Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Some Books To Alleviate Holiday Boredom And Dread

For me, inactivity often induces existential angst and the feeling of the pointlessness of life. So I don't do well with blah holidays like New Year's Day, when people tend to laze around eating and watching sports and everything is closed. Maybe you're a bit this way yourself. If so, here are some books you could read -- my favorite novels and memoirs from the last year or two. All highly recommended!

Don't forget: if you want to support alternatives to the dystopian future where Amazon controls the world's reading material, you can always buy these from Barnes and Noble or Indigo.

Rakesh Satyal, Blue Boy
This novel tells the story of a kid named Kiran, of Indian descent, growing up in Ohio, who wants to wear makeup, hang out with girls, and possibly have sex with boys. Not surprisingly, Kiran struggles to find a way to fit in to his world. Funny and sad, but mostly funny.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout
It's almost impossible to describe The Sellout, as people have been discovering since it won the Man Booker prize and all kinds of other things. It's a satirical commentary on modern culture and modern America and modern race relations, told through some very .. unlikely plot elements, like a black hero who gets in trouble for trying to bring back segregation and slavery. Hilarious and biting.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
The "sympathizer" in question is a a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent at the end of the Vietnam War, who travels to the US ostensibly alongside US-supporting Vietnamese but secretly reporting back to his communist allies in Vietnam. I don't usually read the Q and Y type things at the end of books, but I did with this one, and the author said this one brilliant and fascinating thing. Usually, he said, books about colonized places written for the west fall into this trap of explaining the culture of the colonized place to the imperialist listener; this serves to flatten and misrepresent it. By having his narrator travel to the US and report back, he was able to fill his book with the opposite: explanations of US culture to outsiders. An amazing book.

Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void
About modern banking and everything else wrong with the world. We've already covered it in detail.

Riad Sattouf, Arab of the Future
Graphic memoir by an author who is half French and half Syrian, about growing up in Libya, Syria, and France, but also about the terrifying helplessness of childhood no matter what is going on.

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
This memoir by the host of The Daily Show was so much better and more interesting than I thought it would be. Noah grew up in South Africa as a mixed race kid when it was literally illegal for people of different races to have sex and children. The book is about life under apartheid, complicated family relations, and being an awkward teenager. Also, it explains many things you probably didn't know, like why people sometimes name their kids "Hilter" in South Africa. Funny and sad, in equal measure. There is also violence, including domestic violence, so be careful to read this in the proper frame of mind.

Tarquin Hall, The Vish Puri detective series

If you're looking for something lighter and less serious than the other books listed, check out this serious about an Indian crime-solving detective. These books are entertaining and also contain many small interesting details about Indian food, politics, culture, corruption, family life, spirituality, language, history ... you name it. I had assumed the author was Indian, and when I discovered that he's a guy of British and American ancestry who grew up in the UK I was surprised, and honestly a bit disturbed -- it just seems different when this kind of culture commentary comes from an outsider. But Tarquin Hall lives in Delhi, and is married to an Indian woman, and the end of this interview at least suggests his novels are popular with readers in India.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Culture And Identity Everywhere, Or, Where Are The Reluctant Vegetarians?

For a long time, I used to be a vegetarian. It was for ethical reasons only: I've always loved to eat meat. OK maybe it wasn't for such a long time, but it was .. maybe 15 years or something.

For various reasons it all kind of fell apart around the time I moved from California to Canada in 2004. For one thing, I had persistently low ferritin -- and yes, you can take iron supplements for that, but no, it's not easy or straightforward, since they upset your stomach and make you feel gross. For another, I suck at pre-preparing food; I found that in Canada, going out for a quick lunch as a vegetarian often meant a pile of pasta or a pile of French fries or a grilled cheese sandwich -- all foods that are fine as a one-off but disgusting if you eat them every day. And then I accidentally ate some mistranslated poultry while traveling in France, and I was like "OMG, this tastes amazing."

Even my feminism tended me toward meat eating: as a steak-lover, I was super-pissed about all the men out there enjoying steak, and never giving it a second thought, while here I was worrying and depriving myself. Well -- I thought -- I'm going to eat it too, so there. 

All this time I've had some vague cognitive dissonance, but honestly there's so much else going on in the world to be upset about that I found it hard to prioritize. But then recently I kept seeing references to meat-eating's effect on the environment and contribution to climate change, and I kept remembering the reasons I'd been a vegetarian in the first place. I read Oryx and Crake, which paints a disturbingly plausible dystopian future of our relations to our animal friends. Plus, I remembered the symbolism of it -- the feeling that regardless of whether your actions are "making a difference," at least there's that feeling that you're standing up for something that isn't actively contributing to a status quo that is frankly pretty deeply screwed up.

So a few months ago I decided I could at least do this: eat vegetarian when it's easy to do so. It's easy at a lot of restaurants. It's pretty easy when I'm at home by myself -- especially since I actually like tofu. Where I teach, you can now get some decent felafel, so it's pretty easy to do on campus.

Since I started doing this, I keep finding two things: one, how few restaurants offer decent vegetarian food, and two, how many people associate vegetarianism with somehow not liking meat or not wanting to eat it or regarding it as somehow unhealthy or gross.

These are bizarre to me. I mean, it's 2016. Aren't vegetarians everywhere? And don't they want to eat with non-vegetarians? Sometimes fancier restaurants do OK, though often it's just some crappy pasta thing like pumpkin ravioli that is basically starch on starch filled with starch. Kind of blech. The real puzzle, though, is casual places and pubs. If you're serving burgers already, is it that hard to add a veggie burger? Don't they come pre-packaged and frozen? 

I think in some deep sense this restaurant problem is related to the other thing -- that is, with the way avoiding meat somehow is seen as a distinctive identity or approach to the world, rather than just a relatively simple and possibly occasional way make an environmentally friendly and animal-friendly choice. I was recently in a large group of people where the conversation turned to meat, and someone told a story about how they'd cooked something in meat that isn't usually cooked in meat, and how some nearby vegetarian had said, "oh that smells so good!" and everyone in the room laughed knowingly, as if that poor vegetarian had been outed as some kind of hypocrite -- which is, of course, ridiculous.

I love to eat meat. I think it tastes delicious, and it makes me feel good. If I'm eating a veggie burger, it's not because I have some weird identity commitment to pasta being a virtuous food, or meat being decadent, or beef being disgusting. It's not even that I think veggie burgers are healthier. Given the latest research, I expect they're not. It's just, you know, a bit of less factory farming misery and a bit of saving the planet.

As I say, I think somehow the two things to together: that seeing vegetarianism as a taste and thus identity is related to how hard it is to find vegetarian food in casual eating places. I don't know how it works, but maybe it's something like this. As with so many things these days, the choice to do one thing or other is seen as reflecting not just a means-end calculation you made (avoiding meat better for environment) but rather something about what kind of person you are. And since it would be weird to be the kind of person who thinks meat is somehow wrong or evil or bad or gross, and still go around saying you like it, it's expected that you'll present a coherent identity choice on the issue. Then, naturally, it's expected you'll choose your friends and restaurants accordingly. Vegetarians will hang out with other vegetarians at vegetarian restaurants; pub people will hang out with other pub people at burger places.

I don't know what else to say about this except - "I don't like it." I feel like a burger person who is trying to eat vegetarian food, and I feel like a pub person who is in the wrong restaurant. I feel like saying I am avoiding meat even though I like it makes people feel weird, like I'm doing something bizarrely out of character or something.

Last semester when I was teaching philosophy of sex and love, we discussed Foucault, and we got talking about the idea not all societies had/have a concept of "sexual orientation," because sometimes you can just have a set of things you choose and it's not seen as revealing something deep or unchangeable about who you are. It's just: you chose that thing that time. I feel like with almost everything we're going in the other directions. Every choice is taken to reflect something deep or important about who you are. But why?

Weirdly, I feel like even most of the vegetarians I know seem happy with their vegetarianism. I don't hear a lot of other people talking about how they wanted steak but they ate tofu instead. Why not? Is it true that most people who don't eat meat don't want to? Or is it that it's easier to sacrifice if you convince yourself you didn't like the thing in the first place? Is it some deep manifestation of the harmony myth of human nature?

Or is it something much simpler: that the people who feel this -- the reluctant vegetarians -- just don't talk about it much?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Non-Post About A Missing Question: What We Talk About When We Don't Talk About The Environment

Because of the end of term crunch and a million other things, I didn't have time to write something this week. If I had written something, it was going to be about the following question: why do you never see considerations of environmental issues when seemingly smart and well-meaning people are writing about other things?

For example, why does Farhad Manjoo's column about the death-of-gadgets not consider the perspective that yeah, thank god for the death of gadgets, because the endless pile-up of formerly useful gadgets is destroying the environment?

Generally, I like and enjoy Manjoo's tech column. He seems like an intelligent, informed guy. Probably he's heard about the mountains of garbage clogging up the oceans and the way minerals from electronics create toxic environmental waste. So why write about how sad it is that there are fewer gadgets? Why complain that meta-gadget are replacing what used to be a multiplicity of gadgets? Or, at least, why not just pause to consider that alongside the mourning for gadgets, we might pause to remember that gadgets are actually a problem?

I feel like this is a general thing. You almost never read about environmental impact when you're reading about home decor, or landscaping ideas, or gardening, or travel, or restaurants, or anything like that. In fact, you almost always read about environmental impact only when you're reading something directly about the environment.

Why is this? It is that environmental issues just aren't on people's minds? Is it that the news industry categorizes one thing one way and one thing another and they can't bring themselves to put it together? Is it that thinking about environmental impact is considered a buzz-kill, and so has no place in "fun" journalism pieces -- like pieces about tech? Is it that everyone is so overwhelmed and freaked out that they can't bring themselves to think about it?

Usually here at TKIN we have a lot of theories on these kinds of questions. But with this one, I really don't know. What is the deal with the missing environmental talk?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The "Surrendered Person" As A Model For Us All

My mother raised me to be a feminist (thanks, mom!) and so when I see a headline like "I Am a Surrendered Wife," I know there's going to be trouble. When I think "surrendered wife," I think a person who has agreed to sublimate her own will and well-being to that of her husband, to give up on shared decision-making, and to have sex on demand.

But when I read the article I got a little weirded out, becuase a lot of what she was saying seemed to me to be ... like normal relationship advice. In fact, a lot of what she was saying seemed to me to be good advice for just being a person and relating to other people.

For one thing, the author describes constantly hectoring her husband, disagreeing with him, trying to change him, and not respecting his opinions. Um -- that's not equality, that's being an annoying pain in the ass. For another thing, most of what she was recommending seemed to be about respect for others and being kind, receptive, and grateful.

Let's look at the "six principles" of being a surrendered wife. The surrendered wife:
  • Relinquishes inappropriate control of her husband
  • Respects her husband's thinking
  • Receives his gifts graciously and expresses gratitude for him
  • Expresses what she wants without trying to control him
  • Relies on him to handle household finances
  • Focuses on her own self-care and fulfillment
Leaving aside the financial business, aren't these all things everyone should be doing for everyone else all the time? Don't try to boss other people around. Respect others' opinions and views. Be grateful for the kindnesses you receive, and try to be kind in return. Don't try to control other people.

One of the more interesting items on the list is the last one: that the "surrendered wife" needs to make happiness for herself instead of expecting her spouse to magically provide the happiness and meaning in her life. This is a bit weird, because it's like the opposite of being "surrendered." It's like, "Take responsibility for your own happiness! Your relationship isn't the end-all-and-be-all!"

One of the more potentially contentious aspects of being a "surrendered wife" that doesn't come up on this list has to do with sex. Part of the idea is usually that even when you don't feel like it, you should have sex with your husband even when you're not in the mood.

Of course, there is a way of understanding this in which it is awful and sexist: that no matter how you're feeling your feelings don't matter, you just have to have sex when the other person wants it. But there's another way to think of it that seems to be completely normal and good advice for everyone, both men and women: if the person you love wants to have sex with you, and you don't feel like it, you don't have to say "no" immediately. Maybe try it out a bit. See how it goes.

In fact, recent research into women's sexuality has raised the idea that maybe expecting desire to arise "spontaneously" is a male-centric model of sexuality. For many women, desire is "responsive" and emerges in connection with sexual activity itself. To think spontaneous desire is "better" is just another form of taking women to be "lesser."

So that just leaves ... money. And no, of course partners should engage in shared decision-making about money. So that one, I think, doesn't translate over. But frankly, it seems an odd fit with the rest of the list anyway.

I don't know how normal relationship ideas got so strange that respecting the other person's opinions and being grateful and not trying to control them became "surrender" rather than just, you know, normal life, but I guess that's just another one of those insane things about the early 21st century.