Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Gratuitous Link

I always come back to Dostoevsky, usually to Notes from the Underground.  In "Liberals Are Useless" in Common Dreams, Chris Hedges does too:

"I save my anger for our bankrupt liberal intelligentsia of which, sadly, I guess I am a member. Liberals are the defeated, self-absorbed Mouse Man in Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” They embrace cynicism, a cloak for their cowardice and impotence. They, like Dostoevsky’s depraved character, have come to believe that the “conscious inertia” of the underground surpasses all other forms of existence. They too use inaction and empty moral posturing, not to affect change but to engage in an orgy of self-adulation and self-pity. They too refuse to act or engage with anyone not cowering in the underground. This choice does not satisfy the Mouse Man, as it does not satisfy our liberal class, but neither has the strength to change. The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power, but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Conversation

(cross-posted at Pacifist Viking)

No, the most depressing conversation I had on Thanksgiving wasn't my grandmother noticing my balding spot and telling me, "Joe, put your head down. I just noticed that. Did somebody hit you? Do you have a scar? It's so thin there," then proceeding to tell me what shampoo she uses to get thicker hair. The most depressing conversation I had on Thanksgiving was the following:

Aunt: Does anybody know, when is the last time the Vikings WON a Super Bowl?

(I stare blankly)

Aunt: I tried to look it up, but I couldn't find it.

Me: It will probably take you a while.

Aunt: I could only find the info back to like '67.

Me: That's around when they started having Super Bowls. But the Vikings have never won one.

Aunt: So what did they do before the Super Bowl? Just have nothing?

Me: They called it the NFL Championship.

Aunt: Oh. So when is the last time the Vikings won that?

(I blankly stare)

Me: They never won that either. Actually, they won it in '69, but then lost the Super Bowl.

Aunt: Oh. But they were in, like, three Super Bowls.

Me: Four, actually.

Aunt: Well, what team has gone the longest without winning a Super Bowl?

Me: Um, the Vikings are pretty close.

Aunt: So they're like the Chicago Cubs of football.

Me: Yes.

Aunt: Well, then it could be worse: it could be another 60 years of waiting.

Me: Did you walk out of my nightmares and into my waking life?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eating foods

A triple play of vegetarians from Slate: Juliet Lapidos on fake turkey, Lapidos again on green beans (I still cut fresh green beans for my spinach salad, out of season be damned), and Taylor Clark on the social reaction to vegetarians (Clark's column really speaks to me).

In The New Yorker, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about her father cooking rice.

From PETA, Miami Dolphin running back Ricky Williams is a vegetarian and now he has a restaurant. When I find out an athlete is a vegetarian, I start rooting for him or her.

The easiest freaking salad in the world

For Thanksgiving, my wife volunteered to bring a salad, and I volunteered to plan and prepare it (this is the sort of thing vegetarians can do to ensure getting quality food for the meal).

Bam: spinach, walnuts, craisins, some sort of vinaigrette. I'll be tossing in some fresh cut green beans just because I think they're good. Simple, healthy, delicious, vegan.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gratuitous Link

Gary Steiner's "Animal, Vegetable, Miserable" in the New York Times.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Vegetarians and Priorities

Advocates of animal rights or animal welfare often have their priorities questioned.  Aren't there many human problems?  Why should we focus so much attention on the suffering and death of animals when there is so much suffering and death of humans?

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani says as much in her review of Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals:

"It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes."

The problem is that this sort of logic--that we shouldn't "expend [...] energy and caring" on animals when there are still human problems--is that this logic can rightly be applied to most human activities and endeavours in the developed world.  Why is Kakutani devoting any energy at all to reviewing the fiction of Nabokov, or Irving, or Ishiguro and Roth, when she could be devoting her energy to solving the world's human problems?  What is reading literature doing to stop malaria or war or oppression of women?  Why does she care about novels, when human beings are suffering?

Vegetarians are expected to get their priorities straight, and worry about the problems of human beings first.  That all sorts of people are devoting all sorts of time, energy, and resources to all sorts of things that do nothing to assuage human suffering around the world is left aside.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rereading "The French Lieutenant's Woman"

I just finished re-reading John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman for the fourth or fifth time over the last eight to nine years. In grad school, I also read most of the published academic criticism of the book. I feel thoroughly familiar with the book. So why, after all this time and study, do I find myself at points unable to put the book down? How, when I know all that will happen, do I read some passages with piqued energy, racing with anticipation? Why do I still feel challenged by its themes, enraptured by its style? How does Fowles succeed so completely at pulling me into the world of his novel?

That's what I want when I read a novel: to be pulled emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually into its fictional world. I want it to engulf me, so that while reading I am virtually experiencing its world, and when I am not reading it, that world lingers with me wherever I go. Fowles succeeds.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Literature as Personal Challenge

From John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman:

"You know your choice. You stay in prison, what your time calls duty, honor, self-respect, and you are comfortably safe. Or you are free and crucified. Your only companions the stones, the thorns, the turning backs; the silence of cities, and their hate."

Overdramatic, even adolescent? Perhaps. But what is real in the novel is Charles' choice. He chooses humiliation, the scorn of society, the ridicule of his age, to "escape" to his freedom. He seeks his authentic self and authentic love, and to do so requires a clear break from his social world and from respectability. And that's the choice he makes.

I can't help but take Charles' choice as a personal challenge. It is not only Victorians that can avoid authentic actions, that can hide from their own freedom, for the sake of convention to remain "comfortably safe."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gratiutous Link

Last week, I tried to articulate my reaction to displays of military virtue during sports broadcasts. Relevant to that discussion, at Slate Michael Oriard discusses the November 8th FOX NFL pregame show from Afghanistan:

"The festivities were high on patriotism but low on militarism, leaving out any hint of blood or fighting. For the U.S. military, the Fox broadcast was an opportunity to tell a story about its humanitarian mission in Afghanistan, to sell the war at home at a time when anything like a clear-cut military victory appears unattainable."

On Parenthood

Modern technology offers a wonderful gift to today's parents: DVR. Children require major alterations to your schedule, and they make frequent demands that must be met immediately. Yet DVR means you don't have to miss your favorite TV shows: you watch them on your own time, when the kids are in bed. Watching sports on television is easy too. When the kids require full attention, you just pause the game, and come back to it when you are able. I don't mean pausing for hours and watching later: I mean pausing for 1-5 minutes at a time to care for whatever needs or wants the kids have.

DVR means you can be a good parent while still devoting your full attention to a football game, or even a sitcom.

Gratuitous Claim

Rereading John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, I'm reaching a startling conclusion: this is my favorite novel. Ever.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On being a pacifist sports fan

This past weekend, several networks showing NFL games used the broadcast as an opportunity to pay tribute to U.S. soldiers currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been struggling to articulate why I find these tributes unsettling, and I realized, why even have a little-read blog if not to explore one's own thoughts through writing?

Consider this, then, one pacifist's attempt to explain to himself why these tributes to the troops disturb him.

The "Thank You" contains implicit support of the current wars
Many of the statements of thanks to the soldiers are couched in conventional language: thanks for keeping us safe, thanks for protecting our freedoms, etc. But to thank soldiers currently occupying Iraq and Afghanistan for keeping us safe/protecting our freedoms implicitly assumes that their current mission is necessary to keep us safe/protect our freedoms, and is therefore "good." Such statements of thanks, then, become more commercials for waging these wars.

Perpetual tributes for a state of perpetual warfare
Tributes to serving soldiers have been going on during NFL broadcasts at least since Thanksgiving 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. That means that for eight years, NFL broadcasts during special occasions (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Veterans Day, etc.) have been used to pay tribute to soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've understood a need to pay regular tribute because we've accepted that U.S. soldiers will be occupying foreign countries for a long time.

The normalization of militarism in culture
Like toy soldiers, military video games, and wearing camouflage for style and fashion, the fusion of military tributes with our sports entertainment just further makes militarism and military values a normal, everyday part of our culture. We accept shows of military virtue as something that is ensconced in all parts of our lives--and thus we perpetuate a culture that supports military violence.

Relevant reading
Last March, Nathan Schneider at The Row Boat suggested that

"There must be a way to honor such sacrifices as war brings out in people while abhorring the pointless insanity that occasioned it, abhorring it so completely that it can never possibly happen again."

I shared my doubts, which I think are relevant to the issue I'm exploring here:

I’m not sure. I’ve been increasingly influenced by the work of John Howard Yoder and other Christian pacifists, and I feel no need to “honor” militarism. I am compelled to abhor violence; I don’t know if I can abhor the large-scale war while honoring those carrying out the war (at any level). It seems an inconsistent position: to commit to a life of peace, yet to “honor” those who participate in the violence of war. “Honor” comes too close to glorification (whether or not that is true in the realm of ideas, it is too often true in actual practice). I think it possible that continuing to honor the people who participate in war is a significant part of perpetuating a militaristic culture, and thus goes against the desire to abhor war “so completely that it can never possibly happen again.” Stopping the honor of militarism might be a significant step toward stopping war.

So not “honor.” But sadness, sympathy, empathy, and love. Perhaps another word entirely. For those who sacrifice much, for those who lose much without ever having the choice.

And at Salon, Glenn Greenwald exposes in David Brooks a common disconnect: cheerleading in support of war while calling others who commit violence "evil."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gratuitous Link

At The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews the book I now want to read, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.

Friday, October 30, 2009

How we talk about war.

David Brooks sure uses a lot of words to say "He's a prissy intellectual; he's not man enough to fight a war" (New York Times).

Truth-in-satire once again from The Onion: "U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan."

I'm not at all surprised to find that The Onion offers keener, more incisive insight than David Brooks.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Costanza and Me (2)

In one episode of Seinfeld, George is on the verge of career success, which fills him with anxiety and dread. He frets to his therapist, “God would never let me be successful. He’ll kill me first. He’ll never let me be happy.” “I thought you didn’t believe in God,” the therapist says. “I do for the bad things!” George replies.

I feel personally connected to the Minnesota Vikings. Their shortcomings are my shortcomings. When they fail, I feel I have failed, that I have opened myself up personally to the ridicule of the masses. When they win, I feel euphoric joy, but I don’t feel pride, exactly. I don’t think their strengths are my strengths, that their successes are my successes.

When people insult the Vikings, I feel they are insulting me personally. But that doesn’t mean that I consider praise for the Vikings praise for me. George Costanza believes in God only for the bad things. The Vikings are me, but only when they lose.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Adulthood

I'm an adult. If I finish off the bag of candy corn, I can just go buy another one. It costs like two dollars. If I want another bag of candy corn, I can get it.

But that candy corn is loaded with sugar and calories. I really shouldn't finish it off: I don't need all the sugar or calories. I think about my health--because I'm an adult.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Watermelon Policy

I'm willing to work hard for my food. I'm willing to devote time and energy to preparing a meal. I'm willing to work hard to earn each bite (as one must with, say, a grapefruit). But once a bite of food goes into my mouth, I should be done working for it. Once it is in my mouth, that is the time to just take pleasure.

So I avoid watermelon, because I don't like having to work out the seeds while the watermelon is in my mouth.

Friday, October 2, 2009

My Cantaloupe Policy

1. Always buy a cantaloupe when it costs less than a dollar.

2. Never buy cantaloupe on the "buy one, get one free" deal; no matter how much fruit you eat, it's hard to eat two cantaloupe in one week.

3. Always cut the cantaloupe within two days of getting it home.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


a contrapuntal essay (in this case it just means rambling, and I'm saving my focus for things other than reorganizing a blog entry).

Sometimes I think Dexter is a sick parody of a the conventional "cop who plays by his own rules to get the bad guys" show. There are a lot of fictional police officers who are willing to violate rights, break the law, or use violence to get the bad guys (usually with the support of the audience). The first two seasons of Dexter even feature James Doaks, an aggressive, angry, occasionally violent police officer willing to skirt the law for justice. But Dexter Morgan makes sure you're never confused: while he has a "code," he's not interested in justice. He's a psychopath that doesn't feel things and is compelled to kill.

And sometimes I think Dexter is a sick parody of "just war" thinking, of the thinking that seeks military solutions to problems. At the end of season one, Dexter speculates how horrified everybody around him would be if they knew he is a serial killer. But then he fantasizes: maybe they wouldn't be horrified. Dexter uses violence to punish bad people; maybe if people knew what he did, they'd thank him. In his fantasy, he walks past cheering onlookers, thanking him for keeping them safe, as red, white, and blue confetti falls around him.

I don't really see Dexter as a parody. The show does, however, connect the righteous violence that audiences find appealing with a horrifying, psychopathic violence that should repulse an audience.

In season three, Dexter becomes a sick parody of tranquil domesticity. Dexter protects his girlfriend Rita's daughter from a threatening man: he goes to the man's home and kills him. On his way, Rita had called to tell him they were out of milk. As Dexter drags the man's corpse into the man's kitchen, Dexter remembers Rita's call: he checks the man's fridge, and takes that milk to Rita. In the next episode, he can't quite get a marriage proposal right; he finally succeeds when he borrows the words of a deranged killer.

At least since The Sopranos, television is capable of making an audience "root" for a morally disgusting protagonist. Dexter, I think, plays with what it knows the audience must feel: we're compelled to side with a narrator protagonist no matter how awful he may be. When Rita becomes pregnant, Dexter is anxious: he's afraid to commit to fatherhood, since he's afraid the child will be like him, and afraid he'll be a terrible father. Dexter's sister calls him a fool: he'll be a great father, she says. Rita obviously wants Dexter to commit to fatherhood. And we the audience, familiar with such television situations, may generally think Dexter should commit. He's ambivalent, hesitating, not sure. And you know what? He's right. He's the voice of reason. He's a psychopath incapable of most human emotion that is compelled to kill people. He is probably going to hurt Rita's whole family, and he should run away from committing to them. Eventually, of course, he does end up committing to the family. In general, I think Dexter plays with the conventions of the television protagonist and the audience's sympathies. We're asked to feel emotions for Rita and her children, to see some warmth in Dexter's relationship with them. But surely we must know that Rita and the children would be utterly horrified, devastated, permanently damaged, if they knew the truth about Dexter's murderous activities. The whole relationship is something of a facade that, but Dexter is the only one that knows it's a sham, a phony, a farce. We watch (and perhaps care for) a family, we become aware of their emotional lives, and yet we know who Dexter really is, and know the family doesn't know that, and know that they would be crushed beyond words if they did know the truth.

It goes further. "All in the Family," the season three episode when Dexter proposes to Rita, features the theme of role playing. From beginning to the end, Dexter's narration explores the ways he and others act out an expected role. This episode resonates with season one, when Dexter recounts Harry's lessons for "passing" as normal. He's supposed to fake it. He doesn't know real emotions, he can't actually connect with other human beings, so he's supposed to fake it. He's got to play a role. And in the final scene, when Dexter proposes and talks about how sometimes you end up playing "the role of a lifetime," I can't help but wondering if he's expressing a larger ambivalence about domestic life (an ambivalence not limited to psychopaths). Some people may feel like Dexter: that domestic life requires roles, that family expectations demand certain performed behavior, and sometimes that behavior is not authentic. It feels phony, fake. The domestic role is performed.

The show works at all sorts of levels.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fall TV! Fall TV!

There are two shows that I am utterly thrilled with this fall. Thrilled.

Community. If you had told me that Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, and John Oliver were starring in a sitcom about college, you would have to say nothing more: I'd be in. Nothing this fall has made me laugh out loud more than the pilot of Community.

Glee. The show is just pure fun. It's light, amusing, and people often break into song and dance!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Golden Gophers' Home Opener

Oh, to be a 21 year old U of M student today: it's a day long party in the whole neighborhood around TCF Stadium.

My dad and I went to the Golden Gophers' first game in their new on-campus stadium. We at at Stub and Herb's beforehand, then got to enjoy a beautiful stadium with an energized crowd. Bud Grant was even there (he got a loud cheer: is there a more revered figure in Minnesota sports?). When night settled in, and we were watching a college football game outdoors under the lights, life was good.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Gratuitous Link

Justin Goodman's "Animal Dissection: Cutting Kids' Heartstrings" in Common Dreams

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I'm going to say what needs to be said:

The '80s version of The Twilight Zone was better than the original series. I said it.

On Narcissistic Paranoia

There is a Subway in my neighborhood that is selling footlong Veggie Delite subs for four dollars each. $4.00 each!

There is only one explanation. Subway is trying to personally bait me into eating a veggie sub every day. Nothing else makes sense.

Cruelty-free shoes (2)

For non-leather dress shoes, a good brand is State Street, available at Payless. They look sharp, and they're pretty comfortable.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On the Frame of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

In literature, a frame story tends to serve some function. Sometimes it provides ambiguity, distrust, or distance from the central narrative (as in James’ The Turn of the Screw, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Sometimes the frame story contains thematic reflections or commentary on the central narrative (as in Shelley’s Frankenstein, or again, as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Generally a frame story isn’t there just for the sake of it: it serves an aesthetic or thematic function.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button contains a frame story of a woman reading a diary to her dying mother, as her dying mother fills in details. I found the frame relatively pointless: all it did was add unnecessary length to a film that was already too long. The narrative would have worked just fine without this frame.  And if the frame appeared only at the beginning and end of the film, it would be a pretty inoffensive structure. But this frame constantly intrudes on the central narrative. The frequent interruptions add little or nothing to the narrative itself: they merely break it up.

I can see one possible purpose to the constantly intruding frame story. There are many things that don’t work in the film, and some things that do. One thing I like about the film is the defamiliarization. In many ways, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares stories of change and loss that are common in human experience. However, the conceit of the reverse-aging man defamiliarizes this experience, offers us a way to look at it anew. Perhaps the frame story, offering us a familiar image of change and loss, both adds to the defamiliarization of the central narrative and reminds us that, alas, the troubles of Mr. Button and his loved ones are truly universal.

I don't think this is quite enough to justify such frequent intrusions, however.  The frame just didn't offer enough, broke up the narrative, and made the film far too long.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

a small hope for peace

Not long ago, I viewed the commercial popularity of the Peace Sign as a symptom of apathetic consumerism: most Americans don't like our current wars, but all we're really doing about it is shopping.

But tonight while walking my dog, I passed over a sidewalk where children had been coloring with chalk. Somebody had drawn a peace sign. And I realized that over the past summer, I've seen children wearing the peace sign, pointing out the peace sign, celebrating the peace sign. And somehow, it's given me a little hope. If children are growing up with enthusiasm for a symbol of peace, perhaps some children are growing up in an environment where peace is celebrated. Perhaps there are children who are soaking in values of peace, forming ideas about peace.

When I see children coloring a peace sign on a sidewalk, I feel a small hope for peace.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Eating at the Fair

The Minnesota State Fair is something like a vegetarian paradise. I do not say it is a vegan paradise (though there are options around), I do not say it is a healthy eater's paradise (though if you made the effort, you could eat healthy), and I certainly don't say it is an animal rights advocate's paradise (in fact the exploitation of animals is displayed and celebrated).

But one of the laments of vegetarians when out and about is limited options. You can find yourself in situations where your options are very limited (I've been in restaurants for social reasons where my choices were pretty much between two appetizers). The outlandish variety of food available at the State Fair includes an outlandish variety of vegetarian-friendly food.

My recommendation for fair eating is to find somebody you can share food with. This allows you a much greater variety of foods to eat without completely gorging yourself and without completely ungorging your wallet.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

this blog is the best* *source: this blog

Have you seen that commercial for a Dutch Boy paint that apparently eliminates odors? The commercial claims that 64% of people fail to notice odors in their own home. If you look at the fine print on the commercial, you'll find the source of that statistic: Dutch Boy Paints.

I'm a little curious first about the method Dutch Boy used to determine this. Did they send in a group of people to smell a house, have that group arrive at a (somewhat subjective) consensus about the nature of the odor, then ask the owner of the house whether he/she smells anything? I'm also a little suspicious of the 64% number since, oh, that works out to 16 out of 25 people. Could Dutch Boy provide some more data on how they arrived at this number? Exactly how large was the sample size?

Either way, to sell paint, Dutch Boy cites a statistic, then cites itself as the source of that statistic. Well done.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On the end of August

For many, the end of August is the end of something. But I feel the sense of new things beginning. It signals the beginning of a new academic year, which I still have enthusiasm for: it feels fresh and exciting. It signals the beginning of a new football season, which is of course a thrill. And it signals the turning of the season, the beginning of Autumn weather, which I also like.

At the end of August I don't feel a sense of ending; I feel the rush of something new beginning.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On "Bridezillas"

I've never really cared much for Reality Television, but recently I've started to see the appeal. And here it is:

You get to watch irrational people behaving irrationally.

That's it: that's the pleasure. Most of reality TV is still, to me, pretty boring. But when irrational people start behaving against all reason, reacting to events without any sense of proportion or sense, then that's fun to watch. Perhaps I'm an overly reasonable person, because I can't help being amazed and entertained by the unreasonable words and actions of unreasonable people (as long as they have the distance of television). And I don't consider that a guilty pleasure, because in this life, the only pleasures we should feel guilty about are those that harm others.

However, I'm not sure I should enjoy watching Bridezillas. Certainly, I get to watch irrational people behaving irrationally. But I'm very interested in gender representations in popular culture, and I think this show may perpetuate several negative stereotypes of women, specifically:

Women are overbearing shrews who domineer their husbands.

Women are selfish narcissists caring only for themselves and their desires.

Women are overemotional and react to minor setbacks with either yelling or tears.

That actually makes me feel a little guilty. I may be watching a sexist show that asks its audience to laugh at stereotypical portrayals of women behaving badly.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Necessity and Animal Consumption

In a New York Times conversation, Gail Collins brings up the suffering of pigs on factory farms. Ross Douthat responds:

"I’m a unapologetic species-ist: I reject Peter Singer and all his works."

Since Douthat claims to be a speciesist, it is difficult to argue the morality of our treatment of animals with him.* I can, however, argue with his logic. He writes:

"I would leave a thousand pigs to die in conditions of absolute misery to save a single human infant."

OK, that’s what one would expect from a speciesist. However, how many pigs would Douthat let die for one human being’s pleasure? Because when we talk about animal consumption in the modern developed world, that’s what we’re talking about. Individuals don’t eat meat to survive, but because they think the flesh of dead animals tastes good. When we’re talking about animals consumption, we’re not measuring the life of an animal against the life of a human. We’re measuring the life of an animal against the pleasure of a human. If you choose to eat meat, your pleasure is more important to you than the life of an animal.

Douthat also claims to be "susceptible" to arguments like that of

"an American farmer, which defends modern agriculture on the grounds of human welfare: 'We have to farm "industrially,"' he writes, if we hope 'to feed the world.'"

According to Marc Bekoff in Animals Matter,

"It takes about 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef."

Bekoff also writes that

"it takes about nine acres of farmland a year to produce the meat that one person eats. By comparison, a person who does not eat meat can be supported by only half an acre necessary to grow plant food for a year. Twenty vegetarians could live for a year on the amount of grains needed to provide meat for just one meat eater!"

Even if you dispute Bekoff's specific numbers, you can recognize the logic: it doesn't make sense to use land and resources to create food to filter it through animals to create less food. If your concern is actually to feed the world, then it is more efficient to feed the world plants.

Douthat justifies poor treatment of animals on the grounds that human life is more valuable than animal life (or more specifically, that the value of human life is absolute and the value of animal life is not). His defense of poor treatment of animals is a familiar switch 'em change-o: instead of making an argument defending killing animals for pleasure, he makes an argument defending killing animals for necessity. In doing so, he hasn't actually addressed Collins' claim that

"We should channel some of our concern for dogs and cats toward factory farms that keep masses of animals in a state of permanent discomfort until they’re slaughtered."

He just thinks he has.

*Though I might ask a question about the morality of our treatment of other humans. Douthat writes

"I think that the value of animal lives is contingent and the value of human lives absolute."

Can a war supporter really claim that the value human life is absolute? War always makes life contingent, relative. The war supporter claims that one group of people or type of people can be killed for the sake of something else. There’s really no getting around this: the logic of war says that there are some reasons for which some people may be killed (and modern warfare often means the people being killed are civilians). Doesn't the claim that "the value of human lives is absolute" contradict the support of a war, which claims that there is sometimes reason enough to take human life (even the claim that killing in war will save other lives denies the absolute value of human life, because the lives of some are measured against the lives of others)?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brett Favre!

I've been blogging the hell out of the Vikings' new quarterback at Pacifist Viking.


According to Victoria Lowe at Yahoo!,

"Unless you're living a seriously alternative lifestyle, you've probably been communicating via text for a while now."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gratuitous Link

From the Onion: "Film Adaptation Of 'The Brothers Karamazov' Ends Where Most People Stop Reading Book"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Homemade Pizza

Making homemade pizza is terrific. Given the wide variety of potential pizza toppings in the world, you can really create a meal to your specific tastes (this is especially good for vegetable lovers), and different individuals in a group or family can have their own preferences. You also have more control to make it a healthier meal.

It's also a superb family activity. You can let children put toppings on their own pizza (or portion of a pizza), giving them a fun chance to participate in family meals. It's great when you can make meal preparation into a fun family activity in itself, and making pizza gives you that chance. Some kids really enjoy it.

I also recommend using pita bread as pizza crust: it's easy, can be lower in calories, and I think it tastes better.

So what if this blog becomes a boring diary of my experiments in vegetarian cooking?

Friday, August 14, 2009

On the economics of veggie sandwiches

One way to stay frugal is to avoid ordering meals at restaurants that you could prepare at home at similar quality for lower cost.

But I love veggie sandwiches of all sorts, and particularly frequent Subway for veggie subs (it's convenient, healthy, delicious, and filling). It's pretty affordable and extremely healthy (and easily vegan), so I always feel good about getting a veggie sub. But if I did feel the need to justify frequent Subway trips financially, I would claim to myself that I couldn't make a veggie sandwich with so many toppings at home at a cheaper cost. Sure, I could make a veggie sandwich, but how much would it cost to have as many toppings as Subway puts on? Fewer toppings means less quality, less satisfaction.

But I recently realized this argument only makes any sense for a person that is 1.) single and 2.) doesn't keep much fresh produce around. But now most of my meals involve planning for a family. And now I keep a high amount and wide variety of fresh produce around the house (this week I went to a grocery store four times in five days, primarily to get more fresh produce. Fruit and veggies are vital to my current lifestyle). That means that for the most part, it's easy and cost-effective to prepare quality veggie sandwiches at home. I should have realized it sooner: the only real difference between preparing for salads and preparing for veggie sandwiches is having the bread.

So I embark on a new era. Sure, I'll still try different restaurants' veggie sandwiches when I'm out, and I'll still frequent Subway for the convenience. But I already keep loads of fresh veggies around, and now I'll much more frequently make a veggie sandwiches at home (especially when it's a meal for the whole family). I can make sandwiches just as good and better at home than I can get at restaurants, and for a much better price. It's yet another filling, delicious, healthy vegetarian meal to make at home.

Things to do in St. Paul

Check out St. Paul Staycation.

Caprese Green Salad

I like the concept of Caprese salad (tomato and mozzarella based mix), but I like to eat a lot of green vegetables. Mixing some types of veggies (say, broccoli) would negatively detract from the essence of Caprese salad, but some work very well. Today I tossed together sliced tomatoes, chunks of mozzarella, small pieces of spinach leaves, and small cuts of fresh green beans with oil, basil, and salt, making a nice little alternative to a basic green salad. It tasted good.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why I listen to "Celtic Woman"

All children deserves a chance to tell their friends about how lame their parents are. But as it is, I just don't afford my children any opportunity to do so. Because I don't want my children to be deprived of complaining about the lame tastes of their parents, I listen to "Celtic Woman." That's why.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Twin Cities Outdoor Art

Phalen Park in St. Paul: Lelvixin Changsha China

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Happily, our age now has a firm grip on all truth, and our values are perfect in every way.

In "Anachronistic Arrogance" in Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman is critical of a tendency to dismiss the positive ideas, accomplishments, or art of historical figures because their social politics are not up to our progressive standards. I think of John Fowles in The French Lieutentant's Woman, speaking to his ages' sense of superiority over the Victorians:

"So much the better for us? Perhaps. But we are not the ones who will finally judge."

Happily, Laarman explicitly addressed the thought I had while reading his article (and often have when considering this problem of "anachronistic arrogance," as Laarman puts it):

"A little generosity and humility are called for here. I predict that the rap on this generation, and on even the most progressive among us, will end up being homo sapiens “species-ism.” And how will we feel when our good works and thoughts are dismissed because we disdained the sensibilities of whales and dolphins and horses and frogs and (yes) even that little piglet who contributed to yesterday’s breakfast?"

Fiction and Reality

In his article "The Courthouse Ring" in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Gladwell does not cite literary critics on the work; instead, he cites "the legal scholar Monroe Freedman," "the legal scholar Steven Lubet," and "the scholar Lisa Lindquist Dorr" who "has examined two hundred and eighty-eight cases of black-on-white rape that occurred in Virginia between 1900 and 1960."

I think there is insight to be found in this approach. However, I think in treating Atticus Finch as if he were a real life Alabama lawyer/politician of a particular time, Gladwell misses any of the real insights to be found in Atticus Finch as a fictional, imaginary character. If he wants to focus on a real time and place, his approach might help us to construct an understanding of Harper Lee's own values, biases, and limitations; instead of using real history and law to expose the flaws of the fictional Atticus Finch, he might use real history and law to expose the flaws of Harper Lee. However, Gladwell doesn't explicitly do this.

In this way, I think Gladwell combines two worlds. He tries to bring real Alabama history and society into the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, and he tries to pull the imaginary Atticus Finch out of a novel and set him in real Alamaba history and society. I don't think the approach quite works.

I grow tired of Garrison Keillor

I'm tired of Garrison Keillor posing himself as the authoritative voice of Minnesota, or more broadly the midwest. He speaks as if he has the insights into who "we" are, and he's the one with the ability to articulate it to the world (or more problematic, to us). I find a lot of his insights problematic (who is included or excluded from this "we," for example), but I'm particularly exhausted with his tone of wise homespun authority, as if when speaking about "us," he speaks for "us."

Gratuitous Quote

"A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses."

--Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The KC Chiefs in Wisconsin

The Kansas City Chiefs are holding their training camp at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in River Falls, WI. If you like football, it's a great idea to take the drive out there. It's a short drive from the Twin Cities, and it's a good time. There are relatively few people there: it's spacious and casual to move around watching an NFL team practice. It's a nice place to take a family, too.

If you go to River Falls, be sure to stop by the Grateful Bread bakery. Delicious cannolis! It's a great experience there. I've only had pastries and such there, but there are several vegetarian option on the menu, so I think I'll be stopping by there more frequently this year (especially since I'm ready to lighten up a little more on the mostly vegan lifestyle).

Here are some photos from our day at camp. First, your intrepid blogger, wearing his E.J. Henderson Viking t-shirt. I feel like a Henderson shirt outs me as a Viking rube. Any offensive skill position player would be expected, and defensive Pro Bowl stars like Antoine Winfield, Jared Allen, or Kevin Williams might be expected. But E.J. Henderson is a stud that the connoisseur Viking fan would root for. By the way, my son peed on this shirt and I went to the UW-RF book store to buy an emergency t-shirt (a UW-River Falls Theatre shirt--if I'm getting an emergency shirt, it might as well be for something I participated in).
My son Fox had a great time.

My wife and son Pacey.
The Chiefs' quarterbacks. A good looking group.
A nice interception

Dwayne Bowe

Matt Cassel. I think he could be a good quarterback.
Dwayne Bowe

A QB's pass goes by Dwayne Bowe's ankles.
Incidentally, we got to hear Chiefs' head coach Todd Haley yell at one wide receiver, and on a separate occasion he was shouting that a robot can't play wide receiver (hmm, a robot wide receiver). According to SI's Lee Jenkins, this is common occurance. On the topic, we also saw SI's Peter King watching practice. I mulled what a meeting might be like ("Hello Mr. King. I write for a Vikings blog where I spend a lot of time criticizing your writing. It's a pleasure to meet you").

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wherein I take issue with the inconsistent values of sitcom characters

On How I Met Your Mother, Marshall is a character that is highly concerned about the environment (he wants to be a lawyer for the NRDC), yet he also proudly, joyfully eats a lot of meat. I think environmentalists should be vegetarians: read why here and here.

At the Maplewood Mall

As I walked around a mall this morning over an hour before the stores opened, sporting my khakis and sneakers, I thought, I'm going to be a terrific old man, because I'll have had years of practice.

I also want to give kudos to the Maplewood Mall for having two restrooms without doors. This is convenient for parents pushing strollers, and it is also convenient for people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies that don't like to touch things in public restrooms (including doors).

Bad sportswriting about Viking QBs

As an English teacher, I can't help but to demand good writing, consistent logic, and concrete evidence, even from sportswriters. More at Pacifist Viking.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How favorite restaurants lose me

My wife and I loved Taste of Thailand on Old Hudson Road in St. Paul, but then they raised the price (significantly) on our favorite vegetarian dish. They priced us out of their customer base. As vegetarians we love Good Earth in Roseville, but haven't been there in a while (it's not an easy place to be with a toddler). Now I'm looking at their menu, and it looks like we might be priced out of their customer base. I can eat healthy, excellent vegetarian or vegan food for much cheaper than this, and I should be able to eat out for much cheaper than this.


At Pacifist Viking, I address the silly ways sportswriters address the current Viking QB situation.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Viking Questions

All the talk is quarterback, but the Vikings have some other concerns going into 2009 (Pacifist Viking).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anxiety in the Modern World

Have you seen these new hand dryers that are in some public restrooms (for example, some of the restrooms at the Rosedale Mall)? You stick your hands into a small gap, and then hot air from both sides dries your hands.

If this becomes a universal trend, I have a lifetime of drying my hands on my pants ahead of me.

I was immediately leery. I detest pubic restrooms anyway, and the idea of sticking my wet hands into a tiny hole where a bunch of strangers have already stuck their wet bathroom hands fills me with dread. But I thought I'd try it once. I ended up rewashing my hands--it's hard to avoid your hand bumping into the inside of the dryer, and I felt additional splashes of water coming onto my hand. And those additional splashes of water might have been from somebody else's wet bathroom hands. Wet bathroom hands. Wet bathroom hands. Wet bathroom hands.

But what if Rosenfels stinks?

I start to double-back in anxiety at Pacifist Viking.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

At the MIA

I've found a lot of modern art to be terrific for children: the sizes, shapes, and colors make toddlers stare, laugh, or go "wow."

At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Target Wing, there's an intriguing exhibit of Cheryle Melander's and Don Myhre's work. I found Myhre's work particularly interesting, especially the pieces featuring giant white faces. My own toddler liked it, too, but it is a little spooky (for a bit, he thought the three giant faces together were mad at him. Later he thought they were happy. There was another face that appeared to flicker that I think creeped him out a bit too). Overall we enjoyed this particular exhibit. My toddler really enjoys a lot of the modern art in the Target Wing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

George Costanza and Me (1)

My wallet is getting out of control. It's not just that it's far more filled with coupons than with money: it's the type of coupons. I'm a mostly vegan vegetarian: why am I carrying around a coupon for Arby's? For Burger King?

Wait, did I say out of control? What I meant was awesome! Everything that is in my (non-leather) wallet needs to be there. Important things belong in a wallet.

Nietzsche calls me a weak-willed degenerate, and he is correct.

"The same expedient--castration, extirpation--is instinctively selected in a struggle against a desire by those who are too weak-willed, too degenerate to impose moderation upon it [...] It is only the degenerate who cannot do without radical expedients; weakness of will, more precisely the inability not to react to a stimulus, is itself merely another form of degeneration."

--Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

I think Nietzsche has me nailed: the only way I was really able to become a healthy person was to go to the extreme, adopting a mostly vegan lifestyle and consuming loads of fruits and vegetables. When I'm in strict vegan mode, I'm not remotely tempted to eat cheese or egg products (I'm already vegetarian for moral reasons). I don't even think about it; it's just not an option for me. It's this lifestyle and attitude that helped me lose over 50 pounds. My mom always counsels moderation, but I really can't do things in moderation. I'm better when I pour my being into something, even when that something is abstaining.

However, I'm mostly vegan. I make exceptions for social and special occasions. And on these exception days, I tend to go really, really overboard. When I'm allowing myself, I have "precisely the inability not to react to a stimulus." While most days I would not even consider eating cheese, or a donut, on an exception day, if there is cheese or a donut in front of me, I'm almost compelled to eat it.

You might say that having exception days at all would make me, according to Nietzsche, able to handle my passions and desires in moderation. But I know that isn't so. I can resist my desire only when I put myself on a strict, rigid order; when I don't have that order, I feel helpless to resist that desire, a man prone to giving into my temptations. My mostly vegan lifestyle is, according to Nietzsche, "merely another form of degeneration." I "cannot do without radical expedients."

Well, sucks to your Nietzsche anyway.

Veggie Pitas

My best homemade vegan meal is also stupidly simple, and takes little time to prepare.

1. Cut veggies of your choice into smallish pieces. Use whatever you like: I use combinations of broccoli, bell pepper, carrot, onion, green bean, and sugar snap peas.

2. Cook the veggies. I've tried this several ways, and prefer a wok. In my opinion, steaming them gets the veggies too damp for this meal.

3. Warm the pita bread. This softens the bread; a couple minutes should do the trick. If you are in the TC, I recommend using the superb Holy Land brand pita bread.

4. When the pita bread is warm, slather it with hummus. I love Holy Land hummus, but it's a little expensive; since this hummus is just adding flavor to veggies and pita (which are already good), I buy cheaper hummus just for this meal.

5. Put the hot veggies on the bread and wrap it up. I also recommend putting cold salad veggies (things like lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, olives) on top of the hot veggies; it makes a really good combo.

Really, I've made this too complicated. Cook your veggies, and wrap them in a pita with hummus: that's the gist of it. It's pretty inexpensive, and very delicious. It is also a healthy, vegan meal.

Free Expression for Peace

Apparently, expressing desire for peace is discouraged by the Burnsville Police. According to the Strib's John Tevlin, they

"assign two squad cars and two officers to the corner of Burnsville Parkway and Nicollet Avenue to keep an eye on a ragtag group of war protesters and issue tickets to people who honked their car horns.

"For peace."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Post-modern Traffic

On my way back to the TC on I-94 (spent the weekend celebrating Sinclair Lewis Days in Sauk Centre), smooth traffic came to a quick stop and go holdup. Eventually we saw a sign telling us the right lane was closed ahead, and we should merge left. All drivers were behaving accordingly. After driving much farther, it became obvious that the right lane was not closed at all. A big traffic slowdown occurred for nothing.

There was a signifier, but no signified. Yet we all behaved according to the dictates of the signifier.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Somehow, I always knew

Scrabble is out to ruin us (The Onion).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reading Julius Caesar

Given his time and place, it's not surprising that civil war pervades so many of William Shakespeare's greatest plays. Harold Bloom, in claiming Shakespeare invented the human, would make him the playwright of the individual. But Shakespeare is also the great playwright of the nation in conflict with itself. So often we see the turmoil of civil rivalry, or the anxiety of succession, "Domestic fury and fierce civil strife." I would still call the conflict individual: it's rarely a conflict of ideology, but rather simply over who will be in power. But Shakespeare's drama is filled with national, civil, political tensions.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On Frozen Berries

Here's a delicious snack. Mix frozen blueberries and frozen raspberries together in a sealed container, and leave it out for a few hours. The raspberry juices mix with the crisp blueberries, and it tastes like candy. It's terrific in the winter, when quality, cheap, fresh berries aren't easily available, but it's terrific in the summer because it's a cold snack.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

On Aestheticism

Aestheticism, a literary idea meaning much but summed up as "Art for art's sake," is both essentialist and moralist.

It is essentialist in claiming a singular, central, pure essence for art. For the aestheticist, art has but one singular purpose, and thus there can be one singular approach for all people to all art. It requires a commitment to a quasi-spiritual understanding of what art is.

It is moralist in claiming that those who do not follow the aestheticist's approach are in the wrong, and in the wrong in an immoral way. The aestheticist may claim that other approaches to art debase it--by failing to approach a work of art at its essence (as defined by the aestheticist), the individual commits a damaging wrong against art.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Macaroni Grill

Here's what I've gotten for signing up to receive (very occasional) emails from Romano's Macaroni Grill:

free appetizer
free piece of (giant and delicious) chocolate cake for my birthday
free piece of (giant and delicious) chocolate cake for my anniversary

Sign up for restaurants' email lists. Some restaurants just want to give away food to you.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Parades

Not long ago, I found parades overrated, tedious, and boring. Having kids, however, has restored my pleasure in parades. I now enjoy them. I like to see what's in the parade, I like seeing what people are giving away, and I especially like watching the kids get excited. We have a two week parade season during which we attend three parades (in Afton, MN, on White Bear Avenue in St. Paul, and in Sauk Centre, MN for Sinclair Lewis Days).

Kids like parades. I like eating candy. Everybody is happy.

On waiting for Favre

It's strange checking the news daily for confirmation of what we already know will happen (Pacifist Viking).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On Free Will

a contrapuntal essay

"The innermost truth of every epoch-making novel, whether tragic or comic, must always be the wrestling of the individual soul with fate; a wrestling which is bound to become sooner or later some kind of struggle between good and evil, between endurance and misery, between creation and destruction."

--John Cowper Powys, in Dostoievsky

A baby renders any discussion of free will absurd. A baby does not control his own body (he poops, he pees, he jerks, he moves his arm, without will or understanding) or his environment (why is he picked up or set down? Why is he taken to a particular place? Why is something put in front of his face?). Combine our total lack of will at the beginning of life with the inevitability of death, and if free will has any but a spiritual meaning, it is limited to some middle period of life, and thus only partly free.

But maybe that's why, as Dostoevsky's underground man says in Notes from the Underground says, humans have such a driving desire to prove they are not "sprigs on a barrel organ." In that book Dostoevsky suggests that humans will act against reason, even against their own best interests, in order to assert free will. Do we remember being babies? Is the memory of being moved about without will or understanding lodged in our brains, causing some of us to vehemently assert that we have control, that we are independent, that we can do what we want? That may start as toddlers, but as adults we can rationalize it, come up with grand philosophical systems to claim our free will. It may all be psychological resistance to the helplessness we knew as babies.

I've stayed standing by Dostoevsky's underground man even as I've moved away from standing with Sartre. I've stayed standing by Dostoevsky even though John Fowles already convinced me (of what I already knew), that Hazard is the dominant force in our lives. And I still stand with Dostoevsky though I know that as a baby I lacked any control, and any volition I have can only postpone death, and perhaps not even do that (a beautiful line in Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools:" "The peak that stays in view wherever we go/ For them is rising ground.").

My commitment now is to a spiritual free will, one that is always small and often futile. It is influenced by John Howard Yoder's pacifist theology, that in choosing nonresistance one may willfully submit to defeat, that some sort of victory is possible in subordination, failure and death. But then that makes free will an existential matter, so perhaps I haven't left Sartre very far behind at all.

Myths of War

In "All sides blame McNamara for Vietnam" in Salon, Michael Lind argues that it's not quite fair or reasonable that Robert McNamara receives so much specific blame for the Vietnam War. I think he makes some good arguments, particularly that the presidents responsible for the policies in Vietnam deserve much more blame than they get. Lind writes that McNamara gets criticized from the left, right, and center for the Vietnam War, and he makes the effort to debunk all three criticisms. The right wing criticism, according to Lind, is basically the Rambo idea: the U.S. soldiers/military could have won the war if the civilian politicians would have just let them:

"Just as they had done during the Korean War, however, conservatives denounced a Democratic administration for allegedly holding back the U.S. military. Just as the right accused the Truman administration of needlessly throwing away victory in Korea by restraining and then firing Gen. MacArthur, so the right accused the Johnson administration of needlessly throwing away victory in Indochina by restraining Gen. William Westmoreland. This "stab-in-the-back" theory of the Vietnam War, blaming timid civilians like McNamara and LBJ for forcing the U.S. military to fight with one hand tied behind its back, was popularized by the late Col. Harry Summers after the war and is still the dominant view on the American right."

How does Lind attempt to debunk this view? He essentially argues that the civilian politicians were right to hold the military back because of the threat from China:

"The conservative stab-in-the-back theory of the Vietnam War has flaws of its own. If only the Johnson administration had 'unleashed' the full power of the U.S. military, by invading the North or bombing the dikes, then the war would have ended quickly, with far fewer American and Vietnamese casualties, with a reunified noncommunist Vietnam or perhaps a Korean-style stalemate lasting to this day. What this attractive might-have-been ignores is the fact that the Johnson administration feared that China, which was already supplying North Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of logistics troops, might engage in full-scale war with the U.S. in Vietnam as it had done in Korea. The evidence that has emerged from China since the end of the Cold War suggests that Mao very well might have intervened directly, had the U.S. gone too far. The Johnson administration in retrospect was far from stupid in trying to prevent Vietnam from escalating into a second Sino-American war."

By arguing this myth strategically, Lind leaves intact the essence of the myth: that our soldiers/military could have won the war if only the civilians and politicians back home would have let them. He doesn't challenge this myth: he doesn't suggest that it is itself what was wrong. And this myth is a specific part of a larger, very dangerous belief. It is the belief that the U.S. can win any war it wants, it just needs the proper commitment and will. And that is part of the myth that there is a violent, military solution to any problem.

Lind's debunking of "the antiwar left" or "radical left" is also rather flimsy; I might even call it a straw man. He essentially provides two arguments: First, that "Nobody takes seriously anymore the claim made by many radicals at the time that the Second Indochina War was merely an anti-colonial rebellion that had nothing to do with the wider Cold War." O.K., and what if antiwar radicals even conceded that fighting communism was at the essence of the war? What of the antiwar radicals who still believe the war was wrong even on those grounds (and I might add that communist motivations were not entirely separate from anti-colonial motivations)? Lind does not address this objection. Second, Lind says

"The moral case against the damage done to the Vietnamese population and landscape by U.S. firepower and Agent Orange defoliation is compelling. But the U.S. effort in Korea was even more devastating, and the U.S. efforts in World War II included the incineration of German and Japanese cities by conventional and atomic bombing. To the historian, the case that the Vietnam War was a unique atrocity in itself is hard to make."

I see this as a pretty weak argument: he acknowledges the moral argument against the war because of the death and destruction committed against Vietnam, but basically says other U.S. wars have been vicious and destructive too. Again, what of the antiwar radicals that would concede this: does the overall horror of war, and the specific horrors of the previous U.S. wars, really wash away the moral argument over the destruction of Vietnam?

Lind argues that everybody is wrong in their criticism of the Vietnam War. As he does so, he lets the faith in military solutions to problems stand, and does not meaningfully address a broader antiwar view.

Monday, July 6, 2009

89 cents*

Do you notice those Taco Bell commercials, where customers pay for their food with exactly 89 cents? I don't know where these commercials take place. According to Federation of Tax Administrators, there aren't many states that have no sales tax, and there are local sales taxes, too. As you can see at Wikipedia, many states exempt unprepared food from sales tax, but prepared restaurant food is often taxed.

How many places are there where a person can pay exactly 89 cents for an item listed on Taco Bell's menu for 89 cents? Not too many. I call you out, Taco Bell commercials, for being annoying.

Gratuitous Link

Former Minnesota Viking and current Baltimore Raven Matt Birk on "Minnesota Nice":

"I think 'Minnesota Nice' really does exist. It seems out here on the East Coast people are in more of a hurry and are a little bit crabby compared to those in the Midwest. You better be on your toes when you go to the grocery store out here or someone on a bluetooth is likely to push you into a stack of soup cans with their shopping cart."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cruelty-Free Consumer: Shoes

It's easy to find cheap, non-leather shoes; it's just a bit more difficult to find cheap, quality non-leather shoes. Athletic shoes are tougher than dress shoes. I go for a lot of long walks, so I want a shoe that first of all offers great foot support, and secondly will be durable enough to last 9-12 months (that's not bad: if you walk a lot, all shoes are going to wear away eventually, and if you find shoes for under $20, nine months is pretty good usage).

There's one thing I've found to look out for. If you are buying really cheap shoes, don't buy the ones that appear to have air pockets on the side of the heel. They're going to pop, fall out, or wear away very quickly. You just want a good, thick base of solid material.

The best brand I've found is Cross Trekkers, which you can get at Payless Shoes. Whenever I put on a new pair, I'm always amazed at how great my feet feel: the support is very thick, and a long walk is pleasant and smooth. Walking is easy when your foot is comfortably cushioned. I've found Cross Trekkers to be pretty durable, easily giving me the 9-12 months of usage I'm looking for.

It takes longer to find shoes without leather. Some brands clearly label the materials as including man-made materials, leather, or both, but some brands make it difficult, and some don't seem to bother labeling it at all. So cruelty-free shoe shopping is a little more challenging, but I actually usually end up with high quality shoes.

On reaping what you sow

When a city decides to light the sky on fire in a veritable orgy of sound and light, the next day that city is bad for breathing.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Whatever you say, Comrade

I like to make a list of my July 4th activities that would be deemed "unamerican." "Unamerican" is defined as what I imagine the projected persona of a Fox News personality would find unamerican. Here's how I'm doing. Are these activities vaguely unamerican?

Drinking a bottle of Perrier.
French water? Definitely.

Reading The New Yorker.
Probably. Since I was reading one article about gay rights, and another article about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq, I would say definitely.

Eating veggie burgers.
Probably. If I'm not eating the grilled flesh of a dead animal, I can't really be an American man, and if I'm deliberately flouting the standard with a veggie burger, I'm basically a commie.

Whole family going to a parade wearing peace sign shirts.
Posssibly. Maybe. I tripled down with a peace sign hat and peace sign bracelet. And none of us wore any red, white, and blue. Probably not unamerican, but I think the projected persona of a Fox News personality would at least give a disapproving look.

Eating egg rolls.
Um... no, I don't think so. Even though I chose egg rolls over the wholesome American choice of an ice cream cone, I really don't think even the projected persona of a Fox News personality would think that matters.

So, does anybody else have any "unamerican" July 4th activities to report on?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Carol Muske-Dukes' "Twin Cities"

Read the poem at The New Yorker. If you don't like links, it is on pages 56-57 of the July 6 & 13 magazine.

Distracting Headline

Here's how it works: the title of the AFP article on Yahoo! is "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones.'" Will meat eaters now latch onto this new finding, giving a "ha ha, tsk tsk" to vegetarians? Only if they stop at the headline. The first line of the article:

"People who live on vegetarian diets have slightly weaker bones than their meat-eating counterparts, Australian researchers said Thursday."

"Slightly weaker"? Should this be a concern? Maybe not. What does lead researcher Tuan Nguyen say?

"There was 'practically no difference' between the bones of meat-eaters and ovolactovegetarians, who excluded meat and seafood but ate eggs and dairy products, he said."

Interesting: an article titled "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones'" includes a sentence claiming there is "'practically no difference' between the bones of meat-eaters and ovolactovegetarians." Is the headline a lie, then, or just an exaggeration?

The researcher finds, then, "that vegetarian diets, particularly vegan diets, are associated with lower bone mineral density." Vegetarians apparently have 5% less dense bones, vegans 6% less dense.

How meaningful is this difference? Or rather, how strong is the association between vegan/vegetarian diets and weaker bone density? Actually, not at all:

"'But the magnitude of the association is clinically insignificant,' he added."

Clinically insignificant!

So, the headline reads "Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones.'" At no point does the article suggest a vegetarian (or vegan) diet weakens bones to the point of unhealthiness. Though Nguyen attempts a Michele-Bachmann-like association at the end of the article ("Given the rising number of vegetarians, roughly five percent (of people) in western countries, and the widespread incidence of osteoporosis, the issue is worth resolving"), there is no evidence provided that a vegetarian or vegan diet leads to greater bone health problems. And actually, the article featured by this headline claims there is practically no difference between the bones of meat eaters and vegetarians, and includes a quote from the researcher calling it "clinically insignificant."

Scientific research may be objective; what we do with the results, however, is subjective. A headline reporting these very same results could focus on the "clinically insignificant" part, or it could focus on the "practically no difference" part. But of course that doesn't happen. The headline instead gives fodder to meat eaters who want to believe/claim they are healthier than vegetarians and vegans, or that vegetarians and vegans are "weak."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Gran Torino" and Violence

spoilers and all

There are many films that feature not merely "righteous" violence, but "redemptive" violence. That is, a violent act becomes a necessary, regenerative, redeeming act; within the narrative and within the context, violence is an obvious and successful solution to a threatening problem. In the film's narrative, violence works to bring about the good it intends.

Gran Torino appears that it may follow the redemptive violence myth. Walt Kowalski is repeatedly successful when he uses the threat of violence to defend innocent, threatened people. However, the real success of Walt's transformation is not in his use of violence to protect the innocent, but in the relationships he builds, particularly with Thao and Sue Lor. He becomes heroic not because he's willing to violently destroy evil, but because he becomes willing to build friendships, engage with people. The motif of the tools is important: it is easier to destroy than to build, but building is what matters. He helps Thao by teaching him, by providing for him. The middle of the film is devoid of much violence at all, and that is when Walt is able to do good.

But in this peaceful middle, Walt has not given up his belief in regenerative violence. When Thao is again harassed, Walt goes violently after one of the gang members that harasses him. He violently beats the man, tells him to leave Thao alone, and threatens him with further violence. What happens, however, of course does not end the violence. The gang shoots up the Lors' home and beats and rapes Sue. Violence begets violence.

Walt realizes the role he played in this cycle, how his own violence makes him responsible for what happened. When he sees Sue, he drops his drink, goes home, and begins mutilating his fists by punching through glass. Given that Walt is clearly dying, a viewer may now expect the violent shootout in which Walt nobly and bravely sacrifices himself to help Thao and Sue. Sort of. It is not redemptive violence, but redemptive self-sacrifice: Walt goes unarmed, allowing himself to be murdered so that the gang would be imprisoned. He uses the final shootout scene not to wage righteous violence, but to bring about redemption through sacrifice.

Now, the image of the selfless hero sacrificing his own life for the greater good (often with explicit Christ imagery) is not new in art: the very violent Matrix trilogy ends with peace, not destruction, brought about when Neo sacrifices himself and, indeed, finds himself sprawled out on screen as if crucified. Reading Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the comparisons of Randle Patrick McMurphy to Jesus become almost a bit much. It may even be that this has become a tired, repetitive, uncreative image. It is, however, a story worth repeating, especially in American film: if the deconstruction of the redemptive violence myth seems itself overplayed, it is only because the redemptive violence myth is even more overplayed.

And while Christians often seem to perpetuate and encourage the redemptive violence, it seems rather obvious to point out that the story of Jesus's life is one of redemptive self-sacrifice. In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder writes that Jesus explicitly rejected the "Zealot" option of violence. Indeed, when Peter tries to violently defend Jesus against arrest, Jesus stops him, telling him that living by the sword means dying by the sword (in other words, violence begets violence). I'm afraid that given a different context, many American Christians today might defend Peter's actions, seeing his violent self-defense as entirely justified (I can't stomach a serious response to this). But Jesus offers a different message: that redemption cannot come through righteous violence, that waging violence does not bring about salvation or peace. That message is in direct conflict not only with many violent films, but with the logic that justifies perpetuating America's current wars.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gratuitous Link

In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes about the origins of "parenthood:"

"There have always been parents, and parents have always been besotted with their children, awestruck by their impossible beauty, dopey high jinks, and strange little minds. But 'parenthood,' the word, dates only to the middle of the nineteenth century, and the notion that parenthood is a distinct stage of life, shared by men and women, is historically in its infancy."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


In the Minnesota Independent, Andy Birkey writes about Bullseye Collection Agency in Monticello. Bullseye sends out "collections notices with a WWJD header," and "According to court documents, 'Bullseye admits that "WWJD" is a "business motto" that should be interpreted as a reference to Jesus Christ."

Interestingly enough, there may be an answer to the question of what Jesus would do regarding debt collection; however, I don't think it is an answer Bullseye Collection Agency wants to hear.

In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder expertly argues that Jesus' ministry was political, and that Jesus spoke directly to economic issues. Jesus used the language of Jubilee, and that elements of the Jubilee "are not marginal but central in the teaching of Jesus. They are even at the center of his theology" (61). A major prescription of the Jubilee, one central to Jesus' teachings, is the forgiveness of financial debt. Some shenanigany policies and practices had made giant debts a problem, and Jesus was speaking to that. According to Yoder,

"The Lord's Prayer, which summarizes the thought of Jesus concerning prayer, includes the following request: ' remit us our debts as we ourselves have also remitted them to our debtors' [...] Jesus [...] tells us purely and simply to erase the debts of those who owe us money, that is to say, practice the jubilee" (62).

According to Yoder, Jesus advocated remitting financial debt as a key part of his new kingdom. I'm tempted to consider a debt collection agency using "WWJD?" as a business motto either ironic ignorance or offensive appropriation. However, I'm more than used to seeing Jesus' name attached to practices that I'm skeptical Jesus would endorse.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gratuitous Link

Burger King ads are failing; writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

"This strikes a huge blow to the idea that what Americans want from their fast food joint is a Bobblehead King doll who sneaks into your bed, raps about square butts, and terrorizes you from outside your bedroom window."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On Television Antiheroes

In the New York Times article "Get a Life, Holden Caulfield," Jennifer Schuessler suggests that today's teenagers don't relate to the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye anymore. Teacher Julie Johnson remarks:

"In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes."

This line stuck out to me, since the television landscape is littered with the "alienated antiheroes." From Tony Soprano, Larry David, Jimmy McNulty, Gregory House, and many, many more, popular television series seem to center around an antihero protagonist: appealing, charismatic, fascinating, yet immoral (or amoral), mean, antisocial. We like these characters, even as they grate against society (its conventions, its institutions, its rules, its people), sometimes from their natural personality, sometimes from a philosophical stance of indifference or cynicism. These are adult shows, and I find myself wondering: if teenagers today are not sympathetic to these alienated antiheroes, will they either come to like them as they grow into adult cynicism, or is the alienated antihero a generational phenomenon? Are we currently watching a bunch of adult versions of Holden Caulfield (is House's "Everybody lies" the adult version of Holden's disgust of "phonies"? I'm not asserting a direct influence, but suggesting the kind of teenager who finds Holden Caulfield appealing will be the kind of adult who finds Gregory House appealing)? And does that mean years from now television will feature a bunch of adult versions of Harry Potter?

The alienated antihero has a long history in literary tradition, of course, but his (he's usually male) popularity in contemporary television is distinct. But this too will likely pass, as a new generation of viewers finds a different sort of protagonist appealing (and watch for it--the trend may already be happening).