30 May 2011

Memorial Day

There's not much literature about peace, is there? The Mate, who makes movies and teaches people about writing screenplays, says it's because conflict is what makes a narrative. Some lyric poetry, maybe? It's hard to come up with much.

(There's literature that's not about war, per se, but that's different than literature devoted to peace as a narrative or thematic focus, and often war still lurks in the background, as for instance in characters who bear military titles or the scars of war.)

A lot of people in the United States are remembering the soldiers who have fought and fallen in the US armed forces. Apparently, the holiday began as a day of remembrance for the fighters who fell in the Civil War -- on both sides, and after World War I expanded to include those killed in other wars.

I think it appropriate to remember, today, the dead of all nations. Those who died fighting against the United States, or in wars in which the US had no part, have still left behind shattered families and scarred communities.

28 May 2011

I Was Curious...

...so I put potato chips, corn chips, and plaintain chips to the test. In the chart below,
K=Kettle Brand Krinkle Cut Potato Chips with Sea Salt
U=Utz White Corn Tortilla Chips
V=Vitarroz Sweet Plantain Chips
In other words, junk food is junk food. There's no real difference, except for the absence of salt in the plantain chips -- and it's equally possible to buy salted plantain chips. There just don't happen to be any in the house right now.

Thus far, the sugar industry has managed to keep the people who make up these "Nutrition Facts" to define a limit for how much sugar people should consume, which is why there's no percentage of your recommended daily intake following those numbers.

Tomorrow or the next day, more fascinating programming may return. Stay tuned....

27 May 2011

Biker Chronicles Resume

I bought ten one-way tickets for the New Jersey Transit ride between Newark and Long Branch on February 3, and used the last one the day before yesterday. Five round trips in four months—a fairly lame follow-up to the fall, when I took public transit to work at least one day each week. And it felt even more insignificant given that I was hoping to double my public-transit ridership in the spring.

But in the spring, I ran headlong into the major drawback of that plan: the fact that it takes two and a half hours to make the trip—each way—on public transit. Compared to an hour and a half in the car, that doesn’t seem all that bad, but add to that the fact that trains run only once every hour, and if the end of a class or a meeting means I’ve just missed the train, that means it’s three and a half hours before I can get home.

Fine, if I don’t care if I ever see The Mate or the Offspring. The hour saved by driving, and up to an hour saved because I don’t have to wait to start the drive, means getting home before the kid goes to sleep.

Plus, add five hours of commuting to a work day, and then try to turn around and do it again the next day.

Other than time, most of the advantages belong to the trip on public transit. The train ticket is a whole lot cheaper than driving the distance if you include the cost of owning, maintaining, and insuring the car on top of gas and tolls.

The train ride gives me time to work, read, or just sit and look out the windows. Yesterday I saw an egret and a red-winged blackbird in flight, in addition to various ducks and geese, along the route.

The train trip includes a bike ride at either end, and if you include the time spent schlepping a 25-pound bike plus a 25-pound bag through the stations at either end and in the middle, it adds up to an hour of exercise. My Brompton, while not inexpensive for a bike, is far cheaper to run than a car.

On sabbatical a few years back in Cambridge (the English one), where it can rain at any time, I learned to carry waterproofs and keep rolling if it started to rain, and I’ve generally maintained the same attitude about weather back in New York (though one ride with the temperature in the teens was, admittedly, a challenge). I have some washable blazers for days when the weather is really threatening, so I don’t have to worry about ruining clothing.

The human factor is about the same, either way -- occasional encounters with bad drivers on the road, drunks and creeps (or drunken creeps) on the trains.

The upshot? I’ll be taking the train a lot more regularly in the summer, when I go to campus one or two days a week and the days tend to be shorter; and come fall, I’ll be arranging my office hours around the train schedule. And then I’ll do what I can.

25 May 2011

Cloth Bags

Yes, I have too many. But some of them carry memories in addition to food, and you can't say that of a plastic bag. Herewith, a few from the collection:

Shanghai, 1987. I had at least two of these, four I think; this one has survived 24 years already.

Switzerland, 2001. The Vaud Insurance Company.

International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, year forgotten. Uh-oh, needs a date with the washing machine.

Cambridge (UK), 2006. From the health food store Revital.

Modern Language Association annual convention, 2011. Courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

24 May 2011

Thank You, Mayor Bloomberg

The Times let slip in an article about a new ban on smoking in New York City parks and beaches that 57 percent of non-smoking New Yorkers have tobacco byproducts in their blood, indicating recent exposure to second-hand smoke.

Call it "nearly two-thirds," call it "more than half," call it what you want -- it's too many. Far too many. Nearly 20 percent of adults have heart disease or asthma (that's according to the Centers for Disease Control, so it ought to be fairly reliable) and shouldn't be exposed to any second-hand smoke. Add in the folks with other lung or circulatory diseases, and we're probably up to a good 25 percent.

I'm still fuming at the guy who objected when I pointed out he was smoking under a no-smoking sign in a New Jersey Transit station, saying it wouldn't hurt me. As it happened, I was recovering from pneumonia at the time -- so yes, actually, it would.

But I hate being put in the position of having to invoke illness, or invisible disability, to get someone to extinguish a cigarette. It shouldn't feel shameful, yet invariably, it does, because of the way our culture frames the ill as culpable, or malingerers -- or both.

Grrrr. Well, I'm grateful to Mayor Bloomberg for all he's done to combat smoking in public places. The ban will be "self-enforcing" according to the Times article; I hope it works.

20 May 2011

Avoiding Plastic

I've been thinking about plastic a lot of the time since February.

Herewith, a pair of lists:

More plastic:
  • shampoo in a plastic bottle
  • liquid laundry detergent
  • toothpaste
  • cling wrap and plastic sandwich bags
  • canned beans
  • tampons with a plastic applicator
Less plastic:
  • bar shampoo
  • powdered laundry detergent
  • tooth powder
  • reusable containers; waxed paper bags
  • dry beans, cook 'em yourself
  • applicator-less tampons; Diva Cup
It's ubiquitous.

Avoiding the stuff means constant vigilance. The other day I asked The Mate why we switched to liquid laundry detergent; apparently the supermarket in the neighborhood we moved to last summer doesn't carry fragrance-free powder. I'll have to work on that. Now that Tom's of Maine switched from an aluminum tube to plastic, I'm working on tooth powder too.

18 May 2011

Independent Filmmaking

Some things that have been left around my apartment lately:

Robes of various sizes and colors
Banners with Maltese crosses on them
One smoke machine
Kippahs of various colors
A large container of quick oats
Renaissance-y dresses and more robes
Bags of boots
Random bits of make-up equipment

15 May 2011

I've Lived Near...

1988-1990 around the corner from Western Beef
1990-1991 a couple doors down from Veniero's
1991-1993 between Downtown Beirut and the Village Idiot (the "Rent" years)
1993-2004 down the street from The Village Voice
2004-2009 overlooking J. Hood Wright Park ("In The Heights")
2009-2010 around the corner from Katz's Deli
2010- ? across the street from Corlear's Hook

07 May 2011

The Plant Is An Ominvore

Walking the dog this evening, I ran into people completing The Great Saunter. They started out at the South Street Seaport at 7:30 this morning and were nearing the end of their 32-mile walk around the periphery of Manhattan. I'm completely entranced and want to go walk around Manhattan right now. I don't want to wait until the next event next May.


I'm a vegan. I cut animals products out of my diet gradually, starting with meat and ending up with eggs and dairy, over about a ten-year period. I've been vegetarian for around 25 years, vegan for around 15. It was (obviously) a slow process, and not something I thought through in any kind of serious way as it was happening; the reasons included politics, health, and kashrut. Long after becoming vegan, I realized I felt spiritually sounder if I wasn't killing animals for my own nutrition.


About three years ago, we got a dog. We did some research and determined it was safe to feed him a vegetarian diet. Then we ended up getting a lizard, an omnivore that eats fruits and vegetables but also needs live crickets and such things to survive.

And then the day before yesterday The Offspring came home from school with a Venus Fly-Trap. Now we have a plant that needs to eat meat to survive.

03 May 2011

Cooking from Scratch

The Daily Mail published an article today that says British women can't cook as well as their mothers did.

The article says some women "admit" their husbands cook, making it clear that what's really at stake is the desire for women to adhere to traditional roles. And it's terribly written -- it's not clear what they think counts as "cooking a meal from scratch." Boiling eggs?

Oddly, the author writes disapprovingly of making a meal from whatever is at hand -- which is, in my opinion, an important skill if one wants to eat locally and avoid food waste.

But here you go... here's a list of a few things I can make from scratch (no cans, no freezer) without resorting to a cookbook:

Minestrone, split pea, various kinds of lentil soups. I could probably come up with a gazpacho without consulting a recipe. I can also make a chicken soup -- starting with a whole chicken with the feathers still on and the guts still inside -- but I haven't chosen to do that since around 1988.

Stir fries of various flavors and with various ingredients. Does that count as one dish, or as various dishes? I might flavor with garlic, ginger, and jalapenos, or with thai curry and coconut milk, or with sesame oil and soy sauce.

Curry. Potatoes and chick peas, spinach and dal, various other possibilities.

Breakfast foods, which sometimes get served for dinner: eggs scrambled, fried, omelette-d; pancakes (with bananas, apple sauce, flax seed, zucchini hidden inside), french toast. Do those count as "meals"?

Refried beans with rice and fried plantains and some salad, with or without tacos. Tofu fried with herbs or curry, with one or another leafy green or other vegetable, steamed or sauteed, or over salad greens. Black bean and corn salad with cilantro and lime juice. Root vegetables (beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots) roasted, steamed, mashed, or fried.

Apple pie, hot fudge sauce, apple sauce. I could make jam without a cookbook-- half fruit, half sugar, boil until it reaches the right texture when dropped on a plate -- but I usually use low-sugar pectin, and follow the instructions in the box.

I don't bake much, and when I do, I use a recipe. I've made cakes and muffins and quick breads and pies and cookies, but I don't have much patience for any of that. Mostly because I don't like to follow a recipe; I like to cook with what's fresh and in season, and make things up as I go along. I read cookbooks, but mostly for ideas.

How about you?