Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: "Animal Factory" by David Kirby

"The looming threat of industrial pig, dairy, and poultry farms to humans and the environment," says the subtitle.

Marketing copy like that makes a lot of us decide to read, say, a detective story instead. We are tired of hearing about what's wrong. We don't want to add to our guilt over what we eat. And besides, this book is 492 pages long. So why read it?

If you've already read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and Nicolette Hahn Niman's Righteous Porkchop; and if you've watched King Corn and Food, Inc., you probably don't need to read Animal Factory, though you might be exactly the kind of reader the publisher had in mind: you are already worried about not only the cruelty but also the economic, ecological, and epidemiological dangers inherent in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).

If you haven't read those other books or seen the films, Animal Factory could be a good and relatively painless place to start your education. Kirby, like Pollan, is a journalist, and he knows how to tell a story. This is not a book of data (though it contains quite a lot of information), nor is it a book of sermons (though it may convert you to a new way of thinking about your food). It is rather an extended and very readable story about Rick Dove, a retired marine and Vietnam vet, whose North Carolina fishing business was destroyed when the fish all died; Helen Reddout, a farmer in central Washington whose town and livelihood were threatened by the overpowering smell wafting off lakes of pig crap; and Karen Hudson, an Illinois farmer who tried but failed to prevent her neighbor, a dairyman, from dumping millions of gallons of poop into nearby waterways. The book tracks Dove, Reddout, and Hudson as they all become activists in the fight against factory farms, Davids against the Goliath of Big Ag and corrupt politicians.

Kirby is a columnist for the Huffington Post, so some conservatives may be inclined to dismiss Animal Factory without opening it. They should not: the book has an agenda, but the agenda is not partisan. To his credit, Kirby usually avoids the soapbox, letting the stories carry their own message. Many - perhaps most - of the farmers and activists he profiles are ardent Republicans. And, as he points out, both Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to provide and enforce the regulations needed to avert disaster.

A reporter once commented that ex-Marine Dove does not look like a tree-hugger.
Rick jumped at the chance to explain himself. "No, I am not." He grinned. "I am a Republican. And I am a capitalist. I believe that industry is good and development is good. But it's got to be right, or we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
 The good news is that, as the word about factory farms gets out, change is beginning to happen.
Helen Reddout went so far as to predict that ten years from now, "We will have a lot more farms transition back to sustainable operations. And if the government can resist a bailout on large corporate farms, you will see a lot of them folding. They are having serious economic problems now, and if we don't come in and bail them out with more subsidies, then the free market will finish them off. Give us a chance and we can do it."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review of "Best Love, Rosie" by Nuala O'Faolain

You may have to be at least 50 to understand how a book could be about aging and death and troubled relationships and failing bodies and eldercare and loneliness and depression and alcoholism - and still be not only inspiring but often very funny.

Of course, Best Love, Rosie is also about Ireland and New York and best friends and a good dog and silly self-help books, which lightens the tone.

Rosie, now in her mid 50s, has spent decades living anywhere but Ireland. Her most recent love affair clearly doomed, she decides it's time to return to Dublin to look after Min, her 69-year-old aunt, who alternates between too much time at the pub and too much time home in bed. But Min, suddenly transformed, flies to the United States, makes improbable friends, and begins enjoying life immensely, while Rosie turns to rehabbing an ancient house that once belonged to her long-dead grandparents.

At the same time, Rosie is trying to write a self-help booklet for middle-aged women. The problem is that her likely publisher is American, and - as Markey, an Irish-American friend of hers, keeps pointing out - Americans want dreams, not realism. Especially not realism about death. "No German thinkers," he tells Rosie when she attempts to quote one. "Particularly, no suicidal German thinkers. That is Rule Number One.... No Auschwitz survivors! That's Rule Number Two.... We're trying to sell to ... nice, open-faced women who look about fifty but are sixty-four, who still wear hats and are dear people and ignorant of bad things, Rosie."

This presents Rosie with a bit of a problem, especially when she's asked to suggest titles for the booklet. I once worked for a publisher on the other side of the pond whose self-help titles generally started with the word Coping. "American don't cope," I kept telling them: "we overcome!" Markey tries to convey the same message when Rosie suggests The Bittersweet Years, or Making the Best of the Middle Years, or Time to Destination. "Lay off the European gloom!" he orders.

Rosie does not have a Hollywood ending, but Rosie manages to escape the gloom. The book closes with several helpings of hope and love - enough to please Maeve Binchy's fans, but not so much as to put off people who find Binchy too sentimental. In the introduction, O'Faolain writes:
Best Love, Rosie - my fifth book in ten years - is the book of my years of commuting between the melancholy of Ireland and the optimism of America. It insists on celebrating what those years showed me. That the world in all its shades of black and white is wonderfully interesting. That sorrow can be managed: it can be banished to a minor place within. And that even the most seemingly moribund life is open to the possibility of change - in youth, in middle age, and always.
She wrote those words on January 14, 2008. On February 8, O'Faolain was diagnosed with lung cancer, which had spread to her brain and liver. Two months later, on April 13, she spoke extremely frankly in a Sunday Independent interview. When the interviewer asked her opinion on people who advise positive thinking as a coping mechanism, she responded: "Yeah, I was just reading about some best-selling man who says 'Live your dream to the end' and so on and I don't despise anyone who does, but I don't see it that way. Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."

O'Faolain died Friday, May 8, at age 68, less than four weeks after giving the interview. Her obituary in The Independent  noted that "during the months between her diagnosis and death, she had travelled to Paris, made a trip to see art works in Madrid and visited the Berlin Opera. Only the Sunday before her death, she had returned from her travels to Sicily with her sisters and close friends."

Best Love, Rosie was published posthumously.

I like to think that in the weeks between the despairing interview and her death, O'Faolain managed her sorrow and soaked up the love of her family and friends. I'm sure that if Rosie had contracted a fatal illness, that's how she would have wanted her to go.

Beyond Camelot : Britain's un-American austerity program

Our British cousins have come up with an economic policy that could not be more different from what we Americans have been doing for decades. I rather like it.

According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, "Britain Unveils Emergency Budget" (shorter and perhaps easier for Americans to follow than a similar article from the BBC News), "the government of Prime Minister David Cameron took what his coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats acknowledged was a historic gamble: that austerity measures will help balance the government’s books without pitching the country into a double-dip recession."

The austerity measures include major tax increases and spending cuts. The VAT (value-added tax) will increase from 17.5% to 20% in January, and the capital gains tax will go up immediately from 18% to 28% for the upper brackets. In addition, government spending will be slashed by 25%: "roughly four pounds in spending cuts for every pound in tax increases."

Interestingly, there will be no cuts to the National Health Service.

It all sounds rather shocking from this side of the pond, where for years we've been told that if we only lower taxes enough, we can all be rich; where we seem unable to cut federal spending even for manifestly silly pork-barrel projects; and where half the country - maybe more - thinks health care for everyone means the death of liberty.

To Britain's leaders, I offer Queen Guinevere's words to the three knights about to take on Sir Lancelot : "I do applaud your noble goals; now let us see if you achieve them." If they do, and if the U.K. manages to pull itself out of its economic mess, perhaps the U.S. will take lessons from the land that brought us the stiff upper lip.

But I'm not holding my breath. Lancelot roundly bested the three knights, and most Americans, despite all evidence, continue to believe in Camelot, where the climate must be perfect all year.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Shallows, A Time of Gifts, and the importance of memorization

I just sent a review of Nicholas Carr's new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, to Christian Century magazine, so I won't review it here. I will say, however, that the book is well researched and thought provoking, and Carr is an engaging writer to boot. If you're thinking you might want to buy or borrow it, you can get a preview by reading his Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (July/August 2008).

But I'd like to comment here on his ninth chapter, "Search, Memory," which includes some startling ideas that aren't in the magazine article. Carr strongly disagrees with those who see no point in memorization, now that nearly anything we might memorize is available in the Internet's vast data banks. Without well-formed memories, he believes, we become unable to synthesize our cultural heritage and reinterpret it for our day. We can't draw on it to inform our own creative endeavors. And we certainly can't pass it on to future generations. "Outsource memory," says Carr, "and culture withers."

While reading The Shallows for work, I was also reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts for fun. In 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor set off on a solo walking tour from Holland to Constantinople. This book, the first of two about his journey, gets him as far as Hungary. With no MP3 player to distract him, he amuses himself en route by singing and reciting poetry: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Blake, Scott, Swinburne, Rossetti, Wordsworth, Kipling, Donne, Herrick, Raleigh, Wyatt, Herbert, Marvell, Housman, Chaucer, Carroll, and Lear--to name only some of the authors he mentions.

Leigh Fermor, I should point out, left school at age 16.

If I made that journey, I wouldn't know enough poetry to get me from breakfast to lunch on the first day out. Back in the 1950s when I was in elementary school, memorization had largely fallen from grace. My father had memorized long poems in the 1920s, but by age 16 all I could recite was William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis" (learned for extra credit to prove to my father than I could do it too), a couple of poems by Robert Frost, the first two and a half verses of "Paul Revere's Ride," and "Gerald McBoing-Boing Meets Mr. Magoo," a poem published in Family Circle that my mother suggested I memorize when I was driving her nuts on a long car trip (I was an 8-year-old chatterbox, and I had run out of library books).

This is a shame because, in Leigh Fermor's words, "I was at the age when one's memory for poetry or for languages - indeed for anything - takes impressions like wax and, up to a point, lasts like marble." Fortunately I attended a Christian school that, though it had given up on poetry and languages, still expected us to memorize scripture. Lots of it, from the King James Version. I whined and grumbled, but my mother wisely told me to just do it. "When you're older," she told me, "these verses will stay in your mind. You'll be glad they're there."

Mother was right, and so, I believe, is Nicholas Carr. As I learned in grade school and still remember, "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matthew 12:34).

Check out William Dalrymple's 2008 interview with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How Republicans could cut federal spending

"Voter Concerns Over Federal Spending Propels Conservative Candidates, Analysts Say."

This predictable headline comes from a Fox News piece by Jim Angle published  two days after the June 8 primaries. From the article:
"Debt, spending and taxes. There is more unanimity in Republican and Tea Party ranks about those issues than anything else," said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"Taxpayers are fed up," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "They want us to stop spending their money, and I think it's time for Congress to listen to the American people."
I read the article right after I had looked at a report called Federal Spending in Each State Per Dollar of Federal Taxes, FY 2005. The report lists the 50 states in order of how much they get for their tax dollar. New Mexico, the biggest recipient of federal funds, gets back $2.03 for every $1.00 paid in taxes; while New Jersey gets back only 61 cents. The average return was $1.15 spent for every $1.00 received, which supports the contention that the federal government is spending too much.

I then went to a map of the 2008 election results to see if there was any correlation between federal benefits and taxpayer anger. Yes, indeed, there was a very strong - and very strange - correlation. The angriest taxpayers are the ones who are getting the most for their money.
  • Of the 10 states that received the most federal money per tax dollar, 8 voted Republican in 2008.
  • Of states 11-20 in the ranked list, 7 voted Republican.
  • Of states 21-30, 5 voted Republican.
  • Of states 31-40, 2 voted Republican.
  • Of states 41-50 - that is, the 10 states that received the least money back from the government - none voted Republican.
In other words, states that voted for McCain - Palin received far more federal money for their tax dollar than states that voted for Obama - Biden. Republican states averaged $1.40 on the dollar, while Democratic states averaged 99 cents. McCain's home state, Arizona, got back $1.19 on the dollar, and Palin's Alaska got back $1.84. By contrast, Obama's Illinois got only 75 cents, and Biden's Delaware got 77 cents.

The loyal opposition is right to point out that the government can't continue to spend more than it takes in. Here's a suggestion that should appeal to everybody - Republicans and Tea Party adherents and Democrats alike. Let's make it illegal for any state to get more money back from the federal government than it pays in federal taxes.

That would mean a drastic reduction of federal spending in 21 of the 22 states that voted Republican in 2008, and it might be really hard on Alaska, but hey - it would go a long way toward balancing the budget. And that's what Republicans want, right?

Friday, June 11, 2010


Yesterday I wrote about the toll caregiving takes, especially on women. This is not news. For several decades we Boomers, shocked at the fatigue and messiness and expense and relational difficulties of caring for our parents, have been writing about it. And we have written truthfully: caregiving is hard work.

We’re used to hard work, of course. We’re the generation that brought you the two-or-more-career household, the omnipresent electronic office, and the answer “Keeping busy” to the question “How are you?” Thanks to us Boomers, younger folks have no memory of long winter evenings playing board games, Sundays without shopping, or even family dinner.

But caregiving is not like our other work. Caregiving is unpaid. It does not lead to career advancement – in fact, it often makes it hard for us to keep our jobs. And since it still falls primarily to women, it serves to widen the status gap between men and women.

Here’s a heretical thought: maybe it’s time for us to talk less about the pain of giving care and more about the pain of needing care.

I do not need care yet, so I am only guessing at what care-getting feels like. I did, however, care for and observe my parents as their health declined. I have also come face to face with a life-threatening condition myself, and I can affirm Samuel Johnson’s observation: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Lacking British reserve, I would speak not of concentration but of primal terror. The healthy body – or at least the body that feels healthy – struggles to live. Yet many people who are very old or very sick or very demented find sweet release in death. What, then, must their lives feel like?

How does it feel when your spouse of sixty years dies and nearly all your friends are either dead or too infirm to visit you? When your body aches constantly from head to toe, whether you’re sitting or standing or lying down? When you can’t walk to the bathroom without help? When you can’t make it to the bathroom even with help and have to wear diapers? When your vision dims and your hearing is nearly gone? When you no longer recognize your children and feel as if you are living among strangers?

How does it feel to be nobody, to be called by your first name by nursing-home and hospital attendants younger than your grandchildren, to be told what to eat and where to live and how to spend your time, to know that even the kindest people are treating you like a kindergartner?

How does it feel to think you are a burden to the people you love most, to suspect that they are forfeiting jobs and money and family time and much-needed rest because you desperately need their care?

Pretty soon a lot of us Boomers are going to know exactly how these things feel. And I’ll bet any amount of money that we’ll start focusing a lot less on the stress of giving care and a lot more on the stress of needing it. We’re selfish that way.

Truth is, of course, that there’s plenty of stress to go around. It is very stressful to care for someone you love as she gradually, and often painfully, disintegrates. It is very stressful to become dependent on your children and strangers as your body, and often your mind, weaken. Parents and children who respect and honor one another recognize the mutual stress and are grateful for the bond of love that continues to hold them together.

Still, when it comes to caregiving, I’ll go with Jesus’ observation: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Thursday, June 10, 2010


A few minutes ago I got the news that my daughter’s mother-in-law has stage 4 cancer. I was still staring at the computer screen, trying to digest the information, when a friend forwarded me a report on a Canadian study with this headline: “Female Caregivers Face a Heavier Toll.”

Yes, we do. My mother died almost exactly 15 years ago, four months after my father died. Both had Alzheimer’s disease. Both were in a nursing home about five minutes from my house. I visited them at least several times a week, sometimes daily.

“We’re so glad we had a daughter,” my mother used to tell me. “It’s only the daughters who visit.” She wasn’t entirely right: several sons joined the many women who visited regularly. Though the study said six in ten caregivers are women, in my parents’ nursing home the number must have been closer to eight in ten.

Warning: If you are a woman with a spouse, parents, or parents-in-law, you are likely to spend a number of years as a caregiver.

"In terms of society's norms, the responsibility to care for parents tends to fall on the women," said Marina Bastawrous, the author of the study, who discovered that forty percent of female caregivers experience high-level stress. Women, she noted, are more likely than men to quit their jobs in order to care for their parents. When my parents started needing more care than I could handle along with my demanding job, I cut my hours back to 30 a week. Eventually I quit altogether. (More information on the toll caregiving takes is available from the Family Caregiver Alliance).

Sadly, according to the Canadian study, despite—or perhaps because of—all their hard work, “adult daughters suffer more than adult sons from poor relationships with ailing and aging parents who need their care.” If we care for our parents because we want to be thanked, or because we want to be closer to them, or because we have a romantic vision of saintly elders, we are likely to be disappointed. A bookstore assistant, noticing the book I was buying on caregiving, said to me, “God bless you, dear—I remember those days. Nothing you do is ever right.”

To be sure, nothing is ever enough. Nothing will restore our parents’ youth. Nothing will keep them from eventually dying. Nothing will keep us from our own certain decline. And yet we continue to care and to hope. That is what love does. Not sentimental, stress-free, feel-good love, but tough love that does what needs doing.

My daughter’s mother-in-law has no daughters, but she has an excellent husband and three good sons who love her very much and are already doing what they can for her. She also has three fine daughters-in-law, one of whom has been taking her to her doctors’ appointments all week. Chemo begins Monday. We are all praying for their strength and her healing. Please pray with us.

See also my next post, "Caregetting."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

10 good reasons to be a part-time vegetarian

There are lots of good reasons to be 100% vegetarian. For one, vegetarians tend to live longer than meat eaters. For 10 others, see my May 7 post, "10 good things about being vegetarian." The list is by no means exhaustive.

But there are also good reason to eat meat some of the time. I first heard the term part-time vegetarian in 2005 when I was traveling in Asia. Many Buddhists, I learned, occasionally eat meat though they favor a plant-based diet. In largely Buddhist Thailand, for example, per capita meat consumption is about 30 pounds per year (in the United States, the figure is about 125 pounds; you can compare various countries' meat consumption here).

Part-time vegetarians are a diverse lot. Some, like my parents when I was growing up, eat meat no more than three or four times a year. Others, like some of my friends, eat meat six days a week but take a one-day vegetarian holiday. Here are 10 good reasons to try part-time vegetarianism yourself:

1.    Family. Some of your family members want to eat meat, and you don’t have time to cook separate meals. You can, however, offer meatless meals one or more times a week.
2.    Friends. You’re basically vegetarian, but you don’t want to be a fussy guest when people invite you to dinner.
3.    Taste. You’re basically vegetarian, but now and then meat tastes so good...
4.    Curiosity. You prefer to eat vegetarian, but you love to travel and sample native cuisines.
5.    Budget. You buy only ethically produced meat, which means you can’t afford to eat it very often.
6.    Winter. You eat mostly locally grown food, and you run short of vegetables and fruit in the winter.
7.    Sustainable agriculture. You eat lots of plants and small amounts of meat, since pastured animals make organically grown plant foods possible.
8.    Food intolerance. You can’t digest dairy products and/or beans, and so consistent vegetarianism is difficult to practice.
9.    Religion. You have religious reasons for periodically abstaining from meat; or you find that it is often easier to eat vegetarian than to find kosher or halal food.
10.  Practice. You would like to be a full-time vegetarian someday, but you need to spend time learning how.
If you'd like to be a vegetarian, whether full-time or part-time, scroll through other posts in this series  for tips on vegetarian cooking, eating, and dining out.