Around Berkeley, Journalism Prof. Michael Pollan has become almost as much of an institution as Alice Waters. And Pollan has emerged as a major public intellectual over the past ten years, with such books as The Botany of Desire (my favorite), The Omnivore's Dilemma, and now Cooked. I enjoyed his pre-celebrity books on gardening too.
(There are rumors around Berkeley that someone's friend of a friend once turned down the cereal aisle at Safeway very late one night and saw Pollan fondling a box of Count Chocula, but let's remain agnostic about this.)
I have yet to read Cooked, which came out earlier in 2013, cover-to-cover. Maybe because I feel guilty I don't cook? I don't cook well. Not yet anyway. I still note daily episodes of daydreams of me cooking a Lucullan whizbang-repast of Mediterranean delicacies for friends, maybe something that looks like this. Maybe in 2014. (Riiiiight...)
Medium published an excerpt from Cooked this past April. In this snippet, Pollan delivers strong rhetoric for the Generalist (if not an overweening one), and against Specialization. His prose shimmers and I come down with a touch of rhetoric envy. While acknowledging the Adam Smithian transformative power of the division of labor in our culture, Pollan is singing my song when he writes, "Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility."
I catch myself yea-saying, alone in the room, but then remember the last time I cooked was when I added filtered water to a bowl of Quaker Oats and microwaved it for 110 seconds, then poured some honey on top and sliced a banana. Somehow I sense this wouldn't cut Pollan's mustard. Or his mustard roots he grew in his own organic garden while chatting with Alice Waters about their high-paying speaking engagements upcoming. (Is mustard a root? I know there are seeds...)
Practicing biblio-osmosis (where you try to let the knowledge contained in a book sink into your nervous system simply be being near a book) with a tome on Mediterranean cooking somehow fell short, details of which are unnecessary to relate at this moment. Let this suffice: it seems I need to exert myself more.
Check out Pollan's paragraph that starts off with "Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles..." and ends with "corporations eager to step forward and do all the work for us." - Okay, I find it compelling stuff, and...shaming. We ought to take a stand against specialization by gardening, he's always argued, but now: learning to cook, which is a radical political act! To choose cooking "will constitute a kind of vote" and to "lodge a protest against specialization - against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives." Pollan somehow stops short of urging us to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but I think I'm wise to his game. It's heady stuff. Aye: get commercial interests out of my cranny!
All in all, I'm swooning over the elegant ad for generalism, and all whipped up over learning how to souffle. Maybe even before the New Year. Pollan carries on a variant of the Emersonian tradition of self-reliance in Unistatian life, and I just find it appealing as all get-out. We ought to alter the ratio in our lives that has to do with production <---------> consumption. To the barricades!
Not long after I read that excerpt, I ran across one of my favorite science writers, Maggie Koerth-Baker of boing boing. She's grown weary of Pollan's pronouncements, and offered as rebuttal one of her favorite cooks, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, and like Maggie, I recommend clicking the link for Kasper's short audio interview on Minnesota Public Radio. The gist: rather than feeling like you're letting the Earth, your own sense of coolness and the entire progressive political movement down by not learning to cook, do what you love to do instead, 'cuz that's what you'll be good at. And remember: when you're an eater, you're supporting all of those who love to cook, whether they're in your home or a kitchen in a restaurant, waiters, food delivery people, etc. Being a thankful, joyous eater has value, so stop with the guilt if you don't want to learn to cook.
I think Kasper has let me off the hook. But I still want to try - at some point - to learn how to cook something like this:
Any future situation that finds me mucking up perfectly good ingredients in the kitchen cannot possibly be as bad as this situation, described by the master storyteller and beloved Unistat anarchist Utah Phillips:
I'm going to touch on what I consider "prowess."
First off: There's a retroviral-like myth that sex is really good exercise. Don't believe it. The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the average six minutes of fucking burns about 21 calories, which is about the equivalent of two segments of a navel orange. Some exercise. Even if you go at it for 30 minutes you're only burning 88-100 calories. A question: can't we just enjoy our "normal" fucking without having to multi-task? Can we leave the "getting in shape" bit for some other time? Why the fascistic insistence on having "better abs" while you're "making love"? How about tapping into some zen and just...Oh I don't know...paying attention while you're actually getting to do the one thing you're daydreaming about the most? Why undermine yourself? Or your partner. If either you or your partner are saying to themselves (or even out loud), "Oh yea! That feels soooo good! If only my abs were tighter, or you had more of a six-pack rather than a keg, this would be even better!," I'm sorry: you need to re-think your priorities.
Oh, but there's the new "Coregasm," as explained by Callie Beusman, quite hilariously. Make sure you check out her other tips for staying in Navy-Seal-like shape while fucking. Callie and I are here to help any time you feel...empty and can't quite have enough of life.
Lots of us think that when it comes to sex, we're pretty good. Or maybe not-so. We have some sense of our prowess. Maybe we are on our game at times - when we've had lots of recent practice? - and then there are those not-all-that-great moments. (Hey guys! Here's a book...)
Back to prowess. It's difficult to assess prowess. There's boasting. There's he said/she said/they said. There's certainly quality, which is what most of us want, but how do you measure such an intangible? There's quantity, which seems more subject to measurement by definition.
There's USC bachelor's degree/feminist Annabel Chong (nee Grace Quek). She had sex with 251 dudes over 10 hours. I have not seen this documentary, but I've read a few articles about Annabel. She's a nice gal. Very giving. Some of her feminist colleagues seem to have balked at her stunt, but she seems like Doris Day compared to Lisa Sparks of Bowling Green, KY. (I refuse to ease into a "KY" joke here. You're welcome.) Lisa had 919 dudes in 12 hours in 2004, at the World Gangbang Festival in Poland. Just think, men: some guy's going around in bars telling an amusing anecdote that he once had "sloppy 919ths." Last I read, Lisa Sparks was happily married. She decided to settle down. We all slow down a little, I guess.
A few more miscellaneous items that might fit under this rubric of "prowess":
-Leigh Cowart's profile of porn star Marcus London, who says he can teach any man how to make a woman "squirt." London is quoted, "I put my hand inside a woman and I can tell. I can feel things. Like car mechanics looking under the hood of a car, I know what does what." Jeez Marcus, I put my hand in there too; I thought I knew what was what, but what are you, some sorta Houdini? I thought it was more up to the gal's psychosomatic synergistic physiological receptivity, and not her V-8. And oh yea: I saw what you did there with "hood." Good one.
-In my opinion, Marcus London, however good he is, is an amateur compared to Rafe Biggs, a psychologist who suffered a tragic accident and became a quadriplegic. Biggs has, like some tantric yogi Adept, rewired his brain in a remarkable case of neuroplasticity, and just...something we should all marvel at: he has orgasms through his thumbs! Yep: they're called "transfer orgasms" in the trade, and Biggs says his right thumb is the Giver of pleasure (not technically "fingering" his girlfriend, but possibly "thumbing her a ride"?), while the left is the Receiver of sex energy. I wonder if his thumb ever gets tired and he just fakes an orgasm? And what about non-orgasmic females who read this story? This could be a real blow: the guy learns how to get off through his thumbs, and they can't...I hate the word "achieve" in this sense, but let's let it stand. I say: if Biggs can do it, there's still hope for all of us. Maybe I'll work on rewiring my own brain to achieve the ability to cook? Anyway: Rafe Biggs: we salute you. Errr..."thumbs up"?
-Mary Roach's book Bonk taught me many things. One was that Masters and Johnson (Give 'em a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine! I dare ya!) coined the term "spectatoring." They said that many women didn't have orgasms because they were too self-critical and seemed to be imagining what they look like while they were fucking. The definition given was "viewing oneself judgmentally and critically during sex." (p.251) My guess is that our screwed-up sexist culture does this to women, and this is one of the few times I wish they could be more like men, as most of us apparently think we're Casanovas, temporarily in the running for People mag's "Sexiest Man Alive," while we're getting at it. Believe me, women who spectator-ate: the guy is into you; you're great and you look just grand. Seriously.
Enough with sexual matters for now. On to death.
There are so many ways to go with this.
Okay, I've taken up too much of your precious time here with all these trifles about food and sex, so enjoy this philosophical essay adapted from Yale Philosophy prof. Shelly Kagan's book Death. I love the title; it sucked me right in: "Is Death Bad For You?"
This seems a wonderful way to demonstrate how philosophers are taught to think these days. You posit an idea and play with it, toss it around, look at it from a few angles, this brings us to a related idea, which you then fiddle with in your trained-philosophy brain, and so on. Suddenly, that which was familiar seems to have become unfamiliar. Is Death Bad For You? Yes, most people would reply. It's way up there on the ultimate list of Bad Things...what're ya stupid er somethin'? Then they'd hurl a couple of epithets at you (me), and suggest therapy, medication, or maybe "You need to get laid, dude!" (I would then be tempted to tell them about Marcus London and Rafe Biggs and Annabel Chong and Lisa Sparks, if only experience hadn't taught me this would likely get my ass kicked.)
Ah yes: nonexistence can be bad for us due to what economists call opportunity costs: you're deprived of the possible good things life could bring because you are no more. Bad! And: if "death is bad for you" is a true statement, there must be a time in which it is true. It certainly isn't now, because I'm alive. Check...and mate? Nope, there's way more to this: existence requirements, possible persons, death not being bad for someone who never existed, etc.
A current philosopher (at least I think so, I don't have his number and cannot verify) named Fred Feldman notes we'd like to live to be older. But to what age? If you said "Eighty five?," well then why not 87? How does 92 strike you? Ray Kurzweil apparently wants to/thinks he will live to be 973, and outdo Methuselah. Hey Ray: howzabout hangin' to 975? Dream large, man!
It all seems so...arbitrary. And here's a wrinkle: what if you're 40 now, but rather than thinking you'd like to make it to 50 (you have literally taken Van Halen out of context when they said, "I live my life like there's/no tomorrow..."), you wish you'd been born ten years earlier, so now you're 50? You would have achieved your goal already! If that seems weird and/or stupid, Shelly Kagan reminds us of Lucretius, who wondered why people worry about death and their non-existence when they seem to overlook their non-existence before they were born!
I wish I could be more like Epicurus and Lucretius on the subject of my own death, but I seem more like Woody Allen, who observed that many people would like to achieve immortality through some heroic actions or brilliant works left behind at death. Woody said he'd like to achieve it another way: "Not dying."
One last idea - but you really ought to read Kagan yourself - is the posited day all human and mammalian life on Earth gets wiped out by an asteroid. As Kagan writes, "Someone 30 years old might reasonably think to herself that if she'd only been born ten years earlier, she would have lived longer." (Touche?) That makes me think of someone living in Europe in 1348, at the height of the Black Death. Loved ones and neighbors all rotting in death all around you. And just in the past hour you note you've got a touch of the sniffles. When will the guys with the wagon come and take care of this stench?
And then you catch yourself in a wistful mood, thinking, "Man! If only I'd been born in the 1240s, 'cuz then 20 years later it would've been the Sixties. The Sixties were happenin' man! Whatever happened to the revolution? The Church does nothing but hassle us, feudalism can bite me, and now this Black Death bummer? The 1260s were da bomb. These modern days aren't all they were cracked up to be. O! To have been alive in the Sixties!"