Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Defense of Food

From Goodreads
I love to eat. Seriously. I've always enjoyed food. Which, if you've seen me, would be quite obvious. As I became older and got more adventurous, I realized how truly incredible the different food cultures of our world are. However, Americans in general have our diet and we stick to it. We have been far too successful in culling our food into non-perishable, enriched-by-vitamins food staples. Which I'll be honest, I never really thought about until my two years in Ann Arbor.

A2 is very big into the local food movement, into organic produce and food preparation, as well as into knowing where your food comes from and what is in it. It was a major eye opener for me and one I really enjoyed being a part of and learning more about. It also made me appreciate more where I came from. Syracuse has a massive year-round farmer's market as well as many local growers who have business deals with grocery stores. Our sweet corn during the summer came from Reeves Farms, a farm I could literally drive to across town and frolic amongst the corn if I wanted to. We picked blackberries from the bushes next to our house or along the railroad tracks at our babysitter's. We went apple and pumpkin picking in the fall. I grew up around farms and agriculture but it never dawned on me about local versus the major growers.

Fast forward to moving into a town on a ranching side of a state and far off the beaten path for food deliveries. I may have pumped my fist in the grocery store over the weekend when I found a North Dakota grown tomato. After becoming so aware, it was hard to move to a place that continually thwarts me. So, last summer, I turned to Michael Pollan for comfort and dove into The Omnivore's Dilemma. It was truly an eye opening read and I was fascinated by how our food is produced in this country and why. I also, luckily, was not so completely turned off by food that I didn't like to eat anymore. Pollan's tone makes you think, OK, so we do it like this but not everyone in the country does and if you just get creative and pay attention, you can eat more responsibly and also, bonus! eat more healthily too!

So, I was excited this summer to get to Pollan's second book, In Defense of Food and see what he had to say. As always, his tone is very approachable and logical. He has his own questions that leads him on his research and it's clear he thinks other people share those questions (we do). The first two sections of the book deal with nutritionism and our movement away from thinking about whole foods into thinking about nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates. The components of food rather than the food itself. He discusses the politics and changing scientific ideals that allow nutritionism to take hold in our society to the point where it rules what we eat. He then goes into how that shift has not made us healthier; in fact, we're worse off than before if you look at the statistics. But also, don't even look at the statistics. Look at the chronic food disease we hear about: obesity, both adult and childhood, diabetes, heart disease. It's possible certain forms of cancer are affected by our Western diet. A diet we have imported throughout the world, much to the world's chagrin.

After Pollan has discussed all this, he realizes you're probably feeling discouraged and frustrated. What on earth CAN we eat then? Pollan gives you one simple rule: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Now, he obviously breaks that into more specific rules to address each maxim. Most of his advice was common sense based but one thing he said really resonated with me: Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food. So simple and yet it never occurred to me!

So, I headed off to the grocery store. Sadly, this particular rule is not easy to apply around here (see lament above) but I took the time to actually read the ingredients in the food I normally buy and then look at the alternatives that I could replace it with. It was slightly disturbing. On some items, I knew maybe one or two of the listed ingredients. Half of the time I couldn't pronounce the ingredients listed. Not cool. Even the so called "better" alternatives had the same problem for the most part. I think that is where the "mostly plants" advice comes from. At least when I buy a tomato, I know I am getting a tomato (However, I have to assume it wasn't covered in pesticides or grown in a poor environment of course...).

So, I am taking Pollan's challenge this summer (I'm hoping summer might be easier. We supposedly have a farmer's market around here. Maybe I've just been looking in the wrong places) and try to stick with things I recognize as food within reason. I don't think I can be perfect but I can improve and pay attention. I will be what every grocery store informed consumer!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

To Be or Not To Be

From Written Images
I'm not sure I've talked about Shakespeare too much yet on the blog except in passing. I have a rocky relationship with the Bard. On one hand, I adore his comedies. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer's Night Dream and I am a happy girl. His tragedies on the other hand...we've never gotten along. I did talk about Romeo and Juliet before. I try to forget Othello (or am I trying to forget the awful film version we watched?). The Scottish Play wasn't much of a fave either though Lady Macbeth is kind of awesome in her evilness. Hamlet, on the other hand, is one I've always had a complicated relationship with. I read it on my own in high school (yes, I was a nerd. I was trying to convince myself I liked Shakespearean tragedy. It didn't go well). Then, I read it as part of my Shakespeare course while in England. We even went to see it performed at Great Malvern with Ed Stoppard in the title role. I had loathed Hamlet in high school; in college, I could appreciate what was happening. Seeing it performed though was a revelation. Suddenly certain aspects of the play clicked; certain scenes became funny that weren't when you just read the words. Even though that particular production went off the rails in the end, there were scenes that I found to be favorites. I could, at that point, grudgingly admire Hamlet if nothing else.

Fast forward to now and my summer film challenge. There was a version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company that fans petitioned for, and got, a recorded version of which was released by the BBC. Tennant, at the top of my list for his Doctor, was going to finally make me appreciate Hamlet the way I should. And people, I think he succeeded. His Hamlet is, as a friend says, the closest we'll get to a feminist one. Suddenly, that ridiculous "Get thee to a nunnery" speech made sense! He's warning her away, trying to get her out of a situation that he knows is going to destroy more than just his uncle. He's also a sympathetic Hamlet, a Hamlet I can actually understand is struggling between his duty to his dead father and his own conscience. I see a Hamlet that actually had a relationship with his mother before, who is hurt because he no longer knows how to relate to her after what she did in the aftermath of his father's death. Also, I found a Hamlet who is funny, ironic, and who is no more mad than I am. This is a Hamlet who is playing a part, perhaps to protect himself from what he knows he must do eventually.

In fact, if I took nothing away from this version other than one thing, it is that a production of Hamlet with a sense of fun is ten times more interesting than one who takes itself seriously. Because, honestly, I have never noticed how witty, how funny, Hamlet is before this production. Perhaps it is Tennant's delivery of Hamlet, his expressions as he delivers his lines that help convey that sense to the production (it doesn't hurt that certain facial expressions or delivery of certain words had me wondering if it was Tennant as Hamlet or Tennant as the Doc that I was watching). But I found it made me like Hamlet the character and also Hamlet the play much more.

I also really enjoyed Patrick Stewart as Claudius and the Ghost. It was obvious why he earned an Olivier Award for his work with the production. I always found Claudius a hard character both to read and watch. He is on one hand, presented as a loving husband and worried new father to Hamlet when underneath he is scheming, cunning, ruthless and willing to remove any obstacle in his path. The ruthless side is, I think, often downplayed but here you catch the glimpses of it when necessary to believe this is a man who murdered his brother and married his brother's wife. Stewart is a master at suppressed rage and once he does let it out for a moment, it is that much more powerful. He is a charming murderer; always the diplomat as he strokes Laertes' anger at Hamlet to lead him to murder. You can never quite not like Stewart's Claudius which makes him that much more effective as a villain.

Someday, somewhere, I will find a version of Ophelia I can get behind. This was not it. Kate Winslet remains my favorite though even Kate struggles with a character who doesn't seem to have a true place in the play. If you remove her, what would be lost? A speech that usually gets bungled and a few mad scenes that wouldn't be missed. The other players were decent and interesting in their roles. I did love the portrayal of Horotio though; for the first time, you really saw that Hamlet and Horatio are friends, that in a castle where Hamlet has no allies and is increasingly fighting himself, Horatio is there to lean on. 

I also really loved the staging of the play. For this recorded version, the play was filmed on location rather than on the stage, allowing more movement by the characters and also adding a great mood over the play. I loved the use of security cameras, and also a hand-held camera at one point, to give the viewer a different perspective on the scene, things you cannot do when an audience is in an auditorium with one view point with which to watch. It was a unique blend of stage set and film set which I think added something to the experience of watching the play.     

So, I think I'm finally square with Hamlet. The question becomes which tragedy should I tackle next to try and at least get over my dislike. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

You're Going Again?

I both love and loathe that question. I was trying to catch up on my Disney podcasts at work today. There is nothing better to listen to when you're just checking, copying and pasting metadata for digital library records. So, during Lou Mongello's interview of Jeff Kurtti (I told you I was way behind), Mongello brought up the question that starts this blog. As someone who is counting the hours (literally) to her first Disney trip in two years, an impossibility long time for me to go between trips, I've recently been getting this question again.

My sister and I at Chef Mickey's, Sept. 2009
I often preempt the question to be honest. Before they can even ask why I'm going again, I launch into all the new attractions and things I need to see, do and eat while I'm there - actual new things and then other things that I am going to do for the first time. Yes, I've been 12 times and still haven't done everything yet. This trip coming up has lots of firsts since I'm going on my first Disney cruise ever this time around, finally getting to the Afternoon Tea at the Grand Floridian, and seeing Hallowishes from the Polynesian beach. But it's not just the new things one goes back for. I truly feel like I am going home when I go to Walt Disney World. This is the place I grew up; the place I am completely myself - the happy-go-lucky, adventurous 8 year old I guard jealously most of the time gets free reign when I am in the kingdom of Disney in Florida.    

Will people stop asking me this question? No, not any time soon. For some people, they don't get it and that's OK. Every one has their favorite vacation spot for one reason or another, Walt Disney World is mine and I get to see it again in 81 days, 3 hours and 4 minutes!

Monday, June 20, 2011

American Vertigo

From Tower Books
I originally picked up this book to cover my travel category for the library summer challenge but it's actually ended up being my political one as the book is a combination of travel journal, philosophical discourse, and examination of the state of American political culture. It was a bit more than I was expecting when I picked it off the library shelf. It was also one of the most challenging books I have read in a long time. I spent a lot of time with the dictionary for this one.

Levy is interesting; at the same time he is a post-modern French philosopher who is not writing for the average person. He is writing for a very specific audience. American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville was commissioned by The Atlantic. Yet, Levy does a good job in the travel journal part of the book of making his observations interesting and approachable. He makes an effort to touch every aspect of our culture in each stop he makes. He clearly finds Americans fascinating and not at all living up to our reputation in Europe. He points out oddities that we as a culture don't notice: the prevalence of the flag in all things, our very conservative culture that also supports seemingly supports sex industries, our fanatical politically correct practices that also mask some of the things still wrong in our country like poverty, backdoor racism and a broken social welfare system that may or may not exist depending on who you talk to.  It was so interesting to look at America through the eyes of a foreigner, someone who knows our history but doesn't know us as we see ourselves.

That said, you have to work for this book when you read it. Levy is a philosopher. He writes like one so you go in circles sometimes and often by the time he gets to the point, you've forgotten where he started. He's more likable in the travel journal parts like I said; in the Reflections section of the book, I had to really slow down and take my time to understand the points Levy is trying to make about American political culture and perhaps what might come next for our society, for the original Great Experiment, that Levy sees as in crisis with itself and its role in the new century. It is a book to make you think, to make you ask how much has changed since he published it five years ago (hint: I found it still extremely relevant) and how much further we as a country have gone in either of the directions Levy lays out. Have we started to correct the stagnant nature of a society that is dealing with its greatest challenge, success? Or have we continued to flounder, still reeling from an attack that happened ten years ago and the aftermath we're still cleaning up?

Levy gets into a lot of political theory trying to justify why he thinks America is still working but is heading towards a crisis if it doesn't watch it's step. I will be honest, I didn't follow all of it but I think for the most part, I would have to agree with him. We are a nation that seems to be ripping at the seams in terms of what we value and how we value it. We don't so much have political discussion as political scandals and arguments. It seems to me finding the middle ground is becoming the major challenge with more and more people being absolute. Compromise seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Religion seems to be dragged into things more and more, or at least it seems to me. Or perhaps, I am just paying attention more than I used to. Perhaps I have finally wised up to the great American myth of the separation of Church and State. It worries me. Levy points out all the places the things I take pride in the most are in danger. Freedom of religion, speech...freedom of choice. The idea of individualism, of following the rules and being rewarded. The idea of the frontier, hard work - the so called "good words" that need no definition when you use them.

So, like I said, one of the hardest and most challenging books I have read in a while and I enjoyed its content if not its style. One must always enjoy a book that makes you think and question the world around you.   

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Butterflies and Baseball

From Goodreads
I've never been much of a baseball fan. I didn't grow up watching it so I don't really get how the scoring works or what the big excitement is about the game. But, it is the American past time, and lord knows I love a good baseball movie so when I needed a book for the sports category for the library's reading challenge, a friend recommended this one. I had been trying to avoid baseball ones but it seems to be the go-to sport for fiction. It makes an awesome movie so why not a book? I decided to give Mick Cochrane's The Girl Who Threw Butterflies a try. And I am very glad I did, this is one of the best books I have read in awhile.

Molly Williams is an eighth grader who just recently lost her father in a tragic accident. Her best friend Celia keeps her sane as her mother grows more and more distant from her. Molly's father taught her how to throw a knuckleball, or a butterfly ball, and their sport was baseball. In dealing with her grief, one night, Molly decides this school year, instead of going out for the girls' softball team, she'd try out for the boys' baseball team. In the course of the tryouts, Molly deals more openly with how her father's death affected her and her mother to herself and she starts to deal with her loss and realize the family she has left, as unconventional as it is, is special in its own right. The book also takes place over a very short time frame, from Molly's decision the night before tryouts, through tryouts and then into the first game of the year, I think perhaps a few weeks pass so we don't see Molly "better," but we see how she might move forward once the reader leaves her behind.

I really love Molly; she is a smart kid and maybe a bit more self-aware than is realistic to think for an eighth grader but I was willing to let that slide. She is also is dealing with the loss of who seemed to be her primary parent. Molly, in exploring her relationship with her mother, realizes she doesn't really know her. It was her father she played catch with, talked with, respected. Watching Molly comes to terms with her mother was fascinating in the small time we get to watch them. She realizes she's never quite been the daughter her mother would like but she also knows her mother loves her just as she is. Molly is also smart enough to have friends around her who tell it like it is. Celia, her best friend, was hilarious at times with her wacky family and straightforward way of seeing things. When Molly is gearing up to look at the roster for the team, to see if she made the cut, Celia tries to be encouraging but then very bluntly drops the facade. Look Molly, she said, let's not kid ourselves. You'll be heartbroken if you don't make it so go look and see and they'll we'll react. I love friends like that (even if you want to strangle them a lot of the time too). Molly's developing relationship with her catcher Lonnie is also sweet and fun to watch. As a knuckler, Molly's pitches are difficult to catch so Lonnie works to be her "personal catcher."

The book also makes Molly very level-headed which I always appreciate. I loathe a character who is constantly bursting into tears at the drop of a hat. Molly has lost her dad, her best friend, but she's very stoic when she thinks about it. She realizes the tears won't help so she spends her time intellectualizing it. That fact makes it that much more powerful when Molly does let herself cry, just once, when Lonnie simply states, not as a question, that Molly misses her father. Like I said, maybe not how a normal eight grade girl would handle things but I admired Molly's strength and courage.

Her admiration of baseball is also impressive. She presents the game as her father presented it to her, a game that the players are both playing against themselves and against the other team. It almost made me think I should try to like baseball a little - Molly showed me a side of the game I'd never realized before. As a pitcher, Molly is often playing the game against herself, against her endurance, her own smarts against the ball, not so much the person holding the bat or base. I also liked that Cochrane didn't make this about a girl playing baseball. That element is there and gets dealt with in what I think is a fairly realistic way, but it's not the reason Molly is playing baseball. She's playing because she genuinely loves the game, because it's a way to remember her father and a way to let him go. The fact that she is a girl is more peripheral to all of those elements.

So, a book that almost convinced me I should appreciate baseball more and a main character I seriously wanted to hug. Not bad at all.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Curse of the Singletons

Back in graduate school, I wrote a paper that remains one of the most fun things I ever wrote for my entire school career. It was on single women, film and cultural memory. I mean, a paper which required me to watch Katherine Hepburn comedies and the latest Sex and the City movie is always a good idea. Now, my professor didn't think much of it and re-reading it recently I'd have to slightly agree that perhaps it missed the mark of the assignment a bit. But it is still a topic that fascinates me. Mainly because I am a single girl, living on my own and now on the wrong side of 25 (why does that feel like such a turning point!?). However, unlike most of the cool single girls I could hope to imitate (If she'd lose the smoking and excessive drinking, Bridget Jones would quite possibly be my idol), I live in the middle of nowhere so the exciting aspect of the city is missing. But, at the end of day, being a singleton is interesting in terms of how people think of you and interact with you. My parents for the most part don't seem that worried about me. At least I'm not getting the plaintive questions of when they can expect to be grandparents. It's my grandmothers and aunts that seem to be my willing marriage brokers. Next time I go home, I need to avoid Olive Garden. My grammy apparently found just the guy for me working there. It's not that I don't appreciate it; I do. And I know it comes from a place of love, that she wants me to have someone to share my life with. But I'm not sure I'm ready for it yet. If I were, I'd be trying harder to find someone. Wouldn't I?

Isn't this cover divine? From Goodreads
Enter Betsy Israel's Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century, a 2002 exploration of the single girl in American culture from the early 1800s to today. What first strikes me is how little has changed in terms of social pressure to marry. Shouldn't we have gotten beyond that by now? There are billions of people on the planet, if I don't marry and pop out some kids, I'm sure the world will be relieved. I'm also filled with gratitude of the women who came before me, who dared to venture into the cities, fight for jobs and their right to hold them. The women who wanted to be able to rent their own apartments, buy their own homes and adopt children on their own if they decided they did want to be mothers. My life has been fairly easy as a single woman; I just had to endure the occasional pitying look and the good-natured ribbing at family events. I never have to defend my very existence as a single woman. No one automatically thinks I am mentally deranged or a "girl on the make" just because I don't rush home to a husband at the end of the day. I can travel alone, shop alone, eat out alone and go to the movies alone. (Though full disclosure, still working on the eating out alone thing - sandwich and coffee shops? No problem. An actual sit-down restaurant? Depends on the day and where I am. In DC, I didn't have any problem with it. Around here, I find it harder.)

So, while I suggest you read Israel's highly interesting and entertaining book, what I most want you to do, if you're single and female like me, is take a minute to give thanks to those that came before us. Single girls of the world unite!