Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hell in a Handbasket, a post in installments

After my internet tangle with Daniel Mendelsohn, instead of picking up The Lost, I reached for Annie Dillard's For the Time Being. The book is a collection of observations about birth, sand, Hasidism, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, cloud formations, Israel, China, birth defects, and chance interactions with strangers. This sounds bizarre in the listing but adds up to a sustained observation about humanity existing through time. The book was a fortuitous choice, head-clearing in its farsightedness, yet timely.

Dillard writes:

"Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones?...Dire things are happening...People are making great strides toward obliterating other people, too, but that has been the human effort all along, and our cohort has only broadened the means, as have people in every century...Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news?...New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?" (30-31)

Later Dillard quotes an eleventh century Buddhist master, a twelfth century Rabbi, and St. Theresa. All mourn the dereliction of their times and people, who are inferior to those past. Their music is poorer, they are incapable of study, they are obsessed with material wealth. Times past, and their people, were better, harder-working, luckier in their innocence of present disasters.

---------------------

So it was that I read this article.

I buy as much local food as I can: produce from a farm box, meat, bread, and dairy from California. I am fortunate to live in a place that makes such choices easy. I also have the means to purchase this expensive food. Having no children, I have more time to prepare home-cooked meals. I also have the means to purchase carbon offsets for my unavoidable vehicular sins. My family, who live elsewhere, find my concerns twee. Smug. Slightly batty.

Mr. Beavan's work as a writer allows him some degree of freedom, the time to bake his bread and feed his sourdough starter. And though it is never stated, the family must have some cash--their lifestyle experiment is taking place in a Fifth Avenue apartment; Ms. Conlin describes her pre-experiment shopping binge of Chloe boots (one pair underwritten by a parent). Her cosmetics are Kiehls, Lancome (a friend works there: samples or discount?), and Fresh. When the bottles empty, she will give them up, along with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and spices forbidden by their project. At some point we may read of the entire adventure: Mr. Beavan has a book deal with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. And, naturally, a blog: noimpactman.com, where Mr. Beavan gamely fields dubious people like me.

Of course all right (left?)-thinking folk want to save the environment, leave a lighter carbon footprint, save the animals. We'd better--nobody needs me to discuss the destruction we've wreaked upon the planet. But the Beavan-Conlin experiment has a few holes: a weekly cleaning woman, whose cleaning products are not discussed. The computer. The basement laundry room. The acceptance of gifts. The documentary filmmaker trailing them. The book deal. The peculiar sense that the personal is public. And profitable.

Are the Beavan-Conlins doing a good deed? Yes, on a small scale. But this year will end: then what? Will they welcome the return of Green Forest toilet paper? Allow their cleaning woman her paper towels? Resume consumption of Italian olive oil? Buy another pair of Chloe boots (A quick netsurf pulled up Chloe knee boots at Bergdorf Goodman: $995 a pair)? Will they continue to hew to their "Walden Pond, Fifth-Avenue style" experiment? Or, like me, find livable compromises? For we no longer live in Walden's world, much as we might wish to. So: the local meat, the Italian vinegar. The local olive oil--Bariani, from Sacramento--but Bass Ale, from England. Toilet paper, post consumer use.

Annie Dillard writes:

"A hundred years ago Americans saw frenzy consuming their times, and felt the whole show could not go on much longer...Surely theirs were apocalyptic days...They could, by their own accounts, scarcely bear their own self-consciousness."
(31-32)

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