The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Originally uploaded by Mantooth
The best thing to say about the teacup ride was that nobody vomited. Actually, it was the least strife-filled moment of our Disneyland day.


the pink gun

Originally uploaded by Mantooth
This one was a NIGHTMARE at Disneyland until he got the toy he was promised. Resolution: next time, he gets the toy up front, and then we have a decent time afterwards.



Originally uploaded by Mantooth
I hadn't realized until this trip to Anaheim that Disney had arranged a merchandising deal with George Lucas. This Mickey Mouse-as-Obi-Wan -Kenobi doll set me right. Boy #2 just LOVED it, and his brother picked it out for him.


Los Angeles, Lucques, etc.

LOS ANGELES magazine--a rag that I generally pay no attention to--just named Lucques, on La Cienega and Melrose, LA's best restaurant. I saw this when the wife and I stopped at the outdoor newsstand on Fairfax near Canter's and I perused the issue. Why I decided to look at this magazine was that we were just walking back from Lucques, where we had dined on Friday night, and the cover announced the rankings of the "25 Best Restaurants in LA."

I haven't been familiar with LA restaurants for about five years, since we lived there, and so I can't attest as to whether Lucques is LA's best restaurant. But it sure was the best place I've eaten for years. Damn. I had the suckling pig, which I was initially concerned would be served whole, with an apple in its mouth. Rather, it was served as a kind of pulled-pork cake, topped with crackling skin. The waiter assured me that it was cooked in a pit on the property for eighteen hours and then something else was done with it before serving. I don't care what they did with it, but it was brilliant. Now, I don't know that it needed to be quite as spendy as it was--it was truly pulled pork, Carolina or Tennessee-style, and I could have gotten equally good stuff in Spartanburg or Durham, I'm sure--but in L.A. it was just brilliant. The wife had the vegetarian dish--a mushroom lasagna--which was very tasty but soupier than it needed to be.

I've also never had a $14 martini. Now, it was a damn good martini, absolutely. And it's fun to be out in the big city, and all, but $14? Oy. What made the drink worth it was the snacks that came along with it: olives and roasted almonds accompanied by extra virgin olive oil and coarse salt. They were just fantastic.

Good spring-break trip to LA on the whole, although the boys were sick throughout. Disneyland was awful (although my sister-in-law got us in to "Club 33", which made the trip worth it. Very, very strange.


Saturday, March 15, 2008


After his big success with THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA, which is legitimately a great book, Michael Pollan's editors (including the legendary Ann Godoff) have evidently rushed him to get another one out there to capitalize on his "heat." IN DEFENSE OF FOOD is a slim little thing, rehashing many of the points made in THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA, but that doesn't make it not worth reading. If the structure of the DILEMMA was a "natural history of four meals," examining how food gets from the ground/hoof/wing/lab to your table, DEFENSE is much more of a manifesto. "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants," he says on the cover and throughout the book, and that turns out to be recommendation that the book leads to.

He starts, though, with a genealogy of "nutritionism," the idea that foods can and should be reduced to, and understood as, nutrient-delivery systems. This way of thinking about food began as a way to understand how we should eat, but as Pollan points out it is a system of thought peculiarly well-suited to an economy in which large food companies make most of their money by taking cheap raw materials (soybeans, corn, wheat, and rice) and processing them, adding value through this processing and packaging: resulting in what he calls the "Western diet," in which the vast majority of calories come from processed starches and meats. Nutritionism tells the public that these high-starch foods (and Pollan believes that the vast majority of processed foods are precisely that--starches from seeds, with chemicals added for flavors) can be made "healthier" by tinkering with their chemistry--adding a vitamin here and there, or a mineral, or a bit of fiber on top of what is all essentially the same processed starch. Nutrition science agrees with this, saying that to make food healthy we just need to adjust the proportions of molecules in it. Food, in this formulation, becomes fuel and nothing else.

Pollan rejects this, first by saying that the constant paradigm shifts about what is the basic sin in our diet (Fat! Saturated fat! Carbs! Trans-fats! Cholesterol!) result from the fact that we can't understand how nutrition works if we look at foods as nutrient-delivery systems. He of course alludes to the "French paradox": how can they eat everything we think is bad (butter, eggs, wine) and still be healthier and skinnier than we are? And why do people (such as Aborigines in Australia or Inuit in Greenland) with diets we'd ordinarily find to be horribly deficient NOT develop the kinds of diseases that they do end up developing--diabetes, heart disease--when they adopt the Western diet? Pollan argues--and here he comes very close to the good parts of Bill Buford's HEAT--that there is a deep cultural knowledge embodied in a culture's folkways of diet; trial and error over millennia have shown cultures how best to take advantage of what their particular "habitat" has to offer, both in terms of energy and in terms of health.

I think the most interesting, although ultimately depressing, thing he argued in this book was that even when we try to eat "mostly plants," we could be losing out if we're getting those veg at the supermarket. The vegetables grown industrially for supermarket sale, he points out, are generally the species with the greatest yield. That is, the species or variety of broccoli, beans, celery, or what have you that the supermarket carries is of the one species that grows biggest and fastest with the least investment of food, and these species have fewer "nutrients" than other varieties, which by growing longer produce more of what makes them good and which by sending down deeper roots suck more of the good things out of the soil. (Organic veg, of course, are better, because by being grown in organic soil they grow in a medium in which there is more good stuff to extract.) So, in addition to his tripartite slogan of how to eat better, he'd probably also add "Buy those plants at farmer's markets. And if they're organic, so much the better."


Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Just finished Jeffrey Toobin's THE NINE, a personality-driven history of the Supreme Court since the Reagan years. Toobin writes on legal affairs for the NEW YORKER and is a TV talking head, so his take on many of these issues has become pretty familiar. Basically, the book argues that the Rehnquist court got more and more liberal over its history, largely because the most conservative voices (Scalia and Thomas) were either so bombastic or so extreme that they could never really dominate and because Rehnquist himself was a much better leader in an administrative rather than an ideological sense. So although for a while eight of the Justices were Republican appointees, the court kept moving to what Toobin sees as the left. This happened because the intellectual and practical center of the court became Sandra Day O'Connor, whose country-club Western Republicanism started to look more and more like liberal Republicanism. Her legal philosophy, according to Toobin, came from her experience as a legislator in Arizona: she was always looking to split differences, compromise, get things done, rather than to make the sweeping decision that would overturn precedent. And because of this moderation, she was able to get the other moderates (Souter, Kennedy) to go along with her for the most part, and they tended to side with Stevens and Breyer and Ginsburg, because the other side was so extreme. He argues that things continued to get even more liberal up until the time that O'Connor and Rehnquist left the court essentially simultaneously, bringing Roberts and Alito to the court--Justices whom nobody doubted would side with Thomas and Alito most of the time. How did this happen? Toobin traces the genesis and ultimate success of the Federalist Society, the reactionary legal organization born around the time of Reagan's ascension largely in response to the utter domination of law schools by the left. By the time Bush II took office, the Federalist Society had 40,000 members and it essentially became the sole source of personnel for Bush II legal jobs, from the Justice Department to the courts to the White House.

It's a smart book and, much like a New Yorker article, focuses much more on personality than on nuts and bolts. But Toobin is good with the context of landmark cases like Casey, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and Lawrence v. Texas. It's a profile, not a scholarly book (not that I WANT a scholarly book on this topic).


Monday, March 10, 2008

the ethical implications of FAST FOOD NATION

I had a class of freshmen read Eric Schlosser's FAST FOOD NATION last week with several aims--looking at how a single argument comes out of a wide variety of sub-claims; examining how very vivid facts and anecdotes are used to create emotional appeal and bolster an argument whose logic is at times shaky; diagramming how his sub-claims are necessary for his larger claim but themselves rest on shaky logic at times; describing how his totalizing view of the "Fast Food Nation" and its component parts and genealogy relies on an ethical claim that he doesn't give audiences the chance to reject. But the students enjoyed it--I could tell from the buzz in the room beforehand that they were struck by his descriptions of the slaughterhouses, working conditions, etc. (Only of my students had worked at anything that could be considered a "fast-food" place, Panera, which I found interesting--I've taught at places with what one might euphemistically call a different student demographic, and in some of those classes almost half of the students had worked at fast-food joints.)

We discussed the book and the students focused on many of the issues about how the "fast-food nation" affects what Schlosser paints as the least powerful: the McSerfs, the slaughterhouse workers, the franchisees, the small family farmers, the local businesses and suppliers. They were horrified at the stories of the injuries suffered and the argument that the fast-food nation concentrates power up. And of course they were grossed out by the stories of, as Schlosser indelicately puts it, "shit in the meat."

When I asked them whether the book had in any way changed their attitudes about eating in fast-food joints, they all looked blankly, like this question was a non-sequitur. When I prodded them, three gave variations on "well, it's unlikely that I'll get sick--sure, there's a chance that I might get E. coli, but the odds are against it." One gave a kind of fatalistic response: "well, yeah, Schlosser makes this seem really awful, but every industry is like this--just look at coffee." And the rest just continued to look blankly. It was amazing to me: immediately after expressing their horror, and even anger, at all of the injustice of the "fast-food nation," their only ETHICAL response was either fatalism (which I can understand) or what might be seen as narcissism--"how does this affect ME?" The "news-you-can-use" approach.

But then I came into class the next day and thought about it. Schlosser talks about how Upton Sinclair, lamenting the way that his pro-socialist novel THE JUNGLE achieved nothing he wanted and instead spurred the Pure Food and Drug Act, said "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach." And I think there's a little to this in Schlosser: he wraps up his argument with his discussion of how food-borne disease is spread more easily by the industrial production models of the fast-food nation, and includes heartbreaking stories about Shiga toxins and dead children. And this serves, partially, to overwhelm the rest of the argument (which is really about "how does the fast-food nation affect others") and emphasize instead "how does this affect me"? And students, and readers, aren't stupid: they know that although there are a few spectacular cases of contamination, and that even if there really are 500 annual cases of E. coli-caused death in the US, this represents a tiny chance of THEM actually being at risk.

Labels: ,

ben stein

I've heard of Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Sugar... but "Big Science"? From the NYT this morning:

Shortly before he was to attend a screening in January of the documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which is about alternatives to the theory of evolution, Roger Moore, a film critic for The Orlando Sentinel, learned that his invitation had been revoked by the film’s marketers.

“Well, you already invited me,” he recalled thinking at the time. “I’m going to go.”

So Mr. Moore traveled to a local megachurch and planted himself among a large group of pastors to watch the movie. In it, Ben Stein, the actor and economist (and regular contributor to The New York Times) interviews scientists and teachers who say that Darwinism gets too much emphasis in the classroom and that proponents of the theory of intelligent design are treated unfairly.

There were nondisclosure agreements to sign that day, but Mr. Moore did not, and proceeded to write perhaps the harshest review “Expelled” has received thus far. The film will open April 18, but has been screened several times privately for religious audiences. Mr. Moore deplored what he perceived as “loaded images, loaded rhetoric, few if any facts” and accused Mr. Stein of using a “Holocaust denier’s” tactics.

Which, of course, was exactly the reaction the moviemakers were hoping to avoid by keeping mainstream critics out.Mr. Stein said in a telephone interview that he had not read Mr. Moore’s review, but that “being compared with a Holocaust denier is nonsense,” adding, “This guy is extremely confused.” He said he decided to participate in the project because “there’s just a lot of people who don’t believe that big science and Darwinism should have a stranglehold on academic life, and they have been waiting for a voice.”

Yes, I am SO tired of Big Science thinking that only THEY have a right to be heard in university science departments. Shouldn't the people decide what's true? Why have speculation, opinion, superstition, hearsay, religious conviction, and moronitude been EXPELLED from science classes? And seriously--we all know, and Mr Stein just reminds us of this, that facts and reality themselves have a well-known liberal bias.

Here's Moore's review. It's sharp--as a rhetorical analysis I'd be proud to see one of my students write it.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

the realist novel

By the time I was studying "postmodernist" fiction--the late 1980s--its generally cited epitomizer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, was cited far more often than he was read. Not only have I never read him, but I remember no classes that I took or heard about in many years of schooling in literature assigning his works. Yet the critics always refer to him as the inventor of the "nouveau roman," the new novel, the form that utterly rejected 19th-century realism and that was purported to be the new wave. But of course, these new novels weren't fun to read; they were made for graduate students and comp-lit departments.

Robbe-Grillet died last week, a sad event that has predictably led literary critics to "reassess" his achievements, and the assessment is generally pretty pessimistic. The "nouveau roman" was a gimmick, a theory much better left as theory than as practice; Robbe-Grillet won't last, and, in fact, hasn't even lasted until today. The corollary to this rule is that the realist novel, with its 19th-century heritage, has become hegemonic. In the most hostile formulations, the novel is seen as essentially a realist form, suited for the bourgeois reader. The only difference between the 19th-century novel and today's literary novels is that since World War II, the bourgeois are much less concerned about the stability of their social position (looked down upon by the aristocracy, threatened by the roiling urban proletariat), their dominant position in Western society is unquestioned, and thus their pet form--the novel--is much more inward-looking, psychological, and concerned with intra-bourgeois relations rather than cross-class relations. Short stories are the same way. Our great writers of the day almost all practice some variety of the classic bourgeois realist, psychological NEW YORKER story mixed with the 19th-century realism of Dickens, Gaskell, James: Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud etc. If the precise reproduction of reality in "fiction" is the goal here, is it any wonder that the memoir is on such a roll? And that memoirists who fictionalize are so viciously reviled?

a thought--this insistence on pure facts in memoirs, I think, has some roots in our general unease with the political establishment's happy, if denied, embrace of postmodernism, of the idea that "facts" themselves are relative, just narratives--that scientific fact, whether it be evolution or the link between abortion and breast cancer or global warming or the actual number of people killed and dollars spent in this senseless war in Iraq, are just points of view, things to be debated and given equal time and treated as rhetoric.

Here Ron Suskind's great NYT Magazine piece (17 October 2004) needs to be quoted again: "The [unnamed Bush White House] aide said that guys like me [the reporter] were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''"

When facts are denied or derided by our president, when we have a president who has made it clear that expertise and research are of at best equal value to, and frequently worth less than, passion and religious conviction, it's no wonder that people want to grasp onto facts somewhere, and maybe this is why James Frey's pathetic little embroideries have taken on such importance to pop-cultural arbiters like Oprah, who seem to spend relatively little time and outrage on the Bush administration.

But in an interesting if perhaps too glib article today in, Stephen Marche argues that experimental novels got a bad name because of Robbe-Grillet and his insistence that HIS experimentation is the only valid kind of experimentation for the contemporary novel. Unfortunately, novel-readers didn't like the "nouveau roman" and didn't like being told that they were wrong for liking realism. Marche says that novels have always been experimental--he cites TRISTRAM SHANDY, of course, for this, but also ROBINSON CRUSOE and GULLIVER'S TRAVELS--and that 19th century realism is less the natural form of the novel than one style that managed to attain an exceptionally wide audience. And I agree. Even in the heyday of Robbe-Grillet, experiments in the novel that have proven much more appealing to audiences were occurring in Latin America--Garcia Marquez, Puig, Clarice Lispector, and so on. I also see, as does Marche, a strain of contemporary fiction that draws upon the more playful experimentation of the Latin American writers of the 1960s. I look to Jonathan Safran Foer (whom Marche cites), but also to Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, even Dave Eggers as writers who can return a little playfulness and a little modernist sophistication to the novel.