Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Do You Expect?

December is a whole month filled with expectations. We’re all expecting something – a present under the tree, a few days of vacation, visits from family, stress, snow, or maybe just homemade Christmas candy.
I’ve been musing on expectations lately for lots of reasons. I coach a group of pre-teen girls in an incredible national program called, Girls on the Run. I get the chance to know these girls on a different level then as a parent or a friend’s parent. I enjoy hearing what they think about a wide variety of social and health issues. And it is exciting to see them train for and complete their first 5K. Listening to them this fall as we ran our laps or “checked in” at the beginning of our sessions, I heard their frustration with their teachers’ expectations and their assumptions of their parents’ expectations. When asked about their own expectations they get giggly or quiet, and then tell me they expect to have fun. I wish that was all the world was expecting of them.

As the weeks passed they girls regaled me with tales of the lunchroom. Seems their expectations of lunch and the administrations expectations were worlds apart. At our school, sixth graders rule. They have been in this building for seven years and it is theirs. So when new regulations are pressed on them that include expectations of quiet during the lunch hour (actually more like 30 minutes), they protest a bit. And the protests have been getting louder and messier. I’m not sure what this will lead to in the spring when sixth graders tend to be notoriously wild - their last chance to be top of the heap before fall when they will gather at the middle school as lowly 7th graders.

The thing about the lunchroom battles that is evident to me is that everyone has a different set of expectations. The kids expect some free time to carry on with their friends – laugh loudly, tease each other, and maybe get a little rowdy. The staff expects them to sit in their seats and keep their voices down. Now the expectations have shifted. The kids to be yelled at for any move they make, and have recess and other privileges revoked for the smallest infraction (their interpretation). The staff expect the kids to be out of control, throwing food and insults, and generally ignoring authority. Comments are made about a grade that is disrespectful, difficult, and unruly.

As I’ve said before, I’m not in the lunchroom, so really I have no place even writing all this, but it’s a free internet and this is my blog so I will. I think the basic problem here isn’t disobedient sixth graders or mean staff. I think both sides need to change their expectations. And maybe they could share their expectations with each other. Respect begets respect I find. Maybe the sixth graders won’t listen. Certainly within the realm of possibilities. But then, what do you expect?

Now let me tell you another story of teachers, students, and expectations. My older son is in eighth grade. At the end of summer when we received his class assignments, he discovered he had an English teacher who is known far and wide around here for her expectations. She expects her students to work hard, really hard. She expects them to learn. She cuts no breaks. She treats them like they are high school students because she sees her job as not only teaching them 8th grade English, but also preparing them for their high school careers. As she said on Back to School night to a room full of expectant parents – “no college will ever request your child’s 8th grade transcripts”. So she pushes them to be real students, knowing that they may fail at times. She expects them to take their education seriously, because she does. And you know what? They do it. Or at least most of them. If you don't set that bar high, there's no reason to expect very much.

I tell you these stories because in all my years of working with kids, my own and other people’s, it’s very clear to me that kids will fulfill your expectations. Whether you vocalize them or not, kids know what you’re expecting. If you’re expecting them to be difficult, lazy, indifferent, or rude, they will be. And if you’re expecting them to smart, caring, creative, and fun, they will be. I believe there are some studies out there that prove me out.

I will be the first parent to admit that sometimes I have pretty negative expectations for my children, especially at the holidays. They will be wild. They will be out of control. They will only think of themselves. And I know that when I change my expectations (or someone helps me change them, thanks honey), the results are dramatic. I find it extremely helpful to let my kids know what I expect. This worked really well when they were small. I remember taking my wild 5-year-old shopping in a dish factory outlet with my mother. At the door I told him – “There are lots of amazing things in here! And you may look at all of them! But if you would like to touch any of these things, you must first ask me.” It worked like magic. We broke nothing and discovered that rubberized nonstick basting brushes feel really funny in your ear.

All this thinking about expectations made me consider my incredibly disobedient, incorrigible puppy. She’s almost two, but she is still a puppy in my mind because she is so bad. And I tell her she’s bad all the time. In fact, I’d say I expect her to be bad. And she fulfills my expectations. When I let her go with me up to the barn to feed the horses, she chases the chickens, scattering them far and wide. And then she runs in the pasture and rolls in horse manure. And the whole time I’m yelling for her. But she doesn’t even look in my direction. She won’t even acknowledge my presence. Which makes me mad. Really mad. I hate dogs that don’t come when you call them. So I mutter and curse and do my chores. And when she doesn’t come when it’s time to go in, I leave her to the dark and the cold. And vow never to take her with me out to the horses again.

She is my running partner too, and I have extremely low expectations on our runs. I know that if another dog appears in any yard that we pass, she will forget that I exist, so I start jerking on her choke chain the moment I see another dog and we struggle past, Gracie gasping for air and me saying things I hope no one can hear above all the barking.

So I’ve decided to change my expectations of my dog. And I realize I need to communicate these expectations to her and that isn’t easy since she doesn’t speak English or listen to anything I say. But I am going to start by not calling her a rotten horrible puppy. Her new name is “Good Dog”. I’m going to praise her more and when she wants to jump on the kids or chase them and bite their fingers, I’m going to distract her with an ear rub and remind her that she doesn’t chase children. When I find her with the insert from my favorite pair of shoes, I’m not going to take the inserts and smack her with them and call her all kinds of unkind things, I’m going to exchange the insert for one of her six thousand chew toys scattered all over my house and remind her that she doesn’t chew shoes, she chews ugly stuffed bunnies.

I’ve heard it said that there is freedom in having no expectations. That sounds so wonderfully Zen-like. But we all have expectations of our children, our families, our pets, our friends. I don’t care what Buddha says, it’s impossible to have no expectations. It’s human nature, so don’t beat yourself up for it. Here’s the thing, if you’re going to have expectations, and you are because you can’t help it, why not expect good? Why not expect kindness? What happens when we treat people the best we can because we expect the same from them? Maybe we won’t always get the best from people. Maybe. But I’m fairly certain that if we expect people to disappoint us, they probably will.

Christmas time is crazy when you have kids at home. No way around it. Expect it. And you can’t change that by simply chanting, “I expect my children to be quiet and obedient little cherubs this year…” Expectations have to be grown in the soil of reality. But realistically – why can’t this be a great Christmas? What are you expecting? I’m expecting there to be chaos, but amongst that I expect there will be moments of joy. I expect my kids to be emotional and excitable and I expect that it will require more patience from me so I don't disravel into yelling and threatening. I expect my kids will want to wake me up before the sun, so I’m going to plan for that. I’ll tell them they can’t get up until 7am. And expecting that this will be difficult for them, I’ll leave a small present from Santa on the end of their bed. Something that will keep them busy (and quiet) until 7. Sometimes our kids need a little help living up to our expectations.

What are you expecting this Christmas? More than that, what are you expecting next year? Expect good things. Good things from your kids, good things from yourself, good things from this world. There's no reason to expect anything less.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"It's the Hap-Happiest Season of All...."

There are beautiful blue and white snowflakes edging my front porch and the sides of the porch are glittering with icicles. The railing of my back deck is wound in brilliant glowing colors. We have Christmas lights! OK, so maybe this is no big deal for you. I’ve seen your house glowing from the interstate with a Santa on the roof and holiday greetings superimposed on your garage door, but for me this is big.

I love holiday lights. Love them. For many years my husband has just shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something unintelligible before slinking away every time I suggested a single strand. When confronted, he has always protested that he has nothing against Christmas lights. I’ve pointed out all the perfect pine trees growing near our house that would look spectacular in lights. And every year, the lights I helpfully lug up from the basement sit in their plastic bin collecting dust until after the holiday when I’ll lug them back downstairs. Some years I’ve compensated by decorating our stair railing in lights and sometimes even the kitchen doorway. It’s festive, but it’s not the same.

This Thanksgiving my little brother arrived with pictures of his over-the-top already decorated house in North Carolina. I loved it and oohed and ahhed and then teased my husband about the fact that he doesn’t like lights. He did his whole indifferent schtick and avoided the subject. But then my little brother asked me why I didn’t just put up the lights myself. Huh? I told him I didn’t think I could figure out how to attach the lights to the gutter without damaging the house (and causing my hubby to say, “see….this is why I don’t like the lights”). But then my brother told me about these nifty little plastic things you could buy at Walmart that made it really simple. And as much as I’m opposed to all things Walmart and all things small and plastic that will end up in the Great Garbage Patch, I found myself toting home a box of 300 clips for just 5 bucks.

But here’s the dilemma for those of us who worry about the earth and our electric bill. How can I in good conscience hook up my 15-year-old energy-hogging lights that date back to the days before I married Scrooge? Back to the store I went to get LED lights – snowflakes and icicles even! The boxes sat on the counter and garnered many reactions. The kids were thrilled – we’re gonna have lights!?! My guilt nagged at me – how could you buy that cheap, plastic crap that will just use up energy needlessly? And my husband pointedly ignored them.

When I finally mentioned to my hubby that I was going to put up the lights myself with my nifty plastic hooks, he caved. In his best scrooge voice, he said we could do it together. I told him I’d only hang lights with him if he hummed Christmas carols while we worked. Finally, a chuckle from ole’ Scrooge. And that is how we came to have lights all around our house.

If I try I can get myself in a tizzy about the lights. We don’t need them. They serve no purpose. They are wasteful. What if they set my house on fire? I spent money on new ones because they were more energy efficient, but now the old ones are just sitting in my basement. So while those lights may be more green, just how green are they if they’ve added to the excess in my life and the world? See, I’m good at tying my head and heart in knots.

But here’s the thing. (And I gave a similar rant last year about why I love Christmas letters) The holidays mean something. And the lights are part of that. There’s the deep spiritual meaning this time of year for people of several different religions – that’s pretty big. But there is also this collective time of giving. Everybody is more generous in December. And even if they are motivated by guilt or habit or obligation – the end result is that people are generous. They are gentler with each other. They gather for holiday meals in restaurants and churches and conference rooms. They smile more, shake hands, give hugs, cards, gifts, cookies, and wishes. Perfectly normal and professional people wear ugly sweaters and jingle bells. They get a day or two off work. Sure it’s a shame that it doesn’t last all year – there are plenty of cards and sermons lamenting that fact, but for a little while it’s here. And I’ll take it.

So I love the lights and the music and the excuse to shower the people I care about with my baking, my gifts, my affection. It’s a chance to send cards to all the people I know and gifts to the niece and nephews that are scattered across the country. It is a lot of work. But it only happens once a year. And I’m willing to stress about the lights and fight the traffic and crowds and fall in to bed exhausted after making too many truffles, because the pay off is huge – happy people. A chance to remember that we are incredibly blessed.

And my scrooge? He’s softening. I came home to find Christmas lights hung like garland around our bedroom. This time of year is magical. Embrace it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Whole New Generation

In general, I avoid kid movies. I occasionally stomach them when I can’t avoid it, but for the most part, I find something else to do on movie night. I know, I know, this is the family tradition of the our era – the whole family hunkered down in the dark living room eyes fixed on the latest flick with popcorn in every lap. But kids’ movies get on my nerves. Beyond the obvious plots and dumbing down of the humor, I can only suspend reality so far before I start making snide remarks. So it’s best if I avoid the whole scene.

Last night we had an impromptu family night to re-watch Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was Friday night’s movie. The kids REALLY wanted their father and I to watch it. So we did. The whole thing. I kept waiting for some poignant moment when it would become obvious why they insisted we watch the movie, but mostly I spent the entire time being annoyed with the horrible, self-obsessed, shallow lead character. And apparently there are four more books centered around him. In the end he makes some retribution for his horribleness, but it was too late for me to be impressed.

All morning I’ve been contemplating that movie and why it was that my kids insisted I watch it. Maybe it was to make sure I understood just how awful middle school is and how much pressure they are under. I asked several times if the scene on the TV was representative of the scene at their schools, and they assured me it wasn’t quite that bad. But I do remember how awkward it is to be a middle schooler. I hope my own children will be a little more clued in than I was.

I worry that we are handicapping them by not having cable, satellite, or high-speed internet. We have no hand held games, Wii, or Nintendo. The only screen we have to fight about is the computer screen and there are plenty of battles over that. In fact, the bigger the battles over the screen the less likely I am to tell the kids that just last week they finally ran cable down our street. We’re toying with the idea of high-speed internet, but I’m loathe to poison our happy existence with a high speed invasion. Right now, the lack of screens leads my kids to play elaborate imaginative games, read books, build things with legos and marbles, create artwork, write stories, and spend hours outside.

They aren’t completely ignorant. They’ve played video games at other kids’ houses. We spend time at the library exploring the World Wide Web. And we have a subscription to Netflix for our weekly movie night. The free television that comes over the airwaves to our house enables us to watch football and baseball and Nova. And on Saturday mornings the major networks still show cartoons and ridiculously trendy (and stupid) kid sitcoms.

That’s still much more media exposure than I had as a child. And it makes me wonder what kind of generation we are raising. These kids are addicted to screens. They know how to react to all kinds of elaborate games, but could they create a computer program? I myself, think the computer works by magic – nothing else within my limited brain capacity could explain how it can open eight web pages at once while I am editing my latest post and listening to the new Rosanne Cash CD my step-mother-in-law sent me.

Our children witness endless stories on TV and online, many that push the limits of their emotional maturity, but could they write an original tale? They laugh and gawk at reality TV, but can they tell the difference between “reality” on TV and real life reality? Will they expect this world to be as entertaining or dramatic or exciting as what they experience online and in their living rooms? More to the point, will they be able to cope with disappointment, difficulties, boredom, and hard work?

There is a flipside to all this. Because these kids have been exposed to so much, maybe they will be more understanding of people with differing ethnicities, opinions, or lifestyles. Maybe these kids will believe anything is possible because they see the realm of possibility challenged on a daily basis. Maybe they will believe they can do anything they set their minds to since they’ve seen all manner of humankind accomplish unlikely feats. My younger brother spent all his spare change and every spare moment in the arcades of our youth. He held the high score on hundreds of machines. Guess what he’s doing today? He’s still playing video games – only on the government’s dime. He’s an air force fighter pilot. After years of flying combat missions, he spends his days teaching young pilots in the simulators. He let me try the simulator once, I crashed in minutes. Lacking the hand-eye coordination and quick decision making skills he garnered during all those long afternoons in the arcades, I was hopeless.

It’s impossible to say whether being exposed to too much or very little media will help or hinder our kids. As a parent I know all too well that I can’t predict my kids and the days of controlling their daily activities and decisions (or the illusion of that control) are quickly passing. At this point, our best bet is to support them and love them and continue to expect things from them – things like following the rules, treating others with respect, and taking personal responsibility for their actions. Those are much bigger issues than how much TV they watch.

So as you battle over the screens, remember the battle isn’t about the screen, it’s about the parameters you’ve set as a parent. Don’t make the screen the bad guy (I’m guilty of this!), it’s no more the bad guy than too much candy, not cleaning up after yourself, or not doing your homework. It’s not that they should shut down the screen, it’s that they should do their homework or practice their saxophone or take the dog for a walk or clean up the mess they left in the living room. Focus on the things they should do and let the screen take its place where it should – in their spare time.

Me? I’m still not going to allow open-access to the screens in our house. But that’s the rule and it’s understood. We’re always negotiating the computer time. I’m toying with the idea of letting down some of my restrictions. As long as my kids always understand – the computer games are a privilege, not a right. Privileges can be lost, but rights can’t.

Who knows what kind of generation we are raising? I hope it’s a generation of open-minded, generous, and quick-thinking people who just happen to have great hand-eye coordination.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Amazing Cranberry!

This morning’s paper had a feature on all the amazing things you can do with cranberries in terms of decorating. They are beautiful, but it seems a waste, since their real power lies in what they can do for you physically. I love cranberries. Their sweet tart flavor makes just about any dish more interesting.

I eat dried cranberries every morning in my yogurt. And I don’t just eat them because they taste so good. They are also one of those super foods, full of antioxidants. Their ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity – say that three times fast) score is 9,584. Compare that to blueberries (which get all the good press) score of only 6, 552. They beat them by a mile. A higher ORAC score means the food is more of an antioxidant.

And that’s not all. How about cranberries for infection fighting? You bet. The antioxidants in cranberries, called proanthocyanidins, help prevent bacteria like E. Coli, the leading cause of bladder infections, from attaching to the cells in the urinary tract.

Fresh cranberries are the most powerful, but dried and juice also give you the benefits. But remember those forms usually give you added sugar. Cranberries alone are pretty hard to take – so sour they make you squint. But if you make your own cranberry sauce, you can control the amount of sugar you put in. And it’s incredibly easy to make. Here’s a recipe I like from Cooking Light magazine:

Cranberry Sauce

1/2 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup fresh orange juice (about 2 oranges)
¼ cup water
1 ½ Tablespoons honey
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 12 oz package fresh cranberries
1 cinnamon stick

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 12 minutes or until mixture is slightly thickened, stirring occasionally. Discard cinnamon stick; cool completely. Yield: 14 servings (2T each)

See? It’s crazy easy. If you like more orange taste in your sauce, you could add orange rind. And I’ve heard of adding white zinfandel wine as part of the liquid.

Fresh cranberries freeze well and they keep up to a year. So stock up this month because now is when cranberries are in season (at least in the US) and usually on sale.

I like to make cranberry sauce and freeze it in 2-3 cup batches in large yogurt containers, but it can also be canned. I’m going to give that a shot this year. I bet it’ll look gorgeous in the jars.

Want some other ideas for working cranberries in to your diet - pop them in to blueberry muffin recipes in place of blueberries. Use cranberry juice as the liquid in smoothy recipes or simply add it to your kids’ apple juice. I buy dried cranberries that have been sweetened with apple juice instead of sugar. These are delicious as a snack or mixed in to granola or cereal in them morning.

And here’s some of the ideas published in the York Daily Record this morning:

String cranberries with popcorn to trim a tree. (they used dental floss as the string! Be sure to leave garland on when you put your tree out for the birds after the holiday.)

Pour cranberries into a glass bowl, then accent with a candle pushed into the center. (simple, anyone can do this, even me)

In a clear glass snifter, float cranberries and tea lights in water. (love this, I might just shock my family by actually producing a center piece this year)

Create napkin ring by stringing cranberries onto thin wire and wrapping several times around folded napkins. (A lot of work for a short-lived purpose, but might give your kids something to do while you prep dinner)

Layer cranberries and fresh holly leaves in a vase and fill partway with water, then add a bouquet of flowers. (Very Martha Stewarty – will definitely impress especially with white roses or some other white flower)

Cover a foam ball with cranberries using pushpins to hold them in place. Add a ribbon at the top for hanging. (This sounds gorgeous, but a crazy amount of work and my big fear is that it would attract the fruit flies that won’t seem to die this year and are still circling my kitchen.)

If you want to see pictures of how cranberries are grown check out http://www.cranberries.org/. There are a few pictures of cranberries growing and a bog in full bloom They are beautiful and amazing. I’d love to see them in person!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nothing Free About Free Range

I ordered our turkey last week from the same Amish stand where I got a wonderful fresh turkey last year. This was supposed to be a quick errand. Stop in at the market and order another turkey, 18 pounds. When the sweet little Amish woman in her bonnet asked if I’d like a “free range” turkey this year (for just a dollar more a pound!), I was dumbstruck. Here I was, all along, thinking that my fresh Amish turkey was already pretty much “free range”. I couldn’t imagine the Amish cramming hundreds of turkeys in to a turkey house to fatten up on chemical laden foods while stepping on each other and fighting for air. I assumed (and we know what assuming does to you and me) all Amish turkeys had humane living conditions. I assumed that cute little children in black suspenders and straw hats chased them around the yard, much as my children take pleasure in herding our chickens. So, I was stopped in my tracks by the Amish woman’s question.

Did I want free range? Well, of course I did. But then my skeptical self starting taking over and I began to wonder if these noble looking Amish people were just taking advantage of the ignorant “English” people who shop their market. No one ever calls the Amish stupid. But a line was forming and I needed to make a decision, so I considered the facts. It’s Thanksgiving and this is the only turkey I buy each year, and even more importantly, this is the year my husband is certain he can beat the Germans! So I sprung for the extra buck and next week I’ll pick up our free range turkey who I presume is flitting around the range as I write this.

We have a collection of friends and relatives that numbers upwards of 20 people most holidays. Everyone pitches in and brings something, but we share the turkey preparations with some dear friends from Germany. This has become our tradition ever since we introduced them to the concept of an American thanksgiving the year we met them. They bring a deep fryer and we make a spectacle of the “great turkey drop” each year and the kids ohh and ahh as the turkey is ceremoniously lowered in to the pot. (see picture) As the years have gone by, a quiet competition has developed between my husband and our German friend. Sadly, my husband’s oven roasted turkey is good, but never quite as good as the deep-fried one. Maybe it’s the spectacle. Much is determined by expectations.

I returned to the Amish stand because last year’s turkey cooked up deliciously and it was the closest we’ve come to beating the deep-fried bird. My husband is determined to cook a superior bird. He schemes for months, changing his plan regularly. He reads helpful articles my mom sends his way about cooking the perfect turkey and he surfs the net looking for a recipe for the perfect bird. Seems a bird injected with spices and dropped in to boiling peanut oil is hard to compete with. But last year’s bird came really close. It was delish.

The plan this year is to smoke the turkey, literally. Over the weekend we had a practice run with the biggest chicken my little Amish lady could come up with. It was enormous and after slowly cooking it at a very low temp in the oven, it was smoked over hardwood, chemical free chips and turned out spectacular. I’ve never tasted a moister chicken. So now the challenge is to replicate the results with a turkey.

Much is resting on the turkey I ordered, so I’ve been reconsidering my bird ever since. I even did a little research on the internet. I wondered if beyond price, there was any difference between a “free range” turkey and the frozen butterball mass you pull out of the grocer’s freezer. Of course, the difference between the two depends completely on who you ask. I tried to be discerning and opt for sites that didn’t have a stake in the outcome.

Turns out turkeys are a sensitive issue. Some people get pretty worked up about the taste of a “heritage” turkey and others are simply not going to pay “a hundred bucks” for a turkey that doesn’t taste any different. Nutritionally, I couldn’t find a whole lot of difference, at least when it comes to the actual turkey meat. I did learn that a butterball is not just turkey. Its ingredients list states that it contains: “turkey, water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphates, and natural flavorings”. There are plenty of companies that sneak MSG in to their products by calling it “modified food starch” or “natural flavorings”, so I feel somewhat justified in my decision to steer clear of the store-bought variety.

Of course I lean towards the bird that was treated humanely, as we work hard to provide our own birds with luxury accommodations and I can tell when those birds are happy and content or miserable and grumpy. I’m sure that affects their ultimate taste (oh, let me have that one, I’d hate to waste valuable time finding a study to back me up).

There was one fact I read that gave me pause. Several sites stated that free range turkeys are leaner and should be cooked slower. And free range birds have more dark meat. Seems the traditional bird is bread to have abnormally huge breast meat and, as a consequence, these birds can’t really move around much. Physically they can’t free range, even if they were given the option. Hmmm. Now I have to figure out how to break the news to my hubby that I may have handicapped him from the start this year.

I think that making the decision to buy organic or free range or sustainably grown comes down to the issue of trust. I’m paying extra because I believe you when you say this turkey was raised free range, without antibiotics and hormones. Because really, there’s no way for me to know this and there’s no federal agency that’s checking up on a little Amish Farm that sells to it’s surrounding community. So I just have to trust that I’m not being snookered. And what if I am? Well, I guess that’s just the price I pay to help keep our countryside rolling in buggies and windmills.

2009 Turkey Drop
I don’t think my dilemma over the price of free range turkey is unique. We are all making this decision on a less complicated scale on a daily basis. There is much we must take on faith. We will make ourselves nuts if we insist on absolute certainty before we make a decision. There comes a moment when you have to just follow your heart, or your gut, or the coin toss.

Many times the media and our society and maybe personal experience teach us that you can’t trust anybody. I personally think the world is a little too scary when you no longer trust. I’d rather err on the side of being a sucker than a skeptic. There’s very little we can ever be sure about when it comes to choosing what to eat. It seems there is a scientific report or internet site that can promote or refute just about anything you come up with. So it comes down to learning all you can, trusting you instincts, experience, intuition, and maybe, your neighbors. I don’t know who runs the Butterball operation, but I do know my turkey’s grandma and she’s seems honest enough.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Fresh is YOUR Milk?

I received the following e-mail over the weekend. Not only did I take heart in the fact that at least one person is reading (and enjoying) my rantings, it also inspired me to investigate the local possibilities once again.

Hi Cara ~

Just wanted to let you know that I am really enjoying your blog..... each and every entry! You give so many useful tips on how to create a better life for our families and I share your tips often with the girls at work.

One of the new things we are doing that has made me very happy......is having our milk delivered to our home each and every week. We have an adorable milk box (see pic below) and instead or getting mass produced milk at the store, we now have a local farmer deliver our DELICIOUS milk to our front porch. His dairy farm has been in business for over 50 years. We live in the suburbs so I never dreamed I could get my milk delivered like my Grandmother did!! He even delivers our FRESH milk in those great glass bottles (pic below).

The milk is organic and his cows are not dosed up with horrible drugs of any kind. When you call the farm to order the milk his adorable wife answers the phone and it rings right into their living room :) He is always on our front porch by 6:30AM every Friday and it truly warms my heart to hear him clanking those glass milk bottles. And the best part! (drum roll please) the milk is actually LESS EXPENSIVE than in the store. His half gallon of 2% organic is $3.25....at my market it was $3.50.

And most importantly, I am supporting a local business! I have told all of my neighbors and more and more of us now have our milk home delivered. Thought you would enjoy this and perhaps you can even remind people on your blog that they should do some local research to see if they can get their milk delivered to their front porch! The taste is so superior to that of the store brand. Lew and I cannot get over how delicious FRESH milk is!

I live smack dab in the middle of dairy country. How is it that my friend, who lives in the suburbs of upstate New York, can get wonderful home delivery milk and I can’t? That’s the thing about this buy fresh, buy local food movement – it’s dependent on local economies and local demand. If the people near you are willing to support it, business will boom. Maybe my area is slower coming to this because so many people are farmers or wanna-be farmers. Or maybe it’s that they’ve moved up here to escape the city, but are so far removed from farm life that they’re afraid of unprocessed products.

I don’t know the reason for my areas unwillingness to embrace locally grown whole-heartedly, but it just about kills me that my kids go to a school in sight of farm fields, yet the school doesn’t serve any local food. Everything comes from the big distributor, nothing comes from the local farmer. This seems backward when our message to our children should be that the healthiest food they can eat is whole food, grown close by. “Fresh” vegetables and fruit trucked in from the distributor, who had it trucked in from a supplier half-way across the country is not nearly as healthy, it’s already lost plenty of its inherent nutrients. The healthiest food is grown and harvested and eaten locally.

And then there’s the whole argument for supporting local businesses. It’s in all our best interests that local businesses do well. When local businesses fail, the local community suffers in terms of home values, tax base, and jobs. When we support our neighbors, we are also supporting ourselves (and many times, our health).

Cyndee’s e-mail inspired me to begin bugging some local dairies once again about the possibilities of home delivery. I would encourage you to pick up the phone or bring up your search engine. I was surprised to find that there were more possibilities than the last time I investigated two years ago. If consumers create a demand, suppliers will meet it. Basic economics. We can change the food system in the US. It does not have to be about processed food and mass marketing, we hold the power. Remember that. If you want to learn more about changing our food system check out the film Fresh.

Just googling “home delivery milk” and your city or state will bring up plenty of hits. But you can also try:

Note: If you live in the Southern York County vicinity and would like to participate in home milk delivery (also cheese and other dairy and meat products) from a local dairy with hormone free, grass-fed cows (Apple Valley Creamery), please let me know ASAP. Please ask your neighbors and friends. We need at least 25 customers to create a viable weekly delivery route.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Blind Chickens, Blind Consumers

I’ve been thinking lately about how far removed we are from our food. What’s brought this to mind is the fact that I now have a blind chicken living in its own personal hutch custom built and attached to the garage. When this chicken survived its horrendous attack by the other chickens, my first thought was – Sunday dinner! I’m sure you’re shuddering. But really, we have 31 other perfectly good chickens and here is just one more chore waiting to happen. Why shouldn’t we butcher it? My children have lots of arguments for saving the life of “Kernel” (named after the ill-fated Popcorn who was carried off by a hawk), none of which amount to anything more than “how could you?”.

When I mention my disappointment to friends, they ask, “Could you really kill it?” I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve never had the opportunity. But I’ve been thinking that if I’m going to eat meat, I really should be able to kill the animal that supplied it. We all should. Don’t get me wrong – I think it would be incredibly hard. I’m certain I would have nightmares afterward and shed plenty of tears in the process, but I also think that morally I shouldn’t be eating meat if I can’t do the deed.

Not that long ago, everyone killed the animals that supplied the meat for their dinner. My father-in-law likes to horrify us all by demonstrating with a waving arm how he killed chickens back in his day. After watching the movie, Food Inc., I was convinced that we needed to raise our own chickens for meat. I explained, carefully, to the kids that these chickens would be so much better off than the chickens in the film. They would live happy, carefree lives right up until the moment we butchered them. No dice. I haven’t given up hope, though. They are petitioning to let our two broody hens hatch the eggs they have to be pried off of each night. I’m willing to make a deal here. But they haven’t yet decided that the joy of watching the girls hatch our own chicks would offset the final end for some of these precious chicks.

How many of us really know what we’re eating? We’ve become so far removed from creating our own food that most of us have to look up how to boil an egg or make a pie crust. Our grandparents could do these things in their sleep. I can’t help but wonder how the waistlines of Americans might be effected if they had to make all their own foods. If we ate only what we created with our own hands from ingredients purchased whole or grown ourselves, I bet we’d lose some serious weight. Maybe I should create a diet, called “Made (and Lost) From Scratch”.

Recently I came across an article with a quiz in it. It listed the ingredients in the average breakfast cereal, cracker, cookie, and bread. Then it asked the reader to identify which was which. It was impossible. In fact, you wouldn’t even recognize the group of ingredients as any food because most of the lengthy list would have been hard to pronounce. I love this quote –

“If you are what you eat and you don’t know what you’re eating, do you know who you are?” (anonymous)

It’s funny, but it’s also a very poignant comment on the state of the average person’s diet.

The next time you’re shopping, pick up your favorite box of crackers or cereal and take a look at the ingredients. Do you know what they are? Cause if you don’t, you’re gambling your health (and possible your life) on the trustworthiness of some huge manufacturer whose main consideration is how much you’ll pay for said product. You’re also banking your life on our government’s ability to regulate the food industry. They wouldn’t allow companies to sell something that would endanger your health, right? Of course not, just like they wouldn’t allow you to have a mortgage you can’t afford. Or allow an oil company to drill miles deep in the ocean with no safety net.

Be smart and remember, we truly are what we eat.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lasagna Time!

Do you ever say to yourself, “If I had all the money in the world, I’d hire a landscaper to come turn that part of my lawn in to a real garden?” OK, maybe you don’t. But if you didn’t have to dig up all that grass and till the heck out of it, wouldn’t you like more garden space? If for no any other reason than it’s less grass to mow? Organic fruits and vegetables are expensive – new gardens are not. A little work now can open up your options this spring.

Last weekend, my husband and I were on our way to visit vineyards in Virginia. I was boring him to death by reading about the vineyards aloud until he gently told me he’d rather I didn’t. So I kept the next gem to myself. He, being the chief grass cutter and weed whacker on our estate, would have appreciated the Italian vineyards philosophy on the grounds surrounding your home.

The literature stated the vineyard was designed in keeping with the Italian tradition of everyone having their own groves, vineyards, and gardens at home utilizing all available outdoor space (OK, maybe they left room for a Bocce Ball court). They thought a “lawn” was a waste of natural resources (I’d have to agree). My husband came home from our visit cautiously considering putting in our own vines, and I arrived motivated to begin reclaiming our lawn for more productive purposes.

So first thing Monday morning I made a lasagna garden. I know I’ve written about lasagna gardens before, but just in case it didn’t have the life-changing impact it should have had, I’m going to refresh your memory.
A lasagna garden begins with any patch of ground. This ground can be an old garden, an underachieving garden, or an absolutely unadulterated lawn. I’m generally in favor of staking your claim on the useless lawn, but that’s just me.

After envisioning the size and shape of your garden, cover the desired area with a thick layer of newspaper. Yep, newspaper. Be sure to leave out the shiny colored circulars. It’s best if the newspaper you choose uses vegetable inks (the York Daily Record does). Try to choose a day when the wind is not whipping around. After you lay out the newspaper, wet it thoroughly and then begin your lasagna.

Lasagna consists of layers of “green” (compost, manure, grass clippings, basically anything rotting) and “brown” (leaves, straw, peat moss, mulch, pine needles, wood ash). Continue adding layers at your whim for a month or two and then leave the whole thing to “cook” over the winter. If it’s a dry fall, you may want to wet it occasionally to move the process along.

It may not look too pretty (until the first snow hides it), but by spring you’ll have rich wonderful soil, ready to garden. And you didn't have to lift a spade because you turned your lovely lawn in to compost for your new garden! If you want more detailed, technical directions, I highly recommend the book Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza. (buy it through the link below and you’ll make me 2 or 3 cents)

In my new lasagna garden this spring, I’ll add more blueberry bushes adjacent to our current blueberries – less hillside to mow and more blueberries to share with the birds (this year we’re going to buy a net….). I’m not finished adding lasagna gardens though, I’d love for this place to look like an Italian homestead.

I’m getting ready to harvest my fall peas and dig up the peanuts before setting the chickens loose to free range for the fall/winter (aerate the gardens and eat the pests – hopefully lots of stink bugs!). Maybe you’re getting ready to close up your gardens too, but before you do – don’t forget to start next year’s. October is time to plant your garlic, shallots, and spring onions. It’s also time to dream a little dream of all the wonders you can grow next year and get started on the lasagna.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Books, Books, Books, But Not A Moment To Read

This morning I spent some time considering walls. I’m looking for a spot for a new bookshelf. In my fantasy life, I’d have a library, but since I can’t kick any kids out of the house yet, there isn’t a room to spare. So a new bookshelf will have to do for now because the books are piling up. We have bookshelves in just about every room in our house, including two bathrooms (great place for a bookshelf, admit it!). My oldest son has an entire wall covered in bookshelves, and he has already filled it to overflowing.

I’m sure you’re imagining I’m a hoarder at this point. But I would argue that I don’t hoard anything (except maybe plants). I’m happy to get rid of things. Any book I won’t ever need again moves along out of my life. I keep the ones that still have things to teach me. The plethora of books on my shelves must mean I have much to learn.

There are just too many books in the world and I can’t seem to resist them. Many of the books on my shelves are on my “To be read” list. It does make me a little anxious when I see them piling up, but then I remind myself that “someday” I’ll have more time and when that day comes, I’ll have plenty of good books to read.

I hear you “modern” people telling me to get a kindle, but I have an aversion to screens and can’t get beyond the need to feel the book in my hand. I buy nearly all my books used and there are tales to be told simply in the way a book has been worn – are the pages bent, the spine stripped with creases, or my favorite- are there notes in the margins? A pristine condition used book is probably not a good book. I underline in my books constantly – phrases that astound me, profound thoughts, clever metaphors, useful information. I write my own comments too, so I appreciate the thoughts of the previous reader. Finding an inscription and a date in a book leaves me to wonder about the gift giver and the receiver – what did this book mean to their relationship? Nope, there is no history in an e-book. Even with all my green issues, I’m not ready to go there.

Kids books present other challenges. My kids go through books like socks – constantly leaving them lying about, losing them, finding them, loaning them to friends, and there never seem to be enough. We do frequent the library, but with the overdue fines I pay, sometimes it seems cheaper to buy them at the Goodwill, so I do. Books pile up at our house worse than the dirty laundry and our shelves are bursting with so many books it can be overwhelming. I accept some responsibility for this problem due to the fact that I can’t ever say no to a book and I double the kids' money if they’re spending it on books (paying half for any book they want to buy with their own money).

Years ago, I came upon one solution to the multitudes of books. We had so many the kids couldn’t possibly appreciate them all – at least not at the same time. So I bought 12 hard plastic magazine files and labeled each one with a month of the year. Then I sorted books in to the files, choosing themes for each month. Some were obvious, like Halloween books and scary books for October. August is water, beach, and ocean books and April is anything to do with the nature and the earth books. Outerspace books are in June because that’s a great time to stargaze and snow books are in January. Books about love fill the February file and March is stuffed with Easter books. Over the years, the kids have looked forward to pulling out the month’s file. After not seeing them for a year, the books seem new to them.

This has been a great system for us as it lightens the load on our book shelves and creates ‘christmas’ moments each month as we looked through the ‘new’ books. The December file was replaced with a big bin because we had too many Christmas books for the file to hold. I still enjoy pulling out the new file with my youngest son each month. Before we put the last month’s file away, we sort through it and pull out books that are “too young” for him.

Which brings me to the next dilemma – what do you do with books your don’t want? I certainly hope you don’t sit on them. Books have the potential to open minds and foster creativity – they need to be read. I try to stay on top of our books, cleaning out the shelves on a regular basis. Books that aren’t in the being-left-on-the-couch-or-in-the-car rotation, might be ready for new owners. For this, I have to confer mostly with the youngest child as he is generally the last to read our picture books.

After he gives them the nod, I sort the books in to keep (to be read to the grandchildren) and give away. There are lots of deserving places for outgrown books. We generally divide them up between the school, the preschool, friends with younger children, Goodwill, and the library book sale. I like to keep the books moving along. It seems a shame for any book to sit unread on a shelf.

My book club has another really nice way to pass along used books. We each pick out a book we’ve finished and wrap it up at Christmas time for our gift exchange. It’s a fun tradition and a great way to pass along our books and our holiday wishes.

That tradition led me to try something new. All year I saved books I’d enjoyed but didn’t need to keep, putting sticky notes with the name of the person I though would most enjoy the book on them and keeping them in a box in the closet. At Christmas I gave people in my life a stack of gently used books with a note that said I’d donated to a cause in their name in lieu of new books. It was a great way to give a thoughtful gift and make a helpful contribution.

If your books are piling up, maybe it’s time to sort through them. Keep the ones that you need, but remember there are lots of opportunities to release their power on the world. Books can inspire, challenge, teach, and change us. But they can’t do any of that collecting dust on a shelf.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

We're In the Same Herd

Humans don’t hold the patent on meanness. Animals can be just as cruel. And depending on your view of evolution, maybe that’s where it originates. This morning I opened the barn door expecting to find a dead chicken and discovered that little Kernel (a pretty Buff Orpington who tends towards the broody side) was still hanging on. For reasons, unknown to us, the other chickens attacked and pecked out her eyes. I don’t lay very tall odds on a blind chicken. In order to survive, a chicken needs to be able to retain the whereabouts of her food and water. Sadly, this is beyond the capabilities of the average chicken. My daughter gently showed Kernel where to find her food and water and Kernel promptly forgot. (or maybe she’s just not interested)

Kernel’s plight saddens me, but what really breaks my heart are the endless stories of bullying and meanness amongst humans. We humans have brains. And we are capable of compassion, creativity, and logic. Why is it we don’t evolve any further along than my flock of chickens when it comes to how we treat each other?

There is no need to be mean. It does nothing but hurt the other person and poison your own heart. I believe it takes much more effort to be mean, than to be kind. When I hear my own children being cruel to each other, I admonish them that they are on the same team. They look at me, roll their eyes, but generally back off. Watching my youngest son’s game yesterday it was funny when three players wearing the same jerseys fought for a ball and ultimately knocked each other over, forfeiting the ball in the process. “You’re on the same team!” yelled a coach, shaking his head. Why is that so hard for us to grasp?

Just like the sports teams in the intramural league my kids play in, we are all thrown together pretty haphazardly from all walks of life. The only thing holding us together is the fact that we play for the same team. Humans have survived in a harsh world over time, not because we have brains, but because we have used those brains to cooperate and ban together. Without a community, no life would have taken hold in the original colonies. We need each other.

We have to believe we’re in the same herd. This morning when I was working my horse, I thought a lot about that idea. I learn much more from animals than books. This particular horse is a five-year-old sissy. He’s afraid to leave the other horses. He wants to be with his herd ALL the time. (Never mind that his “herd” are two geriatric ponies that avoid being within hoofshot of him) In the past month, I’ve been trying to convince this horse that we are a herd of two. I tell him this all the time, tapping him on the forehead and then tapping my heart, as I remind him, “You and me, we’re a herd of two.” I don’t really expect him to understand my words, but I think he senses my commitment. He’s learning that he is just fine when he’s with me, there’s really no reason to high-tail it for home simply because a branch cast a shadow or a squirrel shimmied up a tree. It’s not really that scary. Thankfully, he’s beginning to refrain from doing “stupid” things just because he’s scared without his herd.

I think we do lots of stupid things when we feel like we have lost our herd. Everyone wants to be a part of a herd. We may believe we are independent souls, but really we all want to be part of something. We don’t want to be alone. Even if our herd is just two. And once we find our herd, we consider others who are different, who are not a part of our herd, to be a threat. So we lash out. I think that’s one reason for unnecessary meanness. People are afraid of others who are not like them, who don’t belong to their herd. Somehow we need to begin to see that we’re all a part of the same herd. We play for the same team.

I think the other reason for meanness goes back to that old, wise adage – “monkey see, monkey do”. Truer words were never uttered. When we are children, we do the same thing that the other people in our “herd” do. If we hear adults pointing out another person’s differences, or complaining about others, we do it too. I think we as parents need to be incredibly careful when we talk about others, lest we set an example of judgment.

Children are watching us. They see the times when we are patient with the grumpy sales clerk, the inconsiderate neighbor, or the driver who forgets to signal. And they also watch when our frustration gets the best of us and we say or do things we shouldn’t. Monkey see, monkey do. If we go out of our way to be pleasant and kind, they will too. This sounds like a very simple, easy parenting philosophy, but I’m here to tell you, it ain’t. I growled at my youngest just this morning because he dawdled away the morning and never ate his breakfast. No big deal, but what am I teaching? I didn’t need to be mean, his stomach will point out his mistake by 10:00, no doubt.

And watching our talk about others is even harder. I recently found myself saying some pretty judgmental things about another adult, things that were completely subjective, and, in all honesty, unfair. My oldest son commented, “Wow, that’s pretty harsh.” Smack. I needed that smack to the heart. How do we learn to stop passing judgment? It is not possible to like, let alone, love, all the people in the herd that is our community. But we can be nice. We don’t need to be mean.

I don’t know that Kernel is going to make it. And I don’t know that we won’t lose the next weakest hen soon after. But they are only chickens (don’t tell my kids I said that) and they don’t know better. We do. We can choose to show how much we’ve evolved by watching what we say around our kids and demonstrating kindness at every opportunity. The anti-bullying curriculum the schools teach is great, but it doesn’t have a chance if children see a different message at home in their own herd.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Color My World

I don’t know about your house, but at our house Halloween is already beginning to take shape. Costume ideas and potential target neighborhoods are being considered. Living where we do, there is no “neighborhood”, so my kids must attach themselves to friends who live in developments for the festivities. In our town, Halloween is being celebrated on Saturday October 30, because the 31rst falls on a Sunday this year. I believe there are religious reasons behind this decision, but I’m certain the local school system is overjoyed with this move since that gives the kids an entire day to process the candy that will overload their systems.

I try to run an organic ship here, but on Halloween all bets are off. My past attempts at “organic” candy and treats have all been met with eye rolls and annoyance, so this year I’m quietly planning on making some chocolate covered popcorn and leave it at that. Lucky for us and, if my children are to believed, the local kids, because our house sits too far from the road and civilization for anyone to ever knock on our door on Halloween. Just in case your house is one that gets many visits from tiny ghosts and goblins on that fateful night, here’s some food for thought.

Children love bright colors. Every year there are thousands of new, exciting brightly colored candy and food marketed to our children. And they eat it up, literally. Food dyes are one of the most common ingredients in candy and processed food. Synthetic food dyes don’t add a scrap of nutrients, but they do entice us, and our children, to eat. Synthetic food dyes counter the natural color loss that occurs in processed food when it is exposed to high temperature, light, moisture, air, and, lengthy storage. There’s a reason a cheese curl is just as brightly orange at age 18 months as is was at age one week (and probably will still be at age 100!). Manufacturers even inject orange skins with dyes to make them brighter so we buy them. Pretty much any processed food you pick up is loaded with synthetic dyes which are petroleum based.

But really, what’s so bad about a little food coloring? Well, here’s what a recent news report had to say –

“…an analysis of 21 of the most conclusive studies found compelling evidence that, indeed, artificial dyes could contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness, and attention problems in some children – particularly those with ADHD. What's more, the studies suggested that removing dyes from those children's diet was a quarter to half as effective in reducing those symptoms as giving the kids Ritalin or other stimulants. In other words, certain kids with ADHD might not need drugs if the artificial dyes were removed from their diets.”

Just three dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 – account for 90% of the dyes used. The Center for Science in the Public Interest evaluated studies and reports from countless scientists, Universities, and labs and here are the “Health Endpoints of Concern” that they listed for those three -

  • Hyperactivity – Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6
  • Compulsive aggression/violent behavior – Yellow 5
  • Eczema, hives – Yellow 5 and Yellow 6
  • Asthma – Yellow 5
  • Irritability – Yellow 5
  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia – Yellow 5
  • DNA damage in gastrointestinal organs, colon and urinary bladder in mice – Yellow 5, Red 40
  • Reduces serum and saliva zinc levels (increased susceptibility to infection and impaired cell-mediated immunity) – Yellow 5

 If you want more information, read the entire report at http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf .

The FDA is charged with protecting consumers from dangerous foods, and as such they have approved only 9 synthetic food dyes for human consumption (Yellow 5 & 6 and Red 40 amongst them). Realizing that there is no nutritional value to food dyes, the FDA is pretty rigid in their testing. Kudos to them. There’s just a few problems with their tests – 1) most of the studies were commissioned and paid for by the dye manufacturers and 2) most of the studies lasted no longer than 2 years. Plus, none of the studies tested the interaction of multiple dyes.

Still, the FDA has established legal limits for cancer-causing contaminants in dyes and FDA chemists test each batch of dye to confirm that the tolerances aren’t exceeded. That should help you sleep at night, right? Not me. The FDA’s process has all kinds of kinks. The tolerances were based on 1990 dye usage and I’m sure you’ve said to your kids plenty of times – “They never had that when I was a kid!” Because they didn’t. The number of products and foods that use food dyes has increased five-fold. It may have been harmless to eat one product with a teeny bit of food dye in it, but what happens when you eat twenty products with just a teeny bit in them? We are eating at least five times as much dye-riddled food as we did in 1990 when the levels were established.

In addition, the FDA has not considered the fact that children ingest even more of these dyes and their bodies are much more sensitive to carcinogens and consume more dyes per pound of body weight as adults. Bottom line - The FDA needs to consider the cumulative risks of synthetic dyes and they don’t.

The European Union and the British Government have both taken steps to eliminate synthetic dyes from their food supplies asking manufacturers to voluntarily remove dyes from their products before they begin this year to require a warning label on all foods that contain dyes that says “may have an adverse effect on the activity and attention in children”. This is because studies have overwhelmingly shown that synthetic food dyes do increase hyperactivity and attention issues in children, particularly those who have ADHD. Just what we all need – more hyper kids!

Here’s what pisses me off, though – some products made by McDonald’s, Mars, Kraft, PepsiCo and other big names have already removed the dyes from their products in the United Kingdom, but continue to use synthetic dyes in the US. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to ban all the widely-used food dyes because of their impact on children’s behavior. Sadly, if history is to be our guide, our children's health doesn't stand a chance again big business lobbyists.

So why don’t all manufacturers switch to natural food colorings (like beta-carotene, paprika, beet juice, and turmeric)? At least in the US, they don’t have to and synthetic dyes are cheaper, more stable, and brighter than most natural colorings. Besides, no one’s demanding that they switch. At least for now, but the public push for more natural products may finally send them in that direction. Pigments from natural sources are exempt from FDA certification.

As I considered all this information I couldn’t help but connect a couple dots – when I was a kid it was rare to hear about a child being diagnosed with ADHD, but these days it’s rare to find a family without at least one. Our children have been raised on “fun foods” like lunchables (full of synthetic dyes in the US, but not in Europe!), colorful candies, and even cheese curls that make your mouth change color. Studies seem to prove time and again that sugar doesn’t make kids hyper, but what about sugar loaded with synthetic food dyes? Just a little colorful food for thought.

So, what’s a parent to do? You don’t want to be the house where they give out raisins! I’d suggest you start doing your research and reading labels and getting creative. There must be some products out there without the dyes – start looking. The FDA does require that they be listed in the ingredients.

As for the rest of the year, you know what I’m going to say – don’t eat processed foods! Eat whole foods which are better for you and you’ll avoid the whole toxic mess. Maybe you can’t cut processed foods out completely, but you can cut them back and you can look for healthier alternatives. There are lots of companies out there getting on the “all natural” bandwagon. Read labels and make smart decisions. The simpler the food, the less likely it has dangerous additives. Just about everything you buy at Trader Joes is free of synthetic dyes.

By choosing to purchase foods without synthetic dyes you can vote with your pocket book. You can help send a message to the companies that are willing to compromise your children’s (and your) health for their bottom line.


 And if you want to do more, send your congressman a note and tell him you expect him to pressure the FDA to ban the use of synthetic dyes in foods in the US.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Enviropig and Frankenfish

Every so often, my darling husband leaves articles purposefully in my “zone” of the counter, the area where my unfinished soduku puzzles, to-be-signed permission slips, unclipped coupons, cryptic lists, and miscellaneous papers I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do-with reside. He generally avoids telling me I should read a particular article; he knows how overwhelmed I am as it is by all the things I “should” do. He just leaves articles strategically placed where I will happen upon them and counts on headlines like Inside the Enviropig or Call this genetically engineered fish what it is: Frankenfish to lure me in. (I know, I know, these titles truly compel you too!). So it is I happened upon two stories in the past week that were gleaned from hubby’s Popular Science and Business Week reading suggestions.

The first story is about the Enviropig. A nearby community is fending off an inevitable factory hog farm, so this one caught my eye. Most people know it’s not just the hogs that stink when it comes to raising pigs (in my opinion cows smell MUCH worse), it’s the pig poop and what to do with it. The run off is full of phosphorus which washes in to our water supply and eventually the ocean, creating “dead zones”. Wilson’s Pig Farm is just upstream from our lovely Deer Creek and I’ve wondered time and again how it affects our creek. Lucky for us, Wilson’s is a pretty small operation, focusing on quality Pork BBQ and not mass production.

The Enviropig was developed over the past decade by biologists in Ontario. They’ve created pigs that produce 30-65% less phosphorus than your regular run of the mill pig. Is this good? I don’t know. Apparently, pigs (like all animals) need phosphorus, but can’t get it from the grain in pig feed, so farmers supplement the feed with pure phosphate, most of which goes right through the pig because pigs can’t absorb it all (this is the same mentality my kids have as they eat popcorn – shove the largest possible amount in your mouth at one time and some of it is bound to make its way to your belly, nevermind the waste). Enviropigs don’t need this supplement because they have been genetically engineered to secrete phytase, which allows the pigs to get their phosphate from grains alone. Eureka!

But one has to ask – why is it we have to modify the pig to eat the grain, instead of the other way around? What were pigs designed to eat? Maybe that’s where we should start. I’m no pig expert, but I’m guessing by the structure of the average pig that they are supposed to eat things on the ground like grass and roots (and maybe those things have naturally occurring phosphorus in them?). Just thinking.

This wonderful new discovery means that farmers can switch to Enviropigs (most certainly patented and priced to reflect that) and skip on the supplements, which will save them some cash and allow them to price their pork higher, claiming it as environmentally friendly pork. It’s only a matter of time before we no longer have those phosphorus spewing natural pigs.

This next story is a fish story and as you would expect there are lots discrepancies depending on who’s telling the tale. According to AquaBounty Technologies their genetically modified salmon can reach its full size up to twice as fast as a naturally occurring salmon. I don’t have to spell out for you what that means to companies that grow and sell salmon or to AquaBounty, which would sell the AquaAdvantage eggs. There is money to be made, so passions are high. AquaBounty has petitioned the FDA for 15 years to approve this fish and finally is seems possible they will get their wish.

The technical details on the frankenfish are this: The modified salmon contain a growth gene implanted from another variety of salmon that’s activated by DNA from an eel-like creature called the ocean pout. Which begs the question – is it really salmon? AquaBounty assures us it is and that it will be indistinguishable from the natural variety. Hmmm. They claim production of this fish (all female fish by the way, so they can’t cross-produce with regular salmon or, I would assume, reproduce viable eggs without the help of AquaBounty thereby obliging the fish farmer to buy more eggs each year), would allow for more US production of salmon. Currently most salmon in the US is imported. AquaBounty eggs are produced in Canada and the fish are grown in Panama, so I’m not sure that’s a fer-sure, but it sounds nice to the Made-in-the-USA crowd.

The other folks telling this fish tale are led by none other than Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim, plus two Alaska senators (surprise, surprise). They point out that the FDA has reviewed AquaBounty’s request as a veterinary drug rather than creating a new review process for gene-altered foods. Good point. As Solheim pointed out, “Today it’s a fish that we’re talking about. But very soon it will be genetically engineered pigs, chicken, and our beloved cows.” Apparently he hasn’t been clued in to the Enviropig just yet.

The Enviropig and the Frankenfish highlight what is fast becoming a huge new enterprise for science and farming. There are ethical questions that deserve to be asked. Is it right or safe or in our best interest to modify nature to satisfy our own greed? I suppose it goes back to each person’s philosophy on creation. If you believe this world was created with a design of some kind (not saying what kind), then is it right to mess with that design? Or are we specifically designed so that we are able to mess with that design? Hmm. I have another take on the matter. I think we were designed with these amazing minds and beautiful souls and we should be able to figure out how to coexist without destroying another species. And maybe if we weren’t so hell-bent on saving a buck or making a buck, we would discover that we can survive on much less and live more simply. Just because we can modify a pig or a fish, doesn’t mean we should.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Just Keep Keepin' On

Sometimes when I sit down to write I’m not really sure what I plan to say. I just get going and see what happens. Sometimes I parent the same way. Can’t really speak to the “strategy’s” effectiveness as the jury is still out on this parenthood project. But there is something to be said for just continuing to move along even when you aren’t quite sure of the way. I had two experiences this week that re-confirmed this for me. One was great fun, and the other was obligatory but necessary for my personal commitments to local politics.

I’ll start with the fun one. This past Saturday I ran a Half-Marathon with a woman I’ve known since grade school. Long ago we spent hours upon hours setting our Barbies up on dates and arguing about who had to go out with the G.I. Joe with orange fuzzy hair.. Once school was closed for a week because of snow and we had sleepovers every night – whispering in to the wee hours and sneaking the jello mix to eat straight. And once school was closed for months due to a teachers strike and her mom became our teacher! Our lives have traveled quite different roads, but our connection has held strong. So we met up in Virginia wine country for a half-marathon trail race. Her first race and my first half (she cheered me through my first marathon in her home town five years ago!).

This plan was hatched last spring when the race seemed like the perfect excuse to leave our spouses and children and spend a weekend together, touring vineyards, eating wonderful food, and oh yeah, running a race. The reality hit us in the face last Saturday. We had a plan to run the race with intervals since Lisbeth hadn’t run before and I sometimes have grumpy knees. I proposed 4 minutes run and 1 minute walk. After a few months of training in ridiculous heat this summer, Lisbeth modified it to 3 minutes run and 2 minutes walk. No problem. I could do that.

Race day dawned cool and beautiful. This being a race for women only, it was a great atmosphere. Lots of moral support, port-a-pottys, and laughter. There were women running with stuffed animals (I never did get the complete story on that) and children cheering us at the start and handing out Gatorade at the aid stations. A group of men sang an off-key version of Happy Trails at the start and we were off!

Things went pretty well for about 5 miles. Then the hills began in earnest. Neither one of us had investigated the race enough to know that part of it was on the Appalachian Trail and when they said there were hills – they were serious. Lisbeth’s enthusiasm began to wane, and soon her legs did too. We walked along, me following cautiously, afraid to push her, and Lisbeth lost in her ipod world. In the beginning she had kept one ear bud out so we could converse, but by this point she had nothing to say to me and my Pennsylvania hill trained legs. She comes from Virginia Beach and the only hills she encounters are the man made dunes at the beach. Not a level playing field by far. About mile 7, she shooed me away. Told me she had no intention of running another step and doubted she would even finish. I stuck with her for a little while, but when it became apparent that my presence was more annoyance than support for her, I bounded away up the trail, sprinting to make up for my walked miles.

As I attempted to make up for lost time, I passed all kinds of women. Some were running incredibly slowly, barely lifting their feet. Some were power walking- arms swinging like giant pendulums. Still others were chatting and alternately walking and running as the terrain dictated. Without fail, every one of them cheered me on as I passed. So different from the co-ed road races I have run. But then again, here I was at the back of the pack forging my way to the middle, so this wasn’t really a cut-throat competitive setting.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me gallantly leaping over logs on my way to finishing in the bottom half of the runners. No, this is about my dear friend. My friend who was in pain. Frustrated after having trained in the ungodly Virginia Beach heat and humidity all summer, she questioned whether she had it in her to finish. Even deciding to run this race had been a huge risk for her and now she had to wonder if the people who told her she couldn’t do it were right. I confess that as I ran through the forest, I worried for my friend and I, too, doubted if she’d finish. But finish she did – maybe a bit grumpy (understatement of the year), very sore, exhausted, but jubilant. In the end, her race was a much bigger triumph than mine. I had a great time racing through the woods to my inevitable finish, but what Lisbeth did was so much bigger. She just kept keeping on. She didn’t give up, even when her anger, exhaustion, pain, and self-doubt plagued her. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. You put one foot in front of the other. You do the best you can and you keep keepin’ on. And you don’t let the nay-sayers stop you.

Which brings me to my other story….about the people who don’t keep keepin’ on. This is the story of my experience volunteering at a political booth at the York Fair on a beautiful afternoon. I’m not saying which political party I was volunteering for, not only because I try to keep politics out of the blog, but because it really doesn’t matter. I’m certain the other booth two spaces down was hearing some of the same stuff.

The following person is fictional, completely fabricated by me as an amalgamation of some of the fascinating souls who stopped by the booth to enlighten me and my fellow volunteers. His presence was somewhat overwhelming. He towered over us as we sat behind our literature and buttons, fuming and sweating through his t-shirt that was straining to keep control of his mid-section. He looked to be about 50ish. He leaned in to our table and one of my cohorts, asked, “How can I help you?” His reply wasn’t appropriate for a family friendly blog, so I’ll translate. “Yeah, you can help me. Holy moly. How can you be out here pushing this person who doesn’t care about any of us? Holy moly! He only wants to put money in his own pocket. Holy moly! We should throw all the bums out!” (I remind you that I am paraphrasing and condensing a much more colorful exchange with this purely fictionalized character).

Our bravest volunteer, a powerful tiny woman who is at least 20 years my senior, stood up and looked him in the eye. She asked, “Are you registered to vote sir?” His reply? “Nah, I don’t vote,” followed by more colorful remarks as to why this gentleman doesn’t choose to exercise his constitutional right.

I do get it. The frustration with government. Believe me, I’ve been there. But too many of us have given up. It’s too much work, it’s seems pointless, and really, why should I bother when so many others don’t? Because it’s not only our constitutional right, it’s our duty and privilege as American citizens to participate in the election of our government. If we don’t keep keepin’ on, then those people this man claimed are running our government really will be running the government.

Life can be hard, boring, frustrating, monotonous at times. But it can also be amazing, phenomenal, inspiring, and plain hilarious. We have to just keep participating. We can’t stand aside. And if we choose to stand aside, we must keep our complaints to ourselves. We prepare as best we can and give it a shot. That’s all anyone can ask. That’s all we can ask of ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about living simply. I’m reading lots of books and meditating and journaling on the concept, and I’m starting to believe it comes down to just keeping on. Not racing ahead, not judging the past, just putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis and paying attention to each moment. There is so much to learn.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Little Dirt Never Hurt Anybody

As much as I miss my hubby when he travels for business, there is one aspect of his absence that I kind of enjoy. There’s no need to clean. Not that he is fussy; he isn’t. He never says a word about the condition of the house – bless him. But when he is here I feel a need to show some evidence that I’ve been doing my job. Until this writing gig starts to actually produce an income, my main job is still the kids and the house and all the nonsense outside. I’ve said all along, the only reason I want to get published and make money is so I can hire a cleaning person. That hasn’t changed.

This has been a busy summer for Nick, so the house has been enjoying a little rest too. Even so, I do the minimum – the toilets, the kitchen floor and counters, and sometimes I even vacuum.

I only feel self-conscious about this lack of cleanliness when I visit someone else’s sparkling house. I admire them, but I don’t feel the need to emulate them. I think a little dirt never hurt anyone. In fact, I think a little dirt is good for everyone. We all need some good germs. I’m serious about this. Bacteria challenge our immune system. If our immune system is never challenged, how will it grow strong enough to truly protect us?

A few months ago I was in the pediatrician’s office for my son’s well-check up. A cute young mom came in with her cute young offspring. The baby looked to be maybe a year. As she was checking in, the little girl reached for the antibacterial hand wash on the counter. The mom squirted some in her hand and told the receptionist how much her darling loved antibacterial wash. In fact, to keep her quiet and happy, I watched this mom squirt antibacterial hand wash in to her daughter’s outstretched hands five times just while she was signing in and making her co-pay. Then in the 10 minutes while I waited for my son (he’s too old for mom to accompany him in to see the doc), she proceeded to follow her toddler over to the counter to fill her hands probably ten more times.

I wanted to yank the soap off the counter and fling it out the window only after explaining to this woman that she’s not only fueling a future OCD issue, she’s ensuring that she and her daughter will spend many more mornings in the doctor’s office.

Germs are good sometimes. Why are we so hung up on avoiding them? Dr. Mary Ruebush, an immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good says, “It keeps your immune cells, which are there to protect you, multiplying and reproducing.” If we don’t expose our immune system to bacteria, how will it be ready when you really need it to protect you?

What’s more, all this handwashing and anti-bacterial this and that and overuse of antibiotics is setting us all for a real epidemic. The anti-bacterial agents used in those wonderful handwashes contain some of the same ingredients that are in some of our antibiotics. The heavy use of these antibacterial washes is training bacteria to resist them, instead of training our systems to resist the bacteria. See the problem here?

I know this post belongs in the throws of flu season, but it’s on my mind now. This time of year, my kids are covered in mud, sand, dirt, bug bites, poison ivy, and sunburn. When other kids come to play, most parents know to pack extra clothes because more than likely, the ones they are wearing will get filthy, wet, or torn. It goes with the territory. And before these dirt-packed children come in the door, I instruct them to go clean up with the hose. There is no anti-bacterial soap involved. Water works just fine in this circumstance.

At bedtime, if the kids are too filthy to get in bed, they might hop in the shower or bath, but you won’t find any antibacterial soap in our house. In fact, you won’t find any soap in our tub at all. My kids have seriously dry, sensitive skin and soap irritates them. Hot water and a wash cloth will take care of all but the worst. If there’s a possibility of poison ivy, they wash off with dish soap just in the areas that were exposed.

Before meals and snacks, they do wash their hands with soap (I hope!). My two favorites are an organic tea tree oil soap I get at Trader Joes and a goat-milk soap made with added coffee grounds which act as an exfoliator to help scrub the dirt off. The goat-milk soap comes from a local vendor who make their soaps by hand (Wash Your Mouth Out Soap).

No anti-bacterial soap for us. I’m not worried about a little bacteria. You shouldn’t be either. If you want to worry about bacteria, worry about the bacteria you’re eating when you stop for a fast food burger, cook up an egg raised on a factory farm, or munch on non-organic produce from half-way around the world. Now that’s some seriously dangerous bacteria.