Monday, October 31, 2011

Why can't illegal phone sales calls be stopped?

Emailed response to one of my many complaints to the FCC
I'm getting more and more annoyed at the alleged enforcers of the Do Not Call list and, for that matter, at AT&T.

Like all 312,530,648 people living in the United States, I hate phone sales calls. All of them, without exception. Especially when they interrupt a nap or a meal or a visit with friends.

Of course I have caller ID. Of course I don't answer numbers I don't recognize. Of course I have put my numbers - landline and cell - on the Do Not Call list. In addition, I have filed many complaints at the DNC website and with the Federal Communications Commission.

And the calls keep coming. More and more of them. Even on my cell phone.

I'm not talking about equally annoying but legal calls, such as political nonsense from Congressman Peter Roskam, whose every recorded phone call makes me cringe. I'm talking about plainly illegal calls - recorded messages from people wanting to wipe out my debts (yeah, right), or incessant calls from numbers that simply hang up when they get my answering machine.

I have started Googling the supposed phone numbers to see what I can learn about the callers. I have learned that most of the annoying callers are listed many times on sites such as 800notesWhoCallsMe, and NumberInvestigator. The numbers have been reported countless times to the proper authorities. Some of the callers have been annoying people for years.

Why is nothing being done to stop them?

I know, I know - the numbers on my Caller ID are probably spoofed. It's illegal to spoof a phone number "for the purpose of defrauding or otherwise causing harm," but apparently not if all you're doing is selling dubious services. And no doubt some of these calls originate outside the United States, so perhaps the FCC has no way to stop them. But hey - the phone companies could trace these calls if they really wanted to, couldn't they? And if not - maybe the call is being made with a prepaid phone card, for example - couldn't they come up with an app that would allow us to instantly block any caller we never want to hear from again?

Note to geeks: invent such an app, and you could retire comfortably by next summer. Be sure to include a version that works on landlines.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Last week I went to Johnsen & Taylor Inspirational Books and Gifts to listen to five women authors from the Redbud Writers Guild present "Women and Writing: The Importance of Using Your Voice for Christ's Kingdom." After the lively discussion, I wandered through the store looking at book jackets. Most of the books, all aimed at evangelical readers, were written by men. Most of the shoppers in the store were women.

I suppose some men feel less queasy about walking through displays of fluffy angels and inspirational wall plaques if they know that stacks of books by male authors await them in the back of the store, though few men were there that evening. I believe that men - and women, too -  can learn a lot from male authors. On the other hand, I also believe that men - and women, too - can learn a lot from female authors. And I know that there are things that simply can't be said unless a woman says them.

Sarah Jobe is saying some of those woman things.

Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy isn't an obvious reading choice for a 63-year-old grandmother, but I picked it up anyway - and was almost immediately laughing out loud. "This book is an attempt to name how pregnant women are co-creators with God at precisely the moment in which we are pooping on the delivery table," Jobe writes in the author's note. "I will claim that pregnant women are the image of Jesus among us not in spite of varicose veins but because of them."

I remember pregnant. First baby nestling so deep within me that there was no room left for stomach, lungs, bladder, or various other organs I had formerly enjoyed using every day. Second baby perched so far beyond me that walking became perilous and friends pointed and laughed when they saw us waddling their way. And my pregnancies were a breeze compared to Jobe's, though her midwives dubbed hers "uncomplicated."

What bothered Jobe - who has an M.Div., is an ordained pastor, and works as a prison chaplain - is that she couldn't figure out "how God could be present in pregnancy in spite of back pain, financial stress, hormonal shifts, and constipation." But as she progressed through two back-to-back pregnancies, she writes, she "learned a startling truth. God is not present in pregnancy in spite of all the crap (and I mean that in the most literal sense). God is present in pregnancy at precisely the places that seem least divine."

If Jobe's wry frankness got me into the book, her theological ruminations kept me intrigued. Who knew that Eve's exclamation at the birth of Cain could just as well be translated a quite different way? That the glow of pregnancy might be related to the glow seen on Moses' or Jesus' face? That groaning in labor is not only inevitable, but also productive and even Godlike? That communion, the placenta, and breast milk have a lot in common?

Such observations are not often made by male writers. And even if they are, how many males could achieve Jobe's "been there, done that" realism? Listen to her reflect on how she was feeling days after her due date, with no sign of imminent labor:
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells a story about waiting for the kingdom of God. There are ten virgins waiting to greet their bridegroom. They wait and wait, but he doesn't come.... Jesus chooses a negative example; a story about how not to wait. But he could have told a story about how to wait well by simply trading in the virgins for some pregnant women.

Pregnant women surely would have fallen asleep (probably before the virgins) but by the time the bridegroom came, they would have woken up twice to pee and once for a little snack of peanut butter toast and milk. When the bridegroom came striding in at midnight, at least three lamps would already be on. The pregnant woman struggling with insomnia would welcome him to the kitchen table for a midnight cup of herbal tea. The second-time mom would motion the bridegroom to the couch while she finished nursing her firstborn. And the third-time mom would say with a large dose of exasperation, "It's about time you got here - my six-year-old can't sleep for excitement about this wedding feast!" All of them would have their hospital bags packed and waiting by the door. Jesus could have said, "Wait like a pregnant woman."
That night at Johnsen & Taylor's bookstore, I did see books written by women, of course. Most of the novels had female authors. A few books by women were in the Christian Living section. As a retired editor for a variety of religion publishers, I'm happy to see women contributing to any and all categories. But I'm especially happy when women use uniquely female experiences as ways to see God.

The image of God is male and female. Half a God may be better than no God at all - or it may be dangerously distorted. It's way past time to let light shine on the neglected half of God's image. Thanks, Sarah Jobe - and please keep writing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Keep it simple - eat by color!

Good food is usually simple. It is always beautiful. I wish people who devise recommendations for healthy eating would keep this in mind.

My favorite food advice couldn't be simpler. It's from Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto:
  • Eat food.
  • Not too much.
  • Mostly plants.

It's easy to add beauty to simplicity. Just eat by color:

  • half brown
  • half riotous colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple ...

You can eat by color whether you're an omnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan. Your brown food includes meat, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds - and chocolate, of course. Your riotously colored food includes every imaginable vegetable and fruit. Serve the food on white plates for contrast, and enjoy a feast for the eyes as well as for the palate.

If your meal is breathtakingly beautiful, it's probably good for you. If it has a pale, recycled look, it probably isn't doing much for your body. How simple is that?

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nutritionist. I don't know your particular medical condition or needs. Please follow your doctor's advice regarding food, drink, and medicines. If your doctor's advice doesn't sound right, do your own research and discuss your findings with him or her. You'll probably learn from each other. If not, change doctors.

Friday, October 14, 2011

No, I don't want your heart-healthy diet, thank you

In August I spent five days as a patient at Cleveland Clinic, which advertises itself as "#1 in heart care since 1995." Following open-heart surgery for a congenital valve problem, I was put on their "heart healthy" diet. I didn't expect gastronomic delights from a hospital food supplier, but meatloaf? white bread? sugary yogurt? caffeinated coffee? And that was just my first meal.

I am now attending cardiac rehab exercise sessions three days a week. As we pedal or row or walk or lift weights, someone lectures us on how we should be eating. This morning she told us how to estimate correct portion sizes of, among other things, canned spaghetti.

What planet do these people live on?

"My Plate" - would you
want a lifetime of this?
They are, of course, following recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who periodically replaces one set of wrong-headed guidelines with another equally perverse set. The most recent is My Plate, simpler than the now pass√© Food Pyramid, but equally removed from the way anyone would want to eat. Dry whole wheat bread? Canned mandarin oranges? Canned green beans? A glass of milk? And what is that perfectly revolting slab of meat, anyway?

Granted, it is possible to follow USDA recommendations and still prepare an attractive plate. It is even possible - though often difficult - to follow their advice and serve food that is, in fact, heart healthy. (I am not sure why the USDA does not improve their suggestions, but certain farm subsidies and lobbyists may be involved.) Unfortunately, it was not possible for me to get a tasty, healthy meal at the hospital - except by sending my husband across the street to Cedarland, a wonderful storefront Lebanese restaurant, and ordering take-out.

Or would you prefer this?
(Add raspberries for dessert.)
"My Plate," though, doesn't have to be disgusting. Trade the bread for whole-wheat couscous with onions and raisins, for example. Top the couscous with a few thin slices of oven-browned chicken, if you like, or go vegetarian and give yourself a scoop of lentils (red lentils with curry seasoning are nice). For vegetables, think color: lightly steamed fresh broccoli, or wilted baby spinach or chard with garlic and lemon. If it's tomato season, put a few wedges in that upper-left quadrant. Drink the milk, if you like it, but realize that the dairy industry has a lot to do with the USDA's recommendations: it's OK to have a glass of water or wine instead. And for dessert, how about a bowl of fresh berries, topped with a spoonful of Greek yogurt and a handful of sliced almonds?

"Heart healthy" should not be identified with endless grim plates of gray fuel.

Folks, we can resist.

I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nutritionist. I don't know your particular medical condition or needs. Please follow your doctor's advice regarding food, drink, and medicines. If your doctor's advice doesn't sound right, do your own research and discuss your findings with him or her. You'll probably learn from each other. If not, change doctors.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Opposites attract - Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth

22nd Agatha, 2011
26th Hamish, 2011
Agatha Raisin is one of my favorite fictional sleuths (read my Books & Culture online review of her just-published adventure, As the Pig Turns, here).

A close second is Hamish Macbeth, a doughty if lazy policeman from the Scottish Highlands whose 26th story, Death of a Chimney Sweep, was published in February.

Both Agatha and Hamish are the creations of M.C. Beaton, author of maybe 100 books in addition to the nearly 50 in these two series (I apparently vastly underestimated her output in my B&C article; check out the scary-long list here).

Beaton, one of many pen names used by Marion Chesney, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, some two or three hundred miles south of Hamish Macbeth's fictional town, Lochdubh, in the real county of Sutherland. Now 75, she divides her time between Paris and the English Cotswolds, where Agatha Raisin holds forth in the fictional town of Carsely. If you get the feeling Beaton knows the eccentric characters who people her mysteries - well, she probably does.

If you're already a fan of Agatha or Hamish, you know that Beaton's mysteries are gentle, funny, relaxing, and delightfully anti-authoritarian. And yet, apart from their unorthodox methods of crime-solving, Agatha and Hamish could not be more different from one another:
  • Agatha comes from a dysfunctional family; Hamish's family is warm and supportive.
  • Agatha has few friends; Hamish is a friend to his whole village.
  • Agatha has extremely poor people skills; Hamish spends much of his time schmoozing with villagers.
  • Agatha is ambitious; Hamish is lazy.
  • Agatha takes credit for others' work; Hamish lets others take credit for his work.
  • Agatha funds village projects (but earns no love); Hamish is known as a moocher (but they love him anyway).
  • Agatha often blunders her way to solving a crime; Hamish's skills are based on hearsay, deduction, and chutzpah.
  • Agatha is short and stout; Hamish is tall and lanky.
  • Agatha is an amateur (who gains expertise along the way); Hamish is a professional.
  • Agatha has cats; Hamish has dogs.
  • Agatha's love life would improve if she were less pushy; Hamish's would improve if he were more assertive.
  • Agatha is comically fussy about her appearance; Hamish is comically negligent of his.
But just because Agatha and Hamish are polar opposites does not mean they attract different sets of readers. If you like one series, I can almost guarantee you'll like the other.

Which leads me to wonder - will Agatha and Hamish ever meet? Could they stand being in the same room? Could they work on a case together? And if they did, would their chief nemeses, Detective Chief Inspectors Wilkes and Blair, go completely berserk?

Thursday, October 6, 2011


When I was in high school, Frito-Lay introduced a slogan that became famous: "Betcha can't eat just one." I took that as a challenge, an easy bet to win since I didn't care for Fritos.

However, I cannot - cannot - read just one book a year by Alexander McCall Smith, and I'm so glad I don't have to. This year saw the release (in the U.S., which tends to lag) of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, 12) and The Dog Who Came In from the Cold (Corduroy Mansions Series, 2). Today my public library, bless them, ordered The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (Isabel Dalhousie Series, 8), slated for December.

I have the first hold on the first copy received.

The Corduroy Mansions series, like the earlier and ongoing (in the U.K.) 44 Scotland Street Series, are serial novels √† la Dickens, but delivered at a far more frenetic pace. The Dog Who Came In from the Cold's 78 very short chapters began life as an online novel  (you can read its sequel here, at the Telegraph website) and were then turned into a book. As you read, you get the feeling that McCall Smith has no idea what his characters are going to do next, and the book has nothing resembling a linear plot. It doesn't matter. Surprises are good. And you know everything will more or less come together by the last page.

Which is amazing, considering all the interwoven stories centering on Corduroy Mansions, a yet-to-be-rehabbed apartment building in Pimlico, central London.

  • Should William French, wine merchant, allow MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to use his Pimlico terrier ("an unusual breed obtained through the judicious crossing of an Airedale with a Border Collie, and perhaps just a touch of something else about which the breeders themselves were now hazy"), Freddie de la Hay, as a spy?
  • Can Caroline and James, art history students, find happiness without germs?
  • Will Dee, owner of the Pimlico Vitamin and Supplement Agency and proponent of colonic irrigation, lose all her money if she invests in an attractive marketing scheme?
  • Can Barbara Ragg and Rupert Porter, literary agents, resolve their dispute over an inherited apartment?
  • Can Berthea Snark, psychiatrist, stop her loony brother Terence Moongrove from making a very foolish decision?
  • Is an abominable snowman really shopping at Fortnum and Mason?
If it sounds confusing, it isn't. McCall Smith somehow keeps you anchored, and by the time quite a few of the characters gather at William's place for a party, you love them all - just as McCall Smith does - and maybe you even feel a little more love for some of your odder family members.
[William] looked down at Freddie de la Hay, who was lying in a corner, one eye open, watching the human comedy, or that small part of it that was playing out in the room. Dear Freddie, loyal Freddie; for whom there were no great existential questions because he knew at all times, and in all places, what he had to do - which was to do William's bidding and make him happy. That was Freddie's world-view, his Weltanschauung, it it was as good as any world-view, thought William. We had to love somebody, and we had to want the best for that person. Freddie knew as much because it was in his nature to do so.
Part of the delight of reading McCall Smith, who is a retired bioethicist, is that he scatters such observations throughout his stories: his characters are constantly pondering the human condition. But I don't read these books for their ethical weight. I read them because the characters are wildly eccentric and lovable, because the situations they get into are hilariously improbable, and because - at the end of a tiring day - McCall Smith makes me smile.