Monthly Archives: February 2009

Polenta panic!

Polenta: n. a medium grind of dried corn, used in many cultures as a cereal grain and cooked into a kind of savory or sweet mush, served on its own or sauced.

Panic: n. feelings of intense anxiety when one realizes one is in over her head…

polenta

Because once upon a time I had a reputation as a good cook, and because I’m stupid, I said yes when asked to create an elegant meal for the top 60 donors and volunteers at my Unitarian church (warming them up for the annual pledge drive).

I had all sorts of brilliant menu ideas.  It would be vegetarian, so we could save a little money AND provide a meal that would be acceptable to all. It would be based on (mostly) local foods.  Aha!! What could be more local than wild mushrooms, which grow so beautifully in the damp Pacific Northwest.  And I have a killer recipe for a wild mushroom ragout from the Greens Cookbook.

The stew is served on a bed of polenta. Piece of cake, I said.  Make a few batches, pour them into loaf pans to set up, then slice and broil them before serving.

Ha.  Wrong on many counts. So wrong.

Making polenta for a family of five isn’t the same as making it for sixty. In fact making anything for sixty is a twelvefold increase in scale over what I used to cook in my maternal heyday.

Making polenta makes a god-awful mess.  It splurts volcanicly all over the stove – and the splurts are hell to scrape/wipe off. It also sticks to the bottom of the pot like glue.  After scrubbing my two non non-stick pans for about fifteen minutes each, I decided I needed to borrow a couple of teflon-coated pots.

Making polenta takes TIME. Like about 45 minutes per batch, with frequent stirring so the bottom doesn’t burn.

Making polenta hang together when you get to the broiling stage ain’t easy  either.  Grrr. I’m thinking folks will just have to enjoy the “made by loving hands at home” look, because it’s not going to look restaurant perfect.

So far I’ve made five batches, which will serve 5 or 6 people each. Seven more batches to go.

The dinner is Sunday night and I haven’t even started to assemble the vats of wild mushroom ragout, the appetizers, salads, dessert, etc.

The good news is that I’ll have volunteer help all day Saturday plus Sunday afternoon.  Now I just have to figure out how to scale up the rest of the recipes…  Let me confess right here: I’m in over my head.

Prevention: vaccines as public health superstars

Prevention: n. the act of keeping from happening, holding back or hindering

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I’m working on an article for a health magazine on vaccinations for children.

If you don’t have little kids you may not be aware that vaccinations have become a focus of parental angst since a (now-debunked) 1998 study of 8 autistic children by Andrew Wakefield in the UK, which claimed that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine could cause autism.  Turns out that the doctor was a shill for the kids’ families who were seeking financial settlements. And last week several cases trying to link autism to vaccines were thrown out of court.  (Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley just did an excellent feature on the history and current state of the vaccination kerfuffle – Anatomy of a Scare….)

Wakefield’s British medical license was revoked, but the damage was done. Parents with autistic children had found themselves a scapegoat in the vaccine, and parents of healthy infants began to question the whole concept of vaccination.

  • There were so many shots: “Why when I was a kid,” they said, “we just had the DPT and polio vaccines….”
  • Is this an evil collaboration between Big Government [the CDC] and Big Pharma to get more money from us?
  • Had the vaccines been properly tested – separately and in combination? Was it safe to give babies so many shots at one time?
  • What are all these diseases anyway? Why should we worry?

To make matters worse, the media picked up the controversy and rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet. Celebrities ignorant of science and the scientific method ranted on TV. Some parents decided to forego vaccinating their kids;  some (thanks to a misleading and poorly researched book on vaccinations by the Dr. Robert Sears) decided to formulate alternative vaccination schedules for their babies – delaying some and dropping others.

I interviewed several pediatricians, family practice physicians, and epidemiologists for the article and they all were disturbed by the level of public misunderstanding and the potential repercussions of fewer kids being vaccinated.

“The problem,” said one pediatrician, “is that many of these vaccines have been around long enough and have been so dramatically successful that today’s young parents are unaware of how devastating these diseases can be. In my travels to less developed parts of the world I’ve seen kids struggle for their very lives or die from them.”

Another pediatrician told me that parents always fear for possible health threats to their babies. “Without the actual diseases themselves to fear, they are now focused on vaccine side-effects. Instead they should be worried that many of these childhood diseases are just a plane flight away. Or an unimmunized buddy at daycare away.”

According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center:

Before the vaccines we use today parents in the US could expect every year:

  • Polio would paralyze 10,000 children
  • Rubella (german measles) would cause birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns.
  • Measles would infect about 4 million children, killing 3,000 and causing severe brain damage in many others.
  • Diptheria would be one of the most common causes of death in school-aged children
  • A bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae typ b (Hib) would cause meningitis in 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage
  • Pertussis (whooping cough) would kill thousands of infants.

Additionally, the recent rotavirus vaccine protects the against an intestinal infection that’s still one of the  leading killers of the very young around the globe.

The other issue big on young parents’ minds is the timing of vaccinations – so many so close together. But that is how they have been studied, said the docs I spoke to – the current vaccination schedules have proven effectiveness and safety, and alternative schedules have not.

I could go on and on, but this is just a blog post.  If you’d like more information check out the CDC website.

Update 4/23/09: Jim Carrey wrote an outrageous post at Huffington Post yesterday – another celebrity rant by someone who doesn’t understand science. I’m not linking to it, but I will link to Skeptic Dad at Science-Based Parenting, who rebuts in detail the Carrey post. Nice job.

Pro-Life? How do you respond?

Pro-life: n. code word for (usually) Christian conservatives meaning that you oppose abortion.

Mike Huckabee called me the other night. Well, Mike, the former gov of Arkansas, former fattie, former presidential candidate and current talk show host (of course… what better way to stay in the public eye in preparation for his next run) didn’t actually call me in person; his robot did.

“Hi,” said his computer voice, “this is Governor Mike Huckabee – I want to ask you a couple of questions… Did you vote in the last election?”

Since I always want to hear what Republicans are currently spinning, and because it’s true, I said yes.

“Do you consider yourself pro-life?” Huckabee’s voice asked.

Now this stumped me for a minute, because I’m “pro” lots of things. I mean who wouldn’t be pro “LIFE”? It’s better than the alternative, as Woody Allen once said.

Framing the anti-abortion movement as being “pro-life” was a stroke of linguistic genius because the most natural oppositional phrases are “pro-death”, “anti-life” or “pro-abortion” – all of which sound bad, even though none of them are accurate descriptions of those who believe women have the right to choose whether to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term or not.

Planned Parenthood used to have a brilliant slogan: “Every child a wanted child.”  It conveys the heart of the matter: a woman should be able to control her own fertility because who knows better her ability to bear, love and raise that child? No child should have to bear the burden of being born to someone who doesn’t want him. God knows, in this world a kid has a hard enough time getting the love, support, health care and education he deserves being raised by parents who wanted him. Unfortunately every community around the world has growing populations of homeless men, women and children who lacked that nurturance.

Anyway, back to Mike and me.

He took my stammering for a YES and plunged on with the true purpose of his call – to pass along the scary lie that Obama’s top priority was to pass a law to make it possible for anyone to perform an abortion on any woman anywhere anytime.  Now, if I had known Mike was going to call with such a load of codswallop, I’d have figured out how to record the call so I could quote him exactly and could parse the statement phrase by phrase…

The message was paid for by Americans United for Life, but I believe he’s done various versions of the message for other pro-life groups as well.  They are nothing if not well organized and well-funded.

I totally deplore fear-mongering as a persuasion technique – and the Right specializes in it – that and reducing the issue to its most simplistic even if the truth must be twisted or ignored to get there.  Those of us on the left have a greater interest in facts , even if they’re messy and complex to communicate.

So back to “pro-life”.

Our standard catch phrase response is “pro-choice”, which, though truthful,  lacks the emotional impact of “pro-life.”  We are certainly not “pro-abortion”; we’d much prefer the pregnancy be avoided thru the use of contraceptives. But contraception can fail and women do get raped.

Some of us believe we could call the pro-lifers “pro-fetus, anti-child,” because once the child is born conservative ideology says taxpayers shouldn’t have to support “welfare mothers” who can’t make ends meet raising kids alone.

We could also call them the “forced pregnancy” squad.

My own definition of pro-life means we respect the mother’s right to choose to give life or not. And if she does, we as a society are there to help her succeed as a parent and to help her child grow up to be a healthy, responsible, educated and contributing member of society.

Performance: Mom to the max!

Performance: n. a public presentation or exhibition.

So, we were talking about teenagers (pregnant), which reminds me of the travails of parenting an adolescent.  Which reminded me of this fantastic performance of an exasperated mother.

This video has been circulating for awhile, but it’s such a perfect performance (lyrics, delivery, humor, power, outrage) that it bears sharing.  I also have a soft spot in my heart for the hystrionics of the William Tell Overture which my son played in an 8-hands, 2-piano version to conclude a recital a few years back. [Evidently this gal is not the creator of the song, but she knocks it out of the park – fixed the link, I hope…]

Pregnant teenhood: Bristol Palin wouldn’t recommend it

Pregnant: n. containing a developing embryo, fetus, or unborn offspring within the body

Bristol Palin did her first interview yesterday (on Fox, where else?) and she made two statements that indicate that Reality has a way of intruding on Ideology, even on a Palin person:

“I like being a mom, I love it. Just seeing him smile and stuff, it’s awesome…It is very challenging but it’s so rewarding…Of course, I wish it would happen in ten years so I could have a job and an education and be, like, prepared and have my own house and stuff… I just hope that people learn from my story and, I don’t know, prevent teen pregnancy I guess… It’s not just the baby part of it that’s hard, it’s that I’m not living for myself anymore I’m living for another human being…I’d like to be an advocate to prevent teen pregnancy because its not a situation you strive for I guess…Kids should just wait–it’s not glamorous at all.”

And actually, “abstinence only” might not be such a great idea after all:

I think abstinence is like, like the…I don’t know how to put it…like the..the main….everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it’s not realistic at all.”

Like, whatever. Too bad she didn’t figure this out a year or so ago. And nationally the numbers reflect the toll “abstinence only education” has had on the teen birth rate, which is suddenly spiking across the country after fifteen years of steady decline.

The highest teen birth rates are in the South and Southwest; Mississippi is highest with 68.4 per 1,000, followed by New Mexico, with a rate of 64.1 and Texas, with 63.1. The lowest rates are in the Northeast.  New Hampshire had the fewest teen births with 18.7 per 1,000. Vermont, with 20.8 per 1,000, and Massachusetts, with 21.3 per 1,000, were also low.

Hmmm. The states most likely to support abstinence only education have teen pregnancy rates three times higher than use using more comprehensive sex ed programs. And how about this recent study, summarized at USA Today:

Teenagers who pledge virginity until marriage aren’t making good on their promises not to have premarital sex, according to a new study published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health analysis finds pledgers are just as likely to have sex before marriage as those who didn’t pledge to remain virgins, but the pledgers are much less likely to report using birth control or practicing safe sex when they do.

The report reviewed data from a federal survey of teenagers who said they had never had sex and had not taken a virginity pledge and matched them with peers of similar characteristics who had taken a pledge. Both groups were surveyed in 1995 and again five years later when they reported on their sexual behavior, sexually-transmitted diseases and safe sex practices.

Both those who pledged and those who didn’t pledge did not differ in their sexual practices or the incidence of premarital sex, but pledgers used birth control and condoms less often. Also, 84% of pledgers denied ever making an abstinence pledge.

I’m shocked. SHOCKED! I tell you.

Praise for Anne Lamott

Praise: n. an expression of approval; commendation.

Yesterday I picked up Anne Lamott’s latest book, Grace (Eventually).These impoverished days I usually borrow my reading material from the library. Anne Lamott I buy. And once again I’m just enthralled.

Back in 1985 (?) she spoke at the first writer’s conference I ever attended. Using tales from her own writing life (and very messy personal life) she simultaneously inspired and convulsed us with laughter. I remember thinking, “Wow, if someone with this many hang-ups and problems can crank out books, what’s keeping me?”

Although she has written five novels, her true métier is the personal essay. I would KILL to be as inspiring, evocative and funny as Annie Lamott.

So far she’s produced three best-selling collections of personal essays: Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and this latest one.The subject matter evolves but doesn’t change: she weaves together her experiences as a (former) drunk, as a sober person, as an imperfect single mom, as a loving but jealous friend, as a dutiful and rebellious daughter, as an insecure writer, and as a born-again Christian who is simultaneously a flaming liberal feminist who curses and hates George Bush even more than I do.

One moment the reader is horrified: “she did what?”, the next all teary, and then you’re laughing your head off. Most of her tales have a gentle moral lesson lurking behind the breezy writing style, and yet this non-Christian reader is pulled in rather than repelled. For someone as devout as she clearly is, she has no qualms about being wicked and totally irreverent.

She also wrote one of my all-time favorite books about writing: Bird by Bird (1995). We learn that her style, which seems so effortless, is not. Here’s a piece of excellent advice:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

[Amen sister! And how about really really shitty second third and fourth drafts?]

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, and let it romp all over the place…you let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come though and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her….

She goes on to describe the battle she has with her internal editors:

The critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d pretend to snore, or roll their eyes at my overwrought descriptions… For the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot…

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?.. and there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion, and there’s William Burroughs dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant, and so on…

She suggests a process where you imagine shrinking each of these complainers to the size of a mouse and dropping them one by one into a jar with a lid on it to have at each other.

A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you.

No. Of course not.

Parallel Planets: GOP chutzpah

Parallel: adj.  extending in the same direction, everywhere equidistant, and never meeting

Planet: n. any of the celestial bodies that in ancient belief have motions of their own among the fixed stars

As the $787 billion stimulus bill weaved its way through Congress Friday night – an effort many economists think is not nearly BIG enough – the Republicans almost unanimously voted against it.  In fact John Boehner went so far as to dump a copy of the 1,071 page bill on the floor in a gesture of supreme contempt, saying it’s all “about spending, spending, spending.”

[Question: in spite of Democrats antipathy towards Bush’s shameful policies, did any congressperson try this sort of disdainful political theater?? It’s soooo tacky. Soooo GOP.]

This, after Obama made all sorts of bipartisan gestures and concessions ($282 billion in tax cuts over the next two years… the biggest ever!)   Which means that the Republicans voted AGAINST a tax cut… and AGAINST spending to create millions of jobs (jobs which were lost by at least as many Republicans as Democrats).

And now they’re going on all the talk shows with their new talking point: this is “generational theft.”

Generational theft! My jaw is scraping the floor. Forget for a moment about how the Bush administration took a trillion dollar surplus from Clinton and managed to leave Obama with a trillion dollar deficit, an economy in shambles, our reputation in tatters – for what? An illegal and failed war? Wasteful spending and incompetent management in every corner? Tax cuts for the wealthiest?  Was that not generational theft?

Maybe they’re hoping we’ve already forgotten that. Ok. fine.

Let’s just go back ten days to Feb. 4th. That’s  when a group of 32 Republicans put forth an alternate economic rescue bill for a very regressive $3.1 trillion tax cut that wouldn’t even start until 2011.

As Dailykos blogger LeftyCoaster said at the time:

The Senate Republicans’ tax cut would be paid for with massive federal borrowing, or as the Republicans like to call it [when Obama spends money] “Generational Theft”. Of course that’s not how they describe their tax cuts “We call it the American option” the amendment’s author Jim DeMint told the Senate. I call it the oligarchy option.

How a tax cut that starts in 2011 is supposed to help the economy in 2009 is too much of a stretch even for Republican Voodoo Economics. Logic was never was a part of the Republican repertoire.

The most significant feature of this tax cut proposal was a cut in the top rate for individuals and businesses from 35% to 25%. A naked favor for the wealthiest Americans, that would destroy the progressive structure of the American income tax system.

This Republican proposal was only a tax cut with no infrastructure spending, and no additional help for those being thrown out of work, for those losing their health insurance, and eventually their homes.

It’s clear the GOP lives on another planet, where none of the citizens can add or subtract, few of them read the paper, and most of them have Alzheimers.