Monday, February 25, 2013

A horse is a horse?

Perhaps you've heard the news recently that horse meat has been masquerading as beef all over Europe. Americans took notice when it came out that IKEA's sainted Swedish Meatballs also contained meat from Mr. Ed's ancestors. Well, actually, it turns out the affected meatballs are in Europe, so maybe Red Rum's ancestors. Either way, people thought they were buying cow and instead they got horse and they are pissed.
It seems that pre-packaged, processed foods have been most affected. Have any of the people complaining ever taken a gander at the ingredients list on a frozen lasagna? Horse meat would probably be one of the few decipherable items listed. Consumers buy processed foods for convenience, not taste, and certainly not for nutritional value. Sure, those who grew up eating the best that Stouffer's had to offer often think of it as comfort food and enjoy eating it. But it's all those happy memories of mom rushing home from work and tossing a tray of dinner-food in the oven that leads to enjoyment. The flavors in those boxes are entirely manufactured, mostly salt, and the meat is probably so full of fillers it barely qualifies as flesh. Certainly a little pony is preferable to pink slime.
Aside from the question of quality in affected products, so what if the meat in that burger comes from a cow or a horse? It's still the ground up remains of an animal. The meat hierarchy drops off dramatically after fish. Veal remains controversial despite being simply a younger cow, but the big four reign supreme (in the American supermarket at least). In fact, a visitor to the meat counter at any major chain store would be hard pressed to find a bit of venison, rabbit, or squirrel. Cows, pigs and chickens grow purely with consumption in mind, true. They eat hormones and live short, brutal lives in enclosures designed to limit movement and encourage fattening. Horses typically run or work, which would seem to lead to perhaps stringier muscles. An old soft horse, a brood mare out to pasture, couldn't be that different from a cow. Certainly it's close enough to fool people in Europe and the UK routinely. Consumers ingested horse meat without seeming to notice any difference in taste. It seems silly to get so bent out of shape because the meat of one animal turned out to be the meat of another. Barring cannibalism, all meat is fundamentally the same.
Vegetarians point at stories like this and proselytize their lifestyle, saying they don't have to worry about things like this happening to their food. While that's true, the more important considerations pertain to the origin of food, and the choices made when deciding which meat to eat. Everyone should be aware of what they eat. Omnivores should ask themselves why they draw lines between species. If they are willing to eat one, another should be just as good.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Dear Sarah Vowell,

First of all, Sarah... big fan. Huge. I saw you speak in Cambridge at the release of Unfamiliar Fishes, and Assassination Vacation changed my life (or my travel plans, anyway). I am currently reading The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I realize it's one of your older collections, mostly by the essays focused on the 2000 election and the fallout of same. It's difficult to relive those dark days, but your humor provides the right amount of levity so I don't succumb to PTSD.

It's one of those essays that moved me to write. Dear Dead Congressman is a touching essay written to a congressman from your youth. I loved reading your story of developing your sense of civic pride. I too remember the thrill of my first election, the realization that elections happen every year and furthermore! The importance of those local elections. I had learned about the electoral college in high school and while I wished desperately that I could vote for Clinton in '92, I harbored no illusion that my single vote in a vast national sea would turn the tide (of course, he didn't need my help anyway). In the local elections though, that's where making it to the poll really counted. No year was this more clearly evidenced than in the off-cycle election in February, 1998 in Maine for the repeal of legislation banning gay discrimination. Really, let that marinate a minute. A special, single-issue vote was pushed through for the most bitter time of year in Maine with the single goal of taking rights away from people. It sounds ridiculous, which is why none of my friends voted. None. Even though every single person I knew or talked to casually was completely against this issue, it passed. Because people didn't vote. (Does it go without saying that I did?) As far as defining moments in a young girl's life goes, that one is a doozy. Up until then, I had voted out of duty. I got a thrill when I marked the ballot and proudly wore my sticker, but I voted because I knew I was supposed to. After February 10, 1998, I voted because I had to. I had seen what could happen if a citizen became lax.

And so things went until I moved to Boston two years ago. When I reached the end of your essay, the feelings of shame and embarrassment came flooding over me because you see, Sarah Vowell, I am about to tell you the most humiliating thing about me, something I don't think I've ever admitted out loud to anyone, choosing to instead change the subject or feign deafness... Sarah... I did not vote in my first election after moving to Massachusetts. But listen! At the very end of your essay, you ask, "what's easier than filling out a card with your address on it four weeks before the election?" This is in response to Nader's platform for election day voter registration. This is where the bloom came a little off the rose, Ms. Vowell, because you see, I am from a state that, while known to make egregious errors in judgment when it comes to human rights, allows its citizens to register to vote on election day. The very first time I voted, I signed up at the polls. Whenever I moved (which, as a young person, was often), all I had to do was show up at my new polling place and BAM! Registered and voted. This system made so much sense to me that I presumed it was the same nation-wide. I know I should have checked beforehand, and I'm not trying to make excuses for my lapse in civic duty (well, I guess I sort of am). I'm just saying that allowing people to register at the polls makes sense. First of all, voter turnout in this country is abysmal. Does anyone really believe that someone will try to vote twice? That kind of behavior is for budding democracies, not lazy old democracies like ours. Secondly, is it hard to complete a card four weeks before election? No, of course not. But how many people move districts in that window? How many are new to their states (ahem) and maybe have a lot going on (*cough*graduateschool*cough) in those fleeting few weeks? Sometimes it's all one can do to remember to carve out an hour on the first Tuesday in November, why should a potential voter be penalized for having a busy life?

The whole first election day that I couldn't vote, I walked around my new city under a cloud. I felt perhaps even more deeply shamed to be walking around Boston, a city steeped in history, where a person can hardly walk a block without stumbling upon a plaque commemorating brave souls who lost their lives to the revolution, the revolution freeing our country from the shackles of the monarchy, the revolution that culminated in the right to vote! (Let's ignore for a moment how long certain people had to wait to enjoy the same right, that's another letter for another time.) I felt like it was written across my forehead: Traitor! My facebook feed was full of people showing off their "I Voted!" stickers and arguing about issues. I felt left out. I felt unAmerican. If only Massachusetts allowed same day registration, I could have been spared.

Why should it be difficult to vote? I like what you say about suffrage, and that voting should cost something, be it time or gas or patience. But creating hoops to jump through makes voting seem an awful lot like a privilege, not a right. How many more people might be flexing their civic muscles if it were harder not to vote? What's the harm in making the process as simple as possible?

Thanks for listening and really, I love your work.
With love from your biggest fan,

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Review: May We Be Forgiven

Fans of A.M. Homes expect crazy situations and 180 degree plot turns. Her stories and novels are populated with pedophiles, gay parents, parents who casually use drugs and commit arson. Despite these odd casts of characters, at heart her protagonists are suburbanites, the people next door who you wave to each morning on your way to work, scarcely wondering why they are still unshaven in their robes. The passing reference to Cheever in May We Be Forgiven elicits delight that yes, that's the answer to the nagging question: who do these men remind you of?
May We Be Forgiven takes place over a year, following Harold Silver's complete disintegration of his life and his clumsy rebuilding. So much insanity occurs in the first fifty pages of this novel, it's impossible to imagine what could be left of the story to tell. That's Homes' talent though. Silver's struggles to regain a sense of normal while cultivating a life that, for him, is decidedly anything but, eclipse murder and mayhem. Silver is confused, he constantly muses about what is right, along the way picking up a ragtag team of misfits and orphans. He befriends a woman in a supermarket and ends up ingratiating himself in her life. He meets a woman online for casual encounters and finds himself at dinner with her family, husband included. His brother is in a mental health facility, then an experimental prison, and despite his brother's cruelty toward him, Harold visits him and sends him gifts. He's not perfect (see the reference to adultery above), but he strives to be a good man.
The novel progresses at breakneck speed. Homes accomplishes this through the use of short passages and lack of chapters. Without those large breaks, there isn't any natural stopping point for the reader, and the text gives the impression of an absurdly long short story. The increased pace heightens the reader's sense of urgency throughout the narrative. Even during passages when Harold conducts Nixon research (his passion and vocation), the tight writing insures that even history-phobes will read along without complaint.

Written acrobatics aside, these are characters not soon forgotten. Remove the incredible situations and plot lines and the characters alone carry the story. Combining the two is what makes this a distinct A. M. Homes work, and what makes it a must-read.