About Me

My photo
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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sleepover Hangover

I'm chugging coffee while I write this, in a sleep-deprived state that has everything to do with how bone-tired I was last night and how utterly able I would have been to sleep perfectly well, had I not had three extra boys spend the night for my 10-year-old son's birthday party. At least boys are entertaining -- kinda.

It all began with the bowling. We wisely chose to have bumpers for all the boys, to minimize frustration over what would have been an 85% gutter-ball rate. As a semi-pro bowler came over to tell me, their technique was hilarious. The boys had a blast -- throwing the ball half-way down the lane, falling down while throwing it, using two hands to throw it, throwing it over their shoulders like a discus thrower, skipping down the lane, managing to throw their ball into somebody else's lane, etc.

Then came the pizza and sodas and cake and presents, the part of the party that, frankly, is so ubiquitous that there's not much to report. The little brother (who had his own pirate birthday party last week) shed a few tears over not having any presents of his own to open. In a classic do-not-do-this parenting moment, we resorted to giving him a few Starburst candies to make his tears disappear.

Then we had some time to kill before parents arrived to pick up the few kids who were *not* spending the night.

Word to the wise: NEVER have time to kill at a birthday party. Not that we hadn't actually planned well; the parents were late.

Word to the wise: DO NOT be late to pick up your child from a birthday party. It makes the host parents a bit, uh, irritated.

The lanes had been taken over by the bowling leagues and the food had been consumed. The presents (legos and books and a gumball machine) were not the kind of thing we could open up and do in a bowling alley. So, the boys begged to waste money on those stupid video games. UG.

What else were we going to do with them? $10 down the loo and a punching-pushing argument between two brothers (not my kids) who were not spending the night and who were convinced that the other brother had taken the other brother's money. Something like that.

Is it small of me to say I was glad it was those kids and not my own? Nothing like feeling comforted by watching somebody else's kids lose it.

When the mothers of the not-spending-the-night-kids arrived, my husband and I were a bit frazzled. The cake had been stepped on (don't ask), the five-year-old was throwing a tantrum (over what, we never figured out), and the birthday boy was, in his usual style, itchy to do the "next thing".

On the drive home, the boys launched into a discussion of farts. Leave it to 10-year-old boys to find this a fascinating enough topic to last for the entire 20-minute drive. "Once, when I was in third grade (word to reader: last year), I let out the LONGEST fart!" and "We could have a fart contest!" Longest, loudest, smelliest, silent killers....

When this last category was suggested, one kid piped up, "Oh, I would SO win in that category!"

Child, I'm not sure you want to claim that distinction.

Back at the house, the boys watched a movie, played Wii, built legos, and were asleep before midnight. Really, that's not so bad, though picking up the detritus (candy wrappers -- where did they even get it???, popcorn, toys, lego boxes, legos, toothpaste) is driving me crazy. The evidence of "child" is on every conceivable surface.

And their appetite! Good lord, I didn't expect them to need to eat after the party was over. They ate A LOT. Fortunately, they were happy with bananas, popcorn and apples. I'm willing to adopt the child who thanked me for everything, washed off his plate, dried it and asked where he should put it away. (He's the same kid who claimed the silent fart trophy and stepped on the cake.)

They were up by 6:30. All in our bedroom, asking if they could get under the covers and watch cartoons on our TV. We vacated the bed and they are very happy.

I assume, in a very few years -- perhaps months -- they will not descend on parents' bedrooms, assuming they can crawl into the bed. But for now, I have to say, if you're going to feel like roadkill after a sleepover, it's nice to have a bunch of nice boys wake you up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Advocacy? Activisim? Teaching?

As a professor, I'm sometimes caught in the bind of what I *want* to say and what I *should* say. In general, I'm very, very careful. I don't reveal my political opinions (though most people could probably guess them pretty easily); I make sure my lectures stick to facts published in peer-reviewed articles or books. When discussing something that could be construed as controversial, I make sure I present both sides, even when I think the "other side" is basically out to lunch. I make sure my students always understand that most social issues have two sides, and (gasp!) even academics cannot always settle the debates.

So, when I decided, for my Sociology of Health and Medicine class, that I would present scientific evidence of the benefits of a plant-based diet, I did so nervously. Would the students be able to take the information and assimilate it into our typical sociological discussions of economic class, justice, socialization or help-seeking? Would they see it as relevant to a medical sociology class, or would I risk being seen as someone using class time to promote a personal interest?

I've assigned, for this week (the theme of which is the sociological study of lifestyles), to have students read research on vegetarianism, as well as excerpts from The China Study, a book about the largest epidemiological study ever undertaken. I did this in conjunction with the chapter in their textbook on healthy lifestyles; the chapter emphasized the (duh!) obvious needs for people to exercise, drink in moderation and refrain from drugs and cigarettes, as well as the age, education level, class, gender and race differences in those practices.

I didn't know when I assigned these readings if I'd look like a radical or not. Sure, this is Eugene and there are plenty of vegetarians and vegans here, but we're still very much a minority, and in general even sociologists (known for their radicalism among all academic departments) don't discuss diet. Sure, organics is big here, as is the trend to "know your farmer" and buy locally. In fact, it's probably easier here in this part of Oregon to meet the following criteria -- vegan or vegetarian, organic AND local -- than in practically any other part of the country.

But this is a sociology class and not an open pulpit for advocacy; I refrained from lecturing myself because I simply wanted to present the EVIDENCE and see if they would connect the issues we've been discussing all term (access to health and health care, disparities in health outcomes and help-seeking behaviors, economic class and health) to the medical research on vegetarian/vegan diets and health.

They did. Very well, in fact. A 65-page powerpoint presentation. They presented much more evidence that I would have, had I lectured myself. Their presentation was so long, however, that the class never got the chance to discuss the social, cultural, economic and political implications of vegetarianism or veganism, something I had hoped they would get to do.

So, today, before I lectured about Parson's conception of the sick role, I asked them if they wanted to talk about the students' presentation. They did. I asked if there were criticisms they had of the material. I got some interesting responses, ranging from, "Gosh, I tried to go vegan once but it's so hard and I couldn't get enough protein and craved meat all the time," to "Well, some meat is better than other meat; my Dad used to raise our meat or hunt it; I wasn't brought up eating meat from the grocery store."

Other criticisms were veganism can get to be expensive (yes, indeed, it can) and that it takes a long time to retrain yourself to shop, cook, and eat differently (I also agree). Still another critique was that cheap food like meat and dairy is subsidized by the government, which explains both why information about their poor products is not widely disseminated, as well as why people continue to buy it.

Another thoughtful student said that in many parts of the country, it might be stigmatizing NOT to eat meat and dairy; that in places like Eugene, it's almost cool, but it's unlikely to be perceived that way everywhere. Stigma. A key sociological concept. Love it.

Still another comment was that cattle in particular are almost symbolic of the pioneer spirit and the West. You'd almost think that last argument was for the point of NOT eating beef, but the point the student was trying to make was that giving up beef might feel, for some people, like giving up their heritage. I hadn't thought of it in exactly those terms, but as the great-great-granddaughter of a pioneer who got here from Iowa via a couple of oxen, I have to say I agree. Cattle are symbolic of the West and as long as factory farmers portray a bunch of "happy cows," most of us aren't going to question whether or not we should be eating them. Heritage, imagined communities, clever marketing -- all sociological topics. Love that too.

Vegans would of course have a FIELD DAY with these responses and would in particular jump all over the guy who said it's hard to get enough protein and the girl who said eating meat you hunt is better for you than eating meat you buy in the store.

I, however, find these responses very honest and, for the most part, true. As a class we ended up talking about the theoretical range of "good" (factory farming = very bad; grass-fed, free-range = better but more expensive; vegetarian/vegan = arguably even better, based on knowledge of Dr. Campbell's studies). We also discussed who is likely to know this information and who is likely to be able to act on it. (Same answer for virtually all health-related issues discussed this term: those with more money.)

Finally, we also discussed the social problems inherent in dealing with information that severely challenges long-held assumptions. EVEN ARMED WITH EVIDENCE FROM WELL-DONE STUDIES, people resist changing their diets. The cultural pulls of what you think you already know and affordability -- sociologists call these "socialization" and "economics" -- are strong deterrents against change.

Does milk "do a body good"? Is beef "what's for dinner"? Did you, your parents, your grandparents and pretty much everybody you've ever known drink milk and eat beef (or chicken or pork or fish or lamb)? If the answer is "yes," well, then, it's gonna be pretty hard to convince you that maybe you should not. Socialization is a powerful tool.

The students seemed to enjoy the discussion of diet, cultural norms, socialization, poverty, government subsidization, and health. Because this is a sociology class, we completely stayed away from the vegan philosophical arguments that it's never OK to eat or wear ANY animal products. I also did not bring up issues of environmental sustainability or a critique of factory farming or an animal rights' perspective. I kept the focus on health and health information and on how such information can be resisted for social, economic and cultural reasons.

Was I doing advocacy? Kinda. Activism? Not really. Teaching. You bet.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


It's overwhelming to change one's diet. For me, it's not so much the cultural baggage of what I'm used to eating -- though that is no small hurdle -- but rather the overwhelming -- and often contradictory -- amount of information out there about what is wrong with our food system and how easy it is to eat foods that make us sick, or at least predispose us to developing illnesses in the future. We should be OUTRAGED at how our foods are made and at the (we hope) unintended consequences that result from that. And I'm not just talking about meat and dairy, though that's part of the story here.

After I eliminated almost all dairy and all meat from my diet eight months ago, I started getting back up to speed on some older health concerns, specifically the amount of CORN in our diet (not by intent, but due to the structure of the American food "system"), and the presence of genetically modified foods (GMOs). Do you know how much work it is to make sure corn syrup or maltodextrin or any of the dozens of corn products are NOT in your food? (By the way, they're indirectly in your meat too, because that's what factory farmers -- 99% of the meat sold in the US comes from factory farms -- feed their animals.) Do you know how hard it is to make sure that the soy products you buy are only made from non-GMO seeds? Or how much more it COSTS to buy foods that meet the criteria of organic, non-GMO and non-corn? It's possible to meet these criteria, but it ain't cheap or easy. It's time-consuming and adds a lovely overlay (read that in a sarcastic tone) to the family dynamic.

Recently, I read an article in the Huffington Post which suggested that gluten sensitivity may be way underdiagnosed in the US and that it may explain the proliferation of many diseases, everything from learning disabilities to fibromyalgia. Then I re-read some stuff about peanuts and peanut butter in The China Study and remembered that aflatoxin in commonly found in peanuts (and corn, it turns out). The best peanuts are packaged for eating; the moldy ones generally end up in peanut butter. Aflatoxin, by the way, is a known carcinogen and is impressively linked in studies to liver cancer. And I LOVE peanut butter and my kids do, too. Should I even be eating it or letting them eat it? After re-reading that study, I think not. Really. NOT. I'm not even sure the organic, just-peanuts-no-corn-syrup peanut butter is much better. Who's to say that the moldy peanuts aren't in organic peanut butter too??

Then there's milk and cheese. Cheese and yogurt have been the hardest things to give up as a vegan, and I have NOT found acceptable soy or rice-based alternatives. My kids still consume some dairy. Yet, the early chapters of The China Study are all about how animal protein (but, curiously, not plant protein) has been shown in several studies to prompt cancer growth. The animal protein used in these studies was casein -- the primary ingredient in cow's milk -- and the carcinogen exposure used in these studies was aflatoxin (in the form of peanut butter). If one's concern is the potential prompting of tumor growth vis a vis animal protein stimulation, then it does NOT matter whether the milk consumed is organic or not. I really don't think any of us should be eating dairy for HEALTH reasons; forget the factory farming concerns for a minute, or even the arguably "better" organic milk. The scientific evidence linking animal protein consumption to tumor stimulation is pretty solid, but curiously, not particularly well-advertised. Do you hear the pressures of the dairy industry? I do. They really just want you to believe that milk does a body good. Or prevents osteoporosis. At the very least, I think a conservative reaction to learning this information should be to cut back -- for some people, WAY back -- on dairy consumption. In a household with three kids and a cheese-loving husband, THAT is an overwhelmingly difficult goal.

My list of "forbidden" foods is growing; I don't eat dairy, fish, eggs, or meat and now I think I should avoid peanut butter, EVERYTHING with a corn product in it, and perhaps gluten too. And I think I had better re-read those labels for all the soy products I've been buying. Holy Moly. It was SO much easier being an omnivore.

In many ways, all these health warnings and news about factory farming and the food "system" come back to a simple fact: as a society, we don't cook much anymore. We grab things on the fly, or buy things that are partially prepared so that the home prep is minimal. We grow very little of our own food. Food producers know that and so have created products that fill that need, products that often need fillers or preservatives for shipping and storage purposes.

If we get ready to yell at the farmers and the "system," we have to first remember that they're likely to be willing to provide a product if there's a demand for it. They're providing what we're buying. If we want healthier food, we have to demand it. That takes action and energy, both of which go against the largely apathetic attitude of contemporary Americans. But stop being so trusting! Literally, your trust may be contributing to your poor health.

We have to change our approach to food. It should NOT be about what's fast, though many quick-to-prepare foods are also healthy. To REALLY get away from the processed, modified, potentially harmful food, we have to spend more time preparing (and growing or raising)our own, and have to accept that eating well takes time. Shortcuts can be far too costly in the long run.

As I said, it's overwhelming.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I came home today to find the toilet clogged. While theorists of stress would likely put this is the category of "occasional hassles," in my house this event occurs with such frequency that it belongs in the category of "chronic stress."

So, off I went to find the GOOD plunger (we have two; why we keep the ineffective one is beyond me). I found it and took care of the problem.

Now, I realize some of you are expecting me to connect this to my vegan diet. Must be all that fiber I'm feeding the kids. All those fruits and vegetables, quinoa, raw nuts, and soy protein. Did you forget that they aren't the ones eating a vegan diet? Well...the toilet clogging, while a constant problem, is not caused by me. Sorry, no connection to the diet. But I'll admit, it made me laugh to think that it could have been.

My kids, no matter how often I've instructed them, consistently fail to use a reasonable amount of TP. That, coupled with "energy-efficient" toilets, leads to chronic toilet overflow.


I've posted a notice in the bathroom that causing the toilet to clog costs $3. So far, I'm unable to collect because it's NEVER anybody's fault. Of course. Who would want to admit it??!!

I'm about to make 'acceptable' piles of TP and require the kids to ask for said pile before using the facilities.

Or maybe I just have to wait until they grow up...

Saturday, January 16, 2010


It's been awhile since I've written on the supposed topic of this blog: transitioning from a conventional diet to a vegan one.

I'm pretty much "there," though I occasionally allow a little dairy if I'm in somebody's house and the only options are carnivore or vegetarian. It's rare in my house that I do this, but outside of the house, it's sometimes hard to eat or drink without allowing for dairy. At church, for instance, I go ahead and have coffee with milk if I have coffee at all. At events like birthdays or holiday gatherings, I'll go ahead and have a dessert that probably has eggs and butter in it. Obviously, if I host the event, the food is vegan. But it's a bit much for me to bring my own vegan dessert to somebody else's party (I'll do so if asked). For example, if the only options at a potluck for main dishes are eggplant parm and fried chicken, I go ahead and eat the eggplant, leaving most of the cheese to the side. I have privileged being a polite guest over strict dietary preferences.

I'm comfortable with these allowances, though I know the die-hard vegans would not be.

As for the rest of the family -- my husband happily eats whatever vegan dishes I make, though he has not transitioned and has no plans to do so. When he cooks, which he does often, he makes a vegan version for me and the "regular" version for himself and the kids. He shops for vegan things without my asking him to do so. He's been very supportive. I think at least 50% of his meals are vegan, another 25% vegetarian, and probably another 25% have some meat. Not bad. I can live with that.

The kids? They all still eat dairy, though I restrict quantity much more than I used to. They're now used to hearing, "You already had one yogurt, so, no, you can't have cheese." They still eat meat, though probably only twice a week (which, in all honesty, is about the rate we used to eat meat as a family). So...they have more vegan options, but I can't claim they always go for them. Many nights, my husband and I eat a vegan entree, while the kids reject it and end up eating a sandwich or a bowl of soup, both of which are usually vegetarian.

It's a real uphill battle to CHANGE the way a family eats. We were already eating very healthily, at least compared to most American families. Vegetables and fruits have always been plentiful here; low-fat milk and whole grain cereals and breads too. The myriad ways to interpret "poor diet" -- processed foods, high sugar content, low fruit and vegetable intake, low fiber -- have never been good descriptors of my kids' diets, although my middle child is a junk food junkie if left to his own devices.

The additional burden -- and that IS what it is -- to forgo meat AND dairy -- is a big one. So, for now, I'm at peace with being the family vegan, setting an example, calmly answering questions (if they're asked!), and hoping that the kids decide on their own to eat even better than they already are.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Another Awkward Lesson in Weird Facebook Etiquette

This is a blog that might make you laugh, though I'm not laughing as a write it.

Famous woman who I follow on Facebook (laugh here, roll your eyes) posts link to great article about factory farming, contamination and human health. I read it (duh). I like it. I cross post it to my followers.

In the article, I run across an error of sorts -- salmonella poisoning, while totally horrible and frequent enough to affect over a million Americans a year -- is actually hard to get, though the article suggests otherwise.

Why do I know this? Well, my sister (the doc) used to work in infectious diseases. And, last weekend, at her house, the kids were making a cake together and they started eating the batter. I got worried and mentioned salmonella, to which my sister said, "Actually, you have to consume SO MANY salmonella bacteria to get sick that it's one of the infections that we doctors don't worry too much about; it's actually kinda hard to get sick from eating a little raw egg. We hardly ever see anybody in the ER with salmonella poisoning, at least hardly ever due to raw eggs." OK, great. I stopped worrying and the kids ate leftover batter and nobody got sick.

Well, the article said that you could get sick by eating as few as 15-20 bacteria. Given my recent conversation with my sister, I thought that made it sound like salmonella was really EASY to get. So, I called her and told her what the article said.

Her response: "That is true of shigella, but not salmonella." She couldn't stay on the phone, but she said she'd call me later with the data; she thought you needed somewhere in the vicinity of at least 20-30 THOUSAND to get sick.

So, not wanting to wait, I went online and found the following information: "It is commonly accepted that between 1 million to 1 billion bacteria are needed to cause infection although some investigators suggest some people may be infected by far fewer bacteria" (Medicinenet.com/salmonella/page2).

(Aside: For the record,factory farming is horrible and the article in today's Huffington Post SHOULD convince you that conditions of factory farming lead to disease in animals and directly contribute to human illness. But the details about salmonella poisoning are a bit off.)

So...I went back to the original poster and commented that while the article is EXCELLENT, there is a small error. I went on to explain. I was very polite and to the point. Unlike this blog, I didn't go on and on... You can laugh again here.

She deleted my comments!

I'm totally offended. (Go ahead and laugh again -- why should I care that she deleted my comments? Right??!! Who the hell cares? It's Facebook!? Stupid Facebook!!)

In her defense, she doesn't know me. She probably thinks I'm some quack or a troublemaker. She may think any "follower" who bothers to question what she posts shouldn't follow her. Or, perhaps she's tight with the author of the Huffington Post article and doesn't want somebody challenging her. Whatever.

I'm slowly learning an unwritten rule of following the famous and semi-famous: You're supposed to AGREE with everything they do. To try to engage in a conversation -- even in a friendly way -- isn't really what they're after. They want adherents, not challengers. They want converts, not conversations.

And, honestly, I use Facebook for conversations. I've learned -- again -- only to have those with people who want the same.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Modernity, Privacy and Neighbors

I hate my neighborhood.

Well, I guess that's putting it a bit strongly, because I really like my house and I'm pretty happy with my kids' schools. And my hair salon is nearby and I like that, too. But everything else? Notta so much.

I've lived here for almost 19 months now. I realize that it takes time to get to know people. I realize that it's way different moving far away with kids (in three different schools no less) than moving far away when you're just a couple or are single. I have less TIME to meet people than I did before I had kids. But gosh, I thought I'd know more people in my neighborhood by now.

Part of the problem, frankly, is the architecture: people drive up to their houses, the garage doors go up, the cars drive in, the garage doors go down. Privacy is FANTASTIC here; neighborliness is not. People do not spend time in front of their house; everyone here has fairly big backyards (not that I'm complaining...) and 6-foot privacy fences (feel free to sunbathe nude when you visit, nobody other than me will see you).

The effect of such architecture is that all socializing takes place in very private backyards. And, because this is Oregon and not, say, Florida or Southern California, there are only so many months where people are actually out in said yards anyway. People don't know each other AT ALL. If I had to identify my neighbors in a line-up, the only ones I could recognize live across our driveway. All others? No idea what they look like, what cars they drive, or what they do.

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter 45 miles away to another college town, to watch her friend compete in the state gymnastics competition. As we were standing there, a woman started talking to me. She discovered I was from Eugene; "I am too," she said. She asked how old my children were; I told her and discovered that her two are one year older and one year younger than my oldest. She asked me where my daughter went to school; turns out that's where her kids go too! Then she asks me where I live; I tell her my street name. "Oh! Me too!"

I had to meet a neighbor who lives ON THE SAME STREET and whose kids go to the SAME SCHOOL at a gymnastics meet in a town 50 miles away!

Another example: my husband went to the doctor, and the doctor, seeing his address, said, "Oh, I live about 500 feet from you!" My husband didn't ask where; he naively figured they'd run into each other from time to time.

That was 15 months ago. We have no idea where that doctor lives.

Modernity sucks, man!

I've decided, if I have any hope of even KNOWING if I like my neighbors, that I have to get proactive. I'm sending a letter asking if anybody well, wants to know us. I'm not asking for best friend status or babysitting or dog sitting or anything. I just think that, at the very least, we should know each other for safety's sake.

So, what about a neighborhood party?

I'm organizing one. Probably in July. If you know somebody in my neck of the woods that wants to come, feel free to tell them they'll be hearing from that Elaine, a new neighbor who thinks neighbors should actually recognize each other. I'm 42, brunette, white, well-educated, married, drive a Honda, have three kids and an orange cat, teach college and am on a vegan kick.

There's more to me than that, but I'd love to know at least that much about my neighbors.