Wednesday, April 22, 2009


People eat the most abominable food, and in my misbegotten youth (d. 2005), I ate a good deal of it myself. Fast food, frozen food, food served in chain restaurants where, three or four times an evening, the waitstaff emerge half-heartedly to sing a happy birthday song that is not actually "Happy Birthday." I've eaten white bread that claims to be wondrous but that has no taste at all; "Chinese take out" that no person from China would recognize as Chinese food; edible oil products that are dyed orange, sliced thin, wrapped in plastic, and called "cheese"; and even Minute Rice. The passage of time has taught me the virtues of brown bread and authentic ethnic cuisine; that cheese is not orange; that all rice can be made in minutes, and that moreover Minute Rice is not rice at all. As near as I can tell, it is some sort of Styrofoam that tastes vaguely like soap. "Minute Rice," says Mark Bittman, the brilliant New York Times food writer. is "the stupidest food ever invented."

People will, in the supposed name of convenience, eat an astonishing array of truly repugnant edible consumer goods that I won't dignify with the title "food." An alarming number of these products seem to be manufactured — that is the right word, by the way — by Kraft. Consider these gastronomical hand grenades, marketed as a quicker alternative to bagels, in order to spare frequent bagel eaters the anguish of toasting real bagels and then having to spread cream cheese for themselves. How did we ever survive before our bagels were produced in factories, crammed with chemical goop by machines, flash-frozen, wrapped in plastic, dropped into a cardboard box, and shipped thousand of kilometers to our breakfast counters? The wonders of modernity never cease. Why, next somebody will think of pouring tap water into plastic bottles, trucking it across continents, and selling it for four times the cost of gasoline!

If the development of an eating disorder is among your life goals, I highly recommend that you spend some time on Kraft's website, checking out their recipes. Consider this burnt frozen hamburger served on a bed of pasta (and tell me that it doesn't look exactly like the killer robots from The Matrix.) Yum. Yum. And for those parents who truly despise their own children, the good people at General Mills market Pizza Pockets, which are made with the same loving care for children's health that Big Macs are.

If I sound slightly evangelical about all this, it's because I turned 39 today, and birthdays are occasions for reflection. The 90th Psalm allows that the number of our years are "threescore and ten" or, "by reason of strength" fourscore - this upper extremis being a mere twenty-nine thousand days. Of those, there are about fourteen thousand behind me, and I'm resolved that I will not spend any of the remainder eating food that reduces the number of my days and that tastes bad, to boot.

So, listen up, you students! (I know you're reading this.) This is the most important lesson I'll ever teach you. Tonight, you'll pick up that phone and chalk up another $25 on your VISA for a soggy pizza from some crappy place that sells "2 for 1" to students who don't know any better. Don't. Stop at the supermarket on the way home. And when you get home, follow these directions:

Heat some olive oil in a big frying pan. Chop up some onions, celery, carrots, and a couple of gloves of garlic. Throw them in. Add some salt and pepper and, if you've got it, a bit of oregano or thyme (in the summer, use the fresh stuff.) Cut up some peppers or mushrooms, if you want. Again, in summer, get the locally grown kind. Add some diced tomatoes and their juice and let it simmer while you boil some water for pasta. By the time the water is boiled and the pasta is cooked, your tomato sauce will be done. Grate some real parmesan on it (not the kind that comes in a green cardboard shaker.) If you're either totally alone or trying to impress somebody, get a bottle of this on the way home, too.

There. The whole thing (minus the optional wine) will cost less than the pizza, will be ready in the same time as delivery, and you'll have plenty of ingredients left over for future meals. It will taste better, too, and in no small measure because you made it. Next time, experiment. Serve it with a little salad or some bread from the local bakery.

If you can read, you can cook. There's no reason to buy and eat tasteless, high fat, high sodium, nutritionally worthless "food" manufactured according to same principles that Henry Ford used to build cars. Because the fact is that it is not cheaper; it is not faster; it is not more convenient. What it is, is just another product marketed by people who, in another lifetime, with a different spin of the wheel, would probably be tobacco lobbyists.

I mentioned the brilliant but down-to-earth and highly pragmatic Mark Bittman before. Here's his column at the New York Times, and the next time you even think about eating a meal that involves a cardboard box and a microwave oven, dip into this article instead.

Oh, and do the dishes before you go to bed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Most people hate theirs, and for good reason. I worked for eight or nine years in the corporate sector, and it was hard to generate much enthusiasm for it. To listen to my bosses — I had about eight of them when I worked for the paper — you would think that they spent every waking minute thinking up new ways to make the fantastically rich people who owned the newspaper fantastically richer. This usually involved "going the extra mile" and putting in unpaid overtime for people who did not know you existed and who eventually were going to lay you off. Yeah, that's smart. But people did it anyway, and, yup, they got laid off just the same.

"I believe there is far too much working being done in the world," Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, "and that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous." He called for an "organized diminution" of work - an expansion of leisure time brought about by the rational allocation of resources and the mechanization of certain kinds of inescapable toil. If this sounds like some sort of utopian socialism it's because it is, but the basic point is a good one: for most people, their working lives are a form of tyranny - they do their jobs not because they want to but because the alternative is poverty. A choice between work one hates and starvation is not a free choice, however much corporate propaganda might tell us otherwise. Our time is the most precious resource we have — it is also the one we have less of with every passing second — and no society is truly free that compels its members, en masse, to sacrifice their time to work that they hate merely in order to survive.

Work is part of life, and, as such, the key to being happy in it is to do things that you find interesting and important, and to have a healthy degree of autonomy in how you're permitted to go about doing them. In the 10th grade, my English teacher instructed us to write a letter to our future selves, a letter that would include a prediction of what we'd end up doing for a living. We were told not to open them until our 40th birthday. I cheated and opened mine a couple of years back. I predicted that by age 40 I would be teaching and be a "big time novelist". Well, damn. Neither a novelist nor "big time", but I do teach and write, and that's not a bad prediction for a 15-year-old who was adamant that people would never give up vinyl for CDs because they liked album covers too much.

I can therefore count myself among the lucky few whose working life functions harmoniously with their leisure time. Most days I look forward to my "work" with renewed pleasure, because it entails doing many of the things I would pursue in my leisure hours if I had some other job. Oh, there are stresses and strains and sacrifices to be made; and, of course, there's petty politics and pressure to publish, but, in effect, I get to do my hobbies for a living. Not many telemarketers, cab drivers, or nursing home laundry workers can say the same.

But with great jobs come great responsibilities - especially when those jobs are paid for by the community. Above all, such jobs entail a responsibility to do them well and to give something back to the people who make them possible.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


That's me, in New York's Museum of Modern Art, last Monday. The painting is by Jackson Pollock. New Yorkers, I notice, take pride in and are slightly defensive about their abstract expressionists, who seemed to capture the beat and tempo of that big, weird, and wonderful city's frenetic way of life. But many others have more difficulty appreciating such art, and, in fairness, the artists themselves wanted nothing less: their work was part of a quite self-conscious act of effrontery to mass taste and mass opinion.

At the National Gallery of Canada a few years back, I heard a woman remark about a Kandinsky, "I just can't get into the new stuff." New stuff? Had she read the little label next to the painting she would have discovered that it was executed in 1911 - probably around the time her grandmother was born. Still, I understand what she was getting at. There is something not merely difficult to appreciate but actually mildly threatening about art since, say, 1907, when Picasso did this. One experiences a slight fear in an encounter with Cubism, futurism, surrealism, and abstraction - not to mention some of the more peculiar forms of postmodern art. It's the same fear that a traveller feels in a foreign country where he does not speak the language. One feels no such fear in familiar surroundings - which in artistic terms means the more readily comprehensible world of portrait painting and landscapes. I have witnessed it myself a hundred times in the National Gallery of Canada: people hustle through the abstract galleries, averting their eyes, like somebody walking through a bad neighborhood, until they come to the comfort and familiarity of the Group of Seven gallery. "Oh," they exclaim. "It looks like the lake at our cottage." And it does: familiar and safe.

Do not think that I am arguing for the primacy of abstraction over realism. Rather, I am arguing that the really meaningful cultural experiences in our lives demand something of us. Great art — like great music and great literature —rewards us in proportion to our efforts to come to terms with it over time. Abstraction, however, confronts us with an additional challenge, for it suggests the possibility that it is just painting - that there is no content, only form, that, like the night sky or a flower garden, it is beautiful but has no meaning.

Or am I wrong – about the night sky and flowers, I mean? In the most memorable of all the lines in Conan Doyle's works, Sherlock Holmes, happening upon a rose, muses: "Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."

That's a remarkably unHolmesian leap in logic, but the basic point, I think, is a good one. The presence of beautiful things in what is, at times, an ugly world, can furnish us with much to hope for.