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Not a seascape

The morning after the storm. Click here for high-resolution version.

If I were a poet, I’d try to write a poem that captures how forests and the sea are so much alike. Both are dark and deep and full of creatures. Both can be quiet and peaceful, but both are violent and dangerous in a storm. In a storm, they even make the same sound. The sea has its gulls. The woods have their crows. It’s funny how they sound so much alike. I would love to live on a high, heather-and-grass promontory above the sea. But, since I can’t, the woods are the next best thing.

Last night, starting before dusk, there was a tornado warning as a long train of violent storms passed through. Here at the abbey, as I sat by the upstairs windows and periodically checked the weather radar, the worst of the storms just missed us. Lily sat with me and watched the storms unless the thunder got too loud, then she would go hide. A tornado actually touched down about 12 miles to the east. Sometimes the window had to be closed because of the rain. But, during lulls in the rain, both Lily and I are greatly entertained by the wind and wild sea-sounds through the open window.

In the wind of a storm, the trees around the house billow and toss like the sea against rocks, with all the right sound effects. When there is lightning, I count off seconds to measure how close it is. A huge bolt of lightning hit the ridge just after dark, and a clap of thunder sent Lily scurrying before I could say “one.” I could almost imagine that I’m in a lighthouse on a tiny island, just above a roiling green sea.

Who’s afraid of the Ninth Amendment?

May 3, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There is an unspoken rule among legal eagles that ordinary people (like me) should not try to interpret the Constitution. The reason is that constitutional law (legal eagles use the term “jurisprudence”) is very complicated and embodies a long history of Supreme Court case law about which we non-experts are expected to know nothing.

Fine. I know nothing.

But what about this:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

That is the Ninth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it is part of the original Bill of Rights ratified in 1791. Could anything be clearer? And yet, for many years, legal eagles have put forth the idea that the Ninth Amendment does not contain any “substantive rights,” but rather that it is “a statement on how to read the Constitution.” Here’s how people like me, who know nothing, would read it: The authors of the Constitution knew perfectly well that authoritarians and preachers would claim that any right not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution does not — and can never! — exist, and that authoritarians and preachers would try to use the law to dictate how others live.

The U.S. Supreme Court is clearly terrified of the Ninth Amendment and has almost completely ignored it in centuries of “jurisprudence.” A 1947 case (United Public Workers v. Mitchell) actually had the effect of putting a limit on the Ninth Amendment. The Ninth Amendment is obliquely referenced in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the case having to do with a private right to use contraceptives, but that ruling was based on the Fifth Amendment, not the Ninth. There actually is still disagreement on whether a right to privacy exists, because privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.

Now comes the right-wing hack Samuel Alito, who actually writes in the document leaked from the Supreme Court this week: “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision. …”

Coming from a Supreme Court justice, no less, that sounds to me perversely and knowingly anti-constitutional — not to mention that it sounds like propaganda, which know-nothings who know even less than I do will fall for. Alito is disparaging (and then denying) a right not enumerated in the Constitution, with reference to a made-up right-wing legal theory rather than the actual text of the Constitution.

The New Yorker writes: “If a right isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, Alito argues, following a mode of reasoning known as the history test, then it can only become a right if it can be shown to be ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’ ” Really? Is that in the Constitution? But what do I know. These people get their instructions directly from God and billionaires.

But it seems clear to me that Alito’s concept of “jurisprudence” boils down to this: There can be no such thing as moral progress, because the concept of rights, justice, and equality are ossified, locked down, and cannot advance beyond the state of moral progress that had been achieved by the year 1791, when many members of the government and even the universities owned slaves. No wonder it took so long even to end slavery or to allow women to vote. And now the Supreme Court is not merely blocking constitutional rights, it’s taking them away.

Everyone has moral qualms about abortion. No one thinks that abortion is a good thing. But that’s not the question. The question is whether a minority’s moral views can override the Constitution and start putting people with different views in prison. And we know what these people really want and what their project is. We know this isn’t over and that right-wing religionists — a minority — will now move on to take away other constitutional rights, always the rights of the people they don’t like, and always with a particular, peculiar, vindictive viciousness toward anything having to do with sex.

There are so many things I’d like to say about the meanness of the people who consider themselves our moral superiors and intend to lord it over us, but so far I’ve still got a weak grip on civility. That’s really hard work these days.

Agricultural entrepreneurs: Yes!

Here at my latitude, strawberry season has started. As of last year, acquiring strawberries got a lot easier for me. A new strawberry farm started up last year only a 10-minute drive from here. They pick the berries in the morning, then sell them for $10 a gallon under the porch of an old barn right beside the fields.

But the situation is getting even better. The strawberry operation has been so successful that they’re putting in 10 or 12 acres of summer vegetables, watered, like the strawberries, from a nearby pond. They’ll sell the vegetables the same way — pick them in the morning and sell them at the barn. The price, they say, will be $1.50 a pound for all varieties of vegetables. They’re not organic, but they promise no pesticides.

Strange as it sounds, even though I live in farming country, the northern part of this county is considered a food desert because of the distance to grocery stores. Few people have gardens anymore. For me, a source of reasonably priced just-picked summer vegetables changes things. I’m planning to downsize my garden and concentrate on things that the farm won’t sell, such as basil (of which I use a great deal).

The investment this farm has made is considerable, and it’s obviously paying off. Not only is it a highly appropriate form of economic development for this area, it also supplies fresh food to the locals while saving them money. The family who own the farm work alongside a Mexican crew that obviously is experienced both at cultivating the crops and at picking them.

Progress! Now if we only had broadband.

A stupid new book about Apple

Inside an Apple store

First of all, I have not read this book, and I’m not going to read it. In fact, it won’t be released until two days from now. But this morning in the New York Times, the book’s author has an utterly stupid little collection of misleading anecdotes under the headline “How Technocrats Triumphed at Apple.” The book is After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, by Tripp Mickle, a New York Times reporter. Good grief. Apple hasn’t lost its soul. It only lost the fancy-pants designer and professional snob Jony Ive. And good danged riddance.

The Times article — and clearly the book as well — is a hagiographical fanboy piece about Ive, who, had he stayed at Apple, would have designed Apple into the dirt. True nerds and computer lovers cheered when Ive finally left Apple. It’s to Ive that we owe the era of Apple computers getting thinner and thinner to the point of fragility — unrepairable, and fastened together with, I kid you not, glue. (Screws aren’t pretty, you see.) Phones were so sleek that they’d squirt right out of your hands. Ive’s design notions were lipstick for the software, too. Ive thought that we wanted our screens to be “uncluttered,” even if we couldn’t find anything or had to click six screens deep to get to a function we needed.

The promotional copy about this book on Amazon sounds intentionally deceptive. It says that Ive “designed” the iPod, iPad, MacBook Air, the iMac G3, and the iPhone. But Ive designed only the look, the skin, of those devices. He had nothing to do with the engineering. The promotional copy calls Ive “a London-born genius.” By contrast, Tim Cook is called “the product of a small Alabama town.” That’s precisely the kind of sneering, class-conscious snobbery that would have ruined Apple if it had continued.

Apple’s true genius is in its engineering, both in its software and its hardware. Consider the new iMac Studio, which actually looks like a computer, a lovely little box. Ive would never have allowed all those USB ports and Thunderbolt ports because they’d be “clutter.” But those ports are what iMac users actually want and need. Ive had nothing to do with Apple’s advanced engineering, such as the new M1 chips, which freed Apple from Intel’s stagnation.

Lost its soul indeed. Apple makes computers, not garb and bling for hipsters.

That the dude who wrote this stuff works for the New York Times is disturbing. This kind of wrongheadedness is yet another sign that the New York Times inhabits an abstract, imaginary world that, in a different way, is as delusional as MAGA world. It’s the kind of wrongheadedness that begs for a parody about how the New York Times would have covered the rise of Hitler — in an “objective,” take-no-sides, ivory tower sort of way that would have been just fine printing op-eds by Joseph Goebbels as though it was fair speech to be taken seriously. This is a whole different subject for another time, but I attribute the New York Times’ break with reality to its management. I cheered when Dean Baquet left the New York Times, just as I cheered when Jony Ive left Apple. But I fear that Baquet’s successor, Joe Kahn, will be just as bad. At Apple, however, there is no new Jony Ive. Let’s hear it for engineers and technocrats.

Update 1: It seems quite a few readers of the New York Times agreed with my comment there, which quickly made the “Readers’ Picks” category.

Update 2: Twenty-four hours after the New York Times posted this piece, it appears from the comments (about 550 at this point) that the piece has backfired all over the fanboy NYT reporter and the now-discredited design czar Jony Ive. Virtually everyone has piled on against Ive and in favor of function versus overdone styling. Apple, no doubt, is following those comments, which amount to a million dollars worth of market research for free. posted a link to the New York Times piece, and the comments there went the same way. Let’s hope this episode reinforces Apple’s commitment to function — computers as computers rather than fashion statements.



Who could have guessed that one of the most unforgettable Americans to come out of the 1960s would be Julia Child? And who could have guessed that we’d be as interested in her life as in her cooking? I’ve watched only the first episode so far of this new series, but clearly it’s going to be a romp — smart, funny, and a very nice period piece as well.

In spite of her popularity, though, I can’t help but wonder just how much Julia Child ultimately affected American cooking. So many Americans can’t (and don’t) cook. City chefs struggling to distinguish themselves look much farther afield than Julia Child for inspiration. And what’s offered in provincial and backroads eateries, I would testify, has been going steadily downhill since our grandmothers’ time, with cheap ingredients and untrained, poorly paid cooks who have no concept of what good food is like and what to aim for. I don’t know if it’s true, but a friend once told me that Americans spend more time watching cooking shows than they do cooking. I can believe it, though.

Judging from the first episode, in this series we’re more likely to find Julia at the dinner table with her guests than slaving over a hot stove, the better to support the very cosmopolitan dialogue. And the English actress Sarah Lancashire very much conveys one of the important things we learned from Julia Child — that cooking is playful, fun, never fussy, and is best done with a glass of wine close at hand. By the way, what happened to conviviality in America? Once upon a time, people actually tasted each other’s cooking and could say who made the best biscuits or fried chicken.

Don’t overlook the typewriters! Take note of her cherry-red Volvo, which she washes in her Cambridge driveway because “it won’t wash itself.” Her collection of copper pots is impressive. And what a diplomat she was (like her husband).

Julia can be streamed from HBO Max.

The world we’d like to live in

A Brief History of Equality. Thomas Piketty, Harvard University Press, April 19, 2022. 274 pages.

Is much of the world better off now than it was, say, 200 years ago? Yes, undoubtedly, says Thomas Piketty. He does not use the words “the arc of justice,” but I would. The transcendentalist theologian Theodore Parker was quite right when, around 1840, he perceived the arc of justice. The great moral emergency of Parker’s time was slavery. And the exploitations of colonialism were just getting started in Parker’s time.

To see this progress in perspective, it’s necessary to be aware of just how terrible things have been for most people for most of history. That’s what the first half of Piketty’s book is about. The title of this book could as easily be “A Brief History of Inequality.” If we failed to learn about historical inequality in school, it may not be entirely the fault of our educations. There is a great deal of new research on inequality. For example, Piketty several times refers to inheritance archives from 19th Century France. The bottom 50 percent of the population, even today, inherit nothing and own almost nothing. In fact they may be deeply in debt. At this stage of history, those who have benefited most from a reduction in inequality are the 40 percent between the bottom 50 percent and the top 10 percent — the middle class.

The top 10 percent, and especially the top 1 percent, are obscenely rich, as always. The gains of the middle class are quite new, with most of that progress owed to the type of reforms that Franklin Roosevelt introduced in the U.S. after the Great Depression. There has been some backsliding since 1980, as the age of Reaganism, Thatcherism, and neoliberalism gained control. Piketty writes that neoliberalism is now discredited, especially after the financial crisis of 2008. But little progress has been made beyond neoliberalism because of political gridlock. It was, of course, the political struggles of organized progressives, going back for more than 200 years, that have made possible the gains in equality and social justice.

It is sometimes hard for caring human beings to believe that there actually are people — lots of them — who hate the idea of equality, democracy, and justice, and who fight for a jackboot world that is unequal, undemocratic, unfair, and unjust. It’s easier now, post-Trump. We know who they are, we know what they want, and we’ve had a glimpse of just how they would use power to keep people down. The ironic thing is that many of the bottom-rung infantry in the fight against justice don’t have a pot to piss in, but through the magic of fascism they buy into a politics that benefits only the top 10 percent.

In the second half of this book, Piketty outlines his thoughts on what must be done if progress is to continue. Progressive taxation, with heavy taxes on the filthy rich, is essential, as is investment in education and health care. But Piketty describes many other ideas still to be invented — for example, a universal inheritance, in which the wealth of the super-rich is taxed to provide a modest “inheritance” even for the poorest, to be paid at the age of 25, so that everyone has the means of getting a start in life.

Piketty’s ideas, I believe, provide an important and pragmatic piece of a pretty much complete theory of politics and activism. That politics, acknowledging the advances of the Enlightenment, would be heavily based on John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. The next step is to consider William A. Edmundson’s argument that only democratic socialism can meet the requirements of A Theory of Justice. From there forward, Piketty provides not only a historical base that justifies the need for a new kind of economics, but also the outlines of a blueprint on how to continue that work.

It is not polite to quote an author’s last paragraph. But in this case I’m going to do it, because it captures so well why I think it is important to read this book:

This … will also require active citizens. The social sciences can contribute to this, but it goes without saying that they will not suffice. Only powerful social mobilizations, supported by collective movements and organizations, will allow us to define common objectives and transform power relationships. By what we ask of our friends, our networks, our elected officials, our preferred media, our labor union representatives, and by our own actions and participation in collective deliberation and social movements each of us can make socioeconomic phenomena more comprehensible and help grasp the changes that are occurring. Economic questions are too important to be left to others. Citizens’ reappropriation of this knowledge is an essential stage in the battle for equality. If this book has given readers new weapons for this battle, my goal will have been fully realized.

It’s true that Piketty’s densely academic style is not easy to read. But this book, unlike Piketty’s massive previous books, is only 274 pages.

Why do the media try to scare liberals?

Presidents Macron and Biden in Cornwall, June 2021. White House photo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Before the people of France voted on Sunday, the media were filled with stories suggesting that Marine Le Pen just might win. Bunk. Marine Le Pen was never going to win. The result was 58.5 to 41.5. In the United States, an election like that would be considered a historic landslide.

Now that the election is over, the media are filled with stories over-emphasizing the obstacles that Macron faces in France. And the Atlantic — the Atlantic! — has a silly piece today saying that Le Pen won even though she lost: Macron Won. And So Did the Far Right.

Bunk, bunk, bunk, and bunk.

And by the way I worry about the Atlantic, which increasingly is running clickbait in its online edition.

The people of France have not lost their minds. I would argue that the results of the French election show that, even though the French people have some issues with Macron, they are far from damned-fool enough to hand the country over to a right-winger. In the first round of voting, remember, the candidate who placed third was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, often identified as a leftist firebrand. In the first round, Mélenchon got 22 percent of the vote, just short of Le Pen, who got 23.2. In other words, the solid left in France is as strong as the solid right. And in the final election, with Macron’s strong support from the center, did anyone really think that all those leftists would vote for Le Pen?

I’m all for keeping voters on their toes and vigilant about the threat from the right. But can we keep it real?

One of the reasons this matters is that the same thing is happening in the United States. The media still maintain that Trump is going to run again in 2024. Trump scare stories are guaranteed clickbait. As I have said before, there is not a snowball’s chance that Trump will run again in 2024. If he did (in a fair election, anyway), he’d lose even more of the popular vote than he lost in 2016 and 2020. Whatever the MAGA crowd may think, most Americans know what Trump is. A slim majority, at least, have always known what Trump is, and Americans increasingly despise him. Even Republicans in Congress despise him, though they still have to kiss Trump’s … uh, ring. After the January 6 committee in the U.S. House hold their hearings on Trump’s coup attempt and the indictments start, Trump’s future will be prison, not the White House.

Sure, like the French with Macron, some Americans have issues with Biden. Young people, according to a new poll, have little enthusiasm for Biden. But who can believe that young people eager for progress would vote for a Trump because they have issues with Biden?

Unless the right-wing inability to adapt to change and to understand an ever-more-complex world causes right-wing huns to go extinct the way the Neanderthals did, we’re always going to have to deal with a certain percentage of right-wing huns in the population and people like Trump who will try to deceive them, inflame them, and ride them to power.

But we are a majority, and huns cannot win unless multiple failures happen at the same time — some form of manipulation (Julian Assange, James Comey, Vladimir Putin), a wall of lies (Rupert Murchoch), some form of legalized cheating (under development in multiple states), widespread media malpractice in the face of the right-wing wall of lies (her emails!), and undemocratic flukes such as the American Electoral College.

Republican strategy, of course, is try to try to take power through those multiple failures. Our job is to stop them, on all fronts. We failed in 2016 and succeeded in 2020. It’s not impossible that the sane-though-regressive element of the Republican Party (think Liz Cheney) will regain control after Trump goes down. But, if they don’t, the Republican Party will cook up for 2024 something just as monstrous as Trump.

Still, they can’t win unless several things go wrong at the same time. There’s a good comparison to aircraft safety. An airliner can almost always recover from a single failure. But if two or more things go wrong at the same time, watch out. As for France, its democracy is strong and its elections are fair. Our media, however, have some dangerous problems.

Update 1: Jennifer Rubin, bless her heart, gets it right in the Washington Post, even if the headline writer stayed in defensive mode: Macron may have won comfortably. But this is no time to let down our guard.

Update 2: Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, seems to agree with me:

The fact is that, in difficult circumstances, Macron has managed to win the Presidency twice—a sign that he is resilient, despite being supposedly enfeebled, and that the political reservoir of common sense in France remains. The degree to which the American press—and, to be sure, segments of the French—insists on casting his victory as a kind of moral defeat, is genuinely bewildering.

Sir Walter Scott: a great writer, but oddly Frenchified

Once again, unable at present to find any newer fiction that seems worthwhile, I have turned to Sir Walter Scott — this time, Ivanhoe.

Reading Sir Walter Scott can be hard work for contemporary readers. Even in the early 1800s when his novels were being published, Scott’s style would have been pretty florid, I think. But somehow (if you’re stoic enough to read him) that remains part of the charm today. In Ivanhoe, at least, because it is set in England rather than in Scotland, readers won’t have to work their way through page after page of dialogue in the Scots dialect. But dialect or no, Scott is in many ways a linguist, very much aware of how he employs language and dialect for literary effect. And as a historian, Scott also would have been aware of the history of the English language itself and how the French and Anglo-Saxon languages mixed and merged into English in the miserable (unless you were Norman) years after the Norman Conquest.

Consider this conversation from the first chapter of Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is set in 12th Century England. The conversation is between a Saxon swineheard (Gurth) and the court jester (Wamba) of a staunch Saxon noble:

“Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.

“Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.”

“And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”

“Pork,” answered the swine-herd.

“I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?”

“It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”

“Nay, I can tell you more,” said Wamba, in the same tone; “there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment.”

The words at play here, of course, are bœuf for what we English speakers call cows when we eat them, and porc for what we call pigs when we eat them. My guess is that Scott is suggesting a plausible linguistic history for how it came to be that we use separate words for creatures on the hoof versus creatures on the plate.

So clearly Scott is well aware, when he writes, of whether he is using English words of French or of Anglo-Saxon origin. But here’s the sad thing. One of the reasons why Scott can be so difficult to read, and for why the rhythms of his writing can be so choppy, is that he loves English words of French origin and uses them a lot. Here’s a sample of French words (little changed from their Latin roots, of course) gleaned from just a few pages of the first chapter of Ivanhoe: misapprehension, refractory, rivulet, dejection, construed, disposition, obstreperously, proprietors, importations.

I always use Tolkien as the best example of an English writer who wisely and consciously writes out of the Anglo-Saxon half of the English language. Can you imagine Tolkien using such words as obstreperously or refractory? Of course not.

It’s as though Scott knows that it is wrong and pretentious (oops … French!) of him to do this, but he does it anyway. Proving that he knows better, he writes (again from the first chapter of Ivanhoe):

In short, French was the language of honour, of chivalry, and even of justice, while the far more manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon was abandoned to the use of rustics and hinds, who knew no other.

There are other little jokes that relate to Scott’s awareness of languages. When he names a character Albert Malvoisin, for example, which is more or less French for “wicked neighbor,” you know that character is going to be a villain.

Please don’t misunderstand me, though. I love Walter Scott and enjoy reading him, Frenchified or not. But I’m going to test a theory as I continue to read Ivanhoe (I’ve just started). That is that Scott may primarily use French when he wants to be funny (he’s often hilarious), but that he sticks to Anglo-Saxon when he wants to be serious and to talk to another native speaker of English heart to heart — another thing that Scott does well, though those kinds of tender scenes, I think, tend to be near the end of his novels rather than at the beginning.

Yes. I’d encourage all lovers of English fiction to dust off their stoic-hats, take a deep breath, fortify their patience, and pick up a novel by Sir Walter Scott. At present I’m reading the edition on my Kindle, but I’ve also ordered an 1880 hardback edition from the U.K., which should be here in a couple of weeks. I’m having more shelves built for my little library room, so why not, since it’ll probably take me a month to read Ivanhoe. Antique fiction reads better somehow if you’re holding an antique book in your hands.

The Batman (2022)

If it weren’t for the occasional blockbuster, woods-dweller that I am, I’d know next to nothing about popular culture. The super-hero genre wasn’t really my thing even when I was eleven years old. But I did love comic books. Batman and Uncle Scrooge were two of my favorites. The new Batman movie will require two hours and forty-five minutes of your time. Is it worth it? I vote yes.

It’s visually spectacular, though often the detail of the spectacle is half-obscured in darkness. Even when a scene is lit by sunlight, there is a heavy overcast, fog, and often rain. The scenes of Gotham City at night are reminiscent of the city scenes in Bladerunner — bright lights, squalor, and rain, rain, rain. The soundtrack and music are superb. This must have been an easy role for Robert Pattinson, with his face masked most of the time and always the same wooden expression. What an unhappy life Pattinson’s Batman must have had.

The plot is complicated, and I’m not sure that I followed every detail of it. The theme is corruption and the fragility of the good. Batman may be dark and eccentric, but he is 100 percent morally sane. Just in case the message of bravery in the face of corruption and wickedness is insufficiently clear, the screenwriters give Batman a soliloquy, which surprised me since otherwise his lines were few. With luck, Generation Z will get the message, as some of us did many years ago when we were eleven.

Batman can be streamed from HBO Max.

Everything is turning green

The lettuce actually was planted by Ken last fall. It wintered over in a cold frame. Yesterday, during a cold rain, I picked it while it was at the peak of perfection. I washed it, chilled it, and ate it 40 minutes after it came in out of the rain. Who knew that lettuce could be so good? Lettuce may seem watery and light, but when you cut the stalk of good homegrown lettuce, a rich milky juice bubbles out.

Most of the winter’s mustard was crushed by a heavy snow because I foolishly left the top of the cold frame open. But enough mustard survived for one potfull for later this week.

I could happily live off of bread and cheese and wine. With the addition of fresh fruit and some super-green salad, even pizza probably would be healthy.