Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Grocery Shopping With Jonathan Safran Foer

I have always considered myself to be pretty aware as far as food shoppers go. I have a sister who talked to me about organic food and the practices of factory farming long before the topics were explored in popular best-selling books and movies. And then I read the popular best-selling books, like Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and watched the movies, like Food, Inc. and Super Size Me and I changed my shopping habits to accommodate my new knowledge. We started ordering our milk from local farms (South Mountain Creamery in Maryland and Longmont Dairy in Colorado), buying only meat marked "free range" and "hormone free", and shopping "organic" whenever possible. And so, we spend a gazillion dollars on groceries each year, but I felt pretty good about my food choices.

And then I read Eating Animals by Jonathon Safran Foer. I didn't even really want to read the book. I knew it would be disturbing. But I loved Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I couldn't resist reading a third book by an author I love. And, sure enough, it was really disturbing. I knew quite a bit about factory farms before reading the book, but I learned quite a few new inconvenient facts. For example, I didn't realize that for every 1 pound of shrimp caught, 26 pounds of other sea animals were killed and tossed back into the ocean. Or that the male offspring of chickens that are raised to lay eggs ("layers") are sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified plate. Or that the 3 million pounds of antibiotics given to humans each year in the U.S. is nothing compared to the 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics fed to farmed animals each year (which has numerous effects on our health and on the environment). And I won't even get into the chapter on slaughterhouses.

Foer spends a lot of time driving home the point that we live in a hypocritical society. We seek out shampoos that aren't tested by animals, while at the same time buy "meat that's produced in profoundly cruel systems." We pamper our dogs, but then eat pigs (which are markedly more intelligent) who have been raised in torturous environments. It's easy for us to do because our food comes to us in shiny wrapping, looking nothing like the animal that gave its life to be put on our plate. He never once talks about eating "meat" in the book, but instead uses the word "animals", reminding us not to be fooled by that plastic wrapping. It reminded me of an ex-boyfriend's dad who, as an ENT, used to refer to the "nose" or "ear" he had operated on that afternoon. His wife would constantly remind him, "You operated on a person and the person had a nose."

A friend recently mentioned that she had seen Foer on television and that he was so annoying that it made her want to go out and eat a hamburger. It made me laugh because I could see where she was coming from. He can be preachy from time to time in the book too. At points in the book, I wanted to interrupt and him to say, "Hey, Jonathan, before you look down your vegan nose too far at all the factory farmed food eaters out there, the book you wrote wasn't printed on recycled paper. And you probably wrote it on a computer, which means your computer one day will end up in one of those horribly polluted towns in China where they "recycle" all of our computers. And all the flights you took to visit the farms? Yeah, it's not just the factory farms causing global warming. Oh, and are you naked right now? Because unless you have a field of hemp and a loom in your Brooklyn apartment, chances are that the clothing you're wearing came from a less than favorable situation. And I think vegetarians and meat-eaters alike can agree that the idea of an eight-year-old child working a 12 hour day in a dark factory is significantly more disturbing than chickens living in tiny cages. No offense, but I'm just saying..." The thing is, none of that takes away from the facts he lays out in his book. But it is just a reminder that all of us make choices - and I don't know anyone who doesn't make some that impact the world in a negative way - so none of us should be patting ourselves on the back too hard.

Still, none of us should be burying our heads in the sand either. I feel the same way after reading Eating Animals that I felt after reading Deep Economy or seeing The Story of Stuff [It's worth checking out if you haven't seen it: http://www.storyofstuff.com/]. In both cases, I knew that I would never go back to the same way of thinking again and because of that, I have made and continue to make different choices than I made before. Of course, knowledge can be disturbing, but it is also empowering. I'll admit that knowing more about what I see at the grocery store doesn't mean I always make the right choices for the world, but I can weigh the pros and cons when I make my selections. I haven't eaten meat since reading the book, but I'm not sure I see myself cutting it out entirely in the future. (While Foer himself is vegan, his book is more of a stance against factory farming than simply against meat, as he describes in an interview here. The problem is that at this point 95% of the meat in the U.S. is raised on factory farms.) However, if I do chose to eat meat, Eating Animals has made me more committed than ever to finding out exactly where it comes from.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Little Taste of Hollywood in Boulder

The girls and I just got back from the 3rd - 5th grade talent show at Evie's school. Is there anything cuter than kids getting up on stage, overcoming their fear of performing in front of a crowd and trying their best? Maybe by the time the girls head off to high school, I'll be tired of seeing talent shows, but for now it's one of my favorite parts of parenting. I love the effort and the heart and soul (which was played twice on the piano tonight) that goes into the performances.

They performed in the school gym, which had been transformed into a Hollywood set. When we walked in, Lucy pointed out that "They made the stage look like the mountain where we went hiking!" This being Boulder, there were several skits about hiking and camping, which went right along with Lucy's idea that the word "Hollywood" signifies a hiking hill.

Despite the Hollywood sign, an elementary school talent show is always far from glamorous. And I had bigger concerns than just the uncomfortable chair. With Toby away for work, I faced entertaining Noni for three hours while the performers entertained the rest of the crowd. Fortunately, eight years of parenting have taught me a few things. I came armed with snacks, juice boxes, crayons, paper, and a backpack full of Disney Princess dolls. Of course, Noni spilled her juice box all over and yelled "I peed!" in the middle of someone's song, but overall she enjoyed the show.

I loved every act - from the multiple performances of girls singing and dancing to Miley Cyrus's Party In the U.S.A. or Taylor Swift's You Belong to Me, to the three fourth grade boys rocking it on electric guitars to Metallica's Enter Sandman to the third grader who played Falling Slowly (from Once) on the harp, and, of course, to Evie playing I've Got Music on the piano. And I loved seeing all of her friends from her class get up on stage and give it their all.

The talent show was for grades 3rd to 5th, which gave me a good idea of the changes to come in the next two years. The fifth graders are definitely all over the whole tween thing. After two weeks of rehearsing with them, Evie turned to me at the end of the show and asked for skinny jeans and a Taylor Swift CD. Which just goes to show that Boulder and Hollywood have a few things in common after all.

A photo of Evie at the show finale with the entire cast. Oh, and of my thumb.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Evie and Grampa Nid's London Adventure

When I was eleven years old, my grandmother took me to London. We traveled with her friend Jo and her friend's eleven-year-old son, Walker, who at eleven already had his own private jet and surprised me one afternoon, when the two of us wandered through a small countryside town while our grandmothers slept, by pulling out cash and nonchalantly buying a bike to be shipped back to Pennsylvania. I have so many wonderful memories from that trip. We saw Agatha Christie's Mousetrap, Starlight Express and Daisy Pulls it Off; we hit all the tourist hot spots of course (Big Ben, The Tower of London, etc.); I tasted wine for the first time at a Medieval dinner where they reenacted King Henry's fairly horrifying life; I saw people with mohawks and died purple hair; we traveled to Beatrix Potter's home; and I met several relatives who all told me that I had a funny accent.

I think my grandmother probably had a good time too, except that the first day we arrived her wallet was stolen on the way to see Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. We ended up spending several hours at the police station, which was thrilling to me, but probably not so exciting for her at the time. Then we rented a car that wouldn't turn left and it turned out that my grandmother's friend was a crazy driver, proper steeling wheel or not. A few days into the trip, my grandmother started to develop a nervous tick. I give my grandmother, who has always had a good sense of both humor and adventure, a lot of credit for taking me to London with her. But as for the rest of the grandchildren? They were on their own if they were going to make it to Europe.

Which brings me to my dad who, two years ago decided to relive the tradition by bringing my niece with him to Germany. And, to his credit, this year he is stepping up again to bring Evie to London. She is beyond thrilled. England, of course, is no longer the land of Beatrix Potter. A new Potter has taken over that role and suddenly the London Zoo is not just any old zoo, but the zoo where the snake talked to Harry! And Gloucester Cathedral is not just some old church, but is where Harry learned magic at the Hogwarts School! For Evie, who dove into each Harry Potter book and didn't resurface until she finished, going to see those sights is a dream come true. Of course, she doesn't want to just stop there. As soon as my dad finalized the plans, in true Evie fashion, she went straight to the internet, googled London, and began checking off all the sights she wanted to see. The next day, she returned from school with three books about London and began pouring through them. I'm pretty sure my dad is not going to have to do much planning - Evie has the whole trip mapped out and they're going to be busy.

I have no idea what type of adventures they'll encounter on their trip this June. Hopefully they won't spend any time in the police station or rent a broken car. But I do know that Evie will remember it forever. As to whether or not my dad will still be taking the trips by the time Noni turns eight, time will only tell.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

Five minutes ago, I finished reading Olive Kitteridge while I gave Lucy and Noni a bath. Fortunately, I only had a chapter or so left, but even so they ended up pruned and playing in lukewarm water. It's probably a good thing I don't get that sucked into every book I read. When I read the last word, I felt like crying. Not because of the ending, which I won't of course discuss in this review, but because a perfect book, like a perfect day, only comes around so often.

Why is Olive Kitteridge a perfect book? The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and the stories that make up the novel are interesting. Most importantly, as I said to Toby when I handed the book to him to read next, there isn't a single word in there that shouldn't be there.

I have a whole new appreciation for writing like that now that I am attempting to write my own novel. I remember my friend Diana once told me that after film school she would never watch a movie quite the same way again. There might be a passionate kiss intended to sweep the audience away, and she'd view it not only with a whole new appreciation, but with a recognition of where the director chose to put the cameras in order to achieve the desired effect. When I'm reading now, I can't help but feeling the same way. As I read, I am thinking - How did the author know that Olive would say that? What made her think to write about whitecaps on the bay at that moment? How did she chose the exact words to portray a character with a simple, one sentence description of her coat?

As for my own writing, I can't decide if a book like that leaves me feeling inspired or simply intimidated. But I do know that I'm glad I read it. I'm only sorry that it's done.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's Complicated... And Surprisingly Good, Too

Last week, my friend Monica came up with the idea of a monthly movie night. She invited a group of women friends out for a pre-movie drink and then to see a show, preferably one our husbands wouldn't want to see. And so, last night I found myself at the movie theater for the second time in two weeks (which has probably not happened in 9 years or so) watching It's Complicated.

It's Complicated is a story of a divorced couple (Streep and Baldwin) who rekindle their romance at their son's graduation in NYC. The problem? Jake (Baldwin) has remarried (a much younger woman) and Jane (Streep) has finally started getting on with her post-divorce life. With the incredible cast, which includes Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and John Krasinski, the movie should've been an instant home run. Instead, it scored a meager 50% on rottentomatoes.com's "tomatometer".

Certainly, the movie had some problems. The biggest issue for me was that a large part of the plot centered around Jane (Streep) moving on with her life by building a giant addition on her already beautiful Santa Barbara home, and then meeting achitect Adam (Martin) as a result. This immediately made no sense to me. Who builds an addition when their children move OUT? If anything, she should've been downsizing to a smaller house. The other reason for the low reviews probably has to do with expectations - for such a striking cast, this was a lightweight, fun and unOscarworthy movie.

All that said, I really enjoyed the film. In 30 Rock, Baldwin outshines all the other actors whenever he's on screen. That's hard to do when you're on screen with Steep, who gives him a run for the money with her own brilliant performance, as usual. I loved that this was a story largely between two fifty year-old characters. The movie treated their age with both humor and sensitivity. And I liked the premise of a divorced couple reuniting, and the issues surrounding that with their children and with each other. Plus, there were some hilarious scenes, like when Streep and Martin show up at her children's party completely stoned or when Krasinski tries not to see Balwin and Streep kissing in an elevator.

Of the five of us who went to the movie, four of us have divorced parents. We had a short but interesting discussion in the parking lot about whether the movie was realistic or not. Unfortunately it was too late after the movie for a second drink and longer discussion, but It's Complicated is the type of movie that you want to talk about. It offers food for thought not just about divorced couples, but about rekindling old romances, motherhood, the responsibility parents have to their children, affairs, relationships and old age.

The best thing about the movie? Getting to go out on a Monday night and see friends and, without having to hire a sitter, actually going to see a movie in the theater. Here's hoping some good chick flicks come out in February.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

(500) Days of Summer

OK, so (500) Days of Summer came out about 150 days ago and I'm a little late on my review, but seeing Avatar in the theater was somewhat of a fluke - we watch 95% of our movies these days after they come out on Netflix. I really wanted to see this movie when it originally came out for a combination of reasons: I had heard it was a smart, creative romantic comedy, much like Juno (which I loved); I knew that the director had filmed the movie in Los Angeles, but tried to show L.A. from a different architectural perspective; and, I was curious to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who always shone as a young actor in 3rd Rock From The Sun, all grown up.

I wasn't disappointed. (500) Days of Summer is a well-acted, beautifully shot, original take on heartache and true love. A good romance is always enhanced by heartfelt music and the movie delivers with this as well, with a soundtrack that includes songs by Feist, Regina Spektor, and The Smiths.

Given how busy Toby and my life is these days with work and kids, it's always particularly refreshing to watch a movie in which the characters just focus on how they feel about love and the relationships in their life, even if it ends up in heartache. We've watched some other good movies in this vein recently as well - including Adventureland and Away We Go. It's been a long time since we have even had a day where we could just hang out and focus on nothing but our relationship with each other. Or even have a 10-minute uninterrupted conversation. Watching (500) Days of Summer reminded me of the days when we had first met - long breakfasts at The Magic Bean in Quito or jogs together through the park from our apartment in Glover Park. And it made me feel extremely thankful that our story hasn't been limited to 500 days.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy 2010!

I've been feeling a bit of post-holiday blues with my family leaving this week. We all live too far away so it's always sad to say goodbye. Last night, however, lightened my spirits as we spent New Year's with friends by having a small potluck dinner at our house. (Unfortunately we'll have to wait until spring to host another big party, since there just isn't the room to host everyone inside.) Since it was kid-friendly, we clearly weren't going to ring in Colorado's New Year so we decided to kick off the evening with an Irish New Year's celebration by serving Irish Car Bombs and end it somewhere in the islands with Dark & Stormys. Our friend Monica surprised us by coming with face paint and then doing a professional job painting all the kids' faces, which they loved and which made everything feel even more festive. (If anyone in Boulder is looking for a face painter for a birthday party, let me know!) All in all, a great evening. My favorite part was watching as Monica tranformed Noni from a 2-year-old into a princess (albeit, one with a slight Courtney Love look going.)

Happy 2010 everyone!!