Thursday, March 31, 2011

Happiness in a Cloud

Here in the Seattle, I chuckle at the newspaper forecasts, since like the proverbial Eskimos who have a dozen words for snow, we have an equally ample vocabulary for that wet stuff that incessantly batters the roof.

"Showers turning into rain," was today's forecast.  "Rain at times," which translates to "rain at ALL times," earned two days this week. When the weatherman's especially frisky, he predicts "chance of sun," or the ever-optimistic "Rain with sunbreaks."  That means that if you keep your eye out, you'll get a chance to run outside for a quick Vitamin D blast in the ten seconds before the sun is again obscured.  The word "drizzles" does not exist; instead it's "partly cloudy."

Right now a blanket of gray hovers above us, with lighter and darker shades woven within it.  An article in yesterday's New York Times Science section comes to remind me that I ought not be glum, and instead should start admiring the moving show above me, cast in silver, pewter, or as Pantone suggests, flint gray, frost gray, feather gray, chateau gray, smoke gray, steeple gray...

Admittedly, the whole thing looks like one big shaded low ceiling, which would be perfectly fine--occasionally.  But clouds, when they're distinct, have a lot to offer, their negative reputation notwithstanding.

The article describes a new book by cloud-spotter Gavin Pretor-Pinney that validates my fascination with these amazing entities.  He says clouds are "magicked into being" by natural forces, but I usually think of them as God wielding an enormous paintbrush on the blank canvas of the sky. Pretor-Pinney's Cloud Appreciation Society boasts more than 25,000 members in 87 countries, and awards its adherents 10 points for sighting a normal nimbostratus rain cloud, up to 40 or more for rarer formations.  What you win for collecting all these views is unclear. Heh-heh.

Cloud Society advocates have "had enough of blue-sky thinking," and of "people moaning" about their fluffy friends.  For the record, I do not "moan" but simply prefer clouds that are actually discernable rather than one heavy, smothering mass. (OK, I do moan about our blanket.)

But whenever and wherever the sky boasts beautiful clouds, I'm the first to extol them, and always run to get my camera to capture their ephemeral magnificence.  Many of my best cloud shots are from visits to Hawaii, and in this post are a few I've taken there over the last few months.

Pretor-Pinny did express a worthwhile sentiment for those of us who grumble when sunshine is a mere memory: "Happiness does not come from wanting to be somewhere else.  Happiness comes from finding beauty and a stimulation or interest in the everyday surroundings in which you find yourself."

Because of that, and Jewish tradition, I thank God every morning, even before looking outside.  And tap people, not periphery, for joy, as it says in the song: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray..."

The reason the Israeli flag is blue and white even relates to the sky.  The blue color, called "tichaylet" in Hebrew, is biblically-rooted, and inspires one to look to his world--to the sea, and from the horizon upward, to remember the source of it all.  We're presently not sure which animal  originally produced the dye, but some researchers in Jerusalem have isolated a sea snail found off Israel's coast, and have started producing special garments which include a thread of this hue.

There's also the biblical story of Moses leading the Jews in battle; as long as his hands were raised skyward, focusing soldiers on God, the Jews prevailed.

So wonderment at clouds isn't so trivial after all.  If nothing else, we're reminded how small and inconsequential we are, and how subject to God's elements we remain.  It's amusing that even the website of Pretor-Pinney's society is "powered hosting."  It seems even techys who rarely venture outdoors are giving a lot more attention to clouds.

All photographs copyright Diane Medved, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kids Like Candy, and Breast Milk is Sweet--Is Sugar the Enemy in Obesity?

The New York Times today had a story about a vigilante group of Philadelphia parents in "bright-colored safety vests and walkie-talkies" gathered to admonish children entering a convenience store on their way to school against buying junk food.  They think they're going to keep these kids from becoming obese.

All I can say is, "good luck."

You can food-pyramid kids to death (in my generation it was a square), trying to educate them to eat nutritionally, but they're going to like sweets.  And even if they avoid sugar, we really don't know if any of these efforts would reduce the swelling child obesity rate.

The underlying assumption is that kids gorging on contraband is fattening them up, but apparently there's scant research data to support this.  "Specific causes for the increase in prevalence of childhood obesity are not clear and establishing causality is difficult since longitudinal research in this area is limited," admits a report on childhood obesity from the US Department of Health and Human Services.  It continues, "Several studies have been published that attempt to link children’s diets with the onset of obesity. However, none have been able to show a causal link between diet and obesity."

Nevertheless, the report gives us graphs and pie (!) charts illustrating changes in kids' diets over the years.  For example, children in 1977 used to drink 1.5 times as much milk as any other drink.  By 1996, they drank twice as much sugar-sweetened beverages as any other drink. Between those years, of course, we were bombarded with anti-cholesterol information, and school milk cartons downsized, down-fatted and up-priced.  And also, those convenient, inexpensive "sugar-sweetened" boxed juices became very popular for sack lunches.

There are 100 calories in a Minute Maid box of enriched vitamins and calcium orange juice, 100 calories in a Minute Maid pouch of "Coolers" (sweetened) fruit punch.  There are 100 calories in a cup (8 oz.) of 1% low fat milk, and 120 in a cup of 2% low fat milk.  Which makes kids more obese?

But there's little to suggest that eating sweet things, per se, is the cause of obesity.  We know that children like sweet tastes, though.  If you've ever sampled breast milk (okay, I tasted a few drops of my own while nursing) you know it's surprisingly sweet.  And it's loaded with fat--whole cow's milk is just 3% fat, but mother's milk, according to the first definitive study, is 5% fat in the first few months, and keeps getting richer--to a whopping 17.5% fat for moms nursing 1-3 years.  The researchers speculated that these intense amounts of cholesterol at an early age accustom the body to it, and actually protect against future heart problems.

Could it be that young kids love sweets because they're naturally programmed to prefer mother's milk?

The Health and Human Services report then goes on to suggest that sitting is the culprit in kid obesity.  After all, now children park in front of computer screens playing video games and doing Facebook.  But the government report doesn't address new media--first, they admit they haven't got trend figures on children's physical activity.  The best they've got is a one-shot study suggesting adolescents get less exercise than recommended.  Then they resort to saying kids spend a quarter of their waking hours watching TV.  That's bad--but this isn't any different than kids spent two decades ago, as I reported in a book on childhood co-authored with my husband.

The most convincing arguments regarding elevating obesity rates in children relate to genetic causes.  Fat parents usually produce fat offspring, and I don't believe it's only due to learned sloth. Certain people have family dispositions to obesity, as a CDC research-overview report puns:  "These investigations suggest that a sizable portion of the weight variation in adults is due to genetic factors."

Also, obesity statistics vary by racial groups, with black and Hispanic Americans experiencing significantly higher rates of obesity than other groups (51% and 21% more respectively, according to the CDC).  New census data show that the US Hispanic population has increased 46.3% in the last decade, from 35.3 million people in 2000 to 50.5 million in the 2010 census.   States which have increased Hispanic populations exhibit growths in obesity rates, and those with highest African-American populations also show highest obesity rates.

Another non-volitional explanation for increases in childhood obesity, perhaps related to familial connections, is that an obesity virus alters the way people process calories.  Studies have found a greater likelihood of the adenovirus AD36 marker in the blood of obese children and adults.  The virus, of the type that produces the common cold, was isolated just at the time that obesity rates took a steep climb.  Animal studies on the virus found some shocking results: "Chickens, mice, rats and monkeys infected with the virus all get fat even though the animals don’t eat more or exercise less than they did before they were infected."

Today's article describing the Philadelphia parents' protective vigils at mom-and-pop stores was perplexing on several levels.  Apparently, the kids have school breakfasts awaiting them, but prefer to stop at the corner store for candy.  The article's highlighted student, Tatyana Gray, comes from a caring home, where her mom keeps a basket of fruit on the dining table.  Tatyana eschews the fruit for morning cereal, and then "stops for a snack on the way to school."   Her school, William D. Kelly, "has expelled soda and sweet snacks," and the nurse "pushes water" instead of fruit juice.  The first-graders sing "Old MacDonald" with vegetarian lyrics: "and on his farm, he had some carrots," while skipping around a gym.

Still, the corner store lures these health-educated kids.  "Ha, ha, ha!" one child teased a parent as she emerged with "the usual fare."  "I bought everything!" another "bragged."  "After several weeks of parent intervention," the article notes, "more children were skipping the corner stores, showing progress against the pull of sweet snacks."

I wouldn't count on it.  Kids like sweets, and for some reason, sweet fruits aren't good enough.  Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity is benign and might even benefit some people--certainly fresh foods and movement are worth touting.  But I think we have to look beyond the "sugar is bad, exercise is good" obesity antidote and realize the problem has yet to be defined, much less solved by a bunch of well-meaning parents in florescent vests standing guard at the corner store.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Mole in our bathroom...and in Outer Space

Lumps of lawn rise every few feet on most front yards here in the Northwest, due to nuisance moles tunnelling underneath. There's one mole, however, that we welcome into our home, and who has played a major role in my children's lives.  His name is Krtek, an internationally beloved cartoon character, and he's finally getting his due by riding with American astronaut Andrew Feustel on the spaceship Endeavor's April mission.

Though generations of children in Eastern Europe embraced the non-verbal, simple TV cartoons first created by Zdenek Miler in Czechoslovakia in 1956, my children have their own personal relationship with the little mole and his forest friends.  And he remains a part of our family's life every day, though our youngest has now graduated high school, and most of the time, our home is quiet.

Nearly two decades ago, when my husband hosted "Sneak Previews," the movie-review TV show on PBS (a job he held for 12 years), he was approached by a wonderful, kindly gentleman whose dearest wish was to popularize Krtek the Mole in the US.  His six-year-old daughter, while suffering with serious illness, found pleasure watching Mole cartoons, and it was in memory of this that he undertook his project.  As my husband was known for his strident support of family values, the gentleman felt he might share an appreciation of the animated gentle digger whose interactions with fellow animals wordlessly addressed such sophisticated topics as jealousy, competition, intrusion of technology, environmental pollution, loyalty and friendship.

And indeed, my husband and each of us fell in love.  Our children were small, and video-cassettes of The Mole became perpetual favorites, viewed over and over again.  The Mole theme was a musical riff around our home, and I hum it now as I write this.  The kindly gentleman, who devoted his own resources to publicity for the Mole, provided us with all sorts of wonderful Mole-abelia, including stickers, posters, calendars, a huge plush toy that was my son's favorite, and the shaggy rug that still warms my children's feet when they're home and step out of the shower, graced with the smiling big-eyed black Krtek holding a beach ball and waving "hi" with his four chubby fingers.

My husband enthusiastically endorsed The Mole, recommending the cartoons on his TV show often, but to our disappointment, he never took off.  But now, thanks to the space shuttle, a hand-puppet version will, spending two weeks skybound and at the International Space Station, among the personal items of astronaut Feustel, whose mother-in-law hails from a Czech-Austrian border town.

I'm very sentimental about the little mole, and dip into my stash of stickers for every home-made birthday card I make for my son.  One time we were honored to have the kindly gentleman in our home, and the children and I created a Mole shrine, a collection of drawings and Mole items just to show him how much Krtek and his friends meant to our lives.  We're not the only ones: though no Mole cartoons have been released since 2002, last year alone fans shelled out $1.5 million for official stuffed Mole toys.

So when I saw a couple days ago that the Wall Street Journal had a front-page article about the Mole's ascent into the stratosphere, I was delighted.  Perhaps now the sweet cartoons that helped a small girl laugh through her pain--and captivated my own little ones--will bring joy to American children, and help maintain the happy innocence they deserve.

"Mom, I'm OK, but there was Terrorist Attack here in Jerusalem today..."

I was still snoozing at 6:30 this morning when the phone rang. I guessed it was a radio interview for my husband who arises early, and let him pick it up.  But soon he was calling my name--saying it was our son.

"Bad timing," I thought, assuming our 18-year-old wanted the flight information for his return home for Passover. But no.  "Mom, I'm all right," he began, and I bolted upright.

"There was a terrorist attack at the bus stop today, and I just wanted to let you know I'm okay."  My son is spending the year in Jerusalem studying at a yeshiva, a post-high-school program focusing on Jewish texts designed to set him on the right path spiritually for life. The only transportation he uses in Jerusalem is busses, and he rides them from one end of town--where his school is located--to the other, where we have friends and family.  Yes, my son told me, he stands at and rides by that bus stop often, including the day before.

"Well don't ride any more busses," I told him firmly, recalling placing the same restriction on our daughter when she spent 2004-5 in seminary there.

It's only moms who are far away giving such admonitions.  The rest of Israel, including all of Jerusalem, soon went about its business in normal fashion.  The modern, fast-paced nation doesn't let one incident slow it down, and in fact, the attitude is that a strong and vibrant culture will repel repercussions better than dwelling on injury.

And Israel is definitely strong.  Both men and women serve in the military, wearing their M-16 guns slung across their backs even when off-duty.  The sight of well-armed and well-trained youth on the streets brings a feeling of security.  As do careful inspections of trunks of cars as they pull into parking lots and structures, and watchful door guards at cafes and gathering places.

I'll never forget the sight at my nephew's wedding three years ago--his army buddies dancing around him link-armed in a circle, their long guns flapping against their backs as they jumped and high-stepped in joy.  This is a society that trusts in God, but knows that man must do his part as well.

So, there was a a bomb, perhaps remotely controlled to hit a passing bus, left next to the bus stop. A woman died, three are in critical condition, twenty are injured.  President Obama "condemns in the strongest possible terms" the bombing and in the same paragraph expresses "deepest condolences" to the families of 4 Palestinians accidentally killed in a Gaza airstrike aimed to stop the "dozens of rockets" that Benjamin Netanyahu says Hamas has "rained down" on southern Israel targets over the past several days.

I don't think the latest attack affected the safety situation in Israel overall.  The modern, achieving people in that tech-savvy country are aware that some of their Jew-hating neighbors want them eliminated.  They continue to carry out their usual activities, with a prudent sense of caution, aware that in the broader context, Israel has a very low intentional murder rate--2.1 per 100,000 population compared to the U.S.'s rate of 5.0 per 100,000 people. (Mexico and Russia both show 15 murders per 100,000 population in latest figures.)

As a mom, I'd rather have all my children close to me, and certainly prefer to have my son within my protective purview.  But I also know that this is a precious year for him, a year when he can gain independence within the structure of a grounded program that will reinforce solid values.  He likes his teachers and feels he's maturing and gaining insight.  So, happy as I'll be when he returns home for Passover, I also know that there's something worthwhile about this special time in Jerusalem, center of spirituality.

I don't relish unexpected phone calls telling me of very frightening events. But being a parent means that unless your kids are sleeping soundly under your own roof, you're bound to have a tinge of worry, and if they're old enough to be on their own, I'd rather their early morning phone call begin with "Mom, I'm all right..."  Somehow, I believe (though I continue to pray) that Israel will be all right, too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Honolulu Festival--Samoan Tattoos and my Ukulele Idol

The Honolulu Festival, showcasing Pacific Rim cultures, was in full bloom during my recent visit to Hawaii, though subdued in respect for the devastating losses in Japan.  A fireworks show that took three years to plan was cancelled, though the three-day festival was poised to begin when the earthquake and tsunami struck.  Performers and artists from many Japanese Prefectures had arrived, and so the event went on.

The Festival finale was a parade down Waikiki's Kalakaua Street thoroughfare, where groups from dozens of countries and regions marched and performed in native dress.  Dragon costumes held up by two or more walkers opened their mouths to collect donations to help stricken Japanese.  Occasionally, a high school marching band from some unexpected place like Montana would sound in its formation wearing long maroon felt uniforms completely out of place in the 80-degree heat.

And then there were the proud representatives of various native groups, distinctive in their costumes as well as their movement.  Two such groups took what appeared to be bamboo matchstick-style place mats and formed them into shapes as they walked--suddenly there were bridges and birds and spires in the hands of (usually quite mature) paraders.

However, the most eye-catching collection were the men and women who chose to identify with their Samoan heritage through traditional body tattooing, called "pe'a" for men and "mala" for women.  This isn't your typical anchor or angel wings or a girlfriend's name--instead, it's designation of chiefdom or high rank that enduring its deeply painful application attests.  On men, pe'a is a dense web of geometric forms that includes large solid black swaths and extremely closely-knit designs covering the body from ribs to knees.

According to Wikipedia, tattoos are applied using a series of "combs," that are hammered into the skin using a two-foot-long mallet made of palm spine called a "sausau."  The people in the parade seemed cheerful and friendly, but to see each with an
intricate fishnet-stocking type ink pattern to his knees, and elaborate swaths of very detailed dark etching, was eye-catching and personally, I'll admit, surprising.

The parade announcer said that these were younger people who chose to identify with their heritage by reviving the nearly-lost tattooing tradition (in fact, it's said the English word "tattoo" derives from the Samoan term, "tatau").   While I support ethnic pride, I wonder if these people will find that their acceptance in the workworld--even with increased prevalence of all sorts of tattoos generally--will be impeded.

Apparently, the arduous process of being traditionally Samoan tattooed requires five steps, done over many days due to inflammation and pain.  Certainly, anyone who undergoes this has permanently cast his lot with the tribal history of Samoa, as well as demonstrated a willingness to suffer for that identification.

I loved the Honolulu Festival not only because it was colorful and exciting but because I saw and learned so much.  Several groups had created "mikoshis," shrines in which spirits dwell, carried upon the shoulders of perhaps a dozen marchers.  Jake Shimabukuru, beloved ukulele master (I have several of his albums--Yay Jake!) rode in the parade and later did a benefit concert for Japan. Australian aborigines, the world's largest aloha shirt, costumed performers from many Japanese prefectures--all contributed to my awe.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hiding and Flipping: Holiday of Purim Mirrors Life

Two themes pervade the Jewish Holiday of Purim, which celebrates the events in the Book of Esther this Saturday night-to-Sunday night.  The first is hidden-ness.  Just as Esther (who hides her real name, Hadassa) actually means "hidden," and her disguised background allows her to rescue Persian Jews from genocide (in approximately 356 BCE), we internalize that God may be hidden in our world, but remains in control.

The second theme is "flipping." The Purim story is one of bad flipping to good, in an astounding series of opposites reversing. Haman, the bad guy, gets hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordechai, Esther's uncle/guardian/husband--who flips from a death sentence (and cause of the decree to kill all Jews) to Viceroy.  Jews are first targeted for annihilation, then empowered to kill all anti-Semites.  We are reminded that any given moment could radically shift the very basis of our lives.

Japan. The earth lurches and thousands of lives are lost. The sea rears, and thousands more extinguished.  Everything appears orderly. Then it is chaos.

In the Israeli community of Itamar, a family sleeps peacefully.  Then an anti-Semitic intruder enters and slices a baby's throat, kills 4- and 11-year old children, murders both the parents and slips away.  The Fogel family attacked for the mere fact of being Jewish.

Most often, healthy turns to endangered or gone; stately turns to disgraced, or secure to shaky.  But the Book of Esther offers the hope of turnaround in the other direction.  Peril can shift to calm, and desperation to relief.  Pain can subside, and tension can convert to peace.

One excellent point covered in a Torah class I enjoyed this week is the ongoing need to unceasingly recognize that all reversals are ultimately God's, and that at a given moment, we are often unable to see a grander plan that will prevail.  Jews fast on the day before Purim (this year a bit earlier due to the intervention of the Sabbath).  This is not in emulation of Esther's three day fast before approaching King Ahashverus, but rather Jews' preparation for any act of war.  After Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman, when Jews were about to execute the decree allowing them to eliminate their enemies, they humbled themselves and fasted, in submission to the Force they knew would control whether they succeeded or failed.

It is this understanding of the behind-the-scenes Power that runs our lives moment-to-moment that motivates Jews to this day to fast before the most celebratory and revelry-filled holiday of Purim.  This year we are especially conscious of the way life can turn around in an instant.  With the tension of this week's events in mind, we will drink and dress in costume and celebrate Purim reassured that even shocking and discouraging events are ultimately for the good, and that you can't count on things to be just as they seem.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Survived the Hawaii Tsunami

Reading about the devastating 8.9 earthquake that struck north-eastern Japan last night and its immediate wall-of-water tsunami makes me grateful that my evacuation to higher ground and TV vigil here in Hawaii were capped by an exciting but inconsequential series of exaggerated ebbs and flows.
Tsunami in Japan, March 11, 2011

As a Southern California native I can recall the complete panic when walls shake, vases crash, and pendant lamps sway violently.  But then to have a thrust of water filled with deadly moving debris seems too horror-movieish to contemplate.  At least Japan is civilized and smart enough to have implemented building codes to minimize loss of life, and it was that kind of civility that reigned last night here on Oahu.

I'm staying for a few days with friends whose gorgeous home is close to the rocky edge of a bay, and when we turned on the TV last night about 8 pm, we were told to look inside the telephone directory to determine if we were in an "inundation zone" and must evacuate. Sure enough, we were.

Coverage on all the TV channels featured experts predicting a rise in sea level of about 6 feet that would cover low-lying areas to about 465 feet from shore.  Waikiki tourists were "evacuated up" to hotels' higher floors several hours before the tsunami's expected 3:07 am touchdown in the northernmost Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Facts about tsunamis I never thought I'd have to be scared by:  The powerful water rushes at a speed of 500 mph from the earthquake site, in a series of waves that unlike the ones I body surf in, last fifteen to twenty minutes each.  No in-and-out for these big guys--after each 20 minute inundation the wave recedes and then, about a half hour later, returns--but usually the biggest wave is not the first.  They don't know which one will be--and the cycle continues for three hours.

As a kid I had nightmares where I was in a beachfront hotel, looking out from maybe the 15th floor--I see a gigantic wave, 30-stories high, coming from afar to envelop the entire building. Just as it's crashing onto me, I wake up, panicked.

No. That is not the way it happens.

I couldn't shake memories of that nightmare, however, when I heard the long, strong blasts of the emergency sirens that started about 10 pm and sounded every hour thereafter.  The most startling thing, though, was when police drove by with loudspeakers commanding everyone to leave to higher ground.  Mustachio'd talking heads on TV gave scientific updates from the Tsunami Control Center, with bulletins about clinics and schools closed--and "places of refuge" where residents in coastal homes could congregate.  Hawaiians got the message and formed long lines at gas stations and food stores.

I packed my rolly suitcase and set my phone alarm for when we'd have to leave, then dozed off in front of the TV. In a flash it was time, and my friends and I drove to a hilltop home with a commanding view of the bay below.  I took a cell video of the dark town with the background of sirens, and hunkered down by the TV to await impact.

Three-oh-seven arrived and Kauai was quiet.  The surveillance camera views shifted from Waikiki, to Diamond Head, to beaches on Kauai.  Then the first hit--the waves moved quickly, each lapping higher on the Kauai sand. Twitter and email reports were read; the edge of the sea rose several feet, though there was no single rolling wave. Then the waves reached less high with each churn, taking several minutes to pull much farther out than the original level.

Shift to street cam views of Waikiki, where a foolhardy couple sat on a retaining wall just a few feet from the sea. Commentators repeated how stupid they were to stay there. They blithely sat, until minutes before the expected wave police helicopters with strong searchlights hovered above them.  In the next view before impact, they were gone.

The waves in the Diamond Head view, illuminated by a resident's strong outdoor lights, started to lap higher and higher, with greater frequency.  They rose above the original level, licking up into a steep sand incline.  Cut to the experts saying the first wave isn't usually the strongest. Then back to Diamond Head and--wow!--the water had receded astoundingly, revealing long reefs that were now dry rock.  The cameras panned out until the light dimmed too much--it seemed the seabed was dry for hundreds of feet.  Newscasters marveled that in this surf spot, where a close-in reef is later mirrored by one farther out, both were visible.  The naked reefs glistened interminably, quietly.  Then I saw what looked like white side-winder snakes, far out, coming closer.  The water was returning not with a roll or normal waves but these hissing wavy serpents of foam, moving along, first across the far reef and then the closer, and then onto the sand.

Once returned, the water again receded, revealing the two reefs. But again the return waves stayed on the sand.

After watching for hours without any devastation to keep me alert, I dozed off, and soon my friends wanted to leave for home.  And it's a glorious day in paradise.

A memorable vacation, undoubtedly.  One to increase my gratitude for solid earth, and add new life to the Jewish morning blessing to "God, King of the Universe, who spreads out the earth upon the waters" and "...who firms man's footsteps."  Every normal day is another miracle.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Past-Due Food: Smell it. Then Eat it.

I was nearly jumping for joy when I saw an article in today's New York Times vindicating me for using food past its due date.  My daughters consider anything with a "sell by" in the coming week inedible.  Doesn't matter if it looks and smells fine--if it's beyond those numbers printed on the can or carton, it's outta here.

I thought I'd taught them not to waste perfectly good food. But no.  If they catch me cooking with something "old" (to them that translates to "disgusting"), they won't touch it.  Leftovers in the fridge beyond a week?  Garbage.  Hermetically sealed veggie "meat," a bag of dried lentils, uncooked mac-and-cheese with that packet of "cheesy" powder sauce?  That stuff, I maintain, lasts.  But no, if the "best by" date has passed, it's history.

I will not tell them how much "expired" foodstuffs they have consumed--and loved!--over the years.  They'd vomit.

Bruce Feiler describes his own battle of the due-dates as a major marital irritant.  He's in my camp, willing to trust his senses to tell him what's still good.  And he marshaled lots of evidence for our position. For example, he quotes Ethel Tiersky, editor of, who says dates are about optimum quality, not safety. "Virtually nothing in your refrigerator jeopardizes your health," she says. "The pathogens that cause food to look bad, smell bad or taste bad are not the ones that make you sick."  So there.

He noted that manufacturers themselves decide what to stamp on their containers--no federal regulating body is involved (except for baby formula). The rules that exist in just 20 of our 50 states are "mostly for dairy products, and usually to control how long products can be kept in stores, not how long they should be kept in your refrigerator."

He brought up the issue of needless waste which, by the way, is contrary to Jewish law.  "Bal tashchis"--not wasting--is a commandment, though when it comes to dated food, it's not a fave of my daughters.  Americans now discard 1,400 calories per day per person, according to the National Institutes of Health, a pitch-rate that's soared 50% since 1974.  No wonder--now your purchases give you guilt and fear of violating digits stamped on their labels.

Our local food bank regularly puts out pleas to help restock its shelves.  But they won't accept anything beyond its marked expiration--even seeming non-perishables like pasta.  Right now I have in my pantry a cardboard cylinder of table salt with an expiration date.  I have a jar of honey with a "best by" date on it.  Do salt and honey go bad?  I google'd the questions. An archaeologist wrote that he had tasted 2,000-year-old honey that was still delicious.  (The "best by" stamp on my jar fell a tad short of that.)  Salt, I discovered, is a preservative. It cannot spoil.  Tell that to the girl with the umbrella.  Never mind: tell that to my daughters.

My fave story in the article describes the company that bought up 1.6 million bottles of expired salad dressing.  The company advanced the date a year and sold the bottles.  Charged with fraud, it won exoneration on appeal because the dressing was perfectly good; in fact, the judge deemed salad dressing so "shelf stable" that "it has no expiration date."

There's a charming chain of Japanese "100-yen" stores called Daiso with outlets near me. I love the store for its fractured English packaging and its extremely odd five-and-dime products, some of which are unidentifiable.  It has a sizable section of comestibles for sale under a big sign: Expired Food.  I never see a crowd there.  But what do you expect for 100 yen?

My daughter was making dessert the other day and needed an egg for a recipe.  The carton had a "sell by" two days before.  "Oooh!" she squealed, wrinkling her brow, "throw these out right away!"  Who is the mother here?  But she was about to toss the entire bowl of flour, sugar and oil, so I rushed and found a newer carton of eggs.  However, for her (and your) egg-ification, I now quote the USDA Food Product Dating Fact Sheet: "For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The 'sell-by' date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use."

Got that? Perfectly safe.

I do advocate this leftover food rule: "when in doubt, throw it out."  I take a whiff in the milk carton every time, no matter the "use by" date. But so many times I'm not in doubt.  It's just the ookey-pookey sensitivity of my children that causes problems.  At times, I've been tempted to, um, exaggerate when my daughter asks suspiciously, point-blank, "When was the due-date on this?" but I've never brought myself to actually lie in order to save a bottle of mustard.  I do try to avoid confrontation.

Am I the only mom who can't bear to waste perfectly good food just because her children have learned to read numbers?  Aren't we smart enough nowadays to evaluate what's edible and what's not?  Why have companies created their own "nanny state" in my kitchen?  And especially now--as food prices seem to be escalating more quickly than they have in several years--shouldn't we be thinking of "bal tashchis" as a virtue worth cultivating?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cuomo: No Communion for Guv with live-in Luv

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, pictured emerging from an Albany Catholic mass in a large York Times article last week, shouldn't receive Communion because he openly lives with TV foodie Sandra Lee without marriage, a papal consultant insists.  Cuomo's cohabitation is "public concubinage," the Detroit canonical expert decreed.

The Governor responded that his religion is a private matter "and not something I discuss in a public arena."  He may not discuss it, but his actions make it public--and that makes a difference.

Sacred Heart Major Seminary professor Edward N. Peters, appointed as a consultant to the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura court, says communion for the governor is contrary to Canon Law.  "The governor, with complete freedom, is publicly acting in violation of a fundamental moral expectation of the church," Dr. Peters explained to Cybercast News Service.

Subsequent coverage has suggested the remarks are retaliatory for the Governor's desire to slash funds for Catholic education, or because of his divorce, or his views on abortion.  Widespread comment seems to be divided as to whether the governor should be turned away from communion or not.

The avuncular Msgr. Hilary Franco of St. Augustine's Parish in Ossining, appearing on Good Day New York, said he'd personally deny the governor communion but couldn't rule out that the state leader had, in confession, promised to "live like brother and sister" with the Food Network celebrity, thus allowing him to come with the required "clean heart and clean soul" to receive the Eucharist.


This topic is of interest because Jewish tradition places enormous emphasis on the difference between deeds done in public, and those committed behind closed doors.  Biblically, public sexual performers Zimri and Kozby got speared through by Pinchas (Phineas) because of their behavior (Numbers 25:10-30:10).  Debate about whether the killings were justified were settled when God awarded Pinchas both the priesthood and the "covenant of peace."  Murder is obviously not acceptable, and normally, misdeeds would be adjudicated by a Jewish court--but Pinchas gets two big prizes for his quick action because the Midianite woman and her Israelite lover were trysting at the gate of the Tent of the Meeting.  Their flagrant public flaunting demanded immediate response.

Every day in morning prayers, Jews remind themselves to "always be fearing of Heaven, both privately and publicly, acknowledging the truth, speaking the truth within his heart..."  The point is consistency. Jewish laws provide for punishments of differing strengths depending on whether transgressions are public or private--with just about every private transgression without physical harm left up to God to punish.

Unlikely brother-sister relationship aside, are we to ignore the Governor and Miss Lee shacking-up?  Have we learned post-Bill Clinton that "just sex" is private and therefore
carries no consequence?  For the most part, apparently yes. Reproval for non-marital sex in the current culture is low.  But it's of major import concerning the Governor's fitness for the sacrament, because the Church sets the rules.

And in this case, his visible disregard of Church standards, while leader of the State of New York, puts Gov. Cuomo in a grandly public position.  Is his religion private, as Gov. Cuomo claims?  His relationship with God, certainly; but his receiving the Host at mass is a matter of public church standards.

That's why I don't consider it so outrageous that Dr. Peters suggests the governor "refrain" from taking communion, given his knowledge of Canon Law 915 and a great deal of other Catholic legal rules.  This is not an issue about welcoming sinners to church, or knowing what's in anybody's heart, or making any kind of interpretations on a personal level.  This is about blatant, public violations of Canon Law by a Catholic constantly in the news.

And I suspect that's what makes this so controversial.  Too many people want to separate public actions in the sexual sphere from other types of public actions.  Dr. Peters' pronouncement is uncomfortable because it reinforces restrictions, guilt and morals, which many consider outmoded and inappropriate nowadays, regarding sex.

As an outsider who happened to pick up the newspaper, it appears to me that the Church seeks to be refreshingly open and clear, rather than in select cases wink and look away.