Friday, October 23, 2009

Foods and Fools

So it looks as if sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, whose bestselling In Defense of Food picks up where The Omnivore’s Dilemma left off, has ticked off agribusiness yet again—so much, in fact, that they’ve pressured Cal Poly to transform a Pollan talk into a roundtable discussion featuring their own representatives.

Figures. Trying to help people become slim and healthy runs afoul of the multi-billion-dollar industries—not only food production but advertising, dieting, and medicine—that profit from keeping people fat and sick.

In a sane society, Pollan’s book would be entirely uncontroversial. (In fact, truth be told, it’s a bit dull.) In Defense of Food exposes the perils of “nutritionist” thinking—that is, the assumption that what matters to human health is the individual nutrient instead of the whole food. As Pollan shows, this belief that “foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” abets the preposterous health claims that scream from the packages of the unhealthiest of food products: claim that Snack Wells or Cocoa Puffs are full of some nutrient or other, and you can convince people they’re eating healthy when they stuff their faces with junk. Hence what Pollan calls “the American paradox: a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily.”

Where Pollan’s argument sticks in the craw of the food industry is in his claim that “the chronic diseases that now kill most of us”—coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer—“can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy.” Against this backdrop, the ideology of nutritionism can offer only partial and quick fixes: a little less saturated fat here, a little more Omega-3 fatty acids there. By contrast, Pollan argues that we are “in need of a whole new way of thinking about eating,” a way that emphasizes whole foods over processed food products, that privileges local and organic farming, and that changes our rituals surrounding food consumption from our current “grab and gulp” mentality to a culture of family- and community-oriented dining.

So essentially, what Pollan is saying is that we should grow our own food (or at least know by name those who do); that we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables; and that we should sit around the dinner table with our families and friends when we eat. That such advice could be seen as radical and threatening is simply a measure of how distant we as a culture have become from the reality—and sanity—of our ancestors.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dove Bomba

This is a follow-up to my recent post about the Obama Peace Prize lunacy. As I mentioned earlier, I do some political cartooning on the side (mostly for the newspaper of The Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh's peace and social justice hub), and I thought you might enjoy this one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Online Publishing, Part III

I had a new short story published last week--only there was a problem with the hypertext link and when you clicked on my work you got someone else's. Ah, the perils of online publishing! But it's all been put to rights, and now you can read my latest, titled "Princess."

This is a revised version of a story I worked on and then set aside a long time ago, but I think it's still fresh. I'm one of those writers who like to have multiple projects gestating at once, then I'll plunge into a particular piece, finish it, and have the others waiting for me when I'm done. I never wrote scholarship that way (too confusing), but it feels right for fiction: just confusing enough to keep the creative juices flowing.

By the way, you can leave comments on the site, if you're so inclined. I'd love to hear what you think, either through that avenue or through this blog.

Monday, October 12, 2009

War and Peace Prize

Well, I told you it wouldn't take long for Obama's misguided war policies to return to this column. I told you it wouldn't take long for him to do something.

The only difference this time is, he actually did nothing.

But the Nobel Committee, apparently believing that doing nothing is better than nothing, did do something: they awarded him a big fat peace prize.

In interviews after the announcement of the award, Obama confessed to being "surprised" at the committee's decision. And frankly, I'm not surprised he was.

Because when it comes to promoting peace, Obama has not only not done anything, he's done a lot less than nothing.

Let's review. Despite campaign promises, he has maintained the war in Iraq, with no end in sight. (After we pull out, he tells us, tens of thousands of "non-combat troops," not to mention various bases, embassies, contractors, private security forces, and advisors, will remain. So really, we're there for good.) And in keeping with campaign promises, he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, with, let's face it, no end in sight. (If these wars have proved anything, it's that in the modern era, wars are much easier to prolong than to end.) So Obama's signal contribution to peace has been to wage--and no less vigorously than his predecessor--war.

The wars he has waged have achieved none of the objectives on which they were founded. They have not destroyed the Taliban or al Qaida, captured Osama bin Laden, rid the world of WMD, brought democracy to the Middle East, staved off terrorist threats, liberated Muslim women, or any of the rest of it. What they have done is kill thousands of US soldiers and possibly hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, wreck several nations' economies and environments, unleash ancient ethnic rivalries, stoke anti-US sentiment worldwide, spawn new terrorist networks and recruits, install unstable governments, enrich defense contractors, embolden aggressor nations, and generally make the world much less peaceful than it was before they began.

Not exactly what you'd expect of the Nobel Prize winner. But hey, I guess it's something.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

More on Online Publishing

I just found out this morning that my essay "Positioning," which I mentioned in a previous post, was nominated for Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2010 anthology. With the rise of online publishing, there's been a corresponding movement to highlight the quality of much of the material that's appearing in the online format; the goal is to chip away at the persistent bias that treats print publishing as the gold standard and online publishing only as its illegitimate offspring. I'd be the last to knock print publishing--I owe my passion for reading and writing, as well as my career as a teacher, to print, and the stories and essays being published in print journals are often astonishing--but I'm thankful for efforts to draw attention to the real accomplishments of those writers who are publishing online as well as, or instead of, in print. And of course, I'm thrilled to see my own work among those being recognized! Thanks to and its publisher, Simmons Buntin, for the nomination--and keep your fingers crossed for me. Final selections for the anthology will be announced in January 2010.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The One That Started It All

It's been a busy week, with lots of papers to grade, plus my left pinky finger is badly swollen from, of all things, a kickball accident. (My 10-year-old daughter is one tough kickballer!) You never realize how much you need your lefthand pinky until you start trying to type--ouch! Especially that shift key.

Anyway, this is my apology for not posting anything for a while, and my explanation for why today, rather than posting something brand new, I'm going to link you up to an old story of mine. This was the first one I published after returning to fiction, so it holds a special place in my heart. Alas, the online journal in which it appeared folded after a year, but they kept their archives intact, so the link should still work. Online publishing is great in one respect; your work becomes available to a far wider and more diverse audience than with the print journals. But online periodicals, being relatively easy to start, are also relatively apt to fail, and that's just what happened with this one.

So in any case, here's the story, "Keynote." In his acceptance letter, the editor likened this story to the works of Chekhov. (Maybe that's why the journal failed.) But still, it was quite an ego boost for a guy who hadn't written short fiction for nearly two decades to be told his works could be mentioned in the same sentence as one of the acknowledged masters of the form.