Friday, January 29, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pachebel Rant

This video is hilarious! Who doesn't love the Pachebel Canon in D? A cellist, that's who! Amazing to ponder how many popular songs have a similar music theme...

Sumo Glee

When we lived in Japan, I was an avid sumo fan. One of the "big" sumo wrestlers in the 1980s, Asashio, was an alum of the university where Mike taught (Kinki University--no joke!), and one evening we were invited to a large gathering honoring Asashio. Several other sumo wrestlers attended, including the heaviest sumo wrestler ever, Konishiki. Below is a photo of Mike, me, and our friend Tom, posing with the massive wrestler.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Akebono, another famous (retired) sumo wrestler has made some advertisements publicizing one of my new favorite TV shows ("Glee") in Japan. I LOVE these!!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Recommendation: This Lovely Life

This Lovely Life This Lovely Life by Vicki Forman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First off, this book is not for everyone. And it's certainly not going to be five stars for everyone. But for a survivor of the NICU or PICU, a parent who has seen his or her child fighting for life, and a parent who's had to face down the medical establishment and sometimes win and sometimes lose, it's beautiful, a tear-jerker, and poignant. One reviewer commented that no one of child-bearing age should read this book. It could completely terrify prospective or new parents. But it all depends on one's perspective...and how one sees the world. As a mother of a 24-weeker myself and a NICU survivor, I found this book to be very touching, unflinchingly honest, and deeply bittersweet.

Vicki Forman is the mother of fraternal twins, Evan and Ellie. When she goes into labor around 23 or 24 weeks gestation, she knows all too well what their risks are. She asks that the babies be allowed to die. She didn't want any heroic measures to save their lives. Somewhere deep in her soul, she felt it wasn't worth the potential costs. But the doctors ignored her request and rescusitated the babies.

Ellie lived for 4 days, and Evan survived. But just barely. The twins' birth catapulted Vicki, her husband Cliff, and their daughter Josie, into the world of neonatal intensive care, and the complications that often ensue.

Evan was not one of the lucky micropreemies who escape with just a few minor disabilities. He went blind because of retinopathy of prematurity, had extreme feeding issues, and had a severe seizure disorder that most likely compromised his ability to develop "normally." He also had a serious heart condition.

I had discovered Forman's wonderful way with words through the online ezine, Literary Mama. I read everything she wrote. She wrote about loving Evan passionately, but being acutely conscious of how different he was from other children and what they have lost. I put off reading this book until I was ready, because I knew it would leave me raw...especially because Evan suddenly and unexpectedly died last year from an intestinal blockage, probably connected to his prematurity (scarring from a g-tube). This book does not have a traditional happy ending.

To my husband's chagrin, I dog-eared countless pages in this book to remember passages that resonated with me:

--The doctors often do not mention the lasting complications or lifelong disabilities that micropreemies can face...and that "two babies born on the same day at the same birth weight can have two absolutely different outcomes." We grew well aware of this in the NICU, as other babies appeared to do better than Chris, while others did much worse. In Chris' case, we were told of the high chance of disabilities, but only a few days after his birth. We were pretty ignorant.

--Vicki Forman went into labor in much the same way I did--she ignored small signs that things were wrong, just as I did, and we both felt the resulting guilt of not following those signs soon enough.

--One chapter opens with a description of people and the categories they fall into after a preemie birth: the rocks, the wanna-be-theres, and the gingerbread men. The rocks attempt to do everything they can to provide support and love. The wanna-be-theres want to help but don't know how. They often say the wrong thing. And the gingerbread men--they run, run, run as fast as they can away from you. We knew people in all three categories when Chris was born. Some people we hardly knew were rocks. And some people turned out to be gingerbread men. As our close friends (who lost a 23-weeker after 1 week of life) say, "grief reorders your address book." This is true whether it's grief from death, or grief from loss of a "normal" experience.

--Forman worries about what Evan must feel, lying alone in his hospital isolette, and wondering where his twin has gone. Evan was always nonverbal, so I suppose she never found out if Evan missed his twin in his very core of being. I suspect he did.

--I could so relate to Forman's frustration with the nazi nurse who told her she had to take her daughter to the other end of the hallway on a day when siblings were not allowed to visit (even though they were not visiting, but merely restocking breast milk in the refrigerator). I got so mad at certain nurses for similar reasons. I will never forget those feelings of rage.

--"They say it's your baby, but until you go home it's not your baby."

--I sobbed when I read about the first time Forman saw Evan's bare face (when they extubated him). I too remember the first time I saw Christopher's face without a tube forced down his throat. And how normal baby breaths, baby coughs, and baby sneezes could become.

--I remember how when we first got to start holding Christopher when he was about 6 weeks old, we had to alternate days--an hour per day...and how much I ached to hold him longer than that, every single day.

--I remember seeing some of the monster babies in the NICU and wondering what could possibly be wrong with them--they were so huge! Forman has the same feeling about such a baby and her mom, only to grow close to that family and learn their story, a difficult one, too.

--The many doctors calling Evan "the baby" instead of his name reminded me of one neonatologist who cared for Chris who had that very annoying habit. It bothered me so much that I finally spoke to a nurse about it, and she passed the feedback along to him. Bless him--he started using Christopher's name after that.

--Forman writes about how bizarre that the world can go on around her while she grieves for her baby girl. I could relate to this feeling. I stopped reading the comic pages when Chris was in the NICU. They just weren't funny any more. When women complain about minor pregnancy symptoms or make jokes about wanting their babies to come early, I am not amused.

Vicki Forman and I approached the prospect of having premature babies in very different ways. When I went into premature labor, we were given the option to have a c-section (and give him a 50% chance of survival--although these statistics were, at best, a guess, and no chance of disabilities was mentioned) or to have a vaginal birth and risk certain death. We chose the c-section, and we wanted them to do everything possible to save him.

I believe our approach was due to three factors: (1) our complete ignorance about what we were facing--I believe Forman had a much better understanding of the risks involved, (2) a generally optimistic belief system, and (3) our belief that everything happens for a reason, and that whatever happened was meant to be. If the doctors had told us that he would have a 90% chance of disability, would that have changed our mind? But what is a disability? Wearing glasses? A learning disability? Cerebral palsy? Blindness? It could be any or several of those. No one could predict what would happen.

Even though we approached our children's births in very different frames of mind, I deeply admire and respect the choices Forman made (or tried to make), and even more, her brutal honesty about why she made that choice. This book brings to light one of the many challenges of saving these very early preemies. Parents need to be informed of what's at risk and what the potential cost could be. As much as I didn't want to hear all the scary statistics during the NICU experience, I believe it's important for parents to understand the full picture and how things could turn out--just as they need to understand that these are only statistics and no one has a clear crystal ball. Our son Chris is an excellent example of a baby that no one would have expected to do so well. We have friends whose 24-weekers have serious medical and developmental issues.

The doctors are only there for a short time in these children's lives. But the parents are the ones who are there forever--whose lives are never the same. Forman loved her son passionately, even though at first she did not want heroic measures. Whether she would have made the same choices if she were faced with the same at-risk birth again, I do not know. This book is a wonderful tribute to what turned out to be a lovely, but tragically short, life of her son.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beet Burger?

Yes, you read that right. Today before going to the theater, we had lunch at the Deschutes Brewery in the Pearl. As often happens, Mike and I were perfectly in sync with our food choices today. As my friend Amy says, we are food compatible! We often come up with the same choice for restaurants when contemplating a meal out.

We've only been to the Deschutes once (before attending another play--it's a block from the theater), although we tried again last holiday season before attending "A Christmas Carol." We had to give up that time, because it was packed to the gills. Besides the cozy atmosphere and proximity to Portland Center Stage, I love the beautiful wood carvings:

We also like the Deschutes because they have a gluten-free menu and gluten-free beer! (Sadly, although nearby PF Chang's also has a gluten-free menu, thanks to Chris' obsession with the Eat This! Not That! series, we now know that PF Chang's food is extremely high fat, so we've had to cross that restaurant off our list with our new healthy eating regime.)

I had the almond-chicken salad with gluten-free breadsticks and a Stumptown coffee (in a mug that said "I'd rather be drinking Black Butte Porter!" Love it!), and Mike had his gluten-free beer and yes, you guessed it, a beet burger with sweet potato fries. On a gluten-free bun. My husband simply loves beets. I will tolerate them, but I do not love them. I cannot imagine ordering a beet burger.

We'd never heard of such a gastronomic creation, but I just did an internet search, and I got over 4,000 hits on "beet burger." Guess they're not that unique. Maybe that should be on the menu for his birthday meal!

Thanks, Deschutes Brewery, for making my hubby a happy man.

Snow Falling on Cedars

In the past, I've posted about my inadequate history education. I remember studying American history up through World War II, with minimal focus on concentration camps and no mention of Japanese internment camps or much about Japan's role in the war beyond Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. To be honest, Japan wasn't much on my radar screen until I left the U.S. at the age of 21 to go live there. I ended up in Japan mostly by chance...I wanted to live abroad, and a visiting professor at PLU had a contact in Japan who was recruiting teachers. I applied for a job and my offer letter said they wanted me to start the next month. I knew absolutely no Japanese and had never traveled abroad. I had applied on a whim, and decided that if I got offered a job, I would go. You might say Japan chose me.

After living in Japan and traveling throughout Asia for three years, I grew to love many things about the country and its people...and dislike other things.

Disliked: the low status of women and girls, racism toward other Asians (for example, Koreans), rigid reliance on tradition and protocol, feudalism, and extreme politeness toward people in one's social circle combined with apathy and even rudeness at times toward people outside one's social circle.

Loved: the generosity of spirit of the Japanese people, food, appreciation for beauty and aesthetics, contemplative nature of the culture, reverence of culture and tradition, appreciation of the senses and the seasons, and value placed on culture, family, and respect.

We left Japan over 20 years ago and haven't returned since...but I have revisited over and over again in books, movies, plays, you name it. Of course when Snow Falling on Cedars was published in 1994, I read it immediately. It seemed to be the "it book" of that year. Apparently it's frequently banned in school libraries--another reason for me to reread it! (I'm sure those people who ban books also are not too happy about the interracial romance...)

This afternoon we went to the Portland Center Stage (PCS) production of Snow Falling on Cedars. Before the play began, Mike and I were commenting that since Chris Coleman joined PCS 10 years ago, he has brought a wonderful diversity of voices onto the stage. How many plays depict the Japanese-American experience, much less that dark period in American history when its own citizens and residents were interned?

For those who have not read the book or cannot remember the plot, Snow is the story of a Japanese-American Northwest fisherman, Kabuo, accused of killing another fisherman. Racial tensions are high in post-war America, and ironically, one of Kabuo's central accusers was the victim's mother, a German immigrant. As a person of German ancestry, I wonder myself why Germans were not interned as well during the war? Could it be the color of their skin?

As always, the acting and staging were impeccable. The fishing boats, courtroom, and internment camps were depicted mostly by spare sets and mime. I was especially impressed with the actors playing the Japanese and Japanese-American roles, and I always love watching Scott Coopwood, a PCS veteran.

Leaving the restroom at intermission, I ran into a woman whose eldest son is a classmate of Chris. She and her husband had brought both their sons to the play (a 7th grader and a 5th grader). What a unique education for them, to learn about prejudice and this part of America's history at their ages. Plays and historical fiction make history come alive.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some encouraging news on this sad day for Democrats...

I've noted a few arguments on friends' Facebook pages about the Massachusetts senatorial race, along with two tax measures on the Oregon ballot. I prefer not to debate politics, because I feel passionately about things and I would prefer to just avoid the topic if I disagree with someone. (Otherwise I might grow to think less of that person, or feelings could be hurt.) But because this is MY blog, I feel perfectly comfortable spouting my opinions here!

And yes, it's terribly discouraging that the Democrats lost Massachusetts. I cannot figure out how people could vote for Obama and everything he stands for, and then turn around and vote for a Republican. It makes absolutely no sense to me. How could they think that he could turn the country around and clean up the messes of 8 years in 1 short year??? I am hoping that this loss is a big wake-up call for the Dems, who just are plain TOO NICE. Brown won on a platform of on health care, no on just about everything. The Republicans, as a block, vote against everything but have nothing to put in its place.

Okay, so the good news. I just saw that Cindy McCain has lent her voice to the "No on Proposition 8" campaign. Meaghan McCain posed for the campaign last year, and now Cindy has joined in the protest. When I see prominent Republicans who are brave enough to stand up against their party and stand for justice, I feel encouraged and hopeful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rest in Peace, Kate McGarrigle

The folk world has lost a gem...Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle died at the age of 63 in her home. She had been performing with her sister Anna since the 1960s and got their break in the mid-1970s, when their songs began getting covered by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, and Billy Bragg. McGarrigle had been battling cancer for a couple of years.

She was once married to American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and was the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, both singers themselves.

Here is a video of the McGarrigle sisters, Rufus Wainwright, and friends, singing "Hard Times Come Again No More":

To learn more about the highly talented McGarrigle sisters, visit their web site. Youtube is also packed with more of their videos. We have one of their CDs, but I'm going to check out the library to see what else I can find. It's been a hard year for losing cultural treasures.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Knitting Disappointments

I gave Mom a scarf I knitted for her birthday. I had been working on it since way before Christmas, and I was crestfallen to discover, at midnight Saturday night, as I was cramming to finish it, that yet again my knitting had grown quite a bit in width! It was a real lesson in "letting go" to give it to her. No one who is not a knitter will notice the width problem--and I'm sure it will look wonderful on her (the yarn is pretty and soft)--but I was disgusted with myself. Yet again, my haste resulted in sloppy work. (I've told her to tell people who notice the width issue that I intentionally made one end wider than the other!! It's the latest style, don't you know?)

I remember when I was young and would sew my own clothes. As I got toward the end, I'd start hurrying and inevitably would make mistakes or not carefully fit the garment correctly. Typical.

I think I am going to have to start counting my stitches carefully as I continue to knit. Sigh. As it was, I took out several rows at a time on multiple occasions.

And I will have to stop multitasking when I knit. I have actually knitted while reading a book and singing songs to the kids at bedtime. Really. How ridiculous is that.

I think it's time to start a different type of project--not a scarf--that will require me to count my stitches. Scarf knitting appears to be mindless, but it's clear that I should be using my mind more!

Fortunately, Mom was happy with the scarf--as of course she would be, because she's my mom. But I'm determined to make her a perfect one someday!

And this tendency to rush and multitask resulting in less-than-perfect results is a good commentary on my life at the moment. More focus and less scatterbrained activity is needed.

Birthday Weekend

This weekend was the 2nd annual women's birthday getaway to McMenamin's Edgefield--this year to celebrate Mom's 70th birthday. We picked up Nadine at the train station in the afternoon and made our way off to Troutdale. Once there, we checked into our room and sat around and chatted for awhile before perusing the great gift shop and playing a game of pool in the pool bar. (Mom told us that she had never played pool before, so we decided we had to do it. One needs to have a first-ever at age 70! Nadine won.) Then we headed off to dinner in the Black Rabbit Restaurant. The Black Rabbit is an upscale establishment, although in typical Northwest style, it's perfectly acceptable to wear jeans.

I had found some birthday tiaras and noise makers in the gift shop--the perfect accessory for a celebratory birthday dinner. The purely astonishing thing was that our waiter said not a word about our tiaras. He was exceedingly serious. Not a word! We each ended up having the scallops on a bed of quinoa with spinach and sweet potatoes, and they were very yummy! After two weeks of Phase One of the South Beach Diet, I had my celebratory glass of red wine. I always have beer when I go to McMenamin's establishments, but I must say that their wine has improved a great deal over the years!

The lovely young birthday girl in her tiara!

Posing after dinner

Sadly, it was a rainy weekend in the Northwest, but after hanging out in our room for awhile, we went down to the winery to listen to some music, and then decided to brave the soaking pool in the rain. Fortunately the rain had lightened up a bit by then to sprinkles. It turned out to be very relaxing, even though we had a cold walk back and forth from the hotel portion.

We knew that we were all feeling our age when we started yawning before 11:00 p.m. In fact, the younger women were yawning before the birthday girl! (Our excuse: children and jobs.) So lights out around 11:30 p.m., but we could not go to sleep.

The problem: creaky bedsprings and floor. Above us. Yes: sex. And it went on and on...only to stop briefly...a reprieve...and then start again. Rhythmic. Insistent. Creaky. Bumping. Lovely. Just what you want to hear when you're trying to go to sleep. Someone else's sex life. Finally they stopped, and peace.

In the morning, we had breakfast again in the Black Rabbit, checked out, and headed back into Portland. Our plan was for Nadine's husband and her boys to come to Portland on Saturday so we could celebrate with the whole family. Unfortunately, two of the boys were not feeling well, and soon both Nadine and David started getting sick too. David cancelled their trip, and Nadine planned to head back on the train, while she started feeling rotten herself. But in the meantime, we headed for Northwest Portland to explore NW 23rd. We stopped for tea in Starbucks:

And dropped Nadine off at the train station. By the time she reached Tacoma, she felt it was probably a good thing she went home so she could recover. But we had six very disappointed boys. Nick had been peering out the window on Saturday morning, saying "Where are my cousins? I don't see them!" and Kieran wanted to know why Nadine and David and kids couldn't move to Portland.

That evening, we had a birthday dinner for Jeanne, a woman at our church who we've become friends with in the past year. She does child care on Sundays and has developed a nice relationship with the kids. She's got a great sense of humor and laughs a lot! It was fun to help her celebrate her 62nd birthday! Mike helped Kieran bake a cake, and I helped him with the frosting.

Blowing out the candle

The next day we had a brunch for Mom to celebrate her birthday with the whole family. I made a "breakfast pudding" (with bread, oats, dates, raisins, eggs, and milk) and served it with raspberries and blueberries; an avocado-crab salad served in avocado shells; and turkey bacon. Dad contributed some potatoes. Yum. I was lazy on the dessert front, though: lemon meringue pie from Thriftway! (Mom loves lemon meringue pie.)

Mom and Chris with her birthday pie
So all in all, a mixed weekend--full of good times, but some disappointments (Nadine and David not being able to join us). They will just have to continue Mom's birthday celebrations at a later date...always nice to stretch out a birthday!

Indian Fiction Review: Queen of Dreams

Queen of Dreams Queen of Dreams by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been years since I read a book by Divakaruni, but if I recall correctly, I loved Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart.

Divakaruni is a masterful writer, but for some reason this book did not touch me like her other books. I had a difficult time sympathizing with the main character. This might have been intentional and is the natural result when someone grows up feeling that she is lacking love and commitment from her mother. I found myself drawn more to the present story than the dream journals...but even then, my mind wandered at times. I suspect it would appeal more to people who are highly interested in dreams.

She writes about what it felt like to be a person of color after 9/11...Indians and Pakistanis were thrown together in the same racist mishmash as people of Middle Eastern ancestry. One disturbing scene paints a very upsetting picture of American racism and "patriotism" after 9/11.

Divakaruni unwraps layer after layer of her mother's mystery and also her main character's story, but it was not completely satisfying for me in the end.

Still, a good read and worth a look.

View all my reviews >>

Friday, January 15, 2010

Living and Dying in Haiti

A friend of one of my Facebook friends (and colleagues) just posted this story about a young woman from Port Orchard, WA, Molly Hightower, whose body was found in the rubble after the earthquake. She was a 22-year-old aid worker--she went to high school in Tacoma and then studied at the University of Portland before going to live in Haiti for a year to work with disabled children.

She wrote a beautiful blog about her time in Haiti. She planned to get a graduate degree in special ed or counseling. After having visited Seattle before Christmas, she was commenting about how little time she had left in Haiti before returning to the real world.

What a loss to her family and society! She truly seemed to love her work with these orphaned and abandoned children in Haiti. Her blog is a wonderful gift of memories to her family.

She is just one of the thousands of losses from this tragedy in Haiti. It feels like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina all over again. But with the isolation and limited resources of Haiti, will the country ever be able to recover from this catastrophe? It's hard not to feel helpless.

Mike and I plan to make a donation, but to which organization? So many are deserving. I saw a brief news article about credit card companies profiting from people's generous donations, and it irked me to no end. But this morning Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover companies announced that they will waive their fees for donations to Haiti relief. That makes me feel so much better about making a donation! Now to decide where. Red Cross, UNICEF, Mercy Corps, OXFAM, CARE?

And with all this human misery permeating through the world, who in the hell gives a rat's ass about Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, as this writer so aptly puts it?

Tough Titties, Devil Folk!

I just love Jon Stewart. His take on Limbaugh and Robertson:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Haiti Earthquake Reactions
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Oh, Pat Robertson!

You have become so predictable.

You give Christians a bad name. You could use a good dose of Anne Lamott:

"Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island
looking for boats to save;
they just stand there shining."
— Anne Lamott

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Recommendation: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto was my first taste of Michael Pollan. Pollan asserts that Americans are "orthorexics," or people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Having lived in Japan and traveled frequently to the UK, I can agree with this assertion. I remember years ago when England finally got some decent coffee shops (serving real coffee), and I asked for skim milk. The barista looked at me as if I had two heads! (Things have changed since then, thanks to Starbucks.)

Pollan gives us a slew of information about the science of "nutrition," and the ways that government and the food industry have created and endorsed a series of "frankenfoods" over the years, depending on the slant of the latest health study and the deep pockets of the food and farmers' lobbies. He talks about how Americans had early interest in scientific eating, reflecting their discomfort for "immigrant food," which was viewed as weird, smelly, and mixed up. Americans have always been drawn to scientific data, and we are a nation obsessed with the pursuit of perfect bodies...we jump on any bandwagon, as long as it is telling us it will help us get skinnier. As Pollan illustrates, nutritionists, the USDA, and the food industry have led down all sorts of various paths over the years, none of which has helped Americans get fitter or healthier.

Reading Michael Pollan makes me feel suspicious of my nonfat milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese. How about the calcium-enriched orange juice we give to the children? Is it all bad?

What I liked most about the book was the final third, in which he gives clear advice about what we should eat, and why:
Eat foods. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Okay, easy enough, right?

Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.This makes total sense when considering Yoplait Gogurt, full of high-fructose corn syrup, modified corn starch, natural and artificial flavors, etc. But what about Stonyfield Farms' organic YoKids squeezers, containing organic strawberries, colored with beets, and not containing any artificial ingredients? Yes, it does have sugar. But the reality is it's healthier than Gogurt. And in a busy family, it is nice to have reasonably healthy food that can be eaten on the run.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup. Good suggestions, although the guidance to avoid anything with more than five ingredients I will take with a grain of salt. For example, for the sake of convenience, I will continue to eat my organic boxed or canned soups, which have more than five ingredients.

Avoid food products that make health claims. Pollan attacks the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association for agreeing to approve or endorse products that make dubious health claims. He cites an example of the FDA approving a health claim made by the corn oil industry, along with the American Heart Association's stamp of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix Cereals.

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. Some of the healthy food is in the middle of the store (for example, whole grains), and some of the unhealthy foods (like at the meat counter and dairy case) is on the periphery. In general, this is a good rule but should be applied with flexibility.

Get out of the supermarket when possible. Great advice. Pollan endorses shopping at the farmers' market, buying food in season, and trying out unfamiliar foods (as happens when you subscribe to a Community-Supported Agriculture [CSA] share. "Shake the hand that feeds you, and accountability becomes a matter of relationships instead of regulations or labeling or legal liability."

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. For years food scientists have tried to extract the beneficial nutrients out of plants so that Americans don't need to eat so many plants. But the bottom line is that eating the plants themselves, instead of trying to get the nutrients in other ways, is the best choice. Period.

You are what you eat eats too. If you choose to eat meat or fish, choose wisely. "The diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself." Pollan recommends seeking out meat from animals that have been fed on grass rather than seeds.

If you have the space, buy a freezer. It will allow you to buy pastured meat in bulk and stock up at the farmers market when produce is in in season.

Eat like an omnivore. Spice up your diet a little--try new foods. Don't stick to the same things at all times. Our diets, like our farming practices, need biodiversity to thrive.

Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. It doesn't necessarily have to be organic, says Pollan. Many local farmers grow food in highly sustainable ways. Ideally, eat food that hasn't been transported miles across the country--eat organic and local.

Eat wild foods when you can. Wild fish and animals are healthier than their farm-fed cousins.

Be the kind of person who takes supplements. Pollan is conflicted about advising people to take a multi-vitamin. First he says that we should "be the kind of person who would take supplements (because they tend to be healthier), and then save your money." However, he does acknowledge the need for aging bodies to benefit from vitamins from fish oil.

Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks. Traditional ethnic diets are more than the food itself--they also contain a cultural dimension, or how the food is eaten (for example, the French eat vastly smaller proportions than Americans do). But "regard nontraditional foods with skepticism" (such as soy products enhanced with "soy protein isolate," "soy isoflavones," and "textured vegetable protein." Apparently Americans now eat more soy than the Japanese or Chinese do--because the food industry injects soy into so many products. Also, "don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet." it might not necessarily be one ingredient that helps those cultures be healthier--it might be the combination of foods, or other factors.

Have a glass of wine with dinner. Alcohol appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, but red wine especially appears to have unique protective properties. Drinking a little every day is better than drinking a lot on the weekends, and drinking with food is better than drinking without it. Experts recommend no more than two drinks a day for men, and one for women (otherwise you could increase your risk of cancer or other illnesses).

Pay more, eat less. The cheaper the food, often the less healthy it is. Also, if you pay more, you're more likely to eat less of it. Pollan realizes that not everyone has the resources of paying more for their food...but many of us do. Especially if people examine how much they are paying for broadband, cable, and cell phones for everyone in the family.

Eat meals. Sitting down together as a family. Eating the same things. Enough said? Pollan also advises doing all your eating at a table, and a desk does not count. I will take this with a grain of salt, because I eat my lunch at my desk at work. It's healthier for me to do so than to eat out every day.

Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does. Gas stations sell processed, unhealthy foods. Don't buy them.

Try not to eat alone. This is easy for me to do (except when I'm eating alone at my desk at lunch time), but not as easy for single people. I see his point, however. "When we eat mindlessly and alone, we eat more."

Consult your gut. Stop eating when you are full. Or before you become full.

Eat slowly. Eat with pleasure.

Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. Since Mike and I embarked on implementing healthier eating habits for our family at the beginning of this year, we have eaten out less. It's much easier to eat more healthfully when you know what is going into your dishes. In particular, it's easier to feed our children healthy kids when we stay away from kids meals, which are often loaded with saturated fat and sugar, even in healthy restaurants.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

You're Aging Well, Mom! (Happy 70th Birthday!)

"I'm so glad that you finally made it here...With the things you know now, that only time could tell...Looking back, seeing far, landing right where we are...And oh, you're aging, oh, and I am aging, oh, aren't we aging well?"
--Dar Williams

My amazing mother turned 70 today. Mom was born in 1940, a wonderful surprise to her parents whose other children were already 14 and 16. Consequently, she had the attention bestowed on an only child, but she straddled the ages of her siblings--and soon nieces and nephews.

Her dad was hard working, opinionated, and funny, and her mom had a phenomenal green thumb, was kind, and cooked a tuna casserole with filberts (before they were fashionable and called hazelnuts!). After growing up in Oregon City, Mom went to Pacific Lutheran College (now PLU), where they were forbidden from dancing and girls wearing pants (among other things). These restrictions did not stop her from meeting and dating my very shy-at-the-time father.

They married after graduation and went off to live in Germany, where my dad was teaching in an army school. (Mom couldn't use her teaching degree at the time, because the army forbid spouses both working.) They lived in Germany and traveled throughout Europe before returning home to anticipate my arrival. She did some substitute teaching while pregnant and when I was a baby, before retiring from teaching to raise a family.

Mom contracted German Measles when she was pregnant, so she didn't know whether I would be seriously retarded or blind or have some other serious birth defect. When I was born with a cleft lip and palate, along with a club foot, the doctor would not show me to her at first because he wanted to warn her...but I'm sure he didn't expect her delighted response. She tells me that she was just so grateful that my birth defects could be repaired. I cannot begin to tell you how that makes my eyes fill up, knowing that as an "unperfect" baby, my parents welcomed me into the world unconditionally and full of love. They had to see me go through multiple surgeries and hospital stays as a baby and child, in addition to having to force a screaming toddler to either insert or remove a speech appliance from her mouth (which I thought was an instrument of torture!). When we had our own "fragile child" scenario, I had an ever greater sense of gratitude and empathy for what my parents must have gone through.

As the primary caregiver, Mom was always there to answer questions honestly and guide us through life in a gentle way. I remember the first time I asked her about sex in fourth grade--some girls at school had been teasing me because I didn't know the other meaning of the word "screw." I went home and asked my mom, and it was like she had been waiting for me to ask that question so she could explain it to me.

We didn't have a lot of money growing up, since we were living on my Dad's salary as a teacher and then as a social worker (after he earned his M.S.W.), and most likely they were paying off school loans as well. But I never felt lacking for anything, least of all love and affection. We camped A LOT (I never flew in an airplane until I was 20 or stayed in a nice hotel until I was 22). We ate a lot of hamburger. Mom was a creative and adventurous cook in the 1960s and 70s--we often had tacos, spaghetti, and teriyaki beef, in addition to meatloaf, liver and onions, and beef tongue (which Dad loved)! We traveled extensively, by car, staying with friends and relatives and camping. Our parents showed us the country--the only places we didn't get to (that we could drive to) were Florida, the deep south, and Texas (no thanks!).

Mom told me that God was not necessarily a male before I really took that in myself (when I went through a shocking and upsetting period after taking Feminist Theology). She taught me that I could do anything I wanted to do.

Throughout my childhood, my siblings and I experienced several things that no child should have to face, and I can't imagine how my parents must have ached to see us go through them. Because of their love and support, I feel that I am a much stronger person through these experiences. My mom is no nonsense--she doesn't wallow in depression or regret or spend a lot of time worrying (if she does, she rarely expresses it). She gets on with life and has a positive outlook, which I believe I have inherited. This is the way I believe we are most alike. (I've also picked up other traits of hers--such as sometimes speaking without thinking, disliking fake or disingenous people, and strongly disliking plastic flowers or Christmas trees). My sister and I have both inherited her sense of sometimes-overambition and perfectionism when taking on any cooking or creative task.

When I was in junior high school, Mom went back to grad school to get an M.A. in Counseling, and then began working as a mental health therapist in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. Between them, my parents have three master's degrees in addition to their bachelor's degrees, subtly reinforcing the importance of education. I also remember feeling very lucky as a girl that my reading choices were not censored (although my watching ones were, justifiably--I wasn't allowed to watch Batman as a child, and I saw my first R-rated movies, "A Star Is Born" and "Saturday Night Fever" with my mom). I must have owned THE only copy of Judy Blume's Forever in school...because my mom allowed me to read it.

After graduating from PLU, I went off to Japan for the year, and was soon followed by my sister, who left for a year in China. Neither of us had ever been out of the country before this (with the exception of Niagara Falls, Canada), but we had obviously inherited our parents' wanderlust. I never truly understood how difficult this must have been for them until I had children of my own.

They first met Mike in 1988, when they visited Japan. Then he came home to Oregon with me in summer 1988 to meet the rest of the family and some of my friends. He immediately fit in. I think my parents must have known instinctively that he was the man for me. They were never anything but completely enthusiastic about him.

Mom and Dad both retired in 1997 or 1998 (can't remember which), and they have made the most of their retirement. They've traveled throughout the world (with trips to the UK, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, China, Canada, Alaska, Costa Rica, and Hawaii); taken up quilting; become avid members of a very ambitious book group; gotten involved in geneaology; spent time with old friends and cultivate new ones; and taken frequent trips to their beach house in Rockaway. They are also very fit--they work out at the gym or take long walks daily. And most significant of all, they have continued to support their children with all the love and support they can. They are phenomenal grandparents, and all six boys adore them.

Mom is celebrating her birthday this weekend at the beach, with an Indian feast this evening with their wonderful friends Neal and Annette, and then tomorrow they will go off to our beloved Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport.

Nadine and I were plotting to host a big tea party for all of mom's friends, but she has decided she'd prefer to have just the three of us spend time together instead. Next weekend we will go to Edgefield and have mom-daughter time. I can't wait! It will be the second time we've had a getaway like this--the first time was in early 2008. This is much easier now that the boys are getting older, although we truly appreciate our husbands' support in this endeavor. We will celebrate again with all the boys on Sunday.

When Mom and I have attended women-only events together, we've sometimes been greeted with surprise by other women that we actually like to spend time together! I know not everyone has a close relationship with their mom.

I feel supremely blessed to have the mother I do--and especially because I can call her my close friend, in addition to being a great mentor, coach, teacher, and mom. Happy birthday Mom! I hope that when I'm 70, I'm half as vital, dynamic, healthy, and loving as you are! I love you!

Mom and I in British Columbia, last March, eating s'mores at the campfire

Mom and Dad in Kauai in November

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

All You Need Is Love (and Epiphany)

This will be my last post related to Christmas--for 11 months, that is! Tomorrow is Epiphany, when we celebrate the three kings visiting Jesus, in the church calendar. In Mike's family tradition, we leave our shoes under the tree tonight, and the three kings leave one final present. And then we can take our tree down. Usually I'm ambivalent about taking the tree and decorations down, but this year I'm ready. Nick keeps taking the ornaments off and playing with them...and he also likes to plug in the tree lights, which makes me very nervous.

In spite of this apparent one-more-chance shot at getting gifts, we consciously chose to keep our gift giving more low key this year. According to this article in the New York Times, many Americans are making that choice, although you wouldn't know it from all the buzz about shopping. We made that choice not so much because of economic necessity (as we have been largely shielded from the recession compared to so many others), but because of my "One Year to an Organized Life" project in 2009. I am so overwhelmed by all the unnecessary things we own and all the money that gets spent (by us, and by others) on things that do not get used. In the spirit of reducing clutter, we chose a little bit differently this year.

Fortunately the kids were really easy. Nick wanted only a ukulele. Kieran wanted hot wheel tracks, which he got from his grandparents. Chris wanted WWE videos and books but he knew we wouldn't buy them for him! (And actually, he said to us the other day that he's finally reached his limit on wrestling books and videos...thank God!)

In lieu of gifts (except for a few tokens), Mike and I decided to make a donation to a charity that fixes cleft palates. After researching cleft palate charities, we ended up with Interplast, because of the high grades it receives for low overheads. The better-known cleft palate charities, Smile Train and Operation Smile, spend a lot higher percentage on fundraising. Their directors also have a highly public feud with each other, which really turns me off. At any rate, this was a very personal choice for me, since I'm well aware of how lucky I was to be born in this place and time and have my own cleft palate and lip repaired.

For Chris and Kieran, we gave them tickets to see "Rain," a Beatles tribute band. The concert was last Saturday, January 2. Our family has been into the Beatles lately with the Beatles Rock Band I got for my birthday. I wasn't sure how they would react, since they were not prepared for this gift, but it was a big success. We had a blast! The band was really talented and did a full multimedia show along with the singing, costume changes, etc. It's brought up lots of questions about war and peace, etc. We unearthed an old CD the Fairy Godmother Nancie had given Chris of kids singing Beatles songs, and it's on the stereo constantly now.

Nick was very sad not to be able to go to the concert, but he had a good time--as usual--with his grandparents. When we went to pick him up, they were in the middle of The Little Engine That Could, one of my childhood favorites:

Happy Epiphany everyone!

Holly Jolly Christmas

A few days after Christmas, my 6-year-old nephew Daniel told his parents, "Well it wasn't really a holly jolly Christmas. It was a little bit holly jolly, but not very holly jolly." When asked why not, Daniel said that last Christmas we had snow.

Santa's response: "Your wish is my command, Daniel."

The day that we spent in the hospital out in east Portland with my dying aunt, the city experienced a freak snowstorm. My sister and I left the hospital around 3:15 p.m. and the snow began falling steadily. Traffic seemed to be clogging up, but we thought it was just the holiday rush, or that people were headed home early because of the snow. Nadine dropped me off at my house (our husbands had taken all the boys swimming at the community center), and headed to my parents' house. Our plan was to gather that evening at our house for soup and let my parents have some quiet time to themselves after a worrying day at the hospital. But the snow continued.

I spent much of the next 2 or 3 hours on and off the phone with Nadine, as we were worried about everyone's safe trips home. Our husbands were stuck at the community center. The parking lot was a zoo. David's first comment when they saw the snow was "I love driving in snow!" Famous last words. Their minivan really struggled to get up the hill and it took them 45 minutes to get home (it would typically take 10 to 15). But they made it. My family, in the meantime, had to abandon our car, because it wouldn't go up another hill. They nearly got in a wreck--people were slipping and sliding all over. Portland in a freak snowstorm. We are glaringly unprepared.

Mike decided to head off for home on foot (about 1.6 mile away) through the park, but the kids were extremely cold--they were not dressed for snow. They had coats, but no hats, gloves, or boots. Chris kept fretting about hypothermia. He went back to the center for awhile, and we kept consulting on the phone. I thought for sure it would stop soon and melt, and I was glued to the internet and our portable weather station to try to figure things out (alternating with being on the phone to my sister, debating our options--should we send David back out into the storm again to rescue them?). The meteorologists were no help at all...either saying that 1 inch had accumulated (actually, it was 3 inches) or saying that it would stop and warm up around 8:00 p.m. Well, it's a good thing they didn't wait for it to melt, because it didn't stop snowing and start melting until overnight.

My very clever husband had the bright idea to raid the lost and found closet at the center. He was able to patch together enough hats and mismatched gloves for all, and they trudged back out into the snow. Once better equipped, they actually enjoyed the walk and the beauty of the snowy silent wonderland. I had turkey rice soup and hot cocoa waiting for them. Mike carried Nick on his shoulders all the way home! Nick, though, was the coldest, because he wasn't moving...we bundled him up in his jammies and put him under the covers, and he promptly fell asleep at 6:30! The whole adventure had exhausted him.

In the meantime, my parents had left the hospital 15 minutes later, and it took them 3 HOURS to get home. Unfortunately, they had no cell phone with them (my mom had left it in their other car, which we had). Thankfully, she had borrowed a coat from me before we left, because she had forgotten one. They ended up having to park their car a few miles away from home and walk home.

Later on I heard about far worse horror stories than what we endured, such as one woman spending 6 hours in her car to drive home to Vancouver from Hillsboro! And another friend posted on Facebook about the importance of going to the bathroom before leaving one's workplace. Very true!

The snow was definitely beautiful--here's a view of our front yard and back yard:

As you might remember, I'm a snow scrooge. I like it as long as I don't have to go anywhere and it doesn't last too long. By the next day, it was melting...but it stuck around long enough for the kids to build a snow person. The kids' friends James and Leigh came over in the morning and helped them build a snow/leaf person (I understand that James did much of the work, actually!):

Nick was VERY sad when the last vestiges of it finally melted a few days later. And Daniel was very happy to have his HOLLY JOLLY Christmas.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Recommendation: Evoking the Spirit of Japan--The Favorites

The Favorites: A Novel The Favorites: A Novel

by Mary Yukari Waters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A rare gem of a first novel, this book beautifully evokes the sights, smells, sounds, depth of color, and culture of Japan.

Sarah, born to a Japanese mother and an American father, returns to Japan after living in the U.S. for several years (author Mary Yukari Waters has a similar life story). While there, she discovers layer after layer of secrets under the surface of family ritual and civility. Although she viewed her mother Yoko as clumsy and out of place as a non-native English speaker in the U.S., Sarah realizes that she is a vivacious, dynamic woman in her native Japan.

Sarah's mother and her grandmother have an extremely tight bond that is not witnessed anywhere else in her life. Down the street lives another part of their family--her grandmother's sister-in-law with her daughter and family. An invisible wall of politeness exists between the two households. Eventually Sarah discovers that after her grandmother's husband died in the war, she was pressured to marry the other brother and to give up her infant daughter to her sister-in-law to raise, a deep loss that haunts both mother and daughter and wraps the family in tension. Yoko is clearly her mother's favorite, and by extension, Sarah is cherished over her cousins who live in the other household. Sarah is ambivalent about this favoritism--she secretly likes being in the inner circle, as she feels like an "other" because she is part foreigner. At the same time she is acutely aware of the pain and ache felt by her aunt, who always thought she was unwanted.

The Favorites is about the complicated, intricate lives of Japanese women and the little universes of Japanese families and households. The men are largely in the background, handing over their salary to their wives, who make sure they have everything they need. The women clearly run the households, manage all family relationships, and ensure proper ritual and protocols are followed, including paying respects and making sacrifices to their ancestors at the household altar.

I found my reading to be stuttered a bit by Yukari Waters' use of Mrs. Kobayashi, Mrs. Nishimura, and Mrs. Asaki, etc., for her characters. I realized how rare it is to read a book that uses surnames in narrative and not just in dialogue (like Jane Austen-era books, for example). Although I found this difficult at times, I believe the author made a conscious choice to better match the Japanese style of referring to people by their last names (Kobayashi-san, Nishimura-san, and Asaki-san). Some family secrets (such as more background on how Yoko's family reacted when she decided to marry a foreigner) are never unraveled, in keeping with the style of the book. There is much beneath the surface.

(Reading this book made me wonder whether the open and accepted habit of "playing favorites" in family, work, or school relationships is more common in class-conscious, hierarchical, or seniority-driven societies. My British husband and I have often talked about the open acceptance of the tendency to choose favorites in his family and in British society. As an American, playing favorites strikes me as terribly unjust and unfair, and I believe that American society tends to consciously fight this tendency, based on the fact our country was founded on principles of justice and equality, even if it hasn't always implemented those principles effectively. What do you think?)

The Favorites is not a plot-driven story; if you are looking for action, you'd best look elsewhere. Instead, this novel intricately portrays these women's relationships and ways of life. Yukari Waters painstakingly depicts the effect different seasons or traditions of Japan have on the five senses, such as the beautiful interplay of colors in Japanese food and pottery, or the smells and sounds of freshly falling rain. She deftly portrays the subtle and outright differences between Japanese and American culture. Of all the books I've read about Japan in the past 20 years since I left, this one most effectively describes the complex relationships and protocols each Japanese must adhere to and best captures Japan's complicated spirit.

View all my reviews >>

My entertaining kids


Said this morning, in all seriousness and with no preamble, "If the naughty guys take away my fire hat, I will be awfully sad!"


Kieran came home from school today tired out and disappointed that his teacher wasn't there. When Mike asked him what they did in school today, Kieran said "nothing."

Mike then asked, in his characteristically writer way, "What was the teacher doing? Tap dancing while making Turkish Delight?"

Kieran's response: "Yeah, and then she was mixing vodka."

"Vodka?" Mike asked.

"Non-alcoholic vodka, Dad."

"How do you know about vodka, Kieran?"

"I looked it up on Wikipedia, Dad."

The kid is a first grader who knows his way around YouTube but is just learning to read and spell bigger words. How he picked up on Wikipedia is anyone's guess. As Mike mentioned, he does set Kieran up with his far-out questions...but the kid is destined to be a writer!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Turkish Delight

Phases Kieran has gone through in the last two years or so:

Wizard of Oz
Peter Pan
Sound of Music
Harry Potter
Bye Bye Birdie
The Hobbit

Could be more, but that's what I remember off the top of my head. Now it's the Chronicles of Narnia. Mike took the boys to see the play right before Christmas, and in a wonderful case of serendipity, Kieran received the book on CD from his aunt and uncle in England for Christmas. Even though he has two different versions of the video checked out from the library, he insisted on using his Christmas $ to buy his own personal copy.

Kieran's been desperate to make Turkish Delight, so we did just that a few days after Christmas. It's a very time-intensive process. (If you have not recently read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch uses Turkish Delight to lure Edmond to come away with her.) It involves a lot of stirring, and we used my candle thermometer because we didn't have a candy thermometer. Turkish Delight is like aplets and cotlets without the fruit and nuts. Yes, that's right--pure sugar, with only rose water for flavoring. Mike grew up on the stuff--it's popular in the UK--but his favorite kind was coated in chocolate!

Turkish delight is like aplets and cotlets the way that treacle tart is like pecan pie. WHAT'S THE POINT without the pecans, if you ask me! But the things we do for our children. It was an adventure! :)

We still have a bit left over, if you'd like to try some!

Christmas, Part 2

My sister and her family alternate Christmas between home and Portland each year. This year was their year to stay home and celebrate with David's family. They came down on December 27 instead, and we continued our celebration by exchanging gifts with them in our traditional "spin the bottle" style. Here's Kieran with the bottle, surrounded by presents:

Nadine and David:

Nick taking a turn with the bottle:

Nadine is so good about having her kids make presents. Each one of them decorated a frame with a special photo inside:

Nick with his laughing giraffe limbo game he received from his cousins and aunt and uncle:

The week while they were here was bittersweet. While the boys all had a fabulous time together, my aunt fell very ill and died. They kept us from wallowing too much in our sadness, while also being sweet to their grandma.
One afternoon we took the boys to play at the playground at the school where Nadine and I attended...some things change, and some things stay the same. This metal climbing frame is a relic from our childhood (I'll bet the padding below it is much softer now). This is the spot where Nadine met one of her close childhood friends. She was telling our mom that she didn't have any friends, and Mom advised her to go up and ask someone to be her friend. So she did! She's still close friends with Brenda today!

A cousin sandwich:

Garrett on the bars:

Kieran and Daniel (this is the photo without the rabbit ears!):

Following his cousins around ("Daniel, will you go on the slide with me?"):

Silly boys:

Dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's house:

They stayed to ring in the new year and watch the Rose Bowl with us, and then when they were scheduled to leave, Daniel got very ill--vomiting and fever. They had to put off their departure until the following morning, and then the other boys got it too. Poor things! Garrett (and possibly Ryan) will have to miss the first day back to school tomorrow.