Sunday, September 30, 2012

Chief Pre-Shakespearean Drama - Part 1

Source of Book: I own this

I am reading this book in several parts, due to its long length and the difficulty of the language. Most of the short plays in the sections that I read for this installment are in Middle English. I am not exactly unfamiliar with Middle English, but I am not fluent either, so the reading takes time and thought. This collection was published in 1924, edited by Joseph Quincy Adams.

The history of English drama dates back to the Middle Ages, at which time it was primarily associated with religious themes. Indeed, this book starts with miniature dramas that were inserted into the Easter church services, demonstrating the Resurrection. Included are four different versions of the Sepulchrum dramas, showing an evolution from a minimal call and response lasting perhaps a minute, to a complete acting out of the scene at the empty tomb taken from the Gospels. In the first version, dating from around the Ninth Century, two small groups perform the drama. “Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?” and so forth. By the time of the last, from the Thirteenth Century, there are many individual roles, and costumes and sets have appeared as well.

Also included from this time period are plays about the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection, the visit of the magi, the shepherds, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the prophecies about the birth of Christ. All of these plays are in Latin, as was the rest of the church service. Presumably, the acting itself aided comprehension since few if any laymen could understand the words.

Also notable was the fact that all parts, male and female, were acted by men and boys - a tradition that carried to the days of Shakespeare and beyond.

I also was a bit startled to find casual anti-semitism throughout the early plays. Particularly in those from the Thirteenth Century, there are gratuitous slurs, which were readily accepted in that time, but are uncomfortable to modern ears. For example, after lamenting Christ’s death, one of the “Three Marys” says, “Alas, vile race of Jews, whom a dire madness makes frenzied! Detestable people!”

This is anachronistic as well, as all the characters (except for the Roman soldiers) are Jews - as is Christ. One tends to forget that the history of Europe in the last 1000 years is a history of anti-semitism. Even such a revolutionary as Martin Luther wrote screeds against the Jews, and suggested that they be exterminated by pogroms. Just as slavery was commonly accepted in the United States 200 years ago, hatred of the Jews was an accepted fact of life for centuries. In that sense, Hitler was not so much an anomaly as unusually successful in carrying out the popular will.

Although these earliest plays were anonymous, several of the plays written and performed about that time are attributed to Hilarius, who is believed to have been an Englishman, although he spent some of his career in France. (It occurs to me that Hilarius should have written comedy, had he lived in a later age. His name, at least, would have been perfect.) Hilarius is the likely author of the play about the conversion of St. Paul, along with three dramas telling of different incidents in the life of St. Nicholas.

After this time, the Latin gave way to the vernacular - that is, the language spoken by the people. In England, this was the Middle English of Chaucer and his contemporaries. Three plays from the early period are included: the usual empty tomb, Christ after his resurrection, and the shepherds. This is where the reading became more difficult. My experience in Middle English is limited to some Chaucer and the extensive quotations in C. S. Lewis’ book on Medieval romances, The Allegory of Love. Thus, I had to re-learn some of the words, and pronounce everything in my head so as to hear beyond the archaic and inconsistent spelling.

The final section that I read in this book is that of the Craft Cycles. Eventually, drama moved out of the church and into the streets, with rolling wagons with a two-tiered stage, called a “pageant,” moving from town to town and performing a complete cycle of Biblical stories, from the fall of Lucifer to Judgment day. There are a total of nineteen cycle plays in this book, although the complete cycle contained about a dozen more. The editor selected the best of the plays, from several sources. I loved the names of the guilds that wrote and performed these plays: The Grocers of Norwich, The Glovers of Wakefield, The Waterleaders and Drawers in Dye of Chester, The Tile Thatchers of York, The Shearmen and Taylors of Coventry. Others reference the towns of performance: acted at N. Towne, or at Wakefield. One pictures something similar to Community Theater. Those of the community with a dramatic bent getting together to act out the familiar stories for an enthusiastic and occasionally irreverent audience.

A pagaent wagon. The "roof" portion would be used for God and other heavenly characters.

Signs of the plebeian audience for the plays can be found in the frequent episodes of low comedy inserted into the text. For example, in the story of Noah, his wife is portrayed as a shrew, needing a good beating now and again - and giving one to Noah in return.

[Noah, addressing the audience.]

NOAH: Yee men that has wifis, whyls they ar yong,
If ye luf youre lifis, chastice thare tong.
To se sich stryfis wedmen emong.
Bot I, as have blys, shall chasyse this!

WIFE: Yit may ye mus, Nicholl Nedy!

NOAH: I shall make the still as stone, bhynnar of blunder!
I shall bete the, bak and bone, and breke all in sonder.

[Fighting ad lib, with Noah finally victorious.]

WIFE: Out, alas, I am gone! Out apon te, mans wonder!

NOAH: Se how she ca grone and I lie under!
Bot, wife, in this haste let us ho,
For my bak is nere in two.

WIFE: And I am bet so blo that I may not thryfe.

And so forth, throughout the play. Also, in the story of the announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds, there is an extended story about a no-good sheep-stealing character and his attempts to disguise the stolen lamb as a newborn baby. Various incidents like this appear in the plays, much like Shakespeare’s addition of characters like Falstaff into otherwise serious historical plays.

Another odd anachronism that appears in these plays is the fact that all of the villains, from Pharaoh to Herod, pray to “Mahound,” known to us as Mohammed. Since Mohammed probably lived around 600 years after the birth of Christ, this is wildly inaccurate, of course. It is, however, common in works of the era, when historical knowledge, to say nothing of accuracy, was considered rather unimportant. Thus, the “Jews” were a foreign group, different from Christ and his disciples; the setting of the stories is sometimes clearly meant to be English locations; and all the villains worship Allah.

On the other hand, some sources of humor are apparently timeless. When Balaam is hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites (remember the talking donkey?), he becomes incensed by Balaam’s inability to carry out his orders. After Balaam ends up blessing Israel, Balak explodes.

BALAK: What the devilles eyles the, poplart? Thy speach is not worth a fart!

Despite the occasional displays of ignorance and low-brow humor, the Craft Cycle plays are extraordinary for their use of scripture. In an era when few could read English, let alone the Latin Vulgate, these plays are filled with direct quotations and the letter, not just the spirit, of the original. Once Wycliffe translated part of the New Testament in the Fourteenth Century, the scriptures began to be available to the most wealthy of the educated classes. It was not until the work of Tyndale and the Geneva Bible which was primarily his work was printed in the early 1500s that the average person could own and read an English Bible. Thus, these plays were remarkable for their role in bringing the Biblical stories to the masses, disguised, perhaps, as entertainment.

Taken as a whole, this first part of the collection has been an enlightening tour of Medieval drama. I look forward to the next installment, which includes the Morality Plays, and the early farces.

An interesting look at the 2010 production of the Mystery Plays in York.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Source of Book: I own complete Barsetshire books.
Date originally published on Facebook: August 15, 2010

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of Anthony Trollope. Here is my first full-length review of one of his novels: 

Marriage! Money! Blood! Psychological Analysis! It must be another Trollope.

One of my goals in life is to introduce my friends to this underrated Victorian author. During his lifetime, Trollope was popular, on the same level as Dickens and Collins. However, he made a fatal mistake near the end of his life, and his reputation never recovered. Trollope was unfortunately honest in his autobiography when he admitted that he diligently wrote a certain number of words and pages each day. This, of course, flew in the face of the preferred narrative: The Brilliant, Moody Artist is suddenly struck by Inspiration, writing furiously while the muse is with him. The idea that art might be produced by hard work was too much for the romantic to bear, and Trollope's reputation fell.

Not only did his books lose much of their popularity, his other contribution to the world also was forgotten. Trollope spent his early career working for the Post Office. He invented the postal drop box, the one found on most city corners in England.This was one of several innovations that can be traced to his efforts. He probably deserved some renown on the basis of his work in this area alone. However, he also enjoyed writing, and had some considerable success. With 40 or so novels and a number of non-fiction works, he was fairly prolific – a considerable advantage to an avid reader.

As to the subject book, it is one of a series, The Barsetshire Chronicles, which follows the stories of the residents of an imaginary cathedral town and the surrounding area. There are a total of 6 books in the series, starting with The Warden, an early success for Trollope. Dr.Thorne is number 3.

As with most Trollope novels, the book examines the themes of love and money, as applied to the minor gentry. Dr. Thorne's illegitimate niece Mary falls in love with Frank Gresham, the son of the local squire. The Gresham estate has been largely impoverished by Frank's parents, through the poor management of his father and especially the profligate spending of his mother, Lady Arabella.

The solution is, of course, that Frank must marry money. Frank has other ideas, and is determined to marry whom he chooses.

As is typical with Trollope, he refuses to let the plot drive the book. The reader will generally have a good idea how the book will end because Trollope deliberately defuses the suspense. His craft is shown in how he works out the motives and actions of the characters in the process.

If I were to list the two best things about Trollope, it would have to be this: he writes realistic characters, and he is subtle and gentle in his satire. These two things work together. All of Trollope's characters refuse to fall into categories. It is rare to encounter a true villain, and the protagonists are all flawed and complex. This is not to say that there are no admirable characters. There are, and such characters are in many ways more admirable and sympathetic because of their humanity. Likewise, the less likeable characters are complex and understandable. Trollope recognizes that there are few truly evil persons but many flawed, selfish, frustrating persons.Trollope strikes me as writing the best female characters of any male author I have read to date. The big weakness of Dickens, for example, is his inability to write a female character that was not a caricature. Although Dr. Thorne does not have a female quite on the level with Caroline in The Bertrams, one of his best novels, this novel is primarily driven by the female characters. It is their thoughts that occupy the bulk of the pages.

The second strength of Trollope's writing is his subtlety in satire. He refuses to take the obvious shot straight on, but instead, with understated language, allows gentle wit to have its devastating effect. The key here is to read carefully so as not to miss the jewels hidden in the language. The advantage of Trollope's gentle approach is that the reader is forced to see himself and his own weakness and cannot simply laugh at the pathetic straw man set up by the author.

Dr. Thorne has all of these elements, particularly the devastating deconstruction of class, money, and hypocrisy. Particularly good is his portrayal of Lady Arabella, who cannot fathom that she herself has ruined the Gresham estate. For the best of motives (as she sees it), she is eager to sacrifice her son's heart to restore his wallet.

The weakness of the book is the plot, which counts on certain legal facts which are at best doubtful. (Lawyer quibble here) Trollope himself recognized this, and was a bit embarrassed that Dr. Thorne was one of his most popular books. However, despite this minor defect, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

As an additional note to prospective Trollope readers: Dr. Thorne, though part of a series, need not be read in sequence. This book would not be a bad introduction to Trollope for the reader who is unsure if he or she is willing to commit to reading several books.

Anthony Trollope, another contestant in the Victorian Facial Hair Pageant.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own this.

A science fiction novel about prohibition. That is the best way I can find describe this uncannily prophetic and disturbing book.

G. K. Chesterton wrote The Flying Inn in 1914, fully five years before Prohibition in the United States. However, the general movement itself had been in place since the 1840s, and a few members of the British Commonwealth had already taken restrictive measures. (Prince Edward Island and portions of Australia, for example.) However, the book does not limit itself to the prohibition of alcohol as its topic, but takes on a whole host of ills that he felt were related: vegetarianism, higher criticism, and Islam. It is these latter topics that make this book seem to predict current events and currents of thought.

Chesterton has been one of my favorite authors since my teens, when I discovered the Father Brown stories. Like Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, he has always seemed to me to be one of the truly audacious, larger than life characters that would be great fun to invite to an otherwise boring dinner party, but a bit dangerous to be around in a brawl - or a war. Churchill, of course, was a driving force behind the Allied victory in World War Two, and saw more clearly than anyone else the menace that Communism, and Stalin in particular, would become. Roosevelt had the vision to establish the National Park system, at the time a revolutionary concept of its own. They will both be remembered for generations. Chesterton, alas, seems to be largely forgotten. Perhaps it is because his writing is unusual. Perhaps it is because he never wielded political power. Perhaps it is because the discussion of great ideas has taken the back seat to the discussion of reality television. Whatever the case is, I find that there are few of my acquaintance who even recognize his name.

There are two phrases that I believe exemplify Chesterton’s impact. Oddly, I heard them both in the context of music, spoken by two different conductors regarding completely different musical works.

For his tendency to come up with outrageous paradoxes, out-of-left-field spins on each issue, and a general bombastic and unpredictable realness, I cannot but think of the description of a big, red, rotten tomato thrown up onto the stage. Mr. K used this to describe a “major-minor” chord in Poulenc’s Gloria.

The second phrase is “a good old fashioned romp,” commonly used by Mr. M to describe the final movement of a typical symphony. Chesterton’s novels have that quality of exuberant, slightly off kilter good spirits. Of good English ale and a song sung at full volume.

The Flying Inn certainly fits both of these descriptions. Phillip Ivywood, a power-hungry aristocrat in Chesterton’s vision of the (not-so-distant) future England, is able to pass a bill effectively prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Well, he doesn’t prohibit it, but he limits it to establishments bearing a proper sign. Which are then prohibited. In this, he is influenced by a Turkish philosopher - or charlatan - who attempts to prove that England was once Muslim, and that everything in existence can be linked to a predecessor in the East.

Humphrey Pump, the owner of a tavern, and Chesterton’s stand-in for the true Englishman becomes reacquainted with his friend Patrick Dalroy, an enormous and fiery Irishman, formerly of the Navy, who tears the sign off of “The Old Ship,” moments before Ivywood is able to confiscate it. Dalroy is essentially Chesterton, except without the self restraint. The two of them set off on the run with a cask of rum and a round of cheese, staying a mere step away from the pursuit.

Along the way, they convert to their cause the poet Dorian Wimpole, Ivywood’s cousin. In true Chesterton fashion, this conversion is accomplished when Pump and Dalroy semi-accidentally steal Wimpole’s car. Eventually, all England rises in revolt against Ivywood, and overwhelms the Islamic army he has raised to subdue England.

Thus, what begins as a farcical romp is transformed into a metaphoric vision at the end. This is true Chesterton, of course. Many of his novels take this turn at the end from a tale that, while fantastic, is at least bound to the earth by a thread; to a completely unexpected, often apocalyptic place, having implications far beyond the bounds of the original story. (The Ball and the Cross, and The Man Who Was Thursday come to mind as other examples.) The rotten tomato is served up, leaving the reader to contemplate exactly what happened, and ponder the implications of Chesterton’s vision.

In order to enjoy Chesterton, one must accept these quirks, and enjoy the ride. Fortunately, great lines abound. Chesterton, despite his seeming randomness, has penetrating insight beyond the surface to the rather unpleasant unacknowledged motives underlying many modern truisms. He reliably goes contrary to the conventional wisdom, completely avoiding the predictable arguments and stalemates. (Chesterton’s takedown of the philosophy of his friend George Bernard Shaw is particularly memorable for making the bold - and true - claim that being “misunderstood” is an advantage, not a disadvantage.)

There are a number of things I took away from this book. First of all, right from the outset, when Chesterton introduces the Turk, Misisra Ammon, he gives a striking example of eisegeses - that is, the process of interpreting a text t in such a way that it introduces one's own presuppositions, agendas, and/or biases into and onto the text. Ammon makes the claim that all familiar tavern names are derived from Muslim influences. Thus, “The Green Dragon” is not from the legend of St. George, but a corruption of “The Agreeing Dragoman.” As one who has heard a number of examples of truly bad preaching, this whole process is far too familiar. (Worst of all time is probably the use of “it came to pass” as a proof text for trouble never lasting.)

In a related section, Chesterton likewise skewers those who attempt to interpret away the meaning of a text by introducing completely irrelevant social and historical theories to render anything - absolutely anything - as meaningless and utter nonsense.

Another great takedown is also far ahead of its time. Again, this was written in 1914, not 1965:

[Dalroy speaking:] “I think modern people have somehow got their minds all wrong about human life. They seem to expect what Nature has never promised; and then try to ruin all that nature has really given. At all those atheist chapels of Ivywood’s they’re always talking of Peace, Perfect Peace, and Utter Peace, and Universal Joy and souls that beat as one. But they don’t look any more cheerful than anyone else; and the next thing they do is to start smashing a thousand good jokes and good stores and good songs and good friendships by pulling down ‘The Old Ship’. Now it seems to me that this is asking for too much and getting too little. I don’t know whether God means a man to have happiness in that All in All and Utterly Utter sense of happiness...I can’t pretend to Peace and Joy, and all the rest of it, particularly in this original briar-patch. I haven’t been happy, Hump, but I have had a jolly time.”

This ties in with several other passages where Chesterton is able to expand on this idea.

Later, after several scenes in which it is revealed that Ivywood is advocating vegetarianism, Dalroy and Pump discuss the poet Wimpole.

“But what’s odd about them is that they try to be simple and never clear away a single thing that’s complicated. If they have to choose between beef and pickles, they always abolish the beef. If they have to choose between a meadow and a motor, they forbid the meadow. Shall I tell you the secret? These men only surrender the things that bind them to other men. Go and dine with a temperance millionaire and you won’t find he’s abolished the hors d’oeuvres or the five courses or even the coffee. What he’s abolished is the port and sherry, because poor men like that as well as rich. Go a step farther, and you won’t find he’s abolished the fine silver forks and spoons, but he’s abolished the meat, because poor men like meat–when they can get it. Go a step farther, and you won’t find he goes without gardens or gorgeous rooms, which poor men can’t enjoy at all. But you will find he boasts of early rising, because sleep is a thing poor men can still enjoy. About the only thing they can still enjoy. Nobody ever heard of a modern philanthropist giving up petrol or typewriting or troops of servants. No, no! What he gives up must be some simple and universal thing. He will give up beef or beer or sleep–because these pleasures remind him that he is only a man.”

At this point, I am risking offending some of my family and friends. So, therefore, I will acknowledge that many have legitimate dietary issues, and note that I generally attempt to work around them.

Chesterton’s point here, however, is spot-on. It is my observation that many, perhaps most, of the current dietary trends are expensive. Furthermore, they tend to preclude eating with ordinary, “lesser” people. For example the “Atkins” diet is high in expensive meats and proteins, and low in inexpensive carbohydrates. You know, the things that have sustained those unable to afford regular meat, for centuries. Likewise, the “only organic, free range, etcetera” has the effect of limiting those one eats with. In my opinion, this is at heart a feature, not a bug. Finally, the most modern obsession, the gluten free lifestyle combines the expense of the Atkins approach with the “we can’t trust anyone else’s food” of the organic only diet. The net result is to cut off the sharing of food - our oldest and most significant source of fellowship with our fellow humans.

But Chesterton doesn’t stop here in his lampooning of health fads. Certainly not! Later, our heroes encounter a utopian community founded on the belief that drinking only “mountain milk” will extend life to extreme old age. This group was founded by a snake oil salesman - who perhaps originally believed his own pitch.

“Then, unfortunately, he came across the institution called Death, and began to argue with it. Not seeing any rational explanation of this custom of dying, so prevalent among his fellow-citizens, he concluded that it was merely traditional (which he thought meant "effete"), and began to think of nothing but ways of evading or delaying it. This had a rather narrowing effect on him, and he lost much of that acrid ardour which had humanised the atheism of his youth, when he would almost have committed suicide for the pleasure of taunting God with not being there. His later idealism grew more and more into materialism and consisted of his changing hypotheses and discoveries about the healthiest foods...It was during his prolonged stay in England that he chanced on the instance of the longevity of milk consumers, and built on it a theory which was, at the beginning at least, sincere. Unfortunately it was also successful: wealth flowed in to the inventor and proprietor of Mountain Milk, and he began to feel a fourth and last enthusiasm, which, also, can come late in life and have a narrowing effect on the mind.”

This, of course, had a result which is all too predictable for those of us who have seen (and tasted) far too many snake oil dietary plans. (See note below.)

“He attracted many pupils and backers among the wealthy and influential; young men who were, so to speak, training for extreme old age, infant old men, embryo nonagenarians. It would be an exaggeration to say that they watched joyfully for the first white hair as Fascination Fledgeby watched for his first whisker; but it is quite true to say that they seemed to have scorned the beauty of woman and the feasting of friends and, above all, the old idea of death with glory; in comparison with this vision of the sports of second childhood.”

Dalroy, after dispensing some of the rum, reveals the doctor as one interested in money, diluting the milk with water to make a greater profit.

“Why should I respect you because you are fastidious about food, that your poor old digestion may outlive the hearts of better men? Why should you be the god of this valley, whose god is your belly, merely because you do not even love your god, but only fear him? Go home to your prayers, old man; for all men shall die.”

This is harsh to be sure. I think it needs to be said in our own age, 100 years later. We fear death, and we wish to elevate ourselves above the “common people.” So we cling to whatever makes us feel better. Our gods are our bellies and our vanity. We wish to ignore that we all shall die. 

I will note as well that, just as in our actual experience with prohibition, Chesterton correctly envisions the exceptions by which the wealthy and privileged are able to obtain alcohol without violating the law. In the actual event, a certain, rather strong (and expensive) Scotch Whisky, Laphroaig, remained legal as a “medicine.” With access to the right doctor, one could obtain a prescription. Chesterton laid the entire scenario out in the book, and correctly observes the rank hypocrisy of the privileged classes.

Again, Chesterton ties all of this together through his use of Ivywood as the instigator and embodiment of the overarching philosophy. Eventually, Ivywood seems to be advocating a return to polygamy and child marriage, claiming that Ammon is correct that women are most free under the laws of Islam.

In the most revealing statement, near the end of the book, Ivywood posits that there is something higher than love, at least the love of the lover or the love of love itself. However, in contrast to the Christian view of the nature of ultimate love being that of the Divine, Ivywood considers the ultimate to be the love of fate. This is the ideal of Nietzche: a delight in destiny is the mark of the hero. This doesn’t exactly work as he tries to woo his woman, but it certainly rings true as the undergirding of much of the evil of the twentieth century, and perhaps of the history of the world.

“I am not ashamed of my laurels, I see no meaning in what these Christians call humility. I will be the greatest man in the world if I can; and I think I can. Therefore, something that is higher than love itself, Fate and what is fitting, make it right that I should wed the most beautiful woman in the world. And she stands among the peacocks and is more beautiful and more proud than they."

And ultimately, this speaks to the urge to “remake the world,” as Ivywood puts it. It is the arrogance that one is above, that one is the “ubermensch,” that one can evade the common fate of man.

Whether you agree with it or not, Chesterton makes a compelling argument that all of these are related. The wish to deny the pleasure of alcohol to the masses, the use of diet to sever the link with “lesser” humanity, and the urge to remake the world. It is the same spirit that says, “I thank God I am not like other men.”

This book is both fun and compelling. It certainly feels predictive of our own time and issues, while remaining firmly rooted in Chesterton’s ideal of the soul of the English people. Agree, disagree, or otherwise, it is a good starting point for further discussion of the nature of the instinct toward prohibition and its common root in snobbery and arrogance.

Note on the musical connections:
Poulenc Gloria (Listen for the chord at 0:43)


I always enjoyed the conducting of Mr. M prior to his retirement. Two of my favorite “romps” are the following.

The Finale from Haydn’s final symphony, #104 is a perfect example of fun that is almost, but not quite, out of control. This is probably my favorite Haydn symphony, although it is impossible to decide. This movement is, without a doubt, one of my favorite symphonic moments of all time. 

Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings is one of my favorite chamber works, containing much of the pain of the destruction of Hungary, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Bartok finds release in the final movement. While the pain is still there, there is an ecstasy of joy and love that comes through in this thrilling performance. 

Note on dietary nonsense: I was a sickly child, and my mother tried all kinds of stuff to improve my health. Some of this was beneficial: I still love vegetables, and learned to cook good food from scratch. I also drink water, rarely sugared drinks, and so forth. Other stuff was benign, but a bit unpalatable, such as experiments with carrot and other juices. Some was downright dangerous, such as kombucha tea, which has been linked to neurological damage. 

Again, I acknowledge the good in attempting to have a healthy diet and lifestyle - I certainly make that attempt myself. However, I see an unhealthy distrust of anything mainstream in these movements, a tendency to ascribe everything to a "drug company conspiracy," and the promise that the fad of the day will cure everything. 

The point here is that one tends to ignore facts in the search for health and/or immortality. A quick perusal of the literature in support of these fads quickly reveals a casual disregard for basic facts of chemistry and biology, but it is impossible to argue with the true believer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

After reading this book, I have come to the conclusion that every middle-class person would benefit from reading it. Its perspective will be particularly helpful for those of us who grew up in a household with a single wage earner, and who therefore take for granted that there is always adequate time and money available for the preparation of wholesome, fresh food.

McMillan is roughly my age, and worked as a reporter prior to experiences in this book. Over the course of a year, she worked undercover in three areas of the food production chain. She spent time as a farm worker in California, worked in the produce department of a Wal-Mart in Detroit, and prepared food at an Applebee’s in New York. She allowed herself about a month’s expenses to start, but lived off of her earnings during the duration.

While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the other sections (which I have no reason to doubt), I can confirm that the author’s experience as a farm worker was true to life. I have a few friends and acquaintances, personal and professional, who have worked the fields here in Kern County, and around the state. California’s central valley is one of the most fertile places on the earth, and currently produces a significant portion of the produce consumed in the United States. A mere half of a mile from my house are almond orchards, with fields containing all kinds of annual crops just beyond. It is easy enough to observe the process of growing food. All of these have confirmed to me that McMillan paints an accurate picture of modern farm labor. Certainly it is true that much of the hard work is done by illegal (or undocumented - use your preferred word here) immigrants, and that actual pay is typically far below minimum wage. The author’s description of the use of labor contractors and faked hour counts is all too familiar to those who have worked the fields - and I might add, to those who contract for the labor. It is just the way business is done. I also note that the author gained access to the field labor system through the assistance of California Rural Legal Assistance, a sister organization to my first employer as an attorney. They are on the front lines of poverty and field labor in the central valley, and would be where I would start in a similar endeavor.

The second section, on the retail side of food, is interesting for different reasons. Here, employees tend to be longer term, and typically do make the wages promised. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the incredible logistics necessary to our modern food distribution system, this book will be fascinating. Since food is no longer grown near where it is consumed, the infrastructure needed is amazing. I don’t share the author’s innate distrust of large scale production, so I found all this to be more inspiring than fear-inducing.

I also found it disappointing that the author, like most of those in the press, betrays a visceral dislike of Wal-Mart. While some of this may be related to its size (Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States) or its resistance to labor unions, I think the real reason is one of classism. After all, Costco is largely non-union (a few Price Club stores were unionized before being bought out by Costco), and is similarly ruthless on its suppliers. Apple is a darling of the left, despite having the highest profits of any company in the history of the world. It too is non-union. Whole Foods likewise is aggressively non-union: its CEO is libertarian. And the list goes on. However, Wal-Mart is a lower class establishment, catering to the poor. In fact, complaints about Wal-Mart, in my experience, can be boiled down to a distaste for its clientele. Everything one can say that is bad about Wal-Mart applies equally to any number of other soulless corporations. I am not intending to make a claim that Wal-Mart is marvelous or anything. However, the author does note that it provides jobs which are in huge demand. She even lists some of the benefits her co-workers cite as reasons to prefer their jobs, such as internal promotions and decent benefits.

One conclusion I did draw from this book is that the State of Michigan is completely insane. As of the writing of this book (published just this year), it was still requiring that price stickers be placed on every single item. In addition to being archaic, the extra work is brutal on employees, leading to a high incidence of repetitive stress injuries. One wonders if a price sticker manufacturer made a large campaign contribution.

The final section is likewise fascinating for its inside view of a chain restaurant. Here, as in retail, logistics are everything. Food isn’t so much cooked, as assembled from pre-made ingredients. The supply chain is both inspiring and soulless, and the results somewhat unappetizing. I’m not a fan of Applebee's anyway, and prefer hole-in-the-wall restaurants with possibly questionable health department scores. Also, I am a pretty decent cook, so I sympathize with the line chefs who dream of fresh ingredients chopped in the kitchen.

Running through the book are the collateral experiences of the author as she lives like those she works with. She finds housing, usually with others (minimum wage will not get you a separate apartment), and shares their lives. She acknowledges that she meets a great many decent, kind, and generous people - and makes them come to life with her writing. She also realizes that she lacks the basic skills to cook for herself consistently.

This is really the most crucial part of the book, in my opinion. I tend to take for granted the fact that my wife and I can plan and cook meals with relative ease. We have an income sufficient that we do not have to pinch every food penny, and have a well-stocked pantry. Even more important, however, we grew up knowing how to cook. Unfortunately, this skill has been lost to many. In our own families, this seems to have occurred in the 1950s, when processed food took center stage, and some assumed that we would simply microwave everything in the future. (Not too far from the truth, actually.) While our parents reclaimed this skill, many did not. With less time to learn and teach, the skill has died out - particularly in lower class families where both parents need to work in order to survive. The author points out that it really does not take more time to prepare food from scratch than from processed ingredients, but that it requires knowledge and confidence.

I also thought that the chart the author made showing her total income and the percentage spent on food during each of the three parts was enlightening. Also, her realization that even poor people want good food was both obvious (to those of us who grew up in poor neighborhoods) and revolutionary.

Both liberals and conservatives will disagree with some of the author’s suggestions. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid giving a simplistic answer if one expects to sell one’s book to a publisher. I think the author admits that the answers are not simple, however, and that it will take changes in many interrelated areas of life to improve the American diet. I also felt that, despite some overheated criticism from certain conservatives, McMillan really did her best to keep things objective, and acknowledge her biases. Plus, she actually lived what she wrote about. This wasn’t some ivory tower perspective from someone who never experienced the “real world.” I also appreciated that the author treated all those who she wrote about with respect and humanity. As a good reporter should, she never reduced people to stereotypes and refused to view herself as inherently superior. I would also commend her for excellent writing style, which added to the experience, rather than distracting from the content.

Thus, this book left me with more questions than answers. It is so easy to simply find a scapegoat, whether the lower classes and their “bad taste” or big agriculture for making processed foods a central part of the diet. A real solution would require changes in all these areas, and more.

So read this book. You will probably lose a little middle class smugness, learn a few things about how logistics and infrastructure work, and look at the food on your plate a bit differently.

I love the cover art for this book. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Learning Outside the Family (Sunday School Edition)

The genesis of this post occurred during a discussion with some friends and acquaintances, primarily raised in homeschool families, like myself. The question involved "family integrated church," which if you have to ask, you probably don't want to know about. (Essentially, the idea that children should not attend any religious - or any other - instruction without the presence and direction of the parents.) For those who have never been involved in the ultraconservative, cult-like subsets of the Christian homeschooling movement, it probably seems a bit odd. However, on further reflection, I was struck by the parallel to what is commonly called "helicopter parenting."

I believe that, at their hearts, both movements reflect a parental anxiety that a child cannot possibly develop properly unless every waking moment is completely controlled by the parent. In the common form of this paranoia, the parent is worried that the child will fail to compete academically without a completely ridged and regimented life. Such parents are obsessed with choosing the school and teacher, the classes, the enrichment from extracurricular activities, the friends, and so on. 

In the religious, homeschool version, the fear is that a child will become a heathen if he or she hears anything but the absolute truth (as determined by the parents), and that therefore, the child must never learn anything in a situation that the parents cannot control. 

Obviously, I am using the most extreme examples on each side, and I do not wish to imply that any of my friends believe this way. I do, however, have acquaintances who fall pretty far along either the helicopter parent or family integrated homeschooler continuums. 

My goal with this particular post is to offer a different, more positive, perspective, and give some overdue appreciation to some people who were a positive influence in my life when I was a child. I am convinced that most of us will, sooner or later, have some conflict with our birth families. No family is perfect, and to be in one is to see all those imperfections up close. Thus, I think that it is important to find positive influences and relationships outside - and completely separate from - one's family. Otherwise, I really believe that it is difficult to separate the idea from the persons with which it is associated. I have known too many who rejected everything because of a bad family relationship. 

The positive perspective that a wish to bring is that those outside relationships, particularly those that felt completely separate from family existence, were beneficial to me, and have remained with me my entire life. I believe that without the friendship, mentoring, and influence I received; my life would be much poorer, more narrow, than it is. This is also not to imply any lack in my parents, who taught me much, and were undoubtedly the most significant influences in my life.

I am intentionally limiting this particular list to those who aided my spiritual journey through church and church related organizations. To list all those who mentored me in other areas - particularly music - would take several additional posts. Perhaps I will do that in the future. So, without further ado, here is the list. These are in roughly chronological order, and represent my childhood and teen years. I probably have forgotten some, and I apologize.

Myrtle: Her passion for the stories of the great missionaries of the past made the stories come alive to a young boy. Also, one of the sweetest old ladies ever.

John Y.: An ex-college-football player who naturally inspired young men. He could control a room full of rowdy boys without ever being authoritarian, and always got the best out of us in every endeavor. He also understood that a sleepover didn't actually need sleep, and coined the more accurate term, "wakeover." 

Vince: Still the best preacher for the young set I have ever heard. He never talked down to anyone, and never dumbed down a concept. And he could lead worship with just a guitar - no microphone.

Oliver: He never let a boring curriculum stand in the way of an interesting class. Those pictures from Israel combined with the detailed matching of picture, place, and story taught me so much that I remember even today.

Kent: I blame you for my love of the twelve string guitar. I also remember those extremely dry jokes and the fact that you too were an introvert. Silence is fellowship too.

Mike: The only person I ever knew who had a conversion experience as a result of seeing Jesus Christ, Superstar. I also remember the experience of tying the musical and the mystical together.

Lorna: How a middle-aged woman managed to corral thirty or so teenagers - and get them to sing in tune - is still a mystery. But we all loved her, and she loved us in return, regardless of our background or abilities.

Jamie: A man who always put his money and his person where his mouth was. He never left anything on the table, and lived what he believed. I remember participating in that Victory Outreach worship service in the armpit of Hollywood with all the down-and-out druggies. I think he scandalized a few parents with that one, but it was profoundly affecting at the time. My frame of reference was forever changed, and I can never look at people the same way after that experience. (I probably need a whole post on this one as well.)

John K.: I attribute much of what I believe about worship and the art of leading it to what I learned from John K. during my junior high and high school years. A friend and mentor in the best sense of the term.

Eden: Not so much a teacher as a mentor. One of those guys that makes everyone feel at ease. He took an awkward, introverted, geeky thirteen year old, and made him part of the group. And it wasn't just me: he was this way to everyone. He also remains a personal example of Mark 6:4. "Jesus said to them, 'Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.'"

Roland: I'm still saying "Botheration!" - occasionally in a New Zealand accent. Another person who really believed what he said, and lived it. 

Carla: A true friend, with a similarly quirky sense of humor. I learned so much about playing as part of an ensemble from her - musically too - but particularly in the social sense. To bring a diverse group together in worship and harmony is a gift. 

Again, this isn't an exhaustive list, and I know there are many who have given help and companionship to me along the way. These are those that come to mind as those who I remember when I struggle as those, often far outside of my usual frame of reference, who represent the good, and who inspire me to contribute in turn to those who cross my path.