Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quality vs Quantity

An article in today’s New York Times sternly warns against the dangers of eating red meat, like we haven’t heard this before – and as if this is what should be on our minds as the swine flu epidemic morphs into a pandemic. And it’s not just eating red meat (in increasingly greater amounts, they say) that’s cause for medical alarm, it’s the fact that many of the persons most likely to indulge in this dangerous food are also most likely to participate in other health risky behavior: smoking, eating too much fat and sugar, weighing too much, and exercising too little. Death from cancer or heart disease is apparently the real cost of a two-inch sirloin. I don’t bring this up as a Fat Acceptance issue (why bother…), but rather, as a genuine question: what kind of quality-of-life do health advocates imagine for the potential millions who will do all the right things and live to be 100?

As someone who cooks for and dines with a 95-year-old woman five nights a week, I can tell you that maximum longevity can suck, big-time. She spends most of her day alone and by lunchtime she can’t remember what she had for breakfast. She rarely knows what month or day or time it is (despite a huge clock/calendar on her living room wall). She’s arthritic and often in pain. She feels useless, depressed, angry, anxious, and bored. She’s getting by on Social Security and a modest pension. But all her life, she was physically active, a healthy eater, and a dedicated user of vitamins and supplements – and look, she’s made it to 95, isn’t that great? The fact is, if she’s lucky, she’ll die peacefully in her sleep at home. If she’s not, she’ll end up in a “facility,” living in circumstances you wouldn’t wish on the proverbial dog. I find all this as appealing as being stripped naked, tied to stakes on an ant hill, and slathered with honey.

The comedian Redd Foxx, who died at age 68 of a heart attack, used to say: “all these health nuts are going to feel pretty stupid laying up in the hospital dying of nothing.” Everyone seems to know, or know of, someone in their 90s who’s sharp as a tack and fit as a fiddle. In truth, such folks are few and far between. But even if the current obsession with health (which I blame on feelings of social impotence and a relentless diet of TV commercials for pharmaceuticals) produces a whole generation of geriatric wunderkinds, running, jumping and competing with an apple in one hand and an appropriately “green” bottle of filtered water in the other, what do the health nuts imagine the practical, day-to-day lives of these ├╝ber-elders will be?

Multi-generational families living together and taking care of one another are as rare as fat starlets. We do a lot of talking about family in this country, but millions of people have no family; we’re single/divorced, childless, or both. In addition, statistics have shown, repeatedly, that even when coupled adults have several children, there is usually only one adult child who later handles eldercare in their folks’ gold-plated years; the other siblings are AWOL or otherwise useless. Retirement homes, which have been largely disgusting for decades, are giving way to Assisted Living Communities, a much more pleasant alternative – but available only to those with the extraordinary financial resources to pay for it ($8,000 a month is the average, and there’s no government funding for it).

Which brings us to the real nuts and berries of finances, as well as vital social intercourse. It is extremely difficult for many people, regardless of their health, to stay employed or to find new employment once they’re in their 50s. As families and friends scatter or die off, it’s also hard to forge new relationships. What are healthy “young” seniors supposed to live on, and do with their time (and do it with whom?), for the next 40 to 50 years? As people get and stay healthier for far many more years than ever before, there’s no guarantee they’ll be financially solvent, or well positioned to be socially engaged in a meaningful way.

Even if society makes all the economic and social transformations necessary to enable the elderly to live good lives (don’t hold your breath…), how are we defining “good” and “life” these days? If we devote ourselves solely to healthy eating and other healthy habits, where is (you should excuse the expression) the fun in life? Sports, power-walking at the mall, card-playing, arts & crafts, and folk dancing are not everybody’s idea of a good time.

In my [dissolute] opinion, our obsession with health is an unhealthy extension of our Puritanical roots, which seem to be growing new shoots as our society becomes more immoral, amoral, illegal and fattening. We also have no concept of a “good death,” let alone a real acceptance of death as a natural and perfectly okay part of life.

My advice is: have a hamburger and chill out. If you’re lucky, you’ll die before life becomes a living nightmare. But hey, if you’d rather shudder over every morsel of food you put in your mouth and live a tasteless, stressful, joyless life in an effort to live a really long tasteless, stressful, joyless life, that’s up to you. For my part, as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret: “I made my mind up back in Chelsea, when I go, I’m going like Elsie.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Truly Meaningful Milestone

Today marks President Barack Obama’s 100th day in office. Some pundits and media commentators have been calling this a largely symbolic milestone that doesn’t much matter – which strikes me as odd, since assessing the President’s First 100 Days is a longstanding tradition; why should we consider this process less important for Obama? Conversely, others are celebrating like it’s New Year’s Eve and their first-born’s first birthday rolled into one. Almost irrelevantly, the dumbstruck opposition have no words for how much harm they think he’s caused (English translation: he’s spent much too much money, he relies too heavily on teleprompters, and they question the authenticity of his birth certificate. Give me a break!).

I believe that most people – myself wholeheartedly among them – are quietly in awe, not just of what he’s done in so short a time, but of his immediate rise to the occasion; his confidence, leadership and great calm in the face of enormous difficulties; his ability to both multi-task and delegate; his eloquence; his understanding of complex issues; his physical and mental energy; his sense of humor and charm; and his determination to effect the changes we need; to be, as he told us, persistent.

On the site Organizing for America/Foundation for Change, you can explore the President’s accomplishments, nationally and state-by-state. For sure, his initiatives regarding the economy, health care, housing, education, energy, The Wars, and emphasizing the importance of public participation/service as a key ingredient in healing the nation, are remarkable. Yet it’s interesting to note that while his approval rating as a leader is through the roof, many folks are displeased with at least some of his positions, policies and undertakings. Some think he’s gone too far, others think he hasn’t gone far enough, still others think he’s gone the wrong way (particularly in dealing with the financial crisis in all its complicated dimensions). I agree with some of this – but to paraphrase Mr. Obama’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

On the whole, I’m incredibly impressed, primarily because some of the most dire circumstances, issues and events he’s had to deal with weren’t even on the table throughout most of the Campaign Without End. During Obama’s interview on 60 Minutes a few weeks back, he was downright jocular about the mess he’s coping with, laughing the laugh of a man who knows that if he doesn’t laugh he’ll cry his heart out. “If anyone had told me two years ago that Iraq would be the least of my problems, I’d have said they were crazy,” he said. Is this not so?

Yesterday, when the President had to deal with the sudden urgency of the swine flu epidemic and the incomprehensibly stupid/insensitive matter of Air Force One flying around Lower Manhattan (for a training exercise and photo op, with a fighter jet on its wing!) to the hysterical consternation of thousands of people who had 9/11 flashbacks as a result, I thought to myself: the only thing this man hasn’t had to deal with yet is frogs and locusts falling from the sky. But hey, the year is young.

The things I’ve been most impressed with during these First 100 Days are the [relatively] smaller actions and remarks that demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that we have been blessed with a leader who is as smart as Bush was stupid, as caring as Bush was indifferent, as rational as Bush was crazy, as personally and politically gracious as Bush was coarse, adversarial and self-serving, and as communicative (“transparent”) as Bush was secretive. I was so glad that Obama’s several trips abroad gave him a successful opportunity to undo some of the hatred and mistrust of America that Bush engendered. And he sure held his own at all those big international confabs.

Plus, I think it’s fabulous that he and the First Lady hosted the first-ever Passover Seder in the White House. I applaud his lifting the ban on media coverage of the return of flag-draped coffins of fallen American soldiers. I’m deeply grateful that he’s reversed some of Bush’s anti-woman policies regarding family planning counseling, both foreign and domestic, as well as removing the ridiculous obstacles to essential stem-cell research.

And I hugely respect that he’s made clear – from the start and during his address to the National Academy of Sciences this week – that “the days of ideology superseding science are over.” Barack Obama, who is a man of great and abiding personal spiritual faith, has not, is not, and will not, impose his private beliefs on his public policies. In a country founded on the separation of church and state, this shouldn’t be such a big deal – but after eight years of President Born-Again-My-Way-or-the-Highway, Obama’s attitude is a revelation and a victory for us all.

And I love that in the midst of all this tumult, Barack Obama made time to take his wife out to dinner, go to a basketball game (pictured above), get the kids the promised puppy, and in general, simultaneously make the presidency more casual and accessible and more effective and respected. He goes to bed early, gets up early, he and Michelle work out together, and family time is a top priority. Talk about “Life Balance”! Congratulations, Mr. President; your First 100 Days have been splendid: remarkably productive and virtually unprecedented in their substance and style. Keep up the good work. The vast majority of the country – and the world – are behind you.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Women of Note

Just a glance at The New York Times these days brings a nervous, anxious smile to my pinched lips and reminds me of the tumult in the theme song from the 60s sitcom about the NYPD, Car 54, Where Are You?: “There’s a hold up in the Bronx/Brooklyn’s broken out in fights/There’s a traffic jam in Harlem/That’s backed up to Jackson Heights/There’s a scout troop short a child/ Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild/Car 54, Where Are You?” The swine flu is swirling, the earth is quaking, the Taliban is on the verge of taking over Pakistan, the economy is gurgling further down the drain, we can’t figure out what to do about military torture, the glaciers are melting, and bean sprouts have joined the Gang of Vegetables That’ll Kill Ya. It’s all this stuff, and a lot more, which has rendered me speechless (and blog postless) over the past few weeks. So, instead of railing against the things that not only can’t I change, but also can’t fathom, I’d rather talk about something I understand: women (again).

On a positive note, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius‏, who understands better than most that we’re not in Kansas anymore, and whose candidacy for Secretary for Health and Human Services will be voted on by the Senate tomorrow, may fare better than pro-choice advocates thought (thankfully), since the swine flu makes it imperative that we have someone smart and assertive in that post, post-haste. And on a heartwarming note, a middle-aged Scottish “plain Jane” named Susan Boyle surprised the world by showing that one doesn’t have to be a young beauty to sing magnificently (haven’t centuries of opera taught us anything?). But on a poignant note, the wonderful Bea Arthur (shown above) died over the weekend, leaving us with one less sharp, sassy woman, a grievous loss. Thank goodness for re-runs of The Golden Girls.

These three ladies have been much on my mind over the past few days, along with the fab four of Sex and the City: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis). I was a big fan of the series, which frankly surprised me, since I don’t usually have much rapport with slim, fashion-obsessed, New York Magazine-prototype women. And I’ve seen the movie at least a half-dozen times since it landed on HBO this month. It’s not a great movie, it’s not even as good as the series, but it comforts me. What’s not to like about good, clever writing, capable acting, intelligent ideas, a rousing celebration of friendship, and tenderhearted girls looking for love in the proverbial urban jungle?

Indeed, all of the women I’ve mentioned here soothe me. Smart, talented, kind, brave, unusual women provide my strongest relief and encouragement, even when I only know them from behind the barriers of politics and show biz. And given the array of harpies on reality television, the tormented zombies on red-carpeted Hollywood boulevards, the boob-flashing numb nuts on Girls Gone Wild, the laminated lovelies so often passed off as TV journalists, and the anonymous everywomen who achieve fame through crime, stupidity and excessive childbirth, all of whom assault our sensibilities on a daily basis, the women I admire form an amalgam of Eleanor Roosevelt, Audrey Hepburn, Lily Tomlin and Aretha Franklin.

As has often been the necessary case, sisters are doin’ it for themselves and each other. And in these unbelievably troubled times, sisterhood is not only powerful, it’s a lifeline to sanity and sustenance. My girlfriends are my salvation. Have you spoken to your BFF today? You’ll feel better if you do – swine flu and all.

Friday, April 03, 2009

What Do Women Want?

The top story on right at this moment is “At Least 12 Slain in Binghamton, NY,” about yet another lone-gunman nutcase who took a bunch of people hostage (for who knows or cares what fucked-up reason), then killed them, as well as himself. Without a doubt this is news and the senseless murder of a dozen innocent people should not be glossed over or ignored.

However, buried deep on the site in the Times’ news blog, The Lede, is a post entitled “Women Erased in Israel, Flogged in Pakistan and Restricted in Afghanistan,” which details three appalling incidents. This story comes on the heels of two news stories last week, one of which got quite a bit of attention: about new studies regarding women’s sexuality, and one that came in under the radar: about the increasing incidence of “corrective rape” in South Africa, which is the rape of lesbians (usually gang rape) in order to “turn them into real African women,” in other words, not gay.

While we here in the USA celebrate the freedom and advancement of women in our society – if you don’t count rising domestic abuse, date rape, and the obstacles many women face in getting contraception and abortions – the world at large is still an unsafe and unequal place for women. In some instances, like the stories reported in The Lede today, women are still living in the Dark Ages. And given the shocking worldwide levels of female genital mutilation, rape as a tactic of war, honor killings, sex slavery & indentured servitude, and a general lack of basic human and civil rights all-round, hundreds of millions of women are living horrible lives simply because they are women.

That age-old question men ask – What Do Women Want? – is not a brain-teaser. The recent sexuality studies show that women are more flexible than men in this regard, that we are willing and able to express a greater range of attraction and feeling. English translation: we’re less likely to be 100% straight, 100% gay, or an even 50-50 bisexual, but rather, embrace a world of combinations in-between, often with different sexual and emotional phases in our lives. This will not come as news to most women.

The answer to What Do Women Want? is easy to explain, but enormously difficult to obtain. We want love, passion, affection, connection, and (as a rule) fidelity. Many women want children, some don’t, but virtually all women would like to have control over whether or not we have them, when, by whom, and how many. We want to live lives of freedom, equality, mobility, and opportunity. We want to grow, to study and learn, to work, and in many instances to make good homes for beloved families. We want to be respected and treated decently. We don’t want to be “protected” so much as we just don’t want to be endangered and victimized. We want to speak out, to be socially/politically involved, to have the same autonomy as men. We want to make a contribution and a difference. We’re tired of being limited and controlled. We want to get out of poverty and ugly relationships. We want to live.

Why this is so hard for some men to understand, and for all women to achieve, is the core issue of contemporary feminism (such as it still exists). And this is for sure: women will never get what we want until the world community confronts the clash between “culture” (that combination of law, tradition, poorly-interpreted religion and male fear) and equality, and agrees to a single, common standard for all people everywhere, that ensures freedom from abuse and restriction. It would also help if women’s stories, women’s issues, and women’s news were not marginalized, but rather were put forth front and center. Women are almost never the lone-gunman nutcase, but we’re often his victims. Women are being grievously hurt, kept back, and often kept hidden, all over the world in staggering numbers. That should be a page one, above-the-fold story – and it’s a sin against humankind that it isn’t.

Coffee Break

Yesterday's cigarette tax news really fired me up and got me down. So late last night, to calm myself, I baked two loaves of biscotti, using a recipe that I found online, but have altered sufficiently to claim it as my own. A dear friend bought me an espresso/cappuccino machine for my birthday last month (replacing the two previous ones I had that died long ago). I still haven't perfected my foam, but the machine makes a great cup of coffee and I have learned to make these really good biscotti. As a break from all the serious stuff I've been ranting about, here's the recipe. It's a snap, give it a try!

MizB’s Cornmeal Biscotti
yields 12 – 15 cookies

Dry ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
1 tbs dried orange granules (or use 1 tbs fresh orange zest, but put it in with the wet ingredients, working it into the sugar with your fingers before adding the other wet ingredients)
1 tsp anise seeds
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp dried, ground ginger
½ tsp nutmeg

Wet ingredients
½ cup sugar
1 large egg
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs melted butter
2 tbs orange juice
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp orange extract

- Fully combine dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls
- Pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients; blend and knead into a stiff dough
- Roll dough into log apx 16” long and 2” wide
- Transfer dough to flat baking pan (use parchment or wax paper; slightly flatten and smooth the top of the log
- Refrigerate for at least 1 hour
- Pre-heat oven to 350˚
- Bake on center rack for apx 20 minutes – until firm, and top is just turning brown
- Remove from oven and cool for at least 10 minutes
- Using serrated knife, cut log into ¾” slices
- Place slices cut side down and bake apx 5 minutes
(until center is firm and edges are dark golden)
- Remove from oven, turn slices, return to oven and bake for apx 5 minutes more
- Remove and cool in pan for 10 – 15 minutes
- Serve with fabulous coffee (or store in airtight canister or plastic bag)

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Sign of the Times

If you’re not a smoker, you may not have noticed that the federal government played an unfunny April Fools Day joke on those of us who are. A new federal tax on tobacco products – ready-made cigarettes, cigars, and loose tobacco (for those of us who make our own) – went into affect yesterday. The reason for this tax: to fund the national State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP).

The tax is also supposed to encourage smokers to quit smoking, which begs the question: if smokers did stop smoking en masse because of this new tax, how would SCHIP be funded?

For smokers, the dollars-and-cents repercussion of the increase is this: the $.39-per-pack tax went up to $1.01 per pack, thereby adding more than $10 to the price of a carton, which in New York City (thanks to already-extant state and city taxes) was $85 to $90 and is now $95 to $105. The loose tobacco, which was a well-kept-secret at about $15 for a one-pound bag, is now a public obscenity at $40 to $45 per pound, because the $1.10 per pound tax went up to $24.78 per pound – an increase of more than 2,100%.

If this strikes non-smokers as a good and reasonable thing, all I can say is: wait until some legal, adult vice you indulge in is penalized beyond all reason in the name of the greater good. You too may be tempted to yell “foul!” and complain about taxation without representation. But until then, you can smile smugly about us nasty smokers getting it but good.

However, here’s what you don’t get: it will be a miracle if SCHIP really gets funded. The New York State Lottery is supposed to fund education. New Yorkers spend billions on the lottery. See what good school systems we have?

The other, equally important element is this: a great many smokers will not be able to afford this tax increase. But they won’t stop smoking; they’ll look for black-market alternatives to buying cigarettes and other tobacco products “legally.” The government has just launched a new criminal industry. Good work!

So watch out for new underground “dealers” in your midst, coming to a neighborhood near you faster than you can say “this sucks!” And if your kids are uninsured for health care? I suggest you get insurance for them real soon.