Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas, Holiday or Holy Day?

Santa, Jesus and Christmas

Santa Claus is the icon for the marketing madness that dominates the season named for Jesus Christ, who taught us to love everyone everywhere. Jesus was an activist for peace and poor people who drove the money changing marketers out of the Temple, and became a martyr for social justice. Our ever lengthening Christmas season is make or break time for retail marketing and the economy as we struggle to make ends meet in the aftermath of the great recession. Before Halloween, Santa Claus was seen popping up among the pumpkins in TV ads. We decorate the mantle in our den with a diverse collection of Santas and his elf-like predecessors of ancient religious and pagan groups who reveled at annual mid-winter celebrations. Increasingly, Santa has become the supreme symbol of out-of-control consumerism. The Jolly Old Elf of mass marketing rules the day named for Jesus in the most materialistic culture in world history. We are caught up in a frenzy of advertising, buying and selling, that diminishes the relevance of the birth and exemplary life of Jesus. On Monday of Christmas week the largest newspaper in South Carolina had two thirds of its front page occupied by an article titled “From paintings to gizmos to toys, Christmas bringing folks to stores” and a picture of a young boy and his mother rummaging through giant stacks of toys in a local store. On most days since October, the paper has become a wrapper for a big bundle of advertising inserts for local retail stores.

Not surprisingly, Christmas is the most likely time of the year to experience depression under the pressure of such marketing madness. Especially for Christians, Christmas should be the happiest time of the year as they celebrate the birth of Jesus with family and friends. But according to the National Institutes of Health, Christmas is the time of year that people experience the highest incidence of depression.Mental health specialists say there is a significant increase in complaints about depression at Christmas time and a survey revealed that 45% of the depressed respondents feared this most festive time of the year. Health care providers and law enforcement report the highest incidences of suicide and attempted suicide during the Christmas season.

I began feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness around Christmas when I was about 12 or 13 years old and retreated to my bedroom even though Santa Claus was coming to town. Maybe I worried too much about whether I had been bad or good, naughty or nice, but visions
of sugar plums didn’t dance in my head and I didn’t have myself a merry little Christmas. I would become despondent and would tell my Mom and Dad I didn’t feel like going to school. Mother took me to the Doctor and his diagnosis was seasonal affective disorder (SAD), caused by the dark winter weather. I don’t know for certain why I got depressed, but I still tend to get irritable and down-in-the dumps during the holiday season. I am 74 years old and dread of the holiday season has haunted me since I was a kid. When I was in high school and college I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and received electro-convulsive (shock) treatments as therapy.

A majo
r reason for depression is that people get angry and regretful at Christmas because of commercial and social pressure to spend too much money on gifts and go further in debt, and attend or host too many parties. Many are depressed due to a victim mentality created by excessive reflection on the inadequacies of life in comparison with other people who seem to have more happiness and possessions. I dwell on missed opportunities of the past and coulda, woulda, shoulda speculation rather than focusing on an awareness and the reality of the present. Others dread Christmas because they are expected to attend social gatherings with people they'd rather not be around and have dinner with their extended family and argue politics etc. Especially, in our economic crisis, folks feel bad because they can’t afford to buy nice gifts for their family and friends. At least for Christians, the greatest gift at Christmas is Jesus Christ, who gave his life in the struggle for peace, justice and poor people.

With over a trillion dollars budgeted for the military and defense related expenditures in 2011 we should emulate Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus who engaged in civil disobedience and gave their all for peace and poor people. Jesus rejected the vengeful “eye for an eye” in favor of “turning the other cheek” in universal love. After Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple he was arrested, tried and crucified. Rather than joining in the excessive commercialism symbolized by Santa, those of us who believe in what Jesus did should love all people and become activists for peace and poor people.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Michael Moore is my Hero

Government secrecy destroys democracy. In this video from the Rachel Maddow show of December 21, 2010, Michael Moore discusses the necessity of transparency in government, particularly in light of the revelations of the WikiLeaks cables.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Poetry for Boys

 Billy Collins, My Kind of Poet

Boys are brave; boys are adventurous; boys are daring; boys are bold. 

My Eleventh grade boys in Williston-Elko High in low country South Carolina were no different.  They fought on the play ground; they snuck cigarettes in defiance of school rules (this was 1964--before marijuana was discovered there); they played tough man football; they cussed, they drank and they spit.  But they shared a universal fear of one thing in my classroom, even the truly brilliant ones--as did all the boys I ever taught.  They were afraid of Poetry. 
Some didn't want to tackle it because they were afraid they couldn't understand it. Others didn't because they were afraid the class would discover they liked it and  they would suffer ridicule. When it was time for the poetry books to open,the boys would be begin to slump, slowing sliding down on to their spines. Their heads would half disappear beneath the desks and  they would will themselves invisible, trusting the eager girls to take up the slack.
I cracked the wall of resistance only once each year with an Emily Dickinson poem. It always worked and I always used it because I am very sneaky as you may have observed from other posts.  The poem is  I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed, (or Inebriated on Air Am I, as my students liked to call it) wherein Emily compares, metaphorically, being gobsmacked  by the beauty 
of   nature to being stinking, staggering drunk. 
They loved it. The imagery was absolutely clear to them, and they fought for the opportunity given to read it out loud to the class  as the dew drunken Emily--complete with staggers, slurs, and retching. It was usually a little too realistic, but what's a teacher to do?

How I wish Billy Collins' poetry had been around then.  All my students would have loved it, fresh faced girls and skeptical boys.  His subtle, understated, humorous poetry is made for young people.  And when he makes a point, touches your heart, shows you what's good in the world, you are so ready to receive it, it rushes right on in.  I have seen classrooms full of kids of all ages, but especially teenagers (yes, girls and boys) unabashedly gush over his poetry. 

Billy Collins is the most popular living poet in America, chosen New York State Poet Laureate and U.S. Poet  Laureate (twice). He writes witty poetry--sometimes controversial--about everyday things, in a really quirky, tender and profound way. Even his titles are odd. Two of my favorites are Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes and Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In the House.  This last is about a neighbor’s dog barking incessantly through the night and Collins’ dark, ominous longings.

My truly favorite Collins’ poem is Litany.  Oh how my Eleventh grade boys would have loved it!  That year we studied the English Romantics—Byron, Shelley, Keats—writing treacly, syrupy elegys, odes and sonnets that they could not abide!!!!! Though this poem is open to many interpretations, Collins sure plays with us as he takes on the love poem, piling on, as the love struck often do.

He “steals” a bit of someone else’s romantic poem:

You are the Bread and the Knife
—then runs with it, tongue in cheek.  Listen as the poet reads aloud in his understated fashion:

For a great treat watch a three year old recite Billy Collins' poem Litany from memory.

  I wonder if he will still like poetry when he is an Eleventh grader?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow? The Harvest

Containing more  Lessons from my Daughter and From My Son

The End for 2010
The last of the harvest has been eaten.  Tom cut four lone pieces of okra from the garden the end of  November and ate them raw, cut up into our mixed salad.  It was not enough for a mess and some folks would have just tossed them, or put them in the compost pile.

 But Tom is a  WWII baby, whose mother’s  voice still echoes in his head.  “Waste not, want not.....   You must belong to the Clean Plate Club..... Eat your food—just think about all those starving children in Africa.”

I hear a similar voice.  I could never understand, though,  about that starving children thing.  Why in the world couldn’t we send the food—which I DID NOT WANT---to the hungry children who so needed it?
First Harvest of the Season 2010

This year we planted a limited number of crops, unlike in past years.  The tomatoes and okra were givens, though not quite as much okra as in the past.   Peppers and fields peas rounded out the garden. My three favorite summer foods are tomatoes, okra and field peas.  I could eat them every meal. 

I do not eat peppers.  To be in the same room while Tom is cutting them up makes my eyes water.  Tom puts them in everything he eats and if,  by accident,  it is something I also am eating,  my mouth burns for hours.  Taking a hint from Jeff's cheese stuffed peppers dish, Tom also makes his own unique stuffed hot peppers, stuffing them with all kinds of cheeses, smoked oysters, crab meat, chopped shrimp, smoked salmon, tuna, minced clams and other interesting and unusual things.  The two tricks to this dish are to wear gloves during preparation (the more important of the two) and to roast them well  so that the intense heat is under control.  He freezes these individually on cookie sheets so that he can pull out one or two at a time to roast for his dinner.  

The only disappointment were the field peas.  They were heavenly tasting, but almost nonexistence. We planted four rows of them, two on one side of the garden and two on the other.  The rows on the right side yielded some every now and then, so that every few days we had gathered enough to cook a mini pot full.  Tom let me eat them all each time(about 3 spoonfuls), because I was the one who had begged to plant them this year.  The other two rows yielded nothing—not one pea.  The plants looked healthy and were heavy  with dark lush leaves.  That was it.  No peas. We are going to be more careful about the exact kind of field pea we try next year.  I think we will try two different kinds, maybe crowder  and pink eye peas, and keep track to see if either does better than this year.  If anybody had a recommendation, please let us know. I don't know if I can go another summer without fresh field peas.  On the other hand, Tom may be over it and have no interest in trying them again.  If you have read my previous gardening posts, you know that Tom is the master gardener and I am the sometimes helper—except for the summer of his hip replacement, when I was the worker bee under his rigorous oversight.  So if he says it’s a no-go, then we will be pealess next year.   

The tomatoes were .......... Wow!!

Sam & Madeline pick our tomatoes

We planted many heirlooms this year, harder to grow, but so worth it.  The whole experience is an affirmation that beauty is only skin deep.  Heirlooms  are open pollinated, not hybrids,  that look like they've grown wild. They're all different lumpy shapes and sizes, with scarred splits in the delicate skin and the flesh is firm, sweet, rich, lush, and smoky tasting. I love to eat them straight out of the garden, like apples, hanging over the sink with the juice dribbling down my chin. I have been excited to learn that, besides being funny looking
Davis & Tom
and tasting scrumptious,  they are  more nutritious, packed full of vitamins and antioxidants, than are  the more common hybrid varieties. Hybrids, on the other hand,  are cross pollinated, developed for commercial purposes--a uniform size to make them easy to pack,  with thick skins to be bug resistant, and to stand up under rough handling and for travel. Hybrids look uniformly, perfectly attractive, but are mealy, juiceless and drip free, manipulated for the sake of economics, taste be damned.

Our earliest harvest is always green tomatoes, picked  to thin the plants so that they will yield more. I have searched all my cookbooks and the internet for the best green tomato recipe to be had.  I am glad to share it with you.  The secret is the mustard mixture that you spread on the tomato before you fry it.  It is messy, but the spread adds a tang that makes this dish special.

Fried Green Tomatoes
This recipe is from Robert Lorino of The Irondale Café in Irondale, Alabama.This restaurant is the inspiration for Fannie Flag’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.  The recipe is world famous.

2          Medium hard  green tomatoes, chilled
1          Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1          teaspoon sugar
½         teaspoon salt
¼         teaspoon paprika
1/8       teaspoon ground red pepper
 1 ½     teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
½         cup yellow cornmeal
¼         cup hot bacon drippings or vegetable oil

Cut tomatoes into ½ inch slices
Stir together mustard and next 5 ingredients.  Spread on both sides of tomato slices.  Coat with cornmeal.
Fry tomatoes in hot drippings (or oil) in skillet over medium heat 3 minutes on each side or until browned.  Drain.


  We planted less of everything this year, so we only froze a few of our tomatoes and gave away those we couldn’t eat at three meals a day sliced, diced,  minced and roasted, in sandwiches, sauces, and stews.  The office attorneys and staff got lots and we had enough get ripe at once during the summer to serve them on Sunday in Finlay Park at Food Not Bombs.

Our wonderful preacher,  Neal, got the lion’s share though.  In fact, he called every Saturday night to remind us to bring him some. “You know my favorite food is a BLT sandwich,” he would say. He even wanted us to bring a bag of them and hang them on his office door on the Sundays he was not preaching.  There was a little catch in his voice the Saturday night we had to tell him the yield was  over and there would be no more tomatoes in the morning. He is a tomato glutton and I threatened to tell the Board to reduce his salary,  as we were paying part of it in produce, the old fashioned way. LOL.
He did not LOL.

Okra was our most prolific crop this year.  Originally from Africa, okra is a hot weather plant.  We put the seeds in the ground later than any of our other crops and it is the last to stop yielding—when the weather is below freezing for several nights in a row, usually in late November.  We use it in stews and gumbos and soups, but primarily we coat it with corn meal and deep fry it.  Fried okra is as Southern as fried catfish, fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried squash, and….fried green tomatoes.  Good as it tastes,  Tom and I have stopped eating fried food of any kind, switching to broiled or baked, for the sake of our health.  But fried okra--we just have not been able to give it up. Until this year.  In yet another of the Lessons From My Daughter, Jeny introduced us to a new way to cook okra.  It is healthy, less messy than fried,  and so tasty that we are never looking back. Sauteed okra is simple.
Sauteed Okra

Cut okra in slices as for frying. (If you have just washed it, pat it dry with paper towels, or wait for it to air dry).   Coat the sauté pan well with oil. On medium high heat, sauté the okra in pan  until brown on edges and slightly crisp, 4-6 minutes, stirring constantly so as not to burn. Lightly salt if desired.
There are more elaborate recipes with onion and various spices, but we all like it so well  plain we’ve not tried to fancy it up yet.  Maybe next year.
  Both of our children have turned into master gardeners and master chefs and their gardens include a wide variety of herbs to use in their cooking. Our garden in no way rivals theirs.   Jeny grows a wider variety of crops than we do, including a fall garden.

 Jeff plants cucumbers, and pumpkins, in addition to most of the same things we do. He plants  pumpkins and such for fun for the kids. Sam loves cucumber cookies. The Lessons from my Son in this blog post involve his turning his garden produce into highly sought-after gifts. His cucumber and okra pickles and  fresh salsa, made with his own tomatoes and peppers, are to die for and he makes many of us happy with his homemade Christmas and birthday gifts. The marvel of this is that he manages it at all, in a teeny plot on the side yard, raided frequently by their two large, rowdy family dogs.

Winter is here, the temperature is in the 20’s and  the garden is only a memory, except for a few frozen quarts of tomatoes in the freezer and some of Jeff’s pickles in the cupboard. We are already looking forward to next summer and so, I am told, is Neal.  He misses his BLT sandwiches. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Rich Get Rich and the Poor Get Poorer

Hunger and Homelessness in America

"There's n
othing surer; the rich get rich and the poor get poorer," was a slogan of the roaring 20s. The famous phrase was adapted from “Ain’t We Got Fun,” a popular song recorded in 1921. So what’s new in America in the first decade of the 2000s?

Nothing! America’s top 72 wage earners averaged 84 million
ollars each in income in 2009, according to Social Security Administration data. The richest 1 percent of us earned 24 % of the nation's total income, the highest since 1928, just before the Great Depression. On the other hand, 14.3 % were living in poverty in 2009, according to the U. S Census Bureau. 50 million people from 17.4 million families are so poor they couldn’t buy sufficient food last year. About one million children from more than a third of these households missed meals regularly according to a recent study by the Department of Agriculture. At dinner, families gather to share together. But for the children, dinner time can be the cruelest part of the day. Almost 1 in 4 of them doesn’t know when they will have their next meal.

Because there is a high turnover and many homeless people stay hidden, homeless and hunger counts are only estimates. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a count of 643,067 homeless persons nationwide on a single night in January 2008. 1.6 million used emergency shelters or transitional housing during 2007/2008, suggesting that 1 in every 50 persons in the US used the shelter system at some point. 170,000 families lived in homeless shelters.

With home foreclosures at record highs and continuing unemployment, homelessness is increasing.

Republicans in the U.S. House have blocked a bill that would have extended jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed beyond the holiday season. About 2 million people will lose their benefits if they are not extended, according to the National Employment Law Project. The blocked benefits would save the jobless from hunger and homelessness during the most severe recession since the 1930s and boost spending in the economy that will generate more jobs. Long-term unemployed workers are likely to spend their benefits right away on rent, food and other necessities, and create jobs in our economy. The Congressional Budget office estimates the "multiplier" effect of spending $65 billion on unemployment insurance extensions will increase gross domestic product $104.7 billion which translates into 488,000 payroll jobs.

The plutocrats controlling our government with campaign cont
ributions and slick lobbyists oppose extending benefits to unemployed people. They fight to keep their unjust tax cuts and sit on the billions in bailout cash they received that we were told would save the economy and create jobs for poor and unemployed people. U. S. companies reported after-tax profits of $1.22 trillion last quarter, the highest on record dating back to 1947, according to the Department of Commerce.
When will some of their government bailout welfare for the rich trickle down to poor and working people?

My wife, Judy and I are sponsors of an organization called Homeless Helping Homeless and volunteer at the local winter shelter. And, along with about 35 other people from diverse backgrounds, we have fed an average of 150 mostly homeless and hungry people every Sunday afternoon for the past 7 years at Finlay Park in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. . Each server brings a dish or two--turnip greens, mac and cheese, fresh fruit, banana pudding. Pastries are donated by local super markets. Our picnic provides a nutritious and tasty meal for the homeless and many of the servers.We are known as Food Not Bombs, a national organization that encourages feeding hungry people rather than supporting military madness.

Our a-frame sign, set up near the entrance to our picnic, has a famous quote from a speech by former General and President Dwight Eisenhower that describes the military industrial complex:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

The U.S.
defense budget is $720 billion, which includes the Pentagon base budget, Department of Energy nuclear weapons activities and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We far outstrip the rest of the world in defense spending, surpassing the next closest country by more than eight times. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the U.S. military budget accounts for 43% of the world’s total military spending.
If we heed the words of Eisenhower and stop the madness we call war, if we require the wealthiest to pay their fair share, then perhaps we can end hunger and homelessness in America. There will be food, not bombs, and we will no longer destroy the hopes of our children.