Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Stint on the DL or The 2012 Red Sox Thus Far

A really expensive lawn
I spent time on the 15-day spectator disabled list before the All-Star break. It was after the Yankees beat the Sox, on Fenway's official 100th birthday. Everybody was injured, the Sox had negative wins at the point, and in the course of the game, I strained my right oblique giveafuck. It could have been a lot worse. You tear one of those things and its either surgery or learn about golf and stare hollow-eyed and bourbon-filled at people taking really long walks on really expensive lawns. But after a few weeks of rest and recuperation, a couple of rehab starts in Wimbeldon and the Tour de France, I came back in time to watch the pitching staff begin to get it together. (Except for Jon Lester, which is like, I don't know, Moses forgetting how to read right after getting the tablets.)

What frustrates me the most about this team is that because of injuries we really know nothing about it. How has Bobby Valentine been as a manager? I don't know, he's had the JV team on the field the whole season. Have the Red Sox recovered from last year's collapse? I don't know, they've had the JV team on the field the whole time. Did they make good decisions in the off-season? I don't know....well, you get it. As it stands now, they have played one game with the team they expected to field, and though they won that game, David Ortiz injured his heel rounding second on an Adrian Gonzalez homerun. To reiterate so everyone really understands, the Red Sox 2012 MVP was injured on the exact game when the Varsity team played together for the first time. Can you blame Papi for suspecting a curse? But even with all the questions left unanswered by the plague of injuries, I still think there are things we can learn from the 2012 Red Sox thus far.

Yeah, definitely the change up
John Farrell and Jason Varitek Mattered. Somehow, the pitching staff got off to a slower start this year than last year and though it looks like Beckett, Buchholz and the pen have figured it out, and the Sox have gotten some pleasant surprises from Doubront and Morales, it's clear this staff is not as good as it was when Farrell was coaching and Tek was catching. This hasn't affected just game by game and pitch by pitch decisions, but the entire process of professional pitching, from pre-season preparation to closing out big games in September. In other words, after pre-season, the Red Sox without Farrell and Varitek have been less prepared to perform. And when pitchers have struggled, it has taken them longer to solve their struggles. I wonder if the conversion of Bard would have been more successful (or even happened) with those two around. As we've seen over the last couple of months, this isn't a catastrophe, it's just a change, but it makes me wonder how quickly we can bring those two back in some coaching capacity.

The Red Sox Win at Scouting. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Kevin Youkilis, John Lester, Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson, Ryan Lavarnway, Will Middlebrooks and Jonathan Papelbon, were all drafted by the Red Sox. Daniel Nava, Felix Doubrount, and Pedro Ciriaco were all signed out of minor leagues. One of the reasons the Sox are still in the playoff hunt at the moment is they've had enough young talent in the minors to keep pace in the American league. Most other teams would already be out of it. At one point, the Rockies couldn't even field a five-man pitching rotation. Looking at that list does raise an interesting question; how important was Theo Epstein? In that list of draftees there's an MVP and two MVP runner ups, a Cy Young finalist, and the Red Sox all-time leader in saves. It would take a lot more research and analysis than I'm willing to put in for a blog post, but there's a chance, rather than being a baseball business genius, Theo Epstein was just in the right place at the right time.

Red Sox Management Will Lose Sleep Over the Extra Wild Card Spot. As the trade deadline approaches the Red Sox have the unenviable position of having no clear evidence of what to do. They're not so far out of the playoff picture to be sellers at the moment, but even if they make the playoffs, at this point they haven't shown any ability to go very deep in them, so they're not necessarily buyers either. And what would they buy anyway? They're not going to replace a quality Jon Lester in any kind of reasonable trade. The outfield is already pretty crowded, they've got two quality catchers, and a possible future super-star in Pawtucket at that position, and Will Middlebrooks, and Pedro Ciriaco have added depth to infield. The problem is not that they're not hitting at all, but that they're not getting clutch hits, which means there's no guarantee any big bat they might bring in, will actually solve the problem. If that extra Wild Card spot wasn't there, the Sox would probably be sellers at this point, and could be laying the negotiating ground work for rebuilding the team for next couple of seasons. But with it, well, who knows what they should do.

Of course, they still could be sellers by the trade deadline. They've struggled the last week and a half, and have fallen below .500 again. They get three games with the Yankees who were already killing everybody and then they get Detroit. There is every possibility they'll be essentially out of it by next week. But that still makes for hasty deals. In a very strange bit of baseball business, it might make the most sense for a team under .500, in a major market, after a devastating close to last season, to stand pat at the trade deadline. Not a very fun seat for Mr. Cherrington to sit in.

Or, they could get the Varsity team back again in the next two weeks, Jon Lester could figure it out and they could go on a tear through August, September and October, that gets them deep into the playoffs. There's no reason to bet on that, but there's also no reason to assume that's impossible.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Never Buy Whipped Cream

Water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (including coconut and palm oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream, and less than 2% sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, and beta carotene (as a coloring).

Or nonfat milk, cream, sugar, corn syrup, maltodextrin, inulin, (chicory extract), cellulose, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 80, artificial flavors, carrageenan, with nitrous propellant.

Or whipping cream or heavy cream and a little bit of effort.

The next installment in my internationally acclaimed (on the internet now, so it's true) series about food to never buy in the store for various reasons, is whipped cream. One of the biggest challenges American convenience food producers faced in developing their products is that most food doesn't have a shelf life. It comes from a plant or an animal that has been killed, and the second that living thing dies, it begins to degrade. The longer its dead, the less of what makes it food, instead of trash, remains.

Humans throughout history have been dealing with this problem and have solved it in various (and sometimes delicious) ways. Salting, smoking, and fermenting came first, followed eventually by freezing and pressure canning. However, all of those techniques have limitations, and once you add in the desire to grow the food in Nebraska, process it in Pennsylvania and eat it in California, the challenge becomes that much greater. The chemicals and procedures become more drastic, and, as a result of those chemicals and procedures, the amount of sodium and sugar you need to add to the food to make it taste like food becomes even greater. Though we can forgive early food scientists their ignorance, it's now clear our food system is creating at least as many, if not more problems than it solves.

But in some ways whipped cream stands out. It is air and cream and, as you can imagine, a fragile mixture of the two does not keep well. The first list of ingredients is for Cool Whip and the alphabet soup at the end of the ingredients list are the chemicals needed to make it seem “whipped.” The second list is for Redi Whip, which uses nitrous oxide, to essentially whip the contents as it distributes them. In truth, the convenience whipped creams aren't nearly as terrifying as I feared; the stabilizers aren't particularly bizarre so the only stand out is the corn syrup. But as with all food convenience food products, both of these promise to save you tons of time. Because of them you'll have to time play with your children or something, but if you've got a hand mixer, those products save you five minutes at best. (And, if we're talking about quality time with the kids, you can totally make them do it.) They save a bit more time if you have to hand whip the cream as that requires a whisk and damn near ten minutes of vigorous whipping, but most of us could use the exercise anyway.

Not only does the whipped cream you make from scratch taste better, it can taste anyway you want it. We add some confectioners sugar and vanilla extract, which is delicious, but you can add pretty much any extract. Almond. Hazelnut. Mint would be very nice. You could also add a little brandy or Cointreau or some other liqueur. If you're about to top a pie, grating some nutmeg in might be lovely. Or you don't have to add anything at all. If you're not a fan of sweets, don't add anything sweet. Once you decide to not open a tub, you're free to flavor pretty much any way you want.

There's a lot of talk about freedom these days, which is somewhat ironic to me, given how many Americans pay for convenience with their personality. For some reason, the ultimate American expression of freedom has become owning a gun you have no use for and making a bad decision about health insurance.

But with food, we're willing to trade our individuality for a couple of minutes of saved time. We choose pre-packaged, homogenous foods over stuff we could easily make from scratch, ceding our “individuality” to massive corporations many of which (Unilever, Nestle) gasp! aren't even American owned. According to our blog commenting selves, it's all about personal expression, but at dinner time it's all about convenience and familiarity. We can do whatever we want, but time and time again, we eat McDonald's or Applebees, instead of asking our smart phones for something different. What does it mean to be free if you're going to wear the same clothes, read the same books, watch the same shows, and eat the same food? Is true freedom, the freedom to just book a Disney tour and cede the experience of a foreign culture and nation to a corporate monolith? Does freedom come with any responsibility to use it? And if not, if we do have the right to let somebody else handle the cooking for us, if freedom also means, choosing to be free of responsibility, why exactly, are so many of us, so angry, about a healthcare bill that does no more than gently prod a few million Americans into a responsible decision? Or is this just another example of Americans wanting all things all of the time, without shouldering or even confronting the burden of creating all of those things all of the time?

Sure, whipping cream takes a few more minutes than opening a tub or depressing an aerosol nozzle, but if freedom and individuality are so damn important in this country, I'm pretty sure those few minutes are worth it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review of How to Get Into the Twin Palms

For the last thirty years or so, we have struggled to define whatever generation is coming of age. Douglas Coupland gave us what is still the best term, almost that long ago. Generation X. Since that term we've been deriving other phrases to describe what is essentially the same phenomenon; young people reaching adulthood without any society-defining challenge to rise to. As a result, X'ers, Y'ers, slackers, hipsters, and millenials, frequently saddled with student loan debt and with no frontier to escape to have floundered around in their identities until the social and material pressures of mainstream society settle them into a slightly less lucrative, slightly less comfortable, slightly less stable version of the lives their parents lived.

The tragedy is of course that President Obama was right when he said we had reached a “Sputnik moment,” but it also isn't terribly surprising that we have not responded as a society the way we responded to the Soviets or the Nazis. Our generation's crisis is our carbon footprint; no wonder we flounder for direction. Though in some ways limiting carbon emissions might be more important to preserving human civilization than beating the Nazis or the Soviets, it's awfully hard to worked up about. And it's hard to write about in fiction. As in Generation X the book, depicting the floundering of America's young, doesn't lead to much of a plot.

Anya, the protagonist of How to Get Into the Twin Palms, is floundering, for different reasons than what I've been talking about, but I think the images are equivalent. Anya is a Polish immigrant, a member of the “1.5 generation” who emigrated with her family to Texas when she was just a child. Now, living in L.A. Anya is trying to define herself in an era when “authenticity,” whatever that is, is cool. So she doesn't want to become an American. However, like many children of immigrants, she feels a kind of shame for her Polish heritage and so she doesn't want to embrace that either.

And she flounders. Spending a lot of time just driving around. Running because she doesn't know what else to do. Haunting a nearly empty hotel while forest fires rain the pool and the deck chairs with ash. Collecting unemployment. Calling bingo at a nearby church for $50 a night. Somehow, perhaps because nature abhors a vacuum, she latched onto the idea of getting The Twin Palms, the exclusive Russian only night club in her neighborhood, and made that her goal.

To do so, she adopts a Russian sounding name “Anya,” and starts what I guess you'd have to call a “relationship”, with a shady Russian cab driver named Lev. She dies her hair, changes her style, gets a push-up bra, all to attach herself enough to Lev, all so he will to take her to the club. What she plans to do afterward she never shares with the reader. Many of us have done what Anya has done, found, discovered, or created our own “Twin Palms,” something to give us direction in a society that hasn't provided one. The luckiest of us, myself included, have artistic vocations or political visions as our Twin Palms.

And while she struggles, the outskirts of Los Angeles burn.

And, as happens, when we only want one thing, finally getting into The Twin Palms is not a breakthrough, but a breakdown for Anya. She can't even speak Russian, so whatever facade she brought with her disintegrates almost instantly. The fall out carries her through a dramatic and drastic action to the ambiguous ending.

I doubt Karolina Waclawiak would think about her book in the terms I have. She might see it more constrained and more potent in its examination of identity through the experience of the actual 1.5 immigrant, rather than from my metaphorical understanding. She might see more focus on ideas of “authenticity,” especially when presented in an institution, The Twin Palms itself, that unironically and unequivocally values “authenticity” and harshly judges those who come up short of whatever the actual rubric for Russian-ness is to them. She might also want us to think about what “identity” means in a melting pot society, or in a nation that doesn't know what era to moor it's national identity to, or in a culture where individuals are empowered to choose their own identities rather than accepting the ones passed on by their parent's culture.

But I don't think its too much of a stretch to argue that American generations from Gen-X on are 1.5 immigrants into a new kind of society. We have the material comforts so many previous generations struggled so hard to provide, but it has not provided any of the emotional or spiritual comforts they assumed it would. And those comforts carry with them assumptions of ease of acquisition that were really only valid for about 30-40 years, so that the 30-40 year old of today has to work twice as hard to buy half as much as their parents did. And the challenge we face is completely different from those faced by previous generations. It's not about signing up for the army or breaking ground in a distant patch of land or even about scraping material existence by on the family farm. It's about recycling. Not much of an activity to design an identity around. (And how much do we enjoy being around someone who has designed their identity around recycling?)

How to Get Into the Twins Palms plays with the conventions of the immigrant story in a way to, at least in my mind, capture some more general experiences in our contemporary society. Despite Waclawiak's attempts to add a level of consequence to events, this novel limps to its conclusion, but it is hard to fault her for it; in a way this novel is also about limping along. It would almost be dishonest to the theme to conclude with some resonating epiphany. But the point of literature is to get readers to think about their world, and though I didn't personally connect with what actually happened, Waclawiak's book had enough substance and quality to inspire wider consideration.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Does It Matter What You Read?


OK, before moving on to my argument, a bookseller's caveat. I give every individual purchase by every individual the benefit of the doubt. Since I can't know the motivation for a particular book purchase I will never judge any particular book purchase. For all I know, that copy of Ulysses is going to be set alight and thrown down open manhole into a chunky, stinking, sluice of human refuse. That said, the Number 1, 2, and 3 bestselling paperbacks in independent bookstores are the first, second, and third volume in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. So, though I will never judge a particular purchase of Fifty Shades of Grey, there does seem to be an alarming pattern here.

At least last time I scanned the book-o-sphere, most people disagree with me, arguing that the action of reading in and of itself is so freaking awesome that it doesn't particularly matter what one is reading. (And many if not most might go a second step and accuse anyone who might argue otherwise of “snobbery,” but I'm beginning to think an exploration of the “snob” idea deserves its own post.) The whole “as long as I/he/she/it/they are reading” idea is really only half of a statement, because it contains an implied, “instead of.” When someone says “as long as they're reading,” they usually imply “instead of watching TV,” the assumption being that reading is neurologically better for your than watching TV. To me, this idea is kind of like saying something is safer than shooting yourself in the face. It's true, but not meaningful. Are we really making an argument for reading by saying it's better than the most narcotizing experience people can have without taking actual narcotics?

But even then I'm not entirely sure. Is reading Twilight (which I'm just going to use as a symbol for “substance-less entertainment containing an accepted low-quality of craft,” which doesn't mean I think you shouldn't read Twilight if you want to, which might seem like a contradiction of the point I'm making, but stick with me, nuance and reasonableness approacheth.) better than watching No Reservations, Louis, or The Wire? How about playing Knights of the Old Republic or Minecraft? And what about watching Casablanca or Citizen Kane or an Akira Kurosawa movie? How about taking a long hike? Of course, it all comes down to your definition of “better,” which itself asks the question, “Why do we read?”

Education, literacy campaigns, and everybody in the book-o-sphere argue that reading is important, that it is entertaining AND helps us grow as people, by developing our imagination and strengthening our empathy. We all accept that reading is both fun and productive, and I think we all accept that some books are really only entertainment and some books provide the substance we need to improve as human beings. Just like on TV, there's the trash that many people enjoy (Congratulations, Jersey Shore, winner of the Twilight Memorial Symbol for Substance-less Entertainment Award for Television) and then there's more substantive shows many people also enjoy; Mad Men being a big one at the moment, but there's also the aforementioned The Wire, No Reservations, and Louis, as well as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and, if I'm to trust the number of scholarly papers written on the subject, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And just like on TV, I don't think it matters what you read for entertainment. Just like how no one can tell you what to find sexy, no one can tell you what to find entertaining. (For me, with books, I simply cannot be entertained if the sentences suck, but that's just me.)

The problem is the exclusivity of entertainment in our society. There is nothing wrong with entertainment reading, but there is a problem when most people read exclusively for entertainment. That pattern of behavior is what leads to the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy being light years more popular than any other book at the moment.

The thing is, entertainment, though an important part of human life, doesn't really help us solve any of our problems. To put this another way, entertainment (which I have nothing against) doesn't contribute to our ability to be citizens in a democracy. A quick example. By any tangible measure Barack Obama's 2008 campaign platform was the most popular platform in decades. He won 54% of the popular vote, and Democrats took both chambers of Congress. The Republicans responded by doing absolutely everything in their power to obstruct and prevent any aspect of that platform being turned into policy, essentially taking a big runny dump on the very idea of representative democracy. And the punishment they received; the biggest power shift in Congressional history. This point isn't even partisan because interpreting it cuts both ways; either an alarming percentage of the population fell for Republican bullshit or an equally alarming percentage of the population had no idea what they were voting for in 2008. Of course, terrifyingly, both are probably true.

Though a lot of factors go into how we make political decisions, I think a population truly capable of the critical thinking engendered and strengthened by consistently reading literature would be a lot better at voting for what they actually believe in and supporting policies that meet the challenges we face. We could “read” the messages of politicians and pundits in a critical light that exposes underlying assumptions, explores the implications of applied policy, and sorts the statement from the bluster. We could vote for ideas, rather than through vague emotions cultivated by ad campaigns.

But this whole argument rests on how we answer the question “Why do we read?” And not just why we read, but why we do anything, play video games, watch TV, movies, sports, take long hikes, exercise in general, travel, etc. Sure we all deserve leisure, relaxation, mindless fun, entertainment some of the time (frankly, I'm totally cool with 65/35 entertainment/personal growth, I'd even take 70/30, but I'm looking at the NYT bestseller list and pretty sure we're around 98/2, maybe 95/5) but the point of entertainment is personal stasis. One of the primary pleasures of entertainment is that it asks nothing of us. But it doesn't help us make a better world. And if a better world isn't a goal, well, what's the point of anything?

One final caveat, before wrapping this up. For reluctant readers and readers who are still developing basic reading skills, it doesn't matter what they read as long as they read. For them, whoever they are, that whole neurological point applies, with the goal that eventually, they develop the skills needed to productively read literature every now and again. But for the rest of you...

So if you want to grow as a human being, yes, it does matter what you read. You should read books with ideas new to you. Books with images that extend their meaning into your life. Sentences that make you work at their interpretation. Words you have to look up in the dictionary. Scenarios that challenge your understanding of morals and ethics. Descriptions of people you could never meet in your life, places you could never visit, obstacles you could never surmount. It is not elitist to argue that if we want the empathy and intellect needed to solve the world's problems we should read books that stretch our empathy and challenge our intellect. And it is not snobbish to suggest that in our society of constant entertainment it would be beneficial and enjoyable to occasionally read for a different experience.

So if you've only read entertainment recently, go into your locally owned independent bookstore and ask for a challenge. Put effort into reading it. Look stuff up. Underline. Annotate. Break a sweat. Work your brain. You don't get a chiseled physique if you only lift 5lbs weights and the same goes for your brain. And when you're done, the new Sookie Stackhouse or Robet Ludlum spin off will be waiting for you.

(Pictures from Awesome People Reading)