Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I’ve been reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the latest book by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s nonfiction, in contrast to her earlier books, and it’s about her family moving to Appalachian Virginia and living on a farm. She tries to do it right: local and seasonal food, sustainable agriculture, all that jazz.

Bookdwarf read it about two months ago and kept going on about how we had to eat locally, especially this summer, since it’s easiest in summer. We already subscribe to the Parker Farm community-supported agriculture farm-share, but she wanted to make sure we got our beef from River Rock (run by the family of a college classmate of mine, who sadly died in a car crash while delivering beef), wanted to make sure we grew at least some veggies from Seed Saver’s Exchange out on the porch, and so on.

I resisted. I resisted a lot. This dream of a pastoral America is easy to have, because people have forgotten just how damn hard farm work is. When I get my vegetables from Farmer Steve (and yes, we call him Farmer Steve) at seven this coming Wednesday, I know he’ll have been up and working since five AM, and won’t get to bed until midnight at the earliest.

Also, I think the people advocating a 100-mile diet have forgotten that healthful food is not some perfect natural state. An all-local all-the-time diet is almost certainly better than the typical American diet in many years, but when you have a bad spring and your harvest fails, you really want some petroleum-based imports from California or Chile. People don’t get scurvy and goiter and rickets much these days, because our artificial-nutrient-laced diet supplanted a local food culture that, in bad years, consisted of lard and whiskey. And while I agree that “food culture” and having dinner with the kids is important, it’s not just a lack of willpower that keeps that out of reach of Americans– it’s our entire economic structure and philosophy of work. France has dinner with its children, but France has an extra hour every day to do it, because France works thirty-five hours a week and has free health care. America works forty if America is lucky: a real salaried professional works sixty if she wants to get ahead, and an hourly worker holds down two thirty-hour ‘part-time’ gigs and doesn’t get sick days or vacation.

Still, I started reading the book, because Bookdwarf said it was important and because she read me some incredibly funny passages (the interactions between Kingsolver and her daughter Lilly are precious: a 7-year-old on a farm says the darndest things). So for the first couple chapters, I reluctantly agreed with everything she had to say: small farms are failing not just because it’s hard work that a lot of kids don’t want to do, but because massive farms and government subsidies tailored to agribusiness are squeezing them unfairly. Our national overproduction of corn and soybeans, and our love of grain-fed beef, are terrible (this I know already, from Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan and King Corn and many others). And then I really began to get into it.

Kingsolver acknowledges that it’s hard, that she’s very lucky in a lot of ways: the farm was already in the family, so they didn’t have to buy it. Her husband is an academic, meaning he gets summers to farm. While working on the farm she was able to write a book about it, which is a contribution to the farmer’s budget that most people won’t have.

She’s just trying to do what she thinks is right, and trying to live it like a normal person. The book is peppered with recipes and notes from her kids and her husband: their Friday night routine involves movies and pizza, like mine does, although they have grown the tomatoes, made the dough, and as often as not made the cheese themselves.

So now I’m halfway through the book and sitting out on the porch with the tomato sprouts and pea tendrils coming up out of pots on the porch, and daydreaming about life on the farm.

Personal Essay: The Great American Marketing Brochure

The contest said it was accepting essays of 500-5000 words, about what it means to be a twentysomething writer. I thought, I write lots of things in the 500 word format. I don’t know if this was the final draft I submitted, but it’s the most recent one I could find offhand.

Looking at it now, I can tell you why it didn’t win: the introduction and the close are too abrupt, and don’t make enough sense. It’s got a lot of excellent turns of phrase, but it’s not complete or coherent.

I write for a living, although it’s not the kind of writing people think of when they say “I want to be a writer.” I can’t lie and call it fiction, and when I tell the truth, I’m not in the running for a Pulitzer. That’s because I write instruction manuals and promotional brochures for computer software. We still call it “literature” but it’s about as close to serious art as the blue-tinted landscapes above the bed in cheap hotels.

For example, the other week, I wrote a ten-page comparison of two rival products so that salespeople would go to meetings prepared with detailed knowledge of competitors. My boss then pointed out that salespeople don’t read, so I condensed it into a one-page chart of key sentence fragments. I wrote the Cliff’s Notes version of my own analysis.

It’s a long way from what I wanted to write in the undergraduate days when I still had all my hair, attended fiction workshops, and subscribed to the American Poetry Review. I wrote my senior paper in college on the Althusserian constructions of masculinity in mid-20th-century Chilean anarcho-syndicalist novels (conclusion: “ultimately, it’s pretty vague.”) I was serious. But then, after graduation, my career options seemed to range from barista to office-temp, and when I got the offer to write software manuals– things that people might actually read, unlike my poetry– I grabbed it.

I learned quickly that a writer of technical manuals or marketing copy is not an artist, because this kind of writing is not an art. It is barely a craft. It is a trade. It’s the literary equivalent of background noise, it’s the verbiage everyone ignores, it’s so far from creative writing it might as well be destructive.

An artsy writer can aspire to perfection, although most acknowledge that perfection is impossible. A real trade writer, however, doesn’t just give up on perfection. Trade writing means deciding that excellence is probably more work than it’s worth. Every day, I convince my co-workers and myself that good-enough is good enough. I am an advocate of mediocrity.

Let artists worry about whether they’re going to be regarded as relevant or historically important, whether they’ll write the Great American Novel, whether they’ll be recognized in their lifetime. Few aspire to the title of “greatest copywriter of the decade.” And history? Even your contemporaries will ignore you. If you do a good job, nobody outside your office will know who did your work, because it will lack any sort of identifiable flair or style. Your style is the company style.

But I dream of writing the Next Great Marketing Brochure. I know exactly what it’s like: it’s about five hundred words long, and it’s printed on glossy cardstock. People line up at trade shows to get a copy, and when they open it up, they follow the instructions I provide: read me, buy me, love me.

Personal Essay: The Layoff Story

I haven’t been posting much recently because I have had a secret that is finally out today, and I haven’t been thinking about much else lately. But today I am laid off– in Provo they say “riffed out” (from RIF: Reduction In Force) and out here in Boston I like to say “shitcanned,” but however you call it, I’m finally free to post about the impending layoff rumors which came true today. Here’s the story. (It’s not a bad one: I was about ready to leave, and I wish my employers the best of luck. Actually, as a continuing stockholder, I think that cutting costs and improving focus is the right move, and I hope that Wall Street agrees.)

You may have heard some version of this tale before. It’s not a story of business or software, but of secrets and suspicions. See, the king of a small kingdom once crossed a goddess or a nymph, they way royalty sometimes does, and she cursed him with hideous donkey’s ears. To hide them, he had a special hat made. The only people who knew about those feakish ears and the reason that tall hats were suddenly in fashion were the king and the hatmaker. So the king said to the hatmaker, if anyone finds out about these ears, your life is forfeit.

Now, a secret like that fills you up until it’s the only thing that wants to come out of your mouth. It’s like having horrible gas at a dinner party. You have to find somewhere else to get rid of it, but then everyone wonders why you’re standing off to one side of the party on your own, or why you’re hogging the bathroom so much– are you looking down on the rest of the party? Are you lonely and having a bad time? Are you taking drugs and not sharing? Are you sick and bringing infection on us all?

That’s what it’s like knowing who’s going to get laid off before they do. Managers know in advance, days or weeks in advance, that layoffs are coming: and they have to pick who goes and who stays. Within the company, officially, nothing is happening at all. Nothing to see. The same way, I hear, the Pope isn’t really all that ill until he’s completely dead. A layer-off can’t give a heads-up to anyone. It’s against the rules, it’s poor form, it’s risky: a proper layoff comes all at once, a surprise, a clean break. Knowing in advance gives people time to plan malice or sabotage, and at best makes them mopey and unproductive for their last few days or weeks.

But someone has to know the list in advance. And knowing that list means walking around with a secret too big to fit under even the tallest hat.

A secret that big fills you up so much that even if you don’t tell anyone, you start to act different. Not like a poker player with a good hand trying not to smile– more like a big gun in a thigh holster. You keep your hand near your leg, checking for its weight, ready to reach for it at any second. You walk differently, because the holster pinches the hairs on your thigh and gradually plucks it smooth. After awhile you may not notice that your walk has changed, but someone who knows how to watch people walk will know. They won’t just know you’re packing, they’ll be able to tell which leg it’s on, how long you’ve worn it, how heavy it is, how quickly you think you’ll need to pull it out and kill someone.

So if you have to fire someone next week, it’s best to just try to avoid them, so you don’t risk tipping your hand early. If they pass you in the hall and ask about the rumors in a general way, you can say, “well, yeah, there’s some cost cutting, it’s going to be rough, but the company needs to focus on its core intitiatives.” Even that is difficult. You won’t want to look them in the eye. You like them, you don’t want to lay them of. It’s not like it’s your idea. You’re just the messenger; the layoff was imposed from far above. So, if they ask for a meeting, you just put them off as long as you can. Like, maybe the day that you have to meet them to hand them their walking papers and give the mandatory exit interview.

But your best efforts to act normal are pretty unusual behavior. Take the hatmaker. He was usually a chatty guy, the townfolk’s source of fashion-related news from the court. They hear the king has started wearing a tall hat. Why tall? What makes it stay up? Will the ladies be wearing tall hats as well, or is it more of a men’s thing? And of course every time the hatmaker opened his mouth the secret tried to jump out. He couldn’t think of plausible explanations at all. He stammered. He said he was busy. He avoided all his usual gossip.

So the less you want to let on, the more obvious it becomes that you’re hiding something. If you suddenly stop returning emails, schedule all meetings for next week, don’t make eye contact, have sweaty palms, blink too much– it’s obvious something’s up. An astute observer knows what’s up pretty quickly. An astute and unscrupulous observer starts a betting pool.

When the hatmaker couldn’t stand it any more, he went down to the river, dug a hole, and whispered the secret into it. Then he covered it up and stamped it down. The mud is silent, he thought. The mud will keep my secret.

But the mud told the reeds and as everyone knows the reeds whisper in the wind, and soon the whole town knew.

When the whispering got back to the hatmaker, he could taste acid in the back of his throat along with the usual felt and feathers of a day’s work. He knew the king would have him and his special tall hat sewn into a bag together with some rocks, and thrown into the river to drown like unwanted kittens.

Or perhaps another courtier knew, and had spoken? Just like gas at a dinner party, perhaps he could pretend the stench was the dog’s fault, or the valet’s. If he ran, then everyone would know it was him, and horsemen from the king could catch him before he got to the next town, and they’d torture him for fleeing before they finally executed him. So instead of running, he waited, and went about his day as normally as he could.

On the other hand, he didn’t bother to order new hat-feathers for next week. He knew his odds: slim to none. He knew his widow would need to spend the feather money on bread for the children. And the feather merchant saw death in the hatmaker’s eyes. He was no fool either. He knew what was going on. Soon the town knew not only that the king had deformed ears, but that he was going to kill the hatmaker for spilling the secret. New hat orders dried up immediately.

And all the while, the reeds whispered and whispered. The king heard soon enough, and the soldiers came for the hatmaker, and they put him in a sack with the king’s now-useless hat, some rocks, and a few unwanted kittens, and threw the lot in the river.

Like the hatmaker, I’ve been whispering to a the online equivalent of a hole in the ground and acting like I have a secret over here. And all this while, I’ve seen the townsfolk and reeds whispering: LinkedIn invitations have been flying around, the public news sites have more information than the internal website, and everyone has been backing up their data to CD and taking it home. So I’ve known for several days now that I’m on the list of people being laid off.

Of course, I’m not being executed. I practically volunteered: it’s been a good run, I’m ready to move on. I’ve learned a lot, and now it’s time to learn something else somewhere else.

I’m being given a friendly goodbye and I hope to see my co-workers again in the future, for dinner and drinks or around a conference table at another job. I don’t know where I’m headed, but it could be practically anywhere. I could visit my brother in Bolivia. I could move to my grandmother’s farm in Ivy, VA, and raise pet goats, write freelance, sell vegetables at the farmer’s market. I could get the bird flu or drink myself to death, or go to Korea and clone myself and teach the clone to like kimchee. I could devote myself full-time to volunteer work or to stalking celebrities (OK, not that). I could move to California and grow oily dreadlocks and live out of a van.

The world is my shellfish. At least, it is for 18 months, at which point the COBRA insurance plan runs out and I get sick and die.

Article: This Could Really Be Our Year (for Real Estate Disaster)

As the weather warms up, the season moves into full swing for Boston’s most lucrative spectator sport: real estate. People swap stories at bars and parties: I hear he paid six-fifty for a one-bed condo, there’s a basement studio in Davis asking four hundred grand, a ramshackle Victorian can’t be had for under a million. Every Sunday afternoon, it’s time to browse the open houses, whistling at prices and dreaming of appreciation, refinancing, and that ultimate luxury, off-street parking.

The statistics are familiar to anyone by now: the average median price for a single-family home in Cambridge passed half a million dollars last year, and three hundred grand for a condo. Somerville sold its first million-dollar single-family home this year. There are only two communities inside route 128 where a condo can be had for under $250,000. Prices keep rising, bids keep coming in over asking price and within days of opening. Winter is normally slower in the real estate market, but not this year, when the market barely paused. After all, this is a market which saw a penthouse condominium sell within fifteen minutes. For five million dollars. In cash.
Continue reading “Article: This Could Really Be Our Year (for Real Estate Disaster)”

Personal Essay: Difficult Movies, Hard Thinking, And Donnie Darko

Not too long ago, I loved difficult movies in the same way that I loved difficult novels. Not because they were obscure or hard to understand, but because they grappled with issues I thought were important: the nature of reality, love, death, pain, freedom. If it didn’t require at least a little effort on the part of the viewer or reader to engage, I didn’t think it was worth anyone’s time, and especially not my time. I mocked people who thought that movies should be popcorn fare, full of explosions and happy endings, who wanted mere entertainment. Film, I insisted, could and should be an art form. Anything less was trash, and people who enjoyed it uncritically were philistines.

More recently I’ve been avoiding movies altogether. I won’t watch the bad ones, but I won’t watch the good ones either. And not just movies: I’ve avoided novels, even full-length nonfiction, and read more magazines and blogs, especially those about abstractions, humor, economics, or design. I still disdain escapist novels and movies, but I’ve been avoiding the intellectual and emotional effort required to engage in a more serious work of art as well. After I saw “Lost in Translation” I felt hollowed out inside; although the movie was excellent, I don’t often have the emotional energy to engage with something difficult in the way that I used to.

Then, Sunday night, I finally saw Donnie Darko, and it was exactly the sort of movie I’d been avoiding: a dark and confusing portrayal of a young man slipping into paranoid delusions. The protagonist, Donnie, has no truly coherent world, only these shards of experience that he can’t quite put together. The adults around him have assembled their world-views, and stick to them: the unsympathetic teacher with her psychobabble, the father with his conservative politics… None of those world-views are entirely accurate, and Donnie’s presence often unsettles others, who are suddenly aware of the flaws in their own conceptions of themselves and their worlds.

But of course, having a consistent and comprehensible reality is a key part of being an adult. You build yourself a coherent, self-reinforcing ideology and world-view and you live in it like a shell. The sun rises every day. My political party is the better one. My nation is great, despite its flaws. I love my family. My work matters. I am not a soulless automaton.

Donnie has none of that, but he tries to build one– the problem being that he’s got to analyze every bit of reality and weigh its meaning. When two pieces fit together, it’s a sign, not a coincidence. If someone mentions that “cellar door” is a beautiful phrase, then something important will happen near a cellar door. I’ve felt that way, although not to the psychotic hallucinatory extent Donnie does: There’s a meaning in this, there’s poetry in this, there’s something here that needs to be examined. The examined life is quite tiring. Learning means, in many ways, learning what is not worth examining, and then passing it by. The poet, the artist, the philosopher, and the paranoid schizophrenic have in common that they refuse to ignore certain things, and instead find great meaning in them. It’s hard work, though.

When I was in high school, I took classes where I read Shakespeare, Aristotle, Unamuno, Garcia Marquez, and Tolstoy, and spent my days in this fog of analysis. We had a visitor one day, a former star pupil, who had graduated from college and was working in a law firm, and who said he just didn’t do much of the deep thinking and reading we were doing in our class: it was just too hard, and offered too little reward. I thought he was a fool, but I’m doing the same thing now.

That is, I’ve built myself a shell and kept out confusion and poetry because it’s too hard to deal with. I’ve been trying not to think, because it’s easier that way. And not just a little easier– look at what happens to Donnie.

As I got out of high school and really began to understand what it was to live in my head, and how I could grow up to be a functional human being instead of just stumbling around with my emotional entrails in my hands, I said to myself and to anyone who would listen: “I never want to go back to that. I never want to do that again. I will not do it.” So, I built my shell. I detached myself from experience as much as possible.

I mean, sure, nobody actually wants to feel bad. Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, as the ancients said. But at what point does pain avoidance become cowardice?

It did, I think, at some point along the line. And now, here I am. Self-satisfied, twenty-seven, making fun of people with squalling, chubby brats at the next table, trying to dress like the boss. I imagine that for most people, there’s an exterior shell and there’s someone else inside. And I guess that I’ve got someone in here, somewhere, as well. But I’ve put so much into that shell, I’ve tried to become it. I’ve committed intellectual, artistic, emotional suicide. I’ve taken the easy way out.

We are the hollow men,
We are the stuffed men,
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.

Strongly Worded Letter Number Sixteen

I’m developing something of a reputation for writing strongly worded letters. Which means, I suppose, that I’m becoming a crank. For example, I doubt that the Wall Street Journal will publish the letter I just sent their editors:

Dear Wall Street Journal:

Your article Thursday about the woes of brides and of the wedding industry leaves out an obvious application of neoliberal economic policy that could spur the wedding industry and the economy as a whole. Currently, the number of marriages in the US is relatively static, and the economy has given people reason to cut back on their celebrations, putting a damper on wedding-related enterprises. To allow the industry to expand, we must deregulate it by allowing homosexual couples to marry. An increase in the number of weddings also means an increase in gift-buying, new household formation, and general consumer spending, which can provide a powerful impetus to the general economy.

Marriage deregulation is especially urgent now that Canada is pondering the recognition of gay marriages. Should Canada invite them, many gays and lesbians will flock across the border to wed, taking their dollars with them. We cannot allow the US wedding industry to remain uncompetitive in the global marketplace, and therefore must deregulate marriage as soon as possible.

Aaron Weber