Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Red Sox at the Trade Deadline

The Sox are in an interesting position in terms of personnel moves as the trade deadline approaches. They're at the top of the AL East with the best offense in the bigs, with at least two contenders for AL MVP and one serious contender for AL Cy Young (anyone remember the last time Beckett gave up a run?). Right now, their best players are playing so well, that their weak links aren't really causing a problem. Of course, every team wishes they could have this problem, but that makes it quite a challenge to find the perfect missing piece that will lead to a World Series Title. Here's what I think they shouldn't, probably should do, and definitely should do in terms of personnel changes.

What They Shouldn't Do: Get a right fielder. I know a lot of people like to hate on J. D. Drew and it is absolutely true that he never lived up to his expectations or salary. But J.D. Drew makes very few errors and though he also doesn't make any great plays either, you don't need a superstar in right field at Fenway to contribute to the success of the Sox. What you need is a player who can judge how the ball is going to bounce around in the corner and Drew is pretty good at that. Furthermore, there is value to a batter near the bottom of the order who sees a lot of pitches. (Though, even this attribute has been waning a bit with Drew lately.) Obviously, you want .400 hitters top to bottom, but given that's impossible, it's useful to have someone 7-9 who makes the pitcher throw strikes. Drew is not ideal, but he is fine for right field and the Red Sox don't need another big bat. Furthermore, the Sox have outfield prospects, not only Reddick, who seems to have earned the starting job anyway, but also, Nava, and Kalish. Why spend money and resources for a big name player to solve a problem that isn't much of a problem, especially when the solution might already be here?

What They Probably Should Do: Make a bid for Jose Reyes. A month ago, I would have said there's no point in going for Reyes when Jed Lowrie is the shortstop of the future, but Lowrie can't seem to stay healthy. Scuttaro has done fine as a backup, but only as a backup. What the Red Sox really need at short stop is a player who can take away hits. Ellsbury and Crawford can do it in the outfield and Pedroia can do it at second, but Scuttaro can't and I'm not sure that a healthy Lowrie can either. Though it's not possible, the current Red Sox plus Astrubal Cabrera win the World Series. Reyes isn't as good in the field as Cabrera, but nobody else is either, and Reyes will add even more batting depth to the line up. Also, the Sox won't have to fight the Yankees for Reyes. The Mets won't give him up for nothing, but at least there's unlikely to be a bidding war. Of course, the Mets still might ask for more than the Sox are willing to part with, and Jed Lowrie might finally get healthy, and the Sox would still be World Series contenders if someone else got Reyes, but there would be a lot of second guessing if they didn't go for Reyes and also didn't win the World Series.

What They Absolutely Should Do: Pick up a couple veteran pitchers on the waiver wire. The Sox shouldn't need pitching. But Bucholzt's injury is nagging and mysterious and that is not good. Furthermore, after Lester and Beckett, the other pitchers have been good, but I can't say they've been World Series Championship good. There's always the chance Lackey could do something special in the post-season, and Wakefield gives you a chance to win pretty much 3 out of 5 starts, and, of course, Bucholtz could get healthy, but a couple of cheap options couldn't hurt. If they can find somebody who can start and come out of the pen even better. Ultimately, 15-30 good innings at the end of the season while key pitchers (including middle relief guys like Aceves and Wheeler) rest could be absolutely vital, especially against the elite pitching the Sox are likely to encounter on the way to a World Series.

Right now, the Red Sox don't have to really do anything at the trade deadline. Not only are they first in the A.L east, but they have perhaps the deepest offensive line up the game has seen in quite a few years. Furthermore, their every-fifth-game players like Varitek and McDonald are contributing about as much as you could expect from off the bench players. And given the market, there really isn't a player out there, the Yankees could get to completely turn the dynamic around. So, ultimately, the Sox might be best served by standing pat at the trade deadline and picking up some bargains on the waiver wire. As we learned from Dave Roberts' steal in 2004, sometimes a single, small contribution from a bit player can lead to a championship.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What Went Wrong in American Food?

In some ways this essay is a little out of date. Over the past few years, American food culture (at least in some places) has slowly been drifting away from the steak, potatoes, and processed convenience food full of sodium, high fructose corn syrup, and chemistry sets of preservatives, that was contributing to our national epidemic of obesity, while having the added bonus of greatly contributing to climate change. CSAs and farm shares are becoming more accessible. Non-profit organizations are finding ways to bring fresh food to the poor, who too often have to eat the cheapest of the cheap. More restaurants are committing to seasonal sustainable menus. Foodieism has trickled down an increased focus on what and how we eat. But obesity is still on the rise, so, even though obesity has many sources, our food problems are far from solved.

And all of this is recovery from an unhealthy, unsustainable, practically joyless food culture that prized convenience over flavor, cost over quality, and predictability over passion. We became a nation of reheaters. My question has always been, what went wrong? We had the two fundamental sources of a great cooking culture; diversity and poverty, and though “America” is an extremely young culture, especially in terms of food, we had already developed some fantastic new foods, from barbeque to potato chips. But then, well, here's what I think happened.

Compulsory Education: For most human history, people (women usually) learned to cook by watching their mother cook, who learned by watching her mother cook. Recipes weren't passed down in books, but through apprenticeship. Techniques weren't taught, they were absorbed. But with the modern education system, mom cooked alone, because the kids were at school. Many recipes, techniques, and traditions were lost because there wasn't anybody in the kitchen to watch them enacted. So, when those children grew up, got houses, and found themselves in the kitchen, they didn't really know what to do. It's not hard to see the appeal of “heat and serve.”

Better Living Through Science: When the American dream included a car in every driveway, we didn't know our car culture would eventually wreck the environment. It is impossible to predict all the consequences of our actions. The convenience foods we eventually developed had the best of intentions; to give women a little spare time. And who could blame them for finally taking the opportunity to read every now and again. We didn't know then, the effects the amounts of sodium and high fructose corn syrup and other chemicals needed to make shelf-stable foods taste like something would come with such dire consequences for our nation's health.

The Great Depression (but not for why you think): A lot of people got out of the Great Depression determined to never eat poor people food again. Americans had the money to buy pretty much whatever cuts of meat they wanted and so they bought the best cuts. If they were going to eat chicken they were going to eat chicken breasts. If pork, chops or loins. If beef, steaks or roasts. The market responded and now we have chickens that are essentially engorged breasts on legs and cows pumped with more hormones than East German Olympic swimmers (speaking of out of date statements). As dire as the environmental consequences are from the shift to choice cuts, a lot of cooking was lost. The source of the world's great food traditions are disgusting looking potential foods made palatable through technique. Oxtail doesn't look too tasty when it's just sitting there, but for most of human history it was either eat what was there or don't eat anything at all. And now we have oxtail soup. Oh man. Oxtail soup. Because we stopped eating poor people food, a lot of great recipes and techniques fell out of general knowledge.

The Unequal Distribution of Domestic Duties: Social movements are funny things, especially when they succeed. Women joined the workforce, but, for the most part, men didn't really increase their domestic workload. One result of the womens movement is that many, many women got home from work and still had to make dinner, and when they did, they had much less time and much less energy to do so. Furthermore, no one was around to tend to the all day dishes or bake bread or make pasta, or do any of the other time or labor intensive cooking that used to define daily domestic life.

What might be most instructive about our transition to a convenience food culture is how little all of these changes had to do with food. For the most part, a more general structure of society changed, and how we made food changed in response. Furthermore, all of these societal changes were, at least in terms of their intentions, for the best. The plague of advertising and the corn-centric agricultural subsidies have done their part of course, but food scientists in the 50s didn't rub their hands together in malicious glee and declare “Ha, this will contribute to an epidemic of diabetes by the start of the next millennium.” Compulsory education wasn't a conspiracy of the burgeoning microwave industry, and the organizers and activists of the feminist movement didn't conclude their meetings by saying, “And just think of it, one day we'll have the fattest kids on the planet.” Our destructive food culture was a result of people trying to make the world a better place.

As I said at the beginning of the essay, our food culture is changing for the better, but unfortunately, the changes are almost all from the top down. It's people with enough money to dine at sustainable restaurants and shop for fresh, sustainable food, with the time to consistently make it. Unfortunately, truly changing our food culture for everyone, will require more general and more drastic socio-economic changes. However, I do think, there's one food based change we can make that would quickly and greatly improve our food culture. Teach cooking in school again.

An hour or so, every month, through middle and high school would provide students with many of the basic skills needed to cook healthy food for themselves. Maybe some schools could offer an elective as well for those students who might be interested in working in the food industry. It won't replace the lifetime apprenticeship we used to learn to cook through, but it will mean all American men and women will be able to cook for themselves. Furthermore, the kids would eat what they cooked, providing a stigma-free, free meal to many hungry students.
Our food culture is improving, but there are a lot of forces, spread out through our society supporting our sodium and syrup rich convenience food culture. The physical state of kitchens in low income housing. The corn-centric farm subsidy system. Massive agri-business. The advertising assault on our consciousness. There are big picture changes that can be made, like a redistribution of agricultural subsidies, but the most effective way to improve the country's food culture starts quite a bit closer to home. The problem is not the existence of heat and serve dinners and fast food restaurants, but how much we use them. There's nothing wrong with throwing something in the microwave when you've got tickets to a game and don't have time to make anything. There's nothing wrong with getting fast food while you're on the highway. But there is something wrong with always heating and serving and getting fast food once a week. All that is really needed to revolutionize our food culture is a rational relationship with convenience foods. And, for everyone to start making their own vegetable stock. But that's another essay.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Baffling 2010 Elections

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected with 52.9% of the popular vote, according to Wikipedia. It's not really a landslide, but when looking at some recent presidential elections; Bush had 50.7% in 2004 and 47.9% in 2000, Clinton had 49.2% in 1996 and 43% in 1992 (when Ross Perot was strong), and HW Bush had 53.4%, it is certainly one of the stronger presidential wins. Furthermore, Democrats gained 8 seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House securing strong majorities in each. I don't think this constitutes a “mandate from the people,” but it is hard to argue against the idea that the American people in 2008 endorsed the Democrat platform as espoused by Barack Obama. If you believe the American people didn't do that, then you're asking some pretty tough questions about the fundamental assumptions of representative democracy, but more on that later.

Of course, that doesn't mean the Republicans should have just rubber stamped Democrat legislation and policy. They should oppose policies they disagree with, they should engender compromise, and they should stand up for their beliefs. All of that is part of the democratic process. And there were elements to all of those actions in Republican efforts. But they went further than offering opposition opinion; they used the procedural structure of the Senate to delay, obstruct, and shape legislation in such a way that it was almost impossible for the Democrats to act with any really meaning on the platform they had been elected to enact.

Primarily through anonymous holds and the new filibuster (which happens because current rules require 60 votes to end debate on a bill and thus be brought up for a general vote wherein it only needs 51 votes to pass (that's right, the pre-pass is harder than the pass)) or threat of the filibuster, Republicans held up hundreds of bills, hundreds of nominations, and dramatically altered the legislation that was passed. Again, they do have, not just a right, but a responsibility to influence policy, but there is a point where they need to respect that the American people created a Democratic House, Democratic Senate with a virtual super-majority (thanks Blue Dogs, you know what we call you in MA, we call you Republicans.), and a Democratic Presidency. In short, the American people made the 2008 Democrats the most powerful party in recent memory and the way the Republicans responded to Democrat legislation was an affront to the will of the people.

So with every media and procedural trick available they opposed an extremely popular platform. The baffling thing about this: it worked. It worked really, really well. In the media, they were able to shape policy debate around things like “death panels” (which didn't exist) as opposed to the cost to hospitals of treating uninsured patients and the tax burden on our courts of processing medical bankruptcies. They questioned Obama's citizenship and his faith without any grounds of proof and one of them shouted at him during a State of the Union (can you imagine if a Democrat had done that under President Bush. He or she would have been impeached.) They asked whether the BP oil spill was “Obama's Katrina” (don't try and wrap your head around what that implies about what they think about Bush's handling of Katrina) even though now they are fighting to preserve oil tax subsidies. They even blamed Obama for the state of the economy pretty much as soon as he took the oath, after one of the greatest market drops short of the Great Depression, while delaying, diluting, and sometimes preventing all of his attempts to actually do something about said economy.

And it worked. Really well. They gained six seats in the Senate and took control of the House gaining a record breaking 63 seats. To sum up: Republicans radically and dramatically opposed a, based on previous election results, very popular policy platform and took over control of the House of Representatives. Baffling, no? I've been thinking about this for awhile and here are the factors that I've come up with that at least scratch the surface of how this happened.

People Don't Vote for Policy: (Told you I was going to get to this.) If anyone ever wanted to argue against representative democracy, they'd start right here. I have to wonder how many people who voted for Obama and the Democrat in their district in 2008, but Republican in 2010 really understood the platforms they were endorsing. How many people were simply voting for Obama because McCain always looked about to tell you to get off his lawn, or because Bush was slinking around looking somewhat ashamed the last nine months of his term, or because they were terrified by the thought of Sarah Palin being one heartbeat away from the presidency? If they didn't vote for his policy, then its not that weird to see how all the (completely irrational, but, that's the nature of the beast) emotions generated by Republicans and their supporters in the media, changed their vote in 2010.

The Short Media Unit: What caused the recession? Thirty years of societal and economic change influenced by dozens of different economic and social policies and legislation. There's the stagnation of middle class wealth, which had it roots in the erosion of the manufacturing economy, the weakening of unions, the globalization of production... There's the chaotic nature of high level financial speculation which is driven by the speed of information, the inability of regulators to keep up with new developments, and the (non-malicious, since I can't really say innocent) collusion of financial entities creating false strongs...Then there's the credit card economy. And the inherent boom and bust cycle of our stock market. Europe's economic struggles certainly didn't help. India's tech economy probably contributed. China's rise. In short, it is a complex issue with a lot of nuance, that would take a long time to fully describe. Contemporary media just don't do that anymore. Without an understanding of the complexity of the issue, if you hear a bunch people all saying “It's Obama's economy, now,” over and over again, it's not that strange to end up believing them.

Fox News: A lot of people watch them and they endlessly repeated (and/or generated) a lot of those statements that lead to the change in opinion. It feels a little scape-goatish to bring them up, but where would the birthers, deathers, and Tea Partiers be without them. (Ask the Green Party.)

The World is Changing in a Scary Way: I was walking through Davis Square and overhead someone say, “Hey, the United States has got a dictator. Obama...” I'm pretty sure if Obama were a dictator, we would have had a public option in the health care reform bill, the Bush Tax cuts would not have been extended last year, and the debt ceiling would have been raised in July. One of the engines of the 2010 elections was this palpable anger directed at President Obama. There are many Americans who have a very rigid personal identity based, in part, on their perception of America as the “greatest, best, good, country god gave this Earth,” and that perception is being shaken. With the recession, the rise of China and India, our Middle East wars, shifting demographics, climate change, and other factors, the United States is looking a lot less like Clark Kent from Smallville and Super Man from Krypton than it used to. I believe this change is shaking some people to the core of their being and many of them are lashing out in anger. Much of that anger, thanks to some of the other factors, congealed around President Obama. And I think you really see that anger manifesting in some of the radical conservative policies being adopted at the state level. The American economy is struggling so, with no real ideas for how to fix things, conservatives are attacking the standard conservative economic scapegoat: Unions. (You know, removing murals and stuff.) The social dynamic of the world is changing, and with no way to stop that change they're going after their standard social issues: abortion and equal rights for homosexuals.

Looking forward to 2012. Frankly, I'd rather not. Humans have always made decisions based on their emotions, they always will, and there will always be people exploiting that. Whatever party “wins” in 2012 it will be a victory of advertising and not of argument. Representative democracy will just muddle along being a better option than many other forms of government.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Andrei Codrescu Is Up to Something...

But I'm not sure what it is. His last three books have all been very different, but they seem to be congealing into or contributing to some grander project. Whatever it is, Codrescu is writing from a completely unique space, mixing genres, styles, and voices like a DJ winning a bet about his/her eclectic vinyl collection. He's found a spot between fiction and non-fiction, between narrative and philosophy, between something you sort of recognize as having experienced in other books and something you're pretty sure you've never seen before. In The Post-Human Dada Guide, The Poetry Lesson, and Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments, Codrescu is up to something. Yeah. Something.

Oddly enough, Post-Human Dada Guide is the most traditional of the three works. It is a work of philosophy or cultural studies that, are you ready for this, explores the idea of the “post-human” through the lens of Dada, the early 20th Century, though-it's-not-quite-right-is-quite-a-bit -easier-to-say, sort of Surrealist art, literature, philosophy, and life movement, while imagining a hypothetical chess game between Dada founder Tristan Tzara and, well, Lenin, THE Lenin. And it does what a work of philosophy does. It has endnotes in Codrescu's conversational style (not really the conversational style most use, but this guy's brilliant so, technically, it's probably how he converses), and a glossary, and if you've read any of the late 20th Century French philosophers, an acceptable prose style. The concepts are complex and the images imaginative, but it's a work of philosophy, and, even if philosophy isn't really your thing, you at least know how to interact with it.

But Whatever Gets You Through the Night, is different. It opens with a series of epigraphs, some of which seem like the kind of results that slip through Google filters and others are cited as coming from articles “published” in 2012. From there the book is a kind of mash-up of cultural studies and fiction. Codrescu retells the beginning of the 1001 Nights, footnoting the text to provide context as he goes along. However, quite often, the footnotes contain as much fantasy as the story itself, and many passages in the story veer into the style and content of criticism. Codrescu's style is like a cup of coffee in which milk has been stirred; you know the cup contains coffee and milk, but you can no longer see the boundary between them. Whatever Gets You Through the Night has both story telling and criticism, but they're woven together so tightly, it is often impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. One then has to ask, what's the difference?

And yet, The Poetry Lesson might be the strangest of the three works. At least you can call Whatever Gets You Through the Night a novel, and shelve it in fiction (given that few bookstores and libraries have shelves for Free Range Meditations on the Action and Purpose of Sheherezade). The Poetry Lesson though is written in the tone and style of a memoir, claiming to be an account of the first day of a poetry class given by Codrescu. However, it is clear that the students in the class are characters and though they might have some connection to actual students Codrescu has taught, they are almost entirely fiction.

Once you realize the students are “fiction” the walls between non-fiction and fiction start to crumble. What does that do to the events in the book? Is there a distinction between fictional characters that are amalgams of real people and fiction characters that aren't? What does it mean for the thoughts Codrescu has and the statements he makes in the books? But at the same time, it doesn't have the distance and images of fiction. You know its not a memoir, but it feels like one.

I wrote about The Poetry Lesson for The Millions and the best conclusion that I came up with for getting a handle on what the book is, is to simply believe the title. It is not a novel, an essay, a memoir, a work of criticism, a statement of aesthetic purpose, or an ars poetica; it is a poetry lesson. It just happens to have an unusual pedagogy.

Taken together, the three books seem to be leading somewhere. The blending of genres, the intellectual depth, the exploration of storytelling; Codrescu seems to be wrestling with some of the questions of form and style raised by modernism and experimented on through post-modernism, but in a tone that is neither ponderous with severity nor dismissive with irony. He seems to approach the questions of genre and category as either already answered by earlier border busting works, or not important enough to be bothered with. And this is before grappling with the actual ideas in the books.

Codrescu is up to something and it might be even simpler than it at first appears. There are a lot of different ways to understand the drive for creating fiction. In a sense though, it's about constructing ways to say interesting things. One of my favorite things about reading is encountering sentences and statements that would be absolutely ridiculous if said out loud in conversation, but are absolutely brilliant within the structure of the work. The characters and events of fiction allow the writer to say interesting things that can't be said in regular communication. It might just be that Codrescu had interesting things to say and these books were the structures he developed that allowed those interesting statements.