Saturday, December 12, 2015

Why single-payer healthcare funding may not work in America

Of course Obamacare is failing.

Not quite as badly as No-Obamacare was failing, so I'm still glad it exists. It's a necessary stopgap until we find a system that actually works.

But you know what? Single-payer healthcare will fail just as badly.

In 2015, U.S. spending is projected to hit $10,000.
Yes, I know that single-payer healthcare systems succeed in other developed nations. I also know that competitive insurance-based healthcare systems succeed elsewhere. But neither system will succeed in the United States, because the U.S. is the only nation on earth that refuses to keep healthcare spending from spiraling out of control. If the cost remains the same, it doesn't matter who's paying. In the long run, we all are.

Many Americans believe that a free market would drive spending down, but the American healthcare mishmash (both before and after Obamacare) is definitely not a free market. Just try finding out what a procedure is going to cost so you can choose the least expensive provider. Even the providers have no idea until they've already signed you up and run your insurance numbers. If you're computer literate and have lots of time and patience, it's possible to get approximate prices for prescription drugs, but what can consumers do about profiteers like the infamous Martin Shrekli?

And anyway, when you're being rushed to Emergency is no time to comparative shop.

Many in the general public scream "Rationing!" whenever any limitation to healthcare is suggested, no matter how sensible it may be (refusing to fund drugs with no proven benefits, for example, or allowing futile, often painful, but expensive procedures for people in the last stages of dying). It's frustrating when we grow up and realize that we can't all have everything we want, but it's rational to make sure that, when something (like money for healthcare) is in short supply, it's apportioned wisely for the common good. Americans are not rational about rationing.

Congress, as the right arm of lobbyists, has no interest in keeping healthcare affordable. They would not pass either George W. Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan or Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act until all threat of price caps was removed. Medicare is not even allowed to negotiate drug prices.

Well, folks,
  • if consumers are unable to do comparative shopping;
  • if we all believe we have a divine right to any healthcare that's available, no matter how expensive or ineffective it may be;
  • if we will not allow our healthcare payers to set price ceilings or negotiate lower prices;
  • and if our lawmakers continue to favor the lobbies who fund them rather than the people who elect them;
of course our healthcare system will fail.

It will fail millions of people who cannot afford the treatment they need. It will fail millions who pay high prices for treatment they don't need. It is failing all of us, since we pay twice as much for healthcare as we would pay in other developed countries.

Until we find an effective way to limit healthcare spending, American healthcare will continue to fail--whether it is funded by private individuals, by competing insurance companies, or by a single payer.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A nonpartisan plea to American candidates, pundits, political marketers, and my Facebook friends

Please don't tell me what will work in 2016 and beyond unless you also show me what has worked in previous years, or what is working right now in other countries.

Take healthcare, for example. Don't tell me what will work in some theoretical universe. Show me what is already working in the universe we live in. It's not hard to find information about other countries' approaches, costs, successes, failures, and overall health results. If you want to change our current system of healthcare--and I think we all agree that changes are necessary--how about basing your recommendations on some system that is already more successful than our own? 

Or consider taxes. Forget ideology. Look at our own history. When the highest earners paid a lot more in taxes, did business prosper or lag? When the trickle-down theory became popular, did inequality increase or decrease? When taxes were lowered, did we find it easier or harder to pay for things we value like roads, bridges, and veterans' benefits? When was the average American most prosperous? What was the tax structure then?

Most of us want Social Security to thrive, though we have different proposals for how this should be achieved. To those who think the system should be privatized: how about showing us what happened to pensions when they were largely privatized a couple of decades ago? Who benefited? Who lost out? To those who think earned income over $118,500 should be taxed, how do other developed countries take care of their retirees? Are any of their systems more effective than ours?

Or how about the minimum wage? We all want people to be able to find work that will support themselves and their families. Did American businesses thrive or languish when our minimum wage was proportionately much higher than it is now? Was poverty more or less widespread? Many other developed countries have a minimum wage that is higher than ours. Has this helped or hurt their economies? Has it helped or hurt job-seekers?

Or gun control. Are we safer when citizens are armed, or when they are not? What has happened in countries that have restricted gun ownership? How do our homicide and suicide rates compare to those of countries who regulate firearms more strictly than we do? What proportion of our homicides and suicides are gun related? Do countries that restrict firearms have a large number of criminals who use them anyway? If not, how do they prevent this?

Or abortion, a contentious subject if ever there was one. Instead of positing a paradise (for either conservatives or liberals) where no unwanted child is ever conceived, how about looking at what actually reduces the abortion rate? Which countries have a lower abortion rate than ours? Which ones achieve this without increasing maternal death from unsafe abortions? What policies and practices enable women in the more successful countries to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to raise the children they have conceived?

Or foreign policy, or civil rights, or regulation of financial institutions, or immigration, or education, or the environment, or poverty, or ...

None of these issues are new to Americans. We have dealt with all of them before--sometimes with good results, sometimes not. Why aren't we paying more attention to what has worked, and what has not worked, in the past?

And none of these issues are unique to Americans. Other countries also deal with healthcare, taxes, pensions, wages, firearms, abortion, and a host of other concerns. We can see where they are succeeding and where they are failing. Why aren't we paying more attention to what works, and what does not work, elsewhere?

I'm tired of exhausted ideologies. I'm tired of tear-jerking anecdotes about individuals who illustrate your point of view, or mine (it is easy to find heartwarming or infuriating stories that bolster opposite viewpoints on every one of the issues listed here, but they prove nothing). I want real-life, broad-scale examples from history or from other countries, well supported by reliable data.

The information is readily available. If you want my vote, or my respect for your opinion, inform yourself--and then show me what works. In the real world. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Love stories for literati: romances my book-loving friends admit reading

[Forget stereotypical bodice-rippers.
This is the book that got the most
votes from my friends.]
If you wanted to read a romance novel, my friends might not be the first people you'd turn to for recommendations. I've been an English teacher and a book editor, and the people I know tend to have high brows (considerably higher than mine); many of them actually enjoy literary fiction.

Yet when I--inspired by romance novelist Kristan Higgins's eloquent defense of her chosen genre in Publishers Weekly--wanted to branch out and read a romance, I asked my Facebook friends anyway, even though I feared they would limit their suggestions to Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

They didn't.

Here is a list of romances, mostly series, recommended by an assortment of bibliophiles including several published writers, some editors, a publisher, a linguist, a bookstore assistant and other dedicated bookworms. "I read them with NO apology," wrote a multilingual physician.
Contemporary
Martin, Deirdre: New York Blades series (Hip Check)
Nicholls, David: One Day
Phillips, Susan Elizabeth: Chicago Star series
Roberts, Nora: Bride Quartet series

Fantasy
Harkness, Deborah: All Souls trilogy

Historical
Bourne, Joanna: Spymaster series (The Spymaster’s Lady or The Forbidden Rose)
Gabaldon, Diana: Outlander series, Lord John Grey series
Heyer, Georgette: Regency Romances series (Frederica or The Corinthian)
James, Eloisa: Desperate Duchesses series (Three Weeks with Lady X)
MacKenzie, Sally: The Naked … series (The Naked Earl)
Quinn, Julia: Bridgerton series

Inspirational
Heitzmann, Kristen: A Rush of Wings Series (The Still of Night)
Marshall, Catherine: Christy

Suspense
Brockmann, Suzanne: Troubleshooters series (The Defiant Hero)
If you'd like a longer list that includes some of these books as well as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, a retired English teacher recommends that you check out NPR's "Happily Ever After: 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances."

Friday, August 28, 2015

THE BEST MAN by Kristan Higgins

Last week I read an article by romance novelist Kristan Higgins, who is understandably tired of people rejecting her chosen genre without having read a single example of it.

"The categorical dismissal of the most-read genre in the world reveals ignorance, not intellectual superiority," she wrote. "This is a billion-dollar industry, and it’s not built on vapidity and cliché. It exists and thrives because romance authors offer readers an emotional experience that mirrors an elemental desire in life: to find a constant and loving companion; to become our best selves; to forgive our mistakes of the past and learn from them."

I stood convicted: I had never read a romance novel, at least not of the Harlequin variety, and I had no interest in doing so. And yet romance novels, in her description, sounded a lot like the kind of books I'm always looking for. "Our books have happy endings, yes," she wrote. "Our books affirm faith in humanity and preach the goodness and courage of the ordinary heart. We make our readers laugh, we make them cry, and we affirm our belief in the enduring, uplifting power of love. I fail to see the problem here."

I decided to read a romance.

So of course I asked my hundreds of Facebook friends to help me find a good one, and they cheerfully provided an avalanche of recommendations (I've listed them here)--so many, in fact, that I had no idea where to start.

Until it occurred to me that the obvious place to start was with Kristan Higgins herself. Her books' covers looked less embarrassing than most, and she has a series about a winery. I picked The Best Man, book 1 of the Blue Heron winery series, a genuine Harlequin romance.

It wasn't bad.

Faith Holland, spectacularly jilted at the altar, flees upstate New York for San Francisco and makes a career for herself (in an improbably short time) as a landscape designer. But her sister, worried about their father's girlfriend, summons her home, and she suddenly comes face to face with the man who had a lot to do with spoiling her wedding.

OK, you already know how it's going to end, don't you. But if (like me) you are unfamiliar with contemporary romances, you may be surprised (as I was) by the narrator's kicky style, by the abundant laugh-out-loud scenes, and by the numerous chapters told from the guy's viewpoint. In addition, there are a number of mostly funny subplots involving squabbling octogenarians, a sexting middle-aged couple, feckless adolescents, neurotic inhabitants of Faith's home town, totally unsuitable romantic interests... Hey, this book is almost chick-lit, and I'm a big fan of Jennifer Weiner.

But it isn't quite chick-lit. 

Like Weiner's heroines, Faith is a bit overweight, or at least thinks she is. She's about 30 years old, and her romantic life is a mess. Her pajamas are festooned with tiny Dalmatians. Those touches of realism are a plus for Higgins's readers, who can no doubt identify with Faith more easily than with, say, Wonder Woman.

But Higgins also adheres to what I assume are romance conventions that most chick-lit authors mercifully avoid. Her hero, for example, emanates conventional masculinity--washboard abs, hard muscles, a career in both the military (Afghanistan!) and the police force--and Higgins has a hard time not mentioning this every time he walks into a room (this man has "tanned, smooth, muscular forearm[s]" with "little golden hairs" that catch the light!).

There's no graphic sex, but every encounter between hero and heroine ends in either bickering (think Katharine Hepburn movies) or in tingling body parts ("the hot golden feeling was stronger now, pulsing hard"). The hero is obsessed with Faith's gorgeous or mighty "rack," as he frequently refers to her abundant endowment (she, on the other hand, calls it her "boobage"). The attraction between these two is more sexual than romantic, and they are so busy avoiding or sleeping with each other that it's hard to tell if they have common interests.

Unfortunately, the ending isn't likely to be happy.

Oh yes, the girl gets the guy. But this marriage, I'm afraid, is not going to work out. Our hero suffers from various emotional traumas that he does not want to talk about. He opens up slightly, since that seems to be a requirement for keeping Faith; but once they're married, she can probably forget about further revelations. He's not the kind of guy who prizes vulnerability.

Her ex, however, is exactly that kind of guy, and our hero may get jealous if Faith starts spending her evenings with him.

On the other hand, will he even know? Faith has a rather magical career that seems not to require either her physical presence or a great deal of her time, though she's always getting high-level commissions. But as Gilbert & Sullivan pointed out, "When constabulary's duty's to be done, / A policeman's lot is not a happy one." Our hero will continue to work around the clock, which may have something to do with why his first marriage broke up (even if Higgins makes it appear to have been entirely the ex-wife's fault).

When it occurs to Faith that she's married to a guy who is rarely home and refuses to share his feelings, she may stop experiencing the "rush of molten gold [flowing] through her limbs, heavy and electric." And if, as it seems, they have little else in common, what happens to the marriage then?
_____________________________

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, though I'm in no hurry to read another romance: the passages intended to be erotic were often unintentionally funny, and the flowing molten gold tended to disrupt the story's flow. I'm glad Higgins spared us the details of the nightly lovefests, but I wish there had been some indication that the man who used to bonk the town slut donned a condom for subsequent couplings, and that the woman who hadn't had any sex for several years was nevertheless using an effective contraceptive.

I was just a little worried that a powerfully built man with four tours of duty in Afghanistan (that he didn't like to talk about), several years as a policeman, and a predilection for "doing" Faith against the wall just might snap someday and abuse his wife or kids.

And, being a retired editor, I really wished Higgins's human characters would stop barking.

Still, finding a life companion, becoming our best selves, learning from mistakes, believing in human goodness and courage and "the enduring, uplifting power of love"--these are indeed good things. Maybe some of Higgins's 13 other books feature characters who achieve these ends without risking their physical or emotional health. Whether or not I ever find out, I wish the fictional Faith Holland the best, and I hope her talented, award-winning, oft-translated, and very popular author will soon break out of the romance mold and write a first-rate, life-affirming novel.

Not because romances are bad, but because Higgins could do better.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How to restore the glories of the Old South


I have an idea for people who value their region's heritage so much that they continue to wave what they think is the Confederate flag (though it is actually the battle flag of Northern Virginia).

I suggest that they volunteer to be slaves. For life.

Fact: The 19th-century Southern way of life would have been impossible without enslaved people.

Fact: Just waving a flag will not bring back the shady verandahs, the mint julep breakfasts, and the boundless cotton fields enjoyed by rich white people. Neither will it bring back the advantages enjoyed by poor white people thanks to the vast enslaved class that was much worse off than they were (and if you can't imagine what those advantages might have been, read this article written by a Jefferson Davis supporter in 1861).

Probability: The one thing that could bring back that romantic bygone era would be if, once again, some 39% of the population were enslaved (that's the average percentage of enslaved people in the Confederate states).

Proposal: Let's recognize that no one values personal liberty as much as Southerners do. And let's take their word that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism. Let's encourage true Confederate patriots, especially white folks who are not racists, to volunteer to work in the fields from sunrise to sunset. There will be no pay, of course, and no bothersome education; but food, lodging, and two sets of work clothes per year will be provided. And the South will rise again.

I realize that the above photo was taken in Oklahoma, which was not a state during the time of the Confederacy. In fact, Oklahoma had a lower percentage of slaves than did the actual Confederate states--perhaps only 14%. So, to be fair, only 14% of Oklahomans will need to volunteer for slavery in order to bring back the halcyon days of yore--546,000 of their 3.9 million inhabitants should do the trick. It won't be hard to find that many volunteers, will it?

Admittedly, it may be harder to persuade 57% of South Carolinians to sign up. To match their percentage of slaves in 1860, they would need 2.75 million volunteers today--but surely nostalgia for the good ole days will eventually move the hearts of the good ole boys, and they'll do the right thing, don't you think?

But wait: as elegant as my proposal appears, it might not work. South Carolina has removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas have outlawed Confederate flags on state-issued license plates. (So has my adopted state, Maryland, which--though a Union state because federal troops forced it to be--enslaved 13% of its people in 1860). Other states are talking seriously about removing Confederate symbols.

Maybe there aren't enough Confederate flag-wavers to make voluntary slavery work. Maybe the apparently omnipresent flag-wavers are really just a few noisy, annoying people who risk giving millions of really nice Southerners--some of whom I'm closely related to--a bad name. Still, I'm sure that any flag-wavers who do volunteer to become slaves will have no trouble finding masters. And I'm also sure that once their masters take measures to keep them off the streets, the South will be an even lovelier place.
__________________________________

Here's a chart showing the percentage of enslaved people in the 11 Confederate states one year before they joined the Confederacy (I adapted it from 1860 census figures). The first 6 states to join the Confederacy were the 6 with the highest percentage of slaves. The last state to join had the lowest percentage. Once a state's percentage of slaves dropped below 25%, it didn't join at all.




By the way, I'm not accepting any comments, pro or con, for this post. I do hope all my readers recognize satire when they see it.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler

My review of A Spool of Blue Thread was published in the April 29, 2015, issue of The Christian Century. I especially enjoyed that novel because I read it just a few months after moving to a Baltimore house only a few minutes' drive from the house in the story. I also enjoyed it because it is about aging parents and their adult children; over the last 25 years I have mysteriously shifted from one category to the other. And, of course, I enjoyed it because it is by Anne Tyler.

The review is behind a paywall, so I'm reproducing it here. If you want to read more of my Christian Century reviews, some 15 or 20 are available (to subscribers only, alas) at their website. My most recent review, of The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, appeared in the June 29 issue. Try the link--it may not be hidden behind the paywall yet.


________________________________________

Anne Tyler’s 20th novel is, like her previous 19, about a mildly dysfunctional Baltimore family of loyal yet infuriating people who love one another, but not always helpfully. It is about youth and age, parents and children, brothers and sisters, ambitions and disappointments. It is about four generations of the Whitshank family and the house they inhabit for some 70 years. Most of all it is about home.

 In the opening scene, Red Whitshank is on the phone with his third child and elder son, Denny, who has just announced that he is gay. A few weeks later Red and his wife, Abby, learn—not from Denny—that he has withdrawn from college.
Denny . . . had withdrawn from the family years ago. What other middle-class American teenager lived the way he did—flitting around the country like a vagrant, completely out of his parents’ control, getting in touch just sporadically and neglecting whenever possible to give them any means of getting in touch with him? How had things come to such a pass? They certainly hadn’t allowed the other children to behave this way. Red and Abby looked at each other for a long, despairing moment.
Fast forward a couple of decades. The other children still live close to home. Amanda is an attorney; Jeanne and Stem work in their father’s construction business. All three are married with children. Denny, on the other hand, has had a succession of short-lived jobs. Apparently not gay after all—his parents can’t bring themselves to inquire—he has a failed marriage and a daughter who only occasionally joins family get-togethers in Baltimore. Red and Abby are still fretting about him.

And then the family dynamics begin to shift. Red, now in his midseventies, has a heart attack. His hearing deteriorates. Abby sometimes blanks out. She starts calling the dog Clarence after a dog that died long ago. At one point she wanders outside in her nightgown and gets lost. The children aren’t sure how to respond: after all, “Abby’s ‘usual’ was fairly scatty. Who could say how much of this behavior was simply Abby being Abby?”

Yet clearly something is amiss, and something must be done. Should Abby and Red downsize? Should they hire help with their daily tasks? Should one of the children move in with them—and if so, which one? And is anybody paying attention to what Abby and Red themselves want?

The caregiving dilemma allows festering resentments to surface. The long-standing push-pull relationship between Abby, “so intrusive, so sure of her welcome, so utterly lacking in self-consciousness,” and Denny, her beloved but baffling prodigal son, has set the stage for intense sibling rivalry to erupt whenever major decisions must be made. Over and over, the two older sisters and the younger brother wonder: Why, when we have stayed nearby and minded the family business, does Denny get all the attention? Why does nobody kill a fatted calf for us? At the same time Denny feels unwanted and disrespected, not only by his siblings but also by his parents. And then tragedy strikes.

A Spool of Blue Thread could have been a novel about the trials of the sandwich generation or the loneliness of old age. Tyler, however, inserts lengthy backstories that distract from what appears to be the main story. “In the Whitshank family, two stories had traveled down through the generations. These stories were viewed as quintessential—as defining, in some way.”

The first story is about how Red’s sister, Merrick, contrived to marry her best friend’s very wealthy fiancé. The second is about how Red and Merrick’s father, Junior, bootstrapped his way out of a three-room cabin in West Virginia, eventually building a thriving business and the house of his dreams in one of Baltimore’s most prestigious neighborhoods. Patience, Tyler writes, “was what the Whitshanks imagined to be the theme of their two stories—patiently lying in wait for what they believed should come to them.” Envy, she suggests, might be a more accurate theme. Or disappointment, because neither Merrick nor Junior finds lasting happiness in what they have acquired.

Abby tells a third story, about the day she fell in love with Red. She tells the story often, always beginning with the same words: “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning.” Her story is not about patience or envy, but rather about seeing the goodness in an ordinary young man she has known for years. Her story leads to many complications, but never to disappointment: Abby is fundamentally happy. For some reason the Whitshank family does not see her story, along with the two others, as defining.

In Tyler’s books, character is always more important than plot. That doesn’t mean that A Spool of Blue Thread has no plot. Each chapter could, with minor adaptation, be a well-plotted short story on its own, and by the end of the book the longest story—that of the aging parents and their children—is pretty well wrapped up, though book groups will still have plenty of opportunity to debate what’s likely to happen next.

Still, the sudden shift two-thirds of the way through the book from story to backstory, and then to even further backstory, is jarring. At first I thought the book would have been stronger without those interjections, interesting though they were. And then I realized that the book is not just about the Whitshank family; it is also about the house on Bouton Road. Lovingly built by Junior, loved by Abby, inherited by Red, lived in or visited by every Whitshank since 1942, the house becomes a metaphor for the family it shelters. It is a sacramental house, an outward and visible sign of the home within—a place that makes home real, even though each family member has a vision of home that differs from or even conflicts with the vision of other family members.

It is at the end of chapter 4 that Abby begins telling her familiar love story:
On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and children calling, “Safe! I’m safe!”
In spite of misunderstandings, irritations, rivalries, and even grief, they are—for a time at least—safe at home.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

To my SDA friends on the eve of the GC vote on women's ordination

[Norval F. Pease, 1972]
As you prepare for what may well be a watershed decision on women's ordination, I would like to tell you a story. I think it happened in 1972.

My husband was a seminary student at Andrews University. My father, Norval F. Pease,* was a religion professor at Loma Linda University.

My father had a short sabbatical, and my parents came back to Andrews to be near us and to enjoy their two baby grandchildren. One Sabbath afternoon we went to visit our dear friend Hedy Jemison.**

Now Mrs. J was a good and conscientious woman, but flexibility was not her strong point. And my father was a loyal and conservative SDA, but fundamentalism did not appeal to him. For some reason, that Sabbath afternoon the topic of conversation switched to women's ordination. Mrs. J, not surprisingly, was against it.

My father, with a twinkle in his eye, said, "I agree with you that women should not campaign to be ordained." He paused for that to sink in, then continued: "I think men should campaign in favor of women's ordination."

At that point Mrs. J excused herself to refresh our drinks.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that if my father were alive today, he would go to General Conference, and if he were a delegate, he would vote in favor of women's ordination.
______________________________

*For those who don't remember my father: he had also been, among other things, a pastor, a religion teacher at the College of Medical Evangelists, president of La Sierra College, chairman of the department of applied theology at the Adventist seminary, chairman of the Loma Linda University religion department, and the widely read author of books such as By Faith Alone and And Worship Him.

**For those who don't remember Mrs. J: she was associate director of the White Estate at Andrews University in the 1970s and 80s.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

CSA week 3: 8 vegetables, easier prep, mostly tasty meals

This is what came in
my CSA basket Wednesday.
This is what it looked like.


This is what I did - or am going to do - with it.

  • The green leaf lettuce went into two hamburger buns, two side salads, and two dinner salads.
  • The radishes went in a baggie, with salt, to my neighborhood playground. My daughter ate them as we watched her children play.
  • The broccoli is in my refrigerator's vegetable drawer. There's a good chance we'll eat it tonight, with salmon.
  • The beets, wrapped in aluminum foil, went into the oven at 400 degrees for an hour. After spending a day in the refrigerator, they joined the green leaf lettuce, a couple of oranges, some goat cheese, and a few slices of red onion in a dinner salad.
  • The beet greens are likely to show up under tonight's salmon, after I've chopped them and wilted them in olive oil.
  • The kale stared at me defiantly until I repeated the process I described last week. We always have potlucks to go to. And actually, the kale bread is so good that I'm making a little extra so we'll have some at home too.
  • The romaine is in the vegetable drawer waiting for an avocado to ripen. It will soon join a black bean / cheese / bell pepper / chopped tomato / sliced avocado salad.
  • The arugula threatened to get even more bitter if I didn't use it immediately. I found a salad recipe in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, a book you should own if you frequent farmers' markets or subscribe to a CSA, and made the salad the day the kale arrived. If you're desperate to use up some arugula, you don't have to wait to buy the book: the recipe is here.
  • The zucchini is with the romaine and the broccoli in the vegetable crisper. I'm planning to dice it, sauté it lightly, and toss it in pasta, probably rotini, with diced roma tomatoes and last week's garlic scape pesto.
Whew. I think it will all be used up by next Wednesday, when the next CSA portion arrives.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Kale-cheese bread; or, taming the green-leafed monster


This is me, cowering behind this week's allotment of kale.
I do not like kale, cooked or raw.
I do not like to have to gnaw
On greens so tough you need a saw
To cut them, or they break your jaw.
I would not like them here or there,
I would not like them anywhere.

But I don't like to throw things out, either. It occurred to me that bread can improve almost anything, and cheese can improve it still more. So I tried this experiment.


KALE-CHEESE BREAD: SHORT VERSION
  • Make a filling of cooked chopped kale, cheese, egg, onion, and garlic.
  • Make dough for French bread.
  • Spread the filling on the dough, roll lengthwise, and bake.
  • Cool before slicing.

KALE-CHEESE BREAD: PAINSTAKINGLY DETAILED VERSION

1. Fix the kale. I washed mine, removed the hard stems, chopped the leaves into smaller pieces, and simmered it, uncovered, in water. When most of the cooking liquid had cooked down and the kale was soft enough to eat, I drained the remaining liquid, stirred in maybe half a cup of my awesome leftover garlic scape pesto for flavor, and spun the greens in the food processor until they were finely chopped, though not yet a paste.

(There are lots of ways to prepare kale. You could also sauté it in olive oil with onion and garlic, adding liquid and simmering it for awhile if the sauté alone doesn't get it soft enough. Different kinds of kale respond to different treatment. Just cook your kale one way or another until it's edible, if not tasty.)

2. Make the filling. Grate about 6 oz of cheese: Cheddar, Gruyère, Emmenthaler, Comté, Manchego ... take your pick. Stir it, plus one beaten egg, into the kale slurry (or give the mixture a short whirl in your food processor). Set aside.

3. Make bread dough. Easiest way in the world: Put 1 lb white bread flour, 2 tsp salt, and 1 1/2 tsp rapid-rise yeast in the food processor. Spin for 5 seconds. While it's still spinning, pour 1 1/3 C warm water into the tube with a little hole in it, so it is added in a small steady stream. Spin for 30 more seconds. Pour a little olive oil into a medium-sized mixing bowl and use your hands to slosh it up the sides. Put the bread dough in it, turning it several times so it's covered with oil. Cover with plastic wrap or a dish towel and put it in a warm place for 2 hours or more to rise. (Tasty variation: instead of using 1 lb flour, use 14 oz flour and 2 oz corn meal or polenta.)

4. Shape the dough into a rectangle. Sprinkle a little flour on your countertop and work the dough into approximately this shape. (The dough in the picture is approximately 12" by 15".) If the dough is too elastic to shape, wait another 15 minutes and try again.


5. Spread the filling on the dough. Leave a 1" border all around.


6. Roll the dough and filling lengthwise. Seal the ends and bottom by pinching the dough together. Now you have a nice loaf, ready to bake. Put it on a cookie sheet or in a French bread pan. Let it rise for an hour.


7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Squirt water into the oven. Put the bread in. Squirt more water. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes.


Uh oh. Why did the filling leak out the sides? Why does the bread feel fragile? Is this going to be a grand disaster? Will it fall apart when I slice it? Will the bread get soggy? Will I have to throw it out and sneak in to the potluck and pretend I brought something? 

8. Relax. Let the bread cool. Wrap it in aluminum foil and refrigerate it overnight.

9. Slice and serve.


Now then, that wasn't so bad, was it?
In fact, I took this bread to the church potluck, and even avowed kale-haters said they loved it. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Chard: The gateway green

If you've been following my CSA posts, you know that this week's delivery flummoxed me. But things are turning out okay. Thursday night I made a salad that included
  • the romaine lettuce; 
  • the turnips and the kohlrabies (which I sliced thin and roasted); 
  • garbanzos marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic scape pesto; 
  • thin sliced tiny yellow bell peppers; 
  • and a diced roma tomato. 
It wasn't bad.


Last night I fixed the chard. Chard is not one of your giant gnarly greens. It's a little crisper than spinach and has a slightly sweeter flavor. It's worth trying even if you aren't a fan of the more serious greens such as kale, collards, or mustard greens.


I washed the leaves, removed the largest stems, and tore the chard into smaller pieces. You can eat the stems if you like a bit of body in your greens, though it's a good idea to cook them for at least five minutes before adding the leaves.


I cooked the chard uncovered in about a cup of vegetable broth, stirring frequently. In about 20 minutes, it was soft enough to eat. Toward the end, I added a spoonful of garlic scape pesto for flavor (that is seriously good stuff!). The whole pile of leaves cooked down to two large servings!


I served the chard with Trader Joe's Pizza Greco-Roman, one of the tastiest frozen pizzas you can buy.

And now all I have to face are the enormous lacinato kale leaves and the second installment of garlic scapes. I'm going to make more garlic scape pesto in just a minute, and I'm working on the kale. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Redeeming mustard greens


[Today's CSA portion. It will be a very green week.]
I recognized the lettuces, the kale, the turnips, the kohlrabies, the chard, and even the garlic scapes. But what was that pile of disparate weeds in the middle? Some looked like oak leaves. Some were fairly large and looked like chard. Some were small and ragged. Most were green but some were almost black. The CSA list identified them as "assorted mustard greens." I had my doubts. And then I tasted one, and doubt turned to despair.

Well, I paid for those weeds, and I figured I had to do something with them. Amazingly, it worked.

Here's what I did. It's hardly a recipe for you to follow, because you don't have my leftovers. But perhaps it will save you from despair some evening when you have more nasty greens than you can manage (they don't have to be mustard greens). Your own leftovers will be fine.

1. Wash the greens and tear them into smaller pieces. Put them in a large pot. Cover with liquid: I used a combination of water and vegetable stock.

2. Bring the greens and liquid to a boil. Do not cover the pot. Let them boil, uncovered, until the greens are soft enough to eat. Mine were ready in about 15 minutes (some tougher greens could take up to an hour).

3. Let the greens cool for 30 to 60 minutes.

[Scary green slurry]
4. Drain the greens, reserving the liquid. Put the greens in a blender. Add enough liquid to cover. (You will probably have to do this in more than one batch.) Whiz the mixture until it's smooth. If it's thicker than you like your soup, add more liquid and whiz again. Hint: save the leftover liquid to use the next time you have to transform weeds into something edible.

Intermission: At this point I looked in my refrigerator and found a leftover serving of chard with pancetta (diced bacon). I dumped it in the blender with the soup and whizzed it all again. I then looked in the refrigerator again and found garlic scape pesto left over from last week. I added a spoonful and whizzed yet again. The pesto made a big difference to the flavor. 

Recommendation: Look in your refrigerator or pantry or spice rack or herb garden and think about what might improve the flavor of your watery green slurry (garlic usually helps). Give it a try.

5. Taste. I put a few spoonsful into a small bowl and microwaved it for a few seconds. I then stirred in a small spoonful of sour cream - the real stuff, not the imitation low-fat stuff that should really call itself something else.

WOW! It's a miracle! The hideous, bitter, menacing mustard greens had turned into a really delicious soup!

OK, I guess if mustard greens can be redeemed, so can lacinato (dinosaur) kale, and possibly even turnips. I'll get back to you.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Kickin' collard greens (to the curb)

I confess: I panic when I encounter large, leathery leaves that look like they could have been plucked from prehistoric bats.
This is a collard leaf on a sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper.
And yet I know people who truly love kale and collard greens and other such aberrations. Some of these people are even related to me. Besides, collard greens are reputed to be exceptionally nutritious. And anyway, my CSA portion included a hefty handful of them, so--naturally--I asked Google what to do.

I liked the name of this recipe--Kickin' Collard Greens--and it didn't look too challenging, as long as I wasn't planning to go anywhere for a couple of hours.  I modified it to fit what I had in my kitchen, so that I actually used about 2 tsp olive oil; 2 oz pancetta; half of a very large onion; 3 small cloves garlic; 1/2 tsp salt (possibly more than was needed, as it turned out); 1/2 tsp pepper; 2 cups vegetable broth; 1 pinch red pepper flakes; and maybe 11 oz collard greens, much of the stem removed, cut into small pieces.

This is 11 oz of collard greens cut into smallish pieces.
First I washed, trimmed, and cut the greens. I used scissors, since the greens were a bit tough for a knife. Then I followed the recipe's directions for what to add when.

I browned the pancetta...
and added onions and garlic.
I wilted the collard greens...
and cooked the livin' daylights out of them.
I seasoned them and simmered them in vegetable broth, covered, for close to an hour before they seemed tender enough to eat. There was still plenty of liquid in the pan, so I raised the heat and reduced it a bit. Finally the collard greens were ready to serve.

Dinner is served:
collard greens with roasted sea scallops
in a tomato/onion/basil coulis.
OK, dinner was better than I expected (I hadn't expected to enjoy the scallops). But I really didn't want to face the leftover half of the collard greens another night. So I put it in the blender, added water, spun it madly, heated it, added cream, divided it between two bowls, sprinkled it with chopped chives and pepper, and ended up with this:

Cream of collard greens soup
"This is the best possible way to fix collard greens," said my husband after his first mouthful. He may have been damning with faint praise.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Great Scape: or, what to do with yet another weird CSA vegetable

This is a garlic scape.
It is the stem of the garlic flower. Farmers often cut it off so that the garlic bulb, the papery-covered thing we buy in little red-net packages at Trader Joe's, will grow bigger. I don't know what most farmers do with the scapes. I had never met a scape until last Wednesday.

My CSA portion included a fistful of scapes. Naturally I turned to Google, since I had no idea what to do with them, and I found "The Crisper Whisperer: 7 Things To Do with Garlic Scapes." Bookmark that link: you will need it, should you ever encounter a garlic scape.

I decided to make garlic scape pesto. I immediately encountered a problem, though: how much of each scape should I use? See that slight pale protrusion about a third of the way in, with its long tapering tip? Is that the flower? Is it the part to use? Should I use only the part that looks like a green onion? Or should I use both?

Only way to find out: eat some. OK, the long pointy ends of my scapes were not very chewable. The green tubes, were, however. And yowie! Did they ever assert themselves!

These are the ends I cut off and discarded.
So I cut off the flower ends, and then I took the long green tubes and chopped them into short pieces. I put the chopped-up scapes into my food processor along with the other ingredients the pesto recipe calls for (do check the link) and chopped everything further before adding the olive oil in a slow stream.

This is the finished garlic-scape pesto.
Cyberspace does video and audio really well, but this pesto must be tasted to be believed. One sample taste and I was a true believer. I stirred about 1/3 of the pesto into 4 ounces of cooked spaghetti and served it for dinner, along with leftover Brussels sprouts mixed with leftover marinated garbanzos (see yesterday's post) and tiny sliced bell peppers for color.

This was dinner.
If it looks good to you, I'm sorry: I have no idea where you'll find garlic scapes. But do start looking immediately. They must be harvested young, in late spring.

Oh, and one small caveat: Remember that this is garlic. If you eat it, probably everyone else in your household should too. Not that it will be hard to persuade them.

Friday, June 12, 2015

But what will you do with the kohlrabi?


That's what several of my friends wondered when I posted this picture on Facebook. It shows the contents of this season's first delivery from One Straw Farm's CSA (community-supported agriculture) program.

This is the second time I've signed up with a CSA. You pay a local farmer an agreed-upon fee up front, and then you get weekly assortments of incredibly fresh food throughout the entire growing season. One big plus is that you get to try foods you probably wouldn't have bought (or even seen) at the grocery store. One big minus is that you may not like some of the foods you get.

I had no idea what a kohlrabi (kohlrabus?) tastes like. (It's the bulbous thing on the right. There are two of them.)

More knowledgeable friends suggested roasting them and serving them with a sauce, or shredding or slicing them and using them in a salad. I like salads. Not only because they taste good, but also because I can put just about anything in them. Here's what I put in last night's salad.


1. Several hours before dinner, I made a salad dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, chopped chives, minced garlic, and a little salt. I then opened a can of garbanzos, rinsed and drained them, and set them to marinate in the salad dressing.


2. I prepared the red-leaf lettuce that I got from my CSA. I washed it, spun it, tore it into bite-sized pieces, and drained it further on paper towels. Eventually I put some of it in this bowl.


3. Next, having no idea what I was doing, I attacked the kohlrabies (yes, that is the plural: I looked it up). I removed the leaves (I hear they are edible, but I didn't want to get carried away). I sliced each bulb as fine as I could with my large chef's knife. I took a smaller knife and removed the outer rind from each slice. I noticed that some slices were woody, and I either removed the woody core or discarded those slices. I cut the slices into little triangles. I ate a few triangles to see what I was getting into. They tasted sweet and spicy with a slightly bitter undertone; they felt like crisp apples or jicama.


4. Since some small bell peppers in my refrigerator had no plans for the evening, I sliced half a dozen of them and popped them under the broiler until a few of them started to blacken.

I then dumped the garbanzos and dressing, kohlrabi slices, and slightly blackened peppers onto the lettuce and used my hands to toss them.

Finally, I divided the salad between two pasta bowls ...


5. ... and topped each salad with about half an ounce of shaved Parmesan cheese.


6. Et voilà - dinner for two!

The kohlrabi slices were delicious. Their flavor was mild, but they added a little zing. Their crunchy texture worked well with the softer lettuce, garbanzos, and peppers. If I get more kohlrabies next time, I'll try to slice them thinner. The food processor slicing blade might work, or a mandoline slicer.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

SENSE & SENSIBILITY by Joanna Trollope and EMMA by Alexander McCall Smith

As long as Jane Austen fans don't take themselves too seriously, they may find themselves enjoying books in The Austen Project--rewrites and updates by best-selling novelists of all six Austen novels. So far three have been published:

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, British author of contemporary and historical fiction

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish author of many series including The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, Scottish author of 27 crime novels (so far)

Still in preparation is Pride & Prejudice by American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, and still to be assigned are Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

I've read the first two.

I always enjoy Joanna Trollope's domestic adventures of mildly troubled middle-class English suburbanites, so I looked forward to her rewrite of Sense & Sensibility. So did the book group at my church. We were somewhat disappointed.

The assignment is admittedly difficult: how do you bring people living with 19th-century inheritance laws and outdated courtship practices into the 21st century? Trollope stayed close to Austen's story, updating it with automobiles and electronic devices, but her characters were still stuck with 19th-century ideas and behavior. No doubt she was doing as she was told, but if she had allowed herself to stray further from Austen, her book might have been less anachronistic and more believable. If you're not already a Trollope fan, don't start here.

McCall Smith, on the other hand, did not trouble himself about anachronism (or even chronology, as it happens: the age difference between Emma and Mr Knightley varies wildly from page to page). Facing the same problem that stymied Trollope--how to portray 19th-century dilemmas in 21st-century garb--he mostly just makes us laugh. Mr Woodhouse is a hilarious neurotic and food faddist. John Knightley is a smart-mouthed London photographer. Mrs Goddard ("Mrs God") bakes cakes with funny ingredients. Mr Elton marries an Edith Piaf impersonator (who can't pronounce "Piaf"). Frank Churchill pretends to be gay.

Jane Austen's story is very much present, and you'll enjoy this book more if you're familiar with it. But mostly this is a book for McCall Smith fans, of which I am one.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Freedom, security, and flagrant misquoting in Baltimore

Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake raised an important issue in her comments to the press Saturday night. Unfortunately, her point was drowned out by certain pundits who either totally misunderstood or cynically twisted her words in order to mount a diatribe against her.

Here is her complete answer to a reporter's question:
We've had these types of conversation before, and I've made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act, because, while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to deescalate, and that’s what you saw.
That is, if you protect peaceful protesters, you're going to be inadvertently protecting the thugs as well. (Yes, she did call violent protesters "thugs.") It isn't easy to balance freedom and safety.

That isn't how the usual blowhards read her words, however.

Glenn Beck opined that "during a recent press conference, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake confirmed that the protesters were being given 'space' to 'destroy.'”

Fox News changed her words into “I wanted to give space to those who wished to destroy,”

Rush Limbaugh--after changing the punctuation in what the mayor said so that half of the disputed sentence made no sense at all and the other half said the opposite of what she meant--suggested that Rawlings-Blake is "probably a racist."

Rawlings-Blake was not amused.


The thing is, Rawlings-Blake was discussing something that should be very important to all Americans, whatever our political leanings, and it's a shame her point was lost in the uproar:

How can we guarantee First Amendment freedoms, which include free speech and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble," and at the same time assure public safety?

As the mayor pointed out, "it's a very delicate balancing act." If we allow people to gather in a public space to express their anger, some of them just may go out of control. There may even be a riot.

But would we really rather have a government that prohibits public demonstrations in the name of law and order, and backs up its prohibition by preemptively sending in the National Guard? (Do the words "Kent State" ring a bell?)

A lot of Americans complain that their freedom is being infringed when they are required to wear motorcycle helmets or register their guns or remove their shoes at the airport, even though such regulations are intended to keep them safe. Some of these people can get pretty mad at the government. Do they really want the police or the military to forcibly keep them from getting mad in public?

Obviously (at least to anyone with a sense of punctuation) Mayor Rawlings-Blake chose freedom, even at the risk of disruption. The results were more than messy. But would it really have been better if she had tried to shut down freedom in the name of security? And what do you suppose would have happened then?
--------------------------------------
I'm new to the Baltimore area, and I have no personal experience of the decades (and even centuries) of strife that have led up to this month's conflicts. If you'd like to look at the Baltimore situation through genuine Baltimore eyes, read Baltimore native Ta-nahesi Coates in The Atlantic, "Nonviolence as Compliance," or Baltimore native Rafael Alvarez in USA Today, "Baltimore Is Broken, But It's Home."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Today, even better 50 years later

David recently posted this picture on Facebook along with a line from the 1964 hit "Today" (New Christy Minstrels): "I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine."

I love that song even more than I did fifty years ago, but for different reasons.

Back then it was a sweet love song for the uncommitted. I was 16, living away from home for the first time, falling in love every week (not that the lucky guys were aware of this), living on the edge (if hitchhiking in Italy counts), and thinking I might spend the rest of my life wandering the world. I had no trouble with the line from the second verse, "I'll be a dandy, and I'll be a rover..." As far as I was concerned, "Green, green, it's green, they say, / on the far side of the hill," and I was goin' away to where the grass was greener still.

"Today" is still a sweet love song, but if a million tomorrows haven't all passed away, 18 or 19 thousand have. Now I'd just as soon skip over that second verse and go right to the third:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine,
I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine. 
I can't be contented with yesterday's glory; 
I can't live on promises, winter to spring. 
Today is my moment and now is my story. 
I'll laugh and I'll cry and I'll sing ... 

A few blossoms are still clinging, but people my age had better not live on promises of future springs. And if we're contented with yesterday's glory, we become awful bores. Today is our moment, and now is our story. Let me suggest a rewrite of verse 2 for those of us who came of age in the 60s:

Though now we're grandparents, we still can be lovers.
You’ll know who we are by the songs that we sing. 
You’ll feast at my table, I’ll steal all the covers, 
Who cares what tomorrow shall bring?

Or we can just sing another 60s song, one that hit the charts right about when David and I got engaged:




Saturday, March 21, 2015

Heidi's guide to inner peace

Are you sometimes
       perturbed by politics?
       terrified about terrorists?
       concerned about climate change?
       overwrought with offspring?
       hyper about health?
       frightened about finances?
       annoyed by alliteration?

Back in 2001, my daughter Heidi read a book that explained how to deal with these (and all other) alarms. She then emailed me a short review of what she had learned.

The world hasn't gotten any easier to live in since then, so I pass her review on to you. Read it. It could change your life.
Just don't worry about anything. It's no big deal. Really. Not in the grand scheme of things.

But if you do worry about something, don't worry about the fact that you are worrying about something. Just let the feeling of worry wash over you, because it is natural to worry.

But if you do worry that you are worrying about worrying, please do not worry about it.

Developing inner peace and the ability not to worry is a process, and in a process sometimes you have to take a couple steps backward in order to take a couple steps forward. So obviously you will backslide and worry about worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying about worrying.

In other words, the way to inner peace is to accept that you really won't have any, and then all of this won't bother you at all, unless it does sometimes, because it's only natural.

So don't let it get to you. When it gets to you.
If you feel you need additional clarification, please check out this Bobby McFerrin video:


Monday, March 16, 2015

The patron saint of bloggers

[Rubens, St. Sebastian, c. 1614]
Various patron saints of bloggers have been proposed--for example, Ste Thérèse de Lisieux, St François de Sales, St Augustine of Hippo, and my second choice, St Expeditus--but none of these get at the heart of the blogger's experience.

I nominate St Sebastian. 

Anyone who's ever blogged knows about the slings and arrows of outrageous comments. Those arrows didn't kill Sebastian, however. He kept right on speaking his mind, and was eventually clubbed to death for his efforts.

I'm not complaining about any arrows whizzing in my direction. None are in the vicinity, since I haven't written anything about sex, religion, or politics (or the heady brew comprising all three) for months.

I've watched as arrows have temporarily downed friends, however.

I'm not talking about polite disagreement. Differing opinions, charitably expressed, are the lifeblood of civil discourse. Even opinions based on misinformation and lies can be part of civil discourse (who among us has never been misinformed or deceived?), if we--bloggers and blog-readers alike--are willing to change our opinions as the evidence requires.

I'm talking about rants, name-calling, snarkiness, and personal attacks. The pain they inflict is real, even if the shooters are obviously ignorant or unhinged (as nearly all of them are).

I'm grateful to the many bloggers and columnists who continue to write well-researched, thoughtful, non-hysterical opinion pieces. I'm especially grateful to those whose search for truth and wisdom occasionally leads them beyond party orthodoxy--whatever their party--thus laying themselves open to all those archers with personality disorders.

If you intrepid bloggers need a saint, Sebastian's your man. But perhaps you are a saint, willing to take the arrows as an unpleasant side effect of speaking truth. Thank you.

And may God protect you from the clubs.