Monthly Archives: April 2013

And That’s When I Stopped Reading Michael Pollan

I used to think it was impossible to agree with someone’s conclusion, but find their arguments for it repellent. Then I read Michael Pollan.

One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Before I say why I find this argument, this article, so infuriating, a caveat: I like Michael Pollan. He’s a great campaigner for food that doesn’t make us fat or sick, and the net impact of his work has been positive, especially in the early years when most people didn’t know about how poisoned the US food supply is. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and I hope he continues writing. 

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to continue reading. This entire article—and from the reviews I’ve read, this entire book—is some sort of ode to cooking, an aria to its sensory, health and spiritual pleasures.

Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.

Some of this sounds borderline convincing. I actually love cooking (though butchering a pig myself, less so), and I get a genuine sense of accomplishment when I serve my friends something I created from scratch. Pollan’s right, that’s a rare thing in this world, especially where most of us have jobs (‘solutions architect’, ‘strategic consultant’) that are boring to describe and impossible to show off.

But that’s really the problem with Pollan’s argument: He’s not making one. The only thing this piece (and, frankly, a lot of Pollan’s work) tells you is  ‘I like cooking.’

I’m sure that’s great for Pollan’s health and pocketbook and carbon footprint, but it’s not clear that his preferences are scalable, or that they offer any solutions for the actual, real health problems facing America.

Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy — even these modest acts will constitute a kind of a vote. A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization — against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.

I hate to spray Roundup on Pollan’s parade, but cooking is not withdrawing from corporations, it is simply trading one set of them for another. Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, these companies control, directly or indirectly, vast swathes of the American landscape. Monsanto makes the pesticides farmers spray on their crops, Ford the trucks delivering them, Safeway the shelves stocking them.

And that’s not in itself a bad thing. Corporations provide the great majority of the things we buy. If Pollan is serious about withdrawing from corporate specialization, why not make his own clothes, his own car, his own toothpaste?

This, ultimately, is why my problem with Pollan goes so far beyond this excerpt. His signature phrase, ‘Vote With Your Fork’, isn’t an argument for a better food system, it’s an argument for two food systems.

A hundred years ago, when Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ described the sweatshop conditions of meatpacking workers in Chicago, the cries weren’t for consumers to choose ‘sweatshop-free’ products. Fifty years ago, when the modern highway gave rise to the modern head-on collision, the cries weren’t for consumers to pay extra for a seatbelt. In both cases, the government did its job and raised the minimum standard to stay in business, and in doing so kept consumers safe and healthy, regardless of their choices.

The United States doesn’t need a higher ceiling, it needs a higher floor. Two-thirds of  adults are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1960. Diabetes went from 5.5 million people to 20 million people in just 30 years.

Sending everyone to Whole Foods with an apron and a vegetable peeler isn’t going to fix this. As long as our food system continues to produce cheap, unhealthy, ready-made food, cooking from scratch won’t be a viable alternative.

Instead of telling people to leave the world of corporate food, I’d love to see Pollan help improve it.  When the government gets serious about reducing obesity rates, it will stop subsidizing unhealthy food and start labeling it. It will restrict companies from advertising to kids and selling them junk in their schools. It will tax the obvious bad products like soda, and nudge us to consume less of the slightly-less-bad ones.

Should people cook more? Undoubtedly. But before we tell them to vote with their forks, we should tell them to vote with their votes.

3 Comments

Filed under America, Food, Personal

Malcolm Gladwell Says Proof Doesn’t Matter. Also, Football is Bad.

Gladwell’s core argument is that ‘what’s the proof?’ is often used as an excuse for those who profit from  a harmful activity not to fix it. It was obvious for 50 years that breathing  coal dust gave you black lung disease, but mining companies resisted change, claiming ‘There’s no proof!’ Nowadays, it’s obvious that football severely harms the mental health of  the people playing it, but the leagues refuse to fix it, claiming ‘There’s no proof!’

Last year I read a bunch of books about the Tobacco Wars of the 1990s. Everyone knows that tobacco companies still claim ‘there’s no proof’ that cigarettes cause lung cancer and emphysema. The most surprising thing I found in those books was that the tobacco companies are basically correct. To this day, scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms and pathways linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

What we do know, though, is that people who smoke get lung cancer and emphysema way more than people who don’t. This is consistent across age, race, wealth, age, location, religion, left vs right handedness, you name it. Cigarettes make you more likely to get sick and die. We don’t know precisely how this works—molecules are involved or something?—but that’s irrelevant. We know enough to tell people they’d be better off if they never smoked.

I’d argue that we’re at basically the same place with soft drinks. People who drink more soda have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. People who stop drinking soda see their risk for all these things drop. 

And yet, the mechanism whereby soft drinks lead to obesity isn’t comprehensively understood. Maybe soft drinks mess with your satiety signals, making your body ‘forget’ that it’s just consumed 300 calories. Maybe all that sugar leads to tolerance, or even addiction. Maybe liquid sugar is converted to fat more efficiently than food. Maybe a vengeful God has cursed mankind by making everything that tastes good slowly kill you. 

These unanswered questions aren’t an excuse not to act. A 20-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola contains 16 teaspoons of sugar. A kid that drinks an extra soda every day has a 60 percent higher chance of becoming obese. Kids shouldn’t be drinking soda, and neither should adults. Period.

Starting in the 1990s, governments around the world started taking tobacco prevention seriously. They removed vending machines, taxed  cigarettes, banned smoking in bars and prevented marketing anywhere kids might see it. These steps weren’t driven by  incontrovertible new proof of tobacco’s perniciousness. They were just our actions catching up to our common sense.

I think in the next 10 years you’ll see the same thing with soda. Cities are already banning soft drinks from schools and daycares. Soda taxes are appearing on ballots like red on Big Gulps. Bloomberg’s large-cup ban is spreading to other cities.

There’s still no ‘proof’ soda causes obesity. Or cigarettes cause cancer. Or football causes CTE. But some things are so obvious, proving them is what you do after you fix them.

Update: This is now on The Huffington Post.

1 Comment

Filed under Food, Journalism

I Feel Dirty For Reading This

Check out this final paragraph of a super-gossipy New York Times story about the ‘Today’ show:

Earlier this month, Lauer sought advice from his former co-host Meredith Vieira. On April 3 they met for lunch around noon at Park Avenue Spring, an upscale restaurant on East 63rd Street. They swapped stories about their children and then, according to another diner, talked about work in hushed tones. Vieira urged Lauer to tough it out, promising that the bad press would subside. Dessert arrived at the table by 1 p.m., but they lingered until 1:40, bantering the way they used to on television. Lauer held the door for her as they walked outside, and she embraced him, rubbing his back reassuringly and saying in his ear, “It’ll be O. K.” 

That ‘according to another diner’ is pretty gross.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

IMG_1539

One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

IMG_1551

But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

IMG_1513

Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

IMG_1517

What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

IMG_1535

It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

IMG_1545

I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

IMG_1540

I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

IMG_1548

It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

IMG_1541

First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

IMG_1516

Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

IMG_1549

Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

IMG_1537

These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

IMG_1544

Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

IMG_1533

If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

IMG_1553

The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

IMG_1525

Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

IMG_1554

But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

3 Comments

Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

On Quitting My Job

IMG_1496

Last week I was in Lisbon for work.

IMG_0812

Well, one day for work. I went the weekend before and walked around before I had to get my game face on.

IMG_0818

This is my last business trip for my current job. I put in my notice last week.

IMG_0831

They say changing jobs is as traumatic as losing a loved one or getting a divorce.

IMG_0819

I’ve never had either of those things happen to me, so I have nothing to compare this to.

IMG_0836

Lisbon is a good place to walk around and ruminate.

IMG_0841

The city is basically a series of hills, installed to allow it to view itself.

IMG_0851

Even the locals look impressed.

IMG_0861

For about 300 years, the Portuguese were a major European power.

IMG_0856

Profitable pillaging, royalty in the tabloids, franchises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

IMG_0874

At the time, Portuguese people must have thought it would go on forever. Conquest, expansion, power, wealth. Just follow the trend line from past to present to future.

IMG_0875

Then in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon to the ground.

IMG_0878

The empire never quite recovered. While Lisbon rebuilt itself, it lost its colonies to resistance, competition, neglect.

IMG_1527

Now, for all its charms, Portugal is a minor power, alone, its former colonies still speaking its language, but no longer singing its anthems.

IMG_0895

I was in Portugal to have meetings, shake hands.

IMG_0901

Knowing it would be the last time didn’t make me do it any different.

IMG_0943

‘Looking forward to working together’, I would say, realizing later I was lying. 

IMG_0941

My boss asked me why I was leaving, and I told him ‘I think I’ll be happier doing something else’.

IMG_0903

and he said, ‘You’re young enough for that to be a good reason. But just.’

IMG_0919

I’ve got a bunch of projects lined up, but nothing permanent.

IMG_0953

When I tell people I quit, the first thing they say is ‘You’ll be fine!’

IMG_0962

I think that’s true. This weekend, looking outward from Portugal, it sometimes felt true too.

IMG_0967

I’m not afraid for my future, or of it. I just wonder if that’s what you think right up until the ground starts to shake.

4 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel, Work

Anthony Weiner Wants You To Know He’s Not a Dick

I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says

By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]

Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”

Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.

But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.

On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]

It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]

Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]

Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?

But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”

It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”

Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.

Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.

By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.

3 Comments

Filed under America, Journalism

Obesity, Unintended Consequences and Why Being a Politician Would Suck

One issue I don’t think gets enough attention as a political challenge is prioritizing. We like to think of social progress as a series of repairs to be made, but really it’s a series of tradeoffs.

I was listening to a podcast the other day on the debate between obesity advocates and eating disorder advocates. Both groups want kids to be in a healthy weight range, but each attacks from a different end of the spectrum.

In the podcast they mention BMI report cards. Schools have apparently been experimenting with reports for parents that include health info alongside educational info. Johnny has an A in math, a B in science and a C in weight control.

Obesity advocates like BMI report cards because they give parents and students information they can use to address warning signs before they become problems. Eating disorder advocates hate BMI report cards because they give parents and students ammunition for bullying. What if one of those report cards falls out of your backpack and the other kids see it?

If you’re a school principal, you can’t win. You don’t institute the report cards, you get a call from the the obesity folks. You institute them, you get a call from the eating disorder folks.

The podcast frames it like eating disorders and obesity are equally severe problems. In reality, 5 percent of 13-18 year olds will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives (the number currently suffering from one would be much smaller). Meanwhile, 18 percent of children 12-19 are obese.

No politician would ever say ‘Dropping the obesity rate by 5 percent means increasing the rate of eating disorders by 1 percent, and we’re prepared to do that.’ But that may very well be part of the calculus.

This is where everyone goes ‘Can’t we just reduce one without increasing the other?!’

Maybe. But no matter what, there are going to be consequences. Making sports mandatory in elementary schools would probably reduce obesity, but it would also probably result in further marginalization of disabled or otherwise un-sporty kids. Improving school lunches might draw attention to the kids who can’t afford them.

And so on. I’m not arguing that we should say ‘Fuck the anorexics, full speed ahead!’ or anything, just that there’s no such thing as social change that doesn’t have consequences.

Luckily, it sounds from this podcast like BMI report cards aren’t such a great idea anyway. Most parents already know if their kids are overweight, and telling them that in writing doesn’t magically give them the  skills or inclination to do anything about it. But someday, we’re going to find a solution to this. And right afterwards, every principal’s phone is going to start ringing.

3 Comments

Filed under America

Things I Thought While Hanging Out at a Fancy Spa

Yesterday I spent all day at a fancy spa. I’ve never done this before (a birthday was involved), so the day ended up being a kind of experiment to see if I’m the kind of person who might in the future.

Here are my findings:

  • Spas, as a business model, seem to be primarily about positioning. The spa we went to had a bunch of hot tubs, some saunas, a ‘steam bath’ (I felt like broccoli) and a big pool so salty you float . It was all very pleasant, but at least three of those things are readily available at municipal pools all over Berlin. A spa day costs $30, entrance to a swimming pool costs around $4. We paid, essentially, to say we went to a spa rather than a swimming pool. 
  • Since this is Germany, the nakedness was mandatory and ubiquitous. The norm at spas seems to be: If you’re sitting or otherwise stationary, you must be naked. If you’re in motion, you must be wrapped in a towel. I don’t care to speculate as to why this is the case.
  • After living in Northern Europe for eight years, my relationship with nudity has gone through phases. When I first moved to Denmark, I was like ‘I could never go to a sauna oh my god me naked is horrifying.’ Then I did, then I did again and again and again (you get invited to saunas a lot when you live in Denmark) and I got used to it and started to sort of like it. That freedom nudists are always talking about is a real, if fleeting, thing. Then that wore off, and now I’m just indifferent. Naked, not naked, whatever. 
  • I am aware of the irony that my comfortableness being naked is, as I get older, negatively correlated with how good I look being so. 
  • The only thing I actually like about nakedness-mandatory situations at this point is looking at other people. Maybe I’m not supposed to like admit that or whatever, but the human body is totally fascinating. The diversity of proportions alone is worth a coffee table book, or at least a Tumblr.
  • The only that really surprised me about the bodies yesterday was how much plastic surgery was on display. Lots of inflated lips, tucked tummies, stationary boobs. I may be the first naked gay man to say to another naked gay man ‘oh my god: these tits’ in a semi-public setting.
  • And another thing: It’s genuinely meaningful that no matter where you go in Berlin, you’re likely to see gay canoodling. Yesterday the big salty pool was primarily peopled with couples holding each other and floating around like slow-motion bumper cars. Some of the couples were straight, some were lesbians, some were gay dudes. No one seemed to notice or care.
  • The other reason the gayness stood out for me is that it was really the only thing you can tell about naked people. Without clothes to tell you someone’s social class or category—goth, chav, rich prick, hipster, etc.—you really don’t have anything to go on. I was alarmed at how disconcerting I found this, and at the relief I felt when I realized I could use eyewear, flip-flops and reading material to categorize people. Phew.
  • It’s sort of funny how spas have this quasi-therapeutic framing. You often hear people (OK, northern Europeans) talk about how sitting in the sauna all day ‘pushes out toxins’ and is ‘cleansing’, as if those concepts exist and have meaning. 
  • Part of the package yesterday was a massage, and my masseuse, thumb-deep in my kidneys, kept saying things like ‘oh you have so much tension here’. When I told her I was a runner, she told me she’d pay special attention to my legs to ‘loosen them up’. Spending a Sunday in the sauna is a super-pleasant, and massages are objectively the best thing ever, but I think the health benefits are less based in scientific evidence and more based in the human need to think that anything weird and slightly taxing must have a purpose beyond itself.
  • I don’t know if this is related to the previous point, but after six hours I was exhausted. Exhausted like I had just run up a hill, rather than sat in various configurations of warm water underneath one. And so ravenous!  

Conclusion: Hella fun, hella doing this again. Just next time, I’m bringing higher-class flip-flops.

1 Comment

Filed under Berlin, Gay, Germany, Personal

Romania Wasn’t Built In a Day Either

IMG_1210

Last week I was in Bucharest, Romania.

IMG_0786

It sounds all exotic. Dracula! Dictatorship! Problematic EU accession! But really, it’s just a normal city. Restaurants, traffic, outlet stores, teenagers in trackpants drinking cider at bus stops.

IMG_0787

I basically sat in cafes all week, watching it go by out the window.

IMG_1246

The only actual like Thing I did was visit the Parliamentary Palace.

IMG_0685

Which is apparently the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon. It’s basically the size of Rhode Island, and just as superfluous.

IMG_0696

Ceausescu started building it in 1983. The idea was to have the whole Romanian Communist Party working in one place. He also built big residences next door so everyone could live in one place too. If this sounds like a good idea to you, you have never had a job.

IMG_0717

Ceausescu was overthrown (and executed on national TV!) on Christmas Day 1989. The building wasn’t finished yet, so the new government had to decide what to do with it.

IMG_0727

Most of it is grand corridors and rock-hard ballrooms. Great for a wedding or corporate conference, but not so great for the 98 percent of your life that is not those things.

IMG_0761

By the time the new, democratic government took over, the country had already fed billions of euros, millions of man-hours, to this beast. Our tour guide told us these are the world’s heaviest curtains. And we told him that is the world’s least interesting fact.

IMG_0767

The new government couldn’t just walk away from something 80 percent finished. So they basically said ‘haters to the left’ and kept building.

IMG_0776

Now only about 70 percent of it is used, and it costs millions of euros every year to maintain. They’re constantly criticized for the cost, the waste, the sheer pointlessness of it all.

IMG_1253

The rest of my time in Bucharest I spent repeatedly realizing how happy I am not to be a politician.

IMG_1216

You work your whole life to get into the halls of power, then when you finally do, you find they’re full of unruly foster kids.

IMG_1222

Messes you didn’t make, but have to clean up.

IMG_1224

Suddenly a cafe window seemed like a pretty good place to be.

5 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel