Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Technophilia in the opposition to healthcare reform and environmentalism

Paul Krugman posted an interesting tidbit on his blog at the New York Times today, titled "American Superiority Complex." In part, he writes:
Aaron Carroll has a very good takedown of an op-ed article by Senator Ron Johnson, who basically exploits his infant daughter’s medical experience to make an incoherent attack on the Affordable Care Act. His daughter received excellent treatment, and he asserts that she wouldn’t have received that kind of treatment under universal health insurance, because …. well, he doesn’t explain. [...]

But what struck me about the whole piece was the assumption that modern medicine in general is something only we lucky free-market Americans have, while in Europe they’re still using leeches or something. In other words, it’s part of the superiority complex you often encounter in U.S. politics; people just know that we’re the best, and won’t believe you when you tell them that actually they have the Internet, cell phones, and antibiotics in Europe too.

But what strikes me, looking at the original piece by Senator Johnson, is that he valorizes specifically the technological aspects of Western medicine—it was a complex surgery that saved his daughter, and he refers later specifically to joint replacements, cataract surgery, and radiation, all technology-intensive procedures. He closes his piece talking about innovation, choice, and competition, all concepts that seem curiously placed in a mini-manifesto about healthcare. After all, how many patients complain their doctor isn't innovative or competitive enough or doesn't order enough tests? 

Virtually everyone I know wants medical care from doctors who pay attention to them, who perform the lost art of the physical exam, who spend more than 4 minutes half-listening, half-reading a chart while they scribble a prescription for the next test. This time-crunched scenario, by the way, is the very situation that has driven up healthcare costs in the first place.  It is far more “efficient” (another phrase often bandied about in these discussions) for both patient and physician to spend time together creating a thorough history, getting to know the patient’s life circumstances, personality, etc., than for the doctor to order a battery of tests relatively blind to that crucial information. Some things just take time and care; listening is one such activity, and properly reading tests is another.* Lack of time and lack of simple, low- (or really no-)tech checks and balances are responsible for most medical mistakes, misdiagnoses, and subsequent malpractice suits.**

Back to Senator Johnson and the arguments promulgated by the current crop of anti-healthcare-reformers, who apparently not only want healthcare not to be available to everyone, but also want it to be expensive, technology-driven, and less efficient. Leaving aside for a moment the deep problems with the tests themselves (false positives, false negatives, false reliance on tests as "objective", lab companies saving money by not recalibrating equipment frequently enough, not having an actual pathologist examine the specimens, etc.), this is a really screwy set-up. The only ones sure to benefit from it are the companies that make the equipment, read the labs, and make the drugs.

In fairness, I do not think it is all about greed (though it would be interesting to learn  how much money the anti-healthcare-reform politicians receive not just in donations from Big Pharma and Big Insurance, but from their own investments in these huge industries). I think science and technology, like divinity, provide a sense of magic and mystery that speaks to the human need to feel awe. They  also, again like religion, promise that there might be, after all, a way for us to exert some control over the vicissitudes of life.

This is a dangerous myth, however, and it is costing us dearly. 

It operates not just in healthcare, where we spend the vast majority of resources on the first and last six months of life, desperate to hold onto continued existence at any cost, never questioning whether the quantity of days spent technically alive should take precedence over the quality of the life thus endured or forced upon the unwitting. Technophilia is also an impediment to the environmental movement, because much of the public discourse is based on the assumption that the environment is endlessly plastic (!), amenable to our technological control, and thus we can "out-invent" and "out-compete" our way in developing "innovative new technologies" to battle rising sea levels, rising temperatures, etc. But this idea that Nature is to be controlled or conquered for our benefit is at the very root of our problems.  And there is little if any talk of developing technologies to reduce the amount of pollution that is dumped into the air, land and sea—only technologies to minimize the climate change effects of that pollution. This, too, is very odd, since if we cannot bring ourselves to alter an industrial process so that it is cleaner, it seems like outright megalomania to think we could send up some enormous swath of material to deflect sunlight or patch the ozone layer (all the while dumping more toxins into the atmosphere). There is a strange hatred of change toward the much cleaner technologies and processes already available, and a preference for far-fetched fantasy.

Does anyone else find this curious?


*Inter-rater and  intra-rater variability in interpreting  images such as chest X-rays and mammograms are shockingly high; see Jerome Groopman's excellent treatment of this issue in How Doctors Think

** Cf. Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Trouble with Choice: thoughts on the decline of newspapers

I read the New York Times (or parts of it) online every day. At a minimum, I scan the headlines and read a few Op-Ed columns. I also always check the box at the right of the screen with the “Most E-mailed” list (simply because it is the default mode of the box; the other options are tabbed as most blogged, searched, and viewed, but I usually don’t bother comparing and contrasting the lists unless I have quite a bit of time on my hands.) It is an exercise of my ‘freedom’ to read only what I choose.

This experience is vastly different than reading the print version of the Times.  As I unfold the crisp paper and smell the ink, my eye is fixed on the top half of the first page. My glance encompasses the headlines on that page, and as I track a story into the depths of section A, B, or C, I’m led past other photos, headlines, and paragraphs that catch my eye, exposing me to information that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to read. The juxtaposition of disparate topics regularly leads me to discover threads and themes that I had completely missed reading online that very morning. In one instance I remember reading (in the physical paper) about an act of corporate pollution (having to do with mining in South America, if I recall) and catching, by the by, a small story about how the EPA has had to shelve more than 1500 legal actions against companies for polluting thanks to an ambiguity in the language of the Clean Water Act. (Namely, the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by the law; companies claim that the language of the regulation, which states “navigable waterways”, allows them to dump oil, carcinogens, and bacteria into lakes and rivers that aren’t used by commercial ships.) By these lights, 45% of company polluters are outside of regulatory reach. A separate article in a different section concerned a particular cancer that is tied to environmental toxins (a fact I knew because of my work; this wasn’t the focus of the article). In other words, a bigger picture emerged through reading the physical paper than I would normally get from following only my own pre-conceived interests, my choices, online. (Oddly, when I returned home and tried to find the article about the EPA online, it was difficult to locate, and certainly not on the landing page.)

This difference in subjective experience is related to’s marketing technique of tracking member purchases and sending perky emails every so often with ‘new recommendations just for [me]’. If I purchased a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the email will list five other recordings of Beethoven piano works or recordings by the same artist. I admit that on rare occasions I’ve been intrigued by some item they’ve proffered, but 99% of the time their algorithm fails to come up with anything that actually speaks to my interests. Past purchases are a poor prognosticator of my future purchases, not just because I buy a number of gifts online that reveal little of my personal preferences, but because I actually purchase a good portion of my books in actual book stores (where they are not privy to amazon’s nosy little tactics), and, most importantly, because all a computer algorithm can do is give me more of what I’ve already got, and generally that is not what I am looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, I find very handy. But when I visit the site I am usually looking for a particular title I’ve seen mentioned somewhere. My search is focused. I might purchase the book online, but more likely I will trek to a bookstore—an excursion that invariably exposes me to all sorts of tantalizing diversions on the way to whatever obscure shelf I’m seeking.  As with the newspaper, the experience of being in a bookstore is quite different from being in the virtual website environment.

The same contrast obtains between listening to cd’s at home vs. going to a concert, where you're likely to hear music you wouldn't have chosen to listen to, and hear familiar music in a different way. I could go on, but I think the point is clear: consumer self-selection is ultimately self-limiting. This is one serious drawback to asking students to evaluate "the relevance" of what they've learned in a course right at the end of the semester. Chances are, they'll not be in a position to judge, perhaps for some time.

Given how challenging it can be to expand our repertoires, it's easy to see why we opt for the familiar. But we are the poorer for it.  We need to cultivate an ability to tolerate uncertainty, ignorance, feeling a little bit lost, in order to savor the joys of exploration and self-expansion. Perhaps this is why the proliferation of pre-set social identities has seemed to generate only an increasingly flat and stereotyped sense of self.

This is why marketing strategies seeking to “give the customer what s/he wants” are so insidious. They cater to all the lesser appetites and, by doing so, create a more ignorant, more limited consumer while inflating that consumer's ego with a false sense of empowerment. Who is a child to know what a healthy diet is? Who is a student, to know how a professor should teach, or what material needs to be covered? Who is a reader or listener, to know what news is important and how the stories fit together? (Notice that I do not call the child, student, reader or listener "consumers" of parenting, education, or knowledge—a forced economic identity that is itself repulsively thin and one-dimensional.)

Newspapers are in trouble in part because they’ve failed to uphold their journalistic responsibilities in the name of giving readers what they want. I happily pay for journals that present analysis and good writing; I see no reason to pay for schlock. Yet in their desperate race for popularity—their first mistake—newspapers have shirked their duties to inform, educate, stimulate, and challenge readers or the powers that be. Instead, they have been bought by the powers that be, which has driven them even further away from their calling.

The latest capitulation in the war on journalistic integrity?  The New York Times, apparently feeling anxious about its decision to put up a paywall, is cozying up to some pretty powerful economic interests. To wit (from
What is the New York Times thinking?  The one-time paper of record has partnered with a major oil company to sponsor a private, elite conversation whereby Shell gets to leverage the credibility of the New York Times brand along with high-profile journalists (Frank Rich!) to attract an elite audience to peddle its greenwashing.
It’s bad enough I have to skip over ads when I view articles online, but this morning I received an email from with the subject line: "Enjoy unlimited access to, courtesy of Lincoln." Yes, Lincoln, as in those humongous gas-guzzlers driven by TV crooks in 70’s cop shows. Here’s the text of the email:
Dear reader,
As a frequent reader of, you’ve demonstrated an uncommon interest in a wide variety of today’s most important topics. This makes you anything but average. In fact, it can’t help but make you “smarter” — just the kind of person we at Lincoln want to engage.
Though will soon begin charging for unlimited access, Lincoln is offering you a free digital subscription for the remainder of 2011. Enjoy all that has to offer every day—investigative news and special reports, videos, blogs and more. It’s all yours at no charge, compliments of Lincoln.
Aside from the peculiar language and punctuation (why is “smarter” in quotes? what does Lincoln seek to “engage” me in, exactly?), I find the brazenness of these new partnerships with Big Oil and the auto industry disturbing. How will the Times report about climate change now? How will this affect their reporting on big industries, or on regulatory policies those industries want to crush?  And didn’t the Obama administration just bail out the auto industry?  If this is the result of our taxpayer investment, how can anyone complain about a measly 20% federal support of NPR? I’m just waiting to see Big Pharma get in on the game; maybe Viagra will sponsor a year's subscription to The Economist.

I don’t object to paying for good journalism; I simply doubt that the blatant industry interests the Times is courting are compatible with it.

The notion of cultural choice is touted as our pre-eminent political and economic virtue, but the truth is that a host of grandly leveling market forces have foreclosed choice. We think we’re empowered, that we’re free to choose anything money can buy. But the market has laid siege to our private lives; our social and political institutions are being hollowed out from within. Educational institutions, affordable housing, healthcare, and even prisons are now largely private growth markets. Patient, employee, and consumer rights are playthings for lobbyists; the sacking of the public sphere is taking place right under our noses. Where are the papers that will publish the analyses we need, to show us what our choices have wrought?

Oh, I forgot: when everyone is 'empowered', there's no need for criticism.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What two dogs in the aftermath of the tsunami can teach us about ethics

The video I mentioned last week, showing the touching loyalty of one dog for her companion injured by the Japanese tsunami, apparently went viral. It's not surprising that people all over the world were moved to watch: the tender interaction between the two dogs is so utterly uncomplicated by any form of ego. They are emotionally in tune; there is no need for verbal language. They depict an ideal we humans have to work hard to achieve in our relationships.

I was reminded of other videos I've seen recently about animal relationships, especially inter-species friendships. Tara the elephant and Bella the dog; the joyful, affectionate reunion between Christian the lion and the men who rescued him years after they'd released him back to the wild; the zoo-caged gorilla who tenderly rescued the human child who'd fallen into the cage and brought him to the zookeepers. There are actually a plethora of such stories, which nevertheless are always reported as if they are singular, even miraculous, events. Perhaps we are only projecting the unlikelihood of our own involvement if we find a fellow creature in need, particularly if they are of another class, race, or species.

Considering these inter-species encounters, I'm struck by how uncomplicated they are by human-style egoism. Rather, they are emotionally "real": powerful, direct, profound, immanent. These animals do not waste time calculating which species is more intelligent.  They do not waffle over whether other species are sentient, lord their species-specific abilities over others, or shrug their shoulders when disaster strikes someone not of their tribe. They do not wonder, in self-justification, whether others feels pain. They do not set out to utterly destroy other species.

Only human animals are so disconnected from their place in the world that they regularly make the mistake of thinking they are above it. It is a holdover from the Judeo-Christian notion that man has dominion over nature, which has provided twisted justification for marking all non-human species as Other, as Object, paving the way to excluding them from the Kantian imperative to treat others as ends in themselves. 

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that ethical behavior is rooted in our animal natures, not our capacity to reason. Aristotle wrote of the similarities between humans and dolphins over two and half thousand years ago: both take pleasure in exercising their skills, both display curiosity, bravery, and purposefulness. Nietzsche picked up this idea a century ago:
The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery—in short, of all that we designate as the Socratic virtues—are animal...
To empathize, to share joy or sorrow, to connect... these do not require verbal language—they require sensitivity, presence, memory of one's own experiences, the inclination to pay attention and to risk trusting.  Considering the range of inhumane responses and behaviors on display every day, it would seem we should look to nonhumans to learn how to live.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kantianism, canine style

In the midst of all this serious talk about disasters and national character, a dear friend of mine forwarded me a very touching video from Japan via an Italian news network (please excuse the brief ad at the beginning).  In the rubble of what used to be the city of Mito, in the Ibaraki Prefecture, a rescue party found this dog, who led the humans immediately to her gravely injured companion.  Muddied and undoubtedly hungry, the first dog refused to leave her wounded friend until more help arrived and the critically injured animal was treated.

It is a very moving video clip, worth the short moments it takes to view.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Convenience [sic] and plastic part II

Several days ago ("Rethinking convenience and ease"), I wrote about the exponential increase in the amount of plastic packaging coming into our homes associated with food:
The driving force behind this obsession with packaging seems to be a particular notion of convenience, perhaps seconded by social atomization and the ability to derive greater profit per unit from individual packages.
It just so happens that two comments on the "Sugar and St. Augustine" post at Slow Love Life provided proof of my atomization/greater profit argument yesterday.  Grace reported from the U.K. that Del Monte now sells plastic-packaged bananas, and the inimitable David Terry (from the Triangle area, NC) followed up with a doozy of an anecdote (I quote him here, with his permission):
Come shopping with me someday soon at the local Food Lion, where I recently saw an attractively arranged bin of individually-plastic-shrink-wrapped, prettily labelled, PLAIN OLD BAKING POTATOES. 

They were "MICROWAVE READY!" potatoes. Apparently, all one has to do is to spend time chipping a few carefully manicured fingernails while laboriously removing the plastic. then?... toss the plastic where ever you choose, prick the potato several times with a fork, set it in a saucer slightly filled with water, and microwave the thing (or however many one would need to feed an "on the go!" family with an "active lifestyle".
One aisle away (and towards the center of the store, of course) is what's hereabouts referred to as the "Hispanic Section." There, I was finally able to find a bin of...plain old, dismayingly NOT-individually-plasti-shrinkwrapped baking potatoes that I could take home and cook without instructions?????
Apparently, all of our recent Mexican ladies (the Hispanic population hereabouts has doubled in ten years) are too unsophisticated to realize how much more fun and exciting it is to spend time unwrapping each potato before you cook it. 
Environmental concerns quite aside?...I saw those potatoes and thought "That really is just so.... DUMB."   The plasti-wrap potatoes were something over a dollar apiece.

I love it when I'm right, but in this case I'd gladly forego the vindication.  

Apparently concern about plastics is in the air, because here's more fodder for my argument: Susan Freinkel's Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today contends that the problem with plastic is not the plastic itself but its multitude of single-use applications (straws, bags, and yes, packaging). I quite agree: something that takes thousands of years to decay has no business being touted as "disposable". 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Preliminary thoughts about character, national and individual

It is natural that the recent disaster in Japan should turn our thoughts toward the possibility that our own homes might be vulnerable to similar upheavals. We vainly attempt to calculate the most likely disaster scenario, imagine for a few seconds what heroic actions we might take, what route we might use to escape, what neighbor we might rescue along the way (or not). And in a few days, most of us will have successfully buried these anxious-omnipotent fantasies, reassuring ourselves that we're exceptional or that technology will save us or that there's nothing we can do anyway.  Denial, grandiosity, fatalism.

But it is worthwhile considering the hard truth that there is no place on earth that can guarantee our safety from some form of disaster—earthquake or flood, drought or famine, hurricane or tropical storm—and it's only going to get worse. Not just because we're now subject to socio-economic catastrophes with global reach (financial meltdowns, endless wars, dwindling resources) or the ravages of human greed on a grand scale (corporate pollution, misinformation promulgated for political or commercial gain). As Bill McKibben argues in Eaarth, we have created a planet that is increasingly inhospitable to life, a planet profoundly changed from the one many of us were born on. Sometimes human society itself seems inhospitable to life: abuses of power, abuses of privilege, abuses of one another....all of which are usually intimately related to the afore-mentioned financial meltdowns, wars, dwindling resources. And, while I’m delineating kinds of suffering, I might as well mention illness, which afflicts us as individuals yet can have profound consequences for people around us (and which also can result from natural disasters as well as acts of evil).

Seneca summed it up: "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears." 

But if denial and grandiosity aren't viable options, neither is fatalism.

I’ve argued in this blog recently that we have to address problems at the level of scale at which they occur: our global environmental crisis, for example, requires coordinated responses among countries and corporations and not just individuals using less plastic. But there are, of course, appropriate responses that can take place only at the individual level. If you find yourself injured, for example: 1) you could deny it (a frequent response—at a public hospital we frequently see patients who’ve let a tumor get so large it becomes much harder to deal with, though that’s usually for lack of money rather than pushing the problem away from consciousness); 2) you could "push through the pain" (and likely injure yourself further); 3) you could collapse into a helpless heap and make everyone else around you cater to your needs; or 4) you could learn what you can about the injury and the circumstances leading to it and tend to the injured part until it heals, being particularly careful in the future to not make the same mistake.

I’m thinking response #4 reflects the healthiest approach, the one most likely to prevent further problems. But it requires knowing how to recognize an injury, having had a prior experience of being cared for and healing (thus knowing what it is to take care of the body), having a certain amout of hope and creativity in utilizing available resources, and a lot of patience, determination, and capacity for self-reflection. In a word: character.

One of the striking things about reports coming from Japan is that they regularly mention how calm and cooperative the displaced have been. The New York Times today reported:
Many Japanese have endured the privations with a similar mood of quiet stoicism, and the strong sense of community that still prevails in these northern rural areas. Even the hardest-hit areas have remained orderly and friendly, and crimes like looting are largely unheard of.
Without making too many generalizations about different cultures, I think many could agree that such communitarianism is comparatively weak in the U.S.  We live with a surfeit of information but a lack of integrity; all we seem to talk about is how to make more information available to more people (internet for everyone!), while few explore ways to enable individuals to make good use of that information. Analytic skills and understanding how to participate in a civil conversation can be shockingly absent even among professional groups.

We are, I believe, suffering the consequences of two powerful ideas combined into a distinctive political ethos: the central tenet of liberalism, which prioritizes process over substance (see Stanley Fish's provocative essay in the Times about this), and a central tenet of capitalism, which values competition.

We now habitually confuse means and ends, and our conceptions of goodness have grown dangerously thin. All that matters is winning the game, whatever the game happens to be at the moment. Is the game SAT scores? Let's teach to the test. Is the game about getting a degree? Let's plagiarize and cheat our way through school. Is the game winning an election? Let's lie about our opponent and stir up fear. Is the game about being popular? Let's talk about bipartisanship and hope no one has the audacity to remind us of the actual problems that aren't even up for discussion. Better yet, let's talk about "winning the future" and “out-educating the world” and hope no one asks what that even means.

I submit that a host of our ills reflect bad character, and that our contemporary process-oriented, competitive ethos has eroded certain conditions essential to human flourishing.  Over the course of future posts, I want to explore the notion that ethical behavior begins with attaining mastery of a practice, trade, or art—playing the piano, laying bricks, cutting hair, tending bar, raising chickens, designing gardens. I believe that through these ordinary social practices, which put us repeatedly and directly in touch with the effects of our actions, we develop a range of virtues that are necessary for our own happiness, the success of our relationships, and the health of the earth: humility, attentiveness,  self-discipline, circumspection, perseverance, sensitivity, taste, patience, perspective, connectedness... virtues that cannot arise either from the top-down application of abstract moral principles or from the practice of white-collar jobs whose express purpose is to manipulate people or money.

To be continued...

Monday, March 14, 2011

A tribute to Japan

Graphic artist Jacob Cass, of, designed this tribute to Japan in response to the terrible earthquake and tsunami they have just suffered. I present it here, with permission, as an example of outstanding design and to offer a visual 'moment of silence'.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Responses to disaster: optimism as a form of resistance

Dominique Browning has done it again, with a moving post on the Japanese tsunami.

In this case, however, I was equally struck by some of the comments in response to her blog. A few responders seemed eager to cheer up Ms. Browning, who wrote of her anguish and anxiety over this catastrophe. Though I can appreciate caring individuals not wanting a friend, even a virtual one, to fall into the slough of despond, I think there is a tendency among us to be quick to "console" by urging a pollyanna-ish cheeriness. The Brits keep a stiff upper lip; we want to keep smiling. Maybe the French shrug (who knows?).

Although we do need to somehow maintain resilience in the face of catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, acute or chronic, it seems to be a strange American affliction to insist on being positive all the time. In fact, given the real world we live in, and the thorny challenges we face, it seems downright delusional. At the very least, it is inauthentic, responding to an intellectual construct of the world as opposed to the way it really is (and we know how well that works in personal relationships).

But there are consequences well beyond one's individual psyche, and this is where I find my real objection: the "stay positive" mantra isolates the sensitive among us, condemning them to shame and persecution for their realism and insight, when we should really promoting collective action and seriousness of purpose. Changes of behavior at the individual level, though important, cannot tackle political, economic, or social problems, because they exist at a different level of scale.* I cannot help but think that the Pollyannas are actually the most cynical of all, and that they are trying to fortify themselves and everyone else from falling into the black despair that otherwise is a perfectly justifiable response to so much of our self-inflicted human misery.

I am reminded of this passage from C. S. Lewis' Abolition of Man:
For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. [...] By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
Nor, I might add, is a soft head any use against hard problems. We need soft hearts, hard heads.

Barbara Ehrenreich, among others, has made a compelling argument that our relentless commitment to unrealistic optimism sowed the seeds for the banking crisis—and that an insistence on being cheerful actually leads toward a lonely focus inward and to political apathy.

So let's get serious about understanding the challenges we face, raise the level of discourse in this country, and act together to exert change. And when sensitive, intelligent people look at what's happening in various corners of the earth and express their despair, let's listen and let them irrigate our spiritual deserts.

* Consider recent events in the Arab world: after decades of abuses of power, wars, economic sanctions, and diplomatic efforts to influence the regimes, it finally took hundreds of thousands of people acting together, marching on the streets of Egypt for a month, risking life, limb, and freedom, to get rid of one measly dictator. That's the power of collective action. Speaking of which, I am inspired by Bill McKibben's creative leadership of global efforts over at to promote serious political action to address climate change.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Re-thinking Convenience and Ease

It's always both worthwhile and pleasurable to read Dominique Browning's blog, Slow Love Life, but her recent post about the dangers of BPA-free plastics has prompted me to a post of my own. Here goes.

The quantity of plastic that surrounds us has the quality of an unquestioned assumption: it is so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that it is almost invisible. Yet this particular assumption has promoted such malignant consequences that we must question it.

My reflections began with what seems to be the predominant source of plastic entering our homes: food. For the past half century or so, one of the most fundamental connections we experience between Nature in the asbtract and our own embodied nature has been mediated largely by plastic bags, trays, boxes, and wrappers.[1] The driving force behind this obsession with packaging seems to be a particular notion of convenience, perhaps seconded by social atomization and the ability to derive greater profit per unit from individual packages.[2]
Living on my own in Manhattan, I have had to resist mightily the temptation to buy prepared foods. In fact, it was my abhorrence of all the plastic containers that made me determined to cook at home more. Not my health, not my widening girth—it was the myriad forms of plastic decorating our Manhattan sidewalks that I seem to be forever picking up and depositing in the corner garbage cans. Perhaps I was fortunate to have been brought up detesting waste of any kind; my father instilled in me a deep respect for our possessions and the time, skill, and material that went into creating them. This almost instinctive sense that waste carries a moral force entails living more thoughtfully: in the realm of food, it means more cooking of fresh ingredients at home, far less ordering from restaurants (and I avoid those that use nonrecyclable containers), and resisting those single-serving desserts that tempt me in the Whole Foods check-out line. In fact, I recently vowed to eat only those desserts I make myself, which, given the delayed gratification involved, has, regrettably, improved my diet.
So why have we bought into the idea that prepared food is so wonderful? I had written a post some time ago questioning whether fast, cheap food is really all that cheap. I'd now like to question whether convenience food is really all that convenient.

Thanks to aggressive advertising, the meaning of convenient in everyday language has been forcibly narrowed to "being near at hand" or "suited to personal comfort or easy performance." We have forgotten—some may never have known it—that convenience comes from the Latin convenientia meaning, according to my Oxford English Dictionary, “meeting together, agreement, accord, harmony, suitableness.” Thus, for several centuries convenient has meant “the quality of being suitable or well adapted to the performance of some action or to the satisfying of requirements.” Not until the early 1960’s did the advertising industry solidify a narrower, and more questionable, meaning:
The Economist (1961): “even the Thanskgiving turkey has now become a ‘convenience food’...”
The Daily Express (1961): “The convenience store is always open in America.”
Boston Sunday Herald (1967): “Send us your favorite recipe using convenience foods (frozen or refrigerated prepared foods, canned soups, sauce mixes, cake mixes, etc.) and you may win a $10 prize.”
(Apparently Americans were not buying enough convenience foods and had to be lured by the prospect of monetary reward.)
The Guardian (1968): “No one would deny the drudgery, the time wasting, the monotony, that has been removed by convenience foods.”
Well, I’d like to deny it right now. Most of the famous chefs of the past century have been men, who have not complained about the DTWM quotient (drudgery, time-wasting, and monotony) in their professional kitchens, which are surely more monotonous than any home kitchen could ever be. We now look back at cookbooks aimed at 1960s housewives and scoff, brandishing our $650 Magimix by Robot Coupe food processor from Williams-Sonoma, our $500 professional stand mixer, our $200 All-Clad Classic Round Waffle Maker.[3] Yet we haven’t given up the prepared foods that drove this domestic revolt in the first place.
It might help to consider the run-up to this new emphasis on convenience. Women had been taken out of the work force and relegated to the kitchen after men returned from the wars. Despite the currently dominant narrative, this period, in which the majority of women were primarily consumers rather than producers, was a historic aberration. Perhaps men felt guilty about taking away female purpose and gainful employment outside the home and, as compensation, decided to ease women's burdens in the kitchen. It didn’t occur to anyone (or it didn’t matter) that perhaps the DTWM quotient would be increased by Hamburger Helper and Duncan Hines Cake Mixes, which seemed to obviate skill and creativity, or that the DTWM might pertain more to the relegation of women to the kitchen in the first place than to any discontent inherent in that realm [4]. But as long as this expiated guilt was promoted as convenience, which dovetails so perfectly with larger cultural values like efficiency, speed, (apparent) low cost, and above all, a certain middle-class vision of the nuclear family, no one was the wiser. So, although convenient can still be used in popular parlance to mean “affording advantage”, it seems the only advantages we deem "convenient" have to do with comfort, nearness, and easiness.
I propose that something might afford advantage but not be near at hand; something might provide comfort without being easy. That's another word worth interrogating: easy. So closely related to ease, and yet in practice, far removed from it. Think of any pleasurable pastime: drawing, making music, playing squash, writing, reading, visiting a museum, watching a film, cooking, wine-tasting. These are actually complex endeavors, and our pleasure in them increases dramatically with our level of skill. Our early attempts at drawing or playing an instrument, for example, are awkward, effortful, and vexing; we learn quickly that these diversions are anything but “easy.” We must tolerate some degree of uncertainty and failure in order to make progress. Yet when we achieve some mastery, immersion in these activities produces a profound sense of engaged, alert relaxation. They become comfortable not despite but because of their complexity. They are not easy, but they bring ease.
Of course, these endeavors also have their mass-produced/mass-market counterparts that require virtually no skill at all to enjoy. Some blockbuster movies and most pop songs fall into this category. Fast food for the eyes and ears, they actually demand an unsophisticated palate for enjoyment: education of sense and sensibility ruins one's ability to appreciate the cheap imitation, the vulgar, the unskilled, the soul-less. That is why we're often disappointed when we return to a film or a piece of music that was a favorite of ours in adolescence: we realize, usually with embarrassment, that it simply wasn't very good, and only our limited juvenile palate allowed us to think otherwise.
By holding out an ideal of fast and easy, haven't we robbed a generation of understanding how to achieve real pleasure from life? We're all too rapidly and easily (conveniently?) devouring our environment, our resources, our relationships with each other and with other species, all in pursuit of an experience that flowers only with careful cultivation. We have unwittingly created the conditions for our own inconsolable longing, not realizing the answer is within our grasp, if only we learn to reach.
In the end, I cannot bring myself to conclude that convenience in modern terms is necessarily convenient at an individual level, at least not for me. With regard to food, I enjoy preparing it with my own hands and honing my skills; my cooking is healthier than what I could buy; I indulge my taste for the highest-quality ingredients, and still find cooking at home less expensive; furthermore, the leftovers cater to the laziness that wanted to buy prepared food in a plastic container in the first place. Cooking makes me more active, as I walk several times a week to the market to buy fresh produce (and compost my kitchen scraps). I also get to support smaller-scale, local farms, and develop a more thoughtful, intimate relationship with what I eat.
VoilĂ : I get to be sybaritic and healthy, lazy and more active, indulgent and environmentally responsible, all in one fell swoop. Can convenience food accomplish all that?

1 The other most fundamental connection is largely mediated by water and porcelain, at least after infancy.[2]

2 In addition to the locution "convenience food", "convenience" (or, especially, "public convenience") has been used to refer to public lavatories, thereby creating an unexpected, and perhaps slightly repugnant, linguistic connection between the constructs that mediate these two fundamental relationships between Nature and human nature.

3 The economic and cultural forces behind this renaissance of culinary exploration will be explored in another post. I will note here, however, that I personally do not consider food processors and professional mixers particularly convenient, as they seem to take more effort to clean than hand-held tools and take up a considerable amount of space.

4 The possible downside of all this so-called convenience was presented beautifully in an episode of The Simpsons, "You Only Move Twice." Homer's new job brings with it a futuristic house that (in a secondary story line) cleans itself, cooks, etc., leaving Marge with nothing to do during the day except drink wine and mope. The success of the episode, considered to be among the best the series ever produced, owes much to its so brilliantly and concisely capturing the birth of contemporary ennui.