May 28 2014

Things That Annoy Me, A Continuing Series: Bad Food Photography

I have these Facebook friends* who insist on taking cellphone snapshots of their food and then labeling it #foodporn. Which would be fine—I love food porn, and I’m actually quite interested in what my friends happen to be eating for lunch. I’m not one of those people who rolls their eyes about social media posts revolving around breakfast. BREAKFAST IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY! Except maybe for second breakfast, and elevenses, and lunch, and…really, tell me what you’re eating, I want to know!

But I don’t want to have to look at your crappy cellphone photos of it. Because invariably, that picture tagged “#foodporn”? It’s a plate of food, not quite in focus, the colors washed out to a rubbery grey, and a horrible glistening sheen cast over everything that makes it look like a washed-up pile of jellyfish left in the sun for three days and picked over by gulls. Your kale salads, your wild boar ragu, your foie gras walnut brioche: it all looks like the refuse of seagulls.

Food photography is hard, you guys. It takes good lighting, a decent camera, and skill. (It also annoys me when people argue about which cellphone takes the best pictures. You know what takes good pictures? A camera.)

Look, even Martha Stewart can’t make her cellphone food pictures look appetizing. You can’t either. Get a real camera and some direct lighting or just tell us about the amazing Monte Cristo you had this afternoon at that little place in Belden alley. Sometimes a hundred words are much, much better than a picture.

*(I’m not talking about you, Todd. You’re not “a Facebook friend,” you’re an ACTUAL friend. And you only did this once. At which point you were immediately treated to a personal performance of this rant. So, not talking about you!)

Sep 25 2012

Things That Annoy Me, A Continuing Series: Automated Teller Machines

When I was younger, under a different name, I published an obscenity-laced tirade against Andrew Jackson that I am not going to link to from here, because it was egregiously profane. But for the record, my stance on Andrew Jackson hasn’t changed. He was a traitor to our country and a genocidal killer, and the fact that he’s still—to this day!—held up as some kind of American hero is both utterly baffling and deeply, deeply offensive to me.

Don’t talk to me about the Battle of New Orleans or paying off the national debt or whatever. Don’t even start. I’m sure Hitler was nice to puppies. Jackson defied the Supreme Court’s edict requiring him to abide by the treaties the United States had made with the Indian nations, and unlawfully forced tens of thousands of people on the death march we call the Trail of Tears. Among the Cherokee alone 15,000 were forced to march, and 4,000 died—more than one in four, many of them children. For this genocidal act Jackson takes his place among history’s greatest monsters. He betrayed our Constitution and murdered thousands of innocent people. He was not a President but a dictator.

And we have this monster on our money.

This really shouldn’t be in the “annoyances” category. What Andrew Jackson inspires in me is more accurately described as “rage.” Seriously, don’t talk to me about Andrew Jackson, I start yelling and spitting. I can barely go to the ATM because they always give you twenties. Okay, that’s an annoyance—the ATM thing. I’m going to change the title of this post from “Things That Annoy Me: Andrew Jackson” to “Things that Annoy Me: Automated Teller Machines,” and then everybody will be completely baffled until they get to the last sentence.

May 16 2012

Pearls of Wisdom

If you ever have cause to ask yourself, “What did I just step in?”—then you have already lost.

Dec 28 2011

About Fat

The New York Times has a good summary of the current state of research into weight loss, and why so few people (five percent is probably a generous estimate) who attempt to lose a significant amount of weight will succeed in doing so over the long term.

When I turned 30, my metabolism changed and I began putting on weight very rapidly. I gained about thirty pounds in a year. Alarmed, I tried every sort of diet—low fat, low carb, calorie-counting, periods of fasting—and managed lose five or ten pounds at a time only to see them inexorably creep back. My pregnancies exacerbated the problem. At 35, I’m about a hundred pounds overweight. I’m not sedentary—I walk three miles in the course of my daily routine, taking Robin to school and picking him up—and I cook healthy meals for our family based on the week’s batch of fresh vegetables from our CSA box. I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat junk food. Everyone but me in our household has no trouble keeping to a “normal” weight. By every measure other than weight (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc) I’m quite healthy. But the fat has been a torment.

There is this myth in our culture that weight loss is easy, that it just takes a bit of self-discipline. That’s demonstrably not true.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that while the 10,000 people tracked in the registry are a useful resource, they also represent a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to lose weight. “All it means is that there are rare individuals who do manage to keep it off,” Brownell says. “You find these people are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.”

Janice Bridge, a registry member who has successfully maintained a 135-pound weight loss for about five years, is a perfect example. “It’s one of the hardest things there is,” she says. “It’s something that has to be focused on every minute. I’m not always thinking about food, but I am always aware of food.”

My friend Jessie pointed out something, years ago, that I thought was incredibly smart. She said you can tell just by looking at a newsstand that weight loss isn’t something most people have control over. If there were a known, reliable, hard-but-doable method for losing weight—if it really came down to “eat less and exercise more” in a way as simple and moderate as that formulation makes it sound—then there wouldn’t be the constant proliferation of magic powders, recipes, diets, and other snake oil peddled to the fat.

I mean, compare it to giving up cigarettes. Everybody understands that quitting smoking is hard, but doable. It takes self-discipline, it takes a program, and there are medicines that can help. There’s this idea in our culture that losing a large amount of weight takes roughly the same amount of effort. But do you see people on the cover of magazines: I Gave Up Cigarettes in Six Months—and You Can Too! Or This Woman Gave Up Two Packs a Day! How She Did It Page 58? Do you see it every time you pass a magazine rack, cover after cover, month after month, year after year—always peddling a slightly different “secret”?

No. You do not, because those people, the people who successfully kick a nicotine addiction, are not news. They are common. And there are no “secrets” to ditching cigarettes because there actually are known, reliable, hard-but-doable methods that work.

By contrast, the people who make the covers of magazines, standing in their old fat pants and proudly holding out the waistband two feet from their tummies: they are newsworthy because they are rare. Someone like Jared the Subway Guy can get a lucrative corporate sponsorship deal for his weight loss precisely because it’s not something anybody could do. If it were, everyone would know a Jared, he wouldn’t be exceptional, and the company would have no reason to spend a lot of money making him famous. The media can perpetually sell weight-loss “secrets” because there is no known, tested, reliable, repeatable weight-loss method that actually works for the majority (or even a large minority) of people who try it.

It’s not that weight loss is impossible. People do it. All of these fad diets, they’ve worked for some people. Not many, but some. “Eat less and exercise more” works too, if by that you mean eating much, much less, and spending hours working out, every day, forever.

“I think many people who are anxious to lose weight don’t fully understand what the consequences are going to be, nor does the medical community fully explain this to people,” Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University in New York, says. “We don’t want to make them feel hopeless, but we do want to make them understand that they are trying to buck a biological system that is going to try to make it hard for them.”

Leibel and his colleague Michael Rosenbaum have pioneered much of what we know about the body’s response to weight loss. For 25 years, they have meticulously tracked about 130 individuals for six months or longer at a stretch. The subjects reside at their research clinic where every aspect of their bodies is measured. Body fat is determined by bone-scan machines. A special hood monitors oxygen consumption and carbon-dioxide output to precisely measure metabolism. Calories burned during digestion are tracked. Exercise tests measure maximum heart rate, while blood tests measure hormones and brain chemicals. Muscle biopsies are taken to analyze their metabolic efficiency. (Early in the research, even stool samples were collected and tested to make sure no calories went unaccounted for.) For their trouble, participants are paid $5,000 to $8,000.

Eventually, the Columbia subjects are placed on liquid diets of 800 calories a day until they lose 10 percent of their body weight. Once they reach the goal, they are subjected to another round of intensive testing as they try to maintain the new weight. The data generated by these experiments suggest that once a person loses about 10 percent of body weight, he or she is metabolically different than a similar-size person who is naturally the same weight. The research shows that the changes that occur after weight loss translate to a huge caloric disadvantage of about 250 to 400 calories.

There are also changes that occur in the brain, to actually heighten the effect of food cravings and to simultaneously weaken the control systems that allow us to resist such cravings.

Another way that the body seems to fight weight loss is by altering the way the brain responds to food. Rosenbaum and his colleague Joy Hirsch, a neuroscientist also at Columbia, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to track the brain patterns of people before and after weight loss while they looked at objects like grapes, Gummi Bears, chocolate, broccoli, cellphones and yo-yos. After weight loss, when the dieter looked at food, the scans showed a bigger response in the parts of the brain associated with reward and a lower response in the areas associated with control. This suggests that the body, in order to get back to its pre-diet weight, induces cravings by making the person feel more excited about food and giving him or her less willpower to resist a high-calorie treat.

In other words, once you’ve lost the weight, you will never be able to eat as much as a person who is “naturally the same weight,” and you will never stop being hungry. Under those conditions, yes, most people can’t sustain significant weight loss even if they do manage to take the weight off in the first place. I keep saying “significant” because these biological systems don’t seem to kick in for someone who just needs to lose the ten pounds they put on over the holidays, which is one reason why people who’ve successfully dieted to lose five or ten pounds don’t understand why the truly fat can’t slim down.

I have not given up on losing weight. I agonize every day, over every thing that I put in my mouth. Basically, I struggle to keep my weight stable and I look forward to the day when there will be real medicine to counteract the biological, neurochemical mechanisms that inhibit substantial weight loss. I also desperately wish that our culture would accept that fact that fat people are not simply lazy and weak-willed. It’s not like quitting smoking, it’s not something that just requires a significant but temporary amount of self-discipline. Nor is it, as the “eat less and exercise more” formulation suggests, something that just requires moderate and reasonable lifestyle changes. It’s something that requires complete dedication, forever, and there’s a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors that makes it more difficult for some than for others. And it’s time our society moved beyond the magazine-cover snake-oil stage and started looking at fat in a realistic way.

Dec 17 2010

Things That Annoy Me, a Continuing Series: Bowdlerizations of Beloved Children’s Classics

Tonight I was reading Robin a bedtime story, and instead of going for one of his usual favorites, I decided to pick a book we hadn’t yet read together. This handsome board-book edition of “Peter Rabbit,” which someone had very kindly given us as a gift some time ago, looked like just the ticket:


So I started reading, but…as I turned the pages, the book seemed wrong. The pictures were right, but the text seemed dull and lifeless. It wasn’t the charming story I remember from my own childhood. I flipped it closed and took a closer look at the cover. And then I noticed, as I had not at first, those tiny little words at the bottom—based on the original and authorized edition.

Based on the original? BASED ON THE ORIGINAL??? They re-wrote Beatrix Potter? For the love of all that’s holy, why? I just about started screaming. I flung the book down and went to find my own little well-worn copy of Peter Rabbit.


Here’s how the original starts:

“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were—
and Peter.
They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.”


“‘Now, my dears,’ said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

Now here’s the bowdlerized version:


“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter. They lived with their mother under the root of a big tree. ‘Now,’ said Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.”

Firstly, the charming specificity of detail has been wiped away. Instead of the picturesque “in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree” we are left only with the bland, straightforward “under the root of a big tree.” Secondly, the voice of the original—the musical, sing-song cadence of the language—has been lost. Beatrix Potter’s writing tugs at us like a nursery rhyme. She obviously took great care with the sound of the words and the rhythm of their placement, and it’s an important part of why her stories work the way they do. The new version is plodding and graceless.

But thirdly, and most terribly, the plot has been eviscerated. In the original, we know what the stakes are. Peter Rabbit faces death if he’s caught by Mr. McGregor. In the new version, Mrs. Rabbit gives no reason at all for her prohibition. As a result, the story makes no sense. We don’t know why Peter is supposed to avoid the garden, and we don’t have any reason to care about whether or not he manages to escape Mr. McGregor.

The rest of the story is butchered in a similar fashion. Compare a passage from the middle of the tale:

“Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate. He lost one of his shoes among the cabbages, and the other shoe amongst the potatoes. After losing them, he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net, and got caught by the large buttons on his jacket. It was a blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new.”

In the board-book version, this becomes: “Peter was very frightened. He rushed all over the garden and lost both his shoes. Then he tripped and got caught in a net.”

I kid you not. I mean…I can’t even.

And I am so sorry, generous gift-giver, whose exact identity I no longer remember, if it seems that I am ungratefully railing against your thoughtful present. You would have had every reason to assume that a book titled The Tale of Peter Rabbit and attributed to Beatrix Potter was, in fact, the book that Beatrix Potter actually wrote. I think you were swindled and I am outraged on your behalf. But mostly I’m outraged at the idea that significant numbers of children might be fooled into thinking that this drek is Peter Rabbit. Because a parent who buys this book when they wanted “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” has been cheated out of some money: but a child who gets this instead of Beatrix Potter has been cheated out of something truly precious.

I read Robin the original version, of course. He was not in the least alarmed by the allusion to Peter’s father’s “accident.” He was a lot more interested in the fate of Peter’s shoes.

Mar 23 2010

Things That Annoy Me, Part One in a Continuing Series: Meta-Rock

I hate rock ‘n roll songs that are about rock ‘n roll. Meta-rock. By this I don’t mean songs that merely express a desire to rock (Kiss, “[I Wanna] Rock and Roll All Nite”) or announce the band’s intention to rock in the immediate future (Queen, “We Will Rock You”). Exhortations to rock, claims of having rocked in the recent past, narrative statements indicating that the singer is currently in the process of rocking: these are all fine. I also give a pass to songs that express simple enthusiasm for rock music (Joan Jett, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,”—yes, she didn’t write the song, but nobody associates it with The Arrows). Rock music is about immediacy and passion: it’s well-suited to songs that purely take joy in the act of rocking out.

I don’t even mind songs that tell us how the rocking is in a particular place or time. The Ramones, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” Elvis Presley doing “Jailhouse Rock”—we’re still cool. One of the things a good rock song can do is tell a story. I don’t mind a little scene-setting mixed in with my rock ‘n roll.

Where I get itchy is with a song like Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Here the singer is no longer expressing a simple and pure emotion, as Joan Jett did: he’s commenting on the state of rock and roll in general. This is meta-rock territory, and it irritates me. It’s a violation of the genre. Rock songs encapsulate the feeling of a single moment; I don’t care whether it’s driven by a primal and timeless urge or whether it’s set in a very particular place and time, but I do care that the emotion evoked by the song be immediate and unadulterated. When rock songs twist in on themselves to become reflective, self-referential commentaries, they cease to work for me.

Exultation, despair, anger, need, sexual yearning and the wild aimless energy of youth: these things are the proper subject matter for rock ‘n roll. “Bob Seger is cranky about the albums the kids are making these days” doesn’t cut it. He might as well have written a song called “Get Off My Lawn.” It probably would have made for better rock music.

And Huey Lewis, this goes double for you and The News. “The Heart of Rock & Roll” is a terrible song. If you have some critical insights about the state of the industry, write an essay. Give an interview. Start a blog. Don’t make me listen to your stupid whimpering meta-rock.

I could think of other examples, but I don’t want to. I realize this pet peeve of mine is fairly crazy; I have others that are equally crazy, and I figured I could amuse you, The Internet, with a catalog. Next up: Cars That End Up in the Crosswalk After the Light Changes.