Archive for April, 2010

Youthful Indiscretions

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Do you cling to embarrassing vestiges of your youth?  Is your autographed New Kids on the Block poster still rolled up and tucked away in your parents’ house somewhere?  Do you still have the first CD you bought?  Do you wish it were something cooler than Poison?  Are your high school diaries collecting dust until you have the emotional fortitude to throw them out?  Do you still know every single word to “Ice Ice Baby”?  Are you ambivalent about your old prom photos, wishing never to see them again, but yet unable to discard them?

My answer to all those questions is Yes.  (Except for the New Kids poster.  I can proudly say that I was never a fan of NKOTB.  Also that I never had big bangs.  I made a couple of decent decisions.)  Our youths are full of poor, but harmless, decisions.  We look back and cringe at our fashion selections, musical tastes, romantic pursuits, and rampant overuse of the word “like.”  I am no exception.

But sometimes we stumble onto something in our more formative years that endures; something that initially smacks of a teenaged phase, but somehow holds on.  Either the emotional tether to that thing (bad hat, cheesy song, flavor of lip gloss, etc.) is so strong that no amount of humiliating hindsight can sever it.  Or maybe that thing wasn’t such a bad decision after all.  Sometimes, in spite of our adolescent selves, we managed to develop an affinity to something worth holding onto.  The novels of Barbara Kingsolver.  Baking.  Or the Indigo Girls

Yes.  The Indigo Girls.  These crooners of summer camp ballads and chick rock anthems found their way to me in the most predictable of venues: the Walkman of a seatmate on a 16-passenger van during a Spring Break road trip to a Mexican border town for a church mission trip.  It doesn’t get much more clichéd than that. 

Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight the night has come. 
Fasten up your earthly burdens. 
You have just begun.

Those lyrics, sung in tight harmony over acoustic guitars, slid effortlessly into my melodramatic, 17-year-old brain and stuck.  Permanently.  I was hooked, and over the next few years I accumulated every album they’d produced since 1985.  Each song oozed with melody, harmony, and poetry – an intoxicating combination for an innocent Southern girl searching for dramatic depth and meaning in her happy and complacent little life. 

But as I outgrew many of my other youthful indiscretions, I never outgrew my love of the Indigo Girls.  Perhaps I no longer bathe myself in their lyrics looking for parallels to my own life.  But my initial affection wasn’t misguided.  They have, for 25 years now, created music that does in fact ooze with melody, harmony, and poetry.  And I’m not the least bit ashamed that I’m still lured in by it.

I thought about these things the other night as I stood on the floor of a concert hall, watching them perform live.  As everyone in the crowd sang along to our forever favorites I realized that while some of my reasons for loving this band have changed, the core reasons have not.  I love beautiful music.  I love eloquent words.  I love powerful messages.  And their songs weave each of those things together into an intangible tapestry that will always speak to me. 

It was a wonderful night.  Two girlfriends and I met up at my house, leaving our husbands and sons to fend for themselves.  And out we went for an evening of pizza, drinks, much talk of motherhood, and a date with the favorite band of our youth.  I loved every minute of it. 

I am grateful to have a life that is filled with pizza, and friendship, and beautiful music.

Whose Best Interest?

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Who is the best person to raise your children?  You, right?  And what if something happens to you?  Your spouse, right?  Most people can answer these questions without hesitation.  Our involvement in the lives of our children is instinctual and our inalienable right, right?  But those questions have become murky ones for Abbie Dorn, her ex-husband, and her parents/caretakers.

In a tragic and Terri Schiavo-esque case, legal teams for both sides are trying to answer that very question.  It is one of those cases that have no right decision and no happy ending. 

In 2002 Abbie Cohen and Daniel Dorn whipped their way through a whirlwind romance and were married after six months.  After becoming pregnant with triplets via IVF in the fall of 2005 Abbie delivered their babies via C-section in the summer of 2006.  The first two babies were delivered without incident.  But while delivering the third the OB nicked Abbie’s uterine wall with a scalpel causing Abbie to bleed severely and go into cardiac arrest.  She was revived after 20 minutes, but the duration of time that her brain went without oxygen left her severely brain damaged. 

On the triplets’ first birthday Daniel Dorn submitted divorce papers to his wife (now in her parents’ care, funded by the proceeds of a malpractice lawsuit).  The divorce was granted, but now the question on the table is whether or not Abbie should be granted visitation rights with her children. 

There are conflicting reports regarding Abbie’s mental capacity and progress.  Neurologists have described her condition as permanent.  Yet her parents and nurses tell of great strides in her brain function and communication. 

But I am not here to tell the story.  I am here to ask the questions.  (The story is available here and here in much greater detail.)  I’ll tell you right now that I don’t have the answers, that is above my pay grade.  But it is not above my pay grade to weigh them out with thoughtful consideration.  And so…

What, in the name of all that is holy, is the right way out of this mess?  The damage is done.  Abbie Dorn will never parent her children in the way that she dreamed.  That is a given.  But is there a way to make this right?  Or at least more right?  Will exposure to their mother bring anything good into the lives of her children?  Will exposure to her children help the health and well-being of the mother?  And whose best interest matters more? 

For Visitation.  Abbie Dorn is not asking for any portion of physical or legal custody, only visitation.  She carried and bore these children, and lost her life as she knew it in the process.  It is her right to see her children periodically; to watch them grow, hear their voices, and see their smiles; and to understand – at whatever level she is capable – that her loss was not in vain.  There is little, if any, risk of harm to the children through time with Abbie.  And the children themselves have a right to know their mother, even if she is but a shell of her former self.  Arguably, with proper coaching and understanding, their lives could be greatly enriched by the addition of their mother’s presence.  Additionally, Abbie herself could improve significantly if inspired by the presence of her children.

Against Visitation.  Daniel Dorn is a single father doing the best that he can in an impossible situation.  The conditions his wife now suffers are tragic, but they should not interrupt his ability to parent his children in as normal a way as he can, given the circumstances.  Cross-country travel to visit a woman who cannot sit, stand, speak, or eat will be disruptive to their upbringing and will never result in a meaningful relationship.  Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of these young children to inspire progress in their mother.

Again, I do not have the answers.  I feel sympathy for Daniel Dorn who lost his spirited wife and is left to parent his children alone.  And yet I feel anger toward him for approaching this decision with so little compassion for his wife and the woman who nearly lost her life to give him his kids.  I feel incredible sympathy for Abbie Dorn, and for her parents who have become full-time caretakers in their retirement years.  And yet I wonder if they have put themselves in Daniel’s shoes and considered the difficulty of single parenting on its own, much less after introducing the complicated topic of a severely disabled parent.

There is no right answer.  There is no happy ending.  And despite the recognition that there are no good answers, I cannot stop myself from asking the questions.

How Big Is The World?

Monday, April 26th, 2010

I can’t remember anything about any commencement address I’ve ever heard in my life.  But ten years later I can still remember the sermon from my undergraduate baccalaureate service.  The speaker, whose name has escaped me, was a woman.  She posed a question that was somewhat novel at the time, while the internet was in its relative infancy by today’s cyber standards.  I’ve considered it periodically in the intervening years, and I don’t have a better answer today than I ever have in the past.  And that fact alone makes me think that her question is every bit as relevant today as it was then. 

Her question was: “Does the internet make the world bigger or smaller?”

Our world has always been as big as we can imagine.  That has not changed with time.  And for people who dare to dream big dreams, that makes it very large indeed.  Columbus, Magellan, and other explorers found the world to be a much larger place than most of their contemporaries.  They spread the knowledge they gathered, and over time the people around them became able to imagine a world much different than the mere space in which they lived.

With the advent of the printing press, radio, and then television we were able to imagine more than ever, given the speed and granularity with which information was able to travel (not to mention the ease and affordability of travel itself).  As a child my own worldview was aided by the World Book, National Geographic, and the evening news.  But the internet took this premise to a new place altogether.  And the world became a much bigger, or smaller place, depending on your perspective. 

Information makes the world bigger because it broadens our view.  Our radius is extended and the realm in which we exist – mentally and metaphorically, if not physically – grows.  We are influenced by things happening very far away.  We factor into our decisions and outlooks the causes and effects that will be measured by people we will never meet.  In that way, the world becomes huge to us.

Conversely, information makes the world smaller because it brings things, events, and people that were previously unknown to us into the orbit of our knowledge base.  It makes things personal and intimate.  It puts the world, once abstract and intangible, squarely within our view and within our grasp.  When the entire world can influence you, and you it, it shrinks substantially as it becomes attainable in some way.

Every day I see headlines, photos, and video footage from around the world on a screen perched on my desk.  And those things become very real to me.  They are part of my world, even if they are not directly a part of my life.  They make the world fit inside of my head.  The world, to me, is made smaller by their accessibility.  But without the internet much of that information would not make its way to me; or at least not in such crystalline form.  And the boundaries of my worldview would not include these corners of our planet that failed to make the finite cuts of print media and half-hour news programs.  In this way the internet makes the world much bigger, stretching my awareness to new people and places and issues. 

I suppose the answer to this riddle-of-a-question is: both.  The world becomes bigger with increased exposure, and smaller with increased accessibility.  And this paradox has fascinated me for ten years now.  But while it’s a question to which I have settled on a quasi-answer, the related question to which I’ve not yet formulated my response is: Exactly how does this influence the way I should live my life?

What About Iceland?

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Natural disasters are part of the cost of living on this planet.  We endure earthquakes, floods, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, tsunamis, and drought.  And volcanoes.  And when one of these disasters befalls us, or our fellow man, the 24-hour cable news channels go into overdrive.  They cover the loss of life and the construction damage.  They estimate the hit to the economy.  They evaluate the most urgent needs.  They wax philosophical about what will happen when the “emergency” label is lifted and “life as normal” tries to resume.  And they interview individual people affected to give us the “story behind the story.”

For the past week we’ve all been apprised daily of the damage caused by the Icelandic volcano (whose name I’m not going to type out because you can’t pronounce it either…).  Delayed flights.  Financial losses to airlines tallying in the billions.  Government bailouts of European airlines.  Stranded travelers.  Worthless travel insurance policies.  Britain-bound fruit and vegetable exports rotting on the ground in Africa and South America.  Packed hotels.  Price gauging.  And on, and on, and on.     

None of this struck me as unusual, and for good reason: it’s not.  These are all the things we talk about ad nauseum in the aftermath of a natural disaster.  But then I was sent this set of photos taken in Iceland over the course of the past week.  That’s when it hit me. 

No one is talking about Iceland.

We’re all upside-down about Europe and air travel and the economic damage caused by volcanic ash.  But no one is talking about the damage caused in the volcano’s own back yard.  In this New York Times article from April 15th the topic of flooding and evacuation in Iceland isn’t mentioned until the third paragraph, after which the article turns immediately back to commercial flight interruptions. 

The photos in the link above (which I highly encourage you to visit) are astounding.  Films of ash on cars and roadways.  Livestock covered in grey dust.  Farmers working to seal off barns from toxic ash so that their animals can breathe safely.  Ranchers casing their own properties decked out in goggles and breathing masks. 

This is serious stuff.  And all I’m hearing about on the news is how British Airways is scrambling to get passenger backlogs cleared.  I realize that Iceland is not a huge player on the international stage.  Its entire population is roughly 317,000.  Its land mass is about 2/3 the size of California.  As measured by GDP its economy is 874 times smaller than the United States’ and the EU’s.  (Am I the only one who finds it interesting that the US and the EU have nearly identical GDP?)  So I understand that the lion’s share of the attention would expectedly be focused on the bigger fish in the Atlantic pond.  But I still find it something-bordering-on-deplorable that no one can be bothered to report on Iceland itself. 

In the aftermath of a natural disaster the victimized community itself – the community whose roads and animals are blanketed in ash – should get top billing, not the ingrate neighbors who have been logistically and financially inconvenienced by said disaster.  But that’s not the way it’s panning out this time; at least not in the media outlets that reach me. 

I recognize that the reality of the situation is that Europe is a bigger deal than Iceland.  I realize that drama sells.  And I understand that in this case this volcano caused more drama in Europe than in Iceland.  But I’m disappointed that the humanity of our news organizations stopped short of telling Iceland’s story.  This country has been gripped by a volcano’s grasp twice in the last month, with another eruption expected soon.  Perhaps with the next round of molten lava someone will have something to say about the local effects, rather than just the ripple effects felt by airline execs and vacationers abroad.

Weekly Allowance

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

It’s allowance time again.  Here are my favorite articles, posts, videos, and links from the past couple of weeks.

Earth Day – Today is Earth Day.  Find out how you can get involved here.

The Promise of Menu Labeling – When I was “researching” for my post last week about food R&D I came back across this post from Ezra Klein, which is an old favorite of mine.  Apparently menu labeling has more bearing on what is offered than what is ordered.

Cat Calling – GAP sent me this article a few days after he read my post on being cat-called in a parking lot.  I took it as flattery, but according to this piece there are more sinister undercurrents at play.

Propaganda – Can you imagine this video clip being made today?  Regardless of your views on taxes, this is fascinating from an historical perspective.  I can’t imagine the kind of backlash that such blatant propaganda would receive today.

Pick Your Price – According to this ad banner outside the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix, you only pay what you think is fair for their entrees.  Apparently many of these pricing schemes have been quite successful, though I don’t know if there are certain settings that get better results than others.


Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to various newscasters mention the impending shuttering of the NASA shuttle program.  After 30-some years of space exploration, the program is being disbanded, and surprisingly, I care.

I am not a science buff.  I care very little about space exploration, rockets, moon dust, and the like.  It is all so far away, so abstract, and has so little bearing on my daily life.  Other than the disasters, all of our space exploration has captured very little of my attention.  Nevertheless, the romance of it resonates with me.

I can imagine the 1960s.  I can picture the race with Russia.  I can understand the sense of incredible national accomplishment of Neil Armstrong’s small step that was for our country a giant leap.  And I can understand how the realization of President Kennedy’s dream fostered pride in Americans and a drive to keep striving for more.

My life has never existed without NASA buzzing about somewhere in the background; shuttles preparing to launch; satellite photos showing up in National Geographic and Time magazines.  I was born into the country that won the space race and wore that badge proudly.  As a product of the seventies I have never seen America’s superiority legitimately challenged, and there’s a certain level of braggadocio that can develop as a result.

But now we’re sitting down for a few years.  We’re going to have to hitch rides on a Russian shuttle while our own program is in time out.  Granted, there is a new program on the horizon, but it will be several years before the Constellation program is actively launching anything.  And there’s something about this that makes me a little bit sad.  It’s reassuring to know that your country’s best and brightest are behind the wheel, doing things that you will never be smart or brave enough to do yourself.  

When I say it like this it feels silly.  Much as the shuttle program didn’t affect my daily life during its lifespan, its ending likely won’t either.  And if I gleaned any sense of security from our space exploration it was probably unfounded.  I suspect that subconsciously I liked to believe that if we had the time and money to be bouncing around space, then things here on the ground must be in pretty good shape.  But I don’t have to read too many headlines to know that’s not true. 

I guess what it boils down to is that there is something romantic and powerful about space travel.  And walking away from it – even if temporarily – feels like we’re taking a step backward.  Once the newness of this change has worn off the topic of our space exploration program will probably return to the outer recesses of my mind.  But when it comes back, I’ll be cheering for it to be better than ever before.

The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Raise your hand if you’ve never primped for a date. 

Did you raise your hand?  Then you’re a liar.  We’ve all done it.  From the extensive prom night hair and makeup fiascos of our youth to the quick dab of concealer and mascara (or spritz of cologne, menfolk) prior to a casual lunch with your spouse, we’ve all spruced ourselves up for the opposite sex at some point.

I bring this up because recently I’ve been mulling over something paradoxical about primping.  When it came out a couple of years ago GAP and I got hooked on the Planet Earth nature series produced by the Discovery Channel and the BBC.  Its follow-up, Life, is currently airing. 

In watching these shows I’ve seen some incredible animals doing incredible things.  As is the case with nature, some of the more amazing scenes are of mating rituals.  A pair of water birds in Oregon essentially performs a courtship dance prior to mating.  Male species fight to the death (when necessary) over potential mates and mating territory.  And then there are the wooing techniques, which are what really stuck with me.

In nature, it is the male of each species whose physical characteristics are most striking.  Thinking of the common animals I see routinely, male cardinals are bright red and male mallards have striking green heads.  Their female counterparts are both plain brown.  Getting a bit more exotic, male lions have thick manes, and male peacocks have brilliantly colored feathers.  And in my recollection from the televised series it is the males of nearly any other species whose appearance changes most significantly during mating season to impress available female mates.

This all seems quite normal in the context of a televised nature show.  But what struck me about it is that in the human species we have evolved in quite the other direction.  Barring the metrosexual male for a moment, when have you ever known a man to routinely spend an hour getting ready for an event?  When has the man in your life (or you yourself if you’re a man) spent time blow drying, curling, or straightening your hair; or using half a dozen brushes of various sizes and shapes to apply makeup with just the right shading and blending; or routinely gone for facials, manicures, or pedicures; or gotten waxed?  These elaborate (and sometimes painful and invasive) rituals are, for the most part, exclusive to women. 

Sure, some of these things we do for ourselves (a mani/pedi – especially when I don’t smudge the polish – is one of my favorite pampering treats), but largely these beauty contortions are done for someone else.  And said contortions tend to get the most elaborate when that someone else is a romantic interest of some kind.     

So jumping back to the animal kingdom, how did our mating rituals get so mixed up?  Assuming that we humans are smarter than any other species, perhaps the animals have it all wrong.  But understanding that we are vastly outnumbered by species in which the male animal goes to great lengths to attract a mate, then perhaps we have it all wrong.  Perhaps I should have spent my college years showing up to parties in jeans, old rugby shirts, and tattered baseball caps.  And perhaps I should have expected the frat guys to spend an hour or more primping and plucking in order to woo me away from my spot against the wall so that I could invite them up to my room to “listen to this cool new CD I just got.”  Somehow, though, I suspect that such a tack might have rendered me single for the duration of my college years.

It’s not that I’m really interested in playing the part of the effortless guy in these scenarios.  Mostly I’m curious about how it is that within human populations the burden was transferred so wholly to the woman’s shoulders.  Men are eager mates.  That will never change.  Given this, when and why did women start working so hard to garner their attention?

Certainly things balance out during a courtship, wherein the man traditionally bears more of the responsibility for planning dates, impressing the woman he’s pursuing, and ultimately proving himself a worthy partner.  But when it comes to first impressions, it is the women who sport teased manes and colorful faces. 

Nevertheless, I am a product of my culture.  I like getting dolled up.  I love it when I manage to get my eye shadow to blend just so, and when my hair bounces with silky shine against my shoulders.  I love putting on a new outfit for the first time.  And I love the way small drop earrings catch the light against my neck.  Apparently my skills in this arena are respectably well-honed, because more than ten years ago I caught the attention of GAP.  But I wonder what his response to me would have been without the made-up face, painstakingly chosen outfits, and gallons of freesia-scented body spray?

I won’t ever know.  And I don’t foresee this established cultural norm changing anytime soon.  So I will continue wonder about this with the understanding that it will likely continue to perplex me for quite some time.

PS – If my title today threw you for a loop, it’s the title of a movie from the late 90′s that GAP and I once regretably rented during a snowed-in weekend in the upper midwest.  The title was the best thing about it.

Once More, With Feeling

Friday, April 16th, 2010

“Once more, with feeling.”

That’s what I wanted to say to the guy. 

It was Wednesday night.  I had just thrown a chicken into the oven to roast and had to pop out to Whole Foods to pick up ingredients for my dad’s birthday dinner the following night.  I had less than an hour to drive to Whole Foods, find the things I needed, and return home in time to take the chicken out of the oven so that GAP wouldn’t have to be entrusted with determining whether or not the chicken was done.  So I was in a hurry. 

I pulled into the parking lot and briskly walked toward the door.  As I stepped up onto the curb I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention.  The toe of my shoe scuffed the corner of the curb.  I thought, “I’m going to stumble a little.  This is going to be embarrassing.”  That’s when slow motion kicked in.  The angle of my torso shifted downward and didn’t come back up.  My purse fell from my shoulder.  My hair flew into my face.  I was about halfway to the ground when I realized this wasn’t a stumble.  I was going all the way down. 

Palm.  Palm.  Knee.  Shin. Hip.  Gale on the ground. 

I sat still for a fraction of a moment.  Damage assessment: scuffs, but no bleeding.  And then, for what reason I don’t know, I looked around.  I saw a guy walking into the store who had clearly watched me bite it on the sidewalk.  With his cell phone pressed against his ear he kept walking.  He was going to try to avoid me!  I gave him a pleading look.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I was hoping he would come to my aid.  (When did I develop a Rapunzel complex?)  Instead, in a tone that can only be described as obligatory he said, “Uh.  Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” was the only response I could muster.

“Let’s try that again, shall we?  Would it kill you to feign concern for a woman who just wiped out on a public sidewalk?” was what actually first sprang to mind.  (Actually, my first thought was somewhat coarser.  This unspoken thought only formed after I collected my ladylike sensibilities.)

There I was, feeling foolish and clumsy.  Feeling flustered and a little scared.  And feeling a bit mad at myself for doing something so stupid.  I watch IEP fall down dozens of times each day.  But babies have more padding and a shorter distance to fall.  For an adult (who’s not playing beach volleyball) it’s very unnerving.  And for me, the most overwhelming part about it was loneliness of the whole affair.

Cell phone guy, with his I-can’t-be-bothered-with-your-pavement-wipe-out attitude, was isolating.  I was on my own, and his cool body language made that abundantly clear.  He had better places to be and better people to talk to.  I was a momentary inconvenience in his evening.  And in a moment of need that’s a pretty hurtful vibe to get.

I walked into the store and started meandering among the produce when the tears came.  Not many.  Just one or two.  But enough to make me feel more foolish than I already did.  Crying in a sea of vegetables over a fall that wounded little more than my pride?  Talk about ridiculous.  But it didn’t feel ridiculous.  It felt real and painful and scary and lonely. 

I pulled it together before approaching the butcher counter for my dad’s birthday steak.  The man at the counter was helpful and jovial and took my mind off of my scratched hands and dented dignity.  I made my way through the rest of the store collecting the items on my list.  I returned home in time to take the chicken out of the oven and tell my sob story to GAP, who didn’t seem to entirely understand what was so upsetting to me about the incident. 

I guess the reason I felt compelled to tell this story here and now is in the vein of a public service announcement:  If you ever watch someone fall down on a sidewalk at Whole Foods, run over to them.  Help them up.  Ask if they’re okay, and mean it.  And tell them you know a girl who did the same thing once, and in spite of the humiliation she felt in that moment, wished someone had done the same for her. 

I’m sure there is a deeper message here; something about pride, or service, or the metaphorical stumble instead of the literal one.  But sometimes what happens on the outside – helping someone up from a fall – is every bit as important as the current of meaning and subtext that runs underneath it.

R&D Darlings

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

For the past few weeks I’ve spent my Saturday mornings curled up watching the prior evening’s episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably heard about it:  Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and nutrition activist, has taken on Huntington, WV as the starting point for the food revolution he hopes to start in America.  Through PR events, publicity stunts, and old fashioned cooking he is endeavoring to elicit a change in the way Huntington’s citizens make decisions about food.

It’s a compelling challenge, and a worthy one, I believe.  Without trifling with silly things like statistics, we all know that the American diet is killing our country, and is beginning to drag the rest of the world down with us as they adopt our dietary habits.  And yet we continue to become heavier and more diseased due to our food choices, despite a base level of knowledge that French fries and soda are unhealthy. 

This is a complex problem, the solution to which cannot begin to be devised in a single blog post.  There are social, financial, industrial, educational, socio-economic, political, and cultural forces at play, all of which intermingle in nuanced and unknown ways.  But there is one component of that cocktail that has been flitting about in my head recently. 

The other day I came across this article about McDonald’s head chef.  Yes, McDonald’s has a head chef.  He is paid to apply his vast culinary knowledge to the fast food machine, finding inspiration in food he’d actually be proud to prepare and commoditizing it into food that Americans actually want to eat.  Reading that article then made me think of this post by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wherein he analyzes the smoke and mirrors that are The Cheesecake Factory.

These articles both point to something that is often overlooked in the battle against the bulge.  Every day vast corporations employing teams of highly trained specialists spend astronomical amounts of money creating, testing, and modifying their menu offerings to accomplish two things: 1) making them profitable, and 2) making them irresistible.  When you walk into a chain restaurant you sit down to a menu that exists for the sole purpose of making your mouth water.  And this, my friends, makes healthy living quite tricky.

An increasing number of chains have begun to provide some transparency around the nutritional make-up of their menus.  The Cheesecake Factory is not among them.  Open their menu and you are facing a nutritional black box.  You know precious little about the health ramifications of the decision you’re about to make.  What you know a lot about, though, are the pleasure ramifications.  Absent any other data you are destined to make an ill-informed, if well-intentioned, decision.  Concern over any nutritional missteps can be assuaged by the knowledge that this is just one meal.  And that is where the train runs off the tracks.

A failure to extrapolate the implications of a single meal decision out over a lifetime of eating is what takes a simple, harmless indulgence and transforms it into diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and various cancers.  Eating pizza for supper tonight is not a crisis.  Even eating too much pizza for supper tonight is not a crisis.  But eating pizza for supper several nights a week is a categorically different situation.  The thing is, we all know this.  But there are many compelling reasons to make poor choices.  They are cheap, convenient, and utterly delicious. 

But here’s my favorite factor at play in this dark underworld of food R&D.  We have the power of the purse.  Restaurant corporations are Goliath, but we are David.  So far, we have played into their hands, padding both our bottoms and their bottom lines.  But armed with knowledge we become wise to their wiles.  For me there is something empowering about the awareness that I’ve been duped.  Specifically, I get a little bit mad.  And when I get a little bit mad it makes me want to get a little bit even.  I am one woman.  I understand that eating my salad at home instead of in a restaurant booth isn’t going to change the system.  But if a few million of us decided to try our hands at some good natured revenge it might add up to something. 

I’m sure this is all quite naïve.  But I can’t help but find myself saddened by the knowledge that big companies are playing to our evolutionary and cultural weaknesses and spinning it as family, fraternity, and fun.  We are not stupid.  And I think we should stand up and say so.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #4

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

My vegetarian experiment concluded a couple of weeks ago, but I have a couple of straggler recipes that I wanted to post.  You can link to the quinoa recipe by clicking on the name.  Hope you enjoy these!

Corn and Black Bean Quinoa Salad
: Gimme Some Oven
: Easy.  Just your basic chopping and stirring.
Labor: Low.  This came together in about 20 minutes with very little fuss.
Overall Results:  Very good.  I increased all the veggies.  I used a whole bell pepper, 4 or 5 scallions, ½ cup cilantrio, and two ears of corn.  I stuck with the single can of beans called for.  The veggies didn’t overpower the grain at all, so I’ll make it this way again.  I also thought the dressing needed a little sweetening, so I added a tablespoon or so of honey.  This kept well for 4 or 5 days in the fridge. 

Black Bean Soup
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Super Easy.  If you can slice a shallot and open two cans, you’re all set.
Labor: Low
Overall Results:  I was really happy with this.  I had some leftover beans and broth and decided not to waste them for a change.  I didn’t have any at the time, but this would be great served with a dollop of sour cream on top. 

2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 Tbs vegetable oil
½ tsp cumin
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
Salt and pepper
Sour cream and cilantro (optional)


  1. Sauté shallots in vegetable oil over medium high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add beans and cumin and continue to sauté one minute more.  Add broth and bring to a simmer. 
  3. Transfer to a blender or food processor (I used an immersion blender which worked great) and puree until smooth.  Return to pot and simmer until soup has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Serve with sour cream and chopped cilantro on top.