Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Celebrating Walt

» May 23rd, 2017

 

 

When I was a history graduate student in the waning days of the analog nineties, there were three kinds of researchers. Most impressive were the archive rats. These chain-smoking, type-A cranks entered an archival collection, knew precisely the evidence they needed, and did everything but ransack the place to find it. They chewed their nails to the nub and suffered insomnia, but their work showed a rare, if manic, evidentiary depth. Then there were the curious browsers: laid-back dreamers with a loosely generalized notion about what they sought. They limited themselves to documents that seemed interesting, floating among their sources with poetic insouciance. Their work, like cloud formations, drifted until it cohered into elegance. (They were also the only grad students I knew who smoked weed.) Finally, there were the surgical strikers. Soulless but engineered for accuracy, these students knew precisely which few documents to examine, did so with disinterested velocity, patched the holes in their dissertations, and then went to lunch. Prolific was how the rats and browsers praised the surgical strikers—faintly, of course.

Full article here. 

Southern Discomfort

» March 21st, 2017

The American artist William Christenberry, who died at age eighty last November, received a Brownie camera for Christmas when he was a young boy. The first photos he took included images of graveyards. One is tempted to read prophecies into that opening act. The motif of Christenberry’s art had always been the rural South. The beloved “postage stamp of native soil” he photographed every year for several decades was in Hale County, Alabama, where he was born and grew up. Graveyard themes such as death and decay are easily attached to the Deep South, which languished during the postwar boom; so it seems natural to attach the same themes to Christenberry’s work, interpreting his graveyard debut as the apt initiation into a career centered on a place that was, if only by virtue of its persistent southernness, slowly going to seed.

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The Time Is Ripe for Literary Fiction

» March 4th, 2017

In 2013, James Patterson, the paperback writer whose volumes are typically consumed somewhere between 25,000 and 32,000 feet above ground, made $90 million from book sales. Ninety million dollars. With publishers finally quashing the old-school idea that big-name authors should release no more than a book a year, Patterson opened the floodgates. After assembling a 16-member gang of ghostwriters (provided by Little, Brown and Company, his publisher) and sketching a series of boilerplate plot lines, Team Patterson started cranking into the lowbrow literary universe two to four “BookShots” a month. He says he looks at writing “the way Henry Ford would look at it.” He also says he’s responsible for about one-third of his publisher’s overall book sales.

The established literati, as you might imagine, wasn’t impressed. When Patterson’s 2013 windfall earnings made news, Bill Morris, a staff writer for the literary website The Millions, deigned to sample the Patterson oeuvre by reading (while on an international flight) Pop Goes the Weasel. It didn’t go well. “Books like Pop Goes the Weasel,” he wrote, “are for people who don’t really like to read but love to be able to say they have read, much as fruity cocktails are for people who don’t really like to drink but love to get knee-walking drunk.” Alcohol analogy notwithstanding, the assessment is fairly standard among readers and writers who prefer Proust over Patterson. The man’s literary bona fides are, in short, nil.

Read more here. 

The Myth of Trump

» January 31st, 2017

 

As Americans turn to George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) to better understand Donald Trump’s election, as we entertain the exciting possibility that we can read our way to some level of sensible public understanding, it’s time to suggest another classic 20th-century work, one that lends even deeper insight into Trump’s unlikely rise to power: Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957). Like Orwell, Barthes deals in language. Unlike Orwell, he deals in language to elucidate the subversive (and oppressive) power of myth. Trump is more than a butcher of language. He is a builder of myths.

Myths are not, in Barthes’ analysis, innocent origin stories. They are dangerous cultural distortions. They cleanse language of its history, and liberate words from their past, all in order to make a non-essential (and often ridiculous) connection seem essential. This somewhat mystical (myths are mysterious) transformation works by suggesting that certain fabricated phenomena are all natural (and, thus, all good) while hiding the cynical process of social construction behind their making. We build myths to prevent as many people as we can from asking questions about the hidden distortion that, inevitably, serves someone’s interest at the expense of truth, justice, and enlightened common sense.

Read more here.

The Challenges of Bibliotherapy

» January 2nd, 2017

As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).

Read more here. 

Animal Citizenship?

» August 3rd, 2016

What follows is the intro to my recent piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Clink link below to go to full article.

Dylan, a three-year-old yellow Lab, leaped from the van and made a beeline for Beth, a volunteer who was standing alone in her driveway, pressing a black blindfold to her eyes. This was their second meeting. Judging from Dylan’s demeanor (his tail wagged like a metronome) his final days as a guide-dog-in-training were happy ones. His trainer, Natalie Garza, introduced Dylan to my daughter and me, and although he bowed his head for a scratch, you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Instead, he was focused on the task at hand: leading Beth, who otherwise has normal vision, on a test walk through a suburban neighborhood in Austin, Texas.

Guiding a sighted volunteer, Garza explained, required Dylan to work harder than usual. Specifically, he had to exaggerate his signals with Beth, signals that a visually impaired person accustomed to sightless navigation might not require. Dylan, who was soon to be matched with his first visually impaired guardian, couldn’t afford to cut corners today. “These dogs save people’s lives,” Beth reminded me as Garza lowered a harness over Dylan’s head and adjusted it for comfort. He had to be on his game.

Complete article here.

Meet The Reeds

» July 22nd, 2016

Like most people who vow to lose weight, Becca Reed?—?51, diabetic, confined to a wheelchair, taking nearly a dozen medications?—?had precise goals. Unlike most people, she’s willing to share them. On a piece of crinkled notebook paper she wrote in bubbly cursive script what she hoped her future would be like:

  1. Reach 225 pounds or less.
  2. Feel sexy and buy an outfit at a regular store.
  3. Have James look at me with that sparkle in his eye.
  4. Feel better able to clean the house.
  5. Walk five minutes straight.
  6. Bench press 100 pounds or more.
  7. Back fat and fat above butt—get rid of it.
  8. Strengthen arms?—?flabby upper part.
  9. Get off medication!
  10. Ride horses on Padre Beach with James.
  11. Be able to stand long enough to sing more than one song.

James Reed, Becca’s husband, is a baby-faced 57 who suffers from his own obesity-related problems, namely his high blood pressure, which was 250/190 before he was finally medicated for it. He, too, made a list of weight-loss goals and agreed to share it:

Short Term:

  1. Get below 250 pounds.
  2. Feel better about myself.
  3. Sleep.
  4. Bench 400 pounds.
  5. Leg press 600 pounds.
  6. No blood pressure meds.

Long Term:

  1. Weigh 210–215 pounds.
  2. Make it to retirement.
  3. Don’t become diabetic.

I recently sat down with Becca, James, and their 26-year old son Drew . . . . Read More

Food Rights, Food Duties, and Obesity

» May 27th, 2016

Despite a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that childhood obesity was in decline, the numbers?—?when properly interpreted (and supplemented with more recent research)?—?confirm the opposite. As they have for decades, children between the ages of two and 19 are, in fact, becoming overweight or obese at a steadily increasing rate.

Today, 33.4 percent of kids are considered overweight, with 17.4 percent of them qualifying as obese (defined as having a body mass index [BMI] of 35 or more) or severely obese (a BMI over 40). To put these measurements in perspective, a healthy person who is 5’9″ and 150 pounds will have a BMI of around 22.

These numbers intersect with an especially compelling sociological observation: As childhood obesity becomes commonplace, parents are increasingly unable to recognize the condition in their children. Writing inScientific American, Jane Ogden explained that, “as populations get fatter, the new normal has become overweight and therefore invisible.”

Read more. 

Gourds

» October 26th, 2015

 

A version of this piece ran in the New York Times in 2006. 

This time of the year, the windows of America are beginning to be dotted with carefully carved jack-o’-lanterns, but in a week or so, the streets will be splotched with pumpkin guts. Orange gourds will fly from car windows, fall from apartment balconies, career like cannon fire from the arms of pranksters craving the odd satisfaction of that dull thud.

There are, to be sure, more productive ways to deploy a Halloween pumpkin. Post-holiday, composting is a noble option. A pumpkin grower in Wisconsin once turned a 500-pound Atlantic Giant into a boat.

But what we almost certainly won’t do is eat it. First cultivated more than 10,000 years ago in Mexico, cucurbitaceae were mainstays of the Native American diet. If for no other reason than its status as one of America’s oldest cultivated crops, an honest pumpkin deserves our reverence.

The current batches that will soon litter the pavement, however, are for the most part irreverent fabrications, cheap replicas inflated for the carving knife. Food in name only, they’re a culinary trick without the treat. For those of us who value America’s culinary past, smashing a generic pumpkin is more of a moral obligation than an act of vandalism.

During the colonial era, the pumpkin was just one squash among dozens, a vine-ripening vegetable unmarked by a distinctive color, size or shape. Native Americans grew it to be boiled, roasted and baked. They routinely prepared pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin porridge, pumpkin stew and even pumpkin jerky.

Europeans readily incorporated the pumpkin into their own diet. Peter Kalm, a Swede visiting colonial America, wrote approvingly about “pumpkins of several kinds, oblong, round, flat or compressed, crook-necked, small, etc.” He noted in his journal — on, coincidentally, Oct. 31, 1749 — how Europeans living in America cut them through the middle, take out the seeds, put the halves together again, and roast them in an oven, adding that “some butter is put in while they are warm.”

Sounds tasty. But one would be ill advised to follow Kalm’s recipe with the pumpkins now grown on commercial farms. The most popular pumpkins today are grown to be porch décor rather than pie filling. They dominate the industry because of their durability, uniform size (about 15 pounds), orange color, wart-less texture and oval shape. Chances are good that the specimen you’re displaying goes by the name of Trick or Treat, Magic Lantern, or Jumpin’ Jack. Chances are equally good that its flesh is bitter and stringy.

In contrast, pumpkins grown in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the hybridized descendants of those cultivated by Native Americans — were soft, rich and buttery. They came in numerous colors, shapes and sizes and were destined for the roasting pan.

The Tennessee Sweet Potato pumpkin looked more like a pear than a modern pumpkin and, as its name implies, was baked and eaten like the sweet potato. The Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin, first introduced in 1893, became so popular for pies that it posed a fresh challenge to the canned stuff. These pumpkin varieties, and scores of others, were once the most flavorful vegetables in the American diet.

Fortunately, the edible pumpkin is not completely lost. While akin to endangered species, heirloom seeds are only a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. By growing heirloom pumpkins, you can have your jack-o’-lantern and eat it too. More immediately, you can search out heirloom pumpkins at some farmers’ markets.

Of course, advocating a shift in any holiday tradition seems like a futile exercise in a nation that (perhaps because we’re so young) takes its traditions rather seriously. But it’s not as if there’s much of a Halloween tradition to violate. Halloween is relatively new to America. The Irish brought the holiday to the United States in the 1840’s (and used turnips as jack-o-lanterns). But Halloween didn’t become profitable enough for commercial growers to produce decorative pumpkins until the suburbanized 1950’s.

Edible pumpkins were driven near extinction in the early 1970’s when a farmer named Jack Howden started to mass produce a firm, deep orange, rotund pumpkin endowed with thick vines to create a fat handle to hold while carving. The $5 billion a year industry that developed around Howden’s inedible creation is, historically speaking, still in its infancy.

And thus the “tradition” is ripe for improvement. Next year, let’s do something not so different. Let’s replace a fake pumpkin with a real one. The face you carve into it might be more distorted, and it might cost a bit more, but there will finally be a credible reason not to smash the thing at the end of the evening. And most important, as Peter Kalm observed back in 1749, we could once again split it open, roast it, add butter and remind ourselves that some traditions — like cultivating vegetables to eat — should never be destroyed.

The Freegan Solution

» October 19th, 2015

Last month the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency agreed to establish the “first ever national food waste reduction goal.” The program is not only notable for its ambition—it aims to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2015—but for the diversity of its participants. An array of churches, corporations, charitable organizations, and local governments has been asked to play a role. The plan, anodyne though it may be, will surely get a lion’s share of (dull) media attention.

But the one relevant group that’s been overlooked has the most to offer when it comes to reducing food waste: freegans. Freegans encourage eating food sourced from various waste streams pouring from the cracks of an excessively abundant food system. They’re scrappy scavengers who frequent grocery store alleyways, restaurant dumpsters, un-cleared food court tables, and anywhere else that yields a free meal and keeps freegan cash out of Big Food coffers—which kind of explains why the USDA and EPA aren’t terribly impressed. Freegans, who root their lifestyle in 1960s Berkeley-ish activism, package themselves as a subversive social movement.

Precisely what kind of movement—anarchist?, socialist?, punk?—is difficult to say. The freegan manifesto, as it were, reads as if it was written by a precocious if rant-prone high-schooler. It describes freeganism as a “withdrawal from the consumer death culture,” observes that “working sucks!,” condemns “the all oppressive dollar,” and implores us not to sacrifice “humanity to the evil demon of wage slavery.” Couching the generic dumpster dive in this rhetorically shrill language, a “stick-it-to-the-man” posture that supports an “anti-consumeristic ethic of eating,” the freegan manifesto might inspire angrier souls to thrust a fist skyward. But, for the sober-minded reformer, it threatens to condemn the movement to a kind of self-imposed solipsism. This is, after all, America.

Still, we cannot afford to dismiss freegans. . .

Read more.