Thursday, December 13, 2012

Steffanie's Shoes

Last Friday night, my friends and I went to a party for work, which was lavishly decorated with edible decor.  My friends Lisa and Steffanie stood before one of the tables, admiring the chocolate artwork that would be thrown in the trash at the night's end. After hearing Lisa admire the shoes, Steffanie waited until her friend was no longer looking and charmed a staff boy, about 18 years old, to let her stuff this gigantic high-heeled dessert into her purse, which she presented to Lisa later as a gift.  "Let's eat it!" Steffanie said later at a small after-party gathering. "We'll cut it up and have a piece. It would feed all of us."  Lisa, ever nostalgic, said, "No, we should preserve it forever. Put it in the freezer."  "Why wait?" Steffanie said, with a shrug of her shoulders.

This small story hopefully tells you a lot about Steffanie Ross.  At 25, she worked with the mentally ill while saving money to go to graduate school to learn more about people with disabilities so that she could become an advocate.  She did not wait for someone to fill the shoes she knew needed to be filled.  She saw a need, and she addressed it.

On Monday, while Steffanie was delivering papers to one of her mentally ill patients, that patient stabbed her and left her in the street.  Shortly thereafter, she died.

The problem with memorializing someone is that the writer almost can't help but gloss over the details that made that person "real."  The memories you have of the deceased turn into Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul fodder.  The result is a kind of untrue, saint-like story of what made a person human.  Besides the grief, that's the reason I hate funerals.  So I'll tell you a few other things about Steffanie too, and when I'm dead, I hope you do the same thing for me.  She had a mutt-collecting addiction.  She cried whenever she saw horses, and if we ever passed a horseback riding establishment, I'd have to listen to a 15 minute tirade about animal abuse, no matter how many times I'd heard the same speech before. One of her favorite pizzas was this pistachio pie I always found gross.  She liked Fifty Shades of Grey for reasons none of us could understand, and she had a soft spot for curmudgeons like my friend David, her partner, whom she met on an internet dating site.  She was constantly searching for a different story about how they met to tell people, but she could never come up with a convincing one.

I'm not sure why I've told you any of this, except that I want you to know there's a hole in the world now.  That there are shoes to be filled that can't be.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Midget Tyrant's Shoes

So it's been about a year and a half since my last post, and the reason is simple: I had a kid.  So, any spare time I had was spent -- hahahahahaha spare time. That. is. hilarious.

There's no way I can really retrace what has happened in the last year or so, so I'll start with today.  I'll start with shoes.

My son is 15 months old now, and the only word he can say clearly is "shoes."  Admittedly, this is adorable, but it's also a source of confusion. Most of my conversations with my son sound something like this:

Me: Jackson, do you want a banana for breakfast?
Jackson: SHOES!
Me: I don't understand. You have shoes on. Do you want toast?
Jackson: SHOES! SHOES!
Me: Maybe you want soybeans and steak!
Jackson: SHHHHOOOEESS! This is usually said as he tries to fall out of the highchair, reaching for the blueberries I'm eating on my plate.

If I let him down, having watched him stuff a bowlful of roasted carrots down his pants, he'll march into the pantry and point directly at the Cheerios box.  "Cheese" he says, turning to me. I test him and give him cheese rather than cereal, which he smashes between his tiny fingers and rubs into the floor.  Exasperated with my ignorance, he points to the Cheerios again and says louder,  "CHEESE!" He sounds a lot like a punk kid talking to an elderly person who refuses to get a hearing aid.  I get a vision of life 60 years from now.  If I don't respond quickly, he usually mutters "Dee-snatch" and gives up.  I'm not sure what "dee-snatch" is, but I'm guessing he deserves a swat on the backside for saying it. 

This routine repeats itself often in my household.  My kid has reached a point where he knows what I'm asking but he can't say what he wants or needs. This causes him so much frustration that he picks up his fat little feet and stomps around the dining room in a circle for a while, only to come to a halt before me in the kitchen, his hands behind his back like a really tiny diplomat, waiting.  Andrew calls him the "midget tyrant."

We recently taught him baby sign language for "all done" which has kept him from launching his plate across the room to signal he is finished with his meal.  This came in handy at the end of a 10 hour day at Disney when, totally exhausted, Jackson turned to us as we waited to ride a Mickey Train and waved his tiny hands in the air close to his face.  He couldn't speak but I finally got what he was trying to say. "All done," he was saying. "All done with this heat, this crowd, these tired moms and dads and babies."  "Me too, kid," I said. And it was nice, for both of us, to be understood. 


Sunday, July 17, 2011

The "Ugli" Truth about Tomatoland

I have been on a hot streak when it comes to great books this summer; the first was The Poison Tree, the second March, and now I've just finished Tomatoland and I feel like I just have tell someone about it. So here it goes.

Tomatoland is the "Food, Inc." for the Florida tomato industry but that doesn't really do it justice. The idea for the book began when Barry Estabrook, the author, was driving behind a big tomato truck and a large tomato flew out of the back and bounced onto his car window. It then bounced two, three, four times onto the pavement and landed on the side of the road -- totally unharmed. The author began with one burning question -- what made this tomato indestructible? -- and found that one query led to thousands.

The book talks about how, if you buy a red tomato from Florida in the winter (or even if you get them sliced up on a salad or a sandwich from a restaurant), it is actually green and unripe but has been gassed with something called ethylene so that it will appear red. The fact that it tastes like a cardboard box comes from the fact that ethylene doesn't actually ripen the fruit at all but instead acts as a cosmetic mask. In fact, very few tomatoes are allowed to ripen on the vine; instead, they are bulked up with pesticides and various chemicals to keep them worm-, fungus-, and rot-free, which is a necessity since tomatoes don't grow well in the Florida sand. Tomatoes that do ripen on the vine are tossed out or left in the field to shrivel up. Heirloom tomatoes -- which are by and large responsible fruit varieties because they've adapted to their environment and so don't need chemicals to thrive -- have fallen out of favor because the Florida Tomato Industry have banned any fruit that isn't perfectly round and flawless (a sure sign your tomato has been tampered with, since natural, organic tomatoes are neither).

Fifty to 60% of these chemicals used to grow most Florida tomatoes stay on the fruit long after they've been hosed down by the packing plant; you then feed these carcinogens to your kids, your friends, your partners. What's worse is that, if you're buying a Florida tomato in November, there's a good chance that it came from Immokalee, Florida -- the modern-day slavery capital of the United States. Immigrants (legal and otherwise) are locked into trailers with 10 to 12 other men, forced to urinate in cups and fed 1 bag of chips per household per day. Holes are drilled into the floor to allow air -- and spiders, roaches, and mosquitoes -- into the sweltering buildings. Come daylight, workers are heavily guarded and forbidden breaks, even when coated with the pesticides they're not supposed to be anywhere near. Many who attempt to escape are beaten, at best, and murdered, at worst. An overseer guards the fields to mete out punishment.

Not long ago, three female workers in Immokalee were sprayed with pesticides while pregnant, and their children were born with horrific deformities. One woman's child never developed a jaw, so his tongue constantly fell backwards into his throat, threatening to choke him. And two children were born without either arms or legs, something the tomato companies said were "total flukes" -- despite the fact that the children's mothers were not related to each other.

Right now, your options for buying responsibly are limited but companies such as Whole Foods have started supporting growers such as UgliRipe, which allow their tomatoes to ripen naturally, without ethylene or pesticides. Small farms in Florida are starting to fight back, trying to get their misshapen but flavorful heirloom fruits back into stores. So far, our best solution is to grow our own or support the small farms that do so responsibly.

For those of you who want to read for yourselves, here's the link. I'd love to hear what you think about the book or any others you've found moving/inspiring/thought provoking.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Not-So-Blind Review

This is a post for all of my academic friends, since ya'll are pretty much the only people I know of who, on a frequent basis, are preparing proposals or articles for blind review:

So I recently discovered that just taking my name off of my articles I'm submitting to journals does not make the submission "blind." If you are sending a word document to a journal for review, the reviewer only has to click "properties" to see that you were the last person who saved it. I found this out when a certain jerkface wrote a really nasty (rather than, say, constructively critical) review of one of my articles and sent it to me -- complete with her name in the "properties" box in Word. I was able to look her up to see the kind of unoriginal, underwhelming work she does at Nowheresville University, thereby reassuring myself that my work may not be as bad as her inferiority complex. Anyway, I learned how to "wipe" Word of its properties and thought I should pass the instructions along to everyone I care about.

For Word 2008 for Mac, go to "Word," "Preferences," and select "Security." Select "remove personal information from this file on save." Hit ok. Now your personal properties are wiped from the document, thereby officially making it a blind submission. This website will show you instructions for other versions of Word to achieve the same goal.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Words Don't Pull the Trigger; They Load the Gun

I've been trying to process the various responses to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' attack, and I feel very conflicted when listening to both sides.

On the left, people are saying that recent vicious political rhetoric is to blame for Jared Loughner's shooting rampage. Sarah Palin, in particular, has been on the defensive because of the map dotted with crosshairs she put out some time ago, urging Tea Partiers and Republicans to target 20 House Democrats who supported Obama's Health Care Plan. The argument seems to be that the right's use of violent words (such as "target") and images spurred Loughner to commit the crime, and if we are to avoid another tragedy like this one, we need to tone down the rhetoric.

The right is responding a number of ways. Some, such as Palin herself, are saying that Loughner was a madman and that Tea Partiers and Republicans should continue to speak out against policies they disagree with, using any metaphors they please. Others -- and I find this most interesting -- have decided to skirt the issue altogether and focus instead on making a devil of Loughner's attorney, Judy Clarke, the death penalty expert who represented Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Susan Smith.

To briefly address the approach of making Clarke somehow the real villain in this story: as my husband reminded me the other day, John Adams represented the British in the Boston Massacre and was humiliated for it, but he did it because the criminal justice system distinguishes the law-abiding society from the anarchic forces that seek to undermine it. The Right always trots out the founding fathers when it's convenient -- might as well be consistent with that strategy, eh?

As to the other (more viable) debate -- did madness pull the trigger, or did Sarah Palin? -- I don't believe the answer is clear one way or the other. I side with the right when I say that the spark of insanity had to be present in Loughner for him to believe that killing a 9-year-old girl (which he achieved) or a Congresswoman would change anything for the better. Without some chemical imbalance, or deranged upbringing, or both, he'd probably just be another "me," mumbling at the television or newspaper when I see the democratic system isn't working the way I'd hoped.

But I also have to admit, as a literature professor, that words do things. Speech act theory tells us that words such as "I now pronounce you man and wife," or "we. . .do. . .solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states," change people's lives in tangible ways. Strong words can cause people to see the world differently, can call them to take action, either for the better or, in Loughner's case, for worse.

Perhaps words don't pull the trigger, but I believe they load the gun. In that sense, then, I also side with the left. We should be careful of the rhetoric we soak in and spit back out, and, most importantly, we should refuse to elect the people who seek to polarize us with hate speech. We should agree to continue to debate but should try to do so civilly and without embracing fallacies instead of facts. We can't prevent another shooting like the one in Arizona because we can never get rid of insanity, but we can decrease the likelihood by refusing to feed madness with vitriol.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Food (and other) Rules

So, I absolutely appreciate that, at the heaviest I've ever been, I'm going to write a blog about weight and health. But who doesn't appreciate a little irony in the new year?

At the beginning of 2010, a friend of mine wrote me an email and said that she was tired of being unhealthy and was gathering tips from people about making lifestyle changes. I typed up a response, thinking little of it until I noticed a few months later that my friend had lost several sizes. "What have you been doing?" I asked her. "I printed out your email," she said, "and your suggestions worked." We were sitting with a colleague, who asked for the "plan," and others started asking for it, too, so I thought -- why not use the blog to type it up? The 3 top goals for the new year are, after all, saving money/getting out of debt, quitting smoking, and losing weight. So in the spirit of things, a la Michael Pollan (from whom I borrowed a bit), here are my "Food (and other) Rules":

1. Shop on the periphery of the supermarket. Milk, meat, and vegetables are sold there; the stuff in the middle is processed, and full of unpronounceable ingredients with which your body can do very little. If you limit what you buy from those aisles, it's likely you'll greatly cut down on sugar and sodium without even trying or calorie counting.

2. As soon as you get home, wash and cut up your fruits and vegetables and put them in a see-through ziplock bag. My husband unloads the other groceries while I do this, so that I'm not stuck in the kitchen for an entire afternoon. People use being too tired to chop as an excuse to grab a burger on the way home, but if the veggies are already chopped, and it takes 3 minutes to steam them in some chicken broth, you've already spent less time making dinner than you have sitting in the drive-through.

3. Put good-for-you food at eye level. I noticed when I put the chopped-up veggies in the vegetable drawer, they were out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But when I put them on the middle row in the fridge, when I opened it to think about what to have for lunch, "cauliflower!" was suddenly an easy answer I didn't have to dig for. The same rules go for your pantry -- putting those little bags of almonds with sea salt or 100-calorie packs of dried cranberries where your chips used to be takes the thinking out of what to have for a snack.

4. Eat on salad plates and out of ramekins. Throw out your giant pasta bowls -- if you fill them, you're eating enough for 3 people. But if you fill up a salad plate, you trick yourself into thinking you've indulged. As for the ramekins -- they hold about 1 cup of food. The average serving size of cereal is 3/4 of a cup, and a recent Cooking Light article I read confirmed that something like 90% of all people overpour, sometimes eating 400 calories for breakfast without even meaning to do so. You can't overpour in a ramekin.

5. Eat pizza, once a week, but make it yourself. No, seriously -- dieting means deprivation, and deprivation causes you to overeat, go off track, and go back to old habits. So plan to eat something you really like once a week, but make it yourself so you can control the ingredients and quality of the food. Homemade pizza is about 1,000 times better than take-out anyway.

6. Exercise 5 times a week, but make bargains with yourself, and rest for 2 days. Now that I'm about 7 1/2 months pregnant, the "bargaining" part of this rule is really important for me. There are several days that I wake up at 5 and don't want to go to the gym (my own rule is to work out first thing in the day so that you can't put it off, or so that people can't step on your workout schedule with surprise meetings, but that doesn't work for everybody). So I compromise; I promise that I'll take a lap in the swimming pool when I get home from work, or that I'll go ahead and get up at 5 but I can work on the recumbent bike (which is easy) instead of doing interval training (which I hate). Or if it's a really pretty day, my bargain is that I abandon the gym (where I get a more strenuous workout) and powerwalk near the lakes by the house, only I double the time I do it.

7. Vary your workout. This is kind of related to #6. Do different things so you don't get bored, or injured. Seems like a no-brainer, really. Last year I bought rollerblades and found out, using a heartrate monitor, that 20 minutes burned 300 calories. It took about 45 min of jogging to get the same results. Yay!

8. Give up on diets. Diets don't work because, when you're done, you go back to eating the way you did before.

9. Plan 3 meals a week ahead of time. The other reason people eat out is that they're hungry and they don't know what they're going to make for dinner, but if you planned your meals ahead of time, then you eliminate that problem. And there are several cookbooks out there (Sandra Lee has one, as does Robin Miller) that show you how to make one main dish and create 3 meals out of it, for people who are stretched for time, hate cooking, or are on a budget.

After teaching my food class, I've developed several other food rules, but I do not know how they'll affect my waistline. I've given up substituting splenda (which is apparently toxic) for sugar and have abandoned eating things with the word "lite" on the front, opting instead to just use less of something made with recognizable ingredients. I've also tried to cut down on eating red meat to once or twice a week, which has been easy since the baby reacts negatively to it most of the time. I'll have to wait until the spring/early summer to see if that has affected me at all, but so far, these "food rules" must work, since I'm on schedule (God willing!) to gain little more than the minimum 35 lbs the doctors recommend, have struggled with only minimum aches and pains during the pregnancy, and have managed to avoid other unfortunate pregnancy pitfalls, such as gestational diabetes.

Now that I've written this, I'll probably swell like a sausage and gain 20 lbs in the home stretch, being forced onto bedrest. But at least my strawberries will be prepped and ready for when I recover. =) What are your food (or other) rules?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Everybody Eats

I taught composition for about 8 years before I got to the University of Tampa, 9 if you include my time in writing centers at the beginning of my MA degree. I always worked very hard on the course, but I never could make anyone excited about the class. Sure, there were moments when students told me they learned vital skills in Eng 101 or 102, but few ever said they liked writing and research -- until this year.

This year, my research & writing course got a complete overhaul and a new theme: American Foodways: The Study of American Food Culture through Research and Writing. I divided the class into 3 sections: Food Memories, Southern Foodways, and Food Politics. One section encouraged students to write autobiographically about a memory they had that involved food (using the book Eat, Memory as a model); the next studied the culture of southern food through Cornbread Nation (a section that involved a food project -- edible research, yum); and the final section, which I'm currently teaching, is the "Food Inc," Omnivore's Dilemma, gritty agribusiness portion of the course.

A miracle occurred. Somewhere between my African student telling about his refusal to eat a sacrificial ox and my Hindi student defending her choice to eat halal, the students became interested -- not only in writing and research, but in each other. They became friends, in some cases, but colleagues, mostly, sharing resources, pairing up to go to Epcot to research The Land, engaging in vegan diet experiments together and comparing notes. It was . . . weird. People were speaking voluntarily, actually completing the assigned reading, and consistently bringing in current events, video clips, and other news references pertaining to the class.

I've been scratching my head trying to figure out what suddenly went right but I've had to admit finally that it wasn't me; it was food. Everybody eats. I wanted the students to love what I loved -- I tried memoir, the South, even a class with open topics. But what I needed was an undeniably common ground, and that, apparently, was food.