Rest for the Tired Mind

What tires the mind is apt to be a computer task: finishing an article by a deadline; sorting a year’s paperwork for taxes; doing something about enough email so that what remains in the inbox will fit on one screen. Tired mindI work at it until I can do no more, and then what? I could walk outside or work out at the gym, or see if someone wants to meet for a cup of coffee. But in the moment I consider what might be possible, I am sitting before this lovely, powerful device that connects me to worlds beyond my reach, facts I don’t know, and a universe of possibility through its colorful screen.

Computer games lurk a few keystrokes away. Think of it: I don’t have to move, and in less than a minute I shall be delighting in the easy elegance of this device. But I haven’t done well at the games I’ve tried, or cared much for them. I’ll admit my incoordination and inexperience, but stand up for my gloomy sense that such play wastes time and attention, and therefore life. (Before you dismiss my attitude as a loser’s whine, remember that I had sufficient sitzfleisch for medical school and dexterity for orthopaedic surgery.)

I did get caught up in computer mahjong solitaire, where I found something soothing in applying my full attention to a puzzle that was simple but not easy, and surprisingly satisfying when won.Mahjong solitaire The swoosh sound the virtual pieces make when they disappear from the board has a certain appeal. But I tired of it, even though it reminded me of my brief flurry with real mahjong, when the physical tiles in their leather box possessed some of the shiny appeal of my computer.

People I love and respect play solitaire games a lot, computer and otherwise. My better half recovers from writing lectures by playing Sudoku, or solo computer Scrabble; as I write she is sharing a new enthusiasm for KenKen with one of the twin house guests whose presence has kept me from blogging for a week. They are amused and absorbed, but I have found something I like better.

A search for a passage I wanted to quote from a book I read when I was ten led me to Project Gutenberg, from where I discovered Distributed Proofreaders. As they scan old books which have passed out of copyright, they need the texts to be proofread to correct errors in the OCR output. You can volunteer to do some on line, at your convenience. (It’s the same kind of sharing as the SETI@home screensaver, which you can think of as the same kind of relief for your computer’s mind.) Distributed Proofreaders shows you how to do it. A page or two takes about as long as a game of mahjongg, and demands the same kind of attention. For me, it provides a similar satisfaction when I win (i.e. finish a page). You can do as little as a single page or as many pages as you want. And participation offers two additional rewards.Books Beyond Copyright

First, you get to read about something you might never have dipped into otherwise. In the few weeks I have been doing this I have read from Experiments on Animals, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, Principles and Practice of Fur Dressing and Fur Dyeing, Metapsychical Phenomena and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent—among others. And second, what you accomplish when you finish a page helps the world in a way that playing with images that disappear when you are done does not. Try a page; you might like it.

Images courtesy of Mia Bruksman, Shurikane and Liz West.

I Was a Cheerful Omnivore

When I get caught up in a book, I’m apt to recommend it as if it were the best book I’d ever read, because at that moment it’s the only one in my head. David Grossman’s To The End of the Land grabbed me that way.

Cover To the End of the LandI want the friends I recommend a book to to share my experience undiluted and undistorted, to read the book as I did, unladen with either expectations or knowledge. This austerity infuriates my wife. Why should I read it, she demands, if you won’t even say what it’s about?

Okay. It’s about a family in a land at war, and what that does to those who go off to war, and to the others. The piece I want to hold on to for a moment appears when a boy between his childhood and becoming a soldier demands his parents explain to him where meat comes from. Wishing to spare their son that knowledge of killing, their awkward answer makes him a vegetarian for some years of his adolescence. That decision of his set against other decisions he makes, moved me, and ought to move you. Enough said.

To the End of the Land is set in Israel and translated from the Hebrew; its protagonists are Jewish; kashrut is in its air. A few weeks after I read it, I stumbled across Eat Not This Flesh, Frederick J. Simoons’s fascinating (I was going to say, ‘delicious’) scholarly account of food avoidances in many cultures through history. He explores people who eschew pork, or beef, or fish, or fowl, or dogs, or horses, and the religious, historical, practical and cultural reasons they do so. I couldn’t put it down.

PigsLet me offer you a taste. In 1973, Simoons tells us, nutritious, low-fat, reasonably priced, legally slaughtered horsemeat was subject to federal inspection, and a horsemeat shop in Connecticut set up fifteen franchises in New England and New York which sold 4000 to 5000 pounds a day. Tongans learned to like horsemeat from European missionaries, and from the mid-1950s (many of them Mormons) migrated to Utah, where they purchased horses to eat. This impaired their public image and made their children the butt of jokes in school. When in 1983, a Hartford, Connecticut packing company sold horse patties and steaks in Utah through the Harmon’s, Inc. supermarket chain, stock sold out quickly—until public protest by 200 horse lovers led Harmon’s to stop selling it and leave the Tongans on their own. (pp.192 ff.)

Or a bit further afield:

“Dog eating in modern sub-Saharan Africa is found mainly in the rain forest and adjacent savannas of West Africa and the Congo Basin, where to some groups it is a preferred form of flesh. […] Dog eaters in central Nigeria have special names for dog parts, which derive from a perceived resemblance between the dog and a Peugeot 404 station wagon. The dog itself is called 404 station wagon; its head, gearbox or loudspeaker; its legs, 404 wheels […]” (p.229)

For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve eaten a dog, but I found my cavallo in Puglia the sweetest pot roast ever. This should help establish my credentials as a cheerful omnivore. I wasn’t always: this skinny kid whose mother had a cooking disorder, as a New Yorker cartoon had it, grew from liking nothing into an adventurous eater, married a marvelous cook, and when I found myself responsible for feeding myself, I discovered that if I apply to making dinner about a third of the care, planning and attention to detail that orthopaedic surgery demands, the results will delight me, please others and nourish all. I like sharp knives, cast iron, good wines, and the savory better than the sweet. I admire the work of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. (I’ll write about appetite another time; despite everything, when I got out of bed this morning I weighed the same as I did the month Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded That’ll be the Day.)

With all this in my head, I picked up Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food had made me aware of the subsidized corn monoculture and the evils of factory farms, and led a portion of a locally grass-fed beefalo into my basement freezer. Foer’s book, however, upset me. I hadn’t realized how completely factory farming, with its cruelty to animals, brutalization of employees and impairment of the quality and healthfulness of meat most Americans eat has replaced the kind of farm or ranch I thought my animal protein came from. And the way Foer writes about his concern for his son and the example he would set by eating and feeding him food from these places resonated with the feelings Ofer’s vegetarianism in To the End of the Land provoked.

Foer has become a vegetarian, and he has made me uncomfortable. Might I stop eating animals over these issues? I don’t think so, but the truth is that I don’t know. I frown on activists who don’t bear witness themselves: I stopped smoking cigarettes in 1963 in the era of the Surgeon General’s report because it would have been wrong to go to medical school as a smoker. Now I shall take more interest in where the animals I eat come from, and how they got here from there. I can cook hearty, tasty meatless meals that will satisfy me and many vegetarians, but the dinner table I share with another omnivore matters, too. Give up meat? For good? Is that what the question is?