Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dave Zirin: Bad Sports

This is the last book I read of 2011. Somehow that feels worth mentioning, though It is not altogether that monumental. If I've labeled my posts correctly, I read approimately 35 books this year. I lost count about 7 times while trying to count back, so I'm not even going for an exact count. That would be ludicrous.  "Bad Sports" weighs in in the bottom third of those books: Dave Zirin is a man I respect deeply as a public figure, but perhaps doesn't translate into book-dom. I highly recommend you tune into his podcast, "Edge of Sports" and follow him on Twitter: as he says, the man is fabulous at commentary "where sports and politics collide."

Zirin's thesis (and subtitle) in this book is well taken and generally well articulated: "owners are ruining the games we love." Professional sports- football, basketball, baseball and hockey- are owned by a bunch of really rich men who are living and leaching off of increasingly impoverished cities and managing to drive away fans at a time when fans need sports more than ever. This is particularly poignant to me right now as the A's ownership continues to sell of player after player- Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey have all been traded for next to nothing in the past two weeks- in the hopes that the A's will get a new stadium Anywhere Else.  The threat of the A's moving is being held over Oakland's head: fund a new stadium or else. Of course Oakland can't fund a new stadium for Oakland in a time where police can't afford to police, schools can't afford to educate, and I'm pretty sure that I popped a tire on a pothole again last night. So we've got a quagmire: ticket prices will continue to rise, fans will continue to be driven away, and someone, either Fremont or more likely San Jose, will pass a measure to publicly fund Lew Wolff and John Fisher's new stadium.  John Fisher has a net worth of 1.1 billion and Lew Wolff owns a whole lot of stuff. Oakland will lose unless they pony up a bajillion dollars they don't have or the A's move, which ever comes first. Supposedly San Jose will not pay to have the A's, but I'm hardpressed to believe it. In the meantime, San Jose's arguments for the move- revenue stream, jobs, etc, are bogus: Zirin conclusively demonstrates that any jobs created are crappy, seasonal, and underpaid service jobs. Revenue streams may be accurate if you're talking about for the rich owners who win no matter who comes to the stadium through TV deals; average fans can't afford to come to the games as seat prices spike and concession fees rise.

I love Zirin's argument, which boils down to no more taxes for rich owners and community ownership of teams, ala Green Bay Packers. He does a great job articulating my beef with sports and over-the-top nationalism at the ball park, which I've ranted and raved about before. I had no idea I had it so good. In some places, faith nights involve post-game prayer sessions, hosted by the owners. In others, Sarah Palin gets top billing. But my situation is not unique. The sad thing is that the Packers' situation IS unique, and that pro football has written it into their bylaws that no teams like the Packers- team owned, with 60% of proceeds going to charity- will ever exist again. Sadly this also means that no team will be so enmeshed with their community, and no community so enmeshed with their team. I believe Zirin wrote (I've returned the book to the library) that there are 50,000 fans on the wait list for season tickets. Can you imagine if this were the case in Oakland? I can imagine, in a distant dream. A girl can dream.

The Year of the Bug and The Year of the Bugs

So this is the last shot of the year for The Year of the Bug and the first shot of my new project: The Year of the Bugs: 52 Weeks of Sofafree. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Alice Ozma: The Reading Promise

Alice Ozma has written a book on fathers and daughters and reading that is almost the exact opposite of the last book I read on fathers and daughters and reading, Alexandra Styron's "Reading My Father." Where Styron wrote the depressing story of her famous father, their strained relationship and his descent into madness, Ozma has written the story of an unknown single dad and his daughter muddling through it very much together. Where Styron's memoir is painful, Ozma's is poignant. Styron wrote years after the fact and Ozma is in her early 20s. Styron's book could win "most depressing expose of a famous father/daughter pair of the year," which is why it's exactly the kind of book I normally read, and Ozma's is much more of a fast, feel-good read, which is why I was surprised at how much I liked it. Together they make a great set. I found myself laughing out loud in a slightly embarrassing way at this book- reading is Serious Business for me, and this Ozma has an endearing personality that is captured perfectly in her writing style. I'll sum it up this way: My dad will hate this book, my mom will love it, which is strange, since the book is the story of dad reading to daughter every night for 3000+ nights. If you like reading, and you like funny, sweet stories, this one's for you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Julie Guthman: Weighing In

Once upon a time, I believed Michael Pollan. I'll be honest, that once upon a time and long ago and far away wasn't actually that long ago- it was last year, in this same bed that I'm writing in now. He has a pretty unassailable slogan, after all: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I'm not very good at following the majority of his instructions, even as a vegetarian: I'm very good at eating food, but not at the "not too much part," and even as a vegetarian, I eat a lot of non-plant matter. I'm pretty sure diet coke is not a plant, no matter how hard I try to wedge it into that food pyramid in the "vegetable" category. But something has been bugging me ever since the anti-obesity campaign hit stride a few years ago: it feels like a fad. I grew up when eating disorders were rampant, and now it seems like eating disorders were a fad. And I don't think either of these things are true: body image issues and weight issues are so much more than fads or trends, but the current focus and attendant billboards about healthy snacks and books and magazine articles and talk shows seem like we've moved from an age of plenty (the late 1990s) when the issue was rich people with too much, trying to starve themselves to look too thin, to the late 2000s, an era of a lot less, with poor people being seen as too fat. And all of this seems really simplistic. In the late 1990s we were told (without much to back it up) that people of color (excluding Asian Americans as usual) didn't have the same issue with eating disorders because of cultural acceptance of different body weights. Now, we're told by experts, including Pollan, that weight issues are especially prevalent in low income neighborhoods (read: people of color and poor whites) because of lack of education about and access to healthy food.  These people can be thin and healthy, too, they too can "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," with the right programs and policies in place, and less subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup, the enemy.

Well, not so fast. Did eating disorders (the kind leading to starvation and binge/purge, not the over-eating kind) go away because people were educated about eating more and/or lost their money in market crash? Sidenote: Julie Guthman has written an amazing book in "Weighing In," but it's not at all about eating disorders. I picked up the book, though, because of the way the back of the book (yes, I judge books by their covers) manged to say both "obesity" and "obesity epidemic" in quotes in three sentences. And I was not disappointed. Well, a little, because I do feel like there is a connection that Guthman left unmade between the anorexia decade and the obesity decade, but I understand why she left that alone: "Weighing In" takes on (and conquers) much bigger topics, and if you understand and apply Guthman's arguments, eating disorders can be explained, as well.  Guthman takes on a lot- Pollan is a formidable foe with lots of influence- so I forgive her for not getting to this detail. After all, eating disorders are my hangup, and this book is about a lot more: the subtitle reads "Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism." Yeah, that's a big one.

I am not going to be able to sum up Julie Guthman's very big, very cogent, and very persuasive take on why Pollan et al's tactic falls short and perhaps even is dangerous.  It's too multifaceted, and she's an expert. I've tried, and failed to explain to my family, avid foodies and Pollan fans (remember,  was one of them till last week), though in my defense, I hadn't finished the book. This short piece from 2008 gives a sense of some of Guthman's main points (though not all): Pollan's critique of corn subsidies is great, but his argument fails dangerously when the discussion turns from farm policy to fat bodies. First, the evidence between food consumption and size is weak. Second, discussion of weight serves as "admonishment" and creates anxiety about weight, leading to obesity. (Guthman drops this argument in the book and picks up a much more solid argument about the missionary zeal with which the Pollan-ites go about their health mantra in a new form of the white man's civilizing project.) Third, authors like Pollan, Jane Goddall and Marion Nestle along with Morgan Spurlock of Supersize me take on a holier-than-thou position: if they can control themselves around the enemy (HFCS) and fast food, surely obese people must be of a weaker strain.  
At best, fat people are seen as victims of food, genetic codes, or metabolism; at worst, they are slovenly, stupid, or without resolve. Meanwhile, she notes, many thin people can indulge in all manner of unhealthy behaviors without being called to account for their body size. In other words, fat people are imbued with little subjectivity no matter what they do, while thin people are imbued with heightened subjectivity no matter what they do.
These are only three short issues that Guthman brings up in this (very) simplified article. I won't convince you if you're sold that the end of food commodity subsidies and the bringing of fresh fruit to school lunches is the way to a Better Life and Skinnier Children.  
Guthman's book is divided into nine refreshingly easy to read chapters, each with a title in the form of a question.  Wisely, "What's Capitalism Got to Do with It?" is left till the very end (right before the conclusion) so that by the time Guthman gets to the meat of her argument- like what I did there?- we're left nodding along with the argument that capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal incarnation, causes obesity. Placed earlier in the book, we'd be tossing away "Weighing In" as a Marxist piece of trash cashing in on the Pollan fad (yes, I'll be here all week).  Guthman argues that "bodies have emerged as a growth industry in the context of contemporary capitalism." It's a complicated economic argument, but essentially Guthman uses a theory David Harvey's 1982 "Limits to Capital" where capitalism is self-limiting. Eventually capitalism runs out of ways to earn profit, and then comes the crisis of "overaccumulation." This is especially true in the case of food: there is a limit to what humans can eat. One of the ways to fix these crises, according to Harvey is the "spacial fix": "the displacement of the problem of overaccumulation elsewhere in space." Previously this could read as a new colony or globalization. Guthman argues that the new spaces are our bodies: "in the interest of economic growth, contemporary US capitalism has helped to create obesity as a material phenomenon and then made it a moral problem that must be resolved in a way that is equally kind to capitalism."  The way this works is complicated, but it starts in the food production and distribution chain: farmers all the way through food service wrokers are paid a tiny amount, thus creating demand for exceedingly cheap food (this is one of the main places she finds fault with Pollan's arguments that subsidies are the problem. Low wages are the problem).  Wages are kept low so purchasing power drops, creating a market for the credit and banking system that kept the economy running, until it didn't. The poor people who make this food were the vast majority of people who lost the biggest when capitalism hit its limits during the market crash. Not coincidentally (these issues were dealt with in previous chapters), this is the population most likely to be obese, and not to be able to afford the Good Food the Pollan advocates (and admits is more expensive). In the meantime, the health care, weight loss and pharmaceutical industries are all winning from this man-made epidemic: "weight loss itself is a commodity."

This book reads like a butterfly and stings like a whole bunch of bees.  I was convinced by Pollan and Raj Patel and now feel like a racist dupe. It's not enough to go to the farmers market, which Guthman points out, makes those of us who can afford it feel like we're Doing Something- shopping local isn't enough. And I've been humbled when thinking about my passion regarding food justice and food deserts: I try to be aware of how activism affects agency, but Guthman called me out.  Bringing a box of organic okra to black people in the ghetto is not really going to change the system. It's insulting. The only place Guthman falls short is ending without real constructive Next Steps. She criticizes Pollan for this very shortcoming, but I'm left not knowing what next. I am left like it doesn't matter what I eat- both biologically, ecologically, and ethically- though I don't think that's what Guthman would tell me. The conclusion, "What's on the Menu?" is a blank slate. Looking forward to ordering the chef's special.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Fading Away

Week 51: Fading Away

This is the second to last week of the project. Mac is so happy to be out of the spot light.

On Christmas, a Note About Hannukah

To Goyim everywhere: Merry Christmas.  And to goyim (including: makers of Christmas and holiday pageants, sellers of holiday greetings and holiday schwag, makers and givers of holiday cards, government institutions, schools, "inclusive" givers of cheer, and in some cases, Jews) everywhere: a note about Hannukah.

Hannukah is not the Jewish Christmas. Christmas is a Very Important Holiday for Christians, as on Christmas day in the morn, Jesus, the savior was born. This, one might say, is the basis of an entire religion(s), let alone the Reason for the Season.  Hannukah is No Such Thing.  In the Torah (aka the Old Testament), Jews also have Very Important Holidays.  Hannukah is not one of them.  In fact, Hannukah is what's known as a festival commemorating a historical event in the 2nd century, and is generally considered to have been written later than the rest of the Torah, and takes place later than the rest of the Torah (the rededication of the Temple).

So why all the fuss about Hannukah? Well, because Jews matter, too, dammit! And we're an understandable "other" if we all celebrate and give presents at the same time! So, why not have a Hannukah bush and give gifts for 8 days right around the same time as Goyim are giving presents around a tree? Why not eat fried food and chocolate? (Okay, Jews never need an excuse to eat, important holiday or not!) Hannukah is much more tolerable than our real Very Important Holidays: New Years in the middle of autumn (Rosh Ha Shona) or even worse, the terrible day where we fast and atone- I suppose Catholics can relate to atoning, but Catholics aren't exactly the most understood religious group in America, either.  And the fasting we do on Yom Kippur isn't really that normal either.  Much, much easier to consume consume consume along with the Goyim in December.

I'm not laying the blame at the feet of Christians. I like to blame Hallmark and Walmart as stand-ins for all the corporations that need Jew's money as badly as they need everybody else's.  I'd also like to blame a general assimilationist culture that can only figure out one culture at a time really needs to understand Jews because we're a vocal bunch, and giving a token nod in our direction is a good idea. See, we're inclusive! Blue and white lights! Menorahs downtown! We GET you! And it's not like Jews don't play along. Historically Reform Jews are even part of the assimilationist process- bringing organs and wood pews into our temples to look just like good old American WASPs. And I'm complicit: I love my WASPy temple, and I love getting gifts every December.  But I felt guilty this month introducing my boyfriend to Hannukah: I think he heard his first dose of Hebrew when we lit the candles. My family exchanged gifts like good modern Jews.  We ate latkes. It was the only "Jewish" I did all year. And my dad put matzoh meal on top of the bread. Joke or where we've come? Only the Hannukah bush can tell.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

John Gibler: To Die in Mexico

It is very hard to legally obtain a gun in Mexico. For one thing, there is only one gun store in the country, and it is run by the military.  But according to at least one source (and they're hard to find), 80,000 firearms were seized in Mexico in the four years between 2006 and 2010. Those years are significant, because 2006 was the year that Felipe Calderon took over the office of President of Mexico and launched his war on drugs with the support of the United States. The war, it turned out, was actually a militarization or para-militarization of Mexico that has basically involved supporting one drug cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, while targeting the other, smaller cartels, perhaps in the hope that if this cartel controls everything, Mexico's problems will go away.  Or perhaps, more likey, Calderon understands what is really happening: without drug money and gun money, the Mexican, US, and world economy will be in even worse shape. John Gibler writes
High-level federal officials in United States government know all of this and go along with the theatrics, because, among other reasons, the US economy is also buoyed by the influx of drug money.  The defense industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police, and the drug gangs themselves; the police are addicted to asset orfeitrue laws; prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases; and the criminalization of drugs has proven a durable excuse to lock people of color in prison in a country still shackled by racism.
The US needs the drug war, no matter how bloody and deathly it is for Mexico, and "To Die in Mexico" is a reminder of just how bloody and dealthy the drug war is for Mexico: really bloody and really deathly.

I read and write about Mexico and la frontera a lot.  Maybe I can't get over Mexico in some Freudian way that Laura Kipnis talked about in "How to Become a Scandal": Just as societies need scandals to have clear examples and deliniations (borders) of the edges of proprietery, maybe I (and the US) need Mexico to denote the Other, the not-us, the "see what could happen but won't happen here?" Even in Oakland, there are no statistics like in Mexico: Gibler calls the unsolved and uninvestigated murder rate of 95% a "95 percent impunity" rate, and we're talking about more than 38,000 homicides in the years since Calderon launched the drug war redux: 2006 to May 2011. That's approximately 20 murders per day in Mexico; Oakland's rate of over 100 per year, while extraordinarily awful, becomes somehow tolerable in the face of this violence. Further, Oakland's murder victims have names and their killers usually (often?) face some kind of justice.  In Mexico people are killed twice, according to Gibler: "First the obliterate your world;... then, once you are gone, they will turn your body from that of a person into that of a message." The message (or the scandal) is that of impunity: the murder becomes a photograph in one of the "Nota Roja" papers that specialize in bloody depictions of murder scenes, and a sin of omission in journalism, crime reports, and policing. "Those who look on you will see only death."

Gibler has written a wonderful little book for those interested in Mexico, journalism and violence. He gives some, but not enough, look at the bigger picture both in Mexico and at how the US has created and extended the problems. The book is a fast read, if you can stomach the violence which is interspersed with moments of hope, if hope can be found in mothers fighting for investigations that will never be investigated or journalists maintaining integrity in the face of murder attempts.  It's a glimpse into territory that is hard to glimpse, for the reasons that Gibler writes about: the government and cartels have created a culture of silence that makes exposure impossible, and death is a pretty high price to pay for investigating the truth. Further, the US has a lot at stake in preserving the story that Mexico is telling about itself, so Americans also have little incentive to put out any real information. Gibler has opened a dialogue in the face of lots of obstacles.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

John Seabrook: Nobrow

Here's "Nobrow" in a nutshell.  It would be very possible to end this review here: John Seabrook has culled his book down to the essentials. The "story" lays out the premise of the book, the style the book is written in, and sums it all up: once there was "highbrow" and "lowbrow"- a way for Americans to divide make class judgements by culture, and now this is rendered useless by "nobrow": consumer culture as a source of status. He even uses some of his examples: fancy mass-produced furniture, buying produce, installation art, etc.

The problem with "Nobrow" (the book, not the story) can be summed up quite simply: Seabrook is a New Yorker writer. This in itself is not a problem; in 2009 I even mentioned one of his articles as one of my favorites. The problem is that sometimes New Yorker authors can translate their long articles into books and sometimes New Yorker authors can't translate their long articles into books. Unfortunately I think that Seabrook falls into the latter category. His subject (summed up in the subtitle "The Culture of Marketing + The Marketing of Culture") is fascinating but his approach falls short. Seabrook strings together some New Yorker articles that he's written- a piece on (then) child prodigy Ben Kweller, an inside look at George Lucas and merchandising, even a fascinating look as the New Yorker as a purveyor of culture before, during and after the Tina Brown years.  The book is a look at the relationship between culture and marketing that is part personal journey with hints of Bret Easton Ellis, part investigative journalism, with a hint of academic sociology writing. It just doesn't work. Do read the short version, as the concept is quite interesting. I'd love to see Seabrook put together a follow-up, post-internet version of his thesis, also as short version. Seabrook, you out there?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Santa Got Left Behind

Poor Mac didn't get to go to Santacon because themacinator can't drink and Mac.

Week 49: Santa Got Left Home

Only 3 weeks left and he's off the hook. Onto bigger and sofafreeer things!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Laura Kipnis: How to Become a Scandal

Depending on who you believe, Freud has either been debunked or remains the key to understanding all of humanity.  If fall into the "Freud was right, and the it's all about shit and sex" camp, then you will probably enjoy "How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior." If, like me, you are somewhat skeptical of claims that diapers make for the best scandals because they're about bodily functions, this book may fall short of credibility. I had high hopes, too, because celebrity scandals really are a fascinating modern phenomena, but Laura Kipnis tempers all of her great insights with noxious Freudian references, leaving the foul taste of oozing poop in my mouth. (Really, the vivid details are necessary, according to Kipnis, to get the sense of primal disgust across.)

We all have guilty pleasures: I can't get away from Diet Coke or reading in bed All Day Long or CSI. Some people look down on me for this, or shake their heads in disbelief. But everyone understands that these are pleasurable endeavors; we're supposed to enjoy sugary drinks, relaxing, and craptastic entertainment.  On the other hand, most people are also sucked into what Kipnis calls "one of the few reliable growth industries," scandal-tainment (my word), and I'd venture that most of us feel somewhat bad about watching celebrity train-wrecks.  Sure, the media plays them out for us day in and day out, but that doesn't mean we feel good about being desperate to know the next update in some one's stalking story or weight loss story or whatever.  But we all do it, even people like me who hide their heads in the sand from the majority of pop culture. I'm not talking about stopping for a moment of silence for the death of a famous person. Tragedy, Kipnis writes, "is supposed to concern noble feelings and high motives," and when there is a tragedy, we don't feel guilty about rubbernecking: we also don't care for very long. Think about the deaths of Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs. In the latter case, the world has mourned the loss of an innovative thinker.  In the case of MJ, his life and death meet Kipnis's criteria for a "genuine scandal": "pathos and tragedy, it should have gravitas. It should jar our sense of social tidiness a little, it should incite unanswerable questions about human propensities and the moral compact and the ongoing battle between the anarchy of desire and the sledgehammer of social propriety." Over a year after MJ's death, the trial of his doctor/murderer is still big news. I have a feeling there will not quite be the same kind of stir over the tragedy surrounding Jobs.

The best part of Kipnis's book is that she validates our sleazy fascination with scandals. (More on low-brow culture next week when I finish my current book.) She goes further than okay'ing scandal, she backs it up with academic-sounding arguments thus taking away any guilt one might feel in following the rise and fall of one's favorite stars. The only drawback is that much of her argument is propped up with Freudian psychology, which I've already said is not entirely convincing, but in order to feel good about ourselves and our scandal addiction, let's suspend disbelief for a minute.  "Culture," Kipnis writes, "needs scandal." (Italics belong to Kipnis.) Cultures are built on social norms, and scandals serve the vital role of reminding us a) what the norms are by breaking the norms and b) showing happens when the norms get broken. It's bad, real bad.  She continues: "It appears we're the kind of people who enjoy watching people 'get what's coming'- probably not the most admirable trait in a population, but after all, it's our norms that are being violated. (Communities are enclaves of shared norms-scandals are what define a community.) The media may whip things up for motives of their own, but it's our standards that have to be breached, and we care about these breaches, deeply." Basically, Michael Jackson enabled us to talk about race and sex, because he was so outrageously scandalous that we could "other" him, and say that is NOT us, that is NOT our values, our community would not do x, y, or z.  The community could then reestablish guidelines by punishing him for his supposed sins: in fact, the job of society is to make the scandalizer feel their punishment in public. You can't change your predetermined race, Michael! You can't touch little boys! And monkeys? What's up with monkeys!? Shame On You! Scandals can't happen without us, Kipnis writes, and remember that culture needs scandal. So sit back, drink your Diet Coke, watch CSI, then read all day. Don't feel bad if you're reading about people going down in flames of scandal.  Just don't read this book about it.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Shimmer

Week 47: Shimmer

totally forgot to post this one.