Book Corner 2021.16

by Stacy Schiff

I would never have picked this up at all if not for book club. Biographies and histories that are all about great rulers are pretty boring to me. They have nothing to do with anything remotely touching life as I know it. What does it even mean to “amass an army”? As for political stuff – I can’t even stand to read it in the newspaper.

So the writing had to be positively dazzling, considering how interested I ended up being. Cleopatra is a household name to us today due to her sheer charisma. She wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor – she had a hooked nose and prominent chin; and incidentally she wasn’t African, either, but Greek. No beauty or stunning tactician – she ended up losing her kingdom – but no spoilers. I’m serious, I didn’t really know how things ended for her until I read this! I didn’t know much of anything on her at all, obviously.

Of greatest pleasure to read are the more mundane aspects of what life was like in Alexandria (Egypt’s then-capital) in the first few decades B.C. (her lifetime) (yet two more facts I did not know). It was quite a hotbed of feminism. Women enjoyed the right to make their own marriages, to inherit equally, to own property independently, to divorce and be supported after divorce; etc.

And Egypt was of such interest to the Romans because it was swimming in wealth. Golden grain, bananas, apricots, grapes, figs, mulberries, peaches, all were to be had in abundance. Goats were said to bear five kids at a time in Egypt rather than two. Pigeons to produce twelve broods rather than ten. The male skull was stronger near the Nile and rarely went bald. Whites came out whiter, brights came out brighter…

Alexandria itself seems to have been a of marvel – literally a wonder of the world. Its famous lighthouse, half a mile out on a man-made causeway, was the signature of its skyline. One can imagine the visitor first casting eyes upon it, like the skyline of old New York or London, and running out to buy a souvenir lampshade or tile with its likeness. The city was a “sumptuous suffusion of gleaming marble”. We think of ancient times as nasty, brutish, smelly, but I bet Alexandria had it hands down over NYC any day for quality of life. Certainly for quality of figs. (  )

I Keep Holdin’ On

V-Day = r + x + ( 0 | 28 ) + 14

Where r = # of days until registration; currently 8

x = # of days between registration and first appointment; unknown

( 0 | 28 ) = # of days needed to wait for second dose; remote possibility J&J vaccine will be administered, resulting in 0

14 = # of days until they claim full immunity kicks in

V-Day = 22 + x, or more likely 50 + x, days from today

Book Corner 2021.15

by Robert Paarlberg

The subtitle promises “straight talk” about the state of modern agriculture and consumption. This book is unusual in that it makes many forceful arguments while seldom devolving into polemic. The author is a descendent of midwestern farmers and knows from that perspective of which he speaks. He is here to defend farmers and technology, and to decry food processors and modern animal husbandry. You don’t usually get all that in one package. I found myself enjoying being challenged on some of my daily guiding principals, such as buying organic – as per Paarlberg, it’s at best a waste of my money, and at worse bad for the big picture long term. In short, organic requires more land and labor inputs. That’s bad for the environment. I’ve long known that the special drive I make to the farmer’s market, plus all the special drives that each individual vendor makes to get there, are not doing the climate any good. Since I’m going to the supermarket eventually anyway, cause you can’t live on samosas and greens alone all week long, it’s most efficient for me to stock up on all the vegetables I can handle there at Hannaford’s, where they’ve already traveled their food miles in huge bulk quantities, thus making the environmental cost of each individual bunch of carrots piffle.

But I’m not giving it up, no siree! I loves me my overpriced organic, local food. I just FEEL that I like knowing the food came from nearby, and that if anything were amiss with its production, I would be very likely to find out about it. And yes, I enjoy the bucolic scenery when I drive around, and I have to support the farms in order for that to continue to exist. Or should I put “farms” in quotation marks – good quote from Paarlberg: farms in New England are “usually just one step up from gardening and can’t count as exposure to modern commercial agriculture.” Understood. I know ‘farm’ around here and ‘farm’ in the Midwest are two different animals.

Speaking of animals, while Paarlberg is full of good things to say about modern farming, he draws the line at how we treat our animals. It was very good to hear him speak up for animal welfare, and not just stay to one side of the fence on all things modern in agriculture.

I really love his message about pointing our ire where it belongs, at the junk food producers, not the food producers. “Food products laden with sugar, salt, and fat are now deliberately formulated to ensure eaters will crave them; then they are promoted as innocent fun and placed within easy reach.” I love that phrase “promoted as innocent fun.” That’s the thing, I’m fully susceptible to that kind of message, sophisticate though I may be (ahem). Hmm, says my subconscious, the subconscious that will come up with any excuse to down something delicious… seems like EVERYbody snacks don’t they… EVERYbody buys ice cream… cmon, buy some ice cream. It’s a food staple! Get vanilla, how wholesome can you get! It’s INNOCENT FUN!

The previous food book I read, How to Eat, encouraged the same message as Paarlberg does here – all that stuff in the ‘middle aisles’ of the supermarket is NOT food, and don’t let them fool you, because that is what they are trying to do. You know what food is.

My least favorite chapter was the one about GMO’s, because here it felt like Paarlberg really deviated from the “straight talk” I felt he was delivering elsewhere. While almost all the other parts of the book felt balanced, Paarlberg has absolutely no room for misgivings in any way, shape, or form about GMO’s. They’re harmless. Always have been, always will be. As if there were really no other side to this issue to consider at all?

I end up awarding this book 3.5 stars rather than 4 – above just “AOK” but not quite deserving my “fan” status – for that reason.

I also end by noting I am eating meat only about once a week these days, and not cooking it at home. Tonight I made a kind of mushroom stew over whole wheat noodles. Last night with the same noodles I made this really delectable eggplant parm – no breading or frying, but plenty of cheese. Yes, dairy is still in my life. And the mushroom stew had beef “Better than Bouillon” starter. I’m no vegan, but I’ve become extremely vegetable- and whole-grain-forward. I’ll probably go back to cooking some of my cow/pig/bird favorites one of these days, but perhaps the meat-eating trend for me will continue generally downward for some time. (  )

Give Me Something to Do Already

Thursday & Friday of this week, we had springtime weather, and I spent some lunchtime doing some barn cleaning, and my mood was sky-high, and I don’t need people making fun of me that I get such a natural high cleaning up goat shit or ferrying goat shit to my garden which I’ll be doing later this year, that’s not the POINT. The point was I was so absolutely perfectly happy… “I love my life” I kept thinking. Lapsing into a Monty Python accent, “THIS, is GOOD!” This is it! This is the perfect life! This is all I need… and to get out now and then for a beer. Lapsing into Latke from TAXI, “Then you be happy.”

Yesterday of course it was winter again, and it was Saturday, and I actually don’t do well with a lot of unstructured time. I was depressed as all hell. And yet I was outside of my depression, marveling at it. “This is obviously not some sort of referendum on my life,” I thought – just the day before, the verdict was in, life was PERFECT, no?

Moods are never life referendums. They just come, go, ebb, flow. They’re influenced by externality but no matter how good or bad that externality may be, the moods tend to revert to the mean, and ebb and flow. I think there are exceptions. I can’t put it into perfect words, but there’s a difference between having a particular life circumstance – born rich and a famous success, or born in a shtetl or slum and always scrambling for the next meal – which does NOT affect overall mood (tons of ‘successful’ people kill themselves; interviews with prostitutes in Calcutta find they are on average as happy as anyone else). But I think there are circumstances having to do with awful things being out of your control, of a happier existence just always out of reach, I’m not sure – but I know that I didn’t have much significant happiness the three years my father was dying; and overall that was an exception to my general mood levels, which tend to just ebb and flow.

The recent novel I read, Midnight Library, gave me ideas that I hadn’t seriously entertained before, that have stuck with me (making it by definition an excellent book); that you simply cannot be happy all the time, that all our striving for precisely that, is something we can’t help but do (who’s gonna strive to be UNhappy, after all)… but when you think that the decisions you’ve made are responsible for your happiness or unhappiness, you’re sorely misguided. The decisions you make result in external circumstances that nudge your mood. But they are never going to amount to a happy or unhappy life (again, extreme exceptions exist). Your life is going to average out and contain happiness and unhappiness, no matter what you do.

It’s quite freeing.

Listing to One Side

I don’t need to actually live my life; I’d be content to just list it.

SpringBeetsCylindra
 CarrotsNapoli
 CarrotsRed Cored Chanteray
 LettuceRed Mist
 RadishSchwarz
 RadishSora
IndoorsTomatoEsterina Cherry
 TomatoMoonbeam
 TomatoValentine
 PoppyCalifornia
SummerBeansProvider
 BeansGold Rush
 PumpkinBig Max
 PumpkinLong Pie
 Squash, SummerGreen Machine
 Squash, SummerRonde de Nice
 Squash, WinterDelicata
 Squash, WinterOrangeti
 ZinniaCountry Fair
 NasturtiumDwarf Jewel

Book Corner 2021.11

Songs from Books

by Rudyard Kipling

We studied the poem “If” in 8th grade and I didn’t care for it because the ending was so disappointing. “You’ll be a man, my son!” Well, I’m not a man, and I’m never going to be a man, so what do you have to say to ME, Mr. Kipling? Harumph…

I’m really fascinated by the poem now because it seems to explain perfectly in two pages the entire philosophy of Stoicism, which draws me. So look out, here come my thoughts.

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;”

This was referred to in a book I read about poker last year, The Biggest Bluff. Professional poker players never talk about really bad hands that they’ve been dealt, or streaks of bad hands. It’s… unprofessional. You can talk about it in the context of how you played, how others played; but to just bemoan how you didn’t see a single face card all night or something like that… you don’t talk about bad luck.

That’s what stoicism is about; not talking about your bad luck, or your good luck. It’s systems thinking, vs. goal thinking. Sorry, but Weight Watchers has always been the perfect illustration of this. Goal thinking: I’m going to lose 5 pounds! Systems thinking: I’m going to try to eat only 20 points each day this week. Goal people are always winning or losing. Systems people are winning all the time, because you win merely by following the system. Maybe you lose the 5 lbs, maybe not. (If not, you think about tweaking your system.)

This is another quote from “If” that Konnikova quoted in The Biggest Bluff:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

Again, win or lose, you treat everything the same: you apply your system.

I’ve always been this way. I’ve always been lost without a system, and always clung to my systems, one of the earliest being Catholicism – if ever a religion was built for me, that was it, boy. Systems out the wazoo.

I tweak the quote a lot lately:

“If you can meet with Happiness and Despondence,
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

It doesn’t matter if you’re “happy”. Apply your system.

“If you can meet with Good Sleep and Insomnia,
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

It doesn’t matter how well you slept, ya dumbass, get up and live the day.

Why don’t the outcomes matter? Because they are beyond our control. This isn’t futility. This is acknowledging that the universe is determinant. And look out, here comes my Parallel Lives schtick – it’s related. There are infinitely many lives out there. Some of them are way better than yours and some way worse. But infinitely many… which means you can’t say where yours is on the continuum. Wherever it is, there are infinitely many better & infinitely many worse. There are some lives where you’re much fatter! Others, much thinner! And here you are.

It’s not a recipe for despair and futility – you still get up every day and apply your system (which may involve dieting, though I hope not). Because things still have causes, and sometimes you’ll effect good ones.

Back to Kipling… it’s funny to me that he seems to have a poem, “The Wishing Caps,” similar to but vastly inferior to “If”, which I’ll quote now:

“LIFE’S all getting and giving,
I’ve only myself to give.
What shall I do for a living?
I’ve only one life to live.
End it? I’ll not find another.
Spend it? But how shall I best?
Sure the wise plan is to live like a man
And Luck may look after the rest!
Largesse! Largesse, Fortune!
Give or hold at your will.
If I’ve no care for Fortune
Fortune must follow me still.”

“Live like a man” – ugh, again, speaking to somebody obviously not me. But what are ya gonna do. Follow your system and luck look after the rest. Have no care for fortune – or, care painstakingly about it – either way, it follows you still, so why waste your energy?

I’m reading a novel right now about parallel lives, so you’re in for more of this.