Saturday, December 18, 2004


[This is a post from when I was heavily pregnant with my youngest. I felt ranty]

Did you know that there is a homeopathic cold and flu remedy on the market that is made from the heart and liver of a freshly-killed duck, incubated for forty days, whereupon the organs are pulverized, freeze-dried, reconstituted, and diluted repeatedly before the solution is impregnated into sugar granules? Did you know that the quantity of duck organ the manufacturer claims is in the homeopathic remedy is "200C", or 1 part per 100 to the power of 200 (a number followed by 400 zeros, so a pretty small amount)? This means that if any given tablet of the remedy actually contained a single molecule of duck, the tablet would have to be composed of four times as many molecules as are estimated to exist in the universe.

Apparently that's not a problem for homeopaths, who believe that water retains a "memory" (their word) of stuff that has been in it, and that the smaller the dose, the more powerful its effect. So, hey, if it's not there at all, it's pretty darn powerful, huh? Seriously. I kid you not. This is the "law of infintisimals." The result of all this is, of course, that the company that makes this stuff needs one duck per year to produce an unlimited supply of cure, for which they netted over twenty million dollars in 1996. Don't believe this crazy talk? Check out Dr. Stephen Barrett's overview of homeopathy.

Homeopathy is also based on the "law of similars", which in essence claims that taking something that causes the exact symptoms you're suffering will ease them. Yeah, I'm still not joking. This of course does not mean that you should drink buckets of espresso to cure your insomnia; the law of infintisimals indicates that what you should do is drink sugar water that once contained caffeine but has since been so completely diluted that it has passed the point at which the laws of chemistry indicate that none of the original substance is still there. Except, of course, the memory. That'll knock you right out, with no side effects. Conveniently, apparently the water only remembers the homeopathic remedy, not the near-infinite number of other molecules it has contained during its life. Still dead serious, folks.

"But wait!" you exclaim. How does the law of similars mean that duck guts produce cold and flu symptoms? I wondered the same thing, myself, and so went straight to the homeopathic horse's mouth for answers. Also, of course, being of a research-oriented nature, I didn't want to take Dr. Barrett's word at face value, even if it did make gobs and gobs of utter sense. So, I went to one of the roughly two million websites out there that promote homeopathy: Homeopathy Home - The Net's Best Homeopathic Resource. (I went to more than that, but this one seemed so "scientific" . . . ) I figure, this is pretty popular stuff, seemingly condoned by lots of not-insane intelligent people, so if it's the net's best resource, they're bound to give me some highly persuasive information about homeopathy, and how remedies are developed. Basically, they told the same 200-year-old history of homeopathy that Dr. Barrett did - it developed at a time when doctors mostly bled and purged their patients, and homeopathy did far less harm then than did conventional medicine, or "allopathy." The stories diverge after this, though. The good doctor tells us that while homeopathy did enjoy great popularity for a while, it fell out of favour as medicine got, well, better at curing rather than killing people. HH, on the other hand, claims that doctors then as now were intolerant of competition and worked tirelessly to discredit and undermine the more lucrative and effective homeopathy (yes, lucrative). All right, they'll agree to disagree.

But WHY would anyone think eating the memory of duck innards would cure cold and flu symptoms?? Because eating them in normal amounts makes you feel like you have a cold? I guess. That's exactly how homeopaths figure out what various substances are going to do for you - today, as 200 years ago, healthy people ingest random stuff and then monitor their symptoms. It's not quite that simple, of course, but that's the premise. It's called a "proving," and at least in the beginning homeopaths would monitor their bodies' behaviour for days after consuming the substance to be proven, and assume that whatever was going on was caused by what they'd eaten. Or smoked, who knows really. And here's where it gets weird (surprise! It wasn't weird yet!): I checked out modern provings on the ol' HH site. Apparently, recent provings have been done with peregrine falcon wings, lava, any number of plant bits, often from specific trees, eggshell membrane, mobile phone radiation, the blood of a dying AIDS victim, . . . uh, what? Mobile phone radiation? Who ate that? Well, nobody, obviously. They attached vials of lactose to the side of cell phones to catch the memory of the radiation, since its ill-effects are already well-known . . . well, what about the falcon wing? The lava? The AIDS blood? Yeah, nobody's eating that stuff either. In fact, the falcon wing and lava are both homeopathic remedies for psychiatric and emotional problems, and the proving was the manufacturer's emotional response to them (i.e., not even the patient's response, which I guess couldn't possibly be different). As for the AIDS patient's blood, the homeopathic remedy made from it is not actually meant to treat AIDS. As far as I can tell, it's being used to treat - and I use that word extremely sardonically - a wide range of emotional and psychiatric disorders caused by severe childhood abuse. How was the proving done? Oh, the homeopath went ahead and made the extreme dilution of the guy's blood (so dilute that the virus wouldn't be present, I assume), and then she and a bunch of other people took the stuff and analyzed their own responses, including visual images that appeared to them, physical sensations like itching or light-headedness, and emotional or behavioural responses, including restlessness and joy. The woman claims that "this stimulus, perhaps because it is amplified by the many coexperiencers . . . is sufficient to produce long range effects." For a real trip down the rabbit hole, you might want to check out her full proving report.

Why did I bother looking so far into this? Because I have this ridiculous, debilitating hayfever-like condition, which is utterly crippling some days and non-existent on other days, and I'm pregnant. Actually, it may be because I'm pregnant that I've been feeling this way for over two months. So last Monday night, nose chapped from blowing, looking just like a Nyquil ad, I staggered down to Shopper's Drugmart and asked the pharmacist if, being in the family way, I could take anything to clear my horrible nose. He told me there's a homeopathic remedy that's quite effective, that Choices carries, and that of course I should drink lots of fluids and take vitamin C (?), but that nothing pharmacological was safe. I narrowly avoided attacking him, at least verbally, through sheer willpower, and came back home. But afterwards, I thought, "hey, he's a pharmacist, maybe I'm missing something in the homeopathy department." Now I'm guessing either he figured I might benefit from a placebo, since a lot of people around here probably do go in for homeopathy, or he's One of Them.

Bunch of flakes.


Guess I'm stuck till the baby comes and I can dope myself up again . . .

Friday, December 17, 2004

Virtually Drunk

[written when I was pregnant and craving a martini]

So, of course, in my delicate condition I am not drinking. This doesn't mean, however, that I can't contemplate the wonderful world of recreational libation. And as is so often the case in Vancouver, my thoughts turn like a compass needle to that vitriol-inspiring beverage, the "martini." Not, you understand, the martini, beverage of choice for philandering English makers-of-bad-puns and occasional government agents, but the "martini." Its aliases include "crantini," "chocotini," "apple-tini," and any other bastardization the self-congratulating barman can concoct. It is basically a blend of any number of liqueurs and distilled spirits, often flavoured with juice or something, amounting to two ounces of liquor and served in a martini glass. I have to admit I once asked for a martini, was asked what flavour I wanted, and responded, " . . . ? Um, gin?"

I know I'm being dreadfully pedantic, and language is a living, morphous thing, and obviously the "martini" is popular, blah blah blah, but seriously. A martini is a fairly good jag of either vodka or gin, mixed with a smaller amount of vermouth (the drier the martini, the less vermouth), and it should be served so cold that the only thing keeping it from being solid ice is the alcohol content. Some people will get their knickers in a knot over the gin vs. vodka issue, but from what I understand, either is acceptable. Gin's more commonly considered a "traditional" martini. Add what you will, an olive, an onion, a twist of orange peel, even a dash of bitters, but this is a martini. Throw in a dash of the brine from the olive jar and you have a Dirty Marty. The rest are just fruity, boozy drinks that people who actually don't like martinis consume. This is either because they don't enjoy the taste of undiluted spirits (and so "shoot" whiskey and the like, rather than sipping it), or they don't like the taste of gin specifically, or they have been served mediocre - bad - martinis. Usually a martini is bad because it is not cold enough, it has been improperly mixed, or the gin is of a particularly low quality.

So how do you make a superlative martini? Well, there's the long, purist way, and then there's the shortcut. The long, purist way is to keep your gin or vodka, vermouth, shaker, and martini glasses in the freezer until the moment you need them. A silver or stainless steel shaker will get your drink colder than a glass one does. Put a bunch of crushed ice in the shaker, pour in four ounces or so of gin, and your preferred amount of vermouth (I use about a capful, or 1/4 of an ounce), put the top on, shake it vigorously but not violently for a few seconds, and strain into 2 chilled glasses. Consume immediately. There is actually some debate over whether you should shake a gin martini at all, since too much bouncing around can "bruise" or "crush" the delicate flavours of the gin. I believe this, largely due to the number of off-tasting, luke-warm martinis I've been served in posh bars. I read somewhere on the net, but can no longer find the reference, that for this reason, a bartender should know that a shaken martini is made with vodka and a stirred one with gin. If this is so, than presumably that dashing 007 was flipping off MI-5, or the Russians, or both, every time he ordered his martini shaken. A nice thought, except apparently somewhere Mr. Bond followed up his usual "shaken, not stirred" with a curt "and don't bruise the gin." Alas, I haven't read the books and I've seen only a handful of the movies, so I'm in no position to comment. At any rate, I'm sure there's a way to shake the gin martini enough to aerate the drink (the purpose of all beverage shaking) without bruising the gin. For instance, Cigar Aficionado recommends shaking to waltz time.

But what if I don't have a cocktail shaker and I want a shortcut martini? Fine. A clever and witty jazz musician I know, who is getting a bit advanced in years, fills a highball glass with ice, fills it halfway with gin, slips in a teaspoon or so of vermouth, stirs it, tosses in a couple of olives, and he's away to the races. It's cold, it's strong, the gin isn't bruised, and you don't need a degree in advanced bartending physics to make it.

Caveat: everyone who loves martinis is a martini snob, and they each think they know exactly the right way to make one. I'm sure they'd be all down my throat about my method, but there you have it.

I leave you now with the following martini recipe, courtesy of Hawkeye from M.A.S.H:
"I think I've found the perfect martini . . . you pour six jiggers of gin into a glass and then you drink it while staring at a picture of Lorenzo Schwartz, the inventor of vermouth." (Some M.A.S.H. trivia geek on the web actually went to all the bother of finding out and then pointing out that vermouth was in fact invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. Some people have no sense of humour.)
Borscht du Jour
Recently we had our vegetables delivered, which is always "produce surprise," and I was pleased to find beets in the box. With the tops on! Now, whenever I get beets in their entirety, the following monologue passes through my head:

All right, beet greens! They're so yummy, and good for you! Now, how do you cook them again? Could just saute them, I guess, but that's kind of boring . . . ummm . . . What should I do with these things, anyway? Chop them up fine and throw them in the borscht? That seems like a bit of a waste . . . hmmm . . .

Of course, there are things you can do with beets besides borscht, but really, I only ever do borscht. It's great, because it's an excellent soup in which to dispose of leftovers, as long as they aren't too distinctively seasoned. Carrots, potatoes, leftover roast, wilting greens, aging cabbage, woody celery, that half-tin of diced tomatoes that's been kicking around - shred or dice them all finely, cook the bejeezus out of them in a sturdy beef (oh, all right, you can use vegetable stock if you must) broth, with the beets, also shredded, and finish it off with some sour cream. The beets camouflage everything else. The best flavorings for your stock are star anise (fish it out before serving, though), caraway, black pepper, garlic, and whatever else you particularly like.

None of this has anything to do with beet greens. Right! There is something interesting and kind of elegant that can be done with them, actually, and I don't recall seeing the recipe anywhere (even - gasp - on the internet), except my Mom's kitchen. Apparently she got it from a Ukrainian friend. For the uninitiated, in Manitoba "Ukrainian" usually means "somebody whose ancestors came here from the Ukraine about the same time mine left Ireland and England, i.e. the late nineteenth century." Anyway, here's the recipe.

Make dough for dinner rolls, about 20 rolls' worth (I halved a recipe for 36 rolls, and put the reduced recipe below). At the point where you would normally make the rolls out of the big ball of risen dough, preheat the oven to 350 F and shape the dough into little cylinders about 2-2.5 inches long and as thick as a breakfast sausage. Wrap each of these very loosely in a beet leaf, or a section of beet leaf if the leaves are huge. You should end up with roughly 24 rolls. Place the wrapped pieces in a deep baking dish (or as many dishes as it takes) with lots of space around them, and be sure that the seam or end of the beet leaf is down. Set the dish aside for the rolls to rise, and make a very thin cream sauce. This can be done by just melting two Tbsps of butter, whisking in two Tbsps of white flour, removing the pan from the heat, whisking in two cups of cold milk, and returning the pan to the heat just long enough for it to begin to thicken. Your sauce should be no thicker than unwhipped whipping cream, or even coffee cream. If it seems too thick, just mix in more milk. Sprinkle the rolls liberally with dill (fresh chopped for preference, but dried works fine) and pour the cream sauce over. You need enough sauce to fill the pans at least half an inch, preferably more. Now stick the pan in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the ends of the rolls (what you can see besides beet leaf) are a nice golden brown, and the cream sauce is seriously thick and bubbly. I served this with (leftover) borscht and very simple pan-fried beef sausages with onions, and it seemed like a haute take on peasant food, when really it was pretty much just peasant food. They can also be frozen once wrapped, but before the sauce and all, and then just baked the same way once thawed.

Dinner rolls (makes 18 or so)
1 pkg dry yeast (or 2.25 Tbsps)
1/2 Tbsp sugar (1.5 tsp)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/2 tsp salt
2 lightly beaten eggs
1/3 cup sugar
roughly 2.5 cups white flour
Mix the first three ingredients and set aside. Scald the milk, add the butter, and let it cool to lukewarm. Mix in the eggs, the remaining sugar, and the salt. Add to this the yeast mixture, and pour all this into a well in the middle of 2 cups of the flour, which by now is in a large mixing bowl. Mix it all well, and add more flour till you have a soft dough. Turn out on a floured surface and knead until smooth (which is to say, not forever like you do with some breads). Set in a greased bowl, run a greased hand over the top of the dough, cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap, and let rise till doubled (about an hour). Punch down and either make the above recipe or shape the dough into rolls, place in a greased pan or two and let rise till again doubled (more like 1/2 hour this time), and bake at 400 F until golden brown - about 15 minutes. These are lovely, rich, slightly sweet dinner rolls.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Baby's First Brainwashing

So, when J was about 14 months old, and not talking (oh, who am I kidding, he still isn't talking), he learned a few basic signs. He quickly adapted the sign for"more" to mean "I want". One morning we were watching a bit of TV, and an ad came on for the Dairy Queen Cheesequake. He paid little attention until the final scene, which showed an extreme close-up of the ice cream treat in question. Transfixed, he sat deep in thought for a nanosecond and then, with the air of one coming to a momentous decision, pointed to the screen, looked me dead in the eye, and signed "I WANT." With utter, final, certainty. He had no point of reference on which to base his conclusion that this stuff was desirable, other than the TV's assertion of the same.

Brrrr. We turned the TV off after that.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Cheerful Submission: Live Longer Through Dudgery

So, every few months or so some female friend with a predilection for spamming forwards me an email entitled, "Why I Love My Mom", or "Women Rule", or "Why Women Live Longer." Twice I've received it in honour of "International Women's Day" (I'm so glad we get a day, you know?). Inevitably, the woman sending the email is a wife, a mother, and a breadwinner. She is terminally busy, she is the primary care giver not only for her children but also for her husband, and she is in every way a classic SSF - self-sacrificing female.

My gut reaction to the message she forwards, which ostensibly celebrates women, is a quote from Beautiful Girls: "This is a mockery, this is a sham, this is bulls**t."

What follows is the text of the forwarded email, in one of its myriad permutations:

"Why I Love My Mom
Mom and Dad were watching TV when Mom said, "I'm tired, and it's getting late. I think I'll go to bed." She went to the kitchen to make sandwiches for the next day's lunches, rinsed out the popcorn bowls, took meat out of the freezer for supper the following evening, checked the cereal box levels, filled the sugar container, put spoons and bowls on the table and started the coffee pot for brewing the next morning. She then put some wet clothes in the dryer, put a load of clothes into the wash, ironed a shirt and secured a loose button. She picked up the game pieces left on the table and put the telephone book back into the drawer. She watered the plants, emptied a wastebasket and hung up a towel to dry. She yawned and stretched and headed for the bedroom. She stopped by the desk and wrote a note to the teacher, counted out some cash for the field trip, and pulled a textbook out from hiding under the chair. She signed a birthday card for a friend, addressed and stamped the envelope and wrote a quick note for the grocery store. She put both near her purse. Mom then washed her face with 3 in 1 cleanser, put on her Night Solution age fighting moisturizer, brushed and flossed her teeth and filed her nails. Dad called out, "I thought you were going to bed." "I'm on my way," she said. She put some water into the dog's dish and put the cat outside, then made sure the doors were locked. She looked in on each of the kids and turned out a bedside lamp, hung up a shirt, threw some dirty socks in the hamper, and had a brief conversation with the one up still doing homework. In her own room, she set the alarm; laid out clothing for the next day,straightened up the shoe rack. She added three things to her 6 most important things to do list. She said her prayers, and visualized the accomplishment of her goals. About that time, Dad turned off the TV and announced to no one in particular, "I'm going to bed." And he did...without another thought.
Anything extraordinary here?......
Wonder why women live longer...?

Uh . . . right . . . our drudgery helps us live longer. Okay. I have so many problems with this little story that I barely know where to begin. Why does the author love her mom? Because she is apparently single-handedly responsible for the running of the entire household? Because she still "takes care of herself" - note the filing of the nails and the (my favorite!!) application of the age-fighting moisturizer - even when she's really busy and exhausted? And what of Dad? Are we supposed to love him because he sits on his butt watching TV for an hour while Mom frantically puts the house in order? More than likely, we are meant to find Dad's "inability" to see all the little details endearing. After all, it's a woman's touch that a house needs, right? This is as insulting to men as it is to women.

I do not know many women who behave as "Mom" did, above, and I'm glad of it. The women who forward this message on to me, usually with a sly verbal wink in there to the effect of, "boy, don't I know how she feels", or "who's been spying on my house?" - well, these women worry me. Granted, when I give my usual response of, "well, it's not my life - my husband pulls his weight around the house," they bridle and assure me that really, their husbands are very good around the house, too, but, well, you know . . . hmmm. The whole thing smacks of cheerful submission. There's an overt acknowledgement that it is often drudgery, that it's tiring, that it's unfairly skewed toward women, that it's a "long haul", and yet these women are so proud! They wear it like a badge! It's something for which one loves one's mother ...? It baffles me.

The thing that bugs me the most is the idea that *this* is why women live longer than men do. I am uncomforably reminded of a story I read recently, possibly though not certainly in Dropped Threads:

A middle-aged woman's father had passed away, leaving her elderly mother to live alone. We'll call the daughter Susan and the mother Mom. In the months following Dad's death, Susan became worried about her mother's emotional health. Even though Mom seemed to be coping well, and often acted happy, Susan was concerned that she might be depressed. Mom had gone from running a spotless home - the envy of Susan and her sisters, who never felt they quite measured up - to often letting the house get messy. One day, Susan visited her mother in the early afternoon. She was dismayed to see that Mom was still in her robe, and that not only the lunch dishes but the breakfast dishes as well were still on the counter and in the sink. She decided she should confront her mother about the problem. "Mom, how are you feeling these days? You know, without Dad, how are you doing?" "Oh, you know, Susan, I have my ups and downs, but I'm doing all right. Thanks for asking, sweetie." Susan suspected her mom was putting on a brave face, and pressed on. "Well, Mom, we've all been kind of worried about you." "Why on Earth?" asked her mother. "Well, you used to run such a tight ship around here, and now, well, look at you! It's two in the afternoon, the dishes aren't done, you're still in your robe . . . " she trailed off, slightly embarassed. Her mother began to laugh. "What?" asked Susan. "Oh, Susan! You all think I'm depressed because I haven't been cleaning up a storm? Sweetheart, I miss your Dad so much, there are times when I think I'll lose my mind from loneliness. That's true. But it was always your father who insisted on a spotless house, on having meals ready at 7, 12, and 5:30 on the dot, just the way his mother always did. I'm more like you girls, and I'm just indulging myself a bit these days. I don't have to run the house any way but my own, now."

It's kind of a heartwarming story, but combined with the email story it leaves me uneasy. Work hard, they seem to say. Submit to society's - and your husband's - demands that you, in Fridanesque style, derive personal fulfillment from the pursuit of domestic excellence - nay, perfection - and you will live longer. You will live so long, if you do this work well enough, that you will outlive your husband: and finally have earned the right to lay aside that work, and live in the manner you choose - alone.

Not for me, that life, and I hope not for any of the men and women who are in my life. I wish for us all lives where we share our work, and together create homes (and divisions of domestic labour) that we can enjoy and be comfortable in now.