Party Favors

My children and I are all born in April, which makes the month crazy, fun, and expensive. Dawn starts planning in February, and she continues until two weeks before D-Day when my procrastination sets up a flurry of last minute internet shopping. So this year we decided to contract out – a party at their gymnastics place. Rose and Samuel, who attend the same Montessori school, will share a single party for the first and possibly last time.

The venue has a package deal; 90 minutes of wild running on balance beams, swinging on rings, jumping off spring boards, and leaping in pits filled with foam blocks, all followed by a half hour of cake, ice cream, and presents. This schedule is set by the venue and is non-negotiable, which is unfortunate for the parents of the guests. The sugar surge ought to come first. Instead, a simple and familiar biochemical process follows:

   Caloric-depletion-mayhem + industrial sugar surge –> Screaming meltdown fit in the car ride home

Having already blown our budget on venue, cake, and presents, I went to Woodbury Mountain Toys during my lunch break to shop for party favors. The plan was to get each child some candy, a set of marbles, and a wind-up magnetic fishing game, but the fishing games were out of stock. I began to search to shelves for a replacement. I had been fighting a sinus infection for a week, and I wandered the store in an expectorant-induced fog. The sound track to a Harry Potter movie played overhead from speakers which didn’t help my clarity.

The store had a good selection, but it was small, and therefore cramped, with narrow aisles between mazes of shelving. It is not a good store to wear a backpack in. For that matter, it is not a good store to bring small children with curious fingers into, but fortunately I was alone and unencumbered. I finally found the “unnecessary plastic objects” section and began picking through the mini bowling sets and magic tricks when I heard the somber brass tones and cascading violins on the speakers give way to a banjo and a gravelly voice shouting.

“Get out the way Old Dan Tucker. You’re too late to come to supper.”

I looked up at the manager behind the counter.

“I don’t remember that song from any Harry Potter movie.”

“Naw. That’s Bruce Springsteen.”

The Boss wailed several old time and children’s favorites, backed up with banjos, brass, and glory chorusers. I grabbed several sets of squeeze-bulb-propelled styrofoam rockets, paid my bill, and stumbled into the bracing winter air. March 31st in Montpelier, and there is still plenty of snow on the ground, but at least my head began to clear.

A Place To Call Home

Twenty-two thousand dollars. That’s the maximum out-of-pocket expense we might conceivably pay for medical bills in a given year under our current insurance policy. This figure is above and beyond the $1100 monthly health insurance premium, which, thankfully, is mostly, but not entirely, covered by my employer. As it is, we’ve paid thousands of dollars over the past few years for the couple of procedures and surgeries we’ve needed.

It is, as far as we know, one of the most expensive health insurance policies offered, in one of the most expensive health care markets in the country. My Mom and I have done no little research into the matter looking for alternatives. For my part, I have scoured the internet, reading the fine print of plans offered in states across the Union, while Mom has caught her toe on concrete pavement seams across the globe, necessitating visits to some of the finest medical facilities in Europe, North America, and Asia. And in no place was she asked to pay an amount that came close to rivaling the bill from Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont.

Strike one.

————–

The property tax rate in Montpelier Vermont is nearly $3 for every $1000 of property value. Even in Vermont, this is high for such a small town in a rural county. As Montpelier is the state capitol, there are a lot of churches and government buildings which do not pay property tax. When the city reassessed properties last year, the values of many houses went up drastically, while the assessment on the entire buildings and grounds of National Life Insurance – the only business of significant size located in the city – was slashed drastically. There were many, many errors in the accessor’s database, which led to a citizen’s revolt that succeeded in throwing out the entire assessment along with the accessor. But we are only delaying the inevitable. By law, the assessment must be done again, and no matter how the pie is eventually sliced, National Life will pay a much smaller portion, and homeowners will collectively make up the difference. This in addition to sales tax, gasoline tax, and state income tax.

Strike two.

————–

When we first moved to town, there were only six houses on the market, none of which were suitable or affordable. Three months later when we finally found this house, we competed against five other bidders. The inspector we hired was a grizzled Vermont native of World War II vintage who told us, “This is the perfect size house – just a little too small for a family with teenagers.” The furnace was the original 1950 furnace, a cracked, cast-iron behemoth that spewed an unending cloud of exhaust and creosote up the chimney during our first winter. The basement walls wept snow melt in the Spring until we could not get into the car without walking in puddles. Despite the state of the national real estate market, there is not a single house in Washington County available for sale that we can afford. This being the state capitol, there will always be a demand for the enormous Victorians littered about this town.

Strike three. We’re out of here.

————–

We are approaching the point where we can’t afford to live here anymore. Or rather, we can’t afford to live here in the lifestyle to which we would like to become accustomed.

This is a choice on our part. Clearly, Dawn could go back to work and find a nine-to-five job that offered better health insurance. That would give us the health coverage, plus the income to cover the day care we would need for Samuel and Rose and the pre-packaged or take-out food we would be eating more of. A lot of the house work would get shoved to the weekend, or simply not done. A lot of the fix-it tasks we do ourselves would be hired out. We would need a second car. There would be other adjustments, but people live this way. In fact, most people of our socio-economic class live this way. It is considered normal, and we love this area enough that it was tempting to normalize.

But we are choosing not to, and we are incredibly grateful for the fact that, despite that idiot in the White House and the shambles he has made of the economy, we can still opt out to a certain extent. We can still be home to watch our children grow up, to cook healthy meals from locally grown food, to manage easily with a single car. As long as we can find a place with reasonable health insurance and a better cost of living.

But where to? There are several factors to weigh. It would be nice to be within a day’s drive of our family in Atlanta, however we do not culturally or climatically mesh with the South. We would like to have a Montessori school for our children, especially an elementary school for Rose, one with a tuition rate we can afford, but we prefer smaller towns – population under 50,000. We would like enough rural farmland around that we could buy some acreage to do the serious gardening/farming we’ve dreamed of and to purchase the local produce that we can’t grow ourselves. But we also want a town with a vibrant, walkable center, an educated population, a progressive, involved community, a decent bookstore and library, clean air and water, a functioning school system, and a better cost of living than Vermont. And the more we look at America, the better Canada looks (not that we can afford to live there either). We simply can’t have everything, and the process of exploring our options has been a powerful exercise in defining our priorities.

A few postings about the places we’ve looked at is in the works, but in the meantime, what places do you think we ought to consider?

Customer Appreciation Night

Montpelier has five bookstores, all of them independently owned. None of them are very large, but collectively they would fill a small Barnes and Nobles in one of America’s more illiterate cities. The jewel of them all is Bear Pond Books, the only Montpelier bookstore that sells first run books and the only one which hosts talks and readings and parties. Their store is as wide as a Hummer and as long as a 747, with a single path down the middle wide enough for two people to pause, smile apologetically, and pass sideways, belly to belly. Down the street, the Book Garden is an even thinner store; even the bookshelves have to turn sideways. Rivendell is a used book emporium on a 100 year old, creaky, wooden floor that compresses underfoot, the kind of floor that a marble could spend all day rolling around and never find a resting spot. Black Sheep Books is a workers collective, a converted studio apartment full of material to feed your outrage. And last is The Yankee Paperback Exchange, a hole in the wall filled with romance, science fiction, horror, western, and thrillers – all selling for the same price they sold back in the 1950’s; the Paperback Exchange is closing for good, and I’m sorry to see it go although I never bought a single leaf of yellowed paper there.

Bear Pond was recently purchased by the owners of Rivendell who have kept the quality of stock and the relaxed atmosphere. We received an invitation in the mail to come to a customer appreciation night – free refreshments and 20% off all books.

Thursday night is usually Dad’s playgroup night. Thursday night I usually take the children to the family center basement play rooms, and Dawn has some time to herself, ostensibly to read and drink tea, but often as not to catch up on the laundry folding. However Samuel had the sniffles, and Rose has almost outgrown Dad’s playgroup, so we decided to make a night of it – takeout pizza and unrestrained literary consumerism.

“Why are we going to the bookstore?” asked Samuel as I lifted him by the arm over the snow melt puddles in the potholes as we walked across the parking lot to the back door of the shop. Like his father before him, Samuel often doesn’t know what is happening around him, even after he has been told multiple times. Perhaps his almost-three-year-old brain riffs out on asking the same question over and over and seeing what response he gets each time. It is the Peek-a-boo syndrome. It is the same urge that makes him push the button on the electronic toy that sings Frere Jacques and The Farmer In The Dell and Pop Goes The Weasel over and over.

In answer to his question, Dawn says, “It’s Customer Appreciation Night.”

I don’t know if this means anything to him, so I add, “They want to thank us for buying lots of books from them and invite us to buy some more.”

The store was busy but not as crowded as it could be, and we immediately took the stairs up to the children’s section. We made Rose’s week by scoring the latest Rainbow Magic Fairy series – The Pet Fairies. These are truly terrible books, but she loves them. The problem is not the content of the books – nothing to censure or the (ahem) explain when she’s older, but the writing is insipid and formulaic – like the stale, late morning aftertaste of a Crispy Creme doughnut with coffee. At five years old though, I can hardly expect Rose to be discriminating. Laura Ingles Wilder, Pippi Longstocking, and Ruby the Red Fairy cohabit peacefully in the same tenement of her bookshelf.

(Someday Rose will be old enough to find this blog herself on the internet and read this posting. I can already hear her righteous indignation at my callous criticism of her beloved fairy books. All I will say in my defense Rose is go to the back of your closet, or open the box in the basement, or head down to the nearest used bookstore and find something written by the legendary Daisy Meadows. Read it cover to cover and then decide of you want to rain indignation upon your Papa.)

After a negotiated treat of cookies and cupcakes (negotiated to avoid food allergies), Rose settled into an independent routine of pulling books off the shelf, reading them, and putting them back. Dawn and I took turns picking books off the shelf for the children and following Samuel around the store. He pointed out all the books on the shelves that we already own, touched everything with moving parts (puzzles, pop up books, card games) and then finally settled down in the corner where an gilded antique cash register sits on the floor. It has embossed vines and flowers all over it in tarnished brass and four columns of buttons for pennies, dimes, dollars, and type of payment – cash, credit, on account. You push a button from each column, except pennies and dimes because the buttons for 46 cents are stuck, and then you heave the crank around three times and the purchase appears in pop up cards behind glass at the top. This kept Samuel entertained for most of the evening.

There is something punishing about a bibliophile going to a bookstore with children. When it was my turn to be downstairs, I felt this intense pressure to find a something outstanding to read and to find it quickly so Dawn would have enough time for her turn. But I wanted to socialize with people I knew, and there were fancy treats downstairs that weren’t offered in the children’s section, and I saw lots of books I might like to read, but nothing I was willing to gamble on. Time was running out.

Palms sweating, I asked one of the booksellers if they had a particular book by Wendell Berry that I had been looking for. It was a long shot, especially in a small bookstore. She didn’t know the book or where it might be found in the store, but she was keen to help me and I was too well bred to just walk away. That damnable woman wasted precious minutes looking on the web and in their database and around the stacks, searching for a book I already knew in my heart they didn’t have. Finally I grabbed a different collection by the same author as well as one of the decadent chocolate confections and raced upstairs to sub for Dawn.

At 8:00 PM, it was time to go home. Despite Rose’s protests (“Why did you buy books for me and then not let me read them NOW?”) I walked downstairs with our purchases, passing throngs of neighbors and friends, my eyes darting back and forth among the stacks looking for that Perfect Book that didn’t exist.

“Can I help you?” asked the bookseller, her hands floating in the air over the counter to take whatever books I had brought to purchase. She seemed eager to consummate my delightful evening of browsing, not knowing my unfulfilled frustration.

I fixed her with my steely eye for a long second until and her hands lowered to her side. Only then did I drop a twelve-inch tall stack of books on the counter, all but three of which came from the children’s section upstairs.

“Curse your bookstore!” I said.

The bill was over $150 even with the discount. We plan to dole out only one book a week to the children to make it last. At my current reading rate of one book a month, I think that is more than generous.

Ice

Tonight I went downstairs in the dim light of my basement, and I stepped into a two inch puddle of water by the garage man door. The door, sitting six inches off the ground on a cinder block foundation, was certainly not at fault. Around the corner in the basement the floor drain was backed up. The back up began somewhere in the storm drain down the street, which might give you a sense of how much rain has been falling on top of  how much snow in the past twenty-four hours.

Unlike previous years, the snow began falling in November instead of in February, and it never completely went away. If I were to cut a cross section through the layers of snow on my lawn, I’m sure carbon dating on the bottom layer would go back at least five months. A month ago, the weatherman predicted rain turning to freezing rain, which was the signal for everyone in Montpelier to climb up onto their roofs and push off the accumulated two feet of snow. The consequences of not doing this would be a solid two foot block of ice on the roof. Most Montpelier roofs can not handle this load. One business in town already suffered a major blow when its roof caved in last week.

For this purpose I have a telescoping roof rake, which makes an extremely fatiguing, day-long chore. After a half hour of that mishigos, I went to my next door neighbor who lent me a ladder long enough to get up on my roof, something I’m embarrassed to say I don’t own. He also lent me his roof snow shovel, a two-foot-wide, plastic shovel with push handle. It resembles the front a bulldozer in form and function, but at a fraction of the weight and scale. You use it to push the snow off your roof. No lifting involved, and you don’t need to raise you hands above your shoulders. You do, however, have to climb up on your roof.

Our roof has three different sections, and it took about four hours to do the entire job. The top layers of snow came off easily enough, but when I had excavated down to last December, I hit compressed snow that was the consistency and thickness of rigid insulation. It would not budge without a fight, and after four hours, I had no fight left in me. I let it stay. It would have been foolish pride to remove it and a pyrrhic victory to show for the effort. The layer was only an inch thick, and the rain would have (mostly) rolled right off it. Even with that concession, the consequence of all this exercise was a mostly clear roof, a restful sleep at night, and four foot snow drifts extending two arms length around the perimeter of my house. The rain never came.

Not that time, which was a month ago. Instead it began yesterday, with temperatures rising above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. This was both good and bad.

The good news is, downtown won’t flood. The spring runoff can send chunks of ice downriver and create an ice jam, but it the weather flirts above and below freezing, then the snow melts at a manageable rate and the ice doesn’t jam up.

The bad news is that this process doesn’t work the same way in the storm sewers. They are underground below the frost line, but ice and trash can jam them up in just a few hours. It is rare, but it can happen and this is the first time we’ve ever seen it.

Also, this weather leaves ice all over the exposed road surfaces and is not terribly good for driving or walking. Our driveway ought to be a skating rink right now, but the endless dripping of water off the trees and the snow sliding off the embankments have created more of a lunar landscape unsuitable for ice skates. In a way, I prefer this, because you can’t slip on the textured surface unless you really try. But unless we get several warm days, that ice will remain until Spring time, a month from now.

Vegetarian

Today I ate a tuna fish sandwich. With mayonnaise and some chopped up celery on whole wheat bread. Just like Mom used to make and probably still does, though I wouldn’t know since I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years. Not front-page headline news. Not any great feat of strength, skill, or daring. But as it was the first living animal I have intentionally eaten in over twenty years, I thought it worth a mention.

For the record, this was Tongas tuna, line-caught in Thailand and packed in spring water and sea salt. So it is low in heavy metals and safe to eat no more than twice a month. It comes in the same hockey puck can that it did twenty years ago. The “Chicken of the Sea” of my youth was usually packed in oil, laden with mercury, and served with much more mayonnaise than I used today. So the flavor today was lighter and fishier than I remembered, but still tasty. For twenty years, whenever people asked me what I missed from my pre-vegetarian days, I would truthfully answer “Tuna fish with mayonnaise on a toasted bagel served with a side of Sunday New York Times.”

——-

My catalyst for becoming vegetarian in the first place was a week long stint at the East Wind farm commune in Missouri during college Spring break. A friend of mine (hi Jack!) and I had taken a course in Intentional Community, and decided to devise our own field trip. We had enough money to rent a car for exactly 24 hours, and so we drove in shifts round the clock from Philadelphia. We were motivated by our idealized image of communal life and the thrill of the open road. This trip coincided with the initial graying of my mother’s hair. Coincidently.

Punchy and delirious, we reached the commune at the end of the ten mile dirt road in the middle of a stone field in the Ozarks. The Ozarks is a poor region of Missouri, and looking at the fields full of rocks, it wasn’t hard to see why. The farmers who broke their plows on this land should have waited a few thousand years for the natural prairies and scrub pines and the occasional ice age to improve the organic material in the soil. But they were in a hurry, as were we. It was morning. We had a whole day ahead of us, and being polite young college boys, we found the people in charge (whom we had contacted in advance) and offered our services.

We got a tour of the buildings. They lived in small cabins with bunk beds and lanterns and not much else. A single community building served as kitchen, dining room, library, and town hall. There were acres of fields and their famous nut butter factory. Also there was a single, co-ed bath house which caused me no end of embarrassment. While I was stowing our gear in a cabin, Jack signed us up for our first work jobs. For him, it was several shifts in the nut butter factory. For me, it was days of shoveling manure out of a coop. Not a cooperative. A chicken coop.

I have yet to properly thank Jack for this.

Apparently, this dirty task had never been performed before in the entire history of this chicken coop, and they were just waiting for the right visitor to show up for the job. I was taken to the site and handed a shovel, and if the work was at all disagreeable, I consoled myself with revenge fantasies to be enacted on the ride home at the end of the week. My nose was completely unprepared for the stench, and at first I had to work bent over to avoid banging my head on the ceiling until d ays later when I reached the stony dirt floor and had a foot of clearance overhead.

On my first day, the poultry manager came to check on my work. Looking around he found a chicken too sick to stand. Without comment or ceremony, he grabbed it by the legs, dangled it upside down, pressed its head to the ground with his boot, and pulled. There was no squawk or cry, though of course that would have been impossible with its head clamped down. At first the wings flailed like a whirlygig, and then they slowed to a desultory flapping before stopping altogether.

Perhaps it was my somewhat sheltered suburban upbringing, or perhaps it was the hours spent breathing raw ammonia fumes, but I found this entire drama strikingly pathetic. In comparison to the factory poultry system of our country that treats animals with exquisite cruelty and indifference, this chicken had lived as sheltered a life as I had lived, and it had met a quick and merciful end. Yet I would not have been able to kill it myself, certainly not in what I considered at the time to be such a callous manner. And being the inquisitive, introspective, annoying college student that I was, I then asked myself, “Then why is it OK to let others do it for you?” I don’t recall what became of the bird afterwards, but I spent the rest of the week carefully avoiding chicken at the communal meals.

Of course, if I had the moral integrity that I professed I had, I would have quit eating meat right then. But it wasn’t until graduate school, when I joined a vegetarian housing co-op and I learned how to shop and cook and eat a vegetarian diet that I stopped eating meat. I rarely told people the real reason why. There are plenty of good reasons to not eat meat – environmental, ethical, political, economical, and health to name a few. I knew of all these reasons, but none of them were my reason.

My reason had to do with the act of killing the animal, an act I was too squeamish to perform. My reason was because I was a coward wrapped in personal ethics. My reason was that I was not brave enough to slaughter my own dinner. It is not a reason one can be terribly proud of. If people said to me, “Oh, you’re vegetarian. You must like animals,” I would dissemble, “No, I hate plants.”

This was 1989. Vegetarianism was still a radical idea, and my family responded as you might expect. I did not proselytize, and they felt guilty anyway. It was like having a priest in the family, without the pride. Everyone offered me salad and other rabbit food and apologized for eating meat in my presence. Everyone, that is, except my youngest brother, who went out of his way to wave his hamburgers and pepperoni pizza slices in my face at every possible opportunity. He seemed to take my choice as either a personal affront or an irresistible dare, or perhaps he simply enjoyed tormenting me, a old family tradition I share with my brothers. Certainly, his career in theatre has given him vast experience in the conventional food service industry, and he loves meat, especially bar-be-cue. His opinion was that humans evolved eating meat, therefore it must be good for us. Sound logic – we are an omnivorous species and we have a shorter gut and sharper incisors for a reason – but at the time I only replied “Yes we can eat meat, but we don’t have to.”

Mom, of course, worried I wouldn’t get enough protein (ping! went another hair). But I ate plenty of dairy and eggs, justifying that I could raid a nest or milk a cow without any scruples. I was never in any nutritional danger as far as I knew.

Nor did I stop anyone from eating meat around me. When my best friend from high school visited, we took him to a place in town we knew had excellent steak but also had vegetarian options. During the meal, I asked him how his food was, and he answered with the dry wit he is famous for, “Very good. I can taste the fear.”

Over time, family and friends got used to my diet. When I went home for Thanksgiving and other family reunions, Mom would serve a spinach quiche or eggplant parmesan alongside the beef bourguignon. People stopped treating me differently. Even my younger brother let up and occasionally ate a salad in my presence. We all got older. We got married. We had children. There were simply more important things to think about.

Twenty years passed.

—–

When my Dad went to the hospital for emergency triple-bypass surgery, it was a terrible shock, but not an inordinate surprise. He had smoked for years, and didn’t start exercising regularly until he was nearly 50 years old when he also quit smoking. He survived the surgery, and he was healthier afterwards than he had been in years. After a tense month or two, we let the memory of it fade into the past. Then at the age of thirty-nine, my younger brother went to the emergency room for the exact same emergency triple-bypass surgery. He also survived, but it was less easy to return to our complacent lives.

Mom sat us down and told us the family health history. Her parents, and all her parents’ brothers and sisters, died in their sixties from heart failure, some quite suddenly. My parents and my three brothers all take medication for high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, including my two older brothers who are not overweight, who do not smoke, who exercise regularly, who do all the things that are supposed to be good for your heart. My cholesterol and blood pressure had always been fine, but I was undeniably in a high risk category.

Everyone in the family took it for granted that through my vegetarian diet, I had dodged the bullet. This was the twenty-first century and what with the NIH findings, the publicity on cholesterol, and finally Mad Cow disease, they had all cut back their meat consumption. But not one of them ever seriously entertained the idea of becoming vegetarian. It was the priest thing again, only with the pride added back in – admiring his reflective, spiritual lifestyle without having any desire to actually live that way. After all, they might die younger than me, but they would die with a smile on their faces, the schmaltz still sheeny on their lips.

I took all this family data to my doctor to get her opinion. We tested my cholesterol and learned that my bad cholesterol was low, but for the first time ever my good cholesterol was also a little lower than it ought to be.

“How much exercise do you get?” she asked.

“For cardiovascular fitness, I walk five feet from my bed to my desk at least twice a day. For strength and conditioning, I lift my toddler off the ground whenever he asks, and as a consequence, my left pectoral muscle is now twice as large as my right.”

“Yes, I noticed.” she answered. “Well, your numbers are not a big deal, but given your family history, I want to treat this aggressively. I’d like your children to still have a father when they grow up. Take an aspirin a day and see me in a few months.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes.”

Daily medication. Feh. I had always dreaded the day when I would have to take some sort of medication every day. Once I started down this slippery slope, there would be no climbing back out of the abyss. But I took those little pink pills every morning with breakfast and they tasted as bitter on my tongue as they did on my fragile self-image. I was getting old. First I started getting back pain. Then I was an uncle at a bar mitzvah. And now this.

But I started to exercise. I made time for it, even at the expense of time with my wife and family, who supported me on this. And in truth, I did feel better. It wasn’t long before I got the time back, because I found I didn’t need to sleep so much. In six months I went back to the doctor.

“OK, doc. How’s my cholesterol?”

“Fine. Everything is back in the normal range.”

“Great. I want to stop taking the aspirin.”

“You really don’t like taking medication, do you?”

“What’s the risk if I do this?”

“Well, as long as your cholesterol and blood pressure remain normal, the risk is low to non-existent. Let’s just keep checking your numbers every year.”

—————–

I love Michael Pollan, a writer who specializes in food production in this country. Years ago I had read his “Botany of Desire,” a tongue-in-cheek examination of the hypothesis that certain plants have evolved to take advantage of human desires to get themselves propagated. This book is in four sections, matching a plant to a human desire that it exploits: sweetness = apples, beauty = tulips, control = potatoes, ecstasy = cannabis. The book is full of interesting natural and human history, including the true story of Johnny Apple Seed and a retelling of the Dutch tulip debacle that makes our current housing crisis look like a soap opera. It is one of the few non-fiction books in which I enjoyed every single page. I especially enjoyed his description of his visits to conventional vs. organic potato farmers and his digs at Monsanto.

I got on the organic bandwagon soon after becoming vegetarian, and the only thing I truly hated Bill Clinton for was signing the creation of a watered-down, national organic standard. Before this law passed, there were strong local standards in place all over the country, enforced by private or public organizations, that worked with the unique agricultural issues in each region. Organic food was a growing niche market within the larger food industry that was struggling to create new markets and new demands. After all, you can convince people to replace their TV every year, but there is a limit to how much food a person can eat (though apparently there are companies who are tinkering with that as well, contributing to our obesity epidemic). The food industry wanted “in” on the organic market. In fact, they wanted more than “in.” They wanted all of it. And they succeeded. In one fell swoop of his pen, Bill Clinton delegitimized all the local organic standards replacing them with a weaker, industry-friendly version that allows a national producer to put “ORGANIC” on a product that contains only 95% organic ingredients while a local organic farmer can no longer afford the increased cost of certification.

So when friends recommended Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I read it cover to cover. And then I read his “In Defense of Food.” And then I read “Real Food” by Nina Planck, and even “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon. I would recommend all of them, except perhaps the last which has lots of good information but is a bit more rigid and militant for my taste. Pollan is more accessible, but for solid information, Planck is best. All of these books refer to the growing body of research, and more importantly, the growing body of debunked research, that is changing the way people think about food, nutrition, and health.

I won’t soap box or proselytize here. You can read the books if you are interested. What I want to say is that these books convinced me of two things. The first is that, if we accept the premise that my diet is responsible for my heart-healthy outlier status in my family, then it was because I ate organic food as much as possible. The second is that, it did in spite of, rather than because of, being vegetarian.

All those years ago when my brother told me, “We evolved as meat eaters for a reason,” I should have listened more closely. There are any number of nutritional factors, some of which have only recently been discovered and researched, that either aren’t available in plants, or which are not as easily absorbed in the body from plants as opposed to animals.

Now, the fact is, I dodged the bullet on this one too. Because I wasn’t vegan. When people said to me, “You’re vegetarian, you must eat healthy,” I would answer, “Ice cream is vegetarian. Creme brulee is vegetarian.” I ate eggs and dairy, and to be honest, I ate a lot of them, more than the U.S. National Institute of Health thought I should. But I don’t really care anymore what they recommend. Frankly, the Bush administration is not the first administration, by far, to water down or replace scientific advice for political expediency. I diligently read ingredient labels, but I no longer read the Nutritional Information on packages in the grocery store, partly because I no longer think it is useful, and partly I am trying to stop buying the packaged food in the first place.

But as I have learned, or at least as I now choose to believe, I need to supplement my diet with flesh. Perhaps in another twenty years, I will choose to believe otherwise, or will be proven wrong by convincing scientist research. It is somewhat like the movie “Sleeper” in which Woody Allen wakes up in a distant future world only to learn that cigars and booze are extremely healthy. Who knows? But for now, I am fairly confident that I need at least fish in my diet. In my boy scout days, I caught and killed fish, so I don’t feel I would be breaking my ethical code to eat a can of tuna. I am reluctant to consider more than fish, mostly because of how meat is raised and processed in this country. Moral scruples aside, if the abattoirs of this country opened their doors to public inspection, most people would lose their appetite for chicken, pork, and beef.  Even with fish, it is difficult to find any without heavy metals, chemicals, or fertilizer run off. And the other nice thing about fish, for someone falling from vegetarian Grace, is that it leaves a lingering odor in your kitchen that, over time, will force you to confront whether you really want to do this. Plus it won’t trayf your kitchen .

Quick Plug

I have several blog entries that I have started, but none completed. So to reward those of you who keep checking, I thought I’d offer a plug for another blog that I really enjoy. It’s called People Reading and the woman who runs it roams the streets of San Francisco looking for people reading books in public. If they are willing, she takes their picture and interviews them about what they are reading and what their favorite books are and what book they would write if they ever decided to write a book. It’s a fascinating slice of life for bibliophiles, which I suspect many of my readers are.

I found out about this blog because she took her shtick on tour, DogEared, a two month vacation traveling across the United States by Greyhound bus, interviewing people across the United States, and one of the places she stopped was Montpelier. Great stories en route.

Hope you enjoy it!