Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Food. You Eat. Why Not: Pick Your Own 2010

Any time you begin feeling smug about the accomplishments of humanity; space stations, microwaves, that kind of thing, remember, for humbleness sake, all of the activities in the world that are still weather dependent. There are the obvious ones like picnics, hikes, and spectating outdoor sporting events, less obvious ones such as long drives, job interviews (nothing like 95 degrees and humid to make anyone look disgusting) and commitments to reading major Russian novels over the winter (Just try it during a mild winter. It's possible but far from ideal.). For all our art and science, for all of our ability to control some of our environment, for all of our technological advancements, there are still events, essential or important, in our lives that can be dramatically affected by the weather.

Every year, at the end of the farm share season, our farmer (Steve) lets farm-sharers (?) pick their own vegetables on a Sunday after or around the last farmer's market at which he sells. It's a chance for us to see where our food comes from, to experience a sample-size of some of the toil that goes in to feeding us, and to take a whole bunch of food, essentially for free. Americans, in general, are so isolated from our food, that a yearly field trip to pick vegetables, whether you participate in a CSA or not, seems like something close to a civic duty. And it's a chance to eat a leaf of arugula you picked seconds earlier.

But, even though we've put a man on the moon, can accelerate particles to virtually the speed of light, and have most likely found water on Mars, the weather can really bring down a pick your own day. Nothing says “Let's just eat take out for the rest of our lives,” quite like a cold rainy day spent convincing yourself you have a political and fiduciary obligation to stay outside, be cold, and pick vegetables. This year, however, the weather was perfect. It was just warm enough that one (well, one with Viking heritage, at least) could get by without any heavy layers of clothing and cool enough that one could be comfortable in the pants and long sleeves that serve other vegetable picking purposes. Furthermore, the sun had reached at least the minimum level of brightness for the lizard part of my brain to believe it was a day worth leaving the den for, but it was never so bright that I wanted sunglasses. (Important, since I didn't have any.) I could certainly sympathize with our farmer if he spent most of the day grumbling about all the wet, dark, cold, miserable mornings he'd spent over the season picking our vegetables, while we come down for one day, one freaking day, out of the entire summer and get an absolutely perfect day.

I was sent off, with a shovel and a pair of shears as my particular implements of destruction, to the rented field a little ways off with the expressed goal of digging potatoes. At one point, I was actually running with the bucket and shovel, with the shears in my pocket, to hop in the back of a pick-up truck for a ride over to the field. I was willing to go alone because I had a great ambition to think while digging potatoes. I'd never thought while digging potatoes and since I'm an intellectual, and one way to define an intellectual is as an individual who finds new situations in which to think, I was oddly excited by the possibility. (Anything can be romanticized if you have enough time to prepare.) I had hoped that, much like the vibrant intellectual productivity of the long walk or at least the active stillness of splitting wood, digging potatoes would provide me with some kind of ancillary intellectual productivity; maybe formulating a few topics for this very blog, or solving some problems in other writing projects, or maybe some kind of intellectual progress with the books I was reading. Such was not the case. Though my brain was not a void during the harvest; I spent about an equal amount of time concerned with the practicals of digging potatoes (is that mold or intransigent dirt?) and thinking about what I should be thinking about since I'd been thinking for a week about the chance to do some thinking while I was digging potatoes.

If there is one empirical, unquestionable fact one learns from a pick your own day, one life lesson that persists in the varying circumstances of existence, it's this: the volume of your vegetables is variable. You'd think, being physical objects (massive in the particle physics sense) they'd stay the same size regardless of time of day, state of pickedness, size of your car's trunk, or capacity of your freezer. Vegetables are not supposed to change size, unless something dramatic involving blades and heat is done to them.

But they do. When you're in the field staring at the bounty of a farmer's labor stretching for lush yards around you in the knowledge that nearly all of that food is slated for compost, it looks like one could always use another bag of chard, another few potatoes, another stalk of Brussels sprouts. At the car, it looks like either one of your friends or one of the buckets of parsnips will have to be left behind. Of course, once you've Tetrised everything into the trunk, the vegetables shrink again and you consider, just for a second, running back for another handful of carrots or another bunch of beets. It's food. You eat. Why not.

It would be a far cry from exaggeration to say that the vegetables simply triple in size once they get to your kitchen. Vegetables you don't even remember picking appear at the bottom of bags and buckets. You didn't even see fennel anywhere and there some is, right under some turnips you're already regretting. You start to feel that particular strain of melancholy that mixes regret with exhaustion. However, a little blanching and freezing and a couple of beers later it seems like there were hardly any vegetables at all and you feel that particular strain of melancholy that mixes a resurgence of vitality with regret. Newton was wrong. Everything is quantum. And picking the cilantro leaves off their stems after all that damn near killed me.

Whether it's the weather (Everyone catch the Simpsons reference? Good.) or the labor, there is something primal in the satisfaction nestled in the soreness in one's lower back after a day spent picking the vegetables one plans on eating for the next six months. One has taken active, direct responsibility for one of the few things one absolutely needs to do. I'm sure I'll have a slightly different perspective after another bag of frozen kale for dinner in February, but then I'll dig up all the political, cultural, and socio-economic reasons for getting a farm share. For now, the greens are still fresh, my back is still sore, and pick your own 2010 was still a good time.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sci Fi Binge

I don't read a lot of Sci Fi, not because I harbor any distaste or disrespect for the genre, but because I've got a pretty full reading schedule and Sci Fi works just don't end up on that schedule very often. Every now and again though I get in the mood to just blast through a few of the genre's novels in a week or two long binge. Here's my take on the books I read on my last Sci Fi binge.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez. Tweeking the philosophical work of Asimov on the ideas of robotic consciousness, Martinez creates a world where robots will occasionally and inexplicably be afflicted by the “free will glitch.” When this happens, the robots can apply for citizenship. It seems a perfectly rational system but it is stressed by the protagonist and hero of the novel, Mac. Mac is a robot afflicted with the “free will glitch,” which is all well and good, except that Max is a 7 ton killing machine invented by a mad scientist. Circumstances, as they so often do in fiction, embroil Mac in a mystery that progresses from a simple missing persons case to an all out alien invasion. Mutants. Mind-control. Robots. Vixens. It's got the flavor and texture of a pulp crime novel written on a different planet.

Along with the very well done, very funny entertainment of the novel, there's a current of comment on the nature of consciousness. First of all, we get a robot's take on human actions; a robot that can think and act for himself, but who still processes the data of the world as a computer would. He is a sympathetic other observing the emotional processing of the humans he interacts with. Furthermore, he begins to develop the ability to appropriate and utilize human emotional processing in his own decision making.

At it's core, The Automatic Detective is great entertainment, a kind of Asimov-light with a touch of the classic American hard-boiled detective story, but there's enough exploration of the human condition to give your brain something to do if you feel like using it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Set in a post-nuclear holocaust Southwest amongst an order of Christian monks committed to preserving the knowledge of the destroyed world, this Hugo Award winning novel is a brilliant exploration and investigation into our relationship with information. After the nuclear holocaust there was a backlash against knowledge of any kind, as science itself was blamed for the destruction of human civilization. Teachers, scientists, and books were destroyed in kind of second holocaust called “The Simplification.” Individuals and organizations, like the order of Leibowitz preserved as many books as they could by “booklegging” physical books and by memorizing the books they found.

The novel spans hundreds of years, chronicling how human civilization rebuilt itself and the role the monks played in that rebuilding as a sanctuary for knowledge. Politics. Science. Art. Superstition. Faith. Religion. Through snapshots of various time periods, Miller is able to paint a fairly complete picture of human society by highlighting its different aspects as they gain prominence over time. Ultimately, this is an extremely pessimistic book (don't finish it if there's any sharp objects or poisonous liquids close at hand) but that doesn't detract from its brilliance and the pleasure I took in reading it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz demonstrates the best of speculative fiction (it really isn't Sci Fi). By imagining a vastly different world, either through inventing one or extending contemporary circumstances to one of their possible conclusions, it teaches us about our world, almost like Aesop's fables. A Canticle for Leibowitz does just that. (Major bummer though, just as a heads up.)

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. I finished my binge with this one because I was almost certain that I would like it and I did. This is the story, primarily, of Bob Arctor (awful close to “actor” isn't it.) who is an undercover narcotics agent, eventually assigned to monitor himself (though a grander plan is implied by the end). This plot explores some pretty obvious concepts; the definition of identity, the relationship between criminals and law enforcement officers, and the nature of surveillance, but it explores these concepts better than just about any other work of literature.

But there's more to it than just a thought experiment (though a well done thought experiment can sustain an entire novel, but that's another essay). Along with the fully realized characters one expects from literature it also has the evocative technology one (at least I) reads Sci Fi for. My favorite of these is the “blur suit.” The blur suit is a camouflage suit that Bob wears to conceal his identity when he, as “Fred,” is reporting to the police, or when he needs to conceal himself more generally. However, it doesn't work by making the wearer invisible. Instead it flashes a fast moving series of images of human features. The result is that, though people will see that a person is there, no one will be able to describe what that person looks like.

What fascinates me most about Phillip K. Dick, though, is that his work incorporates an entire range of writing quality. Because he was a genius, and because he wrote at an amphetamine fueled pulp hack writer pace, the writing in his books ranges from godawful to absolutely beautiful. Sometimes within the same paragraph he can give the reader an entire tour of writing quality. Though this makes it hard to assess Dick's place in the canon of American literature, it makes him easy to appreciate because you have permission to read him on many levels. Because much of his work is written in pulp style, you can read it as pulp entertainment. And because the writing is sometimes beautiful and the ideas are often brilliant, you can also read his work as serious literature.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Difference between Cynicism and Hopelessness

Literature can do a lot of things for your brain; one of them is providing the means to distinguish and differentiate related concepts. (Of course, literature is also pretty good at dissolving differentiation, but that's another essay.) Two short, weird, brilliant, disturbing, unsettling novellas; The Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, when compared to each other show the differences between (and some of the inherent beauty in) cynicism and hopelessness.

The Beauty Salon is set in a semi-apocalyptic, probably Mexico City suffering from some kind of deadly plague. The story's narrator, hero maybe, protagonist definitely, is the transvestite proprietor of the titular salon, though he hasn't styled any hair in years. Instead he spends his time not really caring for men dying of the plague, and not really providing respite or hospice care as one would normally define respite or hospice care, and not really doing anything else for them either besides opening his the door to the salon and giving them a roof to die under. Instead he spends his time caring for an aquarium. He devotes all of his time, energy, and passion caring for, occasionally rare and exotic fish, while people are dying from the plague around him. Bellatin sets it up so you want to apply basic reading techniques to the fish; you want to see them as metaphors for something, human society maybe, but metaphors just don't seem to stick.

Because the narrator engages somehow with the forces in the world, because he chooses some kind of action, because he does something even though he doesn't see any chance for the world to improve, I think this is a cynical work. There isn't belief in a coming better world. None of the problems posed in the world and in the life of the narrator are resolved in any way by the end of the book. The men are still dying of the plague all around. But the work affirms the value of doing something even if that doing something is completely and utterly pointless. So the cynic might say, the world is not going to get better, but I'm going to do my thing anyway. In a way, this definition of cynicism, especially in relation to what we'll see about hopelessness, is not unlike how we often define bravery; being afraid of something but doing it anyway.

Shoplifting from American Apparel is different, not just from The Beauty Salon, but from everything else really. (And let's be honest, The Beauty Salon is pretty different as well.) It's about a young writer with a developing career who, well, just kinda, you know, does stuff. He chats online, he has girlfriends, he shoplifts from American Apparel, his work enjoys a level of success, he moves to New York, he meets people in real life that he's met online and he gives a reading in Florida where he sees a band, ends up kicking around with a few people he meets, and then, well, then it ends. In some ways it doesn't sound nearly as stark, bleak, and downright depressing as The Beauty Salon, but there's something different going on here. Or rather, there's nothing going on. Somehow Tao Lin has constructed a compelling story where stuff, you know, just kinda happens. His narrator and protagonist does stuff but none of it means anything, none of it has any significance. You get the sense that he's not doing stuff because he wants to or believes he should or feels some kind of responsibility to do it, but because biological reality demands doing something.

Hopelessness then is the belief that nothing you do matters, that there is no meaning in any action you can take. Sure you do things, just like the guy in Shoplifting from American Apparel, but not only to those things not mean anything in the GRAND SCHEME OF HUMAN ENDEAVOR, they don't mean anything to the person doing them either. In a way there is a romanticism to hopelessness, a martyrdom, as, (paradoxically but only in a particular way) it takes intensity and passion to not believe in anything. There is a poetic totality to hopelessness that, since we're distinguishing here, might distinguish it from apathy.

So the difference between cynicism and hopelessness is that cynicism allows for meaningful action in the face of one's inability to change the world for the better even if those actions are only meaningful to the one doing them, whereas hopeless does not. However, the concepts are joined by more than being a bit of a bummer; they produce very strange literature.

Literature is inherently more optimistic than cynical and more cynical than it is hopeless. By giving a work of literature to the world, you suggest a belief in your own ability to improve it and you assert the belief in the meaning of the action of writing a book. So works that centered around the antithesis of the act of producing the work are really weird to read. I read them both in one sitting each on separate long walks and the effect was, well, it's strange. Nothing really happened in Shoplifting and yet I keep thinking about Shoplifting without really knowing what it is to think about. And I still have no idea what to think about those fish. You want to make them a symbol for something but Bellatin wrote a work that resists reading symbolism into.

This is a very strange way of saying you should devote an afternoon to each of these books. It's not often that a book is so strange and different that you are left unable to process its effect, or even understand how you feel about, and one of the important functions of literature is posing challenges your brain hasn't faced before. And all those of challenges are worth facing, even if you face them and only end up knowing the difference between cynicism and hopelessness.