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Archive for September, 2010

A Nation of Gluttons

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

News flash: Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables

We are a nation of gluttons.  We read it every day.  We hear stories on food deserts.  There are “special reports” about our addictions to convenience foods.  There is a whole movement called Meatless Mondays sweeping health- and eco-conscious consumers who aim to reduce their carbon footprint and up their vegetable intake.  And yet, as a nation, we still fail.

I am no vegetable saint.  I get a decent amount of produce in my diet, but on many days I still don’t meet the federal guidelines.  (Like many people, I’m better with fruit.)  Nevertheless, I have some go-to vegetable recipes that keep me from turning into a French fry, and in an effort to serve the greater good (I’m so charitable!) I’m going to share them with you today.

My Favorite Salad Dressing
This is from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris cookbook.  It is our regular salad dressing and is also quite good drizzled over steamed veggies.  It keeps in the fridge for 4 or 5 days, although you may need to stir it if the oil has begun to separate. 

1 egg yolk
½ tsp spicy brown mustard (Grey Poupon or similar)
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tbs white wine vinegar (depending on how much zing you like)
½ C extra virgin olive oil

Whisk all ingredients except the oil in a small bowl.  Then, while whisking rapidly, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  (And don’t eat this if you’re pregnant.)

My Favorite Broccoli
Super easy and so much better than steamed broccoli.  It’s not a pretty dish, but trust me, the flavor is great and this is really cozy in the winter.  (You can also use this preparation for cauliflower, which actually is pretty when roasted.)

2 heads broccoli, cut into large florets
¼ to ½ C olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 400.  Spread broccoli florets onto a large baking sheet.  (I use a half-sheet pan.)  Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Using your hands, toss to coat.  Roast for 10 minutes.  Then pull the pan out and flip each floret over with tongs.  Put back in the oven for another 10 minutes.  Ta Da!  (To do sweet potatoes, cut them into thick slices and extend your roasting time to 15 minutes per side.)

My Favorite Brussels Sprouts
Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen is frequently a genius.  This recipe is evidence of that.  I won’t re-type it here because if you go over to the SK site you’ll get all of Deb’s witty banter and stunning photos.  But I will sing its praises saying that the rich, deep flavor provided by the combination of the pancetta and balsamic vinegar is just to die for.  But, if you’re a vegetarian you can easily omit the pancetta and the dish won’t suffer too much.  Be forewarned, though, that if you don’t like the flavor of balsamic vinegar to begin with, this recipe isn’t for you!

My Favorite Sautéed Spinach
This is more of what my grandmother would have called “a procedure” so don’t get hung up on measurements.  It’s hard to mess this up.  The quantities below will make about two servings.

½ bag prewashed spinach
½ small yellow onion, cut into half moons
1 clove garlic, minced
olive oil
salt and pepper

Drizzle about 3 Tbs of olive oil into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the spinach and turn it frequently with tongs so that it cooks evenly, about 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  You could also top with some grated parmesan if you’re feeling fancy.

My Favorite Pumpkin Soup
This week I finally had to put on a fleece for my morning outing with our dogs.  That means soup weather is just around the corner.  Pumpkin is packed with beta carotene and other stuff which I’m told is good for me but I don’t really know why.  So I eat it.  It’s delicious in pies, but I actually like this soup better.  (I prefer to eat my autumnal pie calories in the pecan format.)

2 shallots, minced
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 can pumpkin puree
1 can low sodium chicken broth
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
¼ to ½ cup cream

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Sauté the shallots until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add pumpkin puree and sauté for about one minute before stirring in the chicken broth.  Bring to a gentle simmer and add brown sugar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  Simmer, uncovered for about 5 minutes until thickened slightly.  Add cream and adjust seasonings to taste.

A Blessing and a Curse

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Or perhaps, rather, a curse and a blessing.  For in this situation it seems that the blessing arrives eventually, but only once the curse has run its course.  A little background…

GAP and I have long wanted to adopt.  He has a brother and sister who were adopted and it was only a few months after we started dating that he confessed to me his desire to also adopt one day.  It had never occurred to me until then, and it wasn’t something for which I shared his passion initially.  But as I got to know his family; as I watched the video of his brother and sister joining their new family for the first time; and as they became my own family I grew to share GAP’s passion for adoption.  Since we got married our tentative family plan has always included two biological children and two adopted children.  That plan has also included children who are adopted outside of their infancy, since GAP’s brother and sister were older when they were adopted and he has a particular soft spot for kids he believes might otherwise be overlooked.  We believe – strongly – that adoption is one of the best things we can do.

Given all of this, you must imagine the sucker-punched feeling that developed in my stomach as I read this blog post over at NYT’s Motherlode.  It discusses one book and one documentary which speak some painful truths about this act which we like to believe is unilaterally positive.  Of course I understand that expanding your family via adoption carries with it some very different and pronounced growing pains.  But in all of my visions of a future with adopted children I’ve never played any role but the good guy.

However, adoptive parents (particularly in the world of international adoptions where the kids tend to be a bit older – just the kind of adoption we intend to enter into) are not always seen by their adopted children as the good guys.  As it turns out many of these children no longer hail from orphanages, but from foster homes.  They may spend the first two or three years of their life with a single set of foster parents, who, by the time they are adopted, are the only family they’ve ever known.  I know a lot of two- and three-year-olds.  They know exactly who their parents are.  They know exactly what “home” is.  They know when things feel strange, and unfamiliar, and frightening.  I cannot imagine the traumatic horror that must ensue every time a little [insert nationality here: Chinese, Russian, etc] child is yanked away from their whole known world just because some nice white lady in the States will be able to provide him orthodontia send him to a four-year undergraduate program.  And yet, that is exactly what I plan to do.

Yes, that last sentence is probably a bit dramatic.  In the long run most internationally adopted children are far better off in their adopted homes (with health care, safe housing, education, and a constant, supportive family) than they ever would have been as a product of the foster care system.*  But as a mother I can only imagine what my son would experience if he were handed over to another set of parents on another continent merely because their ability to provide for him surpassed my own.

I’m struggling with this.  I do not have a tidy conclusion for you.  I believe that adoption is a good thing.  I believe that I am a good person trying to help make someone’s life better.  But I cannot yet reconcile the fact that for me to do this thing I believe is good, I must first do this thing I believe is horrible.

If any of you has any experience in this realm (I’m looking at you, Jane!) I hope you’ll see fit to offer it here.  I’m really feeling quite lost at the moment.

*I mean no disrespect to foster parents.  Most of them are saints, doing hard work in imperfect circumstances.  I mean only to assert that the stability of a permanent family is almost always preferable to the uncertainty of most foster programs.

Encyclopedia Britannica vs. World Wide Web

Friday, September 24th, 2010

We are becoming a culture of instant informational gratification.  With wireless internet and web-enabled phones around us at all times there is nearly nothing we can’t find out in mere moments.  What won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1968?  Is this a poisonous or edible variety of mushroom growing in my backyard?  What is the third-tallest mountain in the world?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.  But I could find out in less than 30 seconds if I wanted to.  (Except the mushroom one.  I don’t actually have mushrooms growing in my backyard…) My immediate response is that this is a good thing.  It is a good thing that I can answer my own questions quickly, easily, and with a reasonable degree of confidence.  In these situations my costs to learn are very low.  How could anyone ever cast a shadow on fast and free information?

Naturally, someone had to rain on the internet’s parade.  (Poor internet…)  In this article Ben Greenman argues that instantaneous answers perhaps do us a disservice by satisfying our curiosities too easily.  He suggests that when questions go unanswered for a period of time they have the opportunity to fester and grow.  Such questions may even develop into legitimate passions, he argues.

I’ve given Mr. Greenman’s premise some thought over the past few days.  I wanted very much to agree with him.  I wanted to applaud his notion that making things harder makes them more valuable.  I wanted to jump on his bandwagon of belief that things that cost more must be worth more. 

But I just couldn’t do it.  Not with information.  Not with learning.  For the first time in human history we are approaching a place where information is equally available.  The internet gives the same answers to a kid in Kansas as to a kid in Cambridge.  And that is a huge statement.  (I will, for the purposes of this post, conveniently ignore China’s censors of Google.  I’ll keep my rant contained to the domestic.)  Rationing information for our children just because we had to work harder for the same answers (or live without them in many cases) when we were younger doesn’t accomplish a thing.  Not to mention that in my experience a passion must be fed, not starved, in order to flourish. 

In that regard the internet is a magical playland for our passions.  It allows us to dip our toes into something and make an educated decision about whether or not in impassions us.  It allows us to explore new interests until we are bursting with information.  The internet allows us to skim across the surface or dig deep into any topic.  We can meet people who share our passions, but whom we never would have met in the offline world.  Truly, the internet is a veritable petri dish for passions. 

I’m sorry Mr. Greenman, but I call shenanigans on your position.  Your heart, I am sure, is in the right place.  But your logic, I fear, is not.

Risky Business?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

I have calmed down over time. 

I used to be a worrier – a big one.  Raised by a varsity worrier, I developed deft and highly tuned “worst case scenario” skills.  I assumed that no news was always bad news, and that the absence or delay of a check-in phone call was the tell-tale sign of disaster.  It was a stressful (and frequently unpleasant) way to live. 

But, as I said, I have calmed down over time.  When GAP is late getting home from work I no longer assume he’s been broadsided by a city bus.  When Nanny forgets to call me when she and IEP return home from a morning outing I do not assume that they were both abducted and are stuck in the trunk of a car.  I have trained myself to realize that the risk of these events is infinitesimally small.  I have learned to curb my imagination and keep my blood pressure in check.  It’s nice.

I wonder, though, if my whole new risk assessment paradigm will fly out the window when IEP gets a bit older.  As a parent it is (to some extent) my job to worry on his behalf.  My eyes are glued to him any time we are near a pool.  I don’t let him run too fast on the hardwood floors in socks.  He isn’t allowed near anything hot or sharp.  He doesn’t know better yet, and right now it’s my job to protect him from himself.  But eight or nine years from now?  He’ll be standing on the corner to catch the school bus.  He’ll be walking to a friend’s house alone.  He’ll be playing sports and playing online.  At that point my bigger initiative will be protecting him from other dangers.  And that is where this whole premise of risk and caution gets interesting. 

I recently read this NYT article (which I highly recommend) about how parents assess and attempt to mitigate risks to their children.  As it turns out, we’re miserable at it.  According to mother/author Christie Barnes, “We are constantly overestimating rare dangers while underestimating common ones.”   We are more concerned about kidnapping that car wrecks even though we know, statistically speaking, that getting in the car is the most dangerous thing most of us do all day.  The article goes on to say:

We probably do this because our brains are not designed to process abstract or long-term risk. We were built to hear a sound, determine whether it is the growl of a saber-tooth, and then decide to run or go back to sleep. But in a world where you can hear the roar of what may or may not be a tiger (or a kidnapped child) in Montana while you are sitting in your kitchen in Florida, it’s tough to assess personal danger. With worst-case scenarios being thrown our way hourly on TV and the Internet, our sense of proportion and ratio becomes muddled.    

This fascinates me, probably because it rings so true.  We are disproportionately aware of risk that, more often than not, isn’t even posed to us.  I hear a story of a kidnapping in California, or Texas, or Virginia and I immediately go to the mental place of, “what if it were my family?”  And yet it wasn’t my family.  It wasn’t any of the millions of other families in those areas.  It was one hideously unlucky family whose circumstances are likely nothing like my own.  The NYT article cites a research study that was done which concluded that in order to ensure that your child were kidnapped, you’d have to leave him on a street corner for 750,000 hours.  Astounding! 

So, my son is at greater risk every Sunday afternoon when we load up into the car and go to Whole Foods (wherein he will hug me from the shopping cart every time I feed him a sample of cheese), than he will be as a grade schooler walking to a neighbor’s house to play catch. 

So what are we parents doing?  How can we worry ourselves to tears over things like which bike helmet we choose if we let our kids play peewee football and drink soda with supper?  We want to believe that we’ve protected them against everything.  But we can never do that.  So why don’t we focus on the evils that are statistically more likely and within our control, rather than worry about a boogey man who may not even exist in the first place?

——————————————–

The aspect of this issue that the story didn’t really address is one that has gotten attention elsewhere, and that is the issue of the child’s independence.  Lenore Skenazy famously let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone.  She wrote an article about it which elicited both cheers and jeers, which then prompted her to launch her blog Free Range Kids.  I have mixed reactions to her site, finding myself perplexed about many of the issues she sites.  I am however, passionate about the raising self-sufficient, confident kids who approach the world with conviction.  I have no idea how I’ll do it, but I’m confident it will involve letting go more often than I’ll want to.

Family Traditions

Monday, September 20th, 2010

I spent a fair amount of time over the weekend thinking about traditions.  Specifically, I wondered what my own family’s traditions will be.  It was an assortment of hot air balloons that sent me on this mental tangent.

Every year our city hosts a hot air balloon race.  The race is always held on a Saturday.  And on the night before they have what’s called the Balloon Glow.  All of the balloons are inflated, but tethered to the ground.  After the sun sets the inflated balloons synchronize their flames so that they all glow in unison.  It’s really pretty amazing.

Many families take blankets, camp chairs, picnic suppers, and make an evening of it.  Even if we’d had the forethought to plan such an evening, IEP’s bedtime would have cut us short.  But as I watched children running around, parents sitting back watching them, and a backdrop of glowing hot air balloons I thought ahead to next year.  IEP will be nearly three and I wonder if we might be one of those families relaxed on blankets enjoying a perfect autumn evening.  And I wonder if we’ll go every year; if the Balloon Glow will become one of our family’s traditions.

I look back to my own childhood and think fondly of some of our traditions:  Sour cream coffee cake and scrambled eggs on Christmas morning.  Playing miniature golf during vacations to Colorado.  “Going around the table” during dinner after church every Sunday and contributing our own responses to a common question. 

As I think about these things I’m struck by the fact that I have no idea how or why or when each one originated.  I’m quite confident that my parents didn’t set out to make them traditions.  They evolved organically – threads in the fabric of our family that emerged into a pattern over time.

So, back to today, and back to my family.  Here is my question:  Must traditions evolved organically?  Or can we be proactive about creating them?  And if they come about on purpose, are they cheapened by that genesis in any way?

I suppose, more than anything, I hope that my family has traditions.  I hope that we will have quirks and idiosyncrasies that are enduring and beloved.  I hope that our traditions are remembered affectionately by my children when they are grown.  I imagine that every family has traditions of some kind, and that ours will be no exception.  But we are still a young family and most (if not all) of our family traditions are still to be born.  So I am left to wonder what they will be and where they will come from.  My mind could go in a thousand directions with a topic like this.  But I suspect I will be best serve by letting our traditions develop on their own.

Let Me Tell You A Little Bit About Myself

Friday, September 17th, 2010

When I started this blog my intention was to explore ideas, to force myself to think about things more critically, and to challenge myself to be more observant of the world around me.  In pursuing that goal I have written a great deal about my response to various topics and experiences, but not very much about myself as a person. 

So, because today is my birthday, I thought it an opportune moment to give you a glimpse into some other, less cerebral, aspects of me.  I love reading these kinds of lists about other people, so I hope you will find this list interesting, and not utterly self-absorbed.  If you find it utterly self-absorbed please feel free to stop reading now and come back on Monday.  I take no offense. 

  1. A lifetime reader of fiction, I have dedicated this entire year (with one exception) to reading nonfiction.
  2. I will devote next year to reading literary classics that I’ve never read before.
  3. From the time I graduated college until I got married I lived alone.  I loved it.  I wouldn’t trade my family for anything, but there are days when I truly miss the peace of living alone.
  4. During my pregnancy I loved not knowing whether IEP was a boy or girl, but I get secretly annoyed when other people don’t find out. 
  5. I love just about anything written by Aaron Sorkin.
  6. My current favorite comfort food meal is a thick slice of rustic Italian bread toasted and topped with a big ladle-full of tomato sauce and a poached egg.  Just heaven.
  7. Every Christmas I buy a tin of Williams-Sonoma’s Peppermint Bark and never finish it.
  8. Sundays are my best days.  I start the day with a 4.5 mile run.  Then we go to church.  Then I volunteer at the hospital for three hours.  Then IEP and I go run errands and get ready for the week.  By the end of the day I feel like I’m the best possible version of myself. 
  9. My favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver, John Steinbeck, and Malcolm Gladwell. 
  10. When I was 26 I traveled to China for business and was taken out for Peking Duck.  I was served an entire dish of duck tongues (thankfully flavored heavily with garlic) and had to eat them lest I insult my host.  They were chewy and slippery and awful, just as you’d expect duck tongues to be.
  11. Growing up I always thought I wanted to have two kids, but after marrying my husband (oldest of six) I’ve come to also want a large(ish) family. 
  12. My favorite book is Gone with the Wind.  Despite what people may think, it was not the genesis of chick lit.  It is a massive American saga that just happens to have a female protagonist.  I am a bit militant about this point, but don’t talk about it often because very few of my contemporaries have actually read it I just end up sounding like a shrew. 
  13. During the 13 months that I nursed IEP I out-ate my husband every single day.  When I finally weaned IEP I was sad not to nurse anymore, but mostly sad not to be able to eat 3,000 calories a day. 
  14. I was president of my sorority in college.  It was not a particularly good experience and given the option to do it again I would decline it.
  15. If I could make any physical changes to myself I would make my hair thicker and my left foot the same size as my right foot.  (The left is slightly larger.)
  16. I am freakishly ticklish.
  17. I dream of living in New York, but fear that if/when that ever happens it won’t live up to my expectations.
  18. I deplore condescension and false humility.
  19. My dogs shed constantly.  I have to sweep my house three or four times a week.
  20. I sometimes worry that I come across as too serious on this blog.
  21. I love going to movies alone.  Except that I have to be very strategic about soda consumption because you can’t leave your purse/coat on your seat if you need to go to the bathroom. 
  22. I try to exercise four days a week.  I am successful about 75% of the time. 
  23. In 2006 GAP and I went to Italy for two weeks.  It was the best vacation either of us has ever taken. 
  24. I don’t bite my nails but I do bite my cuticles.  I’ve tried to stop since junior high.  I have failed every time.
  25. You could not begin to count the freckles on my face.  There must be hundreds.  I never outgrew them.  I actually hardly even notice them, but I know I’d be heartbroken if they ever faded away.
  26. I hate the way Terry Gross on NPR says, “Fresh Air” as though the title of her show were divinely inspired.  But I love the show. 
  27. I have iPhone envy.  My company-issued cell phone is a BlackBerry with the text messaging functionality disabled.  I hate it.  I could get my own personal iPhone, but I’m convinced that carrying two phones would be more annoying than carrying one crappy phone.  So I just live with the BlackBerry and try to curb my complaining. 
  28. I love playing the game with people where they have to identify the five books and five movies they would take to a desert island.  I think you can actually learn quite a bit about people that way.
  29. If I could have any superpower it would be time travel.  I wish I could hopscotch around different eras and see what life was like in those times.  (Perhaps strangely, I’m only curious about the past.  I have no interest in glimpsing the future.)
  30. I don’t drink beer.  I just don’t like the way it tastes.  Spicy, big-bodied red wines, on the other hand…
  31. In the world of fast food I think that Burger King has the best burgers, McDonald’s has the best fries, and Wendy’s has the best shakes.  Once during maternity leave I was craving junk food and attempted to create the perfect fast food meal by driving to an intersection that had all three restaurants.  I bought the respective “best” item from each place and drove home to eat them all together.  It did not live up to my expectations, but now I never have to go to that trouble again because I know it’s not really worth it. 
  32. I love our nanny more than I ever dreamed I could.  She has become an integral part of our family and I’m so thankful to have her helping raise our son. 
  33. Is the number of years old I am today.

The Pitfalls of Prudence

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

When I was a college freshman there was a frozen yogurt machine in our dining hall.  My sorority pledge sisters and I loaded up our waffle cones before heading back to our dorm rooms each night with nary a thought of the number of calories we held in our hands (probably more than 500).  Frozen yogurt, you see, is low fat.   (Are you laughing at that logic?  Because I am.) 

As you might have guessed, this is the story of the Freshman 15.

Yesterday morning NPR aired this story about freshman weight gain.  It discusses how and why 18-year-olds living quasi-independently for the first time in their lives are prone to adding extra pounds.  (Umm, free food, cheap beer, no supervision, and living in a 24/7 co-ed slumber party – who wouldn’t gain weight?)  The reasons provided by the sources interviewed are all very observant and very predictable – new freedoms, lots of stress, and easy access to junk food.  Is this healthy?  No.  Is it an important component of the undergraduate experience?  I’m inclined to say yes. 

That’s right.  I’m about to advocate for the Freshman 15.  Buckle up.

Let’s dispense with formalities first.  Clearly I don’t believe that sleep deprivation paired with a diet of pizza, Coke, Reese’s Pieces, and gummy bears is healthy.  So don’t be mistaken about that.  What I wonder, though, is whether the merits of such a lifestyle (for a finite period of time) outweigh the costs?  I will explain.

As an undergraduate I believe you have two primary sets of responsibilities.  The first is academic: Show up for class.  Choose a major.   Study for tests and write term papers.  Make decent grades.  Prepare yourself for some kind of career.  The second is cultural: Meet new people.  Learn how to live life unchaperoned.  Deal with consequences on your own.  Dip your toes into the waters of adulthood.  Make incredible memories that cannot be made during any other phase of life. 

It is that last imperative that I think is compromised by a college career marked by bedtimes and balanced meals.  And I come to this conclusion via personal experience. 

Throughout college I was, for the most part, the consummate good girl.  I made it to the dining hall for breakfast every day.  I exercised at least three times per week.  I didn’t skip class.  I drank in moderation.  And I was in bed by 10:30 most weeknights.  I had my vices (Sonic and procrastination being foremost among them – it was a life on the edge, to be sure), and I actually did have a tremendous amount of fun.  But I look back on my college career wondering what raucous misadventures and side-splitting belly laughs I might have added to my collection of memories if I’d been willing to stay up past midnight.  I wonder to what extent my friends and peers would have found me more relatable if I’d indulged in some late-night munchies and shared in their 10am exhaustion the next day.  I wonder how much I segregated myself from the quintessential college experience by making good choices day after day.

The ramifications of four years filled with pizza, sugar, alcohol, and very little sleep can be remedied.  The experience that was lost by spending those years acting as a tiny adult rather than an overgrown adolescent can never be retrieved.  I don’t regret that I never took up smoking.  I don’t regret that I never drove drunk.  I don’t regret that I never failed a class.  But I do regret that I was so wrapped up in making prudent, responsible decisions that I self-selected out of some of college’s best experiences.

The NPR piece follows a George Washington University freshman named Katie O’Toole.  O’Toole and her roommate have not succumbed to freshman weight gain.  They are sticking with the healthy habits they learned at home – breakfast, exercise, time management, etc.  But the story’s reporter observed that students who choose this path tend to band together because they are such a small minority.

I’d like to talk to Katie O’Toole.  I’d like to tell her that she doesn’t need to make the “right” decision every time.  A few late night visits from the Domino’s delivery guy aren’t going to derail her.  They might actually endear her to dorm-mates who have trouble relating to her good-girl agenda.  And by endearing herself to people who aren’t just like her, she might broaden herself a bit.  She might be involved in some late-night follies.  Sure, she might gain a few pounds.   She also might laugh until she cries.  But she can run an extra mile tomorrow.  And the memories will last forever.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Monday, September 13th, 2010

When I was working on my MBA, economics was my favorite subject.  I love the way that Thing A affects Thing B, which affects Thing C, which in turns affects Thing A again.  The cause and effect of it resonates with me.  I also love the psychology of it.  When Things A, B, and C are actually people or companies and they are making incentive-based decisions my little heart goes all a-twitter and I just can’t wait to see how thing turn out.  You’d think I were in the throes of an Agatha Christie novel.  (Don’t even get me started on network externalities or the Prisoner’s Dilemma.)

One of the other things that I love about economics is that it is at play in nearly every aspect of our lives, even in places we might never think to look.  One such story was covered during Morning Edition’s business news on NPR this morning and I listened intently.

Apparently used cars are spiking in price.  At first blush this sounds counterintuitive, right?  Bad economy = fewer car purchases = lower prices, or so you’d think.  But as you work through the intricacies of our current economic doldrums it begins to make sense.  A used car dealer quoted in the piece explains that,

“…with the recession, people have been buying and leasing fewer new cars.  As a result, there have been fewer cars coming off leases and getting traded in. The “Cash for Clunkers” trade-in program did not help, destroying used cars that could have been bought.

So you may not have realized it, but the nation is in the grips of a used-car supply shortage. And that is what has been driving prices up.”

I would not have been surprised to hear a story about slow sales of new cars.  I would not have been surprised to hear a story about how, during these uncertain economic times, people are holding onto their current cars a bit longer.  And if I’d stopped to think about it I probably would have eventually deduced that the confluence of these events has created a third event, which is a lower supply of used cars, resulting in increased prices.

“The economy” as it is covered in the media is a big giant hairball of a thing.  It’s abstract and difficult to understand.  There are infinite moving parts.  But when it’s broken down into bite sized pieces you can see how small it can become.  It can fit neatly into tiny corners of our lives.  It can fit into a single car on a single used car lot.  And it makes me marvel at the truth in the old political saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” 

Yes it is.

Have Chopsticks, Will Travel

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Sometimes I am broadsided by issues that I had no idea were issues, such as last weekend when my family and I attended the Japanese festival in town.  Like all the other festival-goers we meandered around the grounds taking in the sights and demonstrations.  And when the time came we waited in line to pay for little paper boats of soba noodles.  We plopped down on a set of stairs, pulled our chopsticks from their paper sleeves, and gobbled away.  It was a beautiful evening and I had nary a care or concern all evening.

Then I remembered this article that I read last week about the environmental drain of disposable wooden chopsticks.  Apparently China goes through about 45 billion (with a “b”) pairs of chopsticks annually, or 130 million pairs a day.  Less jaw-dropping but still troublesome is the export market for chopsticks which tallies at 18 billion pairs per year.  In terms of land usage that means 100 acres of trees (about 100 American football fields’ worth) need to be felled every day.    

This is one of those topics that catches me off guard.  I had never once considered the environmental implications of wooden chopsticks.  Frankly, I prefer them because they don’t slip between my fingers and I feel less clumsy using them.  But now it seems that with every spicy tuna roll I eat, I’m killing the earth just a little bit. 

Like most issues, this one has a flip side: the economic implications of the wooden chopstick industry.  Apparently it employs more than 100,000 people in more than 300 factories throughout China.  Those people would, presumably, be out of work if there were a blanket conversion to reusable chopsticks.

The final component of this conundrum (not for me, but for the Chinese government) is cost.  Apparently disposable chopsticks cost about a penny a piece, whereas sterilization of reusable ones can cost anywhere from 15 to 70 cents.  Restaurants are disinclined to absorb this cost, but consumer advocacy groups are staunchly opposed to it being passed on to consumers. 

This isn’t an issue I can solve.  If I’m being perfectly frank it isn’t even an issue about which I have strong feelings one way or the other.  (There seem to be merits to each side.)  The reason it caught my attention is because it pulled me out of my little Midwestern work-a-day life and reminded me that there is more to the world than the radius in which I orbit.  Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of these things.  There are problems other than my own, that I might never have imagined, but which are no less significant to the people they affect than mine are to me.  (Also, if I’m feeling particularly green, I might start taking my own chopsticks with me.)

Forging Through Favoritism

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

I have a favorite child: IEP.  He is my smartest, funniest, cutest, and most affectionate child.  He is the most obedient and the most eager to please.  He is the most intuitive and the most insightful.  He is the most articulate.  He gives the best hugs and kisses.  He is my favorite child.

He is also my only child.

While I assume that the moment that Baby #2 arrives (no time soon, for those keeping score…) I will no longer have a favorite child.  I will have two children whom I love differently, but equally.  Always equally.  Right?  Not necessarily.

According to Dr. Ellen Libby, author of The Favorite Child, it is actually quite common for parents to favor one child over another.  The conclusions she draws in this article are not surprising: specifically that favoritism can cause depression in both the favored and unfavored child, and that favoritism in general affects the entire family. 

What the article doesn’t address (perhaps the book does, but I haven’t read it so I can’t comment) is what causes such favoritism in the first place.  What is the catalyst for favoritism?  And how early does it start?  Does it begin when a child adopts hobbies and outlooks that are similar to the parent’s and helps the parent to relate to that child?  Does it begin when a child is a colicky baby and the frustration the parent feels during that phase is sustained over time?  Is the same child always the favored child?  Or does it vary over time?

These questions fascinate me.  I wonder how many parents will admit to anyone, or even to themselves, that the decks in their hearts are not stacked equally.  It must be a gut wrenching reality to face.  But I suspect that facing it is the only way to keep it from poisoning your entire family.  I also suspect that dealing with such psychological undercurrents is a major task.  Libby offers some tactical pointers, but while they may be valid I find her proposed antidotes to be trite:

  • Listen to each other. 
  • Respect different viewpoints. 
  • Strive to accept the truth of different perceptions. 
  • Work deliberately at not being defensive. 
  • Feel safe to express words of personal truth. 

“Feel safe to express words of personal truth”???  Really??  I have to believe that handing down that little gem to a 13-year-old sitting on the “unfavored” side of the equation is probably as valuable as telling him to “harness his inner calm and stay tuned to his feelings of worth” or some such nonsense.  Wholly abstract and completely impossible to interpret.  

I don’t know what Baby #2 will be like.  I have no idea how my feelings for my children will differ.  I like to believe that I will love and care for them equally, and that the burden of favoritism will not exist in our family.  I cannot be so arrogant, however, as to assume that such biases could never happen to me.  And I hope that such awareness (and, if I’m being honest, a bit of fear) will help me to identify and address such preferences the moment they surface.  I am not a perfect parent (news flash: “Goodnight Goon” scares the bejeezus out of toddlers…) but I hope that in admitting my imperfections I can mitigate the damage they cause.