Afghanistan for kids

Jan 12

I’m one of the parent volunteers helping out with the 6th grade book club, which is part of Project Cornerstone, a YMCA-driven project in Santa Clara County not only to promote reading but to promote stories about values and questions kids might have. Project Cornerstone is really cool, and in middle school they create book clubs that offer lots of young adult novels with nary a vampire in sight.

This month’s book is The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. None of the kids has had a chance to read the book yet, so today we had a discussion of some of the background of the book, which concerns a young girl in Afghanistan who pretends to be a boy in order to support her family. Since we didn’t know anything about the book, we did some fun stuff, like marking off a 10-foot by 10-foot square in the middle of the carpeting to show the size of the place the protagonist lives in, and we discussed the subject matter.

This is what I learned:

  • Some kids hadn’t heard of Afghanistan.
  • None of them knew where it was, although Sophia came closest with “near India.”
  • Some kids had heard the word “Taliban.” They didn’t know what it meant, though.
  • A few knew there had been a war there recently. Even fewer knew that the US had been involved.
  • A couple knew that the predominant religion there was Islam.
  • Almost none of them knew anything about the conditions for women there.
  • Almost all of them tried the hummus I made, and several tried the dried fruits that another mom brought.

We had a discussion about the title. None of the kids knew what the word “breadwinner” meant. We discussed why bread was slang for money, and why bread is so important. (I’m guessing not many of these kids have had to recite “Give us this day our daily bread” too often.)

I have no idea how atypical I was as a child (okay, okay: I was very atypical), but I watched the Evening News with Walter Cronkite every  night with my dad. I didn’t always understand what “Vietnam” or “energy crisis” or “M2″ meant, but I had some exposure to the news. A lot of these kids — from very well-informed, very successful families — are not getting this. I only point this out not to rag on these kids (they’re in 6th grade, after all) but to point out that it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about world events. Or to use big words like “breadwinner” with them. They were really, really interested! They want to know this stuff!

I have high hopes for book discussion next time.

Read More


Jan 01

The LA Times has an article today about TEOTWAWKI: The End of the World As We Know It.

The predictions range from the benign — that this will be a year of spiritual breakthrough, the beginning of a new era of nonviolence and sustainability — to the worst sort of disaster movie cataclysm. And the Maya calendar is just the start. A hodgepodge of other theories has sprung up around the same date.


There are groups who claim that an uncharted, unseen planet called Nibiru will strike Earth or nearly hit it; that the Earth’s polarity will reverse (so that north is south and south is north), wreaking widespread havoc; or that solar storms will destroy civilization by disrupting power grids. Most of the predictions are timed to coincide with the “end” of the Maya calendar on Dec. 21, the winter solstice.

The reason the whole Mayan nonsense resonates, of course, is that we all have a sneaking suspicion we really are at a fin-de-siècle. That we really are approaching the end of the world. That we’re all going to die, undoubtedly in some horrible, purely painful and torturous fashion, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Global warming is real and we may be past the tipping point. Mussolini had a term for governments run by corporations. We’ve had nine years of the Bush tax cuts and all of those job creators have given us a 9% unemployment rate. (And, as my Dad used to say about Hollywood stars and their reputed ages, that number is what they’re admitting to. And didja notice the unemployment rates back in 2001? Good times.) And let’s not even talk about health care.

On the other hand…what this means is that there’s no better time to try new things. Because if things are only going to get worse, this is the time to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do, people.

A really great quotation I like to reflect on from time to time comes from Dr. Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Which means whatever you choose to do this year, do it because it makes you feel great. Because it puts you in the moment. Don’t do things that you have to hide or that you’re ashamed of.

It’s also important to recognize that each of us cannot solve all of the world’s ills. Whenever I start to think about the magnitude of the problems out there, I get completely paralyzed. I can really only make changes in how I behave, and hopefully if I feel strongly enough about the problem and possible solutions I can inspire other people to do something about what they care about.

Like Peak Oil. Worried about Peak Oil? Want to stop participating in so many fossil fuels being used? You don’t need to buy a Prius (not much of a solution, actually, given that it takes fossil fuels to make a car), although I will never speak against riding a bicycle everywhere. The first thing you have to realize is how much fossil fuel production goes into food production. Solution: buy local and eat vegan. Most people won’t do these things, of course, because that would mean they were suffering in comparison to the abundance they have now. (Fresh tomatoes and strawberries in December!)

But even if something like Peak Oil works your mind too hard (I certainly get depressed at the idea), you’re better off spending a little time every day doing something, anything, that makes you feel more alive, more connected, more creative is a good idea. That sort of thing will resonate more than spending one more damn minute worrying about something you’re not able — or willing — to do anything about.

And that’s my main resolution for 2012.




Read More

Food, Inc.: the review

Jun 24

We went to see Food, Inc. last night—we are at the cornucopia section of the summer, where there are so many movies we want to see, yet instead of the three options I usually send Darin for our movie choices, I sent him only this one. It’s a documentary, it’s not a fun topic, gosh only knows how long it will be in theaters. So off we went to see it, and of course Darin ran into someone he knows. (This is a fairly frequent occurrence, honestly.) I did get my usual Red Vines, but Darin passed on the popcorn. Which, really, was all for the best.

Food, Inc. is sort of a greatest hits of current factory farming/industrial food complex criticism that we’ve read about from such writers as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), both of whom are featured prominently in the film. Their theses are, to logline it: We have become removed from the source of our food; if we knew what went into our food we’d demand serious change; it is in everyone’s best interest to be fully informed about what the food manufacturers are presenting to us.

The movie presents an overview of the major factors involved with the industrial-caloric complex: the political, the economic, the medical, and the environmental. The political, showing the toothlessness of the federal government (when the USDA can’t even shut down processing plants known to be producing unsanitary food). The economic, where food—by which I mean food “product,” or the crap that litters our stores—is made so cheap by the vast corn subsidies our government gives “farmers,” by which mean the multibillion dollar conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland or ConAgra or Tyson. The medical, where there’s no debate about how our modern Western diet is killing us. The environmental, where the runoff from the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, where animals are grown and live their entire lives in a cesspool of their own manure) is destroying watersheds, killing towns, and encouraging the growth of diseases like our old friend, e coli.

I also have to criticize the movie for sacrificing depth for breadth. For example, one section of the movie is the story about the low-income family who can afford dinner for a family of 4 at the Burger King drive-through (primarily because everything at Burger King is heavily processed food, dependent on the ubiquity of cheap corn). The family goes to the supermarket to find healthier, fresher choices and they simply can’t afford it. Broccoli is not deeply subsidized. Burger King is. The father is taking various medications for diabetes, the cost of which severely reduces their food budget even more. The younger daughter is now at risk for developing diabetes soon. The film gives us lots of statistics about the rise of diabetes in our country…but then assumes we know the connection between this food and the diabetes, because it sure as hell doesn’t explain it to us.

The clear culprit of our current food system is the corn subsidy. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t call for the subsidy to be ended (or at least severely changed). That may be the take-away they’re hoping we get from it, but it never says it out loud. Of course, maybe they’re worried about being sued about that kind of thing. The film does explain that, unless you’re Oprah and have the money to pay the team of lawyers to fight the Man, you’d better shut up and keep your head down, or otherwise the ranchers/Monsanto/other will sue you to kingdom come.

Many people say, If the price of food rises, people won’t be able to afford it! The answer to that one is pretty goddamn clear to me: we can’t afford what we’ve got going on now, and if people can’t afford it, it’s time to pay them some more goddamn money, isn’t it. (And stop making them spend most of their food budget on diabetes medications.) Our American way of life is not sustainable, and we have to rethink what our real priorities are here. If Food, Inc. gets people curious about the topic, so much the better.


If you are interested in this topic and don’t know where to start, here are some great books to check out. They’re popular science, meaning they’re written for normal human beings to read. (With the possible exception of The China Study, which has lots and lots of scientific studies and research for the biggest wonk to wade through, but you can still read plenty of stuff in there without going cross-eyed.)

  • Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

  • In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. This is a good overview of the problems and issues confronting us in the modern food age and asks us to really think about what we’re going to do about it.

  • Food Matters by Mark Bittman. I like Bittman’s food writing for the NY Times a lot, and this book is another good overview of the issues we need to deal with, like, NOW about our the industrial-caloric complex. Plus: recipes!

  • Food Politics by Marion Nestle. This is an excellent in-depth investigation of what makes it to your plate and why.

  • What To Eat by Marion Nestle. After Food Politics so many of her friends said, “So what am I supposed to eat, anyhow?” Nestle then went into a supermarket and investigated what the hell is actually on the shelves. Wonderful reference tome.

  • Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People In the World by Greg Critser. Critser investigates where all this cheap corn came from (the Nixon administration) and the effects it’s had on our food and our health. If you want an explanation of what high fructose corn syrup is and why it’s bad for you, check this out.

  • The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. If, like me (being a good indoctrinated American), you said, What on Earth can we learn from the Chinese about nutrition, the starvation of whom we’ve been made guilty about for years? Well, this ain’t the Cultural Revolution and China exports food to us. (Think about that.) Campbell makes it pretty clear that the absolute first line of defense against what’s known as “the Western diseases” is what goes into our mouth. You can argue with his conclusions—but this is a pretty dense scientific tome and he’s published, y’know, actual scientific papers on these topics.

  • The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Singer is a philosopher who specializes in the ethics of our food choices, which seems specialized and arcane until you realize it touches just about every single aspect of our lives. The book uses three families who have very different food philosophies (fast food, organic and free range food, vegan) as the jumping-off point to investigate where we get our food from and why it matters. I absolutely will not eat turkey ever again after reading this book (sorry, Aunt Lil, but no way, no how, am I eating turkey this Thanksgiving, or ever again at any other time). Singer is vegan but he doesn’t disparage the families who choose to eat meat: he investigates why and and where their food is coming from.

Feel free to suggest others in comments.


In my continuing quest to go vegetarian cut way back on the amount of animal products I consume (I’m sorry, I’m such a weenie, I’m just not a labels person), I have started made it my default behavior to search restaurant menus for the most vegan meal possible. That is to say: a salad without cheese as a main listed ingredient >> a salad with cheese >> a salad with fish >> fried chicken sandwich with slab o’cheese and mayo.

Holy God, it’s nearly impossible.

Seriously, play this game at the next restaurant you go to. Look for the vegetarian dish. Find the meal where you can easily remove the animal products and have anything left. When vegetarians complain about pretty much being offered green salad (and usually iceberg at that) or maybe some roasted vegetables on pasta, they are not kidding. There is such a huge range of vegetarian cuisine out there and the general public does not see any of it, unless they go to an ethnic restaurant, such as Indian or Ethiopian. (Many vegetarian entrees at Chinese restaurants are often cooked in chicken broth, so that’s a big ol’ No.) And there’s an upper limit, even for me, on the amount of falafel and hummus I can consume. Admittedly, it’s a pretty high upper limit, but a limit nonetheless.

No wonder people think vegetarians are odd: they’ve been crammed into the odd corner.

I’ve taken to using apps such as VeganXpress and VegOut to try to find someplace in the neighborhood to get something to eat. I think I need a few new ones to help me out. If you have any suggestions, leave ‘em in comments.

After the movie last night we went to Rock Bottom Brewery, where I played the “anything but iceberg lettuce” game—I have nothing against salads, salads are the best, I actually love eating huge gigantic salads now, but I don’t want that to be my only thing—and came up with… the Tex-Asian vegetable potstickers. Which turned out to be (more or less) samosas in a vaguely potstickerish wrap. Well, I guess it’s a start.

Read More

Followup to yesterday

Apr 23

Darin points out that the supremely stupid Maureen Dowd column (redundancy alert!) about Twitter contains the following exchange:

ME: Do you ever think “I don’t care that my friend is having a hamburger?”

BIZ: If I said I was eating a hamburger, Evan would be surprised because I’m a vegan.

Enough with the burgers already. We need to find a new standard food.

(Admittedly, Biz’s response is somewhat of a non-sequitur. Okay, more than just somewhat.)

Read More

It can’t be said often enough

Apr 21

Via Making Light, Charles Pierce at Eric Alterman’s blog:

I have now lived through three major episodes in my life where the political elite have told me quite plainly that neither I nor my fellow citizens are sufficiently mature to suffer the public prosecution of major crimes committed within my government. The first was when Gerry Ford told me I wasn’t strong enough to handle the sight of Richard Nixon in the dock. Dick Cheney looked at this episode and determined that the only thing Nixon did wrong was get caught. The second time was when the entire government went into spasm over the crimes of the Iran-Contra gang and I was told that I wasn’t strong enough to see Ronald Reagan impeached or his men packed off to Danbury. Dick Cheney looked at this and determined that the only thing Reagan and his men did wrong was get caught and, by then, Cheney had decided that even that wasn’t really so very wrong and everybody should shut up. Now, Barack Obama, who won election by telling the country and its people that they were great because of all they’d done for him, has told me that I am not strong enough to handle the prosecution of pale and vicious bureaucrats, many of them acting at the behest of Dick Cheney, who decided that the only thing he was doing wrong was nothing at all, who have broken the law, disgraced their oaths, and manifestly belong in a one-room suite at the Hague. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m sick and goddamn tired of being told that, as a citizen, I am too fragile to bear the horrible burden of watching public criminals pay for their crimes and that, as a political entity, my fellow citizens and I are delicate flowers encased in candy-glass who must be kept away from the sight of men in fine suits weeping as they are ripped from the arms of their families and sent off to penal institutions manifestly more kind than those in which they arranged to get their rocks off vicariously while driving other men mad.

Hey, Mr. President. Put these barbarians on trial and watch me. I’ll be the guy out in front of the courtroom with a lawn chair, some sandwiches, and a cooler of fine beer. I’ll be the guy who hires the brass band to serenade these criminal bastards on their way off to the big house. I’ll be the one who shows up at every one of their probation hearings with a copy of the Constitution, the way crime victims show up at the parole board when their attacker comes up for release. I’ll declare a national holiday–Victory Over Torture Day–and lead the parade right up whatever gated street it is that Cheney lives on these days. Trust me, Mr. President. I can take it.

Everyone who was involved—everyone—in approving these decisions, from the top down, needs to be on trial. Open it up. Let us see what was done ostensibly in our country’s name. Better yet, put them on trial at the Hague—oh, but we don’t belong to the International Criminal Court! Isn’t that convenient!

We’re plenty strong out here, Mr. President. If you keep hiding this from us, we’re going to keep on doing it.

Read More

Shopping frenzy

Nov 14

I’ve had to rediscover shopping lately, because I need some new clothes. I either a)hate the clothes I’ve been wearing and desperately want a new style, b)need new clothes because nothing I have fits at the moment, or c)have discovered a secret need to wear high heels. Okay, I don’t much understand (c) either, but ever since Nina brought over a pair of her Guess for Marciano spiked Mary Janes I’ve been wanting to wear heels like that. Only I have to practice, having been a strictly flats girl up until this point in my life, so I need to start with mid-range heels and work up to 4 1/2 inch spikes.

(She brought over the heels to try on with this dress


which I completely loved and coveted so much I went out and bought this dress


only because the red wasn’t available and because I need some kind of Little Black Dress, right? Now, of course, I need somewhere to wear this dress and whatever shoes I eventually find to go with them. I’ll leave that as an exercise for Darin.)

So I’ve been doing a lot of shopping recently. Or trying to, at any rate. I was completely unable to get into the mall at all last weekend, because of the flood of cars.

Okay, weekends are out. Yesterday I went to Valley Fair first thing in the morning, a Thursday morning, to the best of my knowledge not the first shopping day of the Xmas season or anything. And despite my intention to hand the Nordstrom shoe sellers as much money as I possibly could (at least, as much as one or two or maybe three pairs of good heels would set me back—as I have literally* have not bought anything but running shoes for years, people), I walked out of there empty-handed. Because as soon as one associate helped me, he or she disappeared to wait on the four or five other women on nearby couches buy as many shoes as they possibly could. Yes, several of them were better dressed than I was (see above, “needs new clothes”), but still. I’ve bought lots of shoes at Nordstrom over the years and never been completely ignored before.

Certainly not at eleven in the damn morning.

I finally went up to the lingerie department, where the associate was more than happy to tell me that I had gone down a band size and needed to buy several new bras.

Then I went to Macy’s and gave up on the shoe department—tons of shoe buyers, two or three very harried shoe salesmen.

I stopped in Sephora, where I was set upon by quite possibly the most hilarious queeny—his word!—makeup artist from Urban Decay ever. And the second I was out of his makeup chair, someone else was in it.

As far as I can tell, things are hopping, shopping-wise.

Then I read something like Kevin Drum’s entry today about real consumer spending, and it’s like, Whoa.

I don’t know whether the Silicon Valley is on the tail end of the dragon. Whether this ripple is spreading over the economy (starting in Detroit, maybe?) and is headed our way with a vengeance. But while there are plenty of sale signs in the windows, I haven’t seen anything like the sign one Tweeter I follow reported:

A local business is, as of today, 11/11/2008, displaying a sign out front which reads (& I am not making this up): AFTER CHRISTMAS SALE NOW

I did walk around the downtown area of my little town, and a couple of businesses are closing. But at the moment it doesn’t seem like a crazy amount. One storefront has been empty for a while—used to be a Sharper Image; remember not to go crazy with the gift cards this year—but it’s going to be an American Apparel soon. A couple of storefronts already have up signs about the next businesses moving in.

Then I read, via Hilzoy, an account in the Financial Times about what’s happened to Iceland. And how it’s spreading.

And I’m like, WTF?

I have no idea where this economy is going. I understand the need to bailout the automakers, despite the fact that they make crappy cars that no one buys. I don’t know what Hank Paulson is doing with that slush fund the Senate couldn’t wait to vote him a couple of weeks ago, and no one else does either. Oil is back down to the mid-50s, apparently because of the world recession. Or because of speculation. Or because…

Jesus, I’ve never felt this blog was so aptly named before.

The only thing I know is that I still need shoes. Of course, I don’t want to regret buying them a year from now when we’re trying to buy milk.

*It occurred to me a day after posting that in fact I did buy some shoes last year when I went to the writers and agents conference in November. But they totally f’d up my left foot and I never wear them any more. Management regrets the error.

Read More