Friday, December 31, 2010

Culture Clash?

When life gets hectic, as only life can around the holidays, strange things happen. Early Christmas morning, I open up the ‘fridge and as I’m ferreting out the ingredients for our Christmas morning breakfast, I see a horrible sight. Way back under the deli meats tray is my prized chocolate pie brutally bludgeoned by a beer. Initially angered, I could only collapse in giggles when I realize that beer and chocolate pie make an utterly funny pairing.

But Coors Lite? This is easy to explain, but then again, not so easy.
I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis . . . or Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale . . . or anything but lite beer.
Never do I prefer Coors Lite. Okay, okay. There is one situation in which I do prefer Coors Lite. That is when I host (or play) beer pong. There. I said it. I do play beer pong (sometimes) and that is the reason that a Coors Lite beer landed in my prized chocolate pie. Well, that and the fact that my refrigerator was obviously packed to over-capacity.

For the record, although an ugly wound persisted after the beer can was extracted, a generous serving of whip cream fixed the pie up quite nicely. The beer was unscathed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Gift

Christmas time is here, and along with greeting cards, holiday parties, tree decorating, and lots and lots of great food, we all deal with gift giving. Society has long over-commercialized Christmas gifts and shopping, and we can easily lose the spirit of giving that embodies Christmas. However, I like to search through the torn Christmas wrappings and discarded bows and ribbons to find that nugget of Christmas spirit we all seek. This year I tell our family’s story of The Gift.

The story begins a few weeks before Christmas as invitations fly out to Christmas-themed parties. Both my twenty-something kids are attending the same gathering: An Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. Yes, wear that hideous sweater with garish yuletide motifs—a reindeer or a jolly ol’ Saint Nick. Extra bells or ribbons for adornments are a plus.

Now, my daughter has a particular problem or two. One, she finds it difficult to pick out clothing that is inherently ugly. Two, she ran out of time to scavenge the local thrift shops and second hand clothing stores. When her boyfriend’s mother volunteered to send her an ugly sweater, dear daughter said yes. A few days later, she received not one, but two ugly sweater candidates.

Well, apparently boyfriend’s mother has the same problem as daughter. The two sweaters she sent were perhaps a bit out of style. But they were not ugly. In fact, one was a soft red sweater with a fake fur collar. Would I wear this? No. But, at one point I am sure this sweater represented the height of wintertime elegance. The second sweater was a plain wool sweater-jacket with gold buttons. The shoulder pads screamed “no longer fashionable” and the straight cut was something, well, something my mother-in-law might like. In fact, daughter and I looked at each other and said, “Yes, Grandma would really like this. It’s perfect for Christmas.”

This red sweater-jacket was, in fact, in perfect condition. We took it to the dry cleaners for good measure and carefully wrapped it with paper and ribbon. On Christmas Day, Grandma opened her gift, fell in love with it, and immediately put it on. It fit perfectly. And it was a perfect Christmas sweater and a perfect Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Food Preparations

One year Christmas dinner was a thrown-together pasta, bread, and salad meal. My excuse was that we were in Cabo at the time. I don’t cook in Cabo. Other years we join the cousins at their home and my contribution is a pie or two. But this year Christmas dinner is at our house. I look forward to the planning and cooking. Indeed, hosting Christmas dinner is an honor.

Over the years I have relied on the Los Angeles Times Food editors as a source of great recipes and good food advice. The LA Times has perfected the turkey technique and I am now a fan. The recipe is easy and fool proof: dry brined turkey. Dry brining means that you salt the turkey with approximately one tablespoon for each five pounds of turkey, seal the bird inside a plastic bag, and let the turkey sit in the refrigerator for three days. The salt draws out the moisture, but the moisture and salt are then reabsorbed. When you roast the turkey, the meat stays moist.

Fresh rosemary sprigs
This year I’m adding fresh minced rosemary and thyme to the salt. We shall see, but this should impart a subtle rosemary-thyme flavor to the meat (not just to the skin). The turkey is sitting in the refrigerator, absorbing flavors right now. I just need to turn it and massage it once a day.

Another LA Times classic recipe is Mom Parsons’ Cranberries. I love this recipe. You can make the cranberries days ahead, stick them in the refrigerator, and forget about it. You start with a bit of sugar and water combined with whole cloves, allspice berries, and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan. When the sugar is dissolved, you add the cranberries and cook them until they just pop, about five minutes. You then add the zest of one orange—leaving your hands with the sweet smell of orange just to remind you of the yummy food coming your way soon!

Cranberries popping

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Out of State Coffers Feed Proposition 23

In the 2008 presidential election, I was distracted and excited about an Obama victory. In the midst of a European trip, I was in Paris on Election Day and the following day. We whooped it up, happy to celebrate the change in administration. I pretty much ignored Proposition 8. I didn’t pay too much attention to Prop 8 because I thought: This is California. We are a progressive state. We frequently lead the nation in social and environmental issues. I voted against Prop 8. What’s the problem?

The problem, as it turns out, is that out-of-state money helped fund blatantly false ads that scared people into thinking that . . . oh, I don’t know what! That gay marriage would not only undermine heterosexual marriage, but that gay marriage would undermine our society as a whole.

Fear is a powerful motivator and spending money to spread fear can help the fear mongers’ cause.

Two years later, we have another proposition on the ballot, another proposition being funded by out-of-state interests, and another proposition whose passage depends on fear mongering. I’m talking about Proposition 23. This ballot measure would suspend California’s Global Warming Law (AB 32) until the state’s unemployment rate drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.

The Global Warming Law’s aim is to cut state’s emission of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 by developing alternative fuels and generating electricity from solar, wind, and other (other than fossil fuel) sources.

The supposed reasoning behind Prop 23 is that AB 32 will cost jobs and we can’t afford to lose jobs right now. So, let’s just temporarily suspend AB 32 until our unemployment drops. It doesn’t sound too unreasonable.

There are a few problems with this logic. One—California’s unemployment hasn’t dropped below 5.5% but three times in the last 30 years. This proposition doesn’t suspend AB 32; it cancels it. Two—the real opposition to AB 32 and the real support for Prop 23 comes from out-of-state big oil. These out-of-state companies don’t really care about California’s unemployment figures. They really care about the profits of their own companies. And, they certainly don’t care about addressing the issues surrounding global warming. In fact, they would like you to believe that global warming doesn’t exist.

Two Texas-based oil companies have mostly financed Prop 23: Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp. Now, according to a September 4 Los Angeles Times article, a subsidiary of Koch Industries recently contributed $1 million to support the passage of Prop 23. Koch Industries owns refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota. It controls about 4,000 miles of oil pipelines.

Here are more facts about the supporters of Prop 23 according to the above article:

So far, the Proposition 23 campaign has raised $8.2 million, of which 97% has come from oil interests and 89% from out of state.

Also, according to the same article, billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch (owners of Koch Industries) have

“helped finance efforts to develop arguments denying that global climate change is a real phenomenon.”

Any job losses that occur as a result of AB 32 will be short-term as we create jobs to fuel an alternative energy-based economy. The fear mongering will say that AB 32 will cost California jobs and that global warming is not real.

Please, follow the money. Don’t let out-of-state big oil scare you into voting for Prop 23.Vote NO on Prop 23.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sweet Land of Liberty

I weep that this proud symbol has come to represent a nation that tortures

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a post decrying the practice of torture by the Bush administration. Way back in 2005 I participated in a letter-writing campaign and wrote a letter to then President Bush protesting water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I received a response from the White House, full of fluff and, well, hot air. Here is a portion of the reply:

"The President has repeatedly affirmed that he does not condone torture in any circumstances, and he has also directed our military personnel to treat all detainees in their custody humanely. American personnel are also required to comply with all applicable United States laws, including the Constitution, Federal statues, and our treaty obligations."

The response itself enraged me to the point that I wrote the above-mentioned post. 2005 seems like a long time ago. We now have Obama as our president, and still the war in Iraq and Afghanistan drags on. We are supposed to be making America safer, yet I can’t help but feel that we’re making America less safe as our fighting and drone attacks kill many innocent people. I can’t help but thinking about all the investments we could be making in our educational system or our healthcare system or our infrastructure with the money we spend on wars, creating jobs while improving our country.

And then an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times that described a report prepared by a group called Physicians for Human Rights. The report is the accumulation of analyzing public U.S. government documents dealing with the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody during the Bush Administration. You can read the full 30-page report here. Apparently, a strange catch-22 situation presented itself to the legal and administrative authorities of the Bush Administration. Here it is:

The well-known Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (John Yoo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel) redefined torture by establishing legal thresholds for torture acts such as water boarding, stress positions, prolonged isolation, and sleep deprivation. These acts of torture were deemed legal as long as interrogators did not cross the threshold for “severe physical and mental pain.”

Well, okay, that sounds mighty fine. So, how do you make sure that you don’t cross the threshold for “severe physical and mental pain?” Easy. You get some physicians, medical doctors (you know, those people who study many, many years to learn to heal the sick and above all do no harm?) and you have these physicians monitor the enhanced interrogation sessions and as soon as you’ve crossed the threshold, then you stop!

Well, no, you can’t do that. Because then you’ve crossed the threshold and now you’ve committed a crime—torture.

Okay, here’s another tactic. You get some physicians, medical doctors (you know, those people who study many, many years to learn to heal the sick and above all do no harm?) and you monitor each session very carefully. You keep accurate data. You can measure physical and psychological impact of the interrogator’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques and as you collect data, you can provide a clear basis for a legal defense against possible torture charges. This medical monitoring demonstrates to all clear-thinking, freedom-loving people a distinct lack of intent to cause harm to the subjects, uh, detainees.

Well, this well-thought-out plan to protect interrogators from violating any torture laws, the very foundations of the supposed defense (the medical monitoring), effectively violates “well-established legal and ethical codes” protecting prisoners (or anyone actually) against human experimentation. Quoting the PHR report: “This current report provides evidence that in additional to medical complicity of torture, health professionals participated in research and experimentation on detainees in U.S. custody.”

Hey, do you know what one tidbit of torture information they found out? (This is really useful stuff, so pay attention!) If you administer a water boarding session, you should use salt water instead of fresh water. Fresh water increases the risk of hyponatremia, a condition of low sodium levels in the blood (too much water, not enough salt), which can lead to brain edema and herniation, coma, and death. Now, how did they figure that out?

Are you sick yet?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Healthcare Reform: Yes We Can

Recently I participated in a virtual town hall meeting led by my Congressperson, Representative Bilbray. The phone-based town hall consists of constituents listening in and posing questions or bringing up issues. Bilbray also asked us to choose our top-priority issue out of five possible topics. I chose Issue Number Two, health care reform as my number one issue. Among the choices was, of course, immigration reform. (I say ‘of course’ because Bilbray always brings up immigration reform; indeed, that was the mainstay of his successful election campaign.) Immigration reform is an important topic in southern California.

I stayed on the line listening to questions posed by constituents. A woman in her forties was concerned about health care costs. I know. I am self-employed and have paid for my own health insurance for years. Health insurance is a large portion of our monthly expenses, our deductable is quite high, and it goes up every year. But Bilbray does not support health care reform. (Actually, he claims that he does. He supports letting you purchase your health insurance across state lines.)

A retired nurse came on the line next. She complained that illegal aliens appeared in large numbers in emergency rooms with sniffles and fevers, looking for medical care. “When are we going to stop providing medical services for illegals? I go in there and see so many Mexican people.” I was shocked at the obvious racism of this woman and Bilbray’s response (I am paraphrasing). “The problem is that the federal government has mandated that hospital emergency rooms must provide medical services to anyone, regardless of whether they can pay or not and regardless of his or her citizenship.” This is true for emergency medical care, but not for non-emergency medical care. How can someone in the medical profession embrace the concept of denying medical treatment to anyone? Aren’t we all people? Where is your compassion, woman? As I listened on the phone, I wondered where the humanity had gone. Do we need immigration reform? Yes! Should immigration reform begin by denying emergency medical care to illegal immigrants? No! First of all, as an emergency room attendant, can you imagine denying coverage to a dying patient (regardless of her citizenship) because she can’t produce papers proving her status? Do you carry your birth certificate or passport with you at all times? Oh, I’m sorry. Perhaps you’re not worried about that because you aren’t Mexican American? When I hung up the phone I was saddened that the solution to health care reform should be dumped on illegal immigration.

I have called Bilbray’s office numerous times as a constituent asking him to support health care reform. He doesn’t think that the government is capable of providing effective health care. He thinks the American health care system is basically just fine the way it is.

What’s wrong with the Canadian system? They spend less on health care, have a higher life expectancy, have less uninsured people, and are healthier.

Here is some data from a recent (2007) study. (Peterson, Chris L. and Burton, Rachel, Domestic Social Policy Division. Congressional Research Service: U.S. Health Care Spending: Comparison with Other OECD Countries. September 17, 2007.)

The United States spends more money on health care than any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD consists of 30 democracies, most of which are considered the most economically advanced countries in the world. According to OECD data, the United States spent $6,102 per capita on health care in 2004 — more than double the OECD average and 19.9% more than Luxembourg, the second-highest spending country. In 2004, 15.3% of the U.S. economy was devoted to health care, compared with 8.9% in the average OECD country and 11.6% in second-placed Switzerland.

How does the U.S. life expectancy compare to these countries?

The average life expectancy for a person in the United States is 77 ½ years — slightly below the OECD average, and 4½ years less than top-rated Japan. Life expectancy is nearly 2½ years longer in Canada than in the United States. The United States is ranked 22nd out of 30 countries on life expectancy at birth, but once people reach the age of 65, U.S. life expectancy improves to a rank of 11th for men and 13th for women out of 30 countries reporting.

I, for one, am glad that Congress passed health care reform. I am glad insurance companies can’t deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. I am glad that if I get sick, my insurance company can’t cancel my policy. Maybe now some of these people flocking to the emergency rooms for non-emergency situations will be able to get health care and go see a primary care doctor instead of an emergency room physician.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Does Avatar have lessons for us?

I have seen James Cameron’s 3D spectacle Avatar and I am a fan. The advanced technology it uses to create and animate the graceful beings on the moon-planet Pandora bring non-human forms to life with human-like facial expressions and emotions. Actors wearing specialized headsets with cameras recorded their emotions as they spoke and showed fear, anger, tenderness, curiosity, and even love. This digital information was then processed to create the vision we see on the screen. The audience relates to 10-foot blue-skinned people, the Na’vi. These are not cartoons we’re watching, but human-like aliens. Besides the people, Cameron also created a whole world with its floating mountains, communicating trees, and unique plants and animals. The Na’vi are basically hunter-gatherers, who tame, but don’t really domesticate, flying horse-like creatures that help them hunt.

The human (presumably American, but this is 2154, so who knows?) military-corporate complex is the evil intruder set on mining Unobtainium (a ridiculous name, but it is apt) at all costs, including the destruction of the Na’vi people. Scientists who have studied them are present for the appearance of good intentions only. The corporate president and the military commander are both unabashed stereotypes, sadly spouting rhetoric similar to our own military justification for the invasion of Iraq (yep, “preemptive” included), our long disastrous military presence in Vietnam, and our present quagmire in Afghanistan.

The lesson that Avatar seems to offer is that we (American military presence) should just go away. But today’s Los Angeles Times front page offers an intriguing alternative. A Los Angeles-based nonprofit, International Medical Corps, goes into areas that need its services and these places are typically war-ravaged with little or non-existent medical services. Medical personnel are able to go into these areas because they refuse to take sides. They work with the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as other community members. They have a presence in other countries as well. Besides providing medical care, they also train local people. This allows medical services to continue even after International Medical Corps people leave.

It seems that we have been trying to rebuild both Afghanistan and Iraq for years. But we’re rebuilding with tanks and guns and troops and helicopters. The Iraqis don’t “hate us for our freedoms.” They hate us for our guns and destruction.

So, let’s pull out all the troops and bring in medicine and doctors. Let’s build schools and hospitals, not military bases and war rooms. And while we’re at it, maybe we can also figure out how to provide health care for Americans too!

Enjoy Avatar!