Monday, April 18, 2016

Pornification Nation, Part Two

The Boston Globe today published astory on maple sugaring in Vermont. I have lived in Vermont for sixteen years and I have a keen interest in maple sugaring. To me, it’s like writing, or innkeeping, or dairy farming, or any other kind of small, crafty, individual pursuit that characterizes Vermont and Vermonters. Sugaring is an intimate activity, requiring the sugar maker to interact closely with the sugarbush, tapping trees, running tubes or hanging buckets, looking after the health of the trees…it’s the very definition of an organic, human activity. The sugar maker was typically a farmer of another kind who used the end of winter to supplement income with the harvesting of another resource.

It is now difficult to drive around the back roads of northern Vermont without seeing the woods crisscrossed with colored tubing tied to thousands of taps as sugar makers capture every sap run, whether it comes in late November or January or during the more traditional time of late winter/early spring. While nobody wants to begrudge hard working Vermonters some extra cash, as the Boston Globe article describes, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Big Business. Big Business is the harbinger of pornifcation, because Big Business is beholden to one thing only: the bottom line. When this model succeeds, the same thing that happened to Vermont’s dairy operations will happen to its sugaring. Small operators will be bought out, consolidation will occur, the environment—divorced from the intimacy of the sugar maker who was tied to the land by blood and toil—will suffer, and low-paying, futureless jobs will be all that’s left. Soon the iconic Vermonter will be nothing but a corporate symbol distantly reminiscent of a noble and relevant past: the Gorton’s fisherman, Ben & Jerry’s, Budweiser.

In my last blog post, I talked about how we can turn to baseball to satisfy some of our most basic human longings during a tumultuous election year: peace, community, and the meaning of life. I called that blog post “The Antidote to Pornification Nation,” and I only touched on the concept briefly in the text of the blog: 

        [B]aseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification           is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected         ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier           is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a                   Salvador Dali painting come to life.

The notion of pornification is an old one; the concept of porn itself has gone through its own pornification, which is where the term comes from: When we refer to activities around pornography as an “industry,” we acknowledge its commodification, its corporatization. The platform of the corporate moniker also serves as a way to legitimize its descriptor, which can be toxic to the product being commodified, taking it from a small, personal thing, to an industrial-level concept requiring marketing, lawyers, and even regulation. When that happens, humanity is lost. Even in porn.

I’ve written extensively about innkeeping in this space over the past decade. I have shared my observations in a frank and entertaining (I hope) manner. Innkeeping has gone through its own pornification, as it has moved from adjutant to senior on the scale of occupations. When I was a little boy, my father was a lobster fisherman. Years later, he would often comment on what made a lobster fisherman successful, and it wasn’t how many lobsters he caught. He said that fisherman who had a wife with a steady job always managed to do all right and grow their fishing business. That’s because with another steady income, fisherman were able to withstand the vagaries of the ocean and the environment. Of course, with the advent of factory fishing ships, that occupation has undergone its own pornification.

An innkeeping friend recently attended a big conference for innkeepers (another sign of pornification), and he returned to report that he felt out of place among many of his cohort. They were managers, he said, running their inns like portfolio business investments. That’s quite different from welcoming people into your home.

Skiing has been going through a version of this for decades. Skiing almost killed itself the first time through irrelevance. Then it transcended its own costs, pricing out middle- and lower-income American skiers. Then the environment began to change; snowmaking stabilized it then. Finally, skiing has become a real estate and destination park operation, with skiing itself only a sideline curiosity, while zip lines and water parks and mountain biking complement shopping and dining in a Vegas-style experience. While we cannot argue that these new revenue streams have helped the skiing experience, funding new infrastructure and more and better snowmaking, it has also begun the inevitable upflow of money to the top, which can only result in fewer people being able to connect with the organic experience of skiing itself, which started the whole thing.

I wrote about this in my book ABrief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. At the end of the book, I made a prediction about the future, and so far I have not been wrong. I ended the book with a line from the Ringo Starr song “Photograph.” It’s a beautiful song written by Starr and George Harrison, whom many consider the lesser Beatles. But it’s a song that highlights the importance of not always listening to what the zeitgeist considers the biggest and the best, a song that turns the notion of lesser and greater Beatles on its head. When the biggest and the best gather too much gravity, we miss out on something human, something genuine and organic. We miss out on the drip of sap in buckets, the shuffle of cows through the grass. We miss out on Starr and Harrison.

Ringo Starr sang, “Every time I see your face/It reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I've got is a photograph/And I realize you're not coming back anymore.” This is the crux of life. All we have is a photograph of the past, and we can’t go back to it. It’s gone. The realization Starr sings about is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful—at least he has the memory, the photograph. It is a song grounded in realism, a realism that allows us to move forward. That realism is missing from our daily approach to living well, and it has resulted in the pornification—or corporatization—of everything.

So if you like Vermont maple syrup on your pancakes—or in your seltzer water, or your vinegar, or your booze—get ready for big globs of porn on your plate. Until we decide to accept the small and simple joys of this life, unless we are willing to stop looking at everything in our environment as a means to get more stuff, we will be treated like the foie gras producing geese that we are: slaves to a system interested only in our narrow market value and our bloated livers.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Antidote to Pornification Nation

In his excellent TED Talk, author Michael Pollan makes a case for plants. He asks us to consider the possibility that we are not in charge of anything in this world. He asks us to consider the possibility that we are only players in a larger scheme, acting in some cases, being acted upon in others. Among his examples is corn (which, by the way, is the largest member of the grass family, the same grass that you mow and feed). I won’t go into a summary of this talk (and you can watch it below), but it got me thinking about a couple of things: baseball and the 2016 presidential election.

There is no need for me to elaborate on the 2016 presidential election. Mark Twain said that the truth was stranger than fiction because fiction is required to stick to the possibilities, and the truth isn’t. Trying to unpack that sentiment in the shadow of this year’s election cycle is like trying to convince a monkey that a black hole can fix a flat tire. Fiction writers must create believability in order to validate the suspension of disbelief, a paradox that the truth is free from. The truth simply is.

We like to think that we live in a participatory democracy, and that we can control the outcome. But are we simply dupes in the political process in the same way that Michael Pollan argues that we are dupes to the grasses? How do we know what we know? Are we doing what we have been told to do and “listening to our consciences”? If so, where does the voice of that conscience come from? Of course: it comes from us, meaning that it will tell us whatever we want to hear. Talk about an unreliable narrator.

And really, shouldn’t we be thinking about baseball now?

Baseball endures. And this year, baseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a Salvador Dali painting come to life. And having gone through its own pornification with the rise of the Steroid Era, baseball seems poised to return to its pastoral strength of character. With that in mind, here are a few ways baseball can help us bridge what is sure to be a divisive, sensational, and regrettable summer (but only if we allow it):

·      Pace. Baseball has a pace and nobody knows what it is because it can’t be measured. Despite the introduction in the last couple of years of rules designed to speed up the pace of play, baseball resists this, asserting its own notion of time. The time it takes to play a game is only known after the game is complete, which reflects life itself. Play unfolds according to a million variations on a note, the bounce of a ball one inch either way, nothing knowable. The languid spaces between plays are pregnant with potential, deserving of our attention, demanding that we unplug and allow our minds to swell with the emptiness of the world between proton and electron, between center field and left field, between generations.

·      Technology. “This is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Or so says the manager of the Durham Bulls, Joe Riggins, in Bull Durham. All the advances in baseball have come around it, not necessarily in it. The game is still played with leather and ash wood, on dirt and grass. It doesn’t need electricity, and it doesn’t need lines of code. For this reason it is accessible to little children and old folks alike. Not only does baseball not need technology, it offers a respite from it. All you have to do is watch the players throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball.

·      Individuality. The American landscape resembles a colony of seal pups in 2016, each bleating desperately to be heard: Look at me, I’m on Facebook and everything is fantabulous!; I’m right about everything, just ask me!; I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to! But baseball offers true individuality, not the contrived kind held together by electrical impulses. Each player occupies a unique position, distinct from the rest; and each player is unique inside the baseball uniform. Baseball thrives on individual personalities, and an ensemble cast that doesn’t appear to work together. Yet their actions become a concert, their effect a symphony.

·      Peace. Our world is under assault from noise. The soundbites of the election, the racket from popup ads, the cries of the anguished and the upset and the vaguely pissed off fill our ears. The cacophony is crippling. Contrast that to a baseball game. Even in a crowded stadium, the burble of the crowd is low-frequency; the crack of the bat is still audible, the thumping of feet beating down the first base line is clear, and the smack of the ball into the leather mitt snaps across the diamond.

·      Community. Baseball brings individuals together to create the most important denominator of our lives: community. The players gather as individuals, and become a team, a unit. The team draws the individuals who surround and support it, creating a community. It is a game that allows conversation, and conversation creates community. The community is a dynamic thing, swelling one day, ebbing the next. Its constant is baseball because baseball offers breath, and in breath there is life.

·      The Meaning of Life. In Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” (from the film The Meaning of Life), there’s a line that could describe our situation aptly:

     Is life just a game where we make up the rules?
     While we're searching for something to say
     Or are we just simply spiraling coils
     Of self-replicating DNA?

Baseball feels like the rules are made up as the game goes, but it’s regulated by experience and history. This year feels like there are no rules left. It’s tempting to throw in with the mayhem, to jump on the pornification bandwagon and go down swinging. Instead, go watch some baseball and rediscover another kind of swinging, the kind that floats in over the AM radio, the kind that smells like popcorn and grass, the kind the reflects who we really are, not who we think we need to be.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

These People Came To Stowe, Went Skiing, Then Jumped Into A Hot Tub. What Happened Next Will Blow You Away! 9 Misconceptions About The 2016 Winter In Stowe.

The Greek chorus of popular media has once again built up a head of steam that rational people all over the world must beat back with facts and common sense and regular attendance in a hot tub. So despite what flatlanders and Donald Trump are crowing about his winter, here are some popular fallacies about the winter of 2016, and the reality of how things really are in Stowe this winter.

Misconception #1: Vermont Golf Courses Have No Tee Times Available Because Golf Courses In Vermont Are Lush And Green And Are Playing Like TPC At Sawgrass And Everybody Is Playing Golf. Snow golf, maybe, but that requires the suspension of disbelief and lots of Vermont craft beer, like Trapp Family Lager’s Dunkel. FYI golf is NOT the new skiing.

Misconception #2: Stowe’s Ski Slopes Are Being Used To Graze Cattle. They are not. Cattle—plodding, lurching, cud-chewing—could never negotiate the bumps of Gulch, or the headwall on Hayride, because there are moguls on Gulch, and the headwall on Hayride is just as much fun to drop over this year as any other. If cattle tried that there would be a ground beef party at The Den in the Mansfield Base Lodge.

* The corollary to this is that there is grass on the slopes, but to find it you will have to climb into a gondola with a gang of dreadlocked snowboarders or aging baby boomers, who are anticipating the legalization of marijuana in Vermont.

Misconception #3: It Is Possible To Fly-Fish In Vermont This Winter. This is false. This winter, fishing still requires an auger, an ice hut, and a case of PBRs. That’s because the lakes are all frozen, and the reason they are frozen is that it is winter in Vermont, the time when water traditionally freezes. The exception to this is water occupied by the Hot Tub People. Their water is significantly warmer, allowing them to relax and laugh at the elements while they enjoy Vermont’s finest craft beers, such as Idletyme’s Doubletyme DIPA.

Misconception #4: Our Plow Drivers Have Filed For Unemployment. These hardworking Vermonters? Never! They would sooner plow up the asphalt than shirk their duties as snow saviors.

* This challenges the fallacy that visits to the ER due to chest pains (from shoveling snow) and broken legs (from shoveling snow off the roof, then falling) are down. Our health care professionals assure us that Vermonters are maiming themselves due to snow at a pace commensurate with previous winters.

Misconception #5: People Are Drinking Beer Outside. It’s winter, and the only people drinking beer outside are the scofflaws who have snuck a pint out of Doc Ponds, Rimrocks, Piecasso, the Matterhorn, or any of our other fine and numerous drinking establishments. The exception to this is the Hot Tub People. The Hot Tub People always drink beer outside because they are sitting in one of Stowe’s many jetted tub options, which are 104 degrees, allowing revelers to sip Vermont’s fine craft beers (like the Alchemist’s Heady Topper) without freezing to death.

Misconception #6: Stowe’s Cross Country Ski Trails Are Being Used To Film The Jungle Sequences In The Upcoming Film Alien vs. Predator XLVIII. Since a lot of our snow has been in the elevations this year, and since most of our XC trails exceed those elevations…well, just ask the Hot Tub People, who like nothing better after a day on our XC ski trails than to relax in hot bubbly water and watch Alien vs. Predator XLVIII on their mobile devices while they sip one of Vermont’s fine craft beers, like the Vermonster from Rock Art Brewery.

Misconception #7: It’s Raining. Nope. Just checked.

Misconception #8: Since I Can See Grass In My Back Yard, Winter Is Over. Wrong again! Winter is far from over in Stowe. In fact, March is historically our snowiest month. Plus, there’s that whole “The-Universe-Hates-Imbalance” philosophy-thingy, which means that we are in for a snow-whoopin’ in March. The days will be longer, the temperatures milder, and the Hot Tub People rowdier, because by March they will have spent almost four months in watery therapeutic bliss, quaffing our outstanding Vermont craft beers, like Lost Nation Brewery’s Vermont Pilsner.

Misconception #9: People Are Walking Around Naked Because It’s So Warm Out. Wishful thinking! No, we are all bundled against the weather up here—all of us, that is, except the Hot Tub People, who are getting a talking-to from the Stowe Police Department for their lack of clothing, while they frolic in the hot water of Stowe’s numerous hot tubs and imbibe offerings from our local distilleries Green Mountain Distillers and Smugglers’ Notch Distillery. Look for them in the police blotter next week.


So throw off the shackles of misconception that the super-pac hungry media overlords have tried to foist upon you about the reality of winter in Vermont. Rest assured that we are skiing, drinking beer, and soaking in the hot tub.