Sunday, January 25, 2009

I'm out of touch

Twice in the last week, while scanning the local newspaper online, I learned of incidents of violence after the news was, well news. These include:
*The decapitation of a student in an A Bon Pain on the campus of Virginia Tech
*A hate crime/killing spree in the nearby(ish) community of Brockton, MA.

Why don't I know about these things? Am I so self-absorbed that I'm not paying attention to things happening in the world? Or have the newspapers become very bad at portraying news as news? Are people talking less about news and talking more about Top Chef?

Oh wait! I know why I'm completely ignorant of these and others important items of the day. President Obama was inaugurated this week. And we've been more interested in Michelle Obama's choice of daywear and evening wear than we have in racially motivated rape and weird campus killing. Back to murder, rape and torture this week. Hooray!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

1908 Cement Mixer?

Operating on the philosophy that one man's trash is another man's treasure, Freecycle is a series of email listservs sponsored by Yahoogroups which allow people in communities around the world to post electronic "ads" offering to give stuff away or seeking free, used stuff. Members of the local Freecycle communities either get an email with every new ad that is posted, or they can get a weekly(ish) digest with all of the ads posted for the week.

Still not clear on how it works? Let me give you a concrete example. Say I'm cleaning out my closet and find a bunch of old purses I don't use any more. Rather than dumping them in a landfill or putting them in an Africa box, I can post them on Freecyle to give to a neighbor who might be able to use them right away. Likewise, if there is something I need/want that I am happy to get in used form, I might post a request on the Freecycle community in the hope that someone has a spare one kicking around they are willing to give away for free. I have received exercise equipment, plant stands, lawn/leaf bags, iris rhizomes, and moving boxes through Freecycle either by responding to ads with "offers" or getting answers to my "wanted" ads. And I have given away innumerable pieces of "trash" to individuals looking for treasure including lamps, a DVD/VCR player, drop ceiling panels and half-empty cans of paint.

In my experience there is some weird stuff posted on Freecycle. This includes:
*Half full bottles of bubble bath (the former owner found she was allergic to it and couldn't use it anymore),
*Partially consumed bags of potato chips,
*Twist ties saved over a lifetime of eating bread, and
*Broken electronics (we can't figure out how to fix it, but maybe you can?)
In my experience packing materials, toys outgrown by one's children, books/movies, and clothing (see outgrown reference above) are among the most common items posted.

And today, while reading the Freecycle digest for my little suburban neighborhood, I found this:

Freecycle™ Hingham, MA
Messages In This Digest (1 Message)

OFFER: 1908 cement mixer

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OFFER: 1908 cement mixer
Posted by:
Fri Jan 23, 2009 7:44 am (PST)
This cement mixer dates back to the early 1900's - we think about 1908 (not entirely sure). It worked until at least the early 1970's. There's a lot of rust & the engine probably seized up a while back. You will need to pick this up in Marshfield & it's really heavy - so you will probably need some sort of machinery to lift it. It's in the back yard, so you will have to get through the snow to retrieve it. Wheels are not attached, as they are no longer any good (the wood rotted). This would be a good project for someone who likes to restore old mechanical things - or sell it for scrap. Photos available upon request.


WTF? Who has an old cement mixer in their backyard. That hasn't been functional since the 1970s? What is it doing there? Is it being used as a planter? A kids' toy? A conversation piece at cookouts? A rusty punch bowl? And who among my neighbors would want a 100 year old, broken cement mixer? Maybe there is someone who has a museum of old construction equipment that could use it. But what is the likelihood that person lives in the same town where an antique cement mixer just happens to live?

I'm always amazed at how the world works. Or better put, how the odd individuals in the world work.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Elephant garlic is stupid, or things don't have to be bigger to be better

Garlic is not a staple on the shelves in the box box grocery store nearest to my home here in the suburbs. We can buy enormous jars of over processed, pre-crushed garlic in olive oil. Organic garlic is available for a hefty price in plastic containers with no fewer than four bulbs each. And then there is the elephant garlic. Giant bulbs in purple plastic cases for the hefty price of $1.99 per bulb. And that's it.

Desperate for garlic and not really wanting to trek the length of the main thoroughfare running through town to get to the boutique grocery store, I bought a head of elephant garlic this week.

Every time I look at the bulb I cringe. Each clove of garlic is (a) too big to fit in any non-industrial sized garlic press, (b) too hefty to crush easily with the back of a spoon or a small pan, and (c) almost devoid of taste. And that's really the problem. Bigger vegetables and fruits tend to not be as flavorful, because the extra air and water that make them big in turn dilute the power of the taste and maybe the nutritional content.

In addition to not tasting very good, unnaturally large fruits and vegetables are well known to pose threats both spiritual and mortal. Roald Dahl's story James and the Giant Peach is banned by censors around the world for its graphic and allegedly terrifying story about the dangers lurking inside over sized fruit. Comedian Morgan Spurlock rose to fame in 2004 with his film Super Size Me which demonstrated how over sized potatoes (in french fry form) could ruin one's health in just 30 short days.

So, whose idea was it to make vegetables bigger? And why? Okay, maybe bigger carrots and bigger potatoes to feed hungry people in hungry places like Sudan and North Korea. But bigger garlic? We don't need bigger garlic. It is stupid.

In Smart Town, there will be a moratorium on elephant garlic, enormous eggplant, and rotund rutabagas. We won't need them because all of the people will have enough to eat and will enjoy only delicious food. However, there will be no moratorium on Roald Dahl books, or any stories about boys who explore all there is to see inside giant pitted fruits.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Extraordinary things are happening in America. And my life, today, feels boring and ordinary. Boredinary.

(So boredinary in fact that my clever self did not even coin this fantastic word. Some genius already posted it on Twice - with an "e" and without. Sigh. I really am boredinary.)


When I was in graduate school I wrote a brilliant research paper on the evolution of the health insurance crisis. And, apparently I laid the blame squarely on physicians, evil scourge that they are. And my professor, himself a physician, gave me a low B citing the paper as well reasoned but too polemic.

One of the things I learned in graduate school was the word polemic, which I think of as meaning simplistically controversial.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day I'm reading the "Gone With the Wind" chapter in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Lowewen. The book allegedly debunks myths of American history by telling the "real story" behind such American institutions as the first Thanksgiving and the "discovery of America". This chapter is about the sugar coating, and even glamorization, of slavery in American history. As I'm reading the chapter and reflecting on the roots of racism I find myself distracted by Lowewen's polemic argument. Like this one: Very few textbooks clearly state that Thomas Jefferson was a profitable slave owner. Must be a conspiracy to keep blacks down.

Maybe so. Or maybe the rationale for what to include in a history book is far more nuanced than this. Maybe history textbooks written for kids were edited by smart people who understood that Jefferson's ethical and moral ambiguity about being a slave owner was too complicated for young children to understand - too complicated in fact for many grown adults to understand. Maybe the writers of history textbooks chose to focus on the evils of slavery rather than the hypocrisy of the time because they wanted to exclusively focus on the slavery = bad message.

Myriad psychosocial development theorists would posit that many young children - and again many adults - aren't evolved enough to really grasp a conversation about actions we take that benefit one but hurt others. How can this be done responsibly with school children, without compromising respect for our nation's leaders? How do you take a subtle analysis of human nature and transfer it to a component of a 60-minute lesson that can be absorbed by individuals at different stages in their own moral reasoning. Would you say, "Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but he was also a bad man?" You could say the same thing about MLK Jr. if the stories of his womanizing and power plays are to be believed. But to what end? What if the lesson is not to present our historic figures as full human beings, but instead to focus on the good things they did - to give children a sense that they can do good things too?

I don't believe my American history teachers lied to me, and I also believe that American history is far more complicated than a recitation of facts and a presentation of black versus white arguments. Now, I am off to honor Dr. King for the good work he did. Because he did good work, in spite of the flaws in his character.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


An elderly woman confessed her alcoholism to me while we waited in the checkout line at the grocery store this afternoon.

I ran to the grocery store this afternoon to pick up fixings for a salad. And to restock the wine rack. While I hate the big box grocery store lifestyle I'm living right now I LOVE that the grocery store sells beer, wine and all manner of liquor.

The market was a typical Saturday madhouse, with pre-storm frantic water-buying layered on top. As I wrapped up my own chaotic run through the store ("Romaine - check," "Six bottles of cabernet and pinot noir - check," "Ooooh! Pudding - check!") I rolled up to the nearly 250 feet of checkout lanes. Each lane was overstuffed with overflowing carts pushed by overly anxious people. I took fourth place in a lane behind an older woman with a sparse number of goods in her cart. A box of store brand instant stuffing mix, a quart of skim milk, a whole chicken, two apples. She smiled at me.

"I normally never come here on a Saturday," I said,making idle chatter.

"People are stocking up for the storm," she replied.

"And, the embarrassing thing is," I continued, "I'm only here because I wanted to stock on on wine before the storm."

She said, "Well I certainly understand that! There was once a time when I really enjoyed a glass of wine." She waved at her cart, free of potent potables. "Not anymore, I stopped when I started to think that maybe I was enjoying it too much." She hurried, "Never in the morning, I never had a drink of wine in the morning."

A little flummoxed by the revelation I said, "You must have an enormous amount of will power. That's a strength."

"Not will power, prayer," she replied, unpacking her cart onto the conveyor belt.

"Then you have God."

"Yes, I have God," she said as she pushed her cart forward.


I am nearly always amazed at the depth to which people reveal themselves in these types of random encounters. And I am always grateful for the reminder of the fundamental human desire for connection with other people.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Curvy from my head to my toes

If you've met me know you know I'm a curvy woman, with a close to hour glass figure (or hour and a half figure as my sister once described). In fact, even my feet are curvy. At least, that's how my podiatrist described them during my third post-surgical check-up following a bunionectomy and metatarsal osteotomy two months ago.

I was just gearing up to hop off the exam table to grab a copy of US News and World Report when Dr. Basile burst into the room and said, "How are you?"

"Great. How are you?" was my reply. And in fact, I was great. I had worn high heels three days without any pain at the surgical site. I had tried cross-country skiing and was pleased to get my boots on and understanding when the motion was too painful. I've been walking regularly without any sign of a limp and the final bits of the dissolving stitches had finally left my foot.

"I'm glad to hear that, because I'm not happy with the way your foot has healed."

"What does that mean?" I said, immediately suspicious. I tensely shifted my foot which was resting on the pull out tray at the base of the exam table.

Dr. Basile grabbed my foot and explained that my big toe was still significantly curled towards the center of my foot. Before the surgery it was resting under the second toe. Now the gap between the two toes is maybe big enough to slide a dime between, lengthwise.

He went on to explain "I'm pretty anal about the toe being as straight as possible. And in fact, I have patients whose toes are much straighter than yours who have been angry with me when they realize their toe is not 100% straight. Let me show you what is happening on the x-rays."

I pulled on my sock and my brown suede Dansko clog and followed him into the hall. He showed me the before and after xrays, where I could clearly see the loss of bone on the left instep (the bunionectomy) and the location of the two screws at the base of my metatarsal series in the big toe. I could also see that the change in the arc of the curve on my big toe is slight, enough to keep it from bumping into the second toe, but not enough to change the fundamental shape of my foot.

Dr. Basile said, "I can fix it by cutting the top bone in the big toe, and inserting another set of screws. I didn't want to do this at first, because your recovery time would be longer, and it would reduce the flexibility of your toe." He looked at my querulously.

"It is curvy. I'm curvy." I said to Dr. Basile. "As long as being curvy doesn't hurt, I'm okay with leaving this alone." I started to walk away.

Dr. Basile smiled and chuckled. "You are going to be fine," he said as I waved good-bye and headed out the door.