In defense of false expectations Nov 5, 2013
Last spring — I’m late blogging this — the Guardian reported on a study finding that literature for very young children frequently reinforces a materialist, consumerist bias… but that other literature deters that bias. Books, in other words, and the ideas in books, shape their readers, particularly young readers. Hardly a new idea, but one perhaps too easily ignored. The problem is what an author ought to do with that knowledge — or a parent. As Alan Jacobs observed at the time, every book potentially wants us to want something, which is not bad in itself, but we ought to consider what it wants us to want. Jacobs quotes C. S. Lewis’ lament that the fairy tale “is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in” when, on the contrary, it’s “school stories,” the allegedly realistic ones, that give false expectations. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible,” Lewis argued in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, “in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.”
But I wonder whether those “school stories” are more important than Lewis realized. Read more
Ouija boards and what we want to believe Nov 1, 2013
It’s too late for Hallowe’en, but Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian Magazine article on “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” is worth a read if you’re at all interested in nineteenth-century history, or in the occult, or if you’ve ever played with one. Or if, like me, you’re at all interested in the limitations of science and of scientific thinking and in the ways Americans today think about religion. (My thoughts follow the jump.) Read more
Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness Aug 28, 2013
Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach. Read more
A loss for words May 21, 2013
This week I had to deal, second-hand, with someone deeply, personally, angrily offended by the indiscriminate use of vulgar language — not mine, and the circumstances really aren’t all that interesting, but it got me thinking in a meandering sort of way about why someone might or might not reasonably be offended by vulgar and obscene language. There are far more important things to be offended by (poverty, homelessness, random violence, endless war, greed, hatred, sex trafficking, the casual abstraction of human beings for profit, pleasure, politics and convenience), and language formerly known as “bad” is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where anyone would escape it long enough to remain offended by it.
And yet, on reflection, I decided that that is precisely the problem: that words meant to be extreme are ubiquitous — and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to express ideas that really are extreme, even really important and good ones. I’m not arguing against any word or words, or even against “strong language” that transgresses the limits of what’s allowable in polite society. What bothers me the more I consider it is the normalization of that transgression. It seems to me a problem for two reasons. First, which ought to be fairly obvious, without some common ground of language strangers can’t safely have a conversation without fear of giving or taking offense. But second, and to me more interestingly, because normalizing transgression makes transgression impossible. If “strong language” becomes conversationally standard, there’s no way to express strong feelings. There is now no longer a word capable of expressing the sort of outrage that certain choice words once could.
Take a safely literary example: Victor Hugo’s retelling of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. As the day wanes and the tide turns inexorably against the French a legion under the command of “an obscure officer whose name was Cambronne” sees the end nigh but will give up neither the field nor the Empire: Read more
Ordinary miracles May 1, 2013
Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.
We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.
“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”
I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car. Read more
The vegetable plate as status symbol Feb 5, 2013
I couldn’t cook much at twenty-one, but I knew how to stir-fry. I stopped on the way home for a pork chop, washed my bounty in the sink, and began seeding and slicing. A shame, really, to disembowl such beauty, but poor hungry students can afford to admire their dinner only but so long. Oil in the wok, some rice on the back burner, and into the pan they went. The sizzle! The aroma! The burning in my eyes from the vein-smoke of what I learned only much later was a habañero! Oh, and a glorious meal it was, too, even if it took a fortnight before the nerves in the soft of my cheeks healed. Gorgeous even in death, those peppers, a feast both exotic and rooting.
Area man still not eating his veggies Jan 30, 2013
A school system in New York has dropped out of the federal school lunch program because the fruits and vegetables they’re forced to serve kids are winding up in the trash. The USDA has known for decades what’s needed to build a successful nutrition education program — one that actually changes people’s eating habits. But the confident language obscures just how hard it really is.
Efficiency, waste, and backyard chickens Jan 24, 2013
Most of the talk about reducing food waste focuses on big solutions and improving efficiency, but big solutions tend to create waste; in fact the pursuit of efficiency itself can create new kinds of waste even while limiting other kinds. Let me give just one example of why: Chickens.
I went digging for numbers and found far too many. What’s the bottom line? Yes, our food is incredibly cheap in historical and global terms, but we spend more of our budgets on it than is often claimed, and we’d have to spend a lot more than that to eat healthy.
Putting a face on food waste Jan 8, 2013
Last week I ran across, again, the figure that Americans waste 40 percent of our food, which was widely reported last summer. I got to wondering how much of that was meat, because I am (and try to remain) keenly aware that meat is not merely pounds and calories and grams of protein; it’s the body of a once-living creature. Not that wasting bread or vegetables is a great thing, but I don’t see it as the same kind of moral issue as wasting meat. So I did a bit of research, and here’s what I found. Read more