Walking downtown over the July 4th weekend I passed a Congress Street tattoo parlor and had a sudden, vivid memory from nearly 20 years ago. I can’t swear it was the same tattoo parlor. It had a different name and was definitely seedier, as was most of downtown Congress Street. And mind you this was before everyone and her mother had a tattoo.
Here’s what I remember: I drove in to downtown Portland from the suburbs in my minivan with my 14-year-old daughter who was determined to get her nose pierced––something they only did in tattoo parlors back then. Under 16, you needed parental permission, which I wasn’t about to give. But I hoped the experience of actually going into the tattoo parlor would convince her not to go through with it––fat chance. (In retrospect, big deal, right? But this was 1995.)
We parked down the street and I walked ahead of my daughter and her two friends: three freewheeling kids, newly minted freshmen in high school, eager to carve out their identities, so to speak. Once inside the tattoo parlor we sat on a severely cracked leather couch and waited, looking at a binder of faded tattoo designs of the motorcycle gang variety. On the other side of the counter, the tattoo artist was doing his thing. Sizzle, zap, buzz… As time ticked on, I thought the kids were close to deciding they didn’t belong there, but no such luck. The place creeped me out but it didn’t seem to faze my daughter in the least. But then again, she only wanted her nose pierced.
Eventually, it was her turn. The owner of the tattoo parlor began walking my daughter through the process: choosing the stud, discussing where the hole would be, how much it would hurt. She showed no signs of changing her mind––she was going to call my bluff. And then, he got to the important part: no taking out the stud for six weeks. No exceptions. He was very convincing, bless his heart.
A sports season was about to start. It could have been soccer, field hockey or lacrosse, but in any case, the coaches didn’t allow jewelry to be worn on the field. If she got a piercing, she couldn’t remove it for 6 weeks…which meant she couldn’t play. We were at an impasse.
It’s possible my daughter had just found the excuse she was looking for. She could back out without chickening out. And best of all, I wasn’t the bad guy. We left the shop, nose intact. Piercings and body art were just something to look forward to in the bright future ahead. I was relieved; I’m not sure how she felt.
I have to admit: I didn’t run this particular account by my daughter. I do wonder if she remembers it the same way I do…or even at all? Not that it matters. Memories are notoriously inaccurate. But without them, where would the stories come from? And how would we know how far we’ve come?
One day my husband, David, came home with The Hobo News. In return for the dollar he had given to a panhandler on the street, he received a hand-folded, stapled leaflet. Inside were poems, drawings, thoughts, ideas and stories “written, distributed and printed by the homeless” – an attempt to enlighten a mostly disinterested public.
Such a variety of stuff: 10 questions for a local police officer; an Ask Bella column (a la Dear Abby); poetry, and a crass political cartoon. There was even a word search entitled “Death to all who oppose me.” Spend a few minutes circling words like alcohol, privacy, tribe, xcon, and fight.
The Hobo News got me thinking about all the characters I pass on the street during my daily walks to and from the office. Familiar faces, greetings, requests. I stop occasionally and contribute a buck, but I have yet to receive the next issue of The Hobo News. Here’s hoping.
One familiar face on Exchange Street is a women panhandler who always stands just about halfway between my office entrance and Starbucks. This means I walk by her often. On one particularly freezing afternoon, I offered to get her a cup of coffee.
“Oh thank you. I take it with seven sugars and seven creamers,” she said. Seven sugars? Seven creamers? Okay, one person’s caffeine fix is another person’s calorie fix.
On to Starbucks where I aimed to please. I stood at the side counter hoping no one would notice me tearing open seven sugar packets and emptying them into the same cup. Then I poured in what I hoped would be about seven creamer’s worth of white stuff, burning my hands as the hot coffee overflowed its cup. I managed to get the lid on and carried my coffee and hers back onto the street.
I handed her the coffee, but instead she asked me to pour it into her own well-worn to-go cup. “I don’t want anyone to see me carrying a Starbucks cup. They’ll think I have the money to buy coffee.”
Of course. Image is all, even when you are trying to keep afloat by panhandling on the street. Or maybe especially then. Because the public has no mercy.
I choose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts because, well, that’s my brand. She, on the other hand, can’t be seen drinking Starbucks because it would hurt her brand. And she has a lot to lose.
If I were writing for the Hobo News, this is a story I would tell.
I had intended to be a more prolific blogger in 2013. My excuse is that I was busy being prolific in other ways.
My freelance writing assignments included copy about methadone clinics, anesthesia errors, frozen potato wedges, design thinking, wicked problems, place-based learning along the Appalachian Trail, aronia berries, phytochemicals, and many different colleges and universities. It was an odd year.
Because of this work, for which I am truly grateful, I haven’t had time to attend to the blogging business. But I’ve thought about it. In fact, here’s a description of several ideas I never got around to writing about in 2013.
My month of buying local. The idea was to go for a whole month only “buying local” products (food, housewares, clothing, etc.) I would then write about how easy it was–or wasn’t. The first challenge I ran into was defining “local.” Buy Local Portland defines “local” as independently owned businesses located in the city. They can sell avocados from Mexico, silk shirts from Vietnam, or wheat flour from Canada and it’s still “local.” At the farmers’ markets, “local” means Maine. For others, it’s goods sold or produced within 100 miles. My husband claims “local” extends across the border into NH, within a certain radius. And I have one colleague for whom “buy local” simply means buy American. I could see I was going to spend the month dithering about definitions, so I gave up.
Grandmother Superior. If I had posted this one, I would have exposed myself as cranky and impatient, so it was best left unwritten. Suffice it to say, it came from too many gatherings where the sole topic of conversations was “the grandchildren.” Give me time.
Win 2 free plane tickets. This was an embarrassing episode that someone like Jerry Seinfeld could turn into a comedy routine. It involved a series of phone calls, and then a “last chance” letter telling me I had won 2 free plane tickets to anywhere in the US–no strings attached. You know the rest. Sometimes when you really need a free plane ticket, the torture of sitting through a sales pitch seems like a minor inconvenience. Four hours of driving? A mere blip in time. The truth is, there is no free plane ticket, ever. And because I’m no Jerry Seinfeld, no post either.
Signs of Hope. At Thanksgiving, when there were many of our clan’s younger generation hanging around, I sat down with six young relatives and asked them to tell me what they saw as signs of hope for the future. We had spent a few days griping about the things that make my generation despair: global warning, Congress, the widening income gap, Congress, the job market, Congress. So, I wanted to hear from the much-maligned millennials–and I got an earful of good stuff.
Actually, I do plan to get off my butt and write about my conversation with these hopeful young people. It seems like the perfect topic for the New Year. Stay tuned – the end of an odd year means the beginning of an even one.
Mary Oliver wrote: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” If nothing else, this well-loved verse gives purpose to the day. What astonishments can I find to tell about?
How about my recent visit to Houston for the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE): 8,000 dietitians. 400+ exhibitors. Astonishing number of protein bar brands.
This is an annual event that brings together members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 3 days of professional development, continuing education, hobnobbing, awards, etc., allowing for frequent visits to the accompanying huge trade show. I was there with the Food and Wellness Group, which was introducing The Colors of Health–a program designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. (see the preview here)
As you might expect, most booths attempt to attract visitors by giving away stuff–mostly product samples, shopping bags, and tons of brochures, flyers and other collateral material. Given the audience, you would expect the focus to be on eating healthy, right?
Astonishment #1: The Food and Nutrition Expo’s major sponsors include Coca Cola and Pepsico, among other corporate behemoths. They may have been promoting their anti-hunger foundations or their vitamin waters…but really?
Astonishment #2: Monsanto had a booth. Too bad it wasn’t a dunking booth.
Astonishment #3: There must have been at least 10-15 different protein/breakfast/energy bar brands there. Probably to keep the dietitians awake between presentations.
Astonishment #4: There was plenty of chocolate and yogurt to be had. Let’s face it, these are two very super superfoods.
These were the top four astonishments during my trip to FNCE. Also I should note that Houston has an enormous convention center, but that’s not astonishing, given that it’s Texas.
If I pay attention, I will surely have more astonishing things to tell about soon.
Two concepts I’ve been mulling over this week are “remixes” and “fan fiction.” Pretty mainstream, but also kind of radical when you think about it.
When my son Ben, part of the electronic music group The M Machine, first told me a few years ago that he was working on a remix of another artist’s song, I asked, do you have permission? Silly me. Yes, he said, they’re paying us to do it. Huh?
I associated this kind of thing with what we used to call mash-ups, like the Grey Album (Beatles White Album + Jay-Z’s Black Album = Danger Mouse’s Grey Album). But that was so 10 years ago.
The M Machine remixes the tracks of other artists in their own unique style, creating versions of songs that suit different dance genres; and it happens the other way around, too: other artists remix their songs (sometimes by invitation, sometimes not). In fact, The M Machine just released a whole album of remixes of their own songs, each produced by a different artist: Metropolis Remixed.
Unlike the one-of-a-kind nature of a Picasso painting or a Tolstoy novel, these digital creations seem to be made to be remade, with the artist’s blessing, as long as credit is given where credit it due. There is a difference between stealing and remixing; permission is the key.
The universal availability of ideas – the fluidity of creativity – seems new, but of course it isn’t. In a Ted Talkfrom 2004, Kirby Ferguson offers an entertaining demonstration of how songs are rooted through the ages in earlier songs… and, let’s face it, everything is a remix.
So, what about fan fiction? My daughter Betsey introduced fanfic to me. You know about obsessive fans: Think “trekkies.” These fans write stories about characters or places – from movies, TV, literature – that spin off from the original creations. They keep the fictional universe intact, so to speak, but take the characters wherever they want them to go.
Mostly you will find these stories on the Internet. The stories aren’t commercially published, although sometimes there’s a break-through to the other side. The fanfic communities online are enormous and passionate and prolific. (Google fan fiction and you’ll see)
But unlike the remixing world, there is an uneasy relationship between the original authors and the fanfic writers. You don’t find authors paying other writers to remix their original works as fan fiction…at least not yet.
Fan fiction isn’t the same as music remixing, but there are still intriguing similarities. Ideas float out there in the universe, how hard should we try to hold on to them, maintain “ownership” and integrity? Perhaps life is a remix, in every medium, and as Kirby Ferguson suggests, we should embrace it.
Remixing the Medium
Here’s what got me thinking about remixes. Two weeks ago, our family came together to honor my father, who had passed away earlier in the summer. We went to Cape Cod to scatter his ashes in places that were precious to him in his life. It was not sad. It was full of laughter, love, poems, songs, and poignant memories.
So, is it a stretch to think of this as a remix of sorts? A body is transformed, ashes are tossed into the sea, energy is redistributed, the medium is new. I feel that something creative will come of this remix. I will embrace it.
I’d like to think a summer weekend in Montreal could become an annual tradition. We’ve done it twice now…it could happen. In addition to the obvious appeal of this beautiful city, there are several compelling attractions: The M Machine and The Tailor.
I. The M Machine is an electronic music group from San Francisco started by three guys, one being our son Ben. When they play in our vicinity, David and I make the effort to see them. For the past couple of summers, The M Machine has given us a good excuse to drive 6 hours north for a weekend in Montreal.
Just being in Montreal is a treat for the senses: the fabulous food, the festivals, the fun atmosphere, the French. And when you add an evening at Le Belmont with The M Machine, it’s sensory overload. Mind you, the boys took the stage at 1:45 AM and played until 3 AM, so my senses might have been a bit dulled by fatigue, but here’s the five-senses lowdown.
Hearing: A billion decibels (a little exaggerated maybe, but that’s what it felt like–and I wore my ear plugs all night) of ear-splitting electronic dance music.
Seeing: An amazing, gorgeous video production synchronized to the songs and projected on screen, plus strobe lights and an all-around visual workout.
Smelling: Smoky. Sweaty. Not that bad.
Feeling: Bass so low and loud that it resonates in the gut as it shakes your teeth loose. (Sound like fun?)
Tasting: A few sips of beer–all I could stomach at that hour
The crowd loved it and a good time was had by all. Part of the fun of going to an M Machine show is the ritual of hanging out in the “green room” with Ben and the other 2 M’s, Andy and Eric. There is a lot of respect for parents who show up for electronic music gigs at 1:45 in the morning. More than one fan came up to us after the Montreal show to laud our “parental credentials.”
II. The Tailor. His name is Alberto Enr and his shop is in the hip Plateau neighborhood of Montreal. David discovered Alberto last summer, a hot tip from a shirt seller across the street. Alberto’s workshop is in the back of his son’s bijou (jewelry) store. Presumably, years ago, the tailor shop took up the whole space…but times have changed.
Last year, Alberto performed excellent same-day hemming services on two, just-purchased shirts, for a very reasonable price. This year, David brought two old shirts to Alberto for hemming. He had gone for months wearing these too-long shirts, just dreaming of the day when he could take them to Alberto in Montreal.
Six hours north to find a good tailor? We’ll chalk it up to a love of ritual. Alberto doesn’t speak much English, so the pantomime antics of hemming details are fun to watch. His shop opened at 11, and even though he had a stack of other pending items on the counter, he agreed to have the shirts ready for pick up by 2 PM.
Perfect. We walked for hours through Parc du Mont-Royal, had a great late brunch at L’Avenue (destined for ritualdom), and made it back to Alberto’s to pick up the beautifully hemmed shirts.
We do the tourist things in Montreal, too. But I’ve come to understand that destinations become special when you invent your own small rituals, make your own little discoveries, and find your own unique reasons to return. If and when The M Machine plays Montreal next summer, we’ll be back for the weekend.
I write a lot of copy for higher education websites and recruitment campaigns, and I am fully aware of the skepticism that greets proponents of the humanities these days. In the past few years, liberal arts institutions have been challenged to defend their very existence (or at least their tuition), as their students struggled to find jobs after graduation. The new mantra is: follow your passion (e.g., writing)…but make sure it leads to a real job on day one (e.g., writing software).
All this negativity hurts the feelings of sensitive English majors like me, and more importantly, it’s just wrong. For many critics of liberal arts education, practicality trumps all; they are ignoring the lessons of the tech revolution. Remember: “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that…makes our heart sing,” to paraphrase that poet Steve Jobs.
Of course, there are little things like massive student debt to consider. But I’m not here to defend the cost of liberal arts education, just the theory.
The reason I’m on this rant has less to do with higher ed, and more to do with…lower ed. A recent project I worked on introduced me to a K-12 program that is so interdisciplinary in nature that it could turn even would-be poets into scientists. The program is called a Trail to Every Classroom, sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and it is part of a family of programs (Forest for Every Classroom, Park for Every Classroom, Iditarod Trail to Every Classroom) that utilize place-based service learning concepts.
Imagine if the Appalachian Trail ran through your town, somewhere between Georgia and Maine, and you had teachers who used the Trail to teach math, science, reading, writing, art, music, and history lessons. Now imagine that these lessons also incorporated projects that benefited the local community, increasing knowledge about and connection with the place where you live. Restoring a stream, inventorying species, reclaiming a park, solving local problems.
After experiencing this kind of curriculum, students would have gained plenty of “practical” skills like measuring, using microscopes, calculating, analyzing, observing and communicating. Their perspectives on the world around them would have significantly broadened. What’s more, they would have developed problem-solving and critical-thinking skills––which is what every college promises to do. Believe me, I know.
These kids will be the liberal arts majors of the future and when they graduate from college, damned if there won’t be real jobs waiting on day one.
Americans have been bacon crazy for a long time now. I’m waiting for this fad to pass onto the “meh” list, but it only seems to be intensifying, especially in Portland, Maine. The two items you’ll find on most Portland restaurants are Brussels sprouts and anything made with pork. How did this happen? I mean, Lobsters R Us.
I couldn’t be happier about the sprouts. I credit chefs Dan Sriprasert and Bob Wongsaichua who own two great Portland restaurants, the Green Elephant and Boda, for spreading the Brussels sprouts religion. Most people wouldn’t have been caught dead eating Brussels sprouts as a kid, but now we Portlanders are gobbling them up like candy. This is good news, because Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous veggie associated with lowering cholesterol, guarding against cancer, and even protecting DNA.
But pork? Masa Miyake’s restaurants (Miyake and Pai Men) do a marvelous job with Brussels sprouts but pork is their pride and joy. This is because they raise their own hogs at Miyake Farm. (They probably grow their sprouts there, too, but it’s the pork they crow about. Mixed metaphor?)
Sometimes for us non-meat-eaters, who have to navigate menus carefully for salads without bacon bits, the proliferation of pork items can seem like an assault. But when the dishes are in another language it’s not so bad. Pai Men’s Yaki buta or the Cotelette du porc next door at Petite Jacqueline’s, for example.
I recently visited the cute new restaurant on Dana Street called Blue Rooster Food Co. There were the required Brussels sprouts on the chalkboard menu. And there were, as expected, many pork items, all with very cute names. There was the Crafty Swine and the Three Little Pigs, and a lot of specialty dogs (i.e. pork and beef) with cute names like Barking Dog and Junkyard Dog.
Enough with the pork already. I am not out to change pork eaters into vegans, but yesterday’s Portland Press Herald had a story about a group of scientists and animal advocates who would like to make us think differently about pigs and other farm animals that we eat.
Lori Marino, at Emory University, is the lead researcher on The Someone Project, which is trying to illuminate the emotional lives of highly intelligent animals like pigs. It’s sponsored by Farm Sanctuary (which does want to turn you into a vegan), and the idea is to get people to reject eating pigs in the same way they would reject eating cats or dogs.
Personally I would love to see less pork on Portland menus. As much as I admire Masa Miyake, and am proud to have his restaurants in Portland, Maine, I am all for the Someone Project. I think these clever chefs could come up with some variations on Brussels sprouts that would be welcome, too. Cute names might help.
Robinson’s premise is that over the past 10,000 years or so, farmers have been cultivating the good stuff right out of our produce to such an extent that the phytonutrient content of a piece of sweet corn pales in comparison to that of an ear of Indian corn–the kind you might hang on your door at harvest time.
Why has this happened? According to Robinson, our very own taste buds have been leading us down this treacherous garden path.
A spoonful of sugar
Jo Robinson suggests that the human preference for flavors that are sweet rather than bitter, sour or astringent has led farmers over the ages to cultivate plants that are higher in sugar and starch, with less fiber and other nutrients. These “more palatable” plants are much lower in disease-fighting phytonutrients, which afford natural protection for both plants and humans. What to do? Jo Robinson, among others, recommends that we seek out wilder plants, from unadulterated gene pools, and add these to our diets.
In this NY Times chart, you can see the difference between the healthy fruits and veggies we commonly consume and their “wilder counterparts” like dandelion greens, blue corn, herbs, scallions, wild aronia berries, and heirloom varieties of fruits and veggies. I’ll call these the “superdooper superfoods.”
Stalking the Wild Aronia
Here’s what I encountered when I went looking for the foods mentioned by Jo Robinson in her opinion piece for the Times.
Fresh Corn. A good deal of Robinson’s article is devoted to telling the story of how this staple food lost its nutritional mojo. Today’s super-sweet, super-pale varieties contain about 40% sugar and have only a fraction of the beta-carotene content of deep-yellow corn. I couldn’t find anything in Whole Foods or Hannaford except super-sweet corn and I know from experience that when local corn is available in the farmers’ market, I probably won’t fare any better. Ancient blue corn varieties, known as Hopi maize, have about 100 times more phytonutrient content than white corn, but the only way to add this to your diet is to grow your own. There are heirloom seed companies, like Victory Seeds, that supply blue and red corn seed online–pick it young for best eating.
Blue, red or purple cornmeal. One way to get the nutrient value of heirloom corn is to use deeply colored corn meal in cooking. (I don’t really think blue corn chips count.) I found I was able to purchase blue, red and purple cornmeal online. Blue is much easier to find; Bob’s Red Mill offers it, for example.
Crab Apples. I was surprised to learn about sweet corn…but even more surprised about apples. Our modern apples all came from the Central Asian crab apple, a wild species that has about 485 milligrams of phytonutrients per liter of juice, compared with just 108 in a Red Delicious apple. There were no crab apples in the market when I looked, but I know I can find these crab apples at farmers’ markets in the fall. You can also grow the beautiful Siberian crab apple tree and get the benefit of 4,606 milligrams of phytonutrients per liter of juice (if you make the juice)–or seek out heirloom apple growers and cultivate a taste for the crab. I belong to Out on a Limb Heritage Apple CSA – a great way to try out heirloom crab apples.
Purple Potatoes. Deeply colored foods often have more phytonutrient content than other varieties and this is true of purple and blue potatoes, especially purple Peruvians, which are rich in flavonoids (antioxidants like anthocyanin). I had no trouble finding purple potatoes in the supermarket, and during the harvest season, I’ll see them in the farmers’ markets. You can also buy purple seed potatoes and grow your own.
Dandelions. Spinach is a super food, right? Well dandelions are a superdooper food. We all know this, even as we curse them in the lawn. I purchased dandelion greens at the farmers’ market and I even saw them in my local Hannaford supermarket. Another green that outshines spinach is arugula, also easy to find in the market. Both of these greens are examples of stronger tastes that need some getting used to.
Purple/yellow carrots. I couldn’t find these right now, even at Whole Foods. The seeds are available, however. And later in the season, I know they will be abundant in the farmers’ markets. The beautiful colored bunches are so appealing. Heirloom varieties are what to look for.
Green Onions. Green onions or scallions are always available in the supermarket and they are easy to grow on your own. According to Joe Robinson, they are close to their wild onion ancestors and just as nutritious…just be sure to eat the green parts.
Fresh Herbs. I found displays of various fresh herbs at the supermarket and the farmers’ market. Jo Robinson calls them “wild plants incognito.” We haven’t messed with their flavor profile, so they still have their phytonutrient value. The idea is use them with abandon–pile on the intense flavors.
Aronia berries. This is the up-and-coming super berry, Aronia melanocarpa (AKA black chokeberries). The Europeans are ahead of us in appreciating the extraordinary antioxidant content of these berries; however, the aronia berry is native to the US and it grows well here. So it is catching on. Aronia berries have antioxidant levels (ORAC) that measure four times higher than blueberries. Not surprisingly, I found aronia supplements of all kinds, available on the Internet. Commercial growers sell aronia products online, too, in frozen, dried, and juice concentrate forms. And, you can buy the plants. Again…aronia berries aren’t sweet! But it is well worth finding ways to cook with this antioxidant superdooper berry.
Take the bitter with the sweet
Bottom line, sometimes you do have to grow your own. But many of the superdooper superfoods I was looking for are readily available, if I make the effort. Nutritionists agree that getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into our diets is critical to maintaining our health. So if adding some wilder species to my plate increases diversity and ramps up the phytonutrient content at the same time, I’m all for it.
For me, one lesson of Jo Robinson’s article is that we should support the farmers and researchers who are trying to restore diversity and high nutritional value to the fruits and vegetables in our food supply.
The other lesson? We should all learn to like the taste of bitter herbs.
This is the full-color banner that Betsey Swardlick created for my website. When I first saw this, I didn’t recognize most of the pictures. Betsey just pulled them at random from photos on facebook. I have a picture of piglets on my facebook page? Apparently so. Turns out, these are details of larger photos in my albums, not the primary focus of the shots. Oddly enough though, they add up.
There are four images taken during trips to Transylvania; one during a trip to Italy, another of the accordion. All things I’m passionate about. But maybe I didn’t recognize that until they showed up as details in a cartoon. Sometimes other people can see the patterns in your life better then you can yourself.