January 23rd, 2010
Carrying forth with my “I should read more nonfiction. I’ll do it in January” mentality, I finished Michael Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food this week. I know Foer’s critical of Pollan’s approach in Eating Animals, but I still find him to be the most logical, engaging food/environmental writer (and I don’t read widely, sorry!) that I’ve read in years.
The book has a simple edict: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Throughout its 200-odd pages, Pollan explains what he means by these simple statements. He defines what “food” is (it should be recognized by your ancestors, live in the outer edges of a grocery store, and grown) for people who may have been confused (or living under a rock), sets out simple ways to find it, and then encourages them to eat it (at a table, preferably).
The idea of becoming a selective omnivore never would have entered my mind five years ago. When our neighbour planted tomatoes and some herbs in our backyard I was so grossed out at the thought of eating something pulled right from the dirt that I poo-pooed the vegetables before even picking them. And then I tasted them. Now I can’t eat a pale, lifeless grocery store cucumber without longingly thinking about the ones that I’ve grown.
Your muscles have memory, and so do your taste buds, and Pollan’s so correct when he says that finding connection to your food by something as simple and inexpensive as a vegetable garden remains a resoundingly rewarding activity. My beans taste nothing like the waxy, protected grocery store bags of veggies I had to buy for Christmas. It might be a silly thing to say, but my crazy, intrusively kind neighbour changed my outlook on food completely. Then Pollan came along and gave me cause to shout.
While the book might linger just a little bit too long on the science and evolution bits, the idea that we’re getting it so fundamentally wrong on such a massive scale still catches my breath in my throat. Maybe we can change the world one seed at a time. Maybe we can’t. But I won’t stop digging in the dirt and doing what I can regardless.
Many, many years ago, after what felt like a lifetime of taking prednisone for the disease and suffering through the awful “induced psychosis” and resulting debilitating depression side effects, I began to explore the idea of happiness. My doctor recommended reading Mark Kingwell’s In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac, which I did, until I got about halfway through. It just wasn’t practical. I didn’t need an empirical exploration of what “happiness” was — I needed some magic lessons to lift the pressures of my troubled life and float me away on a magical river of self-understanding, satisfaction and, yes, intense happiness.
Like so many aspects of my (naive?) twenties, you have to grow up a little and realize that happiness isn’t something that magically appears. It takes hard work, it’s incremental, and it’s perhaps not even the point. Gretchen Rubin’s year-long experiment, her aptly titled The Happiness Project, comes to some of the same conclusions. Rubin doesn’t set out to radically renovate her life.
Instead, she took incremental steps to increase her happiness on a daily basis. She tried everything, from smiling yoga to starting a YA book club, and created a theme for each month in the year to centre and ground her expectations. Not everything worked. Which, I imagine, was to be expected, but I’m going to summarize, perhaps incorrectly, that the point of Rubin’s book wasn’t to just find new things in life that equated a happy pill — it was to try and experience organic growth around the goal of leading a happier life.
Yet, like Kingwell’s book, I found Rubin’s to be also somewhat unsatisfying. She’s got a sweet, chatty tone to her writing, did massive amounts of research, and put herself out there (warts and all as they say) in an intensely personal way. Yet, the book, on the whole, felt a little superficial. And perhaps that’s just me as a reader; I did want some broader, philosophical implications from studying happiness for a year. But, in Rubin’s defense, that’s not at all what she set out to do. There’s a lot of hows in Rubin’s book, and not a lot of whys. She’s a goal-orientated person (and loves her gold stars) and therefore her quest for happiness consists of plenty of goal-orientated activities.
When it comes right down to it, maybe I’m looking for a balance between both books in my own search for understanding — a book that takes happiness outside of the person, looks at it from a different perspective, what does it mean and why it’s important, and then provides some guidance about how to get there. There’s an undercurrent to The Happiness Project that equates, in my mind anyway, that the end result is somehow deserved — but I know I’m reading my own thoughts into her project. The idea that by being happier herself Rubin can then infect others with these lightened feelings seems simple enough. But, like I said before, the book feels a bit too much like a happiness “to do” list to me. Maybe I wanted Rubin to dig a little deeper (why did she have so much clutter to begin with, what’s the emotional resonance behind any of the projects she embarked upon over the year) — the book felt rushed to me: did this, check, tried that, check, improved this, check, now on to the next thing.
However, I’m not even going to remotely suggest that it’s not a good idea to spend a year trying to a) improve yourself, b) improve the lives of your family or c) try to make it through life with a lighter, happier load. For this, I tip my hat to Gretchen and her year-long quest to be herself, sing in the mornings, and do what she loves. And also, I say a hearty hallelujah to the author for setting out from the beginning the differences between suffering from a depression (Rubin’s not at all depressed) and that all encompassing sadness, and the meaningful way she wants to set out to improve her life on a daily basis. Not once does she mix up “sadness” and call it “depression.” The slippage of the word depression into the lexicon whereby it becomes interchangeable to ‘sadness’ enrages me.
Annywaaay, Rubin’s clear, honest and forthright; she’s intelligent, a keen reader, and doing good in the world by helping the many readers of her successful blog — those are also things wherein I cannot find fault. But maybe for her next year, she might explore a little self-help Beth Lisick-style, because Helping Me Help Myself still remains my favourite of the happiness-seeking memoir genre.
January 13th, 2010
In preparation for our Vegan Smackdown 2010 (here’s our very first video podcast), I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals this past weekend. I’ve been a “selective omnivore” and a “passive vegetarian” for the majority of my life. Despite turning vegetarian when I was about twelve (in a shocking moment of tween tempestuous in response to my mother serving me a piece of almost-rare roast beef), I’ve always eaten fish (albeit with no regularity), and started eating chicken (from Rowe Farms or the Healthy Butcher) about a year ago.
At first, it was about the animals — we grew up listening to “Meat is Murder” and were very into Morrisey. Then, when I was diagnosed with the disease and learned that too much protein was terribly hard on your kidneys, that sort of clenched it for me. The environmental concerns came last — for, like Safran Foer, I still had idyllic images of farmers in mind when I thought of chickens, cows and pigs. Fast Food Nation opened my eyes a little. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was also good. But Safran Foer’s book has had me thinking and mulling over my eating choices for days.
Sure, he’s making a point. Sure, he wants people to become vegetarians, that much is obvious. But even though I realize I’m being pursuaded by an incredibly convincing narrative, there are truths about this book that are unavoidable. We, as a society, do not think, properly debate with ourselves, about where things come from. We consume. We package. We shop. We eat. We sleep. We get up and do it all over again. And as so much of our lives has been managed for us by giant companies whose only responsibility seems to be to their shareholders, it seems impossible to try to step outside and make a difference.
Factory farming, as its described in the book, is abhorrent. The socio-economic, environmental and philosophical implications of being so separate from that which sustains us can’t but have an irrevocable impact on human society. That’s not to mention the impossible suffering that the animals who give their lives to ensure we get up, walk around, go to work, entertain ourselves and keep us healthy endure. Yes, I like to think I buy responsible meat (from a local butcher who sources from local farms when at the cottage; from The Heathy Butcher or Rowe’s in the city), I still can’t get my head around the fact that industry is ruining the sheer sustainability of our lives, of my nephew’s life.
The fact that we are destroying the ocean at record-breaking pace to keep shrimp on the table and frozen in aisles of the grocery store makes me furious. The fact that hundreds of thousands of species are decimated by fishing techniques makes me want to row entire populations out to the middle of the ocean so they can see what soon won’t be there. Imagine not seeing the whales in Tofino? Imagine sea horses being a thing of encyclopedias? I can’t. I don’t want to. Words matter. Calling senseless killing “by-product” doesn’t erase the fact that for every piece of fish on the table, hundreds needlessly litter the oceans because of impatient and irresponsible companies looking to make a profit. Is there sustainable fish to eat? I think I’m going to turn to Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder for the answer. But, until then, I will not eat another piece of fish.
After our two-week Vegan Smackdown comes to a close, I’ll probably still continue to selectively eat what little chicken I do eat — but I’ll never buy it in a grocery store. I’ll never not take the time to make a separate trip to Rowe’s or the Healthy Butcher. And, it’s not like I do this anyway, but I certainly won’t be eating any chicken I absolutely don’t know the providence of.
I thought I was doing well by gardening. After all, growing my own food has given me a solid understanding of how much hard work goes in to keeping a garden that will actually feed me and my husband for most of the summer. It’s not easy. It’s worth celebrating every time a pull fresh green beans and steam them up for dinner. But knowing that the butter my RRHB smothers them with was made using factory farmed milk would turn their taste sour in my mouth. How can I avoid butter for the rest of my life? Is buying organic butter enough? Is it enough to do that small thing?
I don’t have any answers to the numerous questions the book brought to the forefront. It a persuasive, thoughtful, artful (if repetative in places) work that had me hunkered down when I should have been cleaning the house in preparation for my brother’s birthday. Here’s the thing — I’m an easy one to convince. I was already headed in the right direction. Here’s hoping that Jonathan Safran Foer finds an audience for his book outside of people like me, and his book can make a difference.
READING CHALLENGES: I’m continuing all of my 2009 challenges because I didn’t finish a single one. Here’s a book for The Better You Read, The Better You Get theme I set up last year.