About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The "Poll": How Long Have You Known About Veganism?

For the last month, I had a wee bitty poll on my blog here. It was poorly constructed, and meant only as a jumping-off point for a discussion of "knowledge" of veganism. The "sample" is absolutely in no way, shape or form, representative of a known population. I don't know who answered the question ("How long have you known about veganism?") but I strongly suspect that the 40 people who took the 6.5 seconds to answer are probably some of my Facebook friends. MAYBE -- just maybe -- a stray Twitter user saw my tweet about my poll and wandered over here to answer it. But honestly, I doubt that. Whatevah -- thanks to all who answered!

Acknowledging first that the poll was not much and that the sample is not statistically representative, I'll still share the "results": 30% claimed to have known about veganism for so long that they can't remember when they didn't know; another 52% claimed to have known for six or more years; and 7% said they'd heard of veganism in the last 1-5 years; another 7% in the past year; and only 2% claimed no knowledge.

I'll skip the discussion of how the question could have been better written as well as the obvious problem of the "sample" (i.e., my friends) being one that probably already knew of veganism from, if nothing else, my previous writings (and I'm sure from other, better sources as well).

I asked the question because I wondered if people felt veganism was "new" or "old." Judging by my "data," veganism is not a new idea. That got me thinking...while my obsession with veganism is very new (7 months); my initial introduction to veganism goes back at least 15 years.

At that time, the only vegan I knew was the daughter of a colleague of my husband's, and she was a very odd young woman, and that's putting it charitably. (She never made eye contact with people; she had a hard time holding "normal" conversations; she dressed all in black; she seemed depressed and completely obsessed with food...you get the picture.) Although I was experimenting with vegetarianism and macrobiotics then, the idea of consistently giving up dairy and forgoing wool and leather and honey and silk? Well -- that just seemed more than a little crazy. And for reasons that remain fuzzy, the whole animal rights angle was not part of my introduction to veganism; it may not have even been part of her reason for being a vegan.

So, frankly, I basically "forgot" about veganism until this year; and in the meantime, I've had three kids, finished a masters degree and a Ph.D., moved several times, struggled with a kid with ADHD, helped my Mom through colon cancer and watched my Aunt die of breast cancer, watched my husband launch a pretty great career -- in other words, I've had other crap to think about. Forgive me if obsessing over veganism, the environment and animal rights was not foremost on my mind for quite awhile.

My life is now a whole lot more settled AND I've met some vegans that I would actually describe as "normal." WHO introduces you to a new idea as well as WHEN that idea comes into your life are two powerful factors in determining whether the idea finds fertile ground in your brain. I don't think, back in the early 90s, when I was still reeling from the deaths of my Dad and brother and working on my first master's degree, that meeting a vegan who dressed all in black and spoke in whispers was likely to convert me to her cause. Just sayin'.

When you think about how long you've known about veganism and the reasons you have for being or not being a vegan, take some time to think about how and when you heard about the issue and how that -- more than the actual "facts" that vegans ususally spew about animal rights and health -- may have affected your choice. And maybe if you are a vegan, you can be more aware of how you might come across to those non-vegans in your midst. And if you're not a vegan, you might now believe me that we're not all witches in covens wearing black pleather and chanting mantras.

We're actually lighting soy candles, debating wool use, and re-tweeting posts about needy dogs while making bean balls, quinoa, and tofu ricotta. We call ourselves "normal". :)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ridiculously Easy Vegan "Baked" Soup

My Mom shared a Weight Watchers recipe with me for "Oven Baked Fall Soup." I've adapted it a bit -- taken out the chicken broth, upped the veggies a little and increased the water -- and here's the revised version. It's super-easy and goes well with some crusty bread (topped with Earth Balance vegan margarine, of course) and a red wine. And the kids *tried* it and didn't hate it. I actually LIKE it. Brownie points for progress!

1/2 c lentils
1/2 c split peas

OR 1 cup dry bean soup mix

OR 1 c just lentils

5 cups vegetable broth (I used three 14 oz cans of Swanson's vegetarian vegetable broth)

1 c chopped carrots
1 c chopped celery
1 c chopped red bell pepper
1 c chopped onion
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon pepper

optional: 1 c chopped cabbage or 1 c chopped cauliflower If you add these additional vegetables, you'll need to increase the broth, probably by a cup or two.

Mix everything together in big pot. Cover pot and bake in the oven at 350 for 2 hours.

Easy, huh?!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Almost Vegan

When I first started this vegan "kick," as my friend calls it, it wasn't due to a concern about animal welfare. Not that I didn't already care about animals -- I did and I do -- but my motivation to try veganism was purely selfish. I wanted to be skinnier, as the book, Skinny Bitch, somewhat promises people they will be if they turn vegan. I've recommended the book before and I still do, provocative title and all!

I'm not skinnier. Truth be told, however, I wasn't particularly heavy to begin with. I do have big legs, but then, I always have and no diet short of starvation is going to change my body build. (In fact, at my absolute skinniest -- 108 pounds, when I was going through chronic anxiety attacks, which I cannot recommend -- I STILL had big legs.) So, I've given up the dream of transforming my legs into, say, Jorja Fox's. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

But, seven months into this diet, I am healthier, at least if recent bloodwork is a good indication. And isn't health a wee bit more important than great legs? I sure hope so. I call myself an almost-vegan, meaning that I've had some dairy here and there during the past seven months, generally when I'm not at home and when, for instance, non-dairy creamer wasn't available. Sin confessed!

So now the question is: has veganism (or almost-veganism) become, for me, about animals? Well, yes and no. The more I read about factory farming (which includes dairy farming), the more I am convinced that such farming is neither ethical or sustainable. So, yes, my chosen diet is, at least in part, a way for me to take a stand against practices that I see as incredibly cruel as well as environmentally disastrous. (To read more about factory and dairy farming in MUCH more detail, read blogs on girliegirlarmy.com, the Huffington Post or the New York Times, or PETA's website, or any of the 100s of websites out there that discuss animal welfare and either vegetarianism or veganism. Ellen DeGeneres even has a bit about "Why Go Vegan" on her website. I'm not repeating here what you can read in other places. I also highly recommend the books Eating Animals and The China Study.)

The bottom line, for me, has become this: eating meat and dairy contributes directly to both animal cruelty and environmental harm. So, by and large, I do not.

"But I eat only grass-fed...and I buy only organic..." Yeah, I agree that those choices are better for the environment (and YOU) than the conventional ones. In fact, I still believe it's ethical for people to eat meat occasionally. Despite choosing a vegan diet for myself, I agree with Barbara Kingsolver that one can still live an ethical life by eating meat rarely and selectively. (In her superbly-written book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she writes, "However selectively, I do eat meat." And then she goes on to describe which meats, and why, and even goes into detail about her experience slaughtering her own turkeys. I highly recommend the book. Even if you come away with a different perspective on meat-eating, you will have read a thought-provoking account of one family's attempt to live a whole year raising as much of their food as possible and buying everything else that they need within a 100 mile radius of their home.)

Theoretically, if people only ate one meal a week with meat in it and say, only two or three meals a week with dairy, it would be possible to raise animals in more humane ways because the demand for their products would be so much lower. Such farming would also be sustainable. Of course, this would require MASSIVE changes to how people eat, as well as huge hikes in the prices for animal products (assuming that we want the farmers to be able to make their living).

Unfortunately, I don't see everyone jumping on the vegetarian or vegan bandwagon. I wish more people would. Without that, it's hard to put adequate pressure on farmers to raise animals differently.

If this societal diet transformation occurred, some animals would still be slaughtered, which is totally anathema to the vegan position that animals should NEVER be used for human needs. (And it is very much true that we don't NEED meat or dairy in order to be healthy.) I realize I'm taking a heretical stance, relative to other vegans, in considering the possibility that *minimal* meat and dairy consumption could be ethical. This is why I said "yes and no"to the question, 'has veganism become for me about animal welfare?' It's not, for me, entirely about animal welfare or animal rights.

That does not mean, however, that I think a farmer should be allowed to treat a cow however the hell he chooses. Or that I think that it's tolerable that chickens are raised in cages so small they can't extend their wings and end up living their entire lives basically in excrement. Holy crap! (Pardon the pun.) Who thinks that that's OK?

I also don't think it's OK that pigs get their tails chopped off (not even with anesthesia) so that they won't chew each other's tails off while living in crowded conditions. Nor do I think that male baby chicks should be ground up ALIVE because they're not going to grow up to be hens and lay eggs. Nor do I think cattle should be fed corn to grow fast (with lots of antibiotics, steroids and hormones) when the diet that's right for them is grass.

I think animals should be allowed to live as they were intended: roaming, eating what they are meant to eat, living with other animals like them, and, in the case of domesticated animals, living with the help of humans. Such "intended" lives might include, however, eventually ending up on somebody's plate.

That last part is, of course, what makes my position a non-vegan one. But I don't think I'm completely off my rocker to think it. I do not support the (usually vegan) view that animals' rights are identical to humans'.

That doesn't mean, however, that the "right" to eat animals on occasion translates into a "right" to raise them as they are currently being raised or to eat as much of them as we want whenever we want. Our insatiable greed has created the factory farming nightmare that exists. It hurts the environment; it's unnecessarily cruel; and, due to the excess of meat and dairy consumption, we're literally killing ourselves. Not to mention that we're consuming a cocktail of hormones, steroids and antibiotics contained in those animal products.

So, while I've chosen an almost vegan diet for myself, my "almost vegetarian" advice for everyone is to eat FAR LESS dairy, FAR LESS meat and pressure farmers to raise animals in ethical ways. UP your vegetable and fruit consumption (a lot); try soy or rice or almond or help or oat milk. Go a whole week without cheese. (You can do it!!) Get a soy latte instead of a regular one. Buy a vegan cookbook. Get the free vegetarian start-up kit at PETA. Look at your old recipes and figure out how to make them vegetarian or, even better, vegan. Buy Earth Balance vegan margarine; try coconut milk yogurt. Ask me for a recipe or two. Go find recipes on girliegirlarmy.com or any of the 100s (literally!) of vegan and vegetarian websites. Give up the idea that you need more protein (chances are, you don't), as well as the idea that you'll die without loads of calcium (quite the opposite, you might be helping yourself develop MORE brittle, not less brittle, bones). Go get some exercise. Donate money to an animal shelter or a farm sanctuary. Support farmers who DO raise animals ethically, without hormones, cages, cruelty or food they were not meant to consume.

Even if on occasion you eat one -- I'll "allow" you that -- let the animals live in conditions that an animal would want to live in. It's the least you can do. Even a carnivore shouldn't be comfortable with the realities of factory farming.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Memory of Aunt Laura

On Thanksgiving, I learned that my favorite great aunt had died six weeks earlier.

I'll skip the tempting discussion of how totally dysfunctional it is of my family not to have told me -- or how bizarre it was of Aunt Laura's family not to have held a memorial service for her -- and instead launch straight into a memorial of my own.

Born in South Dakota 94 years ago, she grew up very poor. Her life revolved around the family farm and all the work involved in trying to make it during bleak years in a family with six children. Born to German immigrants, she was the oldest girl, and spoke only German until she went to school. Once she started school (and the wars broke out and anti-German sentiment was rampant), her father insisted that the family only speak English. I've always found our family's loss of German sad though understandable.

She was reportedly very bossy as a child. I can easily believe that because her most distinctive character trait as an adult was a powerful ability to hold her own in ANY argument. She was also distinctive because she was nearly six feet tall, rather ungainly, and not particularly feminine. She must have stood out when she was young, both for her height and for her personality. The best comparison I can make to someone well known is Julia Child, though, heaven knows, Aunt Laura was a terrible cook and quite thin.

Like many poor children, she didn't have a chance to finish her education. After the eighth grade, her family sent her to work in the city (Rapid City) for "rich folk" as a maid, in order to help support them all. She later married Uncle Jim, a man who had never completed formal schooling past second grade.

Even with that minimal education, Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim did well. As young adults, they moved west, to Oregon, as did most of their family members. They worked HARD. They were frugal to a point of insanity, and they were born inventors. I suppose, when you can rely neither on wealth nor education for success, your next best bet is what you can do with your own two hands and your mind.

Uncle Jim invented the first portable saw mill (lumber used to be key to the Oregon economy), and in doing so, he made a whole lotta money. I'll never forget a conversation I once had with Aunt Laura while eating lunch at a mall. I must have been about 9 or 10. I was aware that Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim had put both their kids through college, and their son through dental school, and had helped both their son and daughter buy VERY nice homes, and were helping put three of their grandchildren through very expensive private school. I said, "You and Uncle Jim are rich." Rather than criticize me for my rudeness, she said, "You got that right!" And went right on eating her .99 burrito.

You would have never known, had you met them, that they were rich. They dressed incredibly shabbily. Uncle Jim wore jeans and flannel plaid shirts and Aunt Laura wore polyester trousers and Walmart-quality blouses and shoes. I doubt Aunt Laura ever had a massage, a pedicure, or a manicure. I don't even think she ever colored her hair. She would have thought such things selfish, silly, and a total waste of money (she did, however, buy such "fancy" services for her granddaughters).

Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim lived in a small shack -- literally, a little, white, run-down, one-bedroom house with a galley kitchen and a teeny fridge under the counter -- in a part of Portland that has little to recommend for it. Uncle Jim also built -- BUILT, with his own hands and ingenuity -- what must have been one of the first motor homes. Dark green and ugly as sin, I thought it was the bee's knees when I was a kid. He and Aunt Laura took their kids all over the United States in that thing -- they were nothing if not patriotic -- and it was still running strong in the 70s when I was a little girl.

When we stayed over at their house (always a big treat), they would chauffeur us around town in that big green monster, allowing us to lounge on the bed in the back of the truck and watch TV. (NOBODY else we knew back then had a TV -- let alone a bed -- in their vehicle!) We didn't have to wear seat belts when we were with them, something that I found incredibly extravagant. (The thing was built like a tank and honestly, if Uncle Jim had hit somebody with it, we would have been fine, but I'm not so sure about anybody in another car.)

They'd take us to the mall and buy us junk food; our parents never did that. They'd give us five dollars each and let us buy whatever crap we wanted at the dollar store. They let us jump on the bed. They let us stay up late and watch TV (and they had cable LONG before anybody else did). They'd take us to McDonald's or Taco Bell or wherever we wanted to go to eat. They also built go-carts for us -- old-fashioned, 50's-style go-carts -- and let us race up and down their street without adult supervision. Of course, where they lived, there wasn't really any traffic to speak of anyway.

In other words, when we were with them, we were spoiled rotten. We had amazing freedom when we were with them. Some of the best times I ever had as a kid took place in their big ugly "mobile home," their little shabby house, and later, at their new house on a big hill with a huge farm-like yard.

Aunt Laura's idea of cooking was dumping cut-up hot dogs and baked beans in a dish and baking it until crusty. She did, however, routinely make fruit leather and always fed us (overcooked and/or frozen) vegetables with every meal (that is, when she wasn't taking us to some fast-food place that we begged to go to). She also made a mean chocolate-zucchini cake.

Despite her lack of skill in the kitchen and her willingness to let kids eat fast food, she was quite health-conscious. As her son once said, 'If Mom read somewhere that a 10-year-old kid should have 10 peas a day, then, by golly, every 10-year-old who walked in the house and ate with us got those 10 peas.' When one of her granddaughters (she raised two of them) was having trouble in school, she took her to be tested for food allergies because she had read somewhere that allergies can cause behavioral and/or learning difficulties. Now, this was 25 year ago -- back when such an idea was relatively novel and, well, weird. Sure enough, my cousin was allergic to milk, eggs, and oatmeal -- things she had been eating EVERY day before school -- and Aunt Laura took those things out of her diet and my cousin's school performance improved dramatically.

I have no doubt that were my Aunt alive today and knew of my vegan diet, she'd find it interesting, be willing to talk about it, and to try new dishes. (I doubt, at her age, she would have converted, but she would have found the evidence for the healthiness of a plant-based diet compelling and she would have listened.) When her husband was diagnosed with something (I no longer remember what) and was put on a diet, the poor man was the proverbial hen-pecked husband as Aunt Laura made sure he ate what the doctor said.

Aunt Laura was also a good hostess. By this, I don't mean that she set the table a la Martha Stewart or that she cooked recipes from Gourmet magazine. I mean that she cared whether guests were enjoying themselves. Did they find something to eat that they liked? Could she get them something different? I'll never forget, actually one of the last times I saw her, how she reacted when my then six-year-old son said out loud that he hated her meatloaf. (In his defence, it was horrible.) My mother, who was with us, was about to flip out over his rudeness, but Aunt Laura took a different approach. "Well, son, do you like hot dogs?" He nodded his head. Well, yes, he does. She got up, made him a hot dog -- god only knows how long she'd had that package, but I tried not to think about that. As she handed him his hot dog, she said, "It's important to eat something you like!" Everybody returned to eating their food, the rest of us terribly jealous of my son's ability to get something to eat that was actually tasty. :)

She was also of the generation that believed that kids could, and should, find things to do without a whole lot of adult intervention. One new year's eve, we were visiting her house during a birthday party celebration for her son. Many relatives were there, crowded into the little house. All the kids were pretty much forced to be together in the bedroom. All of sudden, my son (then five) came running over to me, showing me that his hands were full of nails and magnets. Yes, NAILS. Aunt Laura had given the kids a plastic bucket of old nails, a bunch of magnets, a few ancient toys (30+ years old) and a tub of old candy. The children never bothered the adults that entire evening, and everyone left with teeth and eyes intact.

She was fascinated -- fascinated -- by all inventions that saved time and had, I believe, every one imaginable. I suppose, after all those years of hard work on the farm and in the city, the idea that cooking could involve opening a can with an electric can opener and sticking the contents of said can in a microwave was, on some level, very liberating.

Aunt Laura was generous both with time and with money. She and Uncle Jim gave the BEST Christmas presents, and they were almost always something electronic. At the time, I didn't quite understand why Mom and Dad thought that the handheld Merlin game and the air hockey table were "typical" of Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim, but now I do: they were electronic gizmos and Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim found them totally irresistible. So did we.

My Aunt and Uncle lived during years that saw unprecedented social and technological change. Despite their lack of education, she and my Uncle kept up with a surprising amount of it. They recalled, as children, driving the horses across the field or into town. Aunt Laura told me that she loved doing that because "you could really feel the power in your hands." By the time of their deaths -- in 1997 and 2009 -- they had seen the world transform from an era of horses and buggies to an era of mass transportation and cars, cars, cars. They rarely talked of missing the old ways; they were forward-thinking people who joyously embraced technological change.

Aunt Laura loved to videotape and audiotape us -- where those tapes are, I don't know -- but she took lots of home movies and cassette tapes of us, and encouraged us to keep in touch with the family and to know our history. She was the family historian. She knew who your third cousins were, what the South Dakota relatives were doing, whose kid had just left for college, or what year your aunt was born and what the weather was like that day. She plastered her walls with pictures of her children, her grandchildren, their children, nephews, nieces, friends' kids and grandchildren. I always knew when I sent her pictures of my kids that those pictures would be up on her wall, proudly displayed next to the portraits of me and my sister taken when we were three.

I now realize what an invaluable lesson she taught me: to embrace change while remembering the past.

I'll miss you, Aunt Laura.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Singin' in the choir

I sing in a church choir that is truly one of the best church choirs in the Pacific Northwest. I don't often blog about this part of my life; my spiritual life is quite private and my singing life even moreso! I have an incredibly average (alto) voice, but I like to work hard and, thankfully, auditions are not required to be part of this ensemble.

This past weekend, the choir gave two performances of Handel's Messiah -- the WHOLE thing -- and the experience of that and the reaction to it is worthy of a blog.

For those of you who don't know the piece (or don't know anything beyond the Hallelujah Chorus), the entire Messiah is 53 pieces of music -- arias, recitatives, choruses. That's nearly three hours of music. We did it with a small (15-piece)orchestra (which is in keeping with the Messiah's baroque origins) and nine professionally-trained soloists. It was fun. It was hard work. It was well done. It was inspiring.

The church pays the musicians and the soloists a (very modest) fee for their work; because, collectively, paying that many people adds up fast, the choir members contribute to paying the musicians and soloists. We don't mind. It's one of the typical costs, I fear, to being in a group that lacks a budget but has high standards. I, of course, earn nothing for my work with the choir, but I contribute to the small paychecks received by the soloists and musicians. So, in a way, the cost of my doing this was roughly equivalent to what it would have cost me to attend a professional performance of the Messiah in NYC. The irony is not lost on me. But that's the part of this blog that's supposed to make you laugh -- I PAY to be able to sing in a really good choir. I'm happy to do it.

However, for audience members, the cost of attending this event was about as cheap as it gets for decent music: canned food or a check made out to a local food pantry. We asked people to be generous, though we didn't specify a minimum number of cans or a minimum donation, nor did we turn people away if they just came to listen (and many did, in fact, come without giving anything). Despite that, our auditorium was packed -- and I do mean packed -- for both performances. In the end, people gave a total of $4588 and 1,319 pounds of canned food. Those numbers alone made me exceedingly happy, as this concert was a benefit for the needy. What better way to start the holiday season???!!

What touched my heart even more than those donations, however, were two letters that the choir director received a few days later, and which he shared with the choir. The first letter came from the first violinist. She is an exceptional musician trained at the London School of Music, a member of our congregation and works both as a pediatrician and a professional musician with local orchestras and festivals. She has, not surprisingly, performed Messiah several times. She praised our choir and soloists as having given a truly outstanding performance, one that she would compare to performances done by professional choirs. The second violinist told me the same thing. Wow. Way to make a bunch of amateurs truly proud! Our heads are a little swelled, but at least we know our hard work paid off.

The second letter, however, is probably the more important one. A woman wrote to the director, telling him that as a child she sang in a church choir and had performed the Messiah. Lately, however, her life has been rough -- she's lost her job, her marriage is falling apart, her car has been repossessed, she's suffering (understandably!) from depression and anxiety and a sleep disorder. But she told our director that for over two and a half hours, she forgot all that and felt peace.

I can't imagine that there is any greater reward performers can receive than knowing that their performances can make people escape, momentarily, from their suffering.

That is really what singing in a church choir is all about. I'm just lucky that the one I sing in is also particularly good.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Vegan(ish) Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving was my first major holiday since I started eating a vegan diet.

Of course.

Thanksgiving is basically a holiday that revolves around a dead bird; dairy-laden mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, creamed onions, buttery stuffing, and creamy pies; and a fictitious tale of goodwill between colonists and natives. A great backdrop, to be sure, against which to highlight dietary changes.

I knew going into this that I was THE vegan. Nobody else. Not even a vegetarian in the crowd. Everybody else would eat whatever they normally ate -- which is to say, the stereotypical all-American thanksgiving feast, complete with debate over whether or not to cook a turducken next year.

The best I could do was bring a few dishes of my own (to share, of course) and pray that I didn't get a lot of flack from the relatives. I didn't want the holiday to turn into a "weird Elaine" conversation, nor did I want to turn it into a lesson for everybody else. I just wanted to eat and celebrate abundance. Lessons can happen at other times.

I was a little on edge, anticipating a whole lot of drama. After all, what's a holiday without a little family drama, I ask you?

Well...I actually have nothing -- NOTHING -- to complain about. I am floored to be writing this, as I could easily regale you with tales of holidays past when arguments about things far less important than diet or animal welfare or the environment went from lively to heated within minutes (topics like kids' bedtimes or ages at when kids SHOULD KNOW TO TIE SHOES, for instance).

Nobody gave me a bad time. Nobody tried to trick me into eating something that wasn't vegan. Several people tried my dishes and proclaimed them tasty (leek-mushroom pie, a tofurkey roast and a sweet potato dish). I happily ate my dishes, salad and a roll. Though I ate less than everybody else, I TOTALLY had enough, and was spared the 'oh-my-god-I-ate-too-much-and-I'm-going-to-die' feeling.

I titled this post "vegan(ish)" because I did succumb to a teeny slice of pumpkin pie, which I'm pretty darn sure had some dairy in it somewhere.

Next year, I'll bring a vegan pie, too. :)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mortality and Health, Plastic Surgery and Rationing

Health news characterized my week. First, from some recent government study, *maybe* women 40-49 don't need mammograms AND maybe those self-exams that we fret about don't do much good anyway. Second, a family friend is dying of cancer. Third, an uncle of a friend of mine is a plastic surgeon in Carlsbad, CA and reports that a surprising number of wealthy people in Southern California give boob jobs to their girls upon high school graduation. In the weirdest of ways, these three "health" items go together.

Regarding the first bit of news: I'm going to say I already knew this. Previous studies (I wanna say from Sweden?) found out YEARS ago that mammograms yield, in a cost-benefit analysis, too few benefits for women in this age range and do yield a whole lot of extra testing (for "questionable" findings) that result in worry but thankfully, usually not disease.

Of course, for the women who HAVE had breast cancer detected through a mammogram and who were 40-49 when this occurred, there is no arguing that it wasn't beneficial for them. But for the vast majority of women my age, it's probably a test we don't need, at least not every year. And, sadly, it's still true that with the worst breast cancers (like inflammatory breast disease, which killed my aunt) neither mammograms nor ultrasounds generally detect the disease (because it doesn't present as lumps).

So...on that depressing note, I'm gonna say we women should keep checking our breasts and head to the doctor and demand tests IF we find something suspicious. Our health is ultimately our responsibility and we have to be our own best advocates regardless of the statistical findings and insurance-related test rationing going on. You think you need a mammogram? Don't hesitate to ask for one.

Health-related news bulletin #2 this week was very personal: a family friend, in his early 70s, has just been told he has cancer and has 6-12 months to live. Wow. Nothing like that kind of news to make you think of your own mortality. How much time do we all have? Is today our last day? Are we going to defy odds and live to 100? Or will it be 90? Or 80 or 70? Or 60 or 50? Have I done with my life what I wanted? Am I consistently appreciative of all that I have? What could I do better RIGHT NOW? If I only had 6-12 months to live, what would I do with that time?

I've spent quite a bit of time this past week thinking about those questions. We should live each day like it's our last, but plan our lives as if we have lots of time left. We need to hold those two opposing possibilities in our heads at all times; no reason to act old when we don't feel it; no reason not to plan even if those plans might not materialize.

Health item #3: Those boob jobs for girls graduating high school. SICK. "Honey, we're so proud of you! And to show our pride, we're gonna get you some REALLY NICE boobs! We're not going to encourage you to go work with the less fortunate -- or spend time with women undergoing treatment for breast cancer -- we're going to focus on YOU and on YOUR body and make it BETTER! We're going to spend our considerable income on something that shouldn't matter, but somehow does: you "need" to have "perfect" boobs (and perfect teeth, skin, hair, eyes, nose, tummy, etc.) in order to be part of OUR world." Talk about self-centered shallow bullshit. (I am not against boob jobs for reconstruction following mastectomy, or for reduction, nor I am against them if, congenitally, there really is a need to "fix" one or both; I am pretty much against them for the shallow purpose of looking "right".)

My friend told me that her uncle says that nearly everyone in Hollywood has something done; that it really isn't possible to be successful and not tweak the tits, or the butt, or the face or the underarm flab or the tummy. What galls me is that while celebs and other rich folk do these things to "look good," the message that reaches the rest of us is that it's all lifestyle (diet and exercise, lots of green tea, yoga, etc.). Yeah, right.

So, while people die from diseases that can't be cured or mull over whether they can afford to have a mammogram that will likely be rationed further by insurance companies, you can contemplate rich girls who, at the tender age of 18, are urged by their parents to have major surgery to get great boobs before they go to college. Or, you could contemplate which celebs have had the most work done.

Wish we could ration that.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Goat Pimp, Part Two

I did not tell you everything about the conversation I had with my goat pimp friend.

She does, by the way, have a very nice name and a wonderful personality and really deserves a better virtual identity. However, since I assured her that I never reveal my friends' names in blogs, she will simply be referred to with the memorable moniker, "goat pimp friend".

The second half of this story is, at least for me and I suspect for most of my vegan (internet) friends, less tolerable than just the facts that she raises some goats, milks them, makes goat cheese and eats some meat.

She breeds them. Obviously, this was clear in the last blog. Farmers breed their animals; so do horse and dog and cat breeders. For many people, this is just a "duh" issue -- something not to think too hard about, something that just "is".

Of course, if you are paying attention to how I'm setting up this blog (or, if you just know me even a *little* bit), you know I'm about to say that it IS an issue.

At the crux of the matter is this: do we humans have the right to force animals to breed? (In the last blog, you learned that my friend assisted her goat by lifting up the goat's tail -- I didn't mention that she also had to hold the goat against her body -- because the female goat wasn't terribly interested in doing the nasty with the horny billy goat, whose owners were paying my friend for the service of breeding their goat with hers.)

When I heard this story, I said, "Hmmm...not sure I'm on board with that." My friend nodded; she expected me to say as much. The person standing next to us (a friend of hers) said, "Oh, God! They're animals, not people!" She was, of course, expressing an opinion held by many -- that we somehow CAN do to animals what we would not fathom doing to people. In this case, that we can force sex on a female goat even though if that goat were a female human, we'd call that rape.

I hope it's clear that I'm not against consensual breeding. I might also add: another story my friend told me was about having to spend half a day driving one of her female goats to a friend's house who has male goats, because her girl was in desperate need for a "conjugal visit". As far as I know, the male goat did not mind in the least servicing the female one. In this instance, I think my friend was facilitating something that her goat needed, as opposed to what she or some other farmer needed.

What I'm questioning here is whether it's ethical for people who raise animals to force their animals to breed. Vegans, not surprisingly, pretty unanimously answer "NO!". If you haven't read up on this, there are many in-depth reports out there, most of them so detailed that you'll want to stop reading and go back to your naive and ignorant ways. If you're interested, check out blogs at girliegirlarmy.come on this issue, or blogs at the Huffington Post by Ari Solomon. I'm not going to reiterate here what you can read there.

So, I'm ending this blog with a simple question: what do you think about forced breeding and why do you think it?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Goat Pimp

My friend is a goat pimp.

Well, not exactly, but I wanted your attention.

My friend raises goats. I think she has six. She likes goat milk and makes goat cheese. She is kind of a modern-day farmer on a small (VERY SMALL) farm. She's not doing this to support her family, but it's a pretty important hobby to her. She loves her goats. Fortunately, her small goat-related income (more on that in a minute) is supplemented by her husband's "real" job (something technical that I haven't bothered to learn about...one of my many faults is my general inability to pay attention when the topic of conversation turns to electronics or wiring or computers).

She knows I've been pretty committed of late to veganism, and even though she is a (selective) meat eater and (obviously) a consumer of dairy, she is very sympathetic to vegans and others who criticize factory farming as well as the consumption of meat and dairy. As she succinctly put it, "The current system of factory farming isn't sustainable. We HAVE to change it. Maybe we're not all going to become vegetarians, but even if you do eat meat, that shouldn't mean that you think a farmer can just treat a cow however the hell he wants!"

She has been providing me (rather than me providing her) with various articles on veganism, factory farming and the environment. Most of them I'd already read, but she's one of my few non-internet friends who has actually even CARED that I'm into this. It's been a great comfort.

Perhaps more importantly, her interest in my current obsession has given me new insight into the often overdrawn dichotomy between meat-eaters and non-meat eaters. Here she is, somebody who DOES eat meat and dairy and is, at the same time, very, very in tune with animals. I never did think that it was impossible to be both, but a trend I've noticed among many vegans is their insistence that somehow meat-eaters are by definition heartless, selfish and uncaring.

She is absolutely none of those things.

A more honest description of the difference between meat-eaters and vegetarians is that the former group rarely sees animals as having the same rights as people. (I'm not even sure I can go that far, though I'm quite sure I go farther that most of my meat-eating friends in thinking of animals as having rights similar, though not identical to, people.)

In fact, I think this is THE difference between meat-eaters and people who have chosen a vegetarian or vegan diet due to concerns about animal welfare. (Those who choose either diet primarily for health benefits may not, for instance, be particularly concerned with animal welfare, or at least that may not be the driving force behind their choice.)

My friend told me tonight of a funny story about getting goat semen (yes, goat semen) in her eye when a male goat was brought to mate with one of her female goats. See, she had to "encourage" the female to be "interested" and this involved her holding the female goat's tail up, but somehow while she did this the male goat, while trying to mount the female, uh, sprayed too early and it flew into my friend's eye.

Yeah, that's gross. It's also funny. Premature ejaculation exists among goats (at least in certain artificial circumstances) -- who knew?! And, as my friend said, she was then in the uncomfortable situation of asking the couple who brought the male goat to pay for the service of having (almost) mated with her female goat.

So, she is kind of a goat pimp. But she takes really good care of her goats. And she helps other goat farmers in the area with their goats. And she reads widely on issues related to diet, food, the environment and farming. And she listens to other points of view.

She's not vegan. I doubt she ever will be. But if every meat-eater was as selective about where their meat comes from, the system of factory farming would pretty much fall apart because there would not be a demand for it. She only buys local, grass-fed meat and does not eat meat every day. While these choices are arguably not as ethical as a vegetarian diet, they sure are better than the typical meat-eater's choices.

If only all meat-eaters were like her!

We learn most from people who are NOT like us. I'm not a farmer. I'm no longer a meat-eater and I eat very, very, very little dairy. But I sure am glad I have a friend who is a goat pimp. She knows stuff I don't know. And I might know some stuff she doesn't know.

And sharing it with each other is good for both of us.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Whatcha sayin'?

My life has been oddly calm lately, except for the usual kid-related stuff ("NO! I am NOT sitting next to her!" "NO! I am NOT ready for school yet!" "I JUST got on the computer! You can't make me get off yet!"). About the only notable thing right now is our decision to have our youngest evaluated for possible speech therapy.

His speech is a little odd. His sentence construction is unusual, almost as if English were his second language (currently, it's his ONLY language). For instance, he leaves out certain words, as if they are superfluous ("I not want to do that" instead of "I DO not want to do that"). He sometimes puts adjectives after nouns, the way you do in Spanish ("Remember our house white?"). I'd love to think that he does this because I read to him every night in Spanish, but I REALLY doubt it, since he doesn't actually TALK in Spanish. Hmmm...

When he's excited and trying to talk fast, he is especially prone to these kinds of mistakes and his teacher claims that it's affecting his social life (are little kids really that picky? I guess so.). He consistently misuses pronouns (she for he, his for her, etc.). That, I suspect, isn't that unusual. Some of his pronunciation is difficult to understand as well. He often uses "f" for the "th" sound, which I also think is pretty darn normal for his age. He will tell you he's "hayving," when he means to say he's "behaving." He apparently hears the word as two words -- be hayv -- which, if you think of it, makes some sense, since we often use the word "be" before other words, such as "be good". He insists that we live in "gene," because he hears "Eugene" as "YOU Gene," and I think he (logically) figures that the "you" part is somehow part of the sentence "You live in You Gene". Still, these kinds of mistakes, collectively, mean that his speech is odd and he sounds like a younger-than-he-is child (almost five).

He also uses the word "'cause" instead of "because" ("I want you to play with me 'cause I not have a friend to play with!"). In addition, he has some charming ways of saying things that we've never bothered to correct because they ARE so cute: "Icky Donald's" for instance is "McDonald's". Who would want to correct that?! Perhaps we should, however, if such mistakes are affecting him socially.

I say all this because I just finished completing the at-home assessment, where he performed almost perfectly (although abysmally on the fine motor portion and letter and number recognition -- gotta work on that!). I can pretty much guarantee that if he does this well when being assessed, the evaluator will think, 'Why the hell do these parents and teachers think he has a speech problem?' Apparently, he is CAPABLE of near-perfect speech, but chooses not to use it consistently. The little bugger.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The boy, the doll and the Sunday School Teacher

Question: What do you get when you cross a four-year-old boy, an anatomically correct (boy) doll, and an (older, female) Sunday School teacher?

Answer: a future comic, a dedicated following, and a hassled old lady.

My husband went to pick up our youngest at Sunday School today. When he walked in, our son was surrounded by the other children, who were laughing uproariously at something our son was saying. The teacher, however, was saying, "I don't think that's a good idea."

My husband: "Hi! What's going on?"

Teacher, whispering, but upset: "Your son is pretending that the doll has a poopy diaper!"

Husband: "Oh."

Teacher: "I mean...the doll is ...anatomically correct."

Husband: "Isn't that great?!"

(Meanwhile, husband overhears son say: "And then he had a BIG poop!" Kids laugh hysterically.)

Teacher: "I mean, he needs to cover the doll up...the doll shouldn't be left like that, without clothes on."

(Husband overhears son say, "See! That's his penis!" Kids roll on the floor with laughter.)

Husband: "Don't worry. I'll take care of it. I'll make sure we leave the doll with its clothes on."

(Husband overhears son making sounds of farting and peeing, much to the consternation of the teacher and the delight of the students. Son then runs up to teacher, doll in hand and basically shoves doll toward teacher, making a peeing sound.)

Teacher: "I mean, he really shouldn't be doing this."

Husband: "Well....if the doll is in the classroom and available for play, at this age, this is kinda par for the course."

Teacher: "Oh."

I never heard the rest of the story except that my husband and son put the doll's diaper back on before they went home.

Our reaction? An anatomically correct doll is the PERFECT prop for a future comic. And if you can't handle little kids talking about penises, farts, poop and pee, you need to teach older kids -- MUCH older kids.

Poor lady, however -- she appeared so shocked that we think she needed a drink RIGHT after church. Hope the brandy was handy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Wool, Our Eyes, and "Truth"

Full disclosure up front: I am not as pure as the driven snow.

Nor did I ever claim to be.

I got myself into a heap o' trouble the day before yesterday by responding to a friend's facebook status line about WorldWide Vegan Day (it was Nov 1). She had used a Simon R quote about vegans' pledge not to eat or use animals, including wool. (There was more to the quote than that, but that's what's relevant here.)

I responded that "I still think the no-wool thing is misguided, but I am otherwise with you." SO naive of me to think that was a non-confrontational response.

A flurry of responses ensued about podcasts exposing the cruelties in the wool industry, about websites and books claiming the same, etc. The not-so-thinly-veiled message was that a) I can't claim to be vegan if I use or wear wool (technically, that's true, I hadn't fully realized that), b) I need to read more, and c) I'm selfish.

HOLY. CRAP. I responded, off and on, to the responses, making the following points.

ONE, from what I've read sheep NEED to be sheared; not doing so is actually harmful (more on that in a minute).

TWO, it is possible to do this without harming them.

THREE, there is a difference between the INDUSTRY -- which I have no doubt has some major problems, as ALL big businesses do, particularly those that use animals -- and the PRACTICE of sheep shearing and the practice of raising them to use their wool. I could have added, though I didn't:

FOUR, wool is a sustainable resource (at least in theory). It WILL disintegrate in a landfill, whereas many manmade fibers will not. I would rather wear something biodegradable than something that will be here forever.

I also made the point (and later tried to amend it) that I'm probably not the only vegan (diet-wise) who also uses some wool, but I may be one of the few who will admit to it. I was fileted on the internet; in my humble opinion, far more than I deserved to have been.

This post could take one of two directions: complaining in detail about what was said to me and what I said back or detailing what I think I know about both "sides" of the wool debate. I'm choosing the latter. The first, while it would be somewhat satisfying personally, wouldn't accomplish much.

While this debate was raging (and the originator of the debate participating and putting out another status line claiming she *loved* the debate and that her "vegan girls" were great "warriors" who showed a lot of "love"), I asked my own Facebook friends (meaning people who actually KNOW me and/or who I know were raised on sheep farms) to tell me what they know about sheep, shearing, and wool. I truly wanted to hear the "other side" and I, truthfully, wasn't feeling a lot of love from those supposedly loving vegans.

Not surprisingly, my friends' (all non-vegans) responded in ways very distinct from the other post I was currently involved in. Their responses ranged from "I would rather argue about child abuse than this," to "I oppose the personification of animals and the ethics of considering animals and people as similar for treatment," to "to each their own, but I won't criticize you and expect you not to criticize me." No doubt the vegans would have a field day with those responses, particularly the last two, but I'm not going there.

The friends who put the most thought into this issue said the following (they are quoted here verbatim):

"I'm sure there are mistreated animals in that area as well, but I think of wool as a renewable resource....We don't wear much wool, however, because of the scratch-factor..."

"It's an interesting dilemma. Products which the animal has to die to produce (i.e., meat, leather, etc.) are obvious. Products which it is possible to harvest from the animal without killing or even harming them (e.g., eggs, dairy, honey, wool) are a whole other category....I would say that if you know for sure that the sheep are raised in a cruelty-free environment that you are within your ethical guidelines to use their wool....Of course some people will say that any form of animal husbandry is a form of slavery and thus cannot be ethical no matter how kindly the animals are treated."

"I really don't know much about animal cruelty and the rules that govern this area of modern-day living. But one question that pops into my mind is that in the future, will we start questioning why we harvest our crops? Perhaps it's painful for the plants to be cut. Anyhow, according to Islamic teachings, the animals have been created to serve the purpose of human life but at the same time, animals should not be mistreated. This is my two-cents worth."

"OF COURSE IT'S ETHICAL. The sheep need their hair cut or they will not be able to move around. You ever see one of those babies without a hair cut? We're not killing them for clothing like we do with leather....I guess the dilemma comes if you are a vegan. If you don't eat food that comes from aminals, should you wear it? I'd like to hear what they have to say."

The two most in-depth responses were from two friends who have had, relative to me and to my other friends, direct and extensive experience with sheep and shearing.

Friend #1:

"Having grown up raising sheep, I have a bias(ed) perspective. I find no problems, ethical, spiritual, logical, etc., sheering sheep for wool production or animal husbandry. I have shorn sheep and have, like many sheep shearers, even accidentally cut an animal while sheering. Cuts during sheering can occur when the skin is not drawn tightly against the body - several wool breeds have large skin folds, (skin folds were initially a natural defense to predation that has been exploited through selective breeding yielding greater surface area for wool) or cuts to the animal can occur if the sheep is not properly restrained and moves unexpectedly during sheering. Having sheered my fair share of sheep, if I cut the animal, I care for the wound that I inflicted.

Also, many domestic sheep breeds will develop "wool tags" if not regularly shorn. A wool tag is an area where feces has adhered to the wool. If a sheep has diarrhea, which can naturally occur if animals graze around fruit, they just love apples, or are sick, their feces will gather on the wool growing around the haunches or rump and if left unattended will form firm balls of poo that pull the skin. More serious are bot and blow flies that can lay eggs in wool soiled with manure. If untreated a disease called flystrike can occur. Flies will lay their eggs into warm manure and fly larvae, maggots, burrow their way into the skin. Untreated animals will die from flystrike. I have never met a sheep farmer that does not want the sheerer to remove wool tags.

Many farmers will "crotch" their ewes, that is sheer the wool from their haunches, before lambing season to ensure that flystrike does not occur after giving birth. I did this as a kid, and found that most ewes had an easier time licking themselves clean after giving birth. Occasionally, wool will grow around the utter. We always removed these small bits of wool so lambs had an easier time suckling, though I never knew of a lamb that couldn't find the teet.

Other wool diseases result from insects. Sheep keds and lice do tremendous damage to skin. I have read about sheep that have gone unshorn develop the most horrible skin lesions and scabbing as a result of mites and lice repeatedly biting the animals. Wool parasites can cause awful damage.

Lastly, wool is like hair in that it always keeps growing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a vegetarian. I eat lamb and wear wool."

And from friend #2:

"I hesitated to comment...but then I thought of this: We humans get our hair cut. Are we being cruel to ourselves? And, secondly, I lived on a farm for five years and we had sheep. OK, it wasn't a commercial sheep farm but we had sheep and we sheared them. They did not cry out in pain and, in fact, they used to jump around and stuff after being sheared -- like they felt light and free. I also saw what happens when you DON'T shear them. It involves maggots and it's not pretty -- it can also be deadly to the sheep. Cruelty comes in many forms. I'm just sayin'"

What these last two friends said above is virtually identical to what vegans say, too, about reasons to shear sheep (most see that it NEEDS to be done). However, vegans feel that you shouldn't use the wool because the sheep didn't "grow it for us." (See farmsanctuary.com "Shearing Rescued Sheep".) Some naively claim that sheep, left to their own devices, will naturally shed what they don't need (See vegsoc.org/info/sheep and veganpeace.com/animal_cruelty/wool).

I've read conflicting sources -- some saying this is true FOR SOME BREEDS and others saying that it is NOT true. For instance, you can consult the UMass Amherst Outreach on the web; their first line in their piece on sheep shearing is "Nearly all sheep require shearing." Similarly, a blog called farmjournal.blogspot.com -- about a family who took in sheep out of the goodness of their hearts and not for meat -- says that they shear sheep because "Sheep have been domesticated and are not able to be turned loose and not have basic care. Feet, shearing and FEED are critically important. Shearing is NOT cruel; it is a short, painless process that protects the sheep from parasites and the heat of the summer." They, of course, say more than that, but their opinion (and mine as well) is that sheep LIKE ALL DOMESTICATED ANIMALS require HUMAN care, and in the case of sheep, this involves shearing them. Since we shear them, it's not illogical to use their wool.

The (usually vegan) position that we can't use the wool because "the sheep didn't grow it for us" is a bit nutty, though I think other practices in sheep raising (crowding, mulesing, tail cropping) are at the very least debatable, and probably HIGHLY unethical and cruel.

Of course, the problem is, at least from the vegan perspective: most sheep are not raised purely for their wool, and mulesing (removing wool-growing skin parts near the butt so that flystrike is less likely to occur) and tail cropping are commonplace. IF you are against these practices, and particularly if you are against sheep being raised for meat, then you will be, by definition, against sheep being raised for wool (eventually, sheep who aren't wool-producers end up as meat...).

I did a lot of reading on this after my run-ins with the vegans. Here's a brief summary of what I found: ALL vegan websites and animal-rights websites claim that the wool industry is cruel and that people shouldn't wear or use wool (this means rugs, yarns, etc.). This is what you would expect them to say, given their worldviews. Similarly, every other website I found (except for the blog mentioned above)-- by googling "sheep shearing," "wool," or "raising sheep" -- were websites with industry connections. Those websites, not surprisingly, emphasize the nature of wool (water-resistant and warm, for instance), and have mind-bogging amounts of information on laws and data on sheep farming. What they hope to convince you is that farmers go to tremendous lengths to take care of their sheep, to shear them without harming them, and to deliver a quality product. Of course, one of their products is also meat (often shipped to countries with higher lamb consumption than ours).

I also found several websites (this time, on both "sides" of the issue) explaining that the US relies heavily on imports of Australian wool to satisfy our demand. Australian wools are mixed with US wools, for instance, in most yarns. (I tried to find a wool yarn that was 100% American, and though I found 100% American-made, I found no yarn that could tell me that ALL of its YARN comes from the US -- I am waiting, however, on a few companies to answer my emails.)

The point of bringing this up is that a few years back, PETA investigators found that Australian farmers were dragging sheep and cows off trucks by their ears and legs and leaving them to die in "...barren feedlots. They were bound and thrown into trunks of cars, and they were slaughtered in prolonged and cruel ways that are illegal in the United States, Europe, and Australia" (PETA, "Inside the Wool Industry"). While I cannot, personally, vouch for the veracity of this claim, it is obvious to me that if you believe that (I see no reason not to) boycotting Australian merino wool would be a logical action.

Problem? The US only produces about a quarter of the wool it uses and imports a LOT of wool from Australia. So, boycotting Australian wool would basically mean boycotting ALL wool. If you think, as I do, that it is POSSIBLE to raise sheep ethically, then you SHOULD boycott a product where there is ugly evidence that some producers care so little about their animals.

Though I think that factory farming of ALL KINDS is, ultimately, unsustainable (one of the reasons I am attracted to a vegan diet in the first place), I still maintain that it may be possible AND IMPERATIVE to raise domesticated animals in small-scale farms for such things as wool, milk and eggs. (I no longer consume dairy for health reasons, though it is logically possible to raise a cow and milk her without hurting her; in fact, if you read my blog on cows and goats, you know that certain breeds will suffer horribly if we DO NOT milk them.)

I TOTALLY agree with my friend that "animal husbandry" that involves the death of an animal is arguably unethical, but that "use" of animals where it is possible not only to allow them to live, but to live WELL, is arguably, ethical.

This last reason is why I will continue, even with a vegan DIET, to wear and use some wool. Conveniently, I now live in a warmer climate than I used to; it is hardly a huge sacrifice for me to use LESS wool, which I think would be a good starting place for anybody who cares about animal welfare. At the same time, I'll continue to learn more about raising sheep and about pressures that consumers can exert on the wool industry to clean up its act.

Finally, I have learned, hopefully once and for all, that it's safer to decide what YOU believe and give it your own label than to adopt one that somebody else promotes. So, I'm not a vegan. I wear some wool. I occasionally knit with it (three pairs of mittens last year). Sometimes I use honey. I still care about animals, the environment, and health. I still eat a vegan DIET. But I am not a vegan.

And I don't think the sheep care.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Swine Flu and You

Panic. Frankly, I've had enough of it. Media hype. Enough of that too.

Now, I don't want anybody to think I'm some sort of definitive source of info on H1N1. I am not. However, I've been doing some reading on the virus, and talking to my friends who are doctors and nurses, and also to my own doctor and my kids' pediatrician, and here's what I *think* I know.

1. The VAST majority of cases of H1N1 are actually quite mild. Now, of course, that is absolutely no comfort at all to you if you've been sick enough to be hospitalized with this, or if -- God forbid and God bless you -- somebody in your family has died from this. But, it still doesn't change the fact that most people recover from this virus with little more than ibuprofen, bed rest and plenty of fluids. MOST people need to take a gigantic chill pill, and do what they should have always been doing with any illness: stay home if you are sick. Wash your hands. Don't share cups and utensils or food from the same plate. Throw your used tissues in the garbage right away. Become a friend to Lysol and hand sanitizer. Drink plenty of fluids. Exercise. Eat healthy.

2. Flu has always been an illness with a known variable presentation. Some people are mildly ill; some are very ill. Those who are the most ill generally have some sort of underlying condition that compromises their immune system (obesity, by the way, can be one all by itself, because overweight people have a harder time moving their lungs). All of this is still true with H1N1.

3. HOWEVER, there have been alarming numbers of otherwise healthy young adults and children who have ended up hospitalized with this. My heart goes out to them. I hope "we" figure out soon why those who are usually the most resilient are somehow particularly vulnerable to this virus.

4. According to some research I read last week, this week is the peak week for infections in the United States. This means that more people will become infected this week than in previous weeks, and that slowly those numbers will fall in the coming weeks. Now, this is based on a mathematical model, but if true, the silver lining, at least as I see it, is this: we may be done with swine flu by Christmas. Now of course, that may mean that the regular flu will take over just about then. That's not such good news. But hey -- the regular flu vaccine is easier to get ahold of than the H1N1 one, so if you get vaccinated now, maybe you'll at least avoid the "regular" flu. As it turns out, getting the H1N1 vaccine may be a moot point, because many people will have already had the virus by the time the vaccine is available. (Ask your doctor anyway if you should get it, even if you have been sick.)

If you're one of those that doesn't "believe" in vaccines, I have a lovely bridge to sell ya'. Let me know how much you're willing to pay for it, 'kay? The science is overwhelming in its evidence that those who get flu vaccines are less likely to get the flu. And the risk of becoming autistic or brain-damaged from the vaccine (any vaccine) is about one in a million. End. Of. Story.

5. My kids' experiences with the virus are typical: 72 hours of a fever, cough, chills, body aches, congestion, followed by just the cough and the congestion. To be on the safe side, I kept each sick kid home for a full five days (48 hours PAST the end of the fever). Of course, they were not sick all at once, so I've been home an awful lot lately. Sigh.

6. Is it a "national emergency" as Obama has declared? Hmmm...it is indeed causing congestion in hospitals and clinics. There ARE a lot of sick people. (Over 22% of my child's school was out last Friday; one class was missing 17 kids and the teacher!) It IS an epidemic in the sense that so many people are infected (or will be). However...the percentage of people dying from this is actually identical to the percentage of people who die annually from the "regular" flu. So...yes, more people are infected, which logically explains why more flu cases than "normal" are in the hospital and why more deaths in actual NUMBERS are being reported. BUT, the overall percentage of people dying (among those infected) still remains about 1-2%.

If I told you that you have a 99% chance of surviving the swine flu, would you feel better? I hope so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why I Love CSI

Here's the blog I warned you about: the CSI one. So, if you don't give a rip about CSI, or TV in general, you can skip this one. Though, from a purely self-centered perspective, I hope you don't. And of course, I'd love your comments.

For the few of you who live under a rock (or don't own a TV or never read anything about it), CSI is, in the lingo of TV these days, a "scripted procedural." When it first debuted, in 2000, it was a new kind of program -- rather than being simply about crime or police officers or lawyers (standards of TV for a L-O-N-G time), it is about HOW crimes get solved, and all of its main characters are criminalists.

For me at least, it is a totally refreshing break from the ga-zillions of reality TV shows out there. Do I really need to know how one guy would fare with somebody else's wife? Or how much weight somebody lost last week? If I am going to park my ass on the couch in front of the TV for an entire hour, I want to be entertained and learn something, not watch somebody step on a scale, do a rotten job cooking the scallops, or fail to get their kids under control. I can see all those things in my own house anyway.

I didn't start watching CSI until somewhere in its 4th season, after my husband and my in-laws convinced me to give it a try. (They were -- and are -- avid fans as well.) Initially, the concept -- a show about gory crimes and lab work, full of autopsy scenes and realistic-looking corpses -- didn't appeal to me.

The truth is, not only do I generally not watch a whole lot of TV (or movies), the few shows and movies I do see are virtually never scary, depressing or terribly realistic. I love comedy. I love escapist plots. I love happy endings. I don't even mind predictable storylines. I do have space in my head for documentaries and historical dramas, but I never go for frightening, depressing, bloody stuff. So WHY, on God's green earth as my mother would say, would I EVER end up claiming that CSI is my favorite show?

WRITING. That's the answer. Not to minimize the actors' talents, but frankly, can even a great actor really do much with a bad script? I doubt it. The writing is fast, SMART, full of scientific trivia and double entendre. Fans know enough about each character to be attached to them, yet the focus is always on the case, and only rarely on a particular character. (Predictably, if you read fansites, you discover that fans of one actor argue with fans of another over who has been slighted or neglected in the writing and who has had "too much" air time. I don't take sides in that battle, and think that the evidence is pretty solid that the writers consistently focus on cases more than on characters. The CASE is the main character and that, in and of itself, makes the show unique, week after week.)

If you don't listen closely to the show, you'll miss something important. It's a fascinating take on a world (forensic science) that I knew nothing about prior to watching this show. The episodes also appear to be incredibly well-researched. It's not stupid TV. (I totally fantasize about being a researcher on the show. Maybe my next lifetime.)

And, as it turns out, there IS comedy in this show, though it would hardly be termed one. My favorite episodes, in fact, are the ones where the writers were quite intentionally comedic with their plots -- "Rashomama," "Lab Rats," abd "Fur and Loathing" come to mind. Particular scenes or lines, even in episodes that aren't funny at all, often make me laugh. From last week: "If the bullet is in his ass, then his ass is evidence." Or, a scene where a self-conscious, single, grey-haired lab tech is caught putting black marker in his hair. Realistic enough to be believable, funny enough to make me laugh out loud.

In case you're wondering, no, I don't know the titles of episodes from other TV shows. I don't remember lines from other shows. I've never liked a show enough to care. I surprise myself with the amount of CSI trivia currently in my brain.

The camera work and the special effects on this show are impressive too (shots of bullets making their way through bodies; slow-motion work of necks being snapped; blood spray on walls; corpses with removeable body parts, etc.). However, to be totally honest, I'm a fan who often spends a good part of every show with her face behind her hands, asing her husband, "Can I look yet?" I love Robert David Hall (who plays coroner Al Robbins), but I have to admit, I rarely watch his scenes. But I do listen to them.


The two most recent arguments, among CSI fans, are whether the return of Jorja Fox (who plays the super-intelligent,troubled, former foster child-turned-CSI Sara Sidle) and the addition of Laurence Fishburne (professor-turned-CSI Ray Langston) are overshadowing the cast members who have been there since the beginning. In addition, William Petersen's decision to leave the show and return to Chicago theater has left fans obsessively mourning the loss of his quirky, brilliant, socially awkward, Shakespeare-quoting forensic entomologist Gil Grissom. I've never seen another character ANYWHERE that is as original as Gil Grissom, and I bet it'll be a long time before I do. Emmy people -- Billy Petersen deserves one!! Get on the ball already.

The other actors -- notably, Marg Helgenberger (single mother, former drug addict and exotic dancer-turned-CSI Catherine Willows who also managed to survive a date rape attempt, rescue her child from a sinking car AND later from a kidnapping), George Eads (Texan, all-around good guy, former athlete, son of a judge, peanut butter-hating, almost buried alive Nick Stokes), Eric Szmanda (the rock-loving, Vegas history buff, sometimes kid-like CSI Greg Sanders), Marc Vann (the despicable but perfectly played lab head Conrad Ecklie), and Paul Guilfoyle (lovable, scruffy, divorced Dad with a drug-addicted daughter, police detective Jim Brass) -- hold their own on the show, week after week. I absolutely love every character -- even the ones I haven't mentioned. There simply is not a weak link in this cast. Frankly, I'd give 'em all an Emmy. But not before I gave the writers some of those statues first.

I intentionally gave you all just enough info about the main characters for you to be asking me, "Oh, come on! A former foster child becomes a CSI? And an exotic dancer as well?" Yes, I'm well aware of how statistically unlikely it is that, in real life, foster children and exotic dancers would end up pursuing enough education to end up as CSIs. It's a testament to the writing that I am consistently able to suspend disbelief while I watch the show.

I could go on and on...but I've said enough. If you haven't watched this show, you really should give it a try. It's worth your time; you might learn something, and you'll probably laugh as well.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

CSI, Seventh-Grade Style

CSI is my favorite TV show, so it's probably inevitable that I would dedicate an entire blog to it sometime. However, this blog is actually about my kid's 7th grade extra credit science project. The blog on the show itself will have to wait (but it is coming).

My daughter's science teacher requires kids to do TWO extra credit assignments each quarter if they want a chance at getting an A or a B. He is a one-man crusade against middle school grade inflation, and I respect him for it. (Surprisingly, he's still popular with the students.)

Despite that, so far, she has 100% in all assignments, that only gets her a C without the two extra assignments. So...among the options for earning A/B credit was to attend a four-hour seminar, hosted by the local PD, on crime prevention, one part of which was on forensic science.

Now, when I heard of this, *I* wanted to go. She did not. "You just want me to do this because you like that show," she told me. Well, yeah.

Since she wasn't interested, I basically forgot all about it until, in true 12-year-old form, she informed me the morning of (yesterday) that "of course" she was going. By then, I'd committed myself to taking our youngest to a gymnastics birthday party and meeting up with another mother, so my chance to hear a talk on forensics was out. So, while I watched four-year-olds bounce off walls and fly through the air on trapezes (literally), my husband had the joy of taking our oldest kid to the mini-CSI session. He signed her up, told her where to go, and took himself to a talk on burglary prevention.

She, however, ended up in the wrong class and was too shy to tell the police officer that she needed to leave and find the CSI class. So, she sat through a lecture on internet safety -- a topic that has been covered ad nauseum in school, so she learned very little. Not to mention, it also has zilch to do with science.

The deadline for handing in A/B assignments is tomorrow, so she started filling in the form her teacher had provided for her, without (of course) having heard the talk. Oooo...NO. "What kind of education would a person need to be a CSI?" Her answer: "At least a high school degree."

A bit of understatement, I'd say.

Can't wait to read the final report. :)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Getting My Goat; Having a Cow

A lot has been on my mind this week, much of it related to comments on my last blog, or to a conversation with a friend (in person) about the blog prior to that. I'm going to address each here. As such, this is a meandering thought piece. It's a blog, people, not an editorial. :)

My last blog ("Points of View") prompted a few responses -- most of them positive, but one of them from somebody who took some offense at what she interpreted was my doing nothing more than complaining about the predicament of parents needing childcare for those noisome half-days, no school days, furlough days, etc. In her response, she said two things (in particular) that really got my goat:

1) "Your friend may not be a parent, but as a teacher, has more experience with children than you do."
2) "When I became a parent, I accepted the reality that I was giving up any and all free time." This commentator then went on to say that she's sick of parents expecting the schools to raise their kids...

OK, so you probably do not have to have read my blog, or even know me in the least, to guess why those two statements might get under my skin. Let's examine each, shall we?

First, my blog was never about whether parents or teachers have more experience with children. Honestly, I don't have to say more than that. I could go into details about my background, however. For instance, I could tell her that I was RAISED in a house where a parent did in-home daycare; I've babysat more than any human being I know; I've taught Sunday School, Children's Choirs, and Church Youth Groups; I've been a godparent since I was 19; I studied Human Development in college and worked in a rehab center for disabled kids; I stayed home with my kids (using only part-time daycare) for over a decade; I even considered elementary school teaching as a career and was in an M.Ed. program for awhile before deciding it wasn't the career for me; I've struggled with a kid who has a mild disability and have worked with IEP committees, therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, vision therapists, and tutors, among other specialists. I've even chosen a career that IS part-time (I said as much in the blog). But, saying all that makes me appear just a wee bit defensive, and in no way says anything about the considerable experience with kids that my friend also has as a teacher.

The POINT IS that comment was nothing more than a gratuitous low blow, completely irrelevant to the issue I had written about and it assumed a whole lot about me that she had no way of knowing was accurate. Bugged the hell out of me.

The second comment: does parenting really mean that parents give up all free time? Hmmm...boy, that is NOT the paradigm of parenthood that I've EVER worked with. In fact, I think it's terribly important that kids know that their parents' lives do NOT always revolve around them. I think it's important for kids to see that their parents enjoy their jobs (or at least feel very committed to them). I think it's important that parents have hobbies, friends, and interests that don't involve the kids. I'm all for saying, "I'm busy now, please go find something to do." My mother used to refer to proper parenting as involving (her words) "some benign neglect". We could debate the proper amounts of such neglect -- the point is, parents have lives separate from their children's, or at least that's the paradigm of parenthood I'm working with. After reading the comment on the blog, however, it makes me wonder if there's a dramatically different paradigm of parenthood that is assumed by the schools and/or some or most teachers. Is there? It would help if I knew that up front.

But, how does benign neglect -- or the opposite, no free time for parents whatsoever -- relate to the need for parents to have affordable and easy-to-access care for kids (particularly older kids) on no school days? I think, in my commentator's mind, parents aren't SUPPOSED to have free time -- or, apparently, a job that conflicts with kids' school schedules. Such parents would not "complain" about the no school days, because if they did, it must indicate that they expect the schools to "raise their kids." For the record, I've never heard a parent say that they expect that -- or even WANT that. But I've heard many parents express frustration over what schools appear to expect from parents in terms of job flexibility.

Enough on that blog. The previous blog (about the dairy industry, rumors and the internet) has also been on my mind. I had dinner the other night with a friend who was raised on a dairy farm. I asked him about his knowledge about cows. I learned a few things about cows, and these facts raise some interesting issues concerning our responsibility toward cows, regardless of whether or not we choose to consume dairy or beef.

1. Holsteins have been bred for the QUANTITY of their milk. By their nature, they are big milk producers, and since farmers keep careful records, they keep breeding the "good producers" such that now, the average Holstein produces enough milk a day to feed something like eight calves. All of Jon and Kate's kids, fed exclusively from Kate.

Now that you have that image in your mind...

2. Jerseys have been bred for the QUALITY of their milk. By their nature, they produce very rich milk. Over time, they have been bred in such a way that their milk is actually TOO RICH FOR THEIR OWN CALVES. How sick is this: a Jersey calf will die if it nurses from its own mother; the milk is literally too rich for it. So, to keep a Jersey calf alive, a farmer has to milk the mother, mix the milk with water, and then feed it to the calf.

I find that fact sickening, but no more than the well-publicized fact that most turkeys no longer know how to reproduce because farmers have been doing it for them for so long. Yes, you read that right. Turkeys no longer know how to have turkey sex. Don't you feel sorry for them? I do.

Seriously, these two facts about Holsteins and Jerseys make me consider the issue that's been nagging me for several months: EVEN IF PEOPLE STOP EATING MEAT AND DAIRY, most farm animals still depend on people for survival. It's part of the reality of being a domesticated animal. The cows NEED TO BE MILKED. Or, in the case of the Jerseys, the calves need to be hand-fed. So, what is the logical thing that vegans -- who care so much about animals, the environment and health -- should advocate be done with cows? If we don't milk them, they'll suffer (ever had mastitis?) and could die from infection. If we don't feed their calves, the calves will die. It's naive and terribly uninformed to think that the cows could all just be put out to pasture. What stand, logically, should vegans take on taking care of cows (or turkeys or goats or hens or other domesticated animals)?

I don't know the answer; I just know that human greed for milk has created animals that now depend on us for survival. Cows need us for their survival, even if, in reality, we need neither their milk, their meat, nor their hides for ours. Poor cows.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Points of View

This past week, I lectured on social science paradigms. (Don't worry, I'm not gonna do that here.) Paradigms are basically points of view -- and the point of telling you the obvious is that we are, as a college English teacher was fond of saying, "constrained by our biography."

That is, it isn't always easy to be aware of what we assume, or what other people assume about us, until we (often mistakenly) say or do something that really pisses somebody off. THEN we're REALLY aware of how we are coming from different places, or, in social science speak, operating from different paradigms.

What I did this week was (unintentionally) run my paradigm smack-dab into a friend's paradigm, unwittingly making her really furious. See, I'm a parent (of three kids, two school-age) and she's a teacher (of fourth graders). She isn't a parent, though if she were, she might still have a different opinion of what I was so incensed about, due to her professional point of view. That's normal.

Here's the deal: many of us parents (particularly parents who work outside the home) are increasingly irritated (the polite word) at the number of half-days, no-school days, and in-service days in our kids' school schedules. We already rely on a carefully-planned arrangement of aftercare and coordinated "it's-your-turn-to-get-the-kids-today" schedules as it is. The family schedule is in a precarious balance, but most days it works pretty well, as long as the schedule isn't changed.

But, when schools throw us these odd days (no matter how much in advance), it leaves us scrambling to arrange care that is often hard to find. Few people want to commit to taking care of your kids when the number of days is so few and so random that it isn't financially fruitful -- or logistically possible -- for them to do so. And, for reasons I absolutely do not understand, a frighteningly large number of parents are comfortable leaving their middle school-age kids alone at home all day. I'm not in that camp.

To be perfectly honest, not only do I wish schools had a more consistent schedule (like kids in school 8:30-3, M-F, most weeks except for a week in Dec and a week in the spring), I'm all for shorter summer breaks and fewer holidays too. Schools still run as if there is an available family member in the home, able to care for the kiddos when school is not in session. They also seem to assume we're all farmers, too. Why else do our kids have these ridiculously long summer breaks?!

There are an awful lot of us without nearby relatives(or nearby relatives who also do not work). We have no family within 100 miles, for example. And the two family members we have (the ones who live 100 miles away) are a) ill and b) work full time and have their own three kids. It's hard enough (and expensive enough) to pay for all that summer camp and regular aftercare, let alone these additional days. And I can't rely on family for help.

So, I mentioned on Facebook how irritated I was at this predicament. This month, for instance, I have a kid home EVERY Friday (the middle schools here have different no-school days than the elementary schools). To top it off, my district has early release Wednesdays EVERY Wednesday -- something I find annoying as hell and wish so they would get rid of. It means EVERY Wednesday I interrupt my class to make sure that my middle schooler got in the house, locked the door behind her, and is OK. If she were actually in school like a "regular" day, I'd be able to get home before her and wouldn't have to interrupt my class. Aggravation!

In addition to those October changes to the regular schedule, my other child's aftercare program has an inservice day on a Monday this month -- so no aftercare that day (his Dad will have to take the afternoon off, because I teach Monday afternoons). All in all, SIX of my work days this month involve trying to find alternative care and/or not work (theoretically, I work M, W, F). I think I have more than enough justification for being irritated at the public schools. It's doubly ironic, since schools (and aftercare programs) are largely staffed by working women.

But my venting my frustration made my friend mad. True, in hindsight, I wish I had been a bit more diplomatic in my wording. In my defense, we are talking about a Facebook status line here...a place well-known for inflammatory wording intended to get people to respond (and that it did).

Anywho...she felt that I was venting at her expense, that I was not supporting public schools. She said I should either send my kids to private schools or not complain. She went on to mention several things that, indeed, many parents are not sufficiently aware of: her lunch break is all of 30 minutes; she deals constantly with kids with pretty terrible problems; she spends her "free time" calling DYFS or helping kids with homework; she annually spends more than $1000 of her personal income for school supplies that are not provided by the district; she works 10-12 hour days. She DESERVES these (often unpaid) days without the kids, so that she can get caught up on the latest changes to the curriculum. Indeed, if we parents think the constant changing of curriculum and testing is nuts, think of trying to change your teaching style or lesson plans every year or so. Indeed, teachers are "on" more than most of us are, and they are confronted with a bucketful of problems (everything from social work to curriculum changes to credentialing) all while having to maintain a professional demeanor in front of our unruly children. Yep, it's job I wouldn't want. But I'm so glad other people love the work (as my friend does) and that they do it well.

But my concerns (needing the schools to be in session for more days, and longer days at that) are not hers (needing more breaks, more support from parents, fewer additions to her teaching expectations, fewer hoops to jump through, fewer kids with problems). Her assumption about my problem ("your child care problems are not the school's concern") and the proposed solution ("go find out what is available in the community, or get together with other parents and establish it yourself, either be part of the problem or part of the solution") belie her simplistic interpretation of what is involved (and an assumption that I haven't already been looking for options). Sure, I'd love to part of the solution, but, frankly, this is a large-scale STRUCTURAL problem with our public schools, and it's gonna take a lot more than an occasional backyard camp or jumbo craft session with my kids and their friends to solve it. Similarly, my "Parents work! for God's sake! Why not teachers!" was just stupid, but also indicative of how deeply in my own world (my "paradigm") I was at the moment I wrote that.

But the interaction gave me a great opportunity to think of how ironic it is that the interests of parents and teachers are often NOT in sync. How unfortunate, because the ultimate goal -- raising the competent, confident leaders of tomorrow -- is. Time to get us all at the same table and find a paradigm and a structural solution that can benefit us all. Wanna come to the meeting? I make great coffee. But you gotta find the childcare. :)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rumors, the Dairy Industry, and the Internet

Cass Sustein has a new book out that I want to read, "Rumors." From a little blurb I read in Time magazine, I learned that it's about the internet, and the well-known fact that rumors spread like wildfire here and that an alarming number of people think they can learn what they need to know from Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Twitter and MySpace. It's also about WHY we believe what we read. As a legal scholar, Sustein wants to toughen libel laws. I know NADA about that, but it sounds like a good idea.

I mention all of this because, as you all know, I'm rather fond of the internet (Facebook, The Huffington Post blog, the NYT website, a few friends' blogs, and even Twitter). I find myself inundated with "information," much of it contradictory, and I myself don't know WHAT to believe. If somebody with a couple of masters degrees and a Ph.D. is in this position, how much more likely will somebody with far less formal schooling be also?? I actually think, when it comes to all this information, that the gift my education gives me is the gift of doubt. But honestly, not much more.

One example: the dairy-is-so-bad-for-you-and-the-environment argument. As most of you know, I've been mulling over this one for about five months now.

This argument is usually supported by the following claims:

1) Dairy cows are mistreated, so buying dairy directly supports this animal abuse. This claim I by-and-large believe.

2) Dairy is linked to all sorts of human maladies, from cancer to diabetes to obesity. Actually, I've read some info that claims exactly the opposite -- that dairy may provide some protection against colon cancer, for instance. And of course, the well-publicized claim that milk "does a body good." For now, I'm on the fence as to whether I believe that milk definitely CAUSES things like cancer and diabetes and obesity. I'm also on the fence about whether milk definitely PROTECTS against any of those, too. My jury, for now, is OUT. I'm hedging my bets by consuming far less dairy than most Americans, but I still have a little every now and then. People have, after all, been consuming milk and cheese for a L-O-N-G time.

3) Factory farming contributes to environmental degradation. I believe this one. Lots of animal waste runs off into water supplies, for instance. ICK.

4) The world could feed more people by growing PLANTS for them to eat than by using land for animal grazing. I believe this claim, too.

5) Cows are repeatedly raped (with a mechanical device filled with sperm) in order to be kept pregnant. I also believe this one. In general, this procedure (and claim #1) falls into the well-known pattern of whenever-something-is-commercialized-the-dangers-of-abuses-rise. Dairy farmers want to produce a lot of milk, so they resort to "techniques" to ensure just that. If you had your own cow in your backyard, you probably wouldn't be doing this, and you'd probably just milk her until she didn't give milk anymore (I've read that the average cow can give milk, decreasing in quantity over time, for about 2-3 years). If you owned a cow, you'd probably milk her for 24 months, then let her go to pasture, get a younger cow and start the process all over again. But most of us don't have a cow conveniently located in our backyards. Pity.

6) Only pregnant and recently-birthed cows produce milk. Actually, there are some breeds that can produce milk WITHOUT being pregnant; they are actually known as "maiden milkers" and "virgin milkers." And some breeds of cow naturally are big milk-producers (they are usually the breeds on dairy farms -- Holstein and Jerseys). However, these two facts are conveniently left out of most anti-dairy writings, because telling the whole story would kind of mess up the conclusion the authors want to present. Bad science. But great for the rumor mill. This is what I teach my students in my methods class NOT to do.

7) Cows are given all sorts of medicines (steroids, antibiotics) to increase their milk production. This is true, plain and simple. And it SHOULD give us pause about what's in our milk, cheese, ice cream, butter, sour cream, cream and yogurt.

8) Not only do these meds make their way into milk products, potentially at the expense of human health, but being kept lactating is animal abuse. Yeah, I believe this, only because the sheer quantity of milk that dairy farms want to produce would, in and of itself, lead to animal abuse. There's not a easy way around this, short of stopping mass production of milk and dairy products.

9) People are the only species that a) drinks milk past, say, two years, and b) drinks another species' milk. Most anti-dairy writings then conclude with the following: why should people continue to do something that no other species does? The reasoning here is that it MUST be wrong because it's the exception, not the rule. While initially this line of reasoning made me pause, I have to say, it's not actually that great an argument. In many ways, people ARE exceptional, and it's unlikely that we're going to change our ways to be like other animals. For instance, people also tend to get rid of lice, whereas other species live with it. Should we stop doing that, because that makes us different from other species? People also keep other species as pets, but this isn't a common practice among other animal species. (The occasional story of the monkey with a pet cat does not prove the rule.) Should we stop that?

The dairy arguments leave me very aware of rhetoric, and how tempting it is to believe it (particularly if it's written in a OH-MY-GOD-YOU'D-BE-A-FOOL-TO-BELIEVE-IT way). The bottom line, from what I've read on both sides of this issue: farm animals are mistreated; there is an alarming cocktail of crap in our dairy products; consuming dairy *might* be bad for your health or it *might* have some benefits; you can definitely get calcium from other food sources; factory farming is bad for the environment. What makes sense is for people to consume far less dairy, to consume far more plant-based foods, and to put pressure on farmers to find more humane ways to raise animals (meaning less production of dairy and meat). Included in that last point is the following: maybe we should teach farmers how to raise plants instead.

In the meantime, be wary of rumors masquerading as science and at the same time, allow yourself to consider novel information. You can't always believe everything you read. You CAN sometimes learn something from the internet. You don't have to believe one and not the other. Both things are true; in methods class, that's what I call avoiding a false dilemma. And that's not a rumor.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Persian Soup (Kinda)

I had this wonderful Persian soup yesterday at this little vegan/vegetarian-friendly place in Eugene, Caspian's. I liked it so much I googled "Persian soup" and found some recipes.

So, since today is my day "off" (meaning the day I shop, cook and do laundry), I decided to make Persian soup. The recipe below is from Recipezaar.com. Totally vegan recipe.

Iranian Barley Soup

1 c. dried barley
1/2 c. dry lentils (any color)
6 c. water
2 medium onions, chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 T. dried mint or parsley (I used 3 T. fresh parsley)
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. ground black pepper

1. Put everything in pot and bring to boil. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally
2. Add 1 c. cooked chick peas or red kidney beans a few minutes before serving. (I used chick peas.)

Variation: fry onions in oil before putting in pot. (I did this and I recommend it.)

So that's the very simple recipe.

Here's what I did differently.

I used 1 large onion instead of two medium ones. I added FIVE cups extra water (that barley absorbs and absorbs and absorbs). I added 1 bunch chopped fresh spinach and 1 can of chickpeas at the end.

I tasted the soup. VERY lackluster. I was so disappointed.

So, I added a little lime juice and a little curry powder. Still lackluster. It LOOKED like the soup I had yesterday (minus red beans, which theirs had), but something beyond the red beans was missing.

I looked around my kitchen and scoured some cookbooks for middle eastern recipes. While many recipes were virtually identical to the one I'd found on the internet, one (from "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant") included crushed garlic and lots of fresh tomatoes. And some bay leaves and tomato paste and well...a few other things.

I decided to just add the tomatoes and garlic. This year, my garden runneth over with tomatoes (I have, oh, 45 tomatoes sitting on my kitchen windowsill). So, I grabbed five small ones, diced them up and added them to my stew. And then I added yet more water. That barley really is something.

I crushed three cloves of garlic and added 3 heaping teaspoons of Vege-Base (vegetable soup base mix) to the brew. I tasted it. Voila! Now I have a soup I like. And it's totally vegan. And easy to make and healthy.

Some of the per-serving nutrition facts from the original recipe: 334 calories, 8 g of fat, 16.4 g of fiber, 23% of your daily iron and 25% of your daily protein. Also high in vitamin B6 and low in sodium. Of course, my soup is a little different from the original recipe, but the soup is still high in fiber, iron and protein.