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Archive for the ‘No Reservation’ Category

It starts like the lighting of a pilot light at the base of a furnace – what has probably been a building discomfort nudges over the edge into mild pain and into my consciousness.  Its light creeps into my sleep and I become awake, feeling it in the pit of my belly.  “What’s this,” I think in dismay.  I’ve been so good lately – cycles of cooking and cleaning up and cooking and cleaning up and hosting people for meals instead of going out so that I can have complete control of what I’m eating.  I’ve been so good – I shouldn’t be feeling this.  My mind races backwards over my recent eating and spins to a halt at a single See’s Chocolate Candy that I caved on after dinner.  It was dark chocolate covered almonds.  I could have gotten up, walked around a dining room table and across a kitchen to read the ingredients on the box, but I rationalized that in a mixed box I wouldn’t be able to tell what was what.  I could have just skipped it, I have plenty of high quality chocolate at home. Milkfat is an increasingly common ingredient in mass-market dark chocolate – it’s in Hershey’s and Ghirardelli (owned by Hershey).  My formerly favorite Divine dark chocolate with currents & almonds also has butter –apparently cooking the almonds in butter has a preservative effect. But I didn’t look, and now my tummy is telling me I should have.   I wonder what time it is, probably 2 am.  I open my eyes for a peek…3:30.  Not bad, maybe I can tough my way through and back to sleep but the light is burning more persistently now.  My mental reverse spin hits another highlight:  after dinner, despite feeling very full, I stuffed down an extra piece of (homemade gluten-free dairy-free) cake.  At the time that I did it I knew I didn’t physically want it but I felt a powerful urge and indulged it.  That could have been a clue there – I am noticing that when I’ve eaten something I shouldn’t I will often begin compulsive overeating within an hour.  It’s as if my body responds to an intestinal irritant by wanting to load up material and push the irritant through.  Unfortunately the response I have come to expect is that instead the system will shut down, usually for a couple days, as if the downstream flesh has gotten a whiff of what’s coming and wants no part of it.  I will go drink some of my new favorite chasers before returning to bed and see if we can skip that part of the ritual this time.

So, drumroll, does See’s have milkfat?   Let’s go to their site and see if we can find ingredients.  Hmmm– they have a posting of “Allergen Information”  – something that is increasingly common on the web.  Interesting, rather than listing ingredients, they go by section:  “These products are egg-free”, “These products are soy-free”, etc.  While that might seems like a strange approach, there are eight FDA-labeled “Major Food Allergens” that companies are required to identify on their labels, so there is a limited list to be enumerated.  The eight allergens are:  Milk, Eggs, Fish, Crustaceans (shellfish), Tree Nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc), Peanuts (they’re technically a legume), Wheat, and Soybeans.   Scrolling down See’s list, I come to the section on “Dairy-Free”.  None of the items on the list have chocolate – they’re all jellies and sours. Damn.   I check the next section, on Gluten.  In that section they explicitly list the few products that do contain gluten and my indiscretion is not among them.  Not that I expected it to be, but I’m learning that in the land of processed food, you can’t expect safety, you must always verify.

Why is milkfat increasingly in dark chocolate?  FDA regulations do not allow fats (other than cocoa butter) in products labeled “chocolate”, however milkfat is explicitly allowed as a substitute in Title 21, Chapter 1, Subchapter B, Section 163.123 of the FDA Code of Federal Regulations.  At least one article I read suggests, like how Divine uses butter, milkfat can help extend the shelf-life of chocolate.  In 1999 the European Union allowed substitution of up to 5% of cocoa butter with other fats and the product can still be called “Chocolate”.  The Italians responded with a “Pure Chocolate” law, creating a label specifically for chocolate products that have only cocoa butter as their fat. Unfortunately in 2010 the European Court of Justice ruled that they’re not allowed to create that as a defined label.  All makers still have to list any ingredients they include, but there’s not a label for the front of a product that ensures pure cocoa butter.

In the US, if it contains vegetable fat it can still be sold, just not labeled “chocolate”.  Have you ever had those cheap Palmer easter bunnies and eggs?  If you look at the label they’re not called chocolate, they’re called “milk chocolate flavored”.  In 2007 seven food producers associations, including the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the Snack Food Association, filed a petition with the FDA that would allow the substitution of vegetable fats; ostensibly because they’re significantly less expensive than cocoa butter.  It seemed to cause a bit of a stir, the trails of which are difficult to still find on the web, and the FDA has not acted.  That likely wouldn’t help me, chocolates that have milkfat now would likely continue to have milkfat and substitute out their cocoa butter.  Even if they did substitute out the milkfat, odds are that like the Palmer easter coins, it’s chocolate I wouldn’t want to eat anyway, though I’d then also be less tempted into trouble.

I used to consider myself a foodie.  At one event I had people introduce themselves by name and favorite restaurant.  When it came back around to me I realized that my favorite restaurant was whichever one I hadn’t yet tried.  That’s no longer the case – eating out has really lost its joy for me as I feel like a waitperson’s worst nightmare and what I actually receive to be a crapshoot at best.  More and more people are on various elimination diets. I see increasing numbers of gluten-free and dairy-free products in the marketplace, it seems this trend is on the rise.

Are we better at diagnosing it or is it more common?  I’ve seen references to a study done on preserved blood samples from 1950’s Air Force recruits that suggests that gluten intolerance is actually more common now, it’s not just that we’re diagnosing it more often.  Why?  Two theories I’ve heard :  the increase in monoculture due to our industrialized food system means we’re all eating a narrower variety of wheat; the way our food system stores wheat allows growth of some kinds of mold that people are sensitive to.  I don’t really know, I only know what my tummy tells me.  Diagnosing allergies and intolerance seems to still be a fuzzy science – blood tests can reveal antibodies but it’s not black-and-white what the antibodies are being produced in response to.  There’s clearly a growing market in this segment, which for better or for worse I’m getting early exposure to.

4:57 am.  I drank my chaser at about 4.  I initially felt a mild intensification of discomfort, as if inner organs were stiffening in response to the additional stimulus, but now things are easing off and I think I’ll be able to sleep.  Let’s have at it.

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I did jury duty this week and ended up on a personal injury case, this resulting from a car accident. I got the sense that several other trials were also car-accident cases – at least two of our “expert witnesses” were testifying in other cases that day. My spouse was on a jury about two years ago, and his case was also personal injury, though it was between a worker and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment.

The plaintiff’s lawyer pushed us fairly hard during voir dire on whether or not we could be fair or were predisposed against personal injury cases. There certainly are handy negative archetypes to latch on to: an injured party is not really injured but just going for the big payoff, or an ambulance-chasing lawyer trying to make a buck. On the other side I could conjure up a reckless driver unwilling to own up to consequences.

The sad truth that seemed reasonable to me is that the injured party really is injured and likely faces a lifetime of chronic low-grade pain management. The problem is, he’s been rear-ended three times in a two-year period, each time he was stopped at a light, once he was already the 3rd car deep when a drunk slammed full-speed into the end of the line. This last time was the most minor; it seemed pretty clear that our defendant barely tapped him. In my mind, the question has nothing to do with the facts of the accident or fault, it’s also not really an issue of what the plaintiff needs, it just comes down to who pays.

How do we decide who pays? Do we go by the pain and behavior changes of the injured (what I boil the plaintiff’s case to), or do we go by the amount of damage done to the vehicles in the accidents (what I boil the defendant’s case to)? Those two trend lines were in direct opposition. For better or for worse, I was the alternate so I didn’t get to watch the group wrestle with this. I just got my “all clear” call from the court, I have no details on how my fellow jurors decided but they ended up awarding nothing.

What I found myself thinking was that a national health care system would save all of this. It was sad to me how low the amounts of money were at stake: somewhere between 3 and 10K to cover the medical treatments, maybe $1500 for pain and suffering, though the plaintiff’s lawyer also suggested $15000 for, a future-looking expense, I think future pain and suffering. So a total around 20K. I was trying to do the math, it must have cost at least $100/hr for the lawyer. Three days of court time plus prep which involved collating a huge notebook of documents and deposing 3-4 people, maybe 50 hours (spread among cheaper assistants as well) so I’ll hazard $5000, plus 2 expert witnesses, so I’ll round my final upper estimate for the defendent up to 6000 -totally off the cuff, but trying to stay below a likely settlement offer which would have avoided trial. Don’t know what the defendant was offered to settle, and also don’t know if he’d make an economic or an emotional decision. I’ll guess the plaintiff’s lawyer was signed up for a cut of whatever was won. But to calculate the total savings that could be had if we had nationalized healthcare we have to add the judge, the clerk, the bailiff, the courthouse time and the jury (plus alternate!). We as a society surely could have provided good healthcare treatment for less.

If we didn’t have to battle out in court who pays, how much would be saved annually? We need to take this into account when we’re looking at what would be more efficient for healthcare – how much goes into the legal system as a side effect of our “competitive” system now? Suddenly having good care for everyone seems much more feasible in my mind.

One interesting side note, the courthouse does seem to be an economic boon for the immediate area by bringing a big and steady lunch-crowd to the nearby shopping mall.

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A quote I transcribed a couple years ago from a recorded speech that alas still sits on my desk.

“There are obvious and almost facile connections between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam and I watched this program broken and [?] as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor as long as adventures like Vietnam continue to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic destructive suction tube.”

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Looking for Values

Ok, I’m going to lighten up my blog a bit. A friend checked it out on a whim from my email signature and was a little overwhelmed with the density. And… it leads into something more dense anyway, hurray!

We just got back from a trip to St Petersburg, Russia. We have a sister-in-law from there and when she said we could come with her on a visit back, we jumped at the chance. Being in Russia didn’t quite live up to the mystique of having grown up believing it was the other side of the Iron Curtain. St Petersburg seemed very much like a European city, a bit of a cross between Berlin and Munich in fact…with the exception that the signs are much harder to read. I had some fun getting the hang of Cyrillic – I would struggle to sound out a word character-by-character: ssss-T -er (not p) -uy -d -e -l and then say it all together and suddenly realize “strudel! I know that word!”. It was kind of a fun treasure hunt for familiar words but my brain would turn off after about two hours of it a day. Not to mention that St Petersburg is 12 hours offset from my hometown of Seattle.

We saw amazing art, incredible palaces and more incredible palaces. Gilt, mosaic tile, gilt mosaic tile, silk wall coverings. When we went to the Peterhof summer palace which has a small field of more fountains than I’ve ever seen in my life, all gilded, which they can only actually run like 4 or 5 months a year because everything is frozen the rest of the time, I couldn’t restrain myself from commenting to Larissa “My God, Such concentration of wealth! No wonder the Bolsheviks revolted! I would have too!” I’m not sure she appreciated that comment. Also interesting is the fact that between the revolution and WW2 occupation by Nazis, many of these incredible palaces and churches were damaged or totally destroyed and they’ve all since been completely renewed. I found myself wondering if the effort of restoration could be measured as a percentage of Russia’s GDP over the last couple decades, and what all those artisans and crafts-persons are doing now. (Oligarch estates?) A key difference from Europe was the shortage of bathrooms and high-quality cafe dining in the museums. We had an unfortunate tendency to find an English language tour starting right at lunchtime. I finally started packing nuts after a near-meltdown at the Hermitage when we found ourselves at the end of a tour in a remote corner of the museum, 2 hours past lunch, with a terrible map and a maze-like return to the one location with food and bathrooms. I was tempted to go screaming out an emergency exit and finally asked a staff person for directions.

We went to the Russian Art Museum where all the paintings are by Russian artists. That was good for Cyrillic practice because the English transliterations of names were printed as well. I haven’t tried to look up an official art world opinion, but I did spend several months touring art museums in Europe in 2004, and what really caught my attention in this museum was how expressive the faces were in paintings – even portraits. Somehow it strikes me that much of what I’ve seen before has faces with an artificial serenity. In one of the portraits of children, it was apparent that one child was being a complete brat about posing and had been crying. It seemed so emotionally real. Another one I vividly remember (I had to do a bit of websurfing to figure out who painted it) was “St Nicholas saves three innocents from Death” by Ilya Repin. The Saint himself has a bit of a faraway gaze, but the rest of them have such vivid expressions – I could just hear the judge-like figure behind him saying “What the hell are you doing?!” as the Saint stays the execution sword.

There was another painting, of Jesus sitting outside an old temple with some disciples, looking not unlike a group of hippies shooting the bull around a fire. Approaching from the right is a group of people pushing their accused adulteress towards him, about to get the now-classic advice about “let he who is without sin…”. They’re vividly angry, the two old men at the front of the group are shaking stones at Jesus and pointing at the girl. She’s very much a girl in the painting, and painted an ashen grey. She’s resisting with her feet, her hands are clenched and her face is terrified. Darrin commented that his dislike of Christianity today is that it’s too much worn as a badge of “I’m more holy than you” and not enough about the real teachings – such as this one, that none of us are perfect and we all should be working on ourselves instead of condemning each other.

That comment caused an almost audible click in my brain. Here in the States, author George Lakoff has been getting much attention for characterizing our fundamental political divisions as being “strict father” vs what he diplomatically (or politically correctly) refers to as “nurturant parent” – instead of nurturant mother, which would be the obvious yin to the aforementioned yang. It suddenly struck me that our current conflicts aren’t such a mystery that we need to develop models for – they’re as old as the Bible itself: old testament vs new testament. Do we live in a world of firm rules which we deserve to be condemned for breaking? Homeless man an alcoholic- well guess you deserve the streets, dude. Minority school kid tried drugs or went for a joyride- juvvy for you. OR do we live in world in which we are all frail, in which we all deserve second chances and we all need regular support in reaching for our own divine sparks? On this topic- I’m with Jesus.

And that doesn’t deserve the scornful label of “soft-hearted liberal”. I went back to ponder the correctness of using a yin-yang metaphor. Yin and Yang are opposing forces that you need both of. I am not as familiar with the Zen versions so much as the Buddhist ones via Stephen Cope: Clear Seeing and Calm Abiding. In his book “Yoga and the Quest for True Self” he talks about how you’ll develop one, and then the other, but you need both – too much development on one side w/o parallel development on the other leads to being off balance. I have come to think of it as a toy I had as a child with a wood person and two strings running through their hands and feet. You could “walk” the wood person up the strings by pulling first on one side and then the other. As I’ve become more of an athlete over time I see this replicated in the tension between Strength and Flexibility. Too much flexibility and you’ll have no power. Too much strength and you’ll be tied up in painful knots. The athletic experience is particularly enlightening because I’ve discovered through experience that I can’t do a ton of strengthening and then go “catch up” my flexibility with focus on yoga – it will cost me strength. If I slack off on yoga while I’m running I’ll lose flexibility. If I want both I have to develop them together, each a little bit at a time. Just like walking that wood person up the rope.

I think I pull to the understanding side because I feel right now in the States we’ve swung too far to the strict rules, but truthfully we need both.

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Happy 2006

Happy New Year! I’ve been keeping my blog fairly specifically about school. However, among the many changes I’m working on, being less rule-bound is one. So I’m blowing off the doors to write about whatever may well catch my fancy. I’ll do my readers the favor of putting these writings in a separate category, so should I be identified as the next economic genius, those who would wish to consume purely my business-related writings can blissfully ignore my more frivolous pursuits.Though it may be a distinction difficult to maintain, as the current state of my filing system will attest.

This is not to be mistaken for a new year’s resolution. Rather it is one of my more common weekly resolutions. Nay, a New Year’s Resolution calls for something more inspiringly ambitious. I was quite impressed by one friend who spent four hours with her spouse developing an entire portfolio of resolutions across important categories such as health, arts and personal development; linking their individual goals in each category with overall goals for the couple. I recount this fully realizing how silly it sounds and yet not without a genuine twinge of envious inadaquacy.

We made only one resolution; though I’m pleased to report we did make it jointly and it does serve to indicate appropriate individual goals. Our resolution for 2006: to waste bread. This is perhaps inspired by the success I had with a prior individual weekly resolution made some years ago: to waste vegetables. On its face this might seem a bit cavalier and perhaps not entirely respectful of our fellow citizens but it’s really an appropriately mantra-tized simplification of a more sophisticated idea: that we’d like to eat more fresh bread; however, we don’t purchase it because we anticipate we won’t be able to finish an entire loaf before it goes stale and therefore is wasted. We have the good fortune of living in an area abundant with bread bakeries; It would be a tragedy to not take advantage of that.

We’re willing to take certain limited measures to extend the life of a loaf: we’ve discovered that wrapping it back in the paper bag helps and that one can simply trim off the dry end and have reasonably fresh loaf still for two, maybe three, days. By the third day the slices are best used for toast. A plastic bag is out of the question: we’d be back to grocery-store bread. The moisture contrast between the crust and the inner loaf is key to the sensation of fresh bread. Crutons are a possibility that I am, in fact, experimenting with currently. However, bread puddings and french onion soup are a standard I’m not ready to hold myself to. Thus the upfront commitment to a seemingly casual discard of the hardened Staff of Life.

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