Nutritional ethics, logical fallacies

Last night I was reading Michael Moss’s New York Times bestseller Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, an e-book borrowed from my public library.

I got to the part where the author claims that those marketing such foods to children, shaping their perceptions of how food should taste and affecting their health, have a responsibility to these children. I don’t know if I actually formed the wry grin alone there in the dark.” Such a sweet, self-righteous, non-capitalist opinion rolled my train of thought back to a run-in I had a decade or so ago.

It was not long after I’d gotten married, and my husband, brother-in-law and I were road tripping up to their parents’ house, presumably for a holiday. My then DH was about to buy or in the process of starting his business. It was just a little liquor store out-of-state, and DH was supposed to be a silent partner. Still, his big brother, with his trademark gung-ho entrepreneurial spirit, brought along an audiobook for aspiring capitalists.

After perhaps an hour or so of listening to the book, however, I’d had enough. Riding in the backseat can be irritating anyway: I can’t always make out what the folks up front are saying, so I’m left out. At the same time, even if I had had a book or a smart phone with me — I don’t remember — I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on it with that audiobook going. And that book…

I gave it at least a fair chance, as evidenced by the fact that, 10 or 12 years later, I still remember a bit. It was advice on optimizing business processes, and the star exemplar was none other than McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc. The main thrust was setting up business processes such that even an idiot could carry them out. In retrospect, I can certainly understand why these two brothers might have held out hope that the lessons were transferable, but frankly, the possibility that they could have gleaned a useful nugget was not worth the agony of listening to some slick young male voice glorifying McDonald’s business practices for an hour or so of my life I could never erase or replace.

Finally, I boiled over, exclaiming “Enough!” It never occurred to me that either of them wouldn’t feel my pain. How could two bright, educated young American men not have a negative perception of McDonald’s? For heaven’s sake, DH and I went to the same liberal arts college. We were all Democrats, more or less. In fact, in some ways, DH was an even more radical liberal than I: if memory serves, he may have been a Nader fan. Also, this was a guy who, in our college days, used to jump up and down in front of the TV, spewing distrust of the evils of advertising. But after college, a little lost, he’d joined his brother, and apparently he’d changed.

Now, getting back to my distaste for McDonald’s, my husband had other reasons that should have made him sympathize. He is a veteran ethically-driven vegetarian. Yet he completely refused to stand up for me. I don’t remember how the argument went, only that, surprisingly, there was one. I never would have imagined how offended my BIL would be by my disgust with the idea of taking business advice based on the trajectory of an evil fast food empire. Maybe I’m making a leap, but I’m guessing that the same principles that made McDonald’s so successful are what made their food so awful. So what lesson could they offer the owner of a retail store who presumably wouldn’t want to make similar ethical compromises?

In retrospect, through the comforting haze of memory, I would give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there was something transferrable, salvageable in the book. Or maybe I was correct in my instinct that it was just another successful ploy to sell a get-rich-quick guide to those nearly as naive as they are greedy. But in any case, the fact that my husband had no sympathy for my feelings about the subject should have perhaps given me a clue that my marriage was doomed to fail.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I am still casting about for a career path, and I find this kind of thing inspiring. Perhaps I can find a way to make a living that also promotes better nutrition. “Nutritional justice.” Is that a thing?

Logic

A quick note about a video I saw the other day on the Web. It was just a blurb where a British scientist and others laughed down  an Australian climate change denier. The denier protested that all he was hearing was “appeal to authority” and consensus. That triggered a memory I had of the use of the term “appeal to authority” as a logical fallacy. I don’t have any formal training in logic, and it bothered me, so I Googled it. The most reputable of the initial results I got was Wikipedia, so I took a look. The article confirmed my opinion that naming a logical fallacy “appeal to authority” can be misleading. (Note to self: find a good book on formal logic.) Authority is a good think after all, right? Well, usually. But there is a problem when one of the following occurs: the authority is not really an authority, or is not an authority on the subject at hand, or the appeal to authority is used to quash good evidence (see also “confirmation bias”). Don’t quote me on any of this; I’m not an authority, at least not yet. But do check out the link. There is also a link from that page to another interesting term, the Woozle effect, apparently named for a Winnie the Pooh story. I think this is something that I’ve been suspicious about for a long time in my amateurish research efforts, without thinking about or trying to name it. Another familiar name on the page was Asch, whose research we covered in a psychology course I took this summer. Interesting stuff, indeed.

Here is a link to what seems to be a different cut of that video.

“Shining like a national guitar”

paul simon essentialWhile I love music, I’m not usually interested in interviews with musicians. But this morning Paul Simon‘s familiar voice was welcome as I drove to Zumba class, and, if I hadn’t been late, I would have stayed in the car and listened some more. Speaking about the evolution of his songwriting, Simon was funny and poignant. Of course, I can’t discount personal bias toward an artist who created so many pieces of the backdrop of my life. But maybe you’ll find it worth a listen, too.

By the time the strains to Graceland played, I was interested in his technique and moved by the results. Then again, maybe I was just sleepily nostalgic and subconsciously elevating it by contrast with the lame exercise class I was about to walk into. (Yes, it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition.)

(Nothing against Zumba as a whole, but this particular class is my least favorite, and arriving post-warmup is never a good idea.)

As compulsively analytical as I usually am, I don’t pretend to know or care what “shining like a national guitar” means, or what the Mississippi Delta could possibly have to do with it. It just works.

Registered to Vote, and More

I don’t think I’ll be in NJ for long, but I went ahead and got a new driver’s license anyway. The prime motivator was eligibility for in-county tuition rates at the local community college, where I have been taking one class at a time and intend to keep doing so until I figure out what to do next.

But a bonus, of course, is that I am now eligible to vote in the same state where I reside. I’ve never voted in a primary before, but with this presidential race being so serious, I thought I’d take a quick glimpse to see which experienced public servant was considered most likely to trump Trump.

The answer is not clear. However, during my search I happened upon an interesting device: The CNN Politics 2016 Candidate Matchmaker. I have to admit I’m not issue-savvy enough to be sure of all of the answers to the questions posed by this engine, but I did my best without doing any overthinking or research. For what it’s worth, I was not surprised by the results: based on my response to their queries, my top three choices are apparently all Democrats. In order of preference, they were Hillary, Bernie, and Martin O’Malley.

OK; maybe there was one surprise: I thought my answer to at least one of the questions was a bit radical, which sounds to me like the opposite of a Clinton. It was a query about income tax. One of the options was something to the effect of “forget income tax and just tax people on what they consume,” and I chose that one.

 

Creative Non-Fiction

I have been taking a course in creative nonfiction at the nearby community college. There are about 18 students in the class, a mix of youngsters who are probably mainly undergrads, and a few of us older folks. In fact, at least one might officially be a senior citizen, and it’s know I’m not the most ancient person in the group.

I have a notebook filling up with class time scribbles, a bulging folder full of handouts, and a growing selection of new writing on my hard drive. I’m a little put off by all the paper, and wonder how much of it I’ll bother to keep when the class is over. At least there is a scanner in the house.

The instructor is upbeat, and has great things to say about the quality of writing in our group.

In the hope that it might fill in some of the blanks of several missed sessions, I also purchased the Kindle version of Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. I think the instructor said it used to be the textbook for that course, but students had complained that it was an unnecessary expense, so she doesn’t require it anymore.

I started to read it in February, but it discouraged me, so I put it away. The problem was, Gutkind stresses the importance of truth or authenticity. It’s not that I have a desire to lie outright, but if I only wrote the facts I am sure of, I don’t think I could put together anything worth reading.

I don’t know how it works for other writers, but my memories are pretty sparse. I cannot describe the sensory details of an event that happened to me last year, let alone twenty years ago. I’m lucky if I have much in the way of visuals. I remember a little about some of the emotions that I felt during various episodes, but I don’t feel them anymore: I just remember the fact of having experienced them. I certainly can’t tell you what people said in a conversation long ago, except for the occasional seemingly profound snippet. I know that certain things did happen, but the details have long since vanished.

So Gutkind’s book, along with some other elements of the course, I think, caused me to question my ability to write creative nonfiction. How could I create interesting — or even just sensible — scenes without making things up to fill in the dialog and other details? But once I start making up anything, even if I am drawing from various other bits of memory or knowledge and making a sincere effort to portray a composite that is a reasonable facsimile of life as I remember it, does it still qualify as non-fiction? My instructor suggested adding qualifiers to the story to indicate that memory isn’t perfect, but inserting “if I recall correctly…” or “she may have said…” at every point where I’m unsure or drawing a total blank would be awkward and unreadable, to say the least. There just isn’t enough certainty to tell much of a story. Then again, it seems nearly impossible to me that most people could remember enough about their past to tell a detailed story. So do most people memoirists make some things up, inserting verbal collagen to smooth out the wrinkled account of their past? Are my concerns more OCD than reasonable ethics?

I tried to discuss my concerns with my instructor, but that didn’t go far. I’m not sure exactly what she said at the time, but at one point after that, I believe, she told me I should write fiction. I had started prefacing my pieces with disclaimers about their authenticity, and I think that’s why she said it. But I can’t think of anything thrilling enough for fiction. Nonfiction, in my humble opinion, can afford to be more mundane, because truth adds its own value. What kind of reader would suffer through the lengthy tedium of My Life, if it weren’t Bill Clinton’s biography? (I bought it in the hopes of learning something from the former POTUS, and I still didn’t get very far.) Likewise, a novel about a protagonist who suffers from OCD sounds like a yawn, while an OCD patient’s memoir might provoke some interest, as an inside account of little-understood mental health problems. Non-fiction promises to inform, to educate. Novels generally don’t, so they have to have some other appeal.

Stumped, I put the Gutkind book aside, but since the class was still going, I soldiered on. I’m glad I did, because the instructor says my writing is very, (“very, very“?) good. She even asked me the other day whether I did this for a living. Shocked, I didn’t press her, but I do wonder what she meant. As she said it, she was handing me back two pieces I had written, one about a chance meeting with Bruce Springsteen, another about the pros and cons of television. Maybe she was just asking if I wrote reviews about TV shows for a local rag or a blog? I don’t know, and I wish for once I could be an optimist and just take it at face value, as a wonderfully unexpected compliment.

As I said, I missed several sessions, so I don’t know if I might have learned to distinguish between “memoir” and “personal essay,” or what other tidbits I might have missed out on.  I’m pretty sure I missed a session dealing with such elements as “scenes,” “reflection” and “background” (if that’s indeed the right term). But the important thing is that the class has introduced me to some works I might otherwise never have read, and it has kept me writing diligently, more than I have in a long time. I still don’t know whether or not I will be able to write much that can be qualified as “memoir,” but I’m determined to keep writing. I will write what I want, and write well, and when I have to make up the details, I’ll make a note that I did so and submit that with any works going to agents or publishers. They’re the experts: let them decide whether I’ve written a memoir or a novel/short story that’s merely “based on a true story.” Then again, maybe I’ll try writing just the facts sometimes, and see what comes of it. I believe the instructor said that details would come back as we go along. That hasn’t been my experience so far, but maybe I haven’t tried the right things.

Every week or two, the instructor takes the homework papers and gets them copied into packets. She then hands those out, and has us get into small groups to “workshop” the pieces. We each read our story aloud to the others as they follow along, and then listen to their comments, which are almost exclusively complimentary. Again, I don’t know whether I missed too much in class, but I really don’t have much to say in terms of feedback for the others. But I do appreciate their compliments, and I like doling some out as well when I can so with sincerity. “That’s very powerful,” I think I said the other day to a young man after he read his piece.

I do most of my writing on the computer at home, as I’ve done for the past couple of decades, but in each class we spend some time “free writing” as well, inspired by prompts from the instructor. I don’t really enjoy most of those exercises — my handwriting is wretched and I don’t like being put on the spot and I end up writing mostly garbage — but I have actually used one or two of these little exercises as fodder for some pieces I turned in for homework. So it’s perhaps not as pointless for me as I’d once thought.

Next week, for the second-to-last class, I have to give a ten-minute presentation on a memoir I read. I will also need to turn in a short paper about the Visiting Writer speech that I attended one evening (part of a series of Visiting Writers talks at the college) before the end of the course. Then, due the last class, there is the portfolio. This is to be a selection of several (I think it’s four or five) of the pieces we did for homework, revised, hopefully improved, since we have supposedly learned a lot since we initially wrote them. I don’t feel that I learned anything much in the way of specifics about writing from this course, but I suspect it doesn’t work that way. And then again, maybe if I read through my notes and the handouts I’d find I did get a lot out of it. In any case, I probably absorbed a fair amount of wisdom that will serve me some day, if not now, and I probably improved a bit from all the practice I’ve been getting.

I have a lot of work to do in the next two weeks, but I’m looking forward to it. At the same time, with this course ending, I need to select my next adventure. I have a couple of ideas, but they’ll have to wait for the next post.

Zounds

These days, I’m ashamed to say, I’m not learning something new every day. It’s not been a good time. I’ve only just started to read the headlines again, and just barely. So until I have something new and interesting, here’s a draft I dug up from years ago:

“Sometimes you have to play a word ’cause it’s funny,” I said to my husband, as I did just that in an online Scrabble match with a stranger on Facebook. “Even if it’s not a money-maker.” My choice? “Zounds.” “That’s not a word,” he complained. I protested with feigned certainty and looked it up.

zounds |zoundz|

exclamation archaic or humorous

expressing surprise or indignation.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: contraction from (God)’s wounds (i.e., those of Jesus Christ on the Cross). (From dictionary applet)

Who knew it was so old?

I gleaned a mere 18 points, but the “z” had been on the board anyway.