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Why Prop 37 Could Be a Net Win for Monsanto

photo by flickr user William Couch
California’s Proposition 37, requiring food sold in California to be labeled if it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is being pushed by a wide coalition of environmentalists who argue that the public has a right to know what’s in their food. It’s being opposed by numerous corporate giants including Monsanto. But both sides are misguided. Indeed, contra the hopes of environmentalists and the fears of Monsanto, there’s ample reason to believe that Prop 37 could end up being a net win for GMOs (and Monsanto.)
I should stop right now and let you know my bias with regards to GMOs — which is, I have none. I am not anti-GMOs, and I am not pro-GMOs. I am what I would call “nuancedly neutral.”
To me GMOs are a tool. Full stop. I’ve read a lot of anti-GMO material trying to figure out what the antipathy towards GMOs is, and almost everything is about how Monsanto is evil, and terminator genes, and farmer suicides. But all that tells me is that people don’t like how GMOs are used and who is using them. And while I’ve read a number of assertions about how GMOs are harmful to human health, they’ve almost always been just that, assertions. The preponderance of scientific studies have not shown adverse affects from GMOs, and while you can argue that since we don’t know for sure that GMOs are harmful, we should err on the side of caution, I don’t believe a precautionary principle on steroids is good for human wellbeing or good for public policy. 
However, I’m also not necessarily pro-GMOs either. GMO supporters often make GMOs out to be a panacea for our agriculture problems claiming that GMOs are the way to feed a growing planet, but I think it’s not at all certain that GMOs can be used to increase yields in food production. So while GMOs are still a tool, I think there are still some major unresolved questions as to how useful they really are.
So that’s my bias. Not anti, not pro. Which meant that my first instinct was to vote yes. Because, why not vote yes, right? In general, my preference is for more transparency, not less. What’s the harm in adding some labels, right?
Except then I shook myself because duh, Ruchi, there’s always a cost to things. And according to the official legislative analyst estimate, the cost to the state could be between a few hundred thousand and a million dollars annually. Which, you know, isn’t a ton of money considering the size of California’s budget, but it’s not nothing either.
Plus there’s the regulatory burden that is placed on retailers and producers. Also according to the official analysis:

Retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying with the measure by ensuring that their food products are correctly labeled. Products that are labeled as GE would be in compliance. For each product that is not labeled as GE, a retailer generally must be able to document why that product is exempt from labeling. There are two main ways in which a retailer could document that a product is exempt: (1) by obtaining a sworn statement from the provider of the product (such as a wholesaler) indicating that the product has not been intentionally or knowingly genetically engineered or (2) by receiving independent certification that the product does not contain GE ingredients. Other entities throughout the food supply chain (such as farmers and food manufacturers) may also be responsible for maintaining these records. 

So retailers would be responsible for maintaining certifications for every single product they stock. Which frankly may not be that costly to Walmart or Ralphs, but could be expensive for the small mom and pop grocers I like to support in San Francisco. And while there are exemptions in the law for restaurants, oh and also until 2019 for processed foods with fewer than 10 genetically modified ingredients*, I saw no exemptions for small farmers, small grocers, or farmers’ markets. Ever met a farmer at a farmers’ market whose produce was technically organic, but who didn’t have an organic label because he couldn’t afford to pay for organic certification? I have. But those farmers would be stuck with the regulatory cost of proving that there crops weren’t genetically modified. Meanwhile, over at McDonalds, every single thing on the menu could be genetically modified and nothing would need to be labeled. 
So Proposition 37 would cost money. And not just for the Monsantos, the Unilevers, and the Duponts of the world, but for small retailers and small producers as well. But okay, lots of things cost money. And while I’m not anti- or pro-GMO, I know many of my friends would like nothing more than to rid the world of GMOs, and they see Prop 37 as a means to that end. So would it work?
Well, there’s actually ample reason to believe it will not. Overall, studies on the effects of nutritional labels on menus have found that the labels have a negligible impact on human behavior. Even when we know the calorie count, we still order that grande mocha. 
So even if consumers know their food has GM products, it’s likely they’d go ahead and buy anyway. Labeling might not do anything to get rid of GM. In fact, I think GM labeling might actually end up being a net POSITIVE for GM, and if I were head of Monsanto, I wouldn’t be fighting Prop 37, I’d be throwing money at it. And here’s why:
Right now, there are a lot of people who fear GMOs who are, unbeknownst to themselves, eating GMO products all the time. There’s a lot of literature about how people are more risk averse to things outside their control. Right now, consuming GMOs is outside of people’s control so risk aversion is high. But when you slap the label on, boom, locus of control shifts. And all of a sudden, people become a lot more willing to take risks. And given that somewhere between 40-70% of the food on California shelves is GM, well, I think people are suddenly going to become a lot more accepting of the risks of GM.
Don’t believe me? Look no further than Prop 65. You know, the one that requires all those labels everywhere saying “Warning: This facility contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Yeah, that one. The one that is on EVERY single frigging building in the state. The one that EVERYONE ignores, because what, are you never going to rent an apartment or go to work or go to the laundromat? Someone explain to me how THAT proposition wasn’t a total waste of money and resources? 

Here’s my prediction. If Proposition 37 passes, which it almost definitely will, California will spend thousands of dollars on regulation, small producers and retailers would get stuck with a whole lotta bureaucratic paperwork, and every major food producer will eventually end up adding a sentence to their packaging saying “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.” (Yes that’s the legally allowed phrasing.) And the Californian consumer simply won’t give a shit and will buy that food anyway. Victory Monsanto.

So, you know, if you want to waste money on something that’s gonna do pretty much nothing, then sure, vote for Proposition 37. But if you seriously want to avoid GM, well, I have to tell you, there’s already a label for that. And it’s called organic. 

*No single ingredient can account for more than .5% of the total weight of the processed food, which means that your processed food can be 5% genetically modified without needing any kind of label.

On Being Married

How’s married life?

It’s a question that any newlywed is used to hearing. A LOT.

And my stock answer has generally been … “About the same as before we got married.” Because really, the truth is, I don’t generally feel that different. Most of the time, married life feels basically the same as unmarried life except now we no longer have to plan a wedding.

But Sunday, as we drove back from a hike Dave said to me, “You know, I like being married. And it doesn’t feel exactly the same. Because now when we have a nice day going for a hike or whatever, I think, oh wow, that was so nice, and this is what the rest of my life is going to be like.”

And that’s when I realized what I love about being married — it’s that clarity and sense of peace you get from finally figuring out some piece of your life.

When I look back on my life pre-Dave, I see all the time, energy, and anxiety that was spent in trying to find the right guy. All the stress worrying I would never find that guy. And the constant second guessing as to whether the guy I was dating was THE right guy.

It was a mind suck and a life suck. I could have been writing novels, or cooking, or taking up decoupage. But instead I was going on dates, and analyzing my dates ad nauseum with friends, and then of course the inevitable, lying in bed listening to, “Hey Eugene,” when another date failed to materialize.

I don’t usually think about all of this when someone asks me how married life is. Generally, I’m comparing married life with Dave to unmarried life with Dave and they’re basically pretty similar. But the reason they’re so similar is because, frankly, we both figured out fairly early on that we were going to get married. As anxious and prone to stress as I am, I had next to no stress about my relationship with Dave. I didn’t worry about where it was going, because I knew where it was going. Since I knew we were getting married and we got married in a fairly timely fashion (although our parents would say not timely enough) I never spent any of our unmarried time stressing about our collective future.

Even when we weren’t married, I had the clarity and peace that comes from marriage because I knew that we were getting married. If we hadn’t gotten married, I’m not sure I could say that I would have had that clarity and peace unmarried. For me, marriage has been like an anchor, stabilizing me even before we formally said our vows. 

How’s married life?

It’s pretty freaking awesome.

A House of My Own

When I was a kid, I used to think that peer pressure worked something like this:

Mean kid: DO DRUGS!

Me: No!!

Mean kid: (Shoves drugs down my throat.)

Then I grew older and realized peer pressure was actually way more insidious than DARE had had me believe. There was no kid bullying me to do drugs or smoke or drink. Just the feeling that if I didn’t do any of those things, I was a fish-out-of-water weirdo. After all, everyone ELSE was doing it.

And then I got even older and realized that peer pressure wasn’t just for sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

It was for EVERYTHING.

Including big things. Like getting married. Or having a baby. Or buying a house.

And while as a little kid in DARE 2000, I thought that I’d never EVER succumb to peer pressure, as a fully grown adult I have to say, it’s really freakin hard not to!

It starts out easy enough. A friend of mine puts an offer on a cute place and gets it. I’m happy for her and not at all jealous.

Then I visit said place. And it’s super cute and she and her husband are talking about their garden (I want a garden!) and what color they’re going to paint the living room (we’re not allowed to paint our apartment!) and I imagine the memories they’re going to make in that house … the parties they will throw, the kids they will have. And I start to feel just a wee bit jealous. Ok, a fair bit jealous.

Then I’m chatting with another friend and they ask if we’re looking. And I, because, you know, I want to be looking, say “You know, we look occasionally,” in as nonchalant a way as I can. Even though by looking occasionally I mean that I check Zillow obsessively and that I one managed to drag Dave to one open house in our neighborhood.

“Well we have a real estate agent you could use,” my friend says and instantly I want to hire said real estate agent. 

“Yeah, totally,” I say. “I love real estate agents. They’re awesome. Once, when I went to Mexico, this real estate agent gave me these amazing hallucinations. It was rad. Then I ate a whole box of Oreos.”

Yes, I’m weak. And while I did okay saying no to drugs (mostly because very few people ever offered them to me) I have an impossible time saying no to a house. 

(Did I mention my mom is peer pressuring me into buying a house? Is it called peer pressure when your mom is doing it? Or is that just pressure?)

The reality is that there are a lot of perfectly good reasons why we’re not buying a house. We don’t know where we’ll be for the next ten years. We don’t have kids yet. We love our apartment. We’re perfectly happy with a two-bedroom place for now. Buying is expensive (San Francisco is one of the only places where renting is still cheaper). We hate moving. And as a former non-consumerist, I don’t believe in buying things just cuz everyone else is. I don’t. I don’t.

And yet, I can’t help feeling like I’m the only one having orange juice while all the cool kids are having screwdrivers.

It’s totally irrational, but I kinda really kinda wanna house.

On Kony 2012 and the White Savior Industrial Complex

I had an unfinished piece in my blog editor for several weeks about cultural appropriation as it pertains to weddings. It’s something that I feel … conflicted about, but every time I went to write, I got stuck in the morass of complexities.

Eventually I deleted the post.

I feel somewhat similarly about the whole Kony 2012 youtubepalooza and the resulting backlash. It’s like I have something to say, but don’t know what to say. This shit is complicated yo.

But in any case, I’ll give it a go. Bear with me.

So, let’s start with Kony 2012. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Invisible Children … they oversimplified a complex issue, they support military action combatting violence with violence, they ignore the atrocities that are being potentially committed right now in the name of getting Joseph Kony, and that’s not even going into the whole weird public mastrubation thing or this deeply weird video that Invisible Children put out in 2006.

So look.  I wasn’t clear enough in my Mike Daisey post about my criticisms of Daisey. I’m going to be clear now: there are a ton of fair critiques of Invisible Children.

But (because there always has to be a but) I find the whole White Savior Industrial Complex critique to be pretty damn unfair.

According to the White Savior Industrial Complex critique, white people are guilty of thinking they are the saviors of the third world. They are guilty of meddling in affairs of which they know nothing. According to tweets by Teju Cole, “the White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Cole further adds:

“This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.”


“Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.”


“I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

Now to a certain extent, I get what Cole is saying. As a fellow privileged non-white person, I understand what it is to be the recipient of well meaning white person condescension. I have heard plenty of people who know nothing at all about India wax lyrical and eloquent about everything from arranged marriages to the caste system to bridal burnings. And it’s frustrating.

On the other hand, I recognize a few things:

One is this: as a privileged Indian-American who comes from privileged Indian middle class families, I am not the owner of the truth about India either. I don’t believe that any one person in this world owns this truth. But if anyone does, it is certainly not me.

The second is this: There are plenty of non-Indians out there, white people even, who  have studied India more than me, who care about India, who have made it their lives’ work to ameliorate some of the problems in India.

And thirdly: That people care about my country, that people wish to save the world even, is not sentimentality akin to a hippo, wounded or otherwise.

Cole admits to much of this: he acknowledges that white people aren’t the only people with privilege in the world; he accepts his complicity in what he terms “transnational practices of oppressive practices;” he even concedes that he alone does not own the truth and that other middle class Africans disagree with him.  And yet, he gives off the impression that while it’s okay for other Africans to disagree with him, it’s not okay for white people to.

And while he says he understands the “internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can” he has little to say to the well meaning white person that may ask, “How can I help?”

For Cole the answer is to look at American foreign policy and see the horror that we hath wrought. But as an American, Cole must understand that this view of America is almost as reductive as the views of Africa that he has criticized.

The reality is that individual Americans have little influence on American foreign policy. Cole argues otherwise since Americans vote, but, this is honestly ludicrous. The Iraq War was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Barack Obama, who was nominated for President in 2008 in part due to his opposition to the Iraq War, has been a fairly hawkish president in practice. Individual Americans may believe that detainees in Guantanamo should be sent home. They may be horrified by the use of drones and the killing of American citizens without due process. They may care deeply about the 1.5 million Iraqis who died in the American “war of choice.”

But they don’t know what to do about that.

So instead, Americans watch a video about a terrible man who is apparently building an army of children. Because they care, these Americans ask, “How can I help?” And because Jason Russell of Invisible Children, for all his sins, fundamentally gets this deep desire to just do something, he provides these Americans with actual things they can do.

And the things that Invisible Children suggests are simple.

And reductive.

But they take the time to actually answer the question, “What can I do to help?”

And until the Teju Coles of the world actually figure out how to answer that question in a constructive way that doesn’t involve self-flagellation for the sins of one’s government, well, the “wounded hippo” will continue to follow the Jason Russells of the world.

It’s unfortunate, but there it is.

“How can I help?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, and I don’t fault Cole for not having one. But I do fault him from side stepping the question and then slapping the white industrial savior complex label on anyone who attempts an answer.

I Am Going To Live To Regret This Post

I have a guilty confession to make.

Tomorrow we are going skiing. And I am sorta, kinda almost looking forward to it.

On our first date, Dave told me was an avid skier. And because it was a date and it was otherwise going well and because I had recently read a piece by Dan Savage on snowboarding and I had romantic notions that I too could fall in love with the mountain, because of all these things, I told Dave that that sounded fun.

This was INCREDIBLY stupid. Because as anyone who knows be can attest, I am the least athletic person ever. I walk so awkwardly that my incredibly sweet and loving grandmother told me I needed to work on my walk because she was worried that otherwise no one would marry me. I have issue with balance. Iam prone to falling. I dance like a muppet (a sexy muppet, but still.)

Clearly, of all sports, one in which you strap slippery things to your feet and then slide down a mountain, was not going to be a great one for me.

But, you know, I liked this guy. I had to be game.

So I went.

The first year I was terrible, but at least it was novel and new and I was falling in love which made the whole thing more tolerable.

The second year we were engaged and planning a wedding and I had just started a new job and was constantly stressed. So I just sat in the cabin in Tahoe and worked most days instead of skiing.

Then we got married and at the whole weekend, the running joke was that now that we were married I could stop skiing. This made both me and Dave laugh — me thinking it’s funny cuz it’s true, Dave thinking it’s funny cuz it’s sad.

So it should come as no surprise that I did not want to go skiing this year.

At all.

In fact, I resented skiing as I had never resented it before. I hated that we had to reserve all these weekends to drive up to Tahoe when we could be doing all kinds of other things. I rejoiced during our unseasonably warm winter. I plotted how to get out of skiing the rest of the season, which seemed eminently possible since it just wasn’t snowing. At all. Surely Dave wouldn’t want to go up in these conditions?

And then it snowed.


Dave was like a kid before Christmas all week long. Every day he would gleefully check the weather and exclaim that it was snowing in Tahoe again, and I would grumble and put on my rain coat as I headed to work.

Last Friday, we finally hit the road in the early evening. The first leg of the ride was relatively smooth, with just the usual amount of traffic. We hit our half way spot at a decent time, and had a nice meal. Then we headed up into the mountains, and the traffic … stopped.

And stopped.

And stopped.

We went five miles in one hour. And then another ten in another. When we finally arrived, we had the car for about 8 hours. We pulled into the parking spot and I. Lost. My. Shit.

“I HATE Skiing!” I ranted and raved. “We spend all this time going up there and going back and it always takes forever and then I’m terrible at it and I hate it! I hate it! I never want to do this again! And it takes so long and we haven’t moved in an hour and I just want to be home and we never do what I want to do. And I ski terribly in powder and I’m going to have a hard time all day tomorrow. It’s like if I made you drive 8 hours to and from a Chekhov play all winter long. I HATE it!”

It was not my finest moment.

The next day, I stayed in bed until 9:00 am in angry protest of skiing. I put off getting dressed as long as I could, but eventually we made it to the mountain in time for us to only need a half-day pass. On our first run, I found all the fresh power to be unbearably unpredictable. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hated how I couldn’t seem to make turns correctly and how my skis seemed to stick in the snow drifts. We moved over to a harder run and Dave fell on me as we came off the chair lift and I could have ripped his head off.

Just more evidence that skiing sucks.

We went down the mountain and it was incredibly frustrating and hard and I felt awkward and nervous. And yet, secretly I was just a little bit proud of myself for doing the hardest run I’d ever done and managing to navigate the lumpy conditions.

Officially I still hated skiing. But there was a piece of me that was thinking … this is finally kinda clicking.

Sunday, I felt even more confident. We did a few easier runs and, even in the powder, with that lumpy, thick, snow, I started getting the hang of it. I figured out how to move faster down the mountain. It was even kind of fun. We moved to the harder run, and this time it was MUCH easier. For the first time in three years I actually started to feel like I was getting the hang of it. For the first time, I could visualize a future in which I wasn’t stuck on the bunny hill for the rest of my life. For the first time, I actually thought that maybe I wanted to go skiing again.

When we left later that day Dave told me that we didn’t have to go skiing again if I didn’t want to. That it wasn’t fair of him to push me into skiing all the time when I didn’t like it. That we could stay home next weekend and work on our long ignored wedding album instead.

I told him that I thought we should go skiing. That I wanted to go. For him. That I knew how important it was for him to ski and I wanted him to have another weekend in the mountains. Because I loved him.

He seems to have bought it.

So, if you see him, would you please not tell him that I actually kind of want to go skiing this weekend myself? Because if you do, well, he’ll just hold that over my head for the rest of my life.

And no one wants that.

This Story is Totally, Totally True

Don’t ask me what my favorite new tv shows of this past season are. I haven’t seen any of them.


In fact, in the past year, I have picked up exactly one new television show, and that is Top Chef, a show that has been on for eleventy bajillion years.* And now that it is over, I basically watch only one television show with any semblance of regularity.

As a statistic, I’m weird. Americans spend about 2.7 hours a day watching television compared to my half hour or so. But what makes all this even weirder is that I used to work in television. I went to comedy shows at night. I read TV scripts on weekends. I watched terrible pilot after boring pilot after not-so-bad pilot.** Television was my life.***

And now I barely watch it.

I can’t say exactly that I miss watching television … if I missed it, I’d watch it more, and the reality is that at this point, most evenings, I’d rather read the New Yorker or my blog feed or dick around on the Internets. And I don’t miss the work that much either, although I value and recognize the skills I gained from my years in the industry.

What I do miss though, palpably, is this feeling of belonging, of knowing my place in the world of Hollywood. I miss knowing who the presidents of every studio and network are. I miss keeping up with the petty industry gossip of who was leaving what agency for what managerial opportunity. I miss that feeling that everyone was just a couple degrees apart. Perversely I even miss the things that I used to hate, like the industry drinks**** and the constant shop talk.*****

For a while, I would make isolated stabs to keep up with it all. Just because I didn’t work in television didn’t mean I couldn’t read Deadline Hollywood. I could anticipate the fall slate of television shows. I could even follow the ratings.

But it wasn’t the same.

And gradually, my memory of Hollywood, and its memory of me started to atrophy.

I defriended agency assistants who I had met once or twice and vice versa. I forgot the names of writers and agents who I used to call on a regular basis.

In the industry, of course, I was only ever a bit player. For all but a few that had become my friends, I was forgotten in weeks if not days.*******

Now of course, I have another life.******** In a different city, in a different type of job, in an industry much more diffuse. People don’t know me the way that they used to, even bit player that I was. My network of connections is small. Ironically, San Francisco, tiny as it is, feels large and anonymous compared to Hollywood where I felt intrinsically tied to so many people.

I’m not sure if all this contributes to my general meh-ness about San Francisco. I do know that sometimes I have felt frustrated by the feeling of having to find my way in the world again. Of having to start over and learn new jargon, new people that matter. Of having to build my web of connections all over again?

Didn’t I do this already, I think to myself.

I don’t regret my choices past, or present. TV was the right place for me then, and the nonprofit/policy sector is the right place for me now.

A lot of the time I am proud of myself for having taken the path less taken.

But some days I miss that sense of rootedness that comes from spending year after year in an industry. And I wonder how much longer will I continue to feel like an Angeleno transplant on San Francisco soil.

* Technically speaking, this is an exaggeration as eleventy bajillion isn’t a number.

** This sentence omits the reality that some of the pilots were quite good.

*** Television was not literally my life. This metaphor is intended to suggest that television was a very large part of my life.

**** While this statement is true, it masks my deep inner conflict about industry drinks. I’d say that to be completely truthful, I’d have to say that I miss industry drinks only a very, very little most of the time, except for the industry drinks that were really drinks with actual friends in the industry, which I miss much, much more.

***** Okay, this is kind of a lie. It would be more accurate to say that I loved to hate on shop talk. Or that sometimes I would get tired of shop talk. But I loved shop talk. We all did.

******* Please note, I cannot actually vouch for the complete validity of this claim. While I would assume that most everyone forgot about me very quickly, I don’t actually know this for fact. If you would like to test this theory, I would recommend sneaking onto the CBS lot. If you ask people if they know Ruchi and they say, “Who?” well, you will then be in the unenviably position of asking them to figure out when they forgot about me if they ever knew me in the first place.

******** This is not literally true as I did not die and experience reincarnation.

The Agony and Ecstasy of This Here Editor/Actor/Blogger/Liar

The truth of the matter is that I did not want to know about the story of Mike Daisey.

I didn’t because I had seen the show a year ago and loved it. Because I think Daisey is a brilliant performer. Because he was able to hold the attention of an audience for about 90 minutes with nothing more than his voice. Because I think there are a lot of elements to his story that are factually correct. And because I knew that thinking about Mike Daisey would unleash a lot of conflict in my head and I didn’t feel like dealing with it.

So I didn’t. Until Dave pestered me to listen to the This American Life retraction episode — not once, not twice, but three days in a row until I finally cried uncle. So we listened to the story and now I’m up at 1:37 am still thinking about the whole thing which is why I’m writing this blog post on a topic that has been covered, repeatedly, ad nauseum, instead of just going to sleep like a normal person.

Here’s the deal. In my current job as an editor, whose job it is to supervise and often conduct fact checks, I can’t help but empathize with Ira Glass. It’s pretty clear that This American Life effed up in airing Daisey’s show, and effed up bad by airing the show without doing a completely rigorous fact check. It sucks when you realize that you screwed up. When you screwed up because someone else BLATANTLY lied to you? That’s a whole another level of betrayal, loathing, and self loathing. 

Now, I believe that publications are ultimately responsible for ascertaining the accuracy of the pieces they publish. But ultimately, occasional incidents like this do not tend to tarnish the reputation of a media outlet. They will absolutely tarnish the reputation of that specific writer. Editor Ruchi will also tell you in an exasperated voice that fact checks protect writers as much as they do publications. And that next time a writer is cranky about getting an email asking for verification of a bunch of details they would do well to think about how much better it would have been for Daisey if This American Life had actually tracked down Daisey’s translator and subjected his monologue to a rigorous fact check. Sure the piece might have never made it on the air, but we also wouldn’t be talking about the death of Daisey’s career right now either.

As an editor, I can understand the importance of facts, of accuracy, of note taking (which Daisey never did), of quotations, of precise reporting. 

But as an actor … well I think there’s considerably more gray area. And as a writer and blogger, I’m starting to wonder about my own guilt.

So let’s start with reporting. Reporting is what you see on the front page of the New York Times. It is fact-based, it is usually neutral point of view in tone, it is clear cut. When you are reporting it is important to know whether you visited five factories or ten. Whether you interviewed twenty people or five. You cannot turn five people into one. You cannot say something happened in Shenzhen when it happened in Hong Kong. That is reporting.

Then there are books. These are neatly labeled. There is non fiction, there is fiction, and then there are memoirs which falls into a convoluted in between category. The non fiction may contain fiction — dialogue is often not exactly verbatim — and the fiction may contain non fiction. But these are categories one understands.

But there is no “fiction” section at your local theatre, nor “non fiction.” Theatre is not neatly categorized, but a lot of theatre (but not all) works under the idea of suspension of disbelief. Basically, the author accepts the world of the show while watching. Afterwards, outside the theatre, suspension is suspended, and the audience is free to conclude that actually people don’t burst out into song randomly or that no one swears as much as those a$$holes in that David Mamet play.

Those are of course uncomplicated examples of works that would generally be taken to be shelved in the “fiction” section. But even with works with non fictional elements, liberties can be taken that cannot in journalism.

Chronology for example. Dialogue. The creation of an emotional arc. 

When I was 19, I stage managed a play about the Haymarket riots in Chicago. The play was painstakingly researched by the director Lawrence Bogad, and there were scenes, dialogue, and elements from the play that came straight from the historical record. There was also stuff that was completely theatrical. But put together, the play told a story about Haymarket that was … well, let’s just say that to drape the title “fiction” over that work would have felt wrong.

Which is why I think Daisey’s critics — the ones who say he should have a disclaimer in front of his theatre performance saying that it’s fiction — are not being entirely fair. We just don’t view theatre in the same lens as journalism. In my mind, if Daisey’s sins are inflating the number of union workers he interviewed, or turning three people into one, or saying that an old man with a bad hand who really existed said the iPad was magical when he didn’t exactly say that … I just don’t think, in the context of the theatre, that that crap matters.

It just doesn’t. And Daisey doesn’t need a big honking fiction sign over his play to signify that those details were fudged. I felt for Ira Glass when he said that talking to Daisey was exhausting because instead of saying, “Yeah I lied,” he’d say, “Well I did take that taxi to that exit ramp but it wasn’t with Cathy and it wasn’t in the city I said it was,” but I also —and maybe I’m giving Daisey too much credit — but I also think that the long, exhausting answer is probably the more truthful one. Because the way theatrical monologues are created in dynamic ways can involve fudging details.

On the other hand, if Daisey did not actually meet anyone that was underage when he was in China, well, that’s a problem. In journalism and in theatre. Because that bit is so critical to the story Daisey is telling. And yet, that problem, I feel, could not be solved by simply slapping “fiction” onto Daisey’s story, because really, this is ultimately a story about real people, alive and recently deceased. The “fiction” label doesn’t tell us what is real and what is fabrication. The “fiction” label does not tell us that many elements of Daisey’s story are true — workers are often overworked, there have been safety issues — just as it does not tell us the elements that are exaggerated — underage workers in China exist, but are rare.

So in journalism there are lines and they are very easy to cross. In traditional theatre there are lines and they are pretty hard to cross. In first person monologue pieces, or in say blogging and personal writing, there are lines and they are confusing.

In 2000, Dan Savage wrote an account in a weekly Seattle newspaper The Stranger about a time he went to Iowa and licked the door knobs of the Gary Bauer campaign offices. I am pretty sure this is not in fact, a factual account of his trip to Iowa, although it was a highly amusing read. 

In my own blogging, I am certainly guilty of screwing with time and space, making up dialogue, and exaggerating for comedic effect. I have never worried that someone was going to come fact check me and say, “You said there were five cop cars but there were only three,” mostly because no one really cares that much about my writing, but I’ve also never felt like I was letting my audience down with my occasional fabrications. Like Daisey, I regard my first person narrative as story telling. And stories, even true stories, have a little bit of spice thrown in.

In fact the blog spectrum operates within a wide range of truthiness — some bloggers operate on the side of honest and in your face on things as personal as mental illness and divorce. Some ostensibly write about their lives, but in a super sanitized way that you know cannot possibly be anyone’s actual and complete truth. And some write hysterical stories about metal chickens that are really too good to be true, but don’t tell me that they’re not because that is just spoiling it. And all bloggers omit all kinds of details about their lives so the reality you get from someone’s blog is essentially a created one, a theatrical self, if you will.

We accept this creation of self in personal writing and story telling quite a bit. We accept exaggeration, futzing with chronology, we accept spice. We accept five factories instead of twenty.

But there is futzing and then there is a central and core honesty of your piece. No one gave a shit if I said that three cop cars had shown up when there were only two. But if I had lied about my year of not buying things — if I had been secretly shopping at the Gap the whole time, or even if I had shopped at the Gap once or twice and never mentioned it — that, I believe, would have been a complete and total betrayal to my audience. And no amount of disclaimers about how my blog was a fictionalized account of my life would have changed that.

And ultimately that’s why I find a lot of the This American Life handwringing over where the guards had guns or whether there were five factory workers or twenty … it matters in the context of TAL, a journalism program, but it doesn’t matter in the context of story telling. 

What matters in the context of story telling is if Daisey actually met an underage worker.

And he knows it.

Which is why, whatever the actual truth, he’s sticking to that part of the story.

On the peak person problem

The other day I was at a talk given by Mark Lynas, one of Britain’s foremost environmentalists, and hosted by the Long Now Foundation, so-called because it’s meant to foster long term thought. So I guess it was fitting that one of the questions Mark got was on the problem of shrinking human population.

Yes, you heard that right. The shrinking human population problem.

While environmentalists have been stressing out about our quickly growing human population, fertility rates have been declining. Fast. In fact, according to a recent column by David Brooks, Iran now has a birth rate similar to that of New England.

None of this should come as a surprise exactly. The population has been growing more slowly as of late going from 5 billion to 6 billion in 11 years and 6 billion to 7 billion in 13 years. Recent UN projections have us reaching 8 billion 14 years after that. The entire world population is supposed to top out at about 10 billion sometime in this century.

In less than a hundred years, we’ll have hit peak person. And by some accounts, we may have already hit peak child.

Many people continue to think of the overpopulation problem. And I think that for the time being, we do have to figure out how we’re going to feed 10 billion people, particularly 10 billion people who want to eat a lot of meat. But if current projections pan out (and they might not … we could dramatically slow the aging process or something else could case fertility rates to increase) 10 billion people is the max we need to feed. And then, the numbers will start to drop.

And that’s when we’ll be in no man’s land.

Because while environmentalists tend to view overpopulation as an issue for a variety of reasons, many social scientists view a falling population, and particularly an aging population, as problematic. That’s because our views on the economy, and many of our social policies —like say Social Security — are predicated on this idea that our population is going to continue to grow. Hence the worry about a shrinking population.

Personally, my view on the shrinking population problem is about the same as my view of the overpopulation problem which is … that it’s only a problem if we don’t figure out how to handle it. Just as we’re going to have to feed and provide energy for a world of 10 billion people, we’re going to have to figure out how to build a social safety net that reflects the reality of our changing demographics. And really, we’re going to have to figure out both in fairly short order.

Because in the end, overpopulation doesn’t automatically lead to environmental degradation and shrinking populations don’t automatically lead to economic doom. We should not coerce women to limit their reproduction, nor should we take away their birth control pills (ahem). Instead of looking at population as a terrible! problem! that must be fixed! we can just look at it as the driver of various issues that need to then be managed.

And then, you know, manage ’em. As best we can.

For a similar take, see Bryan Walsh’s great piece on population in Time.

A Brief Digression To Talk About Toilets

So, I’d like to interrupt the flagellation of my former self to discuss with you all my deep and abiding hatred for self-flushing toilets.

Because really, why the hell have a personal blog if you can’t wax lyrical about all the things in the world that make you really, really angry.

And in that category falls self-flushing toilets.

Now, I’ve never liked automatic toilets. I’ve always found them dirty (because they don’t flush at the right time) and wasteful (because sometimes while you’re um … hovering … the toilet will flush three times.)

But lately, I guess I’ve been traveling a lot lately in airports (which always, always have self-flushing toilets) and the inanity of these toilets has really hit home.

And I started to wonder, really and truly, WHO thought these were a good idea? Because see: dirty and wasteful. WHY are they taking over the world one airport at a time? And if they are going to take over the world, WHY aren’t they any better?

I mean, come on. We live in a world with autonomous flying robots [side bar: when is a robot a robot and when is it a thing with a computer? Like, why do you call airplanes airplanes and not flying robots? Why are remote controlled helicopters or drones not robots? And why are autonomous flying robots robots and not really cool airplanes?] and we can’t create toilets that actually flush when you want them to flush? I mean, I don’t know how those sensors work exactly, but it feels like whoever programmed them does not actually know the mechanics of how people use the toilet. Like for example, the fact that you do not keep crouching down whilst you make use of your toilet paper.

I’m not quite sure why it’s so hard to program a toilet to flush at the right time because I feel like people’s bathroom patterns tend to be fairly simple. But since self-flushing toilets are such a failure, I feel there has got to be some better way. Maybe a vocal command to indicate to the toilet you are done? Or a song? Maybe toilets that flush when you clap (a clapper for the crapper?)

Or maybe, just maybe, there could be some sort of lever? That you push down on? But that would probably be too easy. I suppose we’re stuck.

(If I don’t update my blog for several more weeks, you’ll know that I’m stuck in an airport bathroom trying to get the automated sinks to give me some f**king water and soap already.)

Reflections Part Deux

Here’s another truth. When I became an eco-nut, I leaped in without thinking too critically about what I was doing and what I was trying to accomplish.

In my defense, my conversion from person who cared vaguely about the environment to Strident Green happened literally in about fifteen minutes. After watching an interview about how cashmere goats are ruining the world (yes, cashmere goats made me change my life), I took the red pill.

And almost instantaneously, I became a green. And by that I don’t mean that I cleaned up beaches or hugged trees or went hiking in forests or protested a coal plant. In fact, I did none of those things.

When I say I became a green, I mean that I adopted a framework of values that told me what was good and what was bad.

Organics were good. Walking was good. Cloth diapers were good. Doing things the way they had been done for hundreds of years was good.

Conventionally grown food, driving, disposable diapers, industrialization, was all bad.

The framework served several purposes: it served as a secular moral code, and it allowed me to feel good about myself when I adhered to it. But mostly, it served as a shortcut. Instead of having to do the math on what had the most impact on emissions: the glass bottle of organic milk from the farm 100 miles away or the cardboard carton of non-organic milk from 20 miles away, I could just say plastic = bad, organic = good.

Problem solved.

Except that it wasn’t.

First science would get in the way, and someone would point me to an extremely annoying study showing that cloth diapers have the same impact as disposable diapers, and I’d do some hand waving and dig in my heels. The study must be wrong or conducted badly or the cloth must not have been organic or the diapers were washed in scalding hot water. And even when all my objections were countered, I’d still refuse to believe the result. Cloth diapers were just better. Because.

And it wasn’t because I was anti-science exactly. It was that I needed my heuristic to work. Because how else would I know how to live?

Then there are the times that parts of my framework would contradict other parts. For example, I believed that spending time with friends and family was the most important thing you could do. I also believed that driving was bad. Of course, when I stopped driving to work (in LA) my commute went from fifteen minutes to an hour and five minutes. Which obviously meant I had less time to spend with friends and family.

And of course there was the aforementioned problem. Which was that my framework was strict. Insanely strict. So strict that even when I was at my best, I was always, always sinning.

So I loosened up.

And thus began my fall from grace.