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.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Summer Trip #2

Just got back from our latest family trip -- this time with old friends, in a lovely, scenic, outdoorsy spot in Central Oregon. The adults thought the place was beautiful and interesting with plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure. We went on several cool adventures and came home each day dusty and sweaty and in awe of nature. At least that's what the adults would say.

Tell that to the kids, please? The older ones (12, 11 and 9)insisted every scenic place was "boring," and, like snarky pre-teens everywhere, complained of time spent in cars (hey, Oregon is a big state!), and insisted that lava flows, rocks, wildlife, mountains, lakes, streams, and waterfalls were not worth a second look. They would rather spend their parents' money on horseback rides (I'm with them on that, but too expensive to do more than once), rock climbing ($$$$$), and fake surfing at indoor pools(huh?).

The adults had a good time, at least when they were not repressing the urge to strangle the complaining and sulking kids. One loses one's patience and one's sense of calm when a vacation ends up being a job catering exclusively to children.

As I've said before in these blogs, family "vacations" are really trips, not vacations, at least not for the adults. Adults end up tired and at times resentful of their greedy, selfish progeny and the kids end up pissed at the adults who just CANNOT understand why they would prefer to watch a horror flick, buy candy, eat in restaurants, and fake surf rather than hike, go to museums, watch chipmunks and otters, and eat a picnic lunch.

I remember being bored on family vacations, too. Adults and kids have different needs (one for sleep, the other for ADVENTURE!). I think that's part of life, frankly, and part of the experience of being a child. Not every minute of life is a circus; not every penny should be spent on kids. But I find that adults EVERYWHERE (including me and my husband) are far too often sucked into the worry of "are we doing enough for the kids?"

When I sit back and think of it, the obvious answer is "HELL YES!" and "Maybe WAY too much!" I don't remember my parents playing that much with me. We were expected to entertain ourselves and to do so quietly. (As a parent, I've had lots of problems with the "quiet" part, at least with my boys.) Perhaps some of the difference between my family of origin and my family now is attributable to gender: my family was girl-heavy, but the family I've produced is boy-heavy. And of course, the personalities of the parents and of the children are TOTALLY different (are we really all related?). Still...I wish that I could get my kids to entertain themselves better. But perhaps they do so poorly at it because my husband and I have been sucked into a parenting culture of catering to children and being "involved" parents? A little benign neglect (my mother's phrase) might be in order, here. Honestly.

Somehow many people in my generation think that parents need to play with, and entertain, their kids, which means that adults on vacation with their children rarely get to attend to their needs. I never read a book on this vacation; I never took a nap. Neither did any of the other adults. There was far too much time spent, in my opinion, consulting children as to the day's plans. WTF? That was a BIG mistake -- one I will not make again.

I don't remember my parents spending a whole lot of money on me (other than gifts at birthday and Christmas), but I'd be embarrassed to confess how much money was spent on four kids during this vacation. I'm sure my family is not alone; it's a cultural problem and it's time people woke up and stopped it before this generation grows up to think that the world really does revolve around them and only them.

There were some funny moments and I am SO glad we were on vacation with friends. (If you're going to suffer with your children, at least do it with another family.) I look forward to another "vacation" with them in the future. Really I do.

Perhaps the funniest moment occurred in the car: my friend and I had the tired, cranky, temper-tantruming four-year-old with us in the van, while both dads were in the other car with the three older, complaining kids arguing in the back seat. At one point, we realized that three cranky, irritable, unreasonable children were in a car with two strained, irritated men in a red Chevy impala, going down the highway in the desert. Honestly, I couldn't stop laughing at how miserable, and how worthy of a sitcom, that drive was. It wasn't just the "are we there yet?" questions; it was "I HATE THIS TRIP!" and "This is SO BORING!" to which the fathers were saying the common refrain of "If I have to ask you one more time to be quiet...." Ah, parenthood. Not for the faint of heart! At least not on vacation.

Sigh. I just hope that the kids will grow up to look back fondly on this trip -- to remember what they DID see and not how they behaved. And maybe while they're at it, they can forget how the adults behaved, too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Using Time

How many times have we told ourselves, or told our children, "You're wasting time"? Far too many times to count. And I suspect the more educated we are, or the more ambitious we are (for ourselves or our children), the more often we utter the phrase.

Lately, I've thought a lot about time wasting. After all, I've been on vacation, a time where we are supposed to "waste time," but be able to enjoy it without those nagging thoughts of things left to do when we get back home. I am never quite able to forget about what awaits me when I get back home.

I'm not the most productive person in the world, yet if I were to list what I have accomplished, I think I'd sit back and say to myself that I actually haven't done so badly with my time so far. Yet, as I sit and blog, or read fanfiction, or watch my kids make virtual monkeys jump on virtual trampolines, I think of time usage and feel guilty for our collective waste of it.

At the same time, I sometimes wonder if there's a hidden virtue to the time spent doing seemingly mindless things. The kid who spends HOURS a day shooting a basketball might just end up being good enough to play professionally; if nothing else, he's probably not obese. The kid who reads "too much" likely does pretty well in school. The kid who is so good at getting other kids to play a game together might do well in theater or organizing. Heck, even the kid who can talk endlessly on the phone or type 100s of texts on her cell phone per month might be learning skills that would serve her well in the business world. So, I try to take a proverbial chill pill (at least once a week, I'm still working up to daily) on what I perceive to be my kids' (and my) stupid uses of time.

I remember reading, some years ago, an article written by a TV writer about how she ended up working in television. The part I remember was actually about TV watching -- something parents everywhere nag their kids about and blather on endlessly to each other on their respective attempts to limit or eliminate altogether. Turns out, this VERY successful TV writer remembers completing some school assignment on TV watching and learning that she spent 35 hours PER WEEK watching TV as a kid. Wow. I've. Never. Even. Come. Close. Perhaps that's why I don't write for television now.

Just kidding. But the point here is that sometimes what strikes us as a waste of time ends up being later viewed as a good USE of time. At least, that's what I'm telling myself when I take time to write these blogs. I love writing them. But I don't know if it's "doing" anything more for me yet. I hope so. :)

Saturday, August 8, 2009


If you were looking for deep thoughts today or something funny and light, I'm afraid this isn't the blog to read. This blog is about anxiety.

I lay awake last night, disturbed by my thoughts of my upcoming trip.

I'm one of those people who always worries -- seriously worries -- before every trip. Will the plane crash? Will I fall asleep at the wheel? Will my luggage get lost? Will my boys decide to play on that tall balcony that I hate so much and will one of them fall off and die? Will I forget to tell the post office to hold the mail? What if I forget to pay all the bills that will come due while I'm away? Did I lock the house? Set the alarm? Will the cat be OK with Mom's kitten while I'm away?

I've always struggled with anxiety, but for the most part, it's pretty much under control UNLESS I'm travelling. Then, stepping out (literally) from my comfort zone, my anxiety resurfaces with an alarming vengence. I start sleeping poorly, thus increasing my odds of being in an accident in the first place, and the knowledge of that only ranks up my anxiety all the more.

I start imagining horrible scenarios, so much so that I always consider cancelling the trip (whether or not tickets are refundable or not, I always consider this). I start getting snappy with everybody, overreacting to small mishaps as if they were catastrophes. My insomnia, of course, also makes me more edgy.

By the time I actually leave, I'm so exhausted that I lack all enthusiasm for said trip. It just feels like a burden. I don't feel like I'm "getting away" from anything; instead, I feel like I'm taking on a dangerous adventure, unfortunately not accompanied by Indiana Jones or James Bond. By the time I finally arrive, the only thought in my mind is to find a place to sleep and dead silence.

I have three kids. One is hyperactive; one is a preschooler, and one is a pre-teen. Dead silence does not exist in my world. Scratch the idea of rest. Family "trips" are just that -- trips, not restful vacations.

I'm about to go on one of those trips. The destination -- Cape Cod -- could not be more bucolic. Except for that damned balcony, the steep bank straight into the pond, and the house that is not kid-friendly. Deep breath. Nobody has died so far. We'll probably all survive again.

But then there's that promise I made my daughter, to drive 300 miles to visit old friends the day after I arrive. I WANT to go; I want to see the people. I just don't want to do the drive alone. Six hundred miles roundtrip, likely while sleep-deprived, is pretty scary. I've looked into other options (bus, train), but the mass transit options from point A to point B are, in this case, time-consuming, more expensive than renting a car, and involve several transfers, not to mention asking people on both ends to take us to a bus station or pick us up from a train station. I'll rent a car and drive instead, thinking the whole time how American mass transit largely SUCKS in comparison to what you see in Europe. And I'll bitch and moan about the traffic on the East coast, which I've lived blissfully without for over a year and have not missed AT ALL.

I will also worry about missing the right exit, or getting it wrong while driving through NYC. (I HATE driving through NYC -- traffic EVERYWHERE, lots of lane changes, dirty, and poorly marked, with exits that come up faster that you anticipate them.) But there's no way to get from Cape Cod to NJ without a NY interlude. Usually, my husband and I rely on the other to help navigate; now it'll just be me. Worry. Worry. Worry.

When the trip is over, I will, as I always do, wish I could have been more relaxed, more carefree, more of a risk-taker, more trusting that the world won't kill my family. I will regret not being able to see more friends that I've missed terribly since our move.

However, I won't feel that I wish the trip itself could have been longer. I know a lot of people feel that way after a vacation. But I can only take so much anxiety. I'm always glad to get back home. :)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Many years ago, when I was just out of college and working as a secretary for a group of professors, I read one of their books on policy-making. One lesson from that book stuck with me: for every change made, even if for the best of reasons, there is usually an unintended consequence, often quite negative.

I've been reminded recently of how common such unintended consequences are, and how much havoc they can wreck on our worldviews.

Lately, as most of you know, I've been on a kick/obsession to eat better, exercise more, rid the house of crap (good luck!) and change the attitude (ditto!). This obsession has involved reading stuff I generally don't read, going on websites I hadn't previously heard of, having conversations with people I actually don't know (thank you, internet), and trying new foods. In the midst of it all, I've been surrounded by rhetoric on the importance of organic, locally-grown, pesticide-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, dairy-free, meat-free. And, I've slowly discovered that *some* of these albeit well-intentioned social movements are based on belief more than on fact, or, perhaps even more alarmingly, if taken to their logical conclusions, have some horrible unintended consequences.

Take "organic" for instance. Turns out, it's a bit of a myth. BS as Penn and Teller (and a FB friend of mine) put it. It's a myth for several reasons. One, many, if not most, organic farmers DO use pesticides, just not ones that were discovered to be cancer-causing back in the 1960s. Two, research is divided at best as to whether organic is actually better for you, and some studies conclude that there is no measurable nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods. Three, the oversight system is poor, meaning that people can claim to be farming organically, but, well, maybe they're not. Four, if organic farming were to be used world-wide, there's a possibility that we would not be able to feed all the world's people.

That last point, if true, is no small one: according to a scientist interviewed on a show I watched last night, organic farming could, at most, produce enough food to feed 4 billion people. That's a lot of people. Problem? The world currently has about 7 billion people; which 3 billion, as Penn and Teller put it, do you want to starve to death? To be fair, other sources of info say that organic farming CAN feed everybody, and that the problem is food distribution, not food quantity. I'm inclined to believe the latter argument, though *IF* the former is true, it's certainly sufficient to make me wonder about the ethics of pushing organics on the consumer. It's enough to make one think strongly about the unintended consequences of policies hoping to make all farming organic.

IF the health benefits of organic produce are negligible (this, too, is hotly debated) THEN perhaps the push to buy everything organic is working more to make some people relatively wealthy than it is to make any of us healthier. I'm still doing research on the pros and cons of organic foods -- and certainly still concerned about the degradation of the environment, and better ways to grow and distribute food -- but for now, I'm taking a big chill pill on the idea that I need to preach that everybody buy organic. I might bring down my grocery bill -- that's a consequence I could seriously live with.

How about locally-grown? Now, this argument actually makes some sense to me. Buying products that got to your local store with a minimum of fuel seems to be a good move for the environment. For now, I'll continue to look for locally-grown or locally-produced products, and privilege those over ones that were trucked or flown in from miles away.

Pesticide-free. It sounds so ideal. However, if you're ever had a backyard garden and haven't used any pesticides at all (even beer as snail bait), you will notice that critters will chew on your lettuce, attack your cauliflower, drill holes in your tomatoes, and leave dents in your strawberries. If you still want to eat the food that's left over in your garden, by all means -- do it. I predict you'll either starve or go the grocery store.

I've tried the application of ladybugs and growing companion plants that theoretically attract the "good bugs." In my experience, those approaches have only limited effectiveness. I still end up carefully using some snail bait and hand-picking bugs. In a backyard garden, you CAN use person-intensive methods of critter control, but you can't do that on a big farm.

Controlling critters is part of gardening, people, and if you are trying to make a LIVING by selling food, you have to grow enough of it to make a profit, which means that an organic farmer is not going to be hand-picking the bugs off every head of lettuce. (Most organic foods, by the way, are grown on LARGE, commercial farms, not on small ones.) Virtually ALL commercial farmers use some sort of pesticide because they wouldn't be able to make a living otherwise.

What amuses me is that many pro-organic people assume that all products marked "organic" were never touched by pesticides. Or, that the pesticides used by organic farmers are necessarily safer than those used by traditional farmers. How naive. From what I've recently learned, the pesticides used by traditional farmers have come a long way, baby, from the days of DDT. Ironically, in some cases (certainly not all), the pesticides used on traditional farms may actually be safer than those used on organic farms. Those who assume that anything marked "organic" is, by definition, safer and better are proof that the organic movement knows good marketing.

What about antibiotic-free and hormone-free? Well, I still need to do research here, and for now, I'll say that I'm drinking this kool-aid. This makes sense to me. HOWEVER, if you're going to eat foods that are both antibiotic- and hormone-free, I think that means you're giving up both meat and dairy. And here I start to run into some problems.

I've been trying this, almost 90% of the time, for a few months now. I've never been a big meat eater, so 50% of the task was "easy" for me. I am dying to have some bloodwork done and see if there are any alarming deficiencies or problems. I cannot, in good faith, tell you I feel better. I wish I could say that. I WANT the consequences of my new diet to be more energy, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower weight. However, I have not lost any weight at all, and my most recent blood pressure was low anyway. I have noticed my skin is even better than before -- I attribute that to increasing my intake of fruit and vegetables, and not really at all to my elimination of dairy and the little meat I was consuming.

To be totally honest, I've felt a little weak lately. Perhaps it's NOT due to the diet, but if it is, it's an unintended and negative consequence if there ever was one.

Should I continue drinking the proverbial kool-aid, when it comes to no meat and no dairy? Hmmm...the rhetoric surrounding that move is strong (better for the environment, better for your health, better for animals). I basically believe claims one and three; I'm on the fence about claim two. Were people INTENDED, as the vegans claim, to be vegan? Or, are we built to be omnivores, as others claim? Are all people healthier if they adopt a vegan diet? Or, do some people need *a little* meat and dairy?

I don't know. I do know that unintended consequences are a good place to start to look at our assumptions. As an old black folk saying goes, "It ain't the things you don't know that gets you into trouble; it's the things you know for sure that ain't so."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Kombucha. A recent Facebook status line of mine was "I am trying Kombucha," to which a (very well-educated) friend of mine responded, "What is that? A food? A drink? A dance?"

Indeed, what the heck is it and why am I trying it?

Kombucha is the latest in my recent line of foods-I-must-try-as-I-improve-the-diet. It's a fermented tea, reported to have been consumed in China for at least 2000 years. It has about 5% alcohol content and its fermented, slightly acidic quality is not unlike beer. If you like beer, you might not mind drinking kombucha. For someone like me, who doesn't like beer at all, drinking kombucha is simply about health, not taste. I will admit, however, that it seems to be growing on me.

Reportedly, the drink is catching on in the US among the health food nuts (like me), and is said to be popular among celebrities (oh, but of course). Indeed, the best-known brand in the US, GT Dave's, is made in Beverly Hills. It's expensive, at just under $4 per bottle. According to the label, each bottle contains two servings, though the "recommended" usage is one bottle per day. It's low in calories (about 60-80 calories per bottle), caffeine-free, all natural, and full of bacteria that are supposed to be good for the gut and "detoxify" the body. According to the bottle, it has "active enzymes, viable probiotics, amino acids, antioxidants, and polyphenols."

I'm not a scientist. I'm not a medical doctor. But the reputed health benefits of the drink prompted me to start drinking it, as well as start reading up on it. According to what I've read, some people claim that kombucha improves their energy levels, digestion, skin and metabolism; others have claimed that it has helped them beat cancer, curbs cravings for sweets and appetite in general; and has an overall "anti-aging" effect. The bottle itself says these things, as well as that its contents boost the immune system, help control weight, improve liver function, contribute to cell integrity, and improve body "alkalinity". As far as I know, I don't have cancer, and I do not even *know* what is meant by "liver function," "cell integrity," or "body alkalinity," but as long as the beverage isn't dangerous, it seems OK for me to drink it to see if any reputed health advantages occur. Of course, if I *do* have cancer or impaired liver function or lousy cells, and the kombucha wants to fix those things, by all means, kombucha, do your job!

I went online (of course) to look at various articles and websites either advocating kombucha or avidly warning against its ingestion. There have been some reported deaths in the US related to kombucha consumption; many of those appear to be due to home brews, where the equipment might not have been sterilized properly. A few were related to reactions of medications with kombucha. (Were I on any medication, I'd ask a doctor first.) An article in the LA Times concluded that although the commercialization of kombucha probably significantly cuts down on the risk of death from drinking it, it may also lessen the health properties of the drink. Ironic -- the home brews probably contain more of the stuff that I want, but they have a higher risk of killing me (plus I'd have the added job of making it). So, for all I know, I am drinking a bitter, expensive tea that doesn't have nearly the health benefits I hope for. But at least I'll live to tell about it.

I have only been drinking it for five days. So far, I've noticed only one health change that I don't think anybody wants to hear about. Perhaps as my body gets used to it, said change will go away. A girl can dream. However, I suspect kombucha's fermentation will continue to promote a certain digestive result. That's one of the reasons I don't drink beer.