Friday, February 29, 2008

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

The past week has brought some farm exposure into our little world. Sis is vacationing, and while she’s away, the boy and I are venturing slightly north to feed her chickens.

I’ve heard plenty about these chickens: they’re quite dense, they’re never quiet, they flap and run from people when pursued, they hide their eggs in odd and inaccessible places, they’re rather dirty and leave droppings everywhere… But I’ve never been very close to the chickens. I see them, they try to come into the house with me when I visit, they cluster under my car when I’m trying to depart—but my contact has still been somewhat limited. I was not their caretaker.

Now I am. And it’s really cold and snowy outside, and I actually feel a little bit of concern for the plump, stupid birds. I even checked in with brother-in-law via cell phone to make sure they’d be okay in the snow. He assured me they are quite hardy and will simply dig through the snow if necessary, eat, and then cluster together in their little home and be fine. And he’s right, so far at least.

My newfound concern for chickens rose a tad on snowy morning number three, when I released the chickens and realized, after counting heads, that someone was missing. My mind raced. Did a coyote nab an adventurous feathered girl who stayed out too late and didn’t get inside before dark? Did the poor bird simply freeze to death in single digit windchills? Was the clueless foul trapped somewhere, perhaps stuck in some ice?

I went about my business, stomping a flat place in the snow for the birds and spreading feed for them, all the while looking around me for any signs of a recent struggle. Poor, defenseless chicken. My sister and the kids would be saddened by this loss. But wait! Even as the other chickens pecked at the feed, I could still hear what sounded like a muted chicken, somewhere not far away.

The barn! The missing chicken was in the barn! She had probably wandered in while the pony caretaker had been feeding the ponies. And then the ponies were fed, and the chicken had found a comfy place in the hay, and next thing she knew the barn doors were closed for the night, trapping her. I hurried over and slid the door aside, expecting a frantic bird to emerge. But no: she was pretty happy inside, and in no hurry to come out—especially when she saw the swirling snowflakes and felt the frigid wind blowing through the doorway. She flatly refused to exit.

Thus began my Lucille Ball moment: stalking the reluctant chicken so as to grab hold of her and carry her out into the snowstorm. I had to catch her; if I didn’t, I would either have to close her in the barn again, or leave the barn door open—which really was not an option, since you never know what critters might wander into such an inviting, protected space in the midst of a snowstorm. So, I followed the goofy bird, getting close, reaching out only to feel the wind from her wings as she scurried away. She didn’t fly, actually, so I really couldn’t tell you why she was flapping her wings, except perhaps to catch me off guard.

For many minutes, I followed this foolish chicken around the barn’s interior. Thankfully, the other chickens stayed outside to stuff their hungry beaks with food, and no others ventured into the barn; only after the fact did I think of that risk, and they could have easily wandered in, since I left the door gaping open behind me… but they didn’t. The ponies, however, were quite entertained; they had both come into the barn and were standing in their stables to maximize their view of our ridiculous performance. There we were, me creeping up to the chicken, the chicken sensing the threat and hurrying just out of reach, or behind a big bale, or under the steps to the loft…and then a slightly different reenactment of the same scene, again. And again.

Finally, I quickened my pace a bit and lunged forward, grabbing the bird and managing, after some readjustments, to gently pin her wings against her sides as I held her. She accepted her fate without too much fight, and we stepped out into the bitter air. I set the chicken down, closed the barn door, counted heads one last time, and got the heck out of there. As I drove away, I glanced back; there they all were, heads bobbing slowly and comically, stepping with delicate, uncertain steps through the drifting snow. The barn-dweller was safely among them.

This morning was my last day of chicken duty. I won’t weep now that it’s over, but I did enjoy it in a strange, simple-minded way.

A: To go inside the barn, of course.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mixing it up

When I say “mixing it up,” I’m not talking about fighting. I’m talking, literally, about mixing things together—a somewhat recent trend in this culture, and one that’s lead to some unique (and sometimes questionable) pairings.

In food, it’s called “fusion cuisine.” Restaurants have been dabbling in this for a few years that I know of, possibly longer. Mixing flavors and foods from culture to culture, using unexpected spices, grilling items that are normally baked… there’s more, I’m sure, but I haven’t delved too deeply into this movement because I’m not passionate about it. I wouldn’t say I’m a food purist, but I definitely like to keep things simple—and I know, too, that when I have found an unlikely combination that I thought worked well, I’ve almost always discovered afterward that somewhere, in some people group, it wasn’t an unlikely pairing at all. (Spicy, peppered dark chocolate and spicy hot chocolate drinks, for example: how odd! Yet, it works. However—turns out that it’s not so odd in the culture from whence it comes: ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, from what I’m reading.) The really odd combinations that, frankly, don’t work? They rarely last beyond a season, once the thrill of the unexpected wears off.

Music features lots of fusion, too—not just lately, although the pattern does seem to be expanding these days into uncharted fronts. I suppose you could say that any drastically different cover version of a song is fusion at its best: I’m thinking right now of some hilarious and incredibly rockin’ bluegrass covers of Pink Floyd favorites. The Cardigans did an awesome version of Ozzy’s “Iron Man” in the 90s. But the music hybridization movement goes well beyond merely covering popular songs these days, mostly thanks to PBS. It started with now-recognizable names like Celtic Woman and André Rieu, who took a certain music style and dramatized it, made it more physically attractive and lighter than it had been in its traditional state. The result was huge success for both groups. The way has been paved now for heterogeneous acts like Libera, an amazingly talented boys choir that does a lot of cross-over hits with accompanying modern instruments, and Bowfire, a gathering of manic fiddlers who, I suspect, are mostly classically trained violinists who happen to realize the incredible profitability of appealing to the masses with a mix of rearranged, layered classics, super-fast pieces that are sometimes “rocked out,” and the occasional madly fiddling clogger.

Even bookstores have moved in this direction. Remember the bookstores of yore? No food or drinks permitted. They were often cramped, with a smattering of semi-comfortable chairs, and lots and lots of books, sometimes old books, but mostly real books with more words than pictures… Nowadays? Borders, Barnes and Noble, and the other imitators are slowly putting the old-school bookstores out of business. Crowds gather at these big boxes, slurping sugary coffee drinks, perusing lovely, huge, illustration-heavy books that once purchased, often sit unopened on a coffee table.

Now, the traditionalists among us are probably tsk, tsk-ing as they see their pure, lovely forms of food and music and literary settings become bastardized versions of themselves, all for the sake of a sale. The less stodgy folks are, for the most part, probably supportive of these fused genres; if mixing things up a tad makes them more accessible to a larger group of people, is it so bad? Remember that indescribably horrible synthesized version of Beethoven’s 5th that came out during the disco era? At least it brought about some sort of widespread exposure to the classical composers, right?

I’m honestly not sure where I stand on all this. I don’t want to be a purist and deny people their simplified pleasures, some of which I enjoy as well; in the big picture, hybridization often amounts to increased appreciation for the arts, even kitchen arts. Regardless of my stance, though, I think we’d better get used to more and more of this sort of thing; it seems to be inevitable, and I believe it will eventually saturate our culture. Food, music, books, ethnicities, neighborhoods, relationships, global trade and marketing… the “mix-up” is happening everywhere. It’s all part of our world becoming smaller, less mysterious, easier to touch and feel and experience—both good and bad.

Will it result in the inevitable loss of truly pure states of everything? Perhaps.

Does that frighten you? Or will you embrace the changes?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On being out of touch

I’m a mite sad to tell you that I have no idea who won what at the Oscars—but just a mite. In fact, I think they’re still on. Aren’t they? It’s 11:15 on Sunday evening, and if memory serves me, those silly awards will be handed out for some time yet. But I don’t know for certain, and I flatly refuse to turn on the television and find out. You see, this is just one more area of my life that I’ve pretty much abandoned without looking back.

I looked back for awhile, peered over my shoulder wondering what I was missing, especially when I lost books. Books were big to me for so many years—I mean, I taught English for cryin’ out loud. Books were huge. They shaped me, they entertained me, they spoke to me and were real to me. Now? Not. I just can’t care about them like I used to. Even when I get a chance to read, it’s not the same. I noticed some years back that I was losing my taste for fictional characters, and now I find that I simply have no patience with them. They’re not real. I can no longer justify the time and energy spent on these people. Only the most convincing, human characters can hold me now. I suppose that increasing demands on your time make you more selective about how you spend it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Giving up TV was no biggie—I pretty much gave it up in college, and lost nothing. But even recently, I used to at least watch the news. Now? It’s too depressing. It makes me wonder what I was thinking, bringing a little person into this world. So, I don’t watch the news anymore. I’m lucky to catch the weather in the mornings, and maybe we turn on world news once a week or so, which I then promptly forget to watch because I end up reading stories or talking to someone. I can still scan headlines online, and filter out the stupid, shallow stories, and the ones that fill me with sadness, make me feel heavy and sullen; and NPR will serve me well enough in this period of my life.

I do miss music and movies. Especially music. I used to make it a point to stay on top of new artists, and tours, and who had gone solo, and who had flopped. I used to know what young people were listening to, because I used to listen to it, too. Now, I turn on the “hip” stations and I don’t recognize a single voice. They all sound the same, young and undeveloped, like they’re trying too hard. The same way, I’m sure, that all my favorite childhood bands sounded to my parents. Now I’ve become that person who thinks the music of her youth was superior. I even heard a song from my high school years on the “oldies” station the other day. Now THAT’S a downer. That makes me want to leave the radio off.

Movies, too—once upon a time, I had a clue. I knew who was starring in the box office hits, I knew who was nominated, I’d even seen a few of the well-known titles. I read reviews, I was at least familiar with some of the odd films that were only shown in one local theater, I even knew some of the good foreign films coming down the pike. Nowadays, I don’t have any idea what’s playing. The last film I saw was at Christmas time with a girlfriend (Charlie Wilson’s War) and it was good, but I don’t want to talk about it and think about it and see it again. Before that? I can’t even tell you the last time I was in a movie theater. And rentals? Todd and I are usually catching up on things the whole world already viewed last year. Our last big hit here? The Fox and the Hound, of course. (Marcus adored it, and was only a little bit frightened by the bear at the end.)

I guess it’s all part of the bubble effect of being a stay-at-home-mom and a parent in general. I’m pretty content to leave out the bad stuff, so the news is no loss. And honestly, I’ve always been a person absolutely grounded in reality, and that aspect of my personality seems to have become even more dominant, thus eliminating the need—and desire—to fill my brain with too much mental jewelry. Every day, I care less and less that I know less and less about this stuff. Because honestly, is any of it important? It doesn’t really matter whether I know who sings that song, or who won that Oscar for which movie, or which book Oprah’s pushing and what it's about, or whether Britney remembered to put on panties last night, or whether Jen is still bitter toward Angie, or whether the Police are coming to Pittsburgh on their reunion tour… Well, okay, that one is bothering me a little. Man, I’d really like to see the Police and Elvis Costello. Sigh.

But truly, I’m feeling more peaceful every day about my cultural cluelessness. BTW, can one of you call me if something really important happens?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another kid update

Every now and then, when the child is wearing me down with his constant rebellions about everything from when and what to eat down to where I’m permitted to park his Matchbox cars, I need to step away and think of all the very cute and funny things he does daily.

He gets in a mood for hugs and then delivers them generously, usually clutching my legs as I’m standing but sometimes partly strangling my neck when he’s at my level. He’ll say it, too, as he’s moving in for one: “Big hug! I gonna give you big hug!” With his dad, it’s “monster hug” but it looks pretty much the same. Sometimes his stuffed animals hug each other—apparently they all love each other tremendously, regardless of whether they’re friends in the real animal kingdom—so it’s nothing for Mama Polar Bear to seek out a tiny lamb instead of her own baby bear, and hug the sheep for all its worth. Teddy is also quite demonstrative, and the two stuffed kitties are extremely loving as well.

Speaking of Teddy, we’re currently operating on just one bear. The other, the “twin Teddy,” was inadvertently left at my sister’s house on Monday. We didn’t even miss him until the moment she called to tell me what we’d done. But boy, come bedtime, he was severely missed. Tears welled, lower lip pouted out like a shelf, and I had insane but fleeting thoughts of journeying out to get Teddy right at that moment. (Fleeting, like I said… it was after 9:30 pm.) I kept pointing out that we still had one Teddy right here, clutched in the boy’s arms. We even had a lighter colored stand-in Teddy, who looks much cleaner and better preserved but has all the same features as the others. Other Teddy was having a little visit at his cousin’s. He was fine; he was in good hands. None of this made one iota of difference to the child; the logic did not offer any comfort. It never does. Eventually, because he was exhausted, our boy clutched the single Teddy and his Ellie and fell asleep asking, “Why? Why?” As if I, in my terribly finite and flawed brain, could ever address such a monumental query.

(You’ll be happy to know that the next night was easier, and last night, the little trooper didn’t even ask where other Teddy was. No worries: we’ll get him back on Monday. Oh, the stories Other Teddy will have to tell about his big adventure!)

And now back to why: That, you see, is the very favorite utterance of our son. Every single thing I speak is met with, “Why?” Why is it lunchtime? Why must we put Duplos away? Why is it bath night? And why must we go to the store? As all you wiser mom-figures know, answering said “why” does nothing to end the exchange—it only fuels it, thus leading to more and more whys until your head pops off… or something like that.

I wait with bated breath for warmer days, and I hope and pray for a more willing potty training student, soon. Prayers on that front are most welcome!

And mostly, I thank God for this wonderful little person every day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Making an escape, whatever way you can

It’s February in western Pennsylvania. Cold, damp, with bracing winds. Unforgiving. Unlovable. To rub salt water in the wound, several folks I know—family and friends—are escaping to Florida this weekend. So, I’ve had Florida on my mind.

The last time I visited Florida was in March 2004, I believe. The painting above is based on a photo from that visit; the setting was DeSoto Beach, near Tampa, if I’m remembering correctly. There’s an old fort there too (aptly named Fort DeSoto), in a pristine state park full of seascapes you imagined and then found in reality. The whole trip remains a precious, balmy memory that I store safely in a special corner of my mind; I’ve returned to that shore many times since my actual return. Someday I’ll go back.

People we know, Pittsburgh natives, moved to Tampa a few years ago and then, this past December, made the pilgrimage north, back to this cold place. I thought of them several times during that week that they relocated; it was frigid here, snowy and messy as I recall, and I was wondering if they questioned their decision at all. Of course, if I were living in Tampa when Katrina or any of her violent cousins came ashore, I would probably be questioning that decision, too.

I still wish I were in Florida right now. I think I’ll go sit by the kerosene heater, close my eyes, and put on my Polynesian beach CD that sounds like ocean waves lapping in the background. A weak substitute for the real thing, I know—but all I can manage right now.

Happy vacationing and a safe trip, you travelers. (You know who you are. )

Friday, February 15, 2008

Just buy it, already

Okay, so I should have called this site “malmoirs” because of all the maladies I’ve suffered since I began writing things here. But I didn’t. Aren’t you glad you can’t catch my germs over the internet? It has its own bugs—but none that you’ll contract from me.

So, this will be short since I’m only now beginning to feel remotely like myself.

Here are three inexpensive purchases that we should have made a loooooong time ago. I can’t even tell you why we didn’t. We just didn’t. And then we did. And now we are reaping the rewards exponentially.

Kerosene heater. Every time the temperature dipped near freezing and strong winds or weird storm fronts came through, my heart would pitter-patter in a bad way, because in the back of my head was the realization that if the power went out for any length of time, we’d be forced from our home like refugees. I didn’t think about it until the dire forecasts were looming, and there I’d be shopping for milk and bread and toilet paper like all the other freaks who buy those things before a storm, and I’d be picturing us packing our important possessions and searching for a place to stay until the stupid electricity came on.

Enter craigslist, again. What a great thing that site is. I looked on it for a small kerosene heater, found a few, shared my great idea that we acquire one with Todd, and within two days we had one sitting in our basement, warming the place like a champ. $35.00. The couple selling it had no need (moving to AZ) and now it’s ours. They even threw in some kerosene. And why did this take us several years? Who knows.

Extra garbage can. There we’d be, week after week, setting the garbage out and being forced to balance the extra bag on top of the stuffed garbage can, or worse, swapping out a bag or two from inside the can so that the smelliest food-filled bag would be safely encased, hidden from curious critters who rip the bag open and strew nastiness in their wake. And then, one week, we made it a priority; Todd picked another one up at the store and, lo and behold, we had enough room for all our crap to fit safely inside one of the locked containers. We’ve actually had this item for a few months; it’s just that I’m reminded what a good purchase it was every Thursday night when I’m getting the stuff together for that week’s trash pickup.

Pencil sharpener. Todd has an awesome, huge box of colored pencils left over from his time as an art student at AIP. I’m a stamper—we try to make our own greeting cards, Christmas cards, and nametags and such—so I’ve pretty much taken possession of the box of pencils. But here’s the stupid thing: I’ve used them for years now, and when one of them would wear down to a nub, I’d whine and Todd would sharpen it with a pocket knife. Is that pathetic or what? So, finally, at a craft store last week, I made a point of finding a small, $2 pencil sharpener—one of those tiny metal ones that are just a silver square with two different sized holes—and buying the darned thing.

I cannot tell you the satisfaction I found later that day, sharpening one dull-tipped, bright-colored pencil after another. It really hit the spot. Of course, Marcus was using them too, and as fast as I could sharpen them, he wore them down with frantic scribbling. But I truly didn’t mind. At least not until my hand reformed into a permanent claw from overusing the sharpener...

So, that’s my story. Inexpensive but life-altering purchases that should have been made long before they were. Do you have any to share? Save me the wasted years and tell me what you took too long to buy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A MUST READ! Mel’s magic foods

When I was pregnant, I found out I had a condition called gestational diabetes. Through no choice of my own, and out of terror at the thought of birthing a 20-pound infant, I was forced to acquire knowledge about glucose levels, the glycemic index, complex carbohydrates, and refined sugars. Of course, I was pregnant at the time… so thanks to pregnancy brain, much of that knowledge was swept right out of my head by rampant hormones. Still, I retain some of the basics, since as a prediabetic I still need to apply them daily; mostly. I know what foods make a huge difference in the way my own body processes food. So, by popular demand, I write this entry… which could easily be several entries, because there is so much to say about the matter.

I’ll warn you: I am not a doctor, nor a dietitian. I speak in layman’s terms because, frankly, they’re all I have. I can say with absolute truth that the information I’ll share here has worked for me, as evidenced by lower glucose readings. I hope you can get some ideas about how to improve your own eating habits. (And no, I don’t always do every single thing that I’ll list here. Sorry. Yep, hypocritical, I know.)

To put it basically, your body needs a considerable amount of food in its most raw forms. In short, the more processed and “done” a food is, the worse it is for your body. Anything that’s bleached or refined does too much of the work for you, and therefore causes your blood sugar to spike after you eat it. That’s not good for anyone, especially diabetics. What you need to understand is that all food has carbohydrates, or carbs. Some of the carbs are good and complex, and some are easy, empty carbs that do nothing for you but give you a quick energy and then make you sleepy. At least that’s what they do to me. Sometimes, they can even make you dizzy, light-headed, or nauseous once the spike is over.

There’s a tricky part about watching your sugar levels. It’s not just about avoiding sweets; it’s much more than that. All those boxed meals and crackers and white pasta and white bread and quick oatmeal and egg noodles… boy, they’re yummy in moderation, but eating them is practically the same as ingesting a chocolate bar or piece of cake. Maybe worse. They convert very quickly to sugars in your body, even though they don’t look like sugars going in. And that’s bad.

Anyway. The glycemic index is this giant index of food; each food is assigned a rating in the index, so it’s kind of like a scale. These ratings were determined by testing blood samples in healthy folks who’d eaten the foods; the ratings show whether the food in burned up quickly by your body, or whether it’s used more slowly and gradually, thus sticking with you longer and not causing blood sugar spikes. (BTW, you want to eat the slower, more gradual food.) Many food labels are beginning to include this GI rating to help people eat better. In short, foods that have a high GI rating are things made with bleached or enriched flours and sugars, like regular pasta, baked goods, white rice, etc. The foods that are low on the GI scale are veggies, most fruits, whole grains, that sort of thing—hence the whole grain train that’s making its way around the U.S.A. It’s easy to learn more about the glycemic index—just Google the phrase and have a field day. I’m no expert, so I’ll let you do that for homework.

Ideally, when you eat a meal, your plate should look like this: about ½ vegetables or vegetables/fruits, ¼ cereals/breads, and ¼ lean meat or protein. Plus, we eat monstrous portions in this country; therefore, in order to achieve that ideal plate, you’ll likely have to downsize each of those portions from what you’re expecting. Shocking, I know. If you haven’t yet done so, consult the labels on food packaging and finding out what THEY consider to be a serving; it’s quite eye-opening.

And remember, you’re not just shooting for low GI-rated, low carb foods. Your body needs carbs to be healthy. You just want to find the carbs that will take your body a longer time and more effort to digest. And you can’t rely solely on meat and cheese and the like—they’re often high in fat, and you don’t want to pig out on those and give yourself low glucose levels, but have a heart attack instead.

Okay. I’ve rambled long enough. I’ll get to the nitty gritty now. Just as love covers a multitude of sins, there are certain foods that cover a multitude of bad eating choices. Read on to hear about the foods that “cover” me.

Veggies: The magic vegetables that I’ve found are definitely spinach, celery, and baby carrots. They’re both best raw, of course, but spinach can be sautéed in olive oil with garlic, or used in soups, and likewise for celery and carrots—you just don’t want to cook them to death. Any dark, leafy greens are great. Brightly colored produce is good for you, so when they’re on sale, I try to work in red and yellow peppers. Some other great vegetable choices? Cauliflower is one (it’s great roasted with olive oil); zucchini, squash, and eggplant are good choices too—and in summer, you can slice ‘em and cook ‘em on the grill brushed with oil! Yum.

Fruits: Some are high in natural sugar. A reasonable sized apple, blueberries and other berries, grapes, melons—all are fine if I don’t overdo it. The problem with fruit isn’t typically the fruit itself—it’s what we do to them before we call them “good.” Eating your strawberries piled with Reddi-Whip is probably going to make them less beneficial for you. Also, canned fruits in regular syrup are off the charts. Don’t even bother unless you find some with no added sugar. Bananas? The more ripe they get, the higher in sugar they are.

Cereals: The more old-fashioned oatmeal you can work into recipes, the better. We actually started to make our own Muesli cereal so we can control exactly what goes into it—especially sugar, including the dried fruits, which are great energy foods but are very high in carbs. Wheat cereals and bran cereals are typically pretty good choices. Look at the carb counts on the labels of store-bought stuff and compare. Don’t forget to consider the serving size! Health-wise, a whole cup of crisped rice doesn’t hold a candle to a half-cup of shredded wheat.

Breads, pastas, and rice: The good news is yes, you can still eat them. You just need to eat less, and eat the right kind. I love Barilla Plus, which is awesome and tastes almost like regular pasta; another good one is the Barilla Whole Grain variety. Rice? Brown is a better choice, but be creative—try a wild rice mix, or the best type I’ve found, Basmati rice. I don’t know where it got the name, or whether it merits a capital letter, but it is much better for my glucose levels than plain old white rice. Jasmine rice also seems to be better than plain white. Whole wheat breads are the best for you—but whole wheat flour had better be the first ingredient, or the loaf is misrepresenting itself. Any grainy bread is good, really—crusty helps, too. The worst? White sandwich bread, especially the kind that makes a doughy ball when you roll it up in your fingers. The very worst for me? Mancini’s regular Italian. Sorry, Pittsburghers—it’s great stuff, but not for diabetics.

Beans: They’re good. Use them in stews, casseroles, skillet meals. If you use the canned ones (and most of us do), then rinse them before you use them. And if you don’t eat meat, use even more.

Nuts: These make great snacks, in moderation. Peanut butter, too. Yes, they’re high in fats, but it’s the good fat, not the saturated kind that clogs your arteries. Plus, peanut butter gives you protein, which is good. Get used to throwing some sunflowers or pine nuts in your salads, and always use peanuts in stir-fried meals.

Meat: Of course lean is best. Fish is especially great. Be warned, though—when you fry the fish, you reverse all the good stuff about it. Bake it, cook it in a pan, grill it in foil boats, but don’t coat it with egg and crumbs and toss it in boiling oil every time you have it; make fried fish the exception. I’ve also had great luck with venison, much to the chagrin of all you people who won’t touch it. A small amount—of lean beef, sausage that’s drained after cooking, and chicken—will go a long way in flavoring dishes and making them a bit more complicated for your stomach. Eggs are in this section too, I suppose—I’m not a big egg person, but I’m sure they’re fine in moderation.

Dairy: You need it. I should drink skim milk, but I don’t because I don’t want to buy two varieties of milk all the time. So, 2% works for me. Yogurt is also excellent, but don’t buy the fruity, sugary containers that you love. Buy the economy-size vanilla (I’d say plain, but no one eats it, including me) and then mix it with some cereal or a little bit of fresh fruit. Or, to save time, you can buy the light yogurts with artificial sweetener—yes, they still have that aftertaste, but they’re not bad, and you’ll really cut out a lot of sugar, plus do your stomach a favor. And cheese is great, cottage and ricotta cheese too. Use them in quiche or in sauces—a little goes far.

Fast food: It’s bad for you. If you must, get the side salad with the sandwich instead of fries. The taco salad at Wendy’s is always a safe choice, as are the big grilled chicken salads at McDonald’s. Other fast foods, or restaurant foods like Chinese and Mexican? They’re deadly. If you prepare the same thing yourself at home, with fresh ingredients, it makes a big difference. For example, I’ve seen my glucose readings differ by 30 points if I ate a small, frozen burrito vs. making the same (larger) burrito myself.

SUGAR: Don’t keep sugary stuff in the house. You’ll eat it. I love to bake, so I’ve come up with some recipes that are more forgiving because they incorporate some of these magic foods. But the truth is that I can’t have those in the house either—I just can’t leave them alone. So, be wise and don’t tempt yourself unnecessarily. And YES, you can get used to using Splenda in your coffee and tea. It does help. Not the same… but you get used to it.

Boy. This was a long post. And I could go on. But I won’t. You have some basics now. If none of this is new information to you, then sorry for wasting your time. If you found an error in my facts, then please let me know so I can amend the entry. And honestly, it’s just about common sense, changing the way you shop and cook, a little at a time. Eat the stuff you can’t go without—but put it alongside something that will help cover the bad food. Pizza? Add a salad and cut out a slice. Mac and cheese? Make your own from scratch using whole wheat macaroni. Haluski? Make it with whole grain noodles and extra cabbage. You can make this work! You can make a difference! You’ll feel better! Your body will thank you! And best of all, you’ll decrease your chances of developing some of the nastiest, most harmful diseases known to man.

Sorry, though—you will spend more money on healthy food. There's always a cost, right? Enjoy—and healthy eating!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Feelin' freaky

I recall when I was a kid that certain things really sent me off the deep end if I thought about them for too long. First, it was human beings themselves. I remember when we first began learning about internal body parts, probably in grade school and on into middle school, and I started to really grasp that we living creatures were miracles—that a heart was inside each of us, beating of its own power, and that we were literally pulsing with life, with blood, with functioning and even regenerating parts… and all this happened constantly without batteries, without our being charged in an outlet each evening. We were just alive, and someday we wouldn’t be. Period. It really freaked me out.

In fourth grade, I think, we learned about the solar system, studied all the planets, memorized their names and order with some funny sentence about my mom serving pizza (a mnemonics gimmick—it worked at the time I learned it, but the order of the planets is never straight in my head these days, so at some point in the past 30 years the trick failed me). But what really stayed with me was the absolutely ludicrous notion that the universe it infinite. What is infinite? What IS that? How can it be? Someone, a former teacher or a cheesy sci-fi author or such, planted an idea in my head that there was a final boundary to the universe…and it was a giant wall plastered with advertisements. That was ridiculous, but presented quite a memorable image—one that has stuck with me in spite of its silliness. Still, I couldn’t linger on that subject for long. Even now, the idea of infinity is unnerving to me.

Planets were fascinating, but even more so was our very own little orb. How could we be rotating all the time? And revolving at the same time? And yeah, there’s gravity, I know, but how can it be just the right amount that we don’t float away, yet don’t collapse upon ourselves either? The distance from the sun, too—that’s enough to send me out of my head. How can it be exactly right for providing warmth? For maintaining our weather patterns? It’s just the perfect distance to cause photosynthesis, thus sustaining us through food sources. It’s the reason Earth has life on it—and I know that’s no accident. But even embracing the idea of a genius Creator doesn’t lessen the jumpy sensations in the pit of my stomach when I dwell on that subject.

Nowadays, I’m becoming rather nervous about the state of our planet and its possibly changing atmosphere, what with the horror stories about rising temperatures, melting icecaps, polar bears drowning because they’re not able to swim far enough to find icy ground anymore. (Scoff if you want, but first sit down and watch An Inconvenient Truth. Whether or not you like Al Gore, he sets forth some very convincing and convicting information.) I’m also feeling pretty uncertain about the economy, and our dependence on foreign oil, and the fact that our whole culture is based on buying crap and driving places. If the oil stops, we’re screwed. I can’t even think about it or I’ll spend our entire savings on canned goods, weaponry, and a huge generator that’s powered by an exercise bike. But I can’t talk about that anymore—you know why!

And I’ve come full circle on the freaky topics, because now I’m freaked out by my own body—again. I was too consumed and distracted when I was pregnant to realize the insanity of growing a life inside me, but in the aftermath, I’ve been left with a little parting gift from the kid: a heart murmur. It’s in there, all the time, but I’m really only aware of it in quiet moments, especially right before I fall asleep. (Now, there’s a soothing, soporific thought: your heart is out of whack. Sweet dreams!) It’s something called a prolapsed mitral valve, I think. The doc explained it as a door (translation—heart valve) that’s actually a little bit too small for the door frame, so that each time it swings shut, it tries to swing all the way through. Pretty comforting, eh? I realize it’s small potatoes compared to the weird bodily things going on in lots of other folks out there, and I’m not complaining. It’s minor. It’s not a big deal. It’s very common, especially in women. It doesn’t require treatment, at least not at this stage. And yet… I feel it in there sometimes, I feel the missed beat, the pause while the valve is trying to swing back instead of sticking in the frame like it wants to. I feel it malfunctioning, even for a second.

A n d i t f r e a k s m e o u t.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Lion in Winter (and the giraffe and the bear)

Some exotic backsides especially for you! Which leads me to my post...

Watching the weather this past weekend, I could see that Monday was shaping up to be a potential winter zoo visitation day. Come Monday morning, the predictions were oddly still correct, and the day dawned rather gray but dry, and somewhat cool but unseasonably warm for February. I made one last scan of radar on the Weather Channel, packed the kid’s bag with unmessy edibles, and off we went to the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

It wasn’t our first visit, but it was our first winter visit. We missed a few of the warm-weather animals that were either hidden or on hiatus ‘til spring. The huge, disgusting Komodo Dragon was absent, as were those cute, tiny crocs (or are they alligators?), and Kids Kingdom was roped off—so no petting tame deer or crossing bridges over the otters and their buddies. But most of the other animals were happy to see us, or so it seemed. The tigers were up and about, and as one of them eyed me hungrily from across a steep crevasse, I recalled with a shudder the recent escape of and attack by one of these fierce beasts in another zoo. Alas, this one stayed in his designated area, and we exchanged looks before walking on to see the lions (both lounging on their big lookout rock), giraffes, zebras, elephants, and ostrich. No gazelles, though—perhaps it was too cold for them?

The rainforest (monkey house) was not quite as horrifically pungent as it is in warmer months. We witnessed lots of varieties lounging and nit-picking, and were lucky enough to get a great, swinging view of a baby orangutan. I couldn’t linger by the gorilla’s area, though—three big adults were sitting quite near to the glass, and although their sheer size is rather frightening, the worst part of all is the absolutely human expressions on their faces. I can’t help thinking that they understand their situation completely and would never choose such a fate. I actually felt guilty taking a couple of pictures, even though the opportunity was golden, because it honestly was like looking in the window of someone’s home and photographing him as he sat listlessly on his couch, utterly resigned to his doom.

On a happier note, the wild dogs were scampering about. And the bears were out, mostly sleeping, but one (whom I respectfully did not photograph) was completely absorbed with a certain part of his body. I’ll leave the details up to you, but suffice it to say I don’t think he even noticed us. Thankfully, Marcus didn’t put the pieces together so I didn’t have to explain that one. Then came the aquarium; we made our way around it more quickly than I’d like (Marcus gets a little freaky in all the dark areas, even back by the penguins, where I could spend many minutes); then we parked our gear and ourselves in front of the giant two-story tank, munched our lunch, and watched the fish dancing to new age music. (I’m not a huge fan, but for this purpose, the synth-heavy sounds were perfect.)

Then the polar bears, which were delightful, plus a flirtatious peacock and his unimpressed amour, and the ever-playful sea lions, and the domesticated animals (llama, camel, reindeer, sheep, goats), and that was about it. The best part of all was that there were no crowds, no huge lines of classrooms taking up the viewing area, no sweat dripping from our brow, and no over-heated animals hiding in the bushes. Plus, the price is a smidge lower in winter months—and lower prices are always a good thing!

What I’m trying to say is that it was a really enjoyable few hours, and the shame of it was that we practically had the place to ourselves. If the temperature’s going to top 50, think about a little trip to the zoo. It really is a great asset to our city, and although limited in size, it keeps getting better and better. Spending a good part of the day outdoors is also soul-lifting, as is watching God’s beautiful living creations pacing, prancing, and napping right before your eyes. Until I can afford safari or rainforest exploration, this is as close as I’ll get to most of these critters—and I’m surely thankful to have had the opportunity to see them, even in captivity. The fish alone could make you cry; so amazing, all so unique, moving with such fluid grace… I could get positively weepy sitting in front of that big tank of miracles.

Next time we experience an unseasonable warming trend, take a hooky day if you can, slow down, and gaze with appreciation at some awesome creatures. I counted only 24 cars in the lot when we were leaving; I hope that next time we visit, that number is much higher—and that your car is among them.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The other, less happy news story

In light of the delightful Super Bowl upset last night, the attention has sort of shifted away from the continuing horrible saga of Natalee Holloway and her very premature (presumed) death.

Am I alone in wanting to harm that young man who is the prime suspect? The most recently released tapes—tapes full of lies, or so the liar now claims—are almost unbearable to watch. His nonchalant relaying of the events, complete with slurs against that young girl, is enough to incite me to rage, and I’m not even Natalee’s mom. What must her parents be thinking as they view snippets of the covert, casual interview in that SUV?

It’s unfortunate that his name, when pronounced by an American, sounds a lot like our word for liquid waste. But his latest claims, that he simply told that fellow who was driving what he wanted to hear? I’m sorry, folks; I’m not buying it. If you’ve been under investigation, on and off, for over two years as a suspect in a disappearance-cum-murder, you don’t say what people want to hear unless it implies your innocence.

My heart breaks for Natalee’s mom and dad. Even in most tragic deaths, the mourning survivors can at some point begin to move on: not so with this situation. They live in limbo, waiting for her remains to surface, for an arrest that sticks, for some sort of conclusion to this most awful part of their lives. And it doesn’t come. Even a trial in which a suspect was acquitted would at least allow motion forward. But there is no forward motion. (What’s increasingly shocking to me is that vigilante justice isn’t more prevalent, especially by distraught parents.)

And the most unfortunate part of the story isn’t that punk’s name; it’s that he, too, is someone’s beloved child. Every time I’m really beginning to believe he’s Satan’s spawn, I try to picture what his parents are going through. Not the same hell as Natalee’s, I’m sure. But it can’t be easy for “Urine’s” parents, either. In addition to having their lives smashed open, they have to continue to come to terms with what their living, thriving son may be guilty of committing.

Other than probably those fellows who were at the beach with her, I don’t know if any of us will ever really know what became of that girl. All I know is this: no senior trips out of the continental U.S.A. for any teen I love and can control in any way, unless perhaps if it’s a carefully chaperoned missions trip to a country that doesn’t serve booze to children with too much money and too many advantages. It would be even better if the point of said trip was to spend each day working so hard that every night, the exhausted team fell into bedrolls—individually, and for sleeping purposes only.

And even then, it’s not foolproof. Nothing is. Look at all the unrest in Kenya. If you’d planned that trip a couple of months ago, it looked pretty safe. Now? Not so.

Anyway. I’m happy for the Giants, but very sad about some other, more familiar (dare I say “old”?) news stories.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Burgers, or steak

Our birds are snobs.

Well, they’re not our birds, actually—they’re the neighborhood birds that frequent our yard. But I think of them as ours…and now they’ve become quite standoffish.

Why, you ask? Because, you see, I purchased bargain birdseed for them. I was paying what I considered to be too much money for the good birdseed that these hoity toits love—the oiled black sunflower, primarily, with some other yummies mixed in. None of it was cheap, of course—the good stuff never is, now, is it? And the squirrels were scaling the feeder like determined little army recruits, and every day the feeder was emptied. I felt sad for the birds, but mostly I felt annoyance at the squirrels. And I thought, I’ll show you, squirrels—I’ll buy inexpensive seed that you don’t want. Then the poor, hungry birds can eat their fill instead of being terrorized by a climbing, swinging swirl of furry gray.

And the next time I bought seed, I paid $3.99 for 20 pounds. That’s right. 20 pounds. Except I forgot something: Just because they’re hungry doesn’t mean they’re desperate.

I remember the first time I figured this out. I was helping out at a grocery store, doing a volunteer project; I was to guard a table positioned in the store’s entryway on which shoppers were leaving donations for the local food bank. And as people dropped off their non-perishables, I was stupidly thinking Wow, look at all the great stuff people are giving. Of course, there were the typical donations of generic canned soup, store-brand beans, bargain pastas, etc. But there were good things, too: name brand soups and stews, expensive meats in tins and such, even famous boxed cereals sporting multi-colored spokes-animals. And slowly but surely, my brain said to me, Hey dummy, just because people are experiencing financial hardship, that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their sense of taste. They still like what everyone else likes. That doesn’t mean that someone in need couldn’t use my donated lima beans… but boy, I’ll bet they were wishing for some Dinty Moore instead.

It’s the same with clothes; it’s easy for me to drop off an old, misshapen sweater with pils on it. But next time someone’s collecting coats and such, maybe I should gather up a couple that I still like, or one that looks like new. That would be a real blessing to someone, right? I mean, if I were hungry, and two different restaurants were giving away meals, I’d go to whichever is closer. But hey, if the two restaurants were a burger joint and an expensive steak place, you can bet I’d work a bit harder to get to the steak place. Wouldn’t you?

And that, my friends, is what the birds—and likely the squirrels, too, those scoundrels—have done. I have a great neighbor a few doors down. She’s single, has a good job, and she loves animals, really loves them. And she has the bird feeder of all feeders, and it is stocked with high-quality seed. I would be willing to bet money that she does not shortchange the winged critters nor the thieving, fluffy-tailed rascals. I’m certain she buys the “steak.” And when I’m serving microwaved burgers, or the birdseed equivalent, I’m pretty much guaranteed an empty yard.

I can’t blame them, really. But I’m still not buying new birdseed until somebody eats all 20 pounds of this cheap stuff.