Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hunger Games, The Philosophy of The

My best Katniss impression.

*Spoiler Alert!!*

I went to the movies, my first time in a long time, to see the biggest opening day of a non-sequel ever. That’s right, I saw The Hunger Games (I read the book a month or two ago). The first thing to note is that opening weekends are crazy. The second is that the people watching the movie were not all adolescent teenage girls. A wide variety of ages and classes seemed to be present in the very, very long line.

In terms of adaptation, I tip my hat. The author was a producer, so I'm not terribly surprised that the movie was quite faithful to the book and the short cuts were on less important matters. It was shot well, and had enough "extra scenes" that it didn't feel like it was a duplicate of the book (ahem, Watchmen). It was cast very well, and they pulled off a good movie without famous actors (except for President Snow, who was very convincing and very creepy).

Of course, the book is better (isn't it always?). Nevertheless, the movie has two distinct advantages. First, the poverty of District 12 can be displayed visually with great power and contrasts powerfully with the Capitol. This effect was profoundly evident when they get off the train from District 12. I flashed back to my return from Kenya, stepping off the plane in LAX and feeling profoundly disturbed and confused by the glitz and glamour of the US; I had "reverse culture shock" as it is often called. The movie was able to create that moment for the otherwise uninitiated audience by making the Capitol downright strange and frivolous. Secondly and most profoundly was the irony involved in going to the movies. I paid $11 for entertainment about people paying too much for entertainment.

Another feature that I’ve seen come up a few times in “young adult” literature is absent parents. Katniss has a dead father and a mother who is severely psychologically withdrawn. Artemis Fowl has almost an identical dynamic; his dad died and his mom was homebound, so he had to raise himself with the help of a faithful butler (named “Butler”). Harry Potter was an orphan. Heroes for today’s teenagers are those who, against the odds, figure out how to grow up without parents.

I'd like to say a word about the Hunger Games universe. thing to note about Panem is that it is a world that contains Evil. It’s not as obvious that it’s a world that includes Good; virtue is clearly present and the Good is at least there by implication. But the Capitol is certainly Evil. President Snow is Evil. And, like any successful movie, this is almost a prerequisite for a good story (or at very least, a profitable one).

The other thought that occurred to me first in the book and then powerfully in the movie (the train scene) is that one of the other critiques is on the present American economy. We in the US live lavish and rather ridiculous lives which can only (presently) be maintained by people from poorer places sending stuff to us. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, we are so tranquilized by our entertainment that our thoughts are ever on trivial matters. People are living in horrific conditions all around us, but we can’t seem to care. Effie is the embodiment of this: ever concerned about desserts and manners when life and death are at stake.

Katniss, the protagonist, is strong, independent, resourceful, shrewd, courageous, and uncompromising. Perhaps most in conflict with the modern hero, she has loving kindness when appropriate and she is violently ruthless, when appropriate. She soberly faces the horror set before her with an unbreakable spirit. She does not cling to life, and would gladly lay down her life for her sister or friend.

I believe it is these virtues, forgotten and spurned by modern American code, which make her attractive. She is the exact opposite of the “good kid.” Her friend, Peeta, is the good kid. And he tries hard, makes a valiant move or two, but would certainly be dead without her. Before the Games, she lived by breaking the law and hunting outside of the gate. She was resourceful and taught herself; she was independent and owed nothing to the state or even her parents. She, unlike everyone else, was her own master. To really stand up to evil, the kind of evil in the Capitol, nice-guy morality fails. Katniss’ morality strikes a blow. And even in failure, it’s not a pitiable thing. Katniss is most certainly not one of those whose “cold and timid souls know neither victory nor defeat.”

What is the message of the story? Should you obey authorities? No; not when their laws are unjust. Is violence always wrong? No; sometimes killing is the right thing. Is evil a fiction? No, it’s very, very real. Is a strong government a good thing? No; it’s a great danger. She’s the ultimate teenage hero, rebelling against those above her with shrewdness and courage. And if I were an evil puppet master, this is exactly not the kind of idea I’d want floating around in teenage heads. Rebellion can be justified? Rebels can be heroes? But fortunately, those in authority are too smart for their own good. I’ve read critiques by more sophisticated thinkers who seem to think the movie is about reality TV, gender equality, football, or mindless violence (though one or two or three see something deeper in it). Sure, there is a critique of our being bloodthirsty and voyeurs. And so they content themselves thinking, “Ah, it’s just about reality TV and violent movies. Nothing disruptive.”

But the most important message of the book has been expressed variously by young teens as, “The government is bad, mmmkay?” and “The people in power want to keep it that way.” The government in the story is bad. And this is what America is (or will become). We must do something, and that something might include violent rebellion.

Those raising the alarm are not rare, but they’re rarely taken seriously. The average American never has to look at the American life and ask, “Is there something fundamentally wrong here?” Alarm raisers tend to get dismissed from the prophet Jeremiah to Ron Paul. Suzanne Collins is not being dismissed. Where fact and authority fail, fiction prevails. The Hunger Games is being embraced en mass. Not by prophecy scholars, political fear-mongers, or culture watchdog-ers, but average, everyday teenagers (and then everyone else).

It is disturbing that even fresh teenage perspectives see the world with such cynicism. Why, to teenage eyes, does the Capitol of The Hunger Games look so much like Washington DC? The government of The Hunger Games is one where security and comfort have been made the highest priorities. Freedom was the cost. And with the cost paid, the peace and security were also lost. The way to fight it is with shrewd, bold defiance and virtue. This is the central political message, and perhaps the central message. And young people are listening.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Let Your Food Be Your Medicine

Super Stew nutrition facts and detailed ingredients can be found here.
I’ve completed another iteration on Super Stew. You may remember my use of Ted Kochanek’s chili recipe back when I was engaged in my Food Stamp Challenge. But the need for healthy, tasty food continues even if my $5 budget does not. The great things about the original recipe stand: low glycemic index (mostly beans and vegetables) and highly anti-inflammatory (heavy use of spices, nutrient-rich vegetables). If I had to target one thing in the American diet to change, I think it would be this. Just slowing down digestion a little bit would have dramatic effects on insulin response and our getting obese and diabetic. So the stew is good on that front (820 calories with a glycemic load of 35).

It’s also excellent in terms of being anti-inflammatory. The idea of inflammation seems to be our latest Grand Unifying Theory of Disease. I’ve heard more than one of my professors tell me that reducing inflammation will cure all our ills. I haven’t looked hard at the evidence for this, but it’s certainly a nice story, with lots of good correlations. For example, obese people have increases in markers of inflammation, and this then correlates with increases in insulin resistance and diabetes. A good case can also be made for atherosclerosis being an inflammatory state.

Maybe it’s true. But even if it’s not, the cure is delicious. Broadly speaking, things with potent flavor tend to be anti-inflammatory (garlic, hot peppers, etc). They also tend to be good anti-oxidants. So basically, the more flavorful your food, the better off you are. And that may be why McDonalds makes you sick. Lots of tasty macro-nutrients, but not much spice. The bottom line is this: the stew has lots of spices. 

I decided to buy spice from not-the-grocery-store, and having a 1lb bag of spice makes me much more liberal with it. I used 1 tablespoon of cayenne, black pepper, cumin, turmeric, paprika and coriander. This was all as per Ted’s instructions (except for measuring the spices). But Ted, as smart as he is, is Polish. And though he has grown considerably these last few years in terms of spice tolerance, he has discriminated against quarter-Mexicans (i.e. me) and our preference for hot peppers. To make up for this deficit, I added 3 jalapenos and 1 habanero to the mix (I chopped them finely and then sautéed them for a few minutes before tossing them into the pot).

Next, though it was highly anti-inflammatory, it lacked some of the better macro-nutrients that are known to be good for you. Particularly important for health is the eating of good fats. The day we started evaluating food on whether or not they were “low fat” was a dark day for our bodies. We need fats, and lots of them. Unsaturated fats in the form of olive oil may be the food item with the single best case for extending life. Old Greeks eating a “Mediterranean Diet” heavy in olive oil actually do live longer, as do people who eat like them.

I sautéed the vegetables in ¼ cup of coconut oil (way more than is actually necessary) to make sure the really-good-for-you medium chain saturated fats (esp. lauric acid) got into the stew, which increase HDL (“good” cholesterol). Also, I supplemented the stew with ½ cup of olive oil with monounsaturated fats that increase HDL and decrease LDL (“bad” cholesterol), as well as 3 oz of sunflower seeds (high in polyunsaturated fats, which increase HDL). None of these significantly affect the flavor of the stew, and the sunflower seeds provide an added crunch. In fact, with the amount of spices that are used, subtle changes to base ingredients are overwhelmed. Also, adding olive oil (if you buy in bulk) and sunflower seeds are both great ways to decrease the cost per calorie of the stew.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also really good for you, and as far as I’m aware, the only supplement from a vitamin store that has good evidence behind it (esp. for heart disease) for healthy people. The argument is that we get way too much Omega-6 because we eat way too much corn-fed red meat. So I added 2 oz of ground flaxseed to the stew, giving a daily “dose” of Omega 3’s, as well as bringing the fiber total in one bowl just over the FDA daily recommendation.

This time around, I subbed out beef for chicken (Whole Food was having a sale) and it worked out wonderfully. Also, because my available time is spotty, I cooked a LOT of stew, tripling Ted’s recipe and making about 24 meals worth (~20,000 Calories :). Also of note, I started shopping at Whole Foods because it ends up being cheaper for me (“Natural” foods go for a premium at Safeway). The total cost of the all-organic ingredients (except the chicken, which was free-range) was $75, bringing my meal cost to about $3.12. All in all, this is a recipe that is actually good for me, probably saves time (vs. fast food), fills me up, and tastes delicious. The iteration will continue! I notice I’m lacking vitamins B and D; I will continue to endeavor to make this the perfect “desert island” food that is also a cure to American disease!

[My apologies for lacking citations… I’ll try to come back and add them later]