Friday, January 30, 2009

"We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon" - The Decemberists

I feel badly about not completely loving Gluten-free Girl's book. She and I really do have a lot in common. Her GF story even got me thinking about my own journey out of wheat-land. Many people with celiac disease waste away under-nourished, but recent theories suggest others continue to gain weight, over-eating to compensate for lack of nutrition. Can I blame my Freshman 15 on that? I did spend many nights in my dorm eating bowls of kashi and peanut butter for no good reason other than that it sounded good.

Also, apparently traumatic events (in her case a car accident) can trigger celiac symptoms. High school stress was certainly the beginning of my trouble with food. And it wasn't until I got diagnosed with my circulatory problems that I took the trouble to investigate my unpredictable stomach-aches.

Like GFG, I was most eager to embrace new, healthy food when I was at my weakest. Suddenly sapped of potassium and B vitamins, I looked at berries and bananas like they were liquid gold.

Recent discovery 1: adding a dash of cinnamon to your berry/banana/OJ smoothie makes it even better.
Recent discovery 2: In a baking crisis, 2Tb water, 1 Tb oil, and 1/2 tsp baking powder can fill in for an egg.
Recent discovery 2: Adding cinnamon and flax meal to the GF pancake mix your Aunt Judy sent you may sound good, but for some reason it makes the batter stick to the pan. Lucky I used that egg substitute, so I had no worries about salmonella in half-cooked hunks of dough.

A good bill for kids

NYT: Senate Approves Children's Health Bill

For the people I work with, this is good news! The passing of this bill means more of the children we serve will have more health coverage. For the record, I'm not a fan of universal government-provided health care, but this legislation is a far cry from "socialized" medicine.

Expanding benefits for legal immigrants is particularly helpful. Previously, a woman had to live here for 5 years before she was eligible for Medicaid. Picture this true story: a man who is an American citizen cannot get Medicaid for his pregnant immigrant wife because she's only been here two years. Coverage for this family makes preventative sense: if she can afford prenatal care, their child is less likely to be born too early or weigh too little. If the baby gets all his immunizations and has a regular pediatrician, he's less likely to develop long-term health problems. That means fewer future health costs for Medicaid/private insurance/the parents, whoever.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Comfort Food

I've had a sore throat for days. This means I took two "snow days" this week, despite the office being open. Today I finally relented and sought medical care, which is always tricky given my complicated insurance situation. Luckily Walgreen's Take Care clinic turned out to be efficient and reasonably priced. (How does that work? What public health organization funds this? How is it decidedly not sketchy?) Unluckily, I do not have strep throat, so I just get to ride out this virus. Woohoo.

On the way home I stopped by WholePaycheck and treated myself to some luscious key lime pie ice cream. It's like a miracle. It has a creamy texture and hunks of graham crust. Yet, it is both gluten AND dairy free! Turtle Mountain deserves a Nobel Prize for creating a frozen dessert that does not taste like salty dough. (I'm looking at you, Rice Dream.)

They like me! They really like me!

Last night was informed via voicemail that I made "callbacks" for the Notre Dame history PhD program! This literally means that they like my application and so have decided to call me and chat about my graduate study plans. After rounds of calls they pick who actually gets accepted.

So this morning I had a short interview with a professor who specializes in American religious history (yay!) He was very interested in my Modern Catholic Architecture project - he suggested that a liner study of the "built environment" in a single community would make a nice thesis. He also was interested in my time in CW - he's familiar with Handler and Gable's scathing study of it as a "Republican Disneyland."

Overall I think it went well, although it was 8:30am and I was feeling ill so you never know how coherent I sounded. Then again I improved by GRE scores while feeling profoundly feverish, so you never know.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book review: Gluten Free Girl

This book is part memoir, part recipes, part whole-foods apology. Shauna James Ahern's blog is usually a joy to follow, but an entire book of her gooey prose turned me off somehow. Her musings on food and life were a little self-congratulatory and definitely too cute. Most chapters contain a least one "OMG I love love food and I love cooking and I love grocery shopping. Isn't eating vegetables a profound spiritual experience?" paragraph. It's nice, but gets old after the umpteenth time. Her gluten backstory would have been better had it been told at the beginning, instead of bits and pieces throughout. Gluten-Free Girl (GFG) has a penchant for the short, Hemingway-esque sentences that get on my nerves. Ironically, she's also fond of SAT vocab, especially "enervate" and "redolent."

GFG's correct that people should think outside of the hamburger helper box, but her intense foodiness can be intimidating. I'm sure $25 bottles of excellent olive oil are delish, but that's the my entire weekly food budget. Am I a sellout because I use boxed organic chicken broth instead of making my own stock?

Unbearable tweeness aside, GFG's overall message is an important one. Cutting a harmful food out of your diet should not be deprivation, but rather an invitation to be more creative. Going gluten-free requires you to become something of a hippie, rejecting the fast-food buns, boxed cereal, and pre-packaged foods that are staples of American eating. You have to be willing to try new grains and new foods. Would I be so fond of salad and brown rice and Indian curry if I could eat wheat?

GFG is also right that Americans ingest way too many artificial ingredients and non-nutritious fakery. You can't live on fried foods and not get fat. She reminds me of another food writer, Ruth Reichl, in her rejection of childhood junk food. My mom is the same way. The generation that grew up in the 50's and 60's is realizing that there are alternatives to bland, overcooked, artificial convenience food. Wonder Bread, TV dinners, and cream of mushroom soup aren't that great after all.

Lucky me, my parents forced us to encounter healthy food at a young age. Homemade spaghetti sauce, raw vegetables and dip, cocktail shrimp, and sauteed green peppers were all favorite dishes. Soda was for illness or special occasions only. We never ever sipped Capri Sun. Sugary cereals were verboten until I was 14, when July heatwaves made my hugely pregnant mom relent to one purchase of Cap'n Crunch.

Shauna Ahern and her chef husband have an upcoming cookbook, which I am excited to see. In the meantime, I probably should visit the local farmer's market. Maybe I'll even swallow my pride and make my own stock.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, aka when God literally knocked Saul of Tarsus on his butt on the road to Damascus. Caravaggio's depiction of this scene is one of my favorite paintings.
(I should point out that the horse is never mentioned in the Bible account, despite being a popular element of most artistic depictions. Poor steed is merely one of those lovely historical myths that look nice but are only figments of our collective imaginations. Doesn't Caravaggio paint a nice figment, though?)

I learned at Mass today that it's also the anniversary of St. Vincent de Paul's founding of the Congregation of the Mission aka Vincentian priests in 1617. Apparently the pulpit he preached from on that day is still preserved in a little French church. I never really had much desire to visit France before - Rome and London and Prague are much more alluring - but now I would love to visit all the Vincentian landmarks that dot the country. The Daughters of Charity love to talk about Vincent's villages and Louise de Marillac's group of charitable French ladies and the convent where Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal appeared to St. Catherine Laboure.

Even if I can't make it across the pond, I should at least re-visit a Vincentian landmark in my backyard. Up the road in Emmitsburg, MD is where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the American version of St. Vincent's Daughters of Charity. This summer there is a big celebration of the order's 200th aniiversary. If I can't pay my respects to the place where American Catholic education was born, I might as well turn in my religious historican card now.

My high school, Seton School, always has this St. Elizabeth quotation on letterhead "Let his will of the present moment be the first rule of our daily life and work." That's an important lesson, and one that will likely take me a lifetime to master. As the priest said at this morning, there is no "How to be a saint" manual. Instead, you live in the present moment, doing what God wants in the here and now. As Paul knocked to the ground so aptly illustrates, we cannot control the future. Accepting the grace of the moment will help us respond to what does happen in a Christlike way.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Today's loot

When I hear the side doorbell ring, that means it's time to grab my coat and help unload some donations. Here's a look at some of the things we have collected this week.
  • several bags of canned goods and pasta from a local Methodist church's food bank
  • bushels of magnetic chip clip thingies advertising iron supplements
  • four lovely handmade quilts
  • the preemie clothes that New Jersey woman promised to ship
  • blankets made by a Girl Scout troop
  • twenty Build-a-Bear animals made by another Girl Scout troop, ranging from pandas to rabbits to a hot pink monkey (Build-A-Bear started in STL and I got to hear founder Maxine Clark speak at a seminar for non-profits)
  • a huge stuffed horse large enough for a toddler to ride. It is currently seated at Ebony's desk, wearing a tiara and shirt and holding an American flag. (That's what happens when you aren't at work and Dorene gets bored in the afternoon.)

This is what comes of reading too many Catholic blogs

You’re St. Justin Martyr!

You have a positive and hopeful attitude toward the world. You think that nature, history, and even the pagan philosophers were often guided by God in preparation for the Advent of the Christ. You find “seeds of the Word” in unexpected places. You’re patient and willing to explain the faith to unbelievers.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Visa to Steelers Nation

When you share a house with someone from Pittsburgh, it is inevitable that the Steelers become a prominent part of your life. Thus, Sunday night involved lots of cheering, Terrible Towel waving, and victory lap running around the church parking lot next door. Pittsburgh's going to the Suuuu-per Bowl!

I suppose this makes me a bandwagon fan. I'd rather call it continuing education in American sports culture. Also, I have a right to be proud of head coach Mike Tomlin since he is a WM alum and was my commencement speaker, after all. He might seem an unlikely Tribe member since our football is not exactly legendary. At yesterday's press conference, though, he proved that The College made its mark on him.

"... I just told that group, 'We've got miles to do before we sleep,' " Tomlin said.
"I'm no Robert Frost," he added sheepishly.

See? Like any true William and Mary person, he footnotes his literature references. Now that's Tribe Pride!

And onward we go

I've realized recently that I really dig the presidency. I know way too many trivia facts about it. (Did you know John Quincy Adams liked to skinny-dip in the Potomac?) I've seen the Smithsonian collection of First Ladies' gowns multiple times and bought the commemorative coloring book. (Nancy Reagan's cream evening gown is the only time I've used a white crayon.) And of course, I really enjoy the hoopla of inaugurations. When I was a child, they meant waving flags and eating patriotically colored cupcakes.

Ironically, I almost watched the inauguration of the Gen X, internet utilizing president on old-school technology. Judie in Development brought in an old portable TV set from home so it could enjoy a last hurrah before the DTV transition makes it useless. Online streaming wasn't behaving, so for a while it looked like the entire office would be huddled around her cubicle.

Eventually we did make it to the flat-screen in the conference room, where I made the following random observations. Most of them are about wardrobe, which is always tricky in January's weather. (Remember Hillary's controversial hat in 1993?)
  • Michelle Obama's fashion sense did not disappoint. Love love love the embellished yellow outfit. It was flattering and unique.
  • Aretha Franklin's hat was out of control, and I gotta respect her for that. Singing at an inauguration is once in a lifetime, so you might as well go full-on diva.
  • Awww the Bushes Sr wore matching purple scarves. Clinton was in a cheery yellow. The Carters apparently missed the scarf memo, nor did they feel like hugging Bill and Hillary.
  • Awww the Obama girls are ADORABLE. I'm already cringing for their awkward teen indiscretions.
  • H W Bush's fur hat is also amazing. I would wear one if I were an ex-president.
  • Aren't Yo Yo Ma's fingers cold?
  • Can we remember the words to the oath of office? No? Ok then. I'm not sure if Obama or Roberts is to blame here.
  • We are always "remaking America"? Hmmmm.
  • Please don't make "wrong side of history" a catch phrase. Please.
  • Yes, let's make choices for love and inclusion. Can that involve unborn children too?
  • Not gonna lie, I got goosebumps at the end of the speech.
  • The DC skyline makes me so homesick I can't stand it.
  • The benediction minister seems like a real character. "When the red man/ can get ahead, man"
Now, as I'm back at my desk with tv coverage of state luncheons in the background, I really, really want to watch Duck Soup, the best Presidency-themed movie ever. His excellency's car!!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Two new church finds

Today I attended mass at St. Anthony, which is next door to the pregnant women's shelter one of the other volunteers works at. St. Louis seems to have a great respect for old buildings, and St. Anthony is one of many neo-Gothic/Romanesque houses of worship that would not have survived Vatican II unscathed in, say, Chicago. In fact, a plaque in the entry praises the firefighters and restoration crew who rescued the church from a 1994 fire.

Whether that restoration is entirely a good thing is another matter, however. There were really lovely elements, like the delicate Life of Christ windows and intricate pastel details on walls. Others were a little distracting, like the almost-gaudy Stations of the Cross. And were those marquee light bulbs framing the side chapels? I hate to call God's house tacky, but there it is. Six confessionals were skillfully carved of dark wood, but also ponderously large. The baldachinno (or chuppah, as Jessica likes to call it) featured so many gold-on white intricacies, all I could think of was a huge frosted wedding cake. Mmmm, icing.

Earlier this week I visited what is nearly St. Anthony's polar opposite. Central Reform Congregation is a relatively young Jewish congregation in an even newer building. Their Central West End location is all modernity, with clean lines, simple metal and wood, and rooms that fan out from the circular lobby like spokes of a wheel. It's easy to tell that social justice is CRC's main focus - the food pantry and clothes closet are right past the front door, and there dozens of meeting rooms buzzing with activity. When I met CRC's Rabbi Susan Talve and complimented her on the building, she replied that the design came to her in a dream. Also, CRC originally didn't want a building, thinking it was a waste of money that could go toward programming instead. When some Section 8 housing nearby got condemned, though, they were happy to buy the property and move out of the Unitarian Church basement nearby. Funny how priorities can change - that reluctant building reflects CRC's priorities more concretely than any "mission statement" plaque.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cold Snap

We're experiencing some of the coldest days so far this winter. Windchills have been below zero the past few days. Thursday had a high of 11, and today 25 degrees felt just balmy. Thought turn to the plight of the homeless and investing in better gloves. Happily, one lunchtime conversation about a client in a heat-less trailer has led to a space heater purchase and hopefully warmer nights for her and her children.

I can see the River De Peres from the Metrolink overpass, and I've enjoyed monitoriing its progression into winter. The water has shifted from an unnatural dark turquoise flow to blue stillness to proper opaque iciness. I almost want the temperature to stay below freezing so I can watch it solidify.

Last year I made a New Year's wardrobe resolution to buy more cute sundresses. This year, my "new year, new clothes" list includes a longer coat, black dress boots, and maybe a tweed skirt that can go with said boots and a pair of tights. My JCP order for suede gloves is already underway.

Monday, January 12, 2009

We love free stuff!

I just finished a phone conversation with a woman in New Jersey who saw NFNF founder Sharon Rohrbach on CBS a few months back. This lady has a preemie infant in her family, and was touched by our efforts to help medically fragile babies. And so, she is shipping us several boxes of new and barely worn outgrown preemie clothes!

Every now and then, we volunteers get some great free stuff as well. Kristina brings home piles of extra bread from the shelter where she works. Emma's school sends her grocery gift cards every month. Target gift cards from a generous VSC board member were happy surprises in our Christmas stockings. its encouraging to see that when you are generous with your time and yourself, other people will be generous to you.

A fun recent windfall came with Jessica as she finally returned from Texas. Her luggage was bursting with random stuff from her mom, including tons of Mary Kay products in discontinued packaging! We spent a good hour sorting dozens of little hot pink boxes, smearing lipstick shade testers on the backs of our hands. The deep bronze foundation and dark blushers will go to Covenant House, where Jessica's teen girls should be able to get good use out of them. As for me, I probably won't buy eyeshadow or lipstick for another 2 years, given how seldom I actually apply it. I'll probably finish it off around the same time NFNF opens the last box of prescription-advertising post-it notes and anti-bacterial soap that recently were donated by the truckload.

When government inefficiency turns deadly

Daily Telegraph: Children Left to Die by Social Workers

"A baby of seven months died in bed with her mother, whose alcohol intake contributed to the death. Social workers who previously found the mother drunk in bed with the infant had asked her to sign an agreement to tackle her drinking, which she signed after consuming eight cans of beer.
In the case of the three-year-old, who was on the child protection register in Reading, just 25 of 84 attempts by social workers to visit her family were successful.
Despite her parents’ refusal to co-operate with social services, action was not taken to protect Trae-Bleu Layne, who died of a methadone overdose.
Even when her parents took her on a violent raid on local shops — which ended with a high-speed chase by police, who found the child in the back of a car next to drug-taking paraphernalia — authorities failed to step in to protect the infant."

This heartbreaking story is from England, but I could see it happening here in the US. It's good that we have a system to protect children from abuse, but so often that system is horribly dysfunctional. I've heard dozens of stories about some parents losing custody over misunderstandings, and then truly abusive and negligent people are given second, third, and tenth chances.We still have a long way to go before every child is safe and nurtered.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Where Does God live?

New York Times: In quiet rebellion, parishioners keep faith

At first, this story seemed a poignant example of church architecture's emotional pull. Images of parishioners lovingly shoveling walks and dusting Stations of the Cross are designed to pull on the heartstrings. I'm just as disgusted as anyone at the Archdiocese of Boston's scandalous ineptitude, so I can understand the parishioners' frustration. It breaks my heart when alienation and hurt drives Catholics away from the Church.

But then I mulled on the situation some more, and I began to wonder. "We are not protesters, we are vigil-keepers," a woman testified. Vigil means waiting, keeping watch until the dawn. What exactly are these people waiting for? I'm assuming for the Archdiocese to reinstate the parish. This multi-year vigil is a display of devotion and resistance usually associated with repressed Catholics in communist countries. What are the people of St. Francis fighting for? What is being threatened?

Not an historic building - it's recent and rather bland-looking. Some seem to be fighting to preserve the past - but memories of first communions and weddings won't fade away without the building. I live across the country from the site of my baptism, but that doesn't invalidate it. Really, what these people want is their own way.

There is a marked self-centeredness in the parishioners' comments.
"The God I believe in doesn't do things like this."
"I've gotten a lot closer to my faith and my God keeping these vigils." (emphasis mine)
These statements imply a faith that only the individual can define and thus an ethics independent of and even in spite of, church leaders. Such individualism is quite modern and not unlike contemporary wishes that the Church were more like a democracy. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote that we do not make the Church. Jesus made it, and we preserve what he gave us. The people of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini seem to eager to call all the shots.

Such sentiments also obscure the fact that St. Frances is part of a larger church, a larger community of believers. What if the money from the parish sale was meant to help some other laypeople like them? What if it could pay teacher's salaries or patch a church roof or care for elderly nuns in a nursing home? Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. The Archbishop making parish-closing decisions is not Cardinal Law, the inept and corrupt administrator who got Boston into this mess.

Put in perspective, this parish's suffering is pretty light. All over the country, Catholic schools are closing and parishes are consolidating for financial reasons. These won't be the first people to have to change their Sunday Mass location. Have they been deprived of the sacraments? Has their faith been attacked as invalid? No, there was just a forced change in geography.

All in all, this story illustrates the dilemma underlying my big church architecture project. Is it God's house or a house for God's people? St. Frances Xavier Cabrini seems to be the latter. God doesn't need a building or statues or a shoveled sidewalk. He can reside everywhere, in fact He lives in the tabernacles across town. These parishioners have misguidedly pinned their faith identity on a pile of bricks and mortar, not the Body of Christ it represents.

Close Enough for Government Work

Today was one of those days where I attend mysterious meetings where I do my best to look professional and not betray how completely ignorant I am. That's especially hard to do when you are sitting through 2 hours of Medicaid acronyms and legal advice. Basically I learned that obtaining medical benefits from the government is crazy complicated, and that they often fail to give you everything you could be eligible for. At which point you should call the legal aid hotline, where a short androgynous woman inexplicably named Missy will put her mullet and New York accent into action and help you stick it to the man.

The cruel irony is that this alphabet soup of programming and forms is meant to help poor, often under-educated people. If college-educated adults are intimidated by the system, what does that mean for high-school dropouts and immigrants? For all those people salivating at the thought of single-payer health care coverage, I could tell you a ton of stories about how exasperating and inefficient Medicaid is. My boss asked Missy, a former state of Missouri employee, if there was any hope for the system becoming simpler/easier to understand.

As if that would happen in our lifetime. Missy gave the best explanation I have ever heard for the Hydra that is government waste. "Government doesn't want things to be simpler, implementing that would cost them money." One of our nurses weighed in "that is costs them even more, though, to pay for those gnomes who sit there putting poor mothers on hold for 20 minutes wasting all their cell phone minutes."

I like that image, of a vast cave where squirrelly gnomes sit in nooks and crannies wasting taxpayer dollars. I also couldn't help picturing the sterile offices of Insuricare, where Mr. Incredible surreptitiously helps old ladies navigate red tape until he snaps and throws his greedy boss through a wall.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

No Crib for a Bed

This has been an unusual Christmastime for me in many ways. At first, I was unusually festive from December 1 onward, managing not to let holiday mayhem make me mental. Avoiding malls out of financial necessity helped a lot. So did learning to only half-hear Delilah's holidays songs on KEZK. The biggest factor though, was keeping the focus on other people. The most fun present unwrapping I did in years was in the office, sorting donations from a local church. I knew every gift would be welcome, even if it wasn't exactly glamorous. "A carton of Similac? AND a baby nasal syringe? Oh Santa, how did you know?."

There is old St. Louis Post-Dispatch cartoon on display in the office where Mary encourages the Magi to donate the gold and spices to NFNF. It's a nice reminder that the first Christmas gifts were for an at-risk infant. My own family, once again seperated from my by 700 miles, has been bearing a lot of similarity to that family this past year. Mold removal and renovations have kept us in exile from our home for a year. In our snug rented apartment, my little brothers don't even have beds, just mattresses on the floor. This year has entailed the same rapid packing, wandering, and doing without that Joseph and Mary had to deal with. We're still waiting for final word that it's safe to return from Egypt.
The holidays were extra difficult as even more construction delays pushed back the long-awaited move-in to January. It was indeed strange to celebrate in a foreign living room without our usual ornaments and decorations, which are mostly in storage. (Mark did "save Christmas" by diving amidst boxes to retrieve the stockings.)

Strangest of all for me was coming to terms with my attitude towards presents. For years now I have realized that I am no longer the wide-eyed wondering child my parents would love to see scampering down the stairs with glee on Christmas morning. Recent years saw me take a very utilitarian approach - this is the most money spent on me all year, so I better get something I really want in return, not useless things you think are cute. Better yet, just send money - how about tens and twenties? It took much arguing (not diplomatically on my part) to convince my mom that I would rather have one pair of ballroom dance shoes than a pile of miscellany. To this day I still am not sure if she was put off more by the price tag or by my mercenary spirit.

This year, however, I didn't really need or want anything other than some GF foodstuffs from Whole Paycheck. As long as I got two weeks at home and maybe some new slacks for work, I was happy. So, I took family unwrapping in stride, not stressing over the total utility and opportunity cost of every item. Some I will get good use out of, like said slacks plus three sweaters and a watch. Others, like the plastic bling from brother 3, were given in love but will likely sit around the rest of the year. It's nice to have some new stuff, but I wasn't heartbroken about having to leave the huge skillet and sewing machine case behind.

I started this VSC year hoping to become less attached to "stuff", and Christmas was a good indicator that it's working to some degree. As long as I am fed, clothed, housed, (and have internet and transportation), life is pretty good. It's the people you meet, places you see, and things you learn that matter. In that spirit, I'd like my final Yuletide observation to come from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which every WM student knows, and loves to hear read by college presidents disguised as St. Nick.

It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, and bags!
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, doesn't come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.