Monday, February 20, 2012

Apostrophes are easy: a three-minute lesson

You wouldn't know it from reading blog comments or grocery store signs, but you know what? Using apostrophes correctly is really, really easy. Here's a three-minute lesson that will turn you into an apostrophe expert for life.

Rule 1. Never use an apostrophe to make a word plural. Never! No exceptions. Not even if the word ends in a vowel. The plural of apostrophe is apostrophes. The plural of 1920 is 1920s. The plural of LCD is LCDs. The plural of do is dos. Really.
   Corollary: Do use an apostrophe to make a single letter of the alphabet plural. Example: There are two p's, four i's, and four s's in Mississippi.
  No to words, yes to letters.

Rule 2. Use an apostrophe to replace the missing letter(s) in contractions. Most of us don't have too much trouble with this one. We know how to spell words like I'll, he'd, can't, shouldn't, it's (meaning it is).
   Put Rule 1 with Rule 2, and you become one of the few people in the United States who know how to spell dos and don'ts.

Rule 3. Use an apostrophe to make a noun possessive. Put it immediately after the noun that tells who is doing the possessing. (If you're not sure, just turn the phrase around and you'll instantly see where the apostrophe goes.) Examples:
  • the boy's dog = the dog that belongs to the boy
  • the boys' dog = the dog that belongs to the boys
  • the Smiths' house = the house that belongs to the Smiths
  • the smith's house = the house that belongs to the smith (would he be a blacksmith, perhaps?)
  • the woman's room = the room belonging to the woman
  • the women's room = the room intended for women (since the word womens doesn't exist, there is no reason to put the apostrophe anywhere else)
  • the newspaper's reputation = the reputation of the newspaper
  • the newspapers' reputation = the reputation of the newspapers
   Corollary: Never use an apostrophe to make a pronoun possessive. Not even if the pronoun is it. Examples:
  • his dog = the dog that belongs to him
  • their house = the house that belongs to them
  • her room = the room that belongs to her
  • its reputation = the reputation that belongs to it
OK, you're an apostrophe expert now. How hard was that?

If you want to debate the fine points, you can always discuss what to do with words that end in s or z. Is it Jesus' name or Jesus's name? Thomas' car or Thomas's car? Style books differ. But notice that the apostrophe still follows Rule 3 above: it still comes immediately after the noun that describes who owns the name (Jesus) or the car (Thomas).

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

The first time she'd heard about the Rapture, she was a freshman in college, taking a class called Intro to World Religions. The phenomenon the professor described seemed like a joke to her, hordes of Christians floating out of their clothes, rising up through the roofs of their houses and cars to meet Jesus in the sky, everyone else standing around with their mouths hanging open, wondering where all the good people had gone... It felt like religious kitsch, as tacky as a black velvet painting, the kind of fantasy that appealed to people who ate too much fried food, spanked their kids, and had no problem with the theory that their loving God invented AIDS to punish the gays.
--from the Prologue to The Leftovers

And then, without warning, millions of people simultaneously disappeared, not just from Mapleton but from the whole world. Was it the Rapture? A lot of folks thought so, though Christians disagreed since so many of the vanished "hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior." Whatever it was, the mass exodus left the remaining people with a whole new set of problems and a myriad of unhelpful ways of solving them.

In The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta - author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, among others - goes way beyond the mildly comic suburban realism of his previous novels. In this comic dystopian novel (if such a genre is possible) he weaves together stories about Laurie, who joins a bizarre cult called the Guilty Remnant; her son Tom, who drops out of college to follow a guru who calls himself Holy Wayne; Aimee and Jill, whose attempts to combine high school with sex and drugs don't work out so well; Christine and Meg, sadly unhinged young women you just want to protect; Kevin, the stodgy mayor who keeps putting one foot in front of the other; and Nora - well, I'm not going to say anything about Nora, because she becomes especially interesting at the book's very end, and I don't want to be a spoiler.

I enjoy reading Perrotta because of the way he uses language. I appreciate the comic touches, continually giving hope that something good may come out of the tragic event and its aftermath. And maybe it does, depending on how you interpret the last couple of pages. Or maybe it doesn't.

I suspect that if Perrotta wrote a sequel, it would not be cheering. And that's why I'm not going to add to the praise this book has already gotten. It's a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Notable Fiction Book, a USA Today "10 Books We Loved Reading in 2011," and one of NPR’s 10 Best Novels of 2011, and you might like it too.

For me, however, brilliant writing and wry observations aren't enough. I confess: I enjoy well-written genre fiction more than literary fiction (I loved Dominique Browning's delightful New York Times essay, "Learning to Love Airport Lit"). I like fiction with a plot that goes somewhere and characters who grow. I want eventual resolution or redemption or illumination - or comedy that is more than a thin veneer over massive tragedy. The Leftovers held my attention from start to finish, but in the end, it left me empty.

And perhaps that's exactly what Tom Perrotta meant it to do. It's not easy being a leftover.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

HEART 411 by Marc Gillinov and Steven Nissen

Many of our colleagues claim that there are two types of people in the world: people who have coronary heart disease and people who are going to get it.... Our goal is to create two new classifications of people: those who have been successfully treated for coronary heart disease, and those who have avoided it altogether. 
--Marc Gillinov and Steven Nissen in Heart 411 

I grabbed Heart 411 just as soon as I heard of it (it was published January 31). Less than six months ago, I had open heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic, America's top-ranked heart hospital, where Dr. Gillinov is a cardiac surgeon and Dr. Nissen is chair of the department of cardiovascular medicine. I'm doing well, thank you, but I still have lots of questions. I figured these doctors would be able to answer them.

It's a wonderful book, though as it turns out, Gillinov and Nissen didn't really write it just for me. They wrote it for people who have heart disease and don't know it (but could easily find out), and for people who are very likely to develop heart disease (but don't need to), and for people who have had surgery for heart disease at least once and will probably need to have it again ...  and again (but could put a stop to the pattern).

Perhaps as much as 90 percent of heart disease, they are convinced, is entirely preventable (the other 10 percent is hereditary or, like my problem, congenital: such problems can be fixed, but can't be prevented). Alas, they write,

we heart doctors tend to "fix" the plumbing problem of the moment and then move on rapidly to the next one. All too often, patients become "cases" ("Can you check on the 80 percent left main coronary artery obstruction in cath lab number 4?") rather than people in desperate need of advice and counseling.
Doctors Gillinov and Nissen want to fill the gap left when the last "kindly, unhurried, gray-haired gentleman with a white coat, a black bag, and a stethoscope" left our doorsteps and began practicing high-tech assembly-line medicine. They want to sit down and chat with us about our risk factors, our food and drink, how we exercise, our emotional life, the medicines we take, whether we need surgery or can avoid it ... and lots of other things (check out the table of contents by clicking here, then clicking "Search inside this book").

This could have been a dreary read, as serious as, well, a heart attack. Fortunately, it isn't. The book is designed for easy reading and reference, with lots of subheadings to help us find what we're looking for ("Questions to Ask Before You Have a Heart Test") and to interest us in information we might not have thought to ask about ("Good Vibrations: Do Positive Emotions Provide Cardiac Protection?"). Flipping pages, we'll find frequent sidebars with fascinating factoids ("Why We Put Salt in Our Food," "Three Simple Household Routines Help Prevent Obesity," "Cardiovascular Disease in Mummies").

Even better, the authors are good writers. I don't think they used a ghost; Gillinov mentions his love of writing, and the diction lacks the airy chirpiness that characterizes so much ghosted material. Their explanations are clear and simple, free of technical jargon so laypersons will not have to struggle to follow. They tell lots of stories, and tell them well. They even have a wry sense of humor. This book can be used for reference, of course, but it's so interesting that you might want to just sit down and read it straight through.

Ignore the subtitle. It isn't really The Only Guide to Heart Health You'll Ever Need (I'm sure the authors were surprised when the publishers came up with that one). As they write on page 196, "Medical researchers periodically uncover new evidence that results in profound changes in our approach to heart disease.... We must accept that today's wisdom may seem foolish tomorrow." That's why Chapter 9, "How to Tell Fact from Fiction: Sorting Through the Medical Evidence" is so important. If you're like me  (and 61 percent of other Americans), you go online to find answers to your medical questions. Unfortunately, a huge percentage of what we find there is purest junk, and even the reputable studies can be hard for a layperson to evaluate. A skeptic by nature, I thought I knew how to sift through internet information and come up with truth, or at least facts. I figured I didn't need this chapter, but I read it anyway - and I learned a lot that will come in handy even when this book is long out of date.

Throughout the book the authors do plenty of fact-checking themselves, advising us on which popular beliefs to keep and which to toss. Is fat bad? Not necessarily. Is wine good? Could be. Are generics and brand-name medications equally effective? Depends on the medication. Should you have a physical exam before beginning an exercise program? Maybe not: consider these factors.

I have just one bone to pick with the authors: their analysis of hormone replacement therapy is flawed. Yes, the Women's Health Initiative studies came up with damning evidence against Prempro, but Gillinov and Nissen use those studies to damn all long-term hormone replacement. What is true, however, of orally administered hormones made from equine estrogens is not necessarily true of transdermally administered hormones made from bioidentical plant sources. In fact, subsequent research reported in the British Medical Journal, a publication rated highly by Gillinov and Nissen, shows that there are indeed differences in HRT that need further exploration.

But bless Gillinov and Nissen, they never come across as know-it-all M.Deities. They know they are writing to intelligent, informed readers, and they treat us with respect - an amazing feat for people who spend most of their waking hours looking at people wearing hospital gowns.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

David Brooks, Charles Murray, and the Reign of Mammon

Today's New York Times carried a thought-provoking op-ed by David Brooks called "The Materialist Fallacy." I recommend that you read it: it's only 764 words long. Brooks argues that "in the half-century between 1962 and the present, America has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has deteriorated." This is not just because of job loss (the liberal explanation) or government intrusiveness (the libertarian explanation) or "the abandonment of traditional bourgeois norms" (the neo-conservative explanation).

It has more to do with declining social context and social capital, says Brooks, who never met a financial capitalist he didn't like. He really likes Charles Murray's new book, however: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. (If you're not up for the 416-page book, you might want to read Brooks's January 30 column in praise of it.) Both authors worry about nefarious social forces that are driving a wedge between rich and poor, productive and non-productive, law-abiding and outlaws.

Brooks is partly right, and so are his critics. Yes, there's a rip in our social fabric. Yes, it is caused or made worse by job loss, ill-advised government programs, and shifting (or abandoned) values. Yes, it diminishes social capital and impoverishes social context. But also, Mr Brooks, and perhaps fundamentally, our decaying social fabric is the direct result of our enthusiastic worship of Mammon--the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).

I don't need to remind anybody about rapacious financiers, bloated CEOs, unscrupulous lobbyists, and corrupt politicians. But there were plenty of those in the 1890s and the 1920s, and, as Brooks points out, the social fabric still stayed more or less intact back then. Even two World Wars and a Great Depression didn't unravel it. People still finished school, still got jobs, and still got married before having children, if not always before getting pregnant. Why did things start to break down in the 60s?

It's all the Boomers' fault, right? I mean, the first Boomers were getting their driver's licenses in 1962, the very year Brooks chooses as the beginning of the end. And once we had wheels, and cars with back seats, and, hey, the Pill!--it was all downhill from there.

Nope. Brooks doesn't think it's that simple. But I don't see him fretting about the sea change in the cult of Mammon that took place in the 1950s when we older Boomers were children. For the first time, kids--millions of us--became a market segment. With a brand-new television set planted in nearly every living room in America, we were sitting ducks for anyone who had a product to sell and money to buy air time. We were as plankton to whales, as baby seals to sharks.

The marketers told us we were fantastic, and we believed them. They told us we deserved whatever we wanted, and we agreed. They warned us, sometimes not so subtly ("often a bridesmaid, never a bride"), that if we didn't buy their product, we might face some diminution of our social capital, and we trembled. And they encouraged us to buy their product right now, whether or not we had cash on hand.

Believing them, we stopped thinking about tomorrow. Sha la la-la-la-la, live for today--never mind that what we did today might get us in debt, or destroy our brains, or produce babies. We were the "Now" generation, and proud of it.

But what do you get when people start wanting everything now, so much so that they stop making and carrying out long-range plans, that they defer commitment indefinitely, that they heedlessly risk future solvency in favor of present satisfaction? Well, at the front end, you get a great economy based on thriving businesses with ever-expanding sales volumes. Then, when the rush subsides, you get fatherless children, inadequate education, declining health, a hazardous environment, crumbling roads, and joblessness. You get a social fabric shot full of holes.

So whom shall we blame for the present sad state of so many Americans? Government? Big business? Mysterious social forces? Our own lack of moral fiber? Sure, why not. We've all sold out to Mammon. Our society's organizing principle is the love of money.

Alas, until we as individuals and as a nation stop worshiping at Mammon's altar, all attempts to fix the social fabric--be they Republican, Democratic, socialist, anarchist, moralist, religious, or academic--will be about as effective as sewing "a piece of new cloth on an old garment" (Mark 16:21). Still, a patched garment, if no new fabric exists, is better than no garment at all.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Q. How can you get health insurance if you're an American with a pre-existing condition? A. Live long enough.

This Sunday is an important milestone for me. It's the day I no longer risk losing health insurance.

I left my last job-with-benefits when I was 51 years old. I'd been commuting an hour and a half each day, and I was worn out. My husband had excellent health insurance, and publishing jobs were plentiful.

Six weeks after my job ended, however, the dot-com bubble burst and jobs everywhere started to dry up. In 2003, I discovered I had a great big pre-existing condition - a defective heart valve and an aortic aneurysm that would eventually require surgery. I became uninsurable except through my husband's employer (and mine, should I ever find another job). And then in 2008, the year I turned 60, the whole economy tanked. I realized I was now entirely dependent on my husband's employer for health insurance, since I would probably never again have a job-with-benefits.

I got scared. What if my husband died? Through COBRA, I could extend his insurance for three years, as long as I was able to afford the $7500+ annual premium. But that might not take me all the way to Medicare. 

And what if he lost his job? The annual premium for the two of us would come to nearly $16,000, and the insurance would run out after 18 months.

Doesn't the Affordable Care Act mandate coverage for the formerly uninsurable? Yes indeed, but there's a catch. To be eligible for the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, you have to be not only uninsurable but also uninsured for at least six months before applying, and then there's a lapse of two to six weeks before the insurance becomes effective. Going without insurance for 6 1/2 to 8 months when your aneurysm is reaching the danger zone is not a great idea.

But hospital emergency rooms have to treat you, don't they? Right, but they don't do prevention. They would not repair an aneurysm before it burst, though they would try to save you after the damage was done. Trouble is, if you wait for surgery until after the aneurysm ruptures, you will probably die, most likely in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Fortunately, my husband is alive and well and has a fine job with an employer who continues to provide excellent health insurance. Six months ago I had elective open-heart surgery, which means I am still totally uninsurable by pre-Affordable Health Care Act standards, but I am much less likely to die. And Sunday, I turn 63 1/2. If my husband lost his job today, COBRA would take us right up to Medicare. I can finally relax.

I am very much in favor of the Affordable Care Act, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Repeal Obamacare? Only if our lawmakers make a serious study of why health care in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, etc. costs considerably less than equivalent health care in the United States; and why those countries are getting better results than we are - and why citizens of those countries never, ever have to worry about living with a major medical condition and no health insurance at all.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


In 1996, while taking an after-dinner stroll in the center of Amsterdam, I glanced at a shop window and found myself looking into the eyes of a woman for rent. I had vaguely known that women from Eastern Europe were being imported into Western European countries and forced to work as prostitutes--illegally, of course, but in great numbers--and I knew that prostitution was big business in Amsterdam. Still, I was shocked. This was a human being displayed as merchandise. Not a factoid, not a statistic, but a person. She could have been my friend, my daughter, me.

Similarly shocking is Donna Leon's fourth Venetian police procedural, Death and Judgment, published just a year before that late-evening walk. Commissario Guido Brunetti, investigating the murders of a prominent attorney and his accountant, gradually discovers a network of slave traders and pornographers bringing their human wares by the truckload into Italy. The human traffickers, he suspects, are not sleazy underworld characters but Italians of such eminence as to be virtually untouchable by the police. Brunetti, aided by a computer hacker with a secret,  systematically looks for clues--until his 14-year-old daughter, who knew the attorney's daughter, gets involved. Then the commissario, a dedicated family man, loses his cool.

I'm reading Leon's books in chronological order, and each one seems better than the one before. Brunetti, his wife Paola, and his daughter Chiara are fully developed characters that I want to stay in touch with (fortunately, I have 17 books to go). Leon's depictions of Venetian life make my mouth water, and her treatment of corruption in high Italian places, according to a friend of mine who has lived in Italy for nearly 40 years, rings entirely true. These are the kind of mysteries I most enjoy: police procedurals that are more than puzzles, thrillers that portray violence when necessary but not gratuitously, novels that feature real people who happen to be involved in law enforcement.

Be warned, however, that this is not a cozy mystery. Death and judgment are messy. You may be shocked by the human face of injustice. You may not like the way the book ends. I'm pretty sure you'll keep thinking about it, though, for some time after you've finished reading it. And then you'll probably go back for more books by Donna Leon.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

GOD IS NOT ONE by Stephen Prothero and MAN SEEKS GOD by Eric Weiner

Last year when Matt, the adult religious ed director at St. Mike's Catholic Church, asked the Wednesday morning class what they'd like to study next, the response was nearly unanimous - other religions.

St. Mike's is in Wheaton, Illinois, and Wheaton used to be called the evangelical Vatican (it now vies with Colorado Springs for that title). Wheaton is in DuPage County, which is roughly two-thirds Catholic. But the heavily Christian western suburbs of Chicago are changing. Today DuPage County, though still the home of hundreds of Christian churches, also has four Muslim mosques, six Hindu temples, an Arya Samaj center, a Buddhist temple, a Buddhist meditation center, two synagogues, and the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. These people are our neighbors, our coworkers, our children's classmates. No wonder we want to learn more about them.

Thanks to the class, I've gotten acquainted with Stephen Prothero's outstanding survey, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (2010). Prothero's thesis runs counter to the prevailing wisdom, at least in the West. No, he argues, the world's major religions are not all essentially the same. They do not all lead to the same place. They do not "make up one big, happy family." "This is a lovely sentiment," Prothero writes, "but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue." Intended to increase tolerance, such wishful thinking about other religions can actually lead to more terrorism, more war.

Prothero, who describes himself as "religiously confused," does not argue for the superiority of one religion over another. His aim is not to proselytize but to increase clarity and understanding. He does this by looking at how each religion answers the big questions: "Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become?" "Each religion," he writes, articulates
  • a problem;
  • a solution to this problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
  • an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution.
  • Choosing eight religions based on their numeric and historical importance, he then devotes separate chapters to each: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism, with "a brief coda" on atheism. The chapters can be read in any order. Last night I delved into Confucianism, about which I know almost nothing. Oops--Prothero says it's been more influential than any other religion except Islam and Christianity. In 30 pages, he summarizes its history, its teachings, and its influence (especially in the West). He also made me laugh out loud more than once. Here is a teacher who can impart an amazing amount of information while holding my attention, not an easy task.

    God Is Not One is a great introduction for people interested in other religions' history, teachings, and practices. If that's more than you want to know but you'd still like to find out how various religions might feel to a Western observer, try Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine (2011). It offers significantly less information, being almost entirely experience oriented; but it's fascinating and funny and might even inspire you to go on and read Prothero's book.

    Eric Weiner (channeling Prothero?) describes himself as a "Confusionist" and does not accept "the politically correct belief that all religions are equally valid":
    I find this extraordinary. Would we say that about anything else? Would we say that all forms of government, be it totalitarian or democracy, were equally true and good? Would we say that all corporations are equally true and good? Would we say that all toaster ovens are equally true and good? Yet when it comes to religion we jettison our powers of discernment. Saying all religions are equally true and good is like saying none are.
    He does not argue in favor of the truer and better, however, because--as a health crisis dramatically showed him--he doesn't know who his God is. So he grabs a notebook and his passport and sets off to find God.

    Interested mostly in religious experience, he spends time with touchy-feely subgroups of some of the world's major religions (and a few minor ones): Islam (Sufism) in Mendocino, CA, and Istanbul, Turkey; Buddhism in Kathmandu; Christianity (Franciscans) in the Bronx, NY; Raëlism (this would be the world's largest UFO-based religion) in Las Vegas, NV; Taoism in Wuhan, China; Wicca in Seattle, WA; Shamanism in Beltsville, MD; and--I'm guessing this is his personal favorite--Judaism (Kabbalah) in Tzfat, Israel.

    The result is a crazy melange of personal memoir, travel writing, religion, and journalism--and it works. Weiner's previous book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World (2008), made the New York Times bestseller list and collected a heap of awards. I wouldn't be surprised if Man Seeks God does the same.

    Friday, February 3, 2012

    END GAMES by Michael Dibdin and DRESSED FOR DEATH by Donna Leon

    I usually have at least two books going at once: one on my iPod to listen to while working in the kitchen, and one to carry around the house and carelessly leave wherever I happen to have been last. Last week I confused myself. My audiobook was Donna Leon's third Guido Brunetti detective story, Dressed for Death, while my tote-around-the-house book was Michael Dibdin's eleventh Aurelio Zen detective story, End Games.

    Guido Brunetti is a Venetian police commissario who, in Dressed for Death, has been asked to supervise a case in nearby Mestre because two of Mestre's ranking police officers are on vacation, one is on maternity leave, and one is laid up with a broken leg. It is August, and it is unbearably hot.

    Aurelio Zen is a Venetian-born police detective (now living in Lucca) who, in End Games, has been asked to supervise a case in distant Calabria because the local police chief has shot himself in the foot. It is August, and it is unbearably hot.

    For some reason I kept conflating the two stories.

    Both books are tightly plotted with just the right amount of local color. Both are by English-speaking authors who know Italy well. Leon was born in Montclair, New Jersey, and has lived in Venice, Italy, for the last 30 years. Dibdin, who died in 2007, was born in Wolverhampton, England, and spent four years teaching English in Perugia, Italy.

    Some of Dibdin's books are translated into Italian. Leon's books are translated into many languages, but Italian is not one of them. "They’re not translated into Italian and they won’t be," she told an interviewer. "That’s my choice because I do not want to live where I am famous." In some Italian circles, she might be infamous: her books, like Dibdin's, portray not only the Italy of opera, fine art, and la bella cucina, but also the Italy where organized crime's tentacles reach deep into government, church, and business.

    So, Italophiles, which will it be--the Leon novel about transvestites, male prostitution, corruption, and hypocrisy; or the Dibdin novel about kidnappers, treasure hunters, a computer gamer, a movie producer, and a longstanding feud?

    You won't go wrong with either author, though if you're like me, it may take a few tries before you become a fan. I read Dibdin's fifth and seventh Aurelio Zen books back in 1999 and 2000 before picking up book eleven last month; I read Leon's first Guido Brunetti book more than two years before checking out books two and three. Now I'm eager to read more, or perhaps to listen or watch: three of the Zen books have been adapted by PBS Masterpiece Mystery.

    Based on my small sample--three books out of eleven, three out of twenty--I'm guessing that if you like getting to know your detective's home, family, friends, and associates, you'll prefer Leon, while if you prefer fast-paced action, technology, and complex plotting, you'll go for Dibdin. Dressed for Death rocked along slowly like a gondola in a Venetian canal as Brunetti gathered information and came up with strategies. End Games kept me reading long past my bedtime--once I figured out who all the characters were and how they fit into the story, which was challenging at first.

    But hey, you don't have to choose. Read both. Just not at the same time.

    Thursday, February 2, 2012

    Make It Modular: quick and easy vegetarian meal ideas

    Most of the time I want food that looks good (lots of color!), tastes good (fresh ingredients!), is good for me (mostly plant based!)--and takes just a few minutes to fix. If it takes hours to prepare, I'm probably not going to eat it very often.

    This is why I tend to ignore most of the vegetarian cookbooks on my shelves. Their authors seem to think I want to spend all day hunting for odd and expensive ingredients, then bringing them home to peel them and chop them and grind them into powder with my mortar and pestle.

    Now and then that can be fun, but there's a much easier way to eat vegetarian: Go modular.

    Figure that your meal will need three basic elements:

    1. A grain. This could be made of wheat, corn, rice, barley, oats, quinoa...  Ideally, it will be a whole grain, which means it will probably be brown.

    2. A source of protein. Instead of meat or fish, go for nuts, cheese, yogurt, beans, or eggs.

    3. Fruit and/or vegetables, the more the merrier. Go for color. Go for texture. Go wild.

    You can arrange the three elements on a plate: a mound of beans, a mound of rice, a mélange of finely chopped tomatoes, avocadoes, corn, and jalapeño peppers. You can combine the grain and protein (bean burrito, cheese pizza, peanut butter sandwich) and eat a salad or a bowl of fruit on the side. You can turn your grain, protein, and vegetables into minestrone soup. Those are all good, quick meals.

    What I most like to do with the three elements, though, is stack them--grain on the bottom, protein next, fruit or vegetables on top--or mix them all up together. Here are some sample combinations:

    peanut or almond butter
    applesauce or other fruit
    lettuce, tomato
    beans, cheese
    lettuce, tomato, avocado, chili peppers
    bell peppers, tomato
    spaghetti or linguine
    parmesan cheese
    tomato sauce
    farfalle or rotini
    goat cheese
    chopped broccoli, zucchini, carrots, etc.
    waffle or pancake
    yogurt, sliced almonds
    pie crust
    eggs, milk, and cheese
    spinach or broccoli
    chopped walnuts
    chopped broccoli

    Three elements--that's all you absolutely need, though you'll probably want to accessorize. Add a little salt and pepper or herbs or spices or onion or garlic or lemon juice or vinegar or anything likely to make your meal tastier. Experiment. Make up your own combinations based on whatever's in season or in your refrigerator. By late spring, you'll be an accomplished vegetarian cook. And then the farmers' markets will open and the fun will really begin.