On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Let Freedom Ring

I read an editorial in our newspaper this week that described the practices that our government is proposing we reinterpret the terms of the Geneva convention to allow. My reaction was horror. When did we become 16th century England or twentieth century Russia, or any of the other nations in other places or other times that used torture to get people to divulge information? When we read about the Elizabethans putting people on the rack we respond with appropriate horror. When we heard about the sorts of things that the North Vietnamese did to our prisoners we responded with outrage. Now we have our own government saying that we need to do things of a similar nature in order to protect ourselves.

Of course the Elizabethans put Catholics on the rack to protect themselves against civil unrest. The North Vietnamese tortured our prisoners to try to find out information that would allow them to protect themselves. Stalin tortured suspected traitors to attempt to protect himself. A government that operates out of fear is not a good government. The thing that we have to fear is fear itself.

A few years ago the government began asking bookstores to keep records of purchases and libraries to keep records of books borrowed. The attitude of a lot of people seemed to be one of indifference. If they weren't reading something wrong, why should they worry. After all it was a matter of protecting people, right. The police could use those library records or booksales to find out who was trying to build a bomb, or find out about poisons, or figure out undetectable ways to commit crimes. So they could. However, ten years from now they could as easily use those records to find out who is a Christian, who is a Catholic, who is anti-abortion or anti-gay marriage. They could use them to find out who believes in spanking, or late weaning, or co-sleeping, or any of the other myriad of parenting choices that run afoul of the ideas of the people in the social welfare community. At the moment these practices may seem to be protecting us, but they could at any time be turned against us.

You think not? I would remind you that in fifteenth century England to own a rosary was to be a normal English person. To own a rosary in Elizabethan England was a crime. To hear Mass in fifteenth century England was a normal practice. To hear Mass in Elizabethan England (if you could find a place to do so) was a crime. To be the priest saying the Mass was punishable by death. To assert that homosexual practice was deviant behavior was considered right and good for most of the twentieth century in Canada, to assert it in twenty-first century Canada can get you in legal trouble in some cases. To procure an abortion in 1950's America was a crime. In twenty first century America it is a crime to attempt to stop an abortion from happening. Things that were unthinkable in the 1950's became a matter of public policy within the last few decades. We have no guarantees of freedom once our government starts re-interpreting the consititution, or the Geneva convention in ways that are convenient for current theories of public welfare.

Frances Schaeffer said in his book How Shall We Then Live that the time would come when people would allow freedom to be taken away in favor of personal peace and affluence. It seems that we are aleady very far down that road and apparently there is an effort to speed the journey along. There is now a proposal that ISP have to keep a record of every site that every person visits on the internet. Now this proposal is perportedly to attempt to curb child pornography and child abuse. The ramifications of this sort of policy, however, are far broader. The message is, that we have here a medium that is so powerful that we must contain it in a new way. In fact they are correct, there is a new medium, one that is not controlled by powerful rich men, but one that allows the average citizen with access to a computer a voice similar to the pamphleteers of an earlier era. It ultimately is not child pornography or terrorism that they are attempting to curb. What is ultimately the goal is a curb on anything that will upset the power structure that is currently in place.

We far prefer to think of ourselves as nice people. We don't like to think of ourselves as people dependent on slave labor whose government tortures potential enemies. We like to think of freedom of speech as something that all good law abiding citizens should have, but as something that criminals should not have. We don't ever think that with a change of policy we could become the criminals. A current political ad in our state condemns an incumbent for not voting for a bill that would have restricted the rights of the accused in one sort of crime. Some people see the candidate's action as being soft on criminals and not protecting the victim's rights. However, his action was entirely consistant with our own state constitution which says no one can be forced to give evidence against himself. The rich candidate who is railing against this man has not even lived in the state for very many years and obviously is unfamiliar with the state constitution, yet some people are going to feel that he is correct. Once again we are operating on the basis of fear.

As a Christian I cannot support torture of another human being. Even if I could support it morally, I can't even support it pragmatically. The evidence from history is fairly clear that torture produces false confessions, false information, false accusations against people. If we are seeking the truth, torture is not the way to find it out. Like many other quick fixes, it simply doesn't work.

In the 1950's Superman was said to stand for "truth, justice, and the American way." We were raised to believe that our government did things differently that we operated on a higher moral plane than our enemies. We later discovered that that was not always the case. We found out that we'd been lied to that our government did not always act on those high principles. However, frequently, when our government has violated those principles another wing of the government has stepped in to set things right. This happened with Watergate, it happened with Irangate, it even happened when a sitting president had a dalliance with an intern.

I am disappointed that a president who claims to be an evangelical Christian, who makes far more claims in this regard than nearly any other president in the past few decades would be not only supporting, but vigorously supporting these policies. I believe he is wrong and I'm not alone in that belief. Five former joint chiefs of staff also believe that he is wrong to reinterpret the Geneva convention. I think it is time for the American people to wake up to the fact that we are attempting to preserve our lifestyles with actions that are indefensible. We need to let our representatives know that we don't want to allow our fears in the present to turn our country into something we would have very good reason to fear in the future. Our freedom is more precious to us than that. Our concern for the dignity of the human person should be more precious to us than that.

Let freedom ring!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Wooly Times Return

Somehow working with wool has become a more attractive idea in the last week or so. It's not just me that's doing it. My student Cathy is making and "almost sleeveless sweater" with a lot of coaching from me. My daughter sheared 3 sheep on the weekend and is talking about making socks. I have knitted nothing so far (except for a small parts of rows of Cathy's sweater), but I've spun a fair amount.

I never can decide whether I prefer spinning or knitting. I always feel like I'm accomplishing more when I'm knitting, but I think that in some respects spinning is the more meditative thing to do. This is especially true when I'm spinning mindless yarn rather than trying to do something a bit thinner or thicker than my usual. When I'm knitting, or spinning something specific I generally have an actual project in mind. When I'm spinning mindless yarn the actual project is far in the future, the real pleasure is in just getting that carded fleece into some sort of yarn.

I think that the spinner who spun the yarn for Cathy's sweater must really enjoy mindless spinning. The yarn was now thick, now thin, now lightly spun, now almost overtwisted, and all of this with no particular rhyme or reason. I used to think that yarn like that was a real failure. I hated it when my yarn looked like that. However, Cathy's sweater is going to be really nice looking. This sort of yarn actually works well for a fairly novice knitter because it hides some of the uneveness of their knitting within the uneveness of the yarn. I still like spinning more uniformly myself, but it encourages me that yarn doesn't have to look like millspun to be beautiful. Of course it's also encouraging to know that they are currently selling some of that "novelty" type yarn for $17 a skein at a shop 30 miles from here. Here I knit sweaters from handspun for free.

I've got a bit more mindless spinning to do to have a sweater's worth of yarn ready. So I guess I have to spin a bit more before I can knit.

Today I figured out one perk of giving free knitting lessons. Sometimes you get rewarded with an apple pie! After four hours of knitting with Cathy her mom sent me home with a fresh baked pie. And wonder of wonders I ate so little today I actually have the points left to enjoy it. Aren't I doubly lucky!

Well, my husband just cut the pie. So I'm going to sign off for now. Here's hoping all of you wonderful wooly times of your own with apple pie on the side. Just don't drop your needles in the pie.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Clear as Mud?

Last night I spent some time attempting to read the introduction to a book on Jane Austen. I say attempting because frankly, I gave up before I finished the introduction. I think I may partly have been just too tired to read this particular style of writing, but I'm going to give you a sample. You tell me whether this author is being unnecessarily obtuse.

[Contrary to Scott's opinions, then, Austen's novels were siginificant in the minds of many of her contemporaries not because they produced better or more entertaining instruction, but because they were at odds with the representational desiderata of Austen's particular time and station. Even as readers were able to read the novels in the manner of Scott, many found themselves at liberty to do otherwise, which invariably involved reading for detail rather than for the "narrative of her novels." This practice of reading is perfectly coextensive with the social vision in the fictions themselves, where a structure of dominance, however flexible or open, is no more than a bounding line for practices that, for want of a better term are unaccountable--though by no means ideologically neutral. On the contrary the particular version of bourgeois hegemony that criticism, and historically based criticism especially, has been responsive to in Austen's texts was as much a force in Austen's work as it remains a backdrop for other representational practices and ways of reading them to which her novels are concurrently available and for which the practices of at least some of her characters, including Frank Churchill, Jane Bennet, and even the reviled Crawfords, are a correlative.] By the way that last sentence is exactly the way I typed it. If my own students had written something like that I probably would have had them re-write it.

Now perhaps that would be clear to Atticus (who received his English degree a few years later than me and so was exposed to a different critical vocabulary), I'm hoping it will be clear to my daughter. However, it just isn't all that clear to me. I can sort of get the drift of what he's trying to say as I read through it in the light of day. However, I'm still not completely sure. This is actually one of the less obtuse paragraphs in the introduction.

I suppose that he's only preaching to the choir. He's only speaking to specialists like himself, not to the average college educated reader who'd like to know more about the historical Jane Austen. Theologians do the same thing sometimes, which is why the works of someone like Scott Hahn or even Pope Benedict are so valuable. They manage to take it down a notch, so that the average person can actually understand the concepts they are trying to convey. My sense with this particular book is that the author has a particular critical agenda he is trying to espouse. He certainly would like his viewpoint to influence the way that Austen is read, however, he isn't making that viewpoint clear for any but those people who are in the "inner circle." It reminds me of characters in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength.

It isn't necessary to be that obtuse. After I put the book about Austen down, I picked up the second volume of the Norton Anthology of British literature and began reading about the same period of time. In a couple of short pages, I had learned things that I didn't learn in college about the period. I got a better understanding of the Romantic movement and the process was relatively painfree.

I'm hoping that the rest of the book about the historical Jane Austen will be easier to read than the introduction, sometimes that happens. I really am interested in the historical Jane Austen. I really do want to be able to help my students place her in history and understand the perspective from which she was writing. I'm willing to dig through this mud to discover a few gems, but it does seem to me that the mud wasn't really necessary.

So much for hobby reading...I guess there's a reason I never pursued a Phd in English.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Banting on a Budget

So what's banting you ask. Well it's the term that Agatha Christie mysteries always used for someone who was dieting. I think there was a doctor named Banting who came up with some diet scheme or other, so in the twenties, the English dieters were Banting rather than doing Atkins or South Beach or Jenny Craig, or Weight Watchers. Somehow Banting on a Budget seemed like a better title than dieting on a budget, if only because it might make someone stop and read the post.

I've been bothered lately by something I read in the paper the other day. The writer stated that some government official when questioned about America's overweight problem said that people know what to do to lose weight, they are just choosing not to do it. This morning, on the WW's board someone complained about a 1.6 pound weight gain this past week, but said that she was on a rather tight budget and couldn't afford the "right" foods. It's not the first time I've seen that sort of comment, and it made me think about what was said in the paper.

First of all I don't think the government official was right. I don't think that everyone does know how to lose weight or even what a healthy diet looks like. If you look at the high emphasis in the media on being slim and the number of people who are really very fat, there seems to be a disconnect. Do all of those fat people like being fat? I doubt that. Is it simply because of super size portions in restaurants? Well, I do think there's some correlation, but some fat people would have a very difficult time affording restaurant meals (other than fast food ones). I think that what the people on the WW board were saying bears some looking at.

First of all the recommendations seem to always have people eating chicken breasts and fish, but there have also been studies warning us away from tuna. I don't know about your neck of the woods, but chicken breasts anywhere I've priced them (even bone in, skin on) are way more expensive than chicken thighs. Fresh fish, and even frozen, other than fish sticks, is also pretty pricey. When you look at the WW's recipes, you often find ingredients like arugala,shrimp, sun dried tomatoes, pork tenderloin, or goat cheese. Now those are all very tasty ingredients, but they aren't cheap. WW's and other companies also market low calorie baked goods, frozen meals, and treats all of which are more expensive than the more generic brands of higher calorie foods.

I suspect that a lot of people on a budget are eating things like boxed macaroni and cheese, bologna, and white flour and sugar based products (like cookies) because those things are far cheaper than chicken breasts and goat cheese. Of course the cycle continues because you come to prefer the things you ate as a child (comfort food). This is why the foods I struggle with are things like filled cookies, or potatoes with milk gravy, while other people struggle with wanting to eat things like Lucky Charms or gravy fries.

There has been a move away from old fashioned home economics classes in our state. They now have something called family life education which seems to be mostly sociological where home ec was largely hands on. A lot of girls learned skills in high school home ec that they didn't learn at home. They also learned nutritional information that wasn't quite what the government is now handing out. Even where cooking is being taught there now seems to be more of an emphasis on using box mixes than learning to cook from whole ingredients. Where's Alton Brown when you need him!
I think this is a misguided policy. I think we should in this case turn back the clock and teach our kids a bit about some survival skills (like how to make soup or bake bread).

As a result of all of this lower income shoppers gravitate towards the wrong foods in part because they can't afford, or don't know how to cook, the right ones. Even people savy enough (and with enough money) to afford to do Weight Watchers struggle to come up with economical menus.

In fact, it doeesn't have to be as hard as we make it. Carrots, cabbages, apples, potatoes, onions,oatmeal, and celery are all fairly affordable. Chicken drumsticks are generally cheaper than hamburg. Water from the tap is cheaper than diet soda so is unsweetened tea (and it's even good for you!). Frozen and canned vegetables are not expensive, nor are canned or dried beans. Making soup from fresh, or frozen, or canned ingredients (or some combination thereof) is actually pretty easy and pretty cheap. Even cutting down the calorie count of desserts, by halving the sugar and replacing the oil or butter with applesauce is not difficult. Yes, it takes more time to make soup than to throw together a box of mac n cheese. However, the pot of soup will probably be served for more than one meal. Yes, it's easier to buy Weight Watcher's carrot cake than to figure out how to make your own for similar calories and your own will take time, but the cost will be less. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We keep food in the house (granted it's probably cheap food such as generic cookies) that is then there for stress eating. We could as easily choose to buy reduced calorie bread at the discount bread store and if we must stress eat, eat a slice of that with a teaspoon of jam for less calories than the cookies. You can even make yourself a cup of homemade cocoa for less than the "cost" of the cookies caloriewise.

From a societal standpoint the fact is that highly processed foods with lots of white flour, white sugar, and or transfats are cheaper to produce. They also don't keep you feeling full for very long, consequently people end up eating more of them. If you look at convenience foods in general what you discover is that they tend to be very high in calories, while not necessarily being high in overall nutritional value. There's a good reason why healthy guidelines recommend that you stick to the edges of the store (meat, produce, dairy) and steer clear of the middle aisles, but the middle aisles are where you find canned fruits and vegetables, dried and canned beans, pasta, canned fish, and healthy oils. The problem is that to get to those you have to run the gauntlet of cookies, potato chips, hamburger helper, and boxed mac n cheese. The unhealthy foods get a whole lot more advertising on television as well. How often do you see someone advertising carrots, or cabbage? Compare that to how often you seem them advertising frozen pizza or mac n cheese.

I believe that it's a myth that you can't lose weight on a budget. I'm trying to demonstrate that you can. I think it's a myth that you need to use sugar free sodas and desserts. I don't use nutra sweet or splenda, or any of the other artificial sweeteners. I don't use them largely because I can't stand the taste, but I also don't think their safety has been proven and because the products containing them are often just too expensive. I'm also trying to prove that you can lose weight without making the rest of your family eat stuff they think is not too palatable. Oh, I've tried a couple of trick things (like making brownies with black beans instead of oil), but for the most part all I've done is take my old recipes and cut back on the fat and sugar. Then I've figured out the "points" value per serving and eaten accordingly. Some days the serving size is relatively small, and I do seem to be eating a lot more apples, green beans, and such than I used to.

I'm not going to deny that it's more convenient and easier if you can just pick up a bunch of frozen meals and combine that with cold cereal, and sugar free treats. I don't deny that if you have a gourmet palate that the arugala salad and goat cheese aren't tempting. I just think that it's certainly possible to lose weight while eating low cost healthy foods. It probably takes a little more planning at the supermarket, and a little more preparation at home, but you don't have to break the bank while banting.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Weight Update

I told you all at the beginning of the summer that I would keep you posted on my weight loss (to keep myself honest, not that it probably is all that interesting to you). Well as of this morning, despite the Fourth of July, one birthday party, one anniversary, two trips to the beach and Labor Day weekend spent at the Vermont State Fair ta da: I have lost a total of 18.5 pounds and am just 1 measly pound away from having lost 10% of my weight. Now remember this was while nursing a cracked ankle which prevented exercise for 6 weeks or so of the journey. Weight Watchers Flex program ROCKS!

Seriously, I've lost the weight while managing occasional treats like two trips to Little Jacks (when we went to the beach), like a foot long hot dog at the fair, like cake on the birthday and anniversary, like fudge, like hot chocolate, and peanut butter toast. In short I don't walk around feeling deprived, but I do make a whole lot more healthy choices and stress eating now consists of things like canned green beans or cherry tomatoes instead of Dove Promises.

Stay tuned for further updates. The burning question of the week is can I break 140 by my birthday???

By the way my skinny computer genius daughter seems to be upping the ante on me. She announced yesterday that she now fits into size 2 jeans. She says she thinks they've changed the way they're sizing things because she doesn't weigh that much less than she did when she was wearing a 9. Can I aspire to a 2??? Actually what I really aspire to is a healthy BMI of around 21. Last time I looked I was still 10 points higher than that, but I'm almost not obese anymore (1.5 lb to go to hit that particular milestone!).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

We Now Resume Our Regular Programming

If any of you came to this blog this morning, or this afternoon even, you found html code or (depending on your browser) a blank screen, not posts. Somehow my template got messed up and I couldn't figure out, nor could the people I asked for help figure out, how to fix it. This evening I came back to the computer and checked blogger help one more time. Lo and behold I found the answer to my problem. All I had to do was to change templates. Thus the new look of the blog, thus my links have not yet been completely restored, but at least we are back to the regular program.

It would have been nice if the people at Blogger had responded to my plea for help, but they didn't, except with a form e-mail which basically sent me to the help section again, or at least they didn't before I'd figured it out myself. Of course having figured it out myself, I'll know what to do next time. Such is the way of independent learning.

The Enjoyment of Old Books

In a world where new books are flooding libraries and bookstores on a regular basis, some people no doubt find it odd that I read so many old books. They are not necessarily old in a physical sense, quite often they are reprints with shiny new covers and crisp new pages. I do enjoy the feel of a physically old book and I definitely agree with Helene Hanff (author of 84 Charing Cross Road) that it is a true pleasure to read a book someone else has read before you and read the notes that they have jotted down. What I really enjoy, however, is what the books themselves have to say. I love the way that they open up a world long gone, the way that I can seem to sit like a little child listening to the tale of a great grandparent. The old books do more than just give a picture of the 15th century, or the 8th century, or the 13th century, or even the 19th century. Often they demonstrate values and concepts that the last century and the present century seem to have minimized and even dismissed in a headlong race towards an illusive progress. Frequently their very language forces the reader to slow down his reading rate and in doing so slow the rest of the pace of his life as well.

I have just begun reading The Wood Beyond the World, by William Morris. One of the first things I noted was the language. It is lofty and must have seemed somewhat archaic even in Morris's own time. Yet the stately way that the tale is told is appropriate to the material. As I read some of the earliest descriptive passages in the book, I understood how Morris was an influence on writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This book, I realized quickly, would make an excellent read aloud for children who enjoy Tolkien's work, although it probably would be a bit difficult for younger listeners.

Here's a bit of description from an early chapter just to give you a flavor of the book: "So Walter did on his foul-weather raiment, and went up on the quarter-deck, and there indeed was a change of days; for the sea was dark and tumbling mountain-high, and the white-horses were running down the valleys thereof, and the clouds drave low over all, and bore a scud of rain along with them, and though there was but a rag of sail on her, the ship flew before the wind rolling a great wash of water from bulwark to bulwark."

After listening to this your children might be using thees and thous in their speech and playing at sailing in an old fashioned ship, but I suspect that they would also be nourished on the journey to being "men with chests" (or women as the case may be) as C.S. Lewis called them.