Friday, February 25, 2011

Chili of the Americas

There are tons of benefits to getting a farm share; your food based carbon footprint drops, you get to know the person who grows your food, you support the local economy, you get high food value for your dollar, the food is fresher and, thus, tastier, than anything you can buy in the supermarket...but there are challenges as well. Most of the time, people decide what they want to cook and then buy the ingredients. With a farm share, you get the ingredients and then have to figure out what to do with them. Sure, it means that every now and again I wanted to set a pile of lettuce on fire and order a pizza, but sometimes Riss and I developed recipes that have become some of our favorite meals. This one Riss did that she calls “Chili of the Americas” because it's a chili recipe that uses the “Three Sisters” of North American cooking; squash, corn, and beans. (Though, chili itself is a North American dish, so the title is a bit redundant, but, hey, it's got to be something other than just “Vegetarian Chili.”) This is adapted from a meatified chili recipe (Double Beef Chili by Living Cookbook) we got from a friend.

2 tsp vegetable oil
2 onions, diced
2 cups shredded pumpkin or hard squash (butternut works best, but most others would be fine)
1 cup pumpkin or hard squash cubed
1 cup corn (frozen is okay)
1 cup potatoes cubed
1 cup medium to mild peppers chopped (I’ve used cubanos, poblanos and/or banana peppers, but you can use green ones as well)
4 jalapeno peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs cumin seed
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp coriander seed
4 oz tomato paste
10 oz stock
1.5 Cups diced tomatoes
1 Cup Strong Coffee
1 Cup Dark Beer
38 oz kidney beans canned
38 oz mixed beans canned (black, pink, navy etc)
1/4 Cup brown sugar
1 Tbs cocoa powder

1 In a large pot heat oil over medium heat. Fry onions, all peppers, garlic, cumin, salt, cayenne, oregano and coriander until onions are softened, about 5 minutes.
2 Add shredded pumpkin, tomato paste, stock, tomatoes, coffee, beer, kidney beans, sugar, and cocoa. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally for 1 hour.
3 Add all the remaining vegetables, simmer for 30 minutes
4Add remaining beans; simmer 30 minutes.
5 Serve with corn bread and shredded cheese.

(also makes amazing chili fries)

As long as you use vegetarian stock (and I highly suggest making your own, but that's another post) this is vegetarian, and if you leave out the cheese (though I'd add a little extra salt when serving) it's vegan, and if you simply must have meat in your chili adding some ground beast or cubed beast, browned first, during the first hour of cooking won't be bad, but might stand out texture-wise at the end. (And I think you can go without meat for at least one meal, especially one this damn tasty and hearty.) You can adjust the heat by adding more or less jalapenos, or by removing more or less of the white ribs on the inside of the jalapenos when you clean them (for that is where the heat lives).
This recipe is also easy to upscale. Riss and I tend to make in “vats” and freeze portions of it, so we make it one afternoon and it eat periodically for months afterward. It's a few hours total of cooking and prep, and we end up with a bunch of microwavable meals. (Which we sometimes, as noted above, slather over fries and under shredded cheese.  Often late at night.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

On Tom McCarthy and the Homogeneous Mainstream

First of all, I didn't get through Remainder. Having read other works that deal with architecture as metaphor for consciousness and/or works that confront the problems of replication and simulation, I didn't find the central conceit particularly interesting. Great, the protagonist was trying to recapture something lost through the artificial recreation of a situation haunting his memory; I've read works that have done that. (OK, I'm being a little coy here, because the titles I could list would probably make me look like a pretentious jerk; OK, only, Tristram Shandy, In Search of Lost Time and Simulation and Simulacra do that, but well, they're really good at it...) Additionally, the protagonist is awarded a massive monetary settlement because he suffered a mysterious head injury he is forbidden from discussing by the terms of the settlement, which he spends almost entirely on this recreation project. I simply couldn't believe in a character so selfish that he didn't even consider some kind of donation to some kind of charitable cause. Even a nod to this generally inherent social drive would have satisfied me.

I don't need to like the protagonist to like the book. I don't need to respect the characters. If the language and style of writing is interesting enough, I don't need to believe in the characters or in the plot. However, Remainder was written in the shortish sentences of conventional literature in which artlessness masquerades as clarity.

But even though I didn't like Remainder, I could see there was an interesting mind attached to its creation. I thought it was a failed project, but that failure implied the potential for future success. Furthermore, I could appreciate that someone with a different reading history, who read Remainder at a different stage of their reading lives could appreciate and enjoy the conceit. So when his second novel, C, came out, I took an advanced reader copy and gave it a try.

And I enjoyed C. Very much in fact. I thought it was an excellent historical novel. C had a number of successes. First of all, McCarthy picked his time period, from fin de siecle to between the wars, when the pace of societal change had just started to pick up. Those of us who lived before the Internet, i.e. nearly all of us, are now relatively comfortable with a dramatic rate of societal change, but for most of human history you lived in the same world as your grandparents. The protagonist, Serge, lives through the development of wireless communication and air travel, at the cusp of major technology driven societal upheavals. He lives during a time in which a man can fly across the Atlantic and messages can be sent from one end of the world to the other and you can die from an infected cut. Furthermore, McCarthy does an excellent job of making all of that the setting. He doesn't force us to look at the new fangled aeroplanes, but we'd have to be asleep not to notice them.

The second major success of C is even more impressive. Through a number of different methods, McCarthy explores the tension between the spoken word and the written word. For example, he makes sure the reader is never entirely certain how to pronounce “Serge.” (See, you don't know.) It's hard to appreciate how difficult, in terms of composition it is to explore this tension, but think about it this way, no one is there to sound out the words for you, so McCarthy has to induce that sounding out in the readers brain through the written word. For aspiring writers, that one trick is worth the price of admission.

A writer writing a book I like and a book I don't isn't that distinctive, especially given that McCarthy wrote two very different books. The thing is, somehow McCarthy has become the standard bearer for contemporary English-language experimental fiction. McCarthy, so far, has proven to be a pretty good writer and if I have a chance to grab a review copy of his next work I certainly will, but I don't find his work experimental at all, let alone the pinnacle of contemporary experimental fiction.

This all started with Zadie Smith. In a well-written and well-argued (but totally incorrect) essay “Two Paths of the Novel” Smith identified McCarthy as the innovative side of the coin to Joseph O'Neil's and his Netherland's conventional side. I can't speak to Joseph O'Neil, but I can speak to a whole bunch of other work being written. In contemporary England, neither of McCarthy's novels are as innovative as Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts. On this side of the pond, neither Remainder nor C break from convention the way Mark Z. Danielewski, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Leanne Shapton, or Jesse Ball does, and that list of innovative authors leaves out really really below the wavelength works like The Complete Works of Marvin K Mooney by Christopher Higgs (released well after the essay was written, but my point remains). Historically, I didn't see much work done in McCarthy's novels that wasn't done (and much better) in the work of J. G. Ballard, let alone the work of England's last great innovative writer B. S. Johnson. On this side of the pond, McCarthy is far closer to successful conventional writers than he is to William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, David Markson, Alexander Theroux, David Foster Wallace, Delillo, or Pychon.

(And this isn't even bringing Joyce into this in a non-parenthetical way, because that would be like saying McCarthy isn't good at basketball because he can't beat Michael Jordan one-on-one. But he should still try.)

So this essay is less an assessment of Tom McCarthy's work and more a question: What was Zadie Smith reading when she picked him as one of the two paths of the novel? And what is everybody else reading when they describe McCarthy as experimental? I know that all mainstream anything will be more homogeneous than the total spectrum of whatever that anything is (and have no problem with that), but has mainstream literary writing become so homogeneous that the minor differences in outlook, goal, and style between a Tom McCarthy novel and a Zadie Smith novel make Tom McCarthy experimental? Have lazy critics, timid readers, and MFA factories so demolished the influence of Joyce (and Stein, and Musil and Proust and Broch and Faulkner for Christ's sake...apologies, but I've got to throw O'Brien (Flan), Melville, Poe, Sterne, Rabelais, and Cervantes in here too) that someone who uses entirely typical sentence construction is considered the vanguard of experimental fiction writing? Were enough serious readers so offended by the challenges Joyce posed to them that sentences one had to think about to understand became automatic pretentious failures? And frankly, I don't care how many hunchbacks the protagonist has sex with (just for the record: 1) after Sade, how can intercourse presented in typical prose be considered atypical just because it's not between a physically attractive man and a physically attractive woman?

Some of this is Tom McCarthy's fault which is why I've refrained from absolving him of guilt, but not all of it. I don't have the time (or the energy) to analyze all the factors but somehow we have entered a golden age for boring fiction. At the moment, there are a lot of very well written, intelligently structured, emotionally compelling, works that have nothing to add whatsoever to the progress of human knowledge. Contemporary writers have perfected the packet of information wherein they write sentences just difficult enough to make readers feel good about reading them, but not hard enough to risk turning away those readers who don't want to break a sweat while engaging in one of the most important actions available to the human consciousness. (That last bit was a little dramatic, but, damnit, reading is important to me.)

In a different world, McCarthy is a gateway. He is a good transition between works that are mostly entertainment and works that are mostly literature. If one knows to look further, McCarthy should lead people to Hall and Wallace and Ballard and Johnson, (Frankly, a whole lot of Cormac McCarthy (National Book Award winning, bestselling, Cohen brothers source material author) is more stylistically daring than Tom McCarthy, but this essay will never end if I keep tacking on authors more innovative than Tom McCarthy.) (Malcom Lowry!) and other more innovative writers while broadening people's understanding of what it means to tell a relevant story.

This is not an essay against Tom McCarthy. This is an essay against timid reading. So many readers, read what they have habitually liked, that slight differences can make a conventional work seem avant garde (and if that work hits the sweet spot, between comfort and difference then it becomes the pinnacle of the contemporary avant garde). And there's nothing wrong with habit, comfort or entertainment, just try something different once in a while. So, read a weird book next. (Preferably one you've purchased after clicking a link to it from my blog. Ka-Ching!) If you like it, great, read more. If not, there are worse things in the world than reading a book you don't like. Read a few sure things and then try another weird book. At worst, we'll end up with a slightly richer mainstream, and at best, we'd have a truly heterogeneous mainstream, one that actually reflects the variety of human experience as lived right now. And in that world of literature, Tom McCarthy would be an unquestioned success.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Taxing the Rich Kills Jobs

This is a popular mantra and has been for quite some time. Unfortunately, I've never heard anyone, when speaking in the mainstream media anyway, explain why this should be true. They just assert and assert and assert. “Taxes on the wealthy kill jobs.” Given that, I'm going to have guess at what the logic is behind this mantra, and if I guess wrong, I hope you astute readers will correct me. The argument seems go like this: high income tax on the rich encourages them to keep more of their profits as income for themselves, rather than hiring workers, because they know the government is going to take a bunch of it and that the money sent to the government as taxes represents a diminished spending capacity, spending that would then create jobs. Simplified; if the government takes it, the rich don't spend it, and jobs are lost and/or, because the government takes it, the rich keep more of it to compensate rather than hiring people.

A couple of things.

In order for job creation to be connected to income that income has to be a function of profits. Profits are the positive difference between revenue and overhead, and of course, overhead is composed of salaries for employees, among other things. For owners and some top level executives at some businesses, I'm sure their income is a function of profits, and what they decide to take home as income from those profits would have an impact on job creation. But what percentage of America's wealthy falls into this category? I don't see Kevin Youkilis doing a lot of hiring. The only people in the Red Sox organization whose income is connected to hiring are John Henry et al, and maybe some of the upper management. Tito's income is not affected by whether or not the Red Sox hire another usher, hot dog vendor, or security guard. The same goes for successful actors, lottery winners, portfolio managers...

Another thing. Because we have an exchange economy, jobs are only created when wealth is spent. In a way, all spending of any kind is connected to creating jobs (including government spending, but somehow that doesn't count) and it's a lot easier for a million people to spend a million dollars than it is for one person to spend a million dollars. There just isn't enough time in the day for the super-wealthy to spend a significant portion of their wealth. So it sits in savings accounts, in funds, in investment portfolios, not being spent, and not creating jobs. Furthermore, the reach of individual spending, even when a ton of money is being spent is limited. How many jobs does the purchase of a Picasso really create? Or a limited edition Lamborghini? Sure, the Lamborghini creates jobs, but wouldn't ten people buying ten Fords create more?

Simply put, not enough rich people are connected to hiring for taxes on their income to affect hiring and there just isn't enough time in the day for the wealthy to spend enough of their money to really create a lot of jobs. As conservative critics joyfully point out (without ever, of course, confronting how the processes of lawmaking allows individual legislators to funnel money into their electoral districts) the Federal government is very good at spending money. If spending money creates jobs, then maybe we should let the Federal government do what its best at and create a bunch of jobs with revenue raised from a rational income tax.
Critics of the New Deal like to say that it wasn't Roosevelt's massive social spending programs that pulled the country out of the Depression; it was World War II. And those critics are both right and eye-gougingly stupid at the same time. World War II was a Federal spending project the size of which had never been seen in our Nation's history. And if you tack on another couple of farsighted bills (perhaps the high points of legislation in this country) the G. I. Bill and the Marshall Plan, that bill gets even higher.

Would higher taxes on the rich coupled with Federal spending projects solve the unemployment problem we're facing right now? A part of it, probably. But our economy is a complex system responding to many different factors and the Federal income tax rate is only one of them. Even if a truly progressive Federal income tax were instituted there are still lots of ways for wealthy Americans to make sure they keep way more money than they deserve.

And that's my biggest problem with the income taxes on the rich kill jobs argument. It completely ignores the complexity of the American economy. Federal taxes do play a role, but so do labor regulations in the Philippines and employer subsidized health insurance. The industry's new technology. The skills of the American workforce. The wants of the consumer. There's more to jobs than just tax rates. This will probably come up again, but my real problem with this argument is that it really isn't an argument at all in that it doesn't confront any of the complexity of the real world. It's not a point, it's like trying to get your buddy to do something by saying, “Come on....Come on...Come on,” or busting out a classic, “Because I said so,” to get your kids off the monkey bars. Given how our economy has changed and how our tax code has accumulated provisions, exceptions, and loopholes, I do agree that a revamping of our tax rates is in order, but if we want to do it well, the debate we have has to confront the complexity of the American economy. If we don't, we'll pass laws and enact policies without any real understanding of their consequences.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Young Love: Extreme Literature Edition feature Mark Z. Danielewski and Tao Lin

OK, so maybe in the modern world of marketing hyperbole, calling anything “extreme” is at the very least inherently ironic (and, man, what a world we live in when words are inherently ironic) and more often disingenuous or utterly meaningless, but if any literature, excluding literature as contraband in oppressive societies, being written today could be thought of as extreme it would be the work of Mark Z. Danielewski and Tao Lin. At first glance, only their radicalism unites them; Danielewski's explosive and cinematic novel design and Lin's nihilistic minimalism, but their two most recent works both dealt with young love.

I've described Only Revolutions by Danielewski a couple of different ways, and I think the most accurate I've come up with (if not the most likely to result in a sale at the bookstore) is that Only Revolutions is a response to Whitman's Song of Myself; a two-part epic poem, about and only about being alive and being in love. Sam and Hailey are archetypes more than characters, vessels for the energy we all feel when we first truly connect with another person. They are foolish, na├»ve, and immature, but they are also brave, vibrant, and energetic. They are an endless “go,” two characters in a perpetual verb, a persistent (but not endless) be-ing across time and space. They represent the propulsive force of synergy, that sense of having one mind despite two bodies that makes one feel invincible.

The story is told in two parts, one that starts in mid-1800s with Sam and one that starts in the 1990s with Hailey. They are constantly divided by time and space, as well as by other forces of the world, some of them embodied in a character named the Creep. But there is an inherent unity to Sam and Hailey, stronger than the forces of time and space and society, stronger even than death, for the end of Sam's story shares a page with the beginning of Hailey's and the end of Hailey's with the beginning of Sam's.

But no relationship is every purely synergistic. On the other end of the spectrum live Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning (not the actress) of Tao Lin's newest book Richard Yates . Haley Joel Osment is a graduate of NYU and a writer, living in New York who primarily supports himself by shoplifting, and Dakota Fanning is a teenager living with her single mother in New Jersey, suffering from, at least, bulimia, and probably a host of other contemporary mental illnesses. Along with the obvious differences between their lives, they also have different outlooks on life, and are constantly in conflict with one another. Haley Joel Osment is an adolescent artist still finding himself as a writer and a published author, while Dakota Fanning is an adolescent, in general, still trying to find herself as a person. Haley Joel Osment, believes Dakota Fanning is a compulsive liar, and constantly tries to enforce honesty on her, while monitoring how and what she eats. Haley Joel Osment becomes an unofficial therapist for Dakota Fanning as well as a boyfriend. (Always a recipe for success) They both often say and do hurtful things to each other. Despite their best efforts, they both often act selfishly.

And yet, it cannot be denied that they are in love. In today's America, there is one dominant consideration when choosing an action or making a purchase; convenience. All arguments in favor of one action or item seem to just disintegrate once that action or item has been accused of “inconvenience.” If you want to know how important something is to someone, simply establish how inconvenient it is to do or have that something and you'll know. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning's relationship is very inconvenient. They have to sneak around. Take trains back and forth from the city to New Jersey. They have to lie to Dakota Fanning's mother. They have to coordinate work, school, and other schedules in order to spend time together. Richard Yates is a love story proven by how inconvenient the story is to the lovers.

In a way, there is something propulsive to their dissonance. The challenges add meaning to their relationship. Being with each other is a struggle and every time they have a good time together it is a triumph over the circumstances of the world. There relationship is not defined by joy, but by accomplishment. It is an achievement and generates the same kind of pride that any achievement generates.

However, one could ask whether extreme literature is all that relevant. If the style of these works are so radically different from what we (or at least we assume) experience, what can they reveal about our lives? By pushing ideas to their extremes, aspects of them normally too subtle to notice become visible. With Richard Yates, our obsession with convenience is exposed and explored by Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning's willingness to put up with inconvenience. Tao Lin's radical statementism (that one's mine) strips away the romanticism and sentimentalism that usually adorns love stories, highlighting the practical, logistical, and tangible aspects of relationships.

In Only Revolutions, the layout of one story upside down across the bottom of another story, (among other things) shows the complex relationship young love has with death. Young love is defined by a sense of invincibility, by a denial of death, but at the same, young love can only be “young” in relation to an awareness of “old.” Furthermore, young love is ephemeral, it is fragile, temporary, passing; it gets its vibrancy from its nearness to its own demise. Only Revolutions reveals this complex relationship by placing the birth and the death of the relationship on the same pages.

Young love is one of those ideas that makes a ton of terrible movies. It shows up in novels and stories and TV shows and daydreams. And let's be honest, most of the time, it is a major component of a work of sentimental crap. But Danielewski and Lin have done something different with it. Their radicalism has rescued it from romantic teen comedies and made something, at the very least, interesting out of young love. Perhaps, their extremeness has even made the idea important.