silly – with no fanfare at all.  My reason for calling attention to this choice is because I believe that I am a pretty fair representation of your average, healthy American.  And if all of the attention drawn to the environmental ramifications of “big ag” and the general cause of sustainability will ever amount to real change, it will be because average people like myself find the behavioral alterations requisite in affecting the bigger picture to be worthwhile and attainable.

I have some suspicions about what long-term effects on my eating and shopping habits will be brought to bear based on this experiment.  But I will keep them to myself for now.  I will keep you updated on my progress, and will certainly have plenty to say about this exercise at its conclusion.  In the meantime, don’t forget to eat your veggies.       

Damaged or Destined?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Young Ted Kennedy and his father.

For the past several weeks I have been (slowly) making my way through Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass.  He was a man about whom I knew precious little as a child; only by his family name as a young adult; and increasingly by his own reputation into my adulthood.  When his brain tumor was diagnosed in the spring of 2008 I started paying more attention to his history and influence.  My attention span increased further when he endorsed and, throughout his illness, actively campaigned for then-Senator Obama.  When he passed away last August I had significantly made up for my prior ignorance.  But it wasn’t until I read his book that I realized how woefully uninformed I still was. 

As a Kennedy there is clearly a big story to tell.  The wealth and privilege.  The fabled family.  The tragic loss of three brothers and a sister at ages far too young.  The life of public service.  The scandals.  The legacy.  But despite all these things, it was a passage on the 40th page of this 500+ page book that made the deepest imprint on my mind. 

My father’s voice was paramount.  He was never abusive, never wounding toward any of his children, but he had a way of letting us know exactly what he expected of us.  Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old Dad called me into his room for a chat.  I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don’t remember what it was.  But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy.  I’ll still love you whichever choice you make.  But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.  You make up your mind.  There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.”

I returned to that passage multiple times as I made my way through the rest of the book.  I noted the page number on my bookmark so I could easily find it.  I became mildly obsessed with it.  I cannot fathom what it must have been like to hear words like those as a teenaged kid just trying to find some sunlight in the shadow of your overwhelmingly impressive family.  And now, as a parent, I cannot fathom saying those words to any child of mine; particularly at such a tender and impressionable age. 

However, whether or not you agree with their politics, it is difficult to deny that the Kennedys set an unparalleled example of public service in this country.  Given that there have been many wealthier families who did not enter the public sector in droves, I believe it is fair to surmise that it was more than the financial edge afforded by family money that buoyed the Kennedys into these positions.  Clearly there was something about the way they were raised that spurred them to lives of service.  And statements such as the one above made by the senator’s father solidify that suspicion.

Throughout the book Senator Kennedy writes with sincere affection for his father.  But beyond that he writes with admiration that borders on reverence.  His father, along with his brothers, was a pillar in his life whose approval he worked ceaselessly to earn.  And despite the fondness that his words convey, I can’t help but wonder what frailties his relationship with his father suffered due to such profound expectations.     

Ted Kennedy is not the only man to achieve “greatness” whose relationship with his father was strained, distant, or altogether absent.  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama all fit this bill.  And so I am prone to wonder what it was about the way that these relationships affected this collection of men that served as a catalyst for achievement rather than dereliction.  Federal penitentiaries are filled with men whose paternal relationships were equally strained and didn’t take the high road in response.  Where does the fine line reside that separates the damaged from the destined?

I believe in many of the principles that the Kennedy family has stood for, service being foremost among them.  As GAP and I raise our family I would be proud to see any of our children choose such a path.  But at what cost?  Could I bring myself to tell my son that my interest in his life survives only to the extent that I find his choices sufficiently “serious”?  And even if I could bring myself to speak such words (which I proudly doubt), would I want to?  Twenty years from now, as he enters adulthood and the parent-child power dynamic begins to soften, do I want IEP to see me as a dominant figure whose approval he covets?  Or would I rather our adult relationship be closer to friendship; something comfortable we can share and enjoy?

I find Ted Kennedy’s relationship with his father troubling.  I certainly would not be comfortable in it, and I don’t intend to parent in that way.  But I admire Joe Kennedy’s ability to impart the value of service on his children to such a profound extent.  (As an aside, I do not mean to shortchange the Kennedy daughters by omission.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.  And Jean Kennedy Smith founded an arts foundation for mentally and physically challenged children and also served as the US Ambassador to Ireland.)  However, I aim to find a kinder, gentler mechanism for fostering such values than the blunt instrument of ultimatum. 

As for these men who’ve risen to political peaks (I’m sure comparable examples are plentiful in the business, sports, and entertainment industries as well) I will continue to wonder what aspects of their relationships with their parents drove them to achievement versus failure versus something in between.  And I will wonder if it is possible to find a hybrid version of the same; an emphasis on service and philanthropy, but absent the cost of a dysfunctional relationship.  Is this too much to ask?  Surely these qualities are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps my naïveté betrays me?  Check in with me in twenty years and I’ll tell you how things panned out.