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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Score one for the New Zealand schoolgirls.

Extracts from
Schoolgirls are celebrities after exposing Ribena
By Mike Steere and NZPA - The Press

Two Kiwi schoolgirls are worldwide celebrities after their school experiment forced an international pharmaceutical and food giant to admit it made false claims about vitamin C levels in Ribena.

GlaxoSmithKline, the second-largest food and drug company in the world, was yesterday fined $217,500 in the Auckland District Court after it admitted 15 breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

The case was brought by the Commerce Commission after a science experiment in 2004 by 14-year-old Pakuranga College schoolgirls Jenny Suo and Anna Devathasan raised questions about the vitamin C content in Ribena.

Jenny and Anna decided to look at vitamin C content in juice for the Manukau Institute of Technology science fair because "we were both going through a juice phase".

Jenny said the Ribena ready-to-drink product was one of the first of the juice products they checked the results for. "We just couldn't believe it. We thought we must have done it wrong," she said.

"We tested it another 10 times, and tested the syrup as well. The other products all came up with more vitamin C than they said, but not Ribena."

GlaxoSmithKline admitted its cartoned ready-to-drink Ribena, which it claimed had 7mg of vitamin C per 100ml, had no detectable vitamin C content.

The company also admitted it may have misled customers in advertisements saying the blackcurrants in Ribena syrup had four times the vitamin C of oranges.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Playmobil Re-Enactments: Pet Food Recall

From the Banterist.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Elizabeth Warren on "Fresh Air"

Here are some things I heard on "Fresh Air" tonight. You can download the program from and here's a previous interview with Elizabeth Warren on the same subject: the rapacious practices of credit card companies. I bolded a few of the choicest bits.
  • Credit card companies sent out 8 billion pre-approved card applications last year.

  • The preferred customers are not those who pay their bill on time each month - if you pay your bill in full the companies refer to you as a "deadbeat." The customers the companies lust for are the shaky customers - those who will carry a balance and miss payments from time to time. "Miss a couple payments and see how many more offers you get."

  • According to the language on their agreements, credit card companies can change the interest rate they charge you at any time for any reason.

  • Though the companies make a small profit on every transaction, the true generator of income is the "extra $49 here and there" they hit customers with. In most cases these obscure fees won't make you mad enough to cancel the card.

  • The companies sometimes impose fees for no reason. This year, one company one hit everybody with a $75 fee. Anybody who complained got the fee removed from their bill. This way, the company kept their "alert, cranky customers" and got $75 from the careless and timid.

  • Terry commented about late fees: "There isn't a lot of time to pay before your time is up!" Warren revealed this trick: for six months your bill will be due on a certain date, then without notice the date will be moved several days earlier. "Many more people will get it wrong and think it's their fault."

  • Another trick: people on the east coast receive pre-printed envelopes directing their payments to some town on the west coast - a small town is chosen because it takes longer for mail to make it out of a major metropolitcan area. But west coast customers mail their checks to a small town on the east coast!

  • "There are multiple allegations that some companies delay opening bills, and even shred them!" It's all to get late fees. Some customers will complain but most have too much else going on and won't notice, or can't bear the agony of trying to fix the situation.

  • Terry Gross: "I had [an unjustified charge]. I complained three months in a row. They said they'd take it off, but each month it was back again."

    Elizabeth Warren: "Realize you are up against an entire army of MBAs whose job is to do nothing but figure out how to maximize profits and pick your pocket. If leaving you on hold for 9 minutes means half the callers give up and pay rather than wait longer, that's the point. ... These errors are not unintentional - all the mistakes all run in one direction, towards the companies..."

  • Warren conducted an experiment with a class comprising 80 third year Harvard Law School students, just a couple months from graduation. One of her students had brought in a credit card offer trumpeting 3% cash back and asked "Surely even you must admit this is a good deal."

    She xeroxed the offer passed it out to her bankruptcy class and asked two questions: What's the effective interest rate, and under what circumstances will you get the 3% cash back?

    "It took the entire group, the eighty law students in my bankruptcy class, working together for an entire hour, to figure out they THOUGHT it was a 17.99 percent card, and that you only got cash back when you were paying that rate - that is to say, it was a 14.999% card. It took an hour for them to figure that out. What chance does the ordinary customer have to understand these terms?"

  • Terry Gross asked if there exists a way to find out how long it will take you to pay off your debt if you pay the minimum each month. "The companies hope you don't find out. They have fought legislation in Washington and some states that would require that piece of information - the addition of one simple line on your bill that says "if you make the minimum payments it will take you ... to pay off your debt."

    She gave this example: if a young couple charges $5,000 worth of baby supplies and pays the minimum, the baby will be grown, married, and have babies of his/her own before the debt is paid off - 34 years.

  • Since Colonial days, the U.S. had usury laws - there was a maximum legal interest rate. If you charged a higher rate it was called loan sharking and you could go to jail.

    This changed in 1979. The question before the Supreme Court: if a bank is in Montana and the customer is in California, which state law is in effect? Most people thought it should be the law in the customer's state - you'd be protected by your own state laws. But the court said Congress intended the state where the bank is incorporated to have precedence. "South Dakota says - hmm, jobs, clean industry, and most people with credit cards don't live here - and it repealed its usury laws. And Citibank moved there and issued cards all over country, circumventing all the usury laws. Delaware said 'me too.' And the usury laws died."

  • The new tougher bankruptcy law has emboldened the banks, since it makes it harder for customers to get out from under. Credit card companies increase pre-approved mailings 30% between 2005 (before the new law) and 2006. "They're looking harder for more customers, particularly shaky customers. They're pushing harder with tricks-and-traps pricing... They pushed for this law, - it was in fact drafted by their lobbyists."

    The credit card lobby is #1 or among the top 3 givers of campaign contributions every year. "Each congressman and senator got 2-3 personal calls a day every day, month after month, emphasizing how important it was for senator x to vote right on bankruptcy."

  • Americans carry more debt than ever before. 36% are worried they can't pay their credit card bills. 40% have missed at least one payment in the last 2 years. 25% of American families are maxed out on at least one card. 1 in 7 Americans today is being hassled by a debt collector because of missed payments.

    Warren blames two things: First, debt is more heavily marketed - we don't see ads for saving money, putting it aside for a rainy day. Hundreds of millions of dollares are spent on ads to get you to take on more debt. Second: families are under more economic pressure. Within the last generation, median wages for fully employed males are flat while expenses (for housing and health care for instance) have gone up by 70% in inflation adjusted dollars.

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A wonderful evening alone

Sometimes I think I've been alone so much in the last few years I've become fossilized, but so what. A helpful mantra on this subject: "There are many things worse than being alone."

Tonight I went to dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant. It was 80 degrees, there was a lovely breeze, I sat on the patio (which has a sweeping panoramic view over a Sam's Club parking lot), and watched the sun set (over the Adam and Eve parking lot), and did my Yiddish homework while eating a special salad I invented and which almost every mesero at this restaurant can make for me...

Simple pleasures: doing my Yiddish homework and eating my dinner and listening to the mariachi music and feeling the breeze and watching the sun set over the parking lot.

A solitary diner eavesdrops. When I got gloomy listening to the ridiculously boring conversations around me - Hannah used to say "I want to put a stake through my eye" when subjected to this level of idiocy - I remembered - at least I don't have to participate in these exchanges! I.e. nothing to complain about.

Another excellent thing: a splendid long denim skirt, worn for the first time, bought at the Salvation Army in Manhattan while I was seeking a modest skirt to wear to services. Since it had had a busted-out zipper the cashier gave it to me at a super-super discount. I fixed it today, feeling thankful I know how to sew and can make a ruined skirt splendid again...

Lastly, on the way home I was enchanted by an interview on "Fresh Air" about credit cards. I'll sum it up and post it.


A few little art cards

Hannah and I are leaving Friday for an art retreat with my favorite painter Jane Filer. I'll pick her up at the airport and drive her out to the beach! Should be great. To warm up I worked on some art cards for the exchange project at

This one is of Kevin Burke, for a participant who asked for something with the color orange.

This one is from my son Zed's passport photo.

My young friend Menticia had to make a poster called "Achievements of the Aztecs" this past week. While she was drawing bloodthirsty conquistadors, I got interested in this Aztec image of an eagle.

This one is a study of Pulcinella (aka Punch of "Punch and Judy") for the cd painting I'm planning. Another study for that cd cover is here.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

My daughter's blog gets Scientology hits

Hey, surf on over to "Fear Not the Gods" and see Hannah's prelude to her visit to the Scientologists. She's getting some interesting comments... I'm sure there will be more later...


Saturday, March 24, 2007

True, it's a dangerous world, but are satanic barcodes really the reason?

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A hundred residents of a Russian village have refused to switch to new passports because they believe the documents' bar codes contain satanic symbols, state television reported Wednesday.

"We believe these new passports are sinful," Valentina Yepifanova, an elderly resident of the village Bogolyubovo, told Rossiya television as she clutched an old, tattered passport she said she wanted to keep.

"They have these bar codes and people say they contain three sixes. We are against that."

Some residents of Bogolyubovo, which means "God-loving" in Russian, have also stopped collecting their pensions at the local post office because the payment slips also have bar codes that might contain the mark of the devil, Rossiya TV reported.

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"Burglar pays dearly for credit card trick"

BERLIN (Reuters) - A hapless German thief snapped his credit card in two while prying open a lock, inadvertently leaving behind his name and account details for police.

"He tried to copy what he'd seen them do on television, but the flat-owner woke up and the criminal ran away," a police spokesman said Wednesday. "The victim called up and read us the details off the card."

"When we got round to the burglars house, the other half of his credit card was sitting on his kitchen table."

The 29-year-old burglar was trying to open the door to his neighbor's apartment in Moenchengladbach in western Germany, police said.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Hannah: Too Awful

Just found this website, which is the result of a contest to see who could develop the ugliest myspace page. It made me laugh out loud.

Hannah: Last Night With John Edwards

By random chance, I ended up last night at a small, live event with John Edwards. He looked like he was trying to conceal being very tired. It mostly worked, though he bungled a few factoids, and before he started speaking, his face was frozen in a mask of 'I don't want to be here.' His North Carolina accent really struck me all of a sudden. He's got a big fat juicy one. Though I grew up in NC, I don't have any kind of Southern accent. What I do have is something like colorblindness to mild Southern accents - I just can't hear them. I can't distinguish them from "normal" Yankee talk. I could definitely hear John Edwards's accent, though, and it made me miss North Carolina very badly. It made me think about all the people with accents who I knew and don't see anymore - my elementary school teachers, people who work in local stores, parents of friends. Also, it's finally the first day of spring up here - I miss the warm weather!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spaghetti Bridge Competition

I learned about the spaghetti bridge competitions, held at various engineering schools, in my Spanish conversation class.

"Each group is to build a bridge made from spaghetti and glue/epoxy. The object is to construct a bridge that will carry the heaviest load while still meeting specifications. Bridges will be loaded until they fail."

The teams attach a metal chain to the underside of the bridge and add weights until the bridge breaks. At one contest, according to my fellow Spanish student, the weights fell to the floor when the HOOK broke, not the bridge!

From the John Hopkins spaghetti bridge web page, here are some of the rules:
  • The bridge is to be built from spaghetti (cylindrical forms of pasta) and glue, epoxy or resin.

  • The bridge shall be free-standing and must span two level surfaces which are one meter apart.

  • The bridge must include a decking of spaghetti to provide a suitable road surface at least 5cm wide across the full span of the bridge... A block of wood (5 cm x 5cm x 10 cm) representing a car must be able to move along the length of the decking unobstructed from end to end...

  • You must incorporate a "loading platform" consisting of a U-bolt secured to a piece of plywood... All loads will be suspended from this U-bolt ... using an S-hook...

  • The maximum weight of the bridge including the loading platform must not exceed 0.75 kilograms.

Note: These rules are essentially the same as those developed for contests at Okanagan University College. For a bridge meeting these restrictions, Okanagan claims a world record of 176 kilograms (388 pounds). [Pictures from the Okanagan event, which has a lot of international competitors, here.]

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hannah sent this site to cheer me up...

From, "a webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language."

A New CAPTCHA Approach

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What do we owe our neighbors in this internet age?

I've been rattled thinking about something that happened last week. At the time, I labelled it "not suitable for blogging," but it's still on my mind...

As you know, I live alone and don't seem to cook for myself, so I eat a lot of shredded wheat and bananas - breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Sometimes I suspect I'm about to get tired of shredded wheat, so I trawl for dinner companions at Craig's List. I propose thusly: "have dinner with a friendly musician..."

This is a pretty successful, low-risk proposition; at worst my dinner companion and I bore each other for an hour. No harm has been done, and at least we've gotten out of our respective houses and had a decent meal.

Sometimes we don't bore each other too badly, and in that case we do it again. In one case, I'd been having dinner once a week with a guy for almost six months - "that's longer than my second marriage lasted!" he joked.

This guy has serious health problems, though they aren't evident when you meet him, and he seemed to me to be very much alone - he moved here from up north by himself and lives further out in the woods than I do, in an apartment (found on Craig's List) over a deserted woodshop.

So anyway, for these months of weekly dinners I had it in my mind that, perhaps, one day this friend would need help from me, and though our friendship was in most senses quite casual, I would feel I owed him that help.

Last week I thought the time had come. See, this guy has been, unlike many tipos found on Craig's List, reliable and genuine with me - he showed up, on time, on the day specified, in the place specified, week after week. He kept in touch by email and we even talked on the phone occasionally. But last Monday I realized he hadn't been answering my emails, hadn't responded to my phone calls, in fact had not confirmed our dinner plans, and so, for the first time in months, we'd miss a Monday meeting.

He still didn't answer emails or phone calls the next day, nor the day after that. This was so unusual I started to be afraid something had happened to him.

Maybe I'm a little more paranoid than most people would be, but -- my own mother died this way. Cooking breakfast, she suddenly suffered a cerebral aneurysm and fell to the floor. Since she had a job - and obviously hadn't shown up for work that day - a co-worker "swung by" that night to check up on her and found her lying on the floor, still conscious. It was reported to me that, when found on the floor in the kitchen, my mom gestured mutely towards the stove, which had been on all day, ready for the pan of eggs which never made it to the burner, worrying her, hour after hour, as she lay on the floor unable to reach it. After seeing her co-worker turn off the stove, my mom went into a coma and never woke again.

In the 28 years since that happened, I have thought often about my mother, a woman who lived alone, and the way she died. I wondered what would have happened if the co-worker hadn't come by.

And in these past years when I've been living alone out here in the woods, I've thought often about what would happen if I were suddenly stricken as my mother was. How long would it take anybody to notice I wasn't answering my phone? I don't have a "job" and I'm not generally very good at returning phone messages... I morbidly collect these stories we see online of people who are found, mummified, in front of their television sets, years after their deaths...

So anyway, by Wednesday night I'd worried myself into a frenzy over this guy. On the one hand, I'd never been to his house and had no relation to him other than our casual Monday dinners. On the other hand - if not me, then who? He has no job, no family, nobody checking up on him...

Suddenly convinced something was terribly wrong, I realized retroactively I'd had a responsibility towards him from the very moment I first noticed he'd gone missing - and I'd blown it.

I wasn't raised to be a good neighbor - my parents, mired in misery, led the selfish every-man-for-himself suburban life. I didn't learn the neighborly things by observation - the charitable giving, the making of casseroles for funerals, not even the taking care of the neighbors' pets. We were a fairly solitary island there amongst the string of houses on our street. So "the right thing" doesn't necessarily come naturally to me.

By Wednesday night I was electrified by alarm. After hours of worry I finally slept two hours, then woke up at four and deliberated some more. I'd looked up the guy's address and planned to go there at a decent hour. When to implement my rescue mission?

If (a) he really had been lying stricken on the floor for days, every hour I delayed might make a difference to his survival. Or maybe he was already dead! But if (b) he was fine and had just been being flaky for some unknown reason, I would frighten him and embarrass myself by showing up in the dark and knocking on his door.

I left the house at 7:45 am, clutching the map directing me to his corner of the woods. En route I called my friend Judy. I started crying hysterically, convinced I had waited far too long, been a "bad neighbor," that the guy would be dead and it would be my fault. She said, "Promise me if you get there and he doesn't answer the door, you won't go in, you'll call 911. Promise. It's been days, Melinama..."

I drove and cried, and got lost and cried, got back on the right route and cried some more, then finally I arrived...

And he was fine. I was flabbergasted. I explained why I was there (but he didn't explain why he hadn't answered his phone or email), apologized, and left.

So on the one hand, it was a false alarm; thank God, the fact that I reacted to his anomalous behavior with days of post-modern indifference didn't have consequences. For this I'm very thankful.

On the other hand, his flaky behavior reinforced this lesson: people you meet online don't behave the way you'd expect friends to behave. They just appear one day in your in-box, so some other day they'll probably disappear the same way.

I've been thinking a lot since then about friendship, and what people in this shattered modern world owe each other. I don't mean charitable giving, I've made a lot of progress with that (it's something you can do with a pen, a checkbook, and a stamp) - I mean actual, physical aid in real time. I have no answers, just questions. Since this musing has been interfering with my blogging, I decided to share it with you and see if you have any thoughts for me.

I'm gonna go have some shredded wheat now.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Pratie Heads at "The State of Things"

This is what the tobacco warehouse looked like in the 1870s when it was built.

Some morons covered it up with copper-colored metal in the 1960s. It was un-updated (the metal was removed and renovated wonderfully.

North Carolina Public Radio is housed here, at the American Tobacco Historic District, a spot in downtown Durham I'd never seen before. It's a little world of its own. I was particularly amazed by an extravagant course of water which rushes past the building. Was this always here?

Frank Stasio, the host of "The State of Things," is a right guy. He and his associate, Mark Dvorak-Little, were friendly and warm and made us feel welcome.

It was pouring rain when we left. I wanted to try harder to get good pictures of this whole setup with the train and the sluice and all, but I was soaked.

You can hear the podcast of our 18-minute segment. I wish I hadn't been so nervous and interrupted Bob so much (jeesh, how embarrassing! Blegh!) and I wish his guitar had been louder, but oh well.



Friday, March 16, 2007

Mappamundi does a klezmer concert in Catawba County NC on Sunday

At the main library in Newton NC, we'll be doing a show at 3:30 pm - see their site for details. Here's a map.



Pratie Heads "St. Patrick's Day Eve" concert tonight in Durham

Tonight we'll be doing a show at the Durham Friends Meetinghouse, 404 Alexander Avenue, Durham NC. Here are directions. There will even be cookies at intermission!



Pratie Heads live on "The State of Things" noon today

It's a busy weekend. Bob and I will be playing today at noon on WUNC-FM's "The State of Things" hosted by Frank Stacio; the show will be repeated this evening at 9 pm.

If you live far away, you can hear it as a podcast: visit the State of Things website.



Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bowhead whales live more than 200 years?

Extracts from
The old men of the sea
Whales Longevity

by Paul Rogers for the San Jose Mercury News, December 19 2000

Next time you hop a whale-watching tour or gaze out across the ocean from the coast's edge, consider this: Some of the whales out there now may have been swimming around during the Civil War. Or even when Thomas Jefferson was president.

In studies that could rewrite biology textbooks and establish whales as the longest-living mammals on Earth, scientists in Alaska and at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla have estimated the ages of three bowhead whales killed by Inupiat Eskimos in northern Alaska at 135 to 172 years. At the time it was killed, a fourth bowhead whale was believed to be a stunning 211 years old, the researchers concluded.

The ages were determined by studying changes in amino acids in the lenses of the whales' eyes.

Yet adding a layer of corroboration -- and a dash of Hollywood intrigue -- Inupiat hunters in Barrow and other villages along the frozen north coast of Alaska have found six ancient harpoon points lodged in the thick blubber of freshly killed bowhead whales since 1981. The harpoon points are made of ivory and stone, two materials not used by native Alaskan whalers since the 1880s, when they were introduced to steel harpoons.

In other words, the whales apparently had been swimming around for more than 100 years after surviving earlier hunts by the Inupiats' great-grandparents.

At least two other scientists are now beginning different experiments to determine the whales' ages.

If it turns out that bowhead whales -- which live in the Beaufort and Bering seas between Russia and Alaska -- can indeed survive to be 150 years old or more, they would be the oldest mammals on the planet.

Elephants and some parrot species have lived to 70 in captivity. Tortoises can live to 100. Some fish, such as orange roughy and Chilean sea bass, are believed to live past 100. The oldest authenticated age to which any human has lived is 122 years. Jeanne Louise Calment, a French woman who met Vincent Van Gogh as a teenager, died at a nursing home in Arles in southern France in 1997.

Other whales across the globe also may be much older than previously thought.

"These are such poorly studied species, in terms of their age, behavior and everything,'' said Bada. ``I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, if you want to know the truth."

Despite bans on commercial whale hunting in the United States since 1946, the Inupiat are allowed to kill about 50 bowheads every year as part of special subsistence rights granted by the International Whaling Commission and the U.S. government. About 8,300 bowheads exist in the wild.

[Picture: a bowhead skull.]

For decades in Barrow, a remote town of 5,000 people with no access by highway, Inupiat elders have spoken of whales that several generations of hunters had seen and recognized, based on markings.

Anthropologists have since compared the stone harpoon points to others from the 18th and 19th centuries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

About five years ago, George learned of work being done by Bada to date animals by their eyes. George, who had access to the frozen remains of bowhead whales killed between 1978 and 1997, mailed Bada the lenses from the eyes of 48 bowheads. Each eye is about the size of a billiard ball.

Through a technique known as racemization, Bada measured levels of amino acids, called aspartic acids, in the eyes, noting changes that can determine age. The technique has been used successfully on other whale and porpoise species and is sometimes used on humans by forensic pathologists.

More studies under way

Working with Judy Zeh, a statistician at the University of Washington in Seattle, they published their findings last year in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. In recent months, news of the discovery has been published in more widely read science magazines, such as Science News and New Scientist.

The researchers note that the estimates have a range of accuracy of about 16 percent. In other words, their estimate of 135 years for one of the older bowheads could be off by 23 years, ranging from 112 years to 158 years.

Another scientist, Mark Baskaran of Wayne State University in Detroit, is beginning experiments to estimate whale ages by measuring the decay of radioactive lead samples in bowhead bones. Researcher Cheryl Rosa of the University of Alaska plans to study the whales' skin, sampling pentosidine, a chemical that builds up with age and can be taken with small darts that do not injure the bowheads.

Why might bowheads live so long?

One theory is that because they live in harsh conditions, with fluctuating weather and food, the whales have evolved to live a long time and breed over many years so their species can survive.

Some experts say that if the phenomenal ages are borne out by future research, humans may have more reverence for whales, in the same way that redwood trees are valued for their ancient ages.

Contact Paul Rogers at

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Menticia hears rumbles about rumbles

My friend Menticia, a small sixth grader, is changing. Shadows are reaching down from history, from the angry side of human nature, into her innocent world. They're creeping into middle school and darkening her life.

The other day when we were talking about a book report in which she had to discuss the differences between her and the book's protagonist, she was stumped. I said, "well, what are the differences between you and me?" She instantly answered: "I'm Mexican and you're not."

Her brother is in high school and, while it's unclear whether he hangs out with the tough kids, he clearly knows them well. A couple weeks ago he told her there was going to be a fight out behind the movie theater. I said, Menticia, you're not going to go to see that, are you? She said all her friends were going.

Last week she told me that scheduled fight hadn't occurred. "The neighbors saw there were a lot of Mexican teenagers there and called the cops. They don't like to see a lot of Mexicans together." That's what her brother told her. It kind of broke my heart.

Then she said there's a big fight scheduled between the Mexican kids from all the local high schools (she rattled off the schools' names, I wouldn't have thought she'd know them) and the African-American kids. This sounded so much like West Side Story my mouth might have dropped open.

I know I can't protect Menticia from racism, and I can't protect her from the crazy decisions kids make, but I hope to contribute a protective level of skepticism about the grandeur and theatrics of racial conflicts as acted out by very young people.

Just because it might sound cool or look cool doesn't mean it is. Young people, too young to understand what they're doing, can wreck their lives in the blink of an eye.

This is the mantra I'm working on: "Maybe some people have to be stupid, but you don't." I try to remind her of all the good will she's seen among the people around her, people of many colors...

The Blue Ribbon Advocate-Mentor program wisely matches us up with our mentees when they are in fourth grade, before hormones and other complications get overwhelming. But I'm not sure I'm ready for the phase we're entering.



Monday, March 12, 2007

My couch receives its first surfer...

I signed up last year at Couchsurfers offer short-term accommodations to travelers and - obviously - allows them to search out free sofas in locales they plan to visit. Most couchsurfers are young people, I guess, but it seemed like a neat, very old-fashioned idea, so I joined.

(Old-fashioned - in the old, old days, before Motel 6, it was considered a social responsibility to take care of travelers and strangers.)

I had my first couch-surfing guest this weekend. He was about my age, from the Midwest. After a career of, he said, writing, directing, acting, and producing, he had decided he wasn't sure of his future course. He was taking a multi-week trip, especially across the south, to visit different places and see if any of them "spoke" to him as future homes.

Mine was his thirteenth couch on this trip; he described meeting a lot of kind, friendly people along the way. His host previous to me had taken him to her country club for dinner!

I was caught flat-footed by his visit, in the midst of a whirl of obligations, so I wasn't the kind of host I'd imagined being. There was no food in the house (other than milk and shredded wheat and some carrots and oranges) so I couldn't cook him a nice dinner. We did chat quite a bit, though.

He was pretty vague about what he was looking for, but he'd been looked for whatever-it-was in lots of places - including a two or three other continents. It occurred to me that maybe he was asking himself the wrong question - he was framing his search as "where do I want to live?" but I think maybe his question was actually "what will make my life, at this point, meaningful?"

When you ask yourself the wrong question it's hard to come up with an answer. But what do I know?

(My ex-husband, a clinical psychologist, said the main difference between an amateur and a professional in his business is that the amateurs feel free to give advice and the professionals don't.)

I'd been a little bit afraid he would turn out to be an ax-murderer and most of my friends and my kids thought I was nuts to invite a total stranger into my house. It worked out fine. Maybe Hannah and I will try some couch-surfing when we go to Bulgaria in August.


Friday, March 09, 2007

The Hamantashen recipe as promised.

Most hamentashen are dry and doughy, blegh. These are tender and delicious. Roll them out quite thin, this makes about 6 dozen but they'll be gone before you know it.

Hamantaschen (a lot)

1 cup butter
1-1/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder (or not)
4 cups flour maybe a little more
1/2 ts. salt

Cream butter and sugar, beat in the eggs, then add the rest of the ingredients and chill for a while. Roll out thin, cut 3" circles.

This is an aerial view of construction - scribe a triangle on your circle if necessary. Put a SMALL dab of filling (jam, Nutella, poppyseed, etc) in the center. Pinch up the sides.

Pinch them up very carefully so they don't slump and become ugly because you'll have to eat all the ugly ones and then you'll be uncomfortable.

Cook for about 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven.



Re-entry (Melinama gets a day off)

I floated through my visit to Manhattan in a blissful state of passive enjoyment. Every day was a pleasure. I got home and there was a monstrous backlog of work. It was all wonderful, fun work, but not a minute to spare.

Today: no appointments or expectations until I pick up Menticia after school. So I'm thinking of doing something I haven't done in years and years: wearing my pjs till lunchtime.

Just the thought makes me shiver and worry that some student I've forgotten about will come to the door and embarrass me in my fluffy slippers and bathrobe. But there has to be some advantage to living alone out here in the woods! Time to try something new and daring.

PJs till lunch time? Should be an achievable goal.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

"The Punch and Judy Show" - name that author...

Bob and I are collecting songs for our next cd, a collection of murder and mayhem songs (we're thinking of calling it "We Did It" or "They Did It" and putting the image of O. J. Simpson among the characters in the Last Judgement painting...) and I thought of a song I heard sung many years ago by one of the other performers at the Norfolk British-American festival. If you know who wrote it, please let me know...

UPDATE: I was told John Pole is the author. Still would like to know more.


I am the showman and on me back
I carry me actors in me pack.
A puppet showman, that's me, yours truly,
And the stars of me show are Punch and Judy.
That's the way to do it says Pulcinella,
Humpback and hooknose, symbolic old fella.

The first one up is old Punch himself.
"Ladies and Gents," he says, here's your good health."
He carries a big stick wherever he goes,
It's thick and strong and as long as his nose.
Thats... big nose and long stick, he's a comical fella.

Now up comes Judy, Punch's old lady,
Saying "I'm off now, Punch, so mind the baby."
"No I won't!" says Punch, "Yes, you will!" says Judy
"Come hold your kid, me lad, and none of your old moody."
That's... cocksure but henpecked, pathetic old fella.

The kid keeps howling, old Punch he thumps it,
It bawls, he calms it down, into bed he dumps it.
It bawls, he belts it, it bites his finger,
Punch up and throws it through the bloomin' window.
That's ... "Lie there you bleedin' brat to bawl and bellow!"

Now back comes Judy, she's back home again,
Not knowing Punch has done the nipper in.
"Where's the baby, Punch?" "Gone... gone to sleep," he says.
"Don't you know where your own son is?
You make me weep!" she says.
That's ... "I bung it out the winda" he has to tell her.

She cries her eyes out: "Where's my little son gone?"
Says Punch, "There's plenty more where that one came from."
She grabs her stick and clubs him something lovely,
He grabs it, kicks her, kills her ugly.
That's ... Why keep a wife you hate when you can kill her?

Up comes a copper dressed in blue,
Saying, "Mr. Punch, I'm arresting you,
I've got a warrant here to arrest you for what you've done."
"And I've got a warrant," says Punch, "to knock you down."
That's... Knocking him ass over head right down to the cellar.

Well the law soon catches him and in a while
Before Judge Black Cap he's standing trial.
"Kill wife and child?" he says, "You guilty wretch!
Go out and hang him, Mr. Ketch."
That's ... "Hang 'em all but don't hang me!" he cries in terror.

"See this here rope?" says Ketch, "poke your head through."
Old Punch lets on he don't know what to do.
"In here, Mr. Ketch, or perhaps in here?"
"Hang on," the hangman says, "I'll show you where."
That's ... Swing up the hangman, he's a swinging old fella.

"Jack Ketch is dead," cries Punch, "Hurrah, hurrah I'm free!
Don't care if a devil from Hell should come and call on me."
"Jack Ketch is dead," cries Punch, "Hurrah, I'll do 'em all!"
Up pops the devil - tail, horns, hooves and all.
That's ... "Leave off, I'm your best friend, we're birds of a feather!"

Well the devil darts at Punch cause he ain't havin it,
He swings his stick but Punch keeps grabbin it.
He lands a mighty swipe on Satan's nut and
The devil's out for the punch, as dead as mutton.
That's ... He's killed the Devil, heroic old fella.

Now the show is ending and the dolls need mending.
The Punch and Judy show is never-ending.
Inside each on of us is a Punch and Judy,
In you, sir, you, ma'am - and in me, yours truly.
That's ... the Punch and Judy show goes on forever.



Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Getting young men to sing in choir - one director's suggestions...

From a discussion on the ChoralTalk listserv about the difficulties of getting sufficient men to sing. This guy is a high school choir conductor.

I have many football players in my top choir. Matter of fact, they won their state division and the quarterback, running back, and defensive back all were voted All-American and they are in my concert choir. And yes they can sing. One of them is in my chamber choir. The quarterback's dad & granddad were also legendary football players in our area and are also in legendary singing groups.

I do not know where I'd be without my athletes, both guys and girls. They are such great kids. They permeate my whole program. It's also a curse, as calendaring can be a nightmare to avoid conflicts, and sometimes the conflicts are unavoidable.

The jocks are what make choir cool at our school. The fact that we are *good* also helps.

Back to the basics of answering the original question...

I have set a "bounty" of a full-size Snickers bar or equivalent to ANYONE who gives me just a name of a guy who they have talked to and told that I would be calling them in if they were interested in just talking. If I do call the boy in and they really didn't talk to him, they owe me a Snickers. If the boy does join choir, then the referer and the boy gets to come to a free pizza lunch. This has usually doubled the number of boys I have in my Men's Glee.

I've toyed with the idea of giving all the girls T-shirts that read "I only date guys in choir." :)

This "bounty" or referral system is just an active way of what someone else has said, in that you have to talk and ask guys to join. They are not going to come to you.

It's just like sales. You have to knock on a lot of doors and actually ask for the sale or it is not going to happen. And if you know anything about sales, you know that a warm referral is a lot better than a cold call, so that's why I have students go out and get names for me.



Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hannah: Folly, Revisited

One of Ma's favorite blog themes is human folly. I am delighted to be able to point out an example of folly in the non-profit world:

The Gap's "Red" campaign.

According to this article, $100 million in advertising has been spent putting up posters of Christy Turlington doing yoga in a red t-shirt, and other famous people doing other stuff in red t-shirts. The idea being that if you bought a red t-shirt, some of the money would go to a particular charitable fund.

The $100M expenditure has resulted in $18M being raised for charity. (The participating companies pocket half the profit). Oops.

As the website points out, you could give the money directly to the non-profits and everyone would be better off. Oh wait, except Gap.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Visiting Hannah in Manhattan, part three.

Saturday Hannah and I downloaded a recipe for hamantashen and then packed cookie tins, brown sugar, salt, baking powder, a big tupperware container to use as a bowl, and flour into my backpack and we got on the subway downtown.

It was a gorgeous, warm day so the Union Square Farmers Market was hopping. There was some very handsome bread but it was $10 a loaf. There was goat cheese and booths where you could buy every part of a sheep from wool to hide to yogurt to bloody hunks of its meat.

There were several tables of Native Americans selling t-shirts implying: if Homeland Security had been on the ball in 1492, Columbus would have been blown up before he reached shore.

We bought a few free-range eggs (these chickens, by the price of their eggs, probably lived in condos near Central Park) and met the Urban Caballero by the door of Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods at Union Square: obscenely crowded, obscenely expensive. Luckily I had a gift card in my bag (Bob and I play at Whole Foods Durham every month and get paid with gift cards) so we gathered two scanty hand-baskets of food and stood in a line that reminded me of old pictures of Ellis Island. Traffic co-ordinators at the front of the store directed patient customers to the next available cashier. Our tiny collection of yuppie foodstuffs cost $70. We felt very grateful when we were finally out the door.

We lunched on a bench in Union Square Park. The Urban Caballero felt a bit guilty flinging his olive pits - he thought pigeons might not be astute enough to notice these were pits, not popcorn, and might choke. I'm glad to note he has a tender heart for animals.

We went to his apartment where he put Percy Grainger on the stereo and I lay on the couch and watched my daughter teach him how to make cookies. This was the first time his oven had been used in the two years he'd lived there.

The most spectacular failure of the day was mine. Hannah had put poppy seeds (special Whole Foods poppyseeds, about $1.50 per tablespoon) in the cart for the traditional filling. However, we hadn't bought all the traditional ingredients, and the Urban Caballero did not have, for instance, any milk. I put poppy seeds, raisins, orange juice, and expensive full-strength cranberry juice in a coffee mug and boiled said dubious mixture in the microwave for a few minutes. We'll say no more about it.

The cookies were a success (though the recipe was not as good as mine, which I'll post soon).

We then went out foraging but had no luck trying to replace Hannah's lost cellphone (UC's rant on the abysmal condition of Verizon customer service was most entertaining). She later bought one on eBay.

We got back to her apartment and all the moving was finished. The departing roommate was a messy guy and the incoming roommate was a tidy girl so there was already a decided improvement. Roommate #3 did the Manhattan hunter-gatherer thing and called for takeout. We had a communal meal, new-style, hunched over our plastic containers of excellent salad around the coffee-table while "Slums of Beverly Hills" played silently on the tv right behind us.

Sunday morning at 8 am, while Hannah slept, I decided to join Facebook and sent friend requests to my children. At 8:28 Hannah emerged from her room with a groggy look on her face; I waved silently, she muttered she would sleep a bit more and went back in her room and shut the door. One minute later I got an email notification: my request had been accepted, my daughter had "friended" me ("to friend" is now a verb). I called out "Thanks!" and she laughed behind her closed door.

She got up not much later, saying she was amused to have her mom on facebook, and instructed me in subtle formalities and etiquettes of its culture.

Then we planned our August trip to Bulgaria and bought non-refundable tickets, and then we had a parallel play session. Roommate #3 had been eyeing my book Celtic Art Construction with interest - open it anywhere and you see crazy patterns of dots and swirls, with minimal order imposed on them via numbers and arrows - and so while Hannah and I painted, he hunkered down over graph paper and produced an excellent Celtic weave. It went straight onto his wall, I believe. Well done, John! (He tells me his father reads this blog so it behooves me to report that John is an entertaining, kindly young man of the highest caliber.)

Then it was time to leave; Judy picked me up and we gabbed our way back south missing a few critical turns but managing to get home nevertheless.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Visiting Hannah in Manhattan, part two.

Yesterday it was pouring rain. Since Hannah had to work, I planned to entertain myself - my first mission was to find a long modest skirt to wear to services at Shearith Israel (the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, the oldest congregation in North America).

I downloaded a list of thrift stores and headed out. It seems, though, that as rents have increased thrift stores have gone out of business. I wandered in a zig-zag manner, through the rain, heading downtown, finding store after store defunct, replaced by Bengali restaurants, laundromats, etc.

About 40-50 blocks later I found the still-extant Salvation Army Thrift Store.

An excellent selection, but no dressing room. I had to try on my skirts in the open, at the only mirror, taking turns with a gorgeous young woman who had a big basket of finds and each one fit her perfectly and was spectacular. She was not wearing underwear. The sad old guys who were dispiritedly picking through men's clothing didn't even look up to enjoy the view.

I got a skirt and some shoes (because I'd only packed workboots for this trip), and headed back uptown.

To get relief from the rain, and to find a bathroom, I holed up at the Borders café on the second floor near Madison Square garden, near a window with a phenomenal view of the world. I doodled Celtic designs on graph paper to reduce my feeling of overstimulation.

The guy at the table next to me was intently looking through binoculars at the street scene below for a long time. I wondered if he was a Private Investigator.

Later Hannah got off work, the Urban Caballero showed up, and we were off to services. Shearith Israel is gorgeous and in the hallway you can read parchment documents from its early history, including a register which informed congregants testily that, owing to the war (the American Revolution), weddings were not being recorded properly.

We were the first two women up in the balcony, and when services started there were only about ten people in attendance. Three guys in tall hats sit behind the cantor, who had a wonderful voice, and there was a fabulous all-male choir in the balcony (women's voices are evidently too seductive). Though I tried to follow along in the prayer book, most of the time I sat dazed by all the air that choir was moving. I think the pulsating sound waves in my brain were like a drug. They reminded me of Zlatne Ustne Balkan brass band, a group which starts up with the director's announcement: "Gentlemen, start your engines."

People kept coming, even unto the last ten minutes of the proceedings! The services ended very abruptly, everybody stopped mumbling and got up and started milling around.

I intercepted the choir director on his way out and asked if there were a way for me to get a copy of one of their arrangements for my choir in North Carolina. Most New Yorkers would just say, "No," and push on past. This nice guy, though, took me up into the choir loft! He went through his filing cabinet full of crumbling octavo editions of ancient, fabulous Sephardic liturgical arrangements, saying "it's got to be here somewhere."

He was mortified not to find the specific one I'd requested - he stared sadly into the empty space where it should have been. He was tempted to take a copy off one of the music stands which were set up for the next service, but said, "this is my starting lineup, they've each marked up their music... I'm sorry..." Imagine!

He gave me a couple other pieces and said if I wrote to him he'd send the one I'd asked for. I left triumphantly clutching these crumbling scores, what a phenomenal souvenir. We were the last ones out of the building; the maintenance man turned off the lights and locked the doors behind us.

Today there's going to be a logistical nightmare in this tiny apartment - one person is moving out, down the narrow five flights of stairs, and another will be squeezing past him as she tries to move in. There will be parents involved.

Hannah and I plan to make ourselves scarce; we'll take flour, butter and brown sugar over to the Urban Caballero's house and make hamantashen. He has never used his oven before.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Visiting Hannah in Manhattan, part one.

My friend Judy, owner of Mandala Classroom Resources, called a while back and offered me a free ride to NYC this weekend - she has a trade show. How could I pass up a chance to visit my daughter, the co-blogger formerly known as Melina? So yesterday we packed up and left at 6 am.

Her old but trusty car (see below) has no cd player so we talked and talked. We talked so much we missed our turn onto the Beltway and enjoyed an unscheduled tourist excursion through downtown DC during morning rush hour. We wondered at some hubbub on the Baltimore-Washington parkway:
  • A K-9 unit (we didn't see the dog);
  • Helicopters circling low overhead;
  • A large group of police standing idly by the side of the road, all their lights flashing;
  • Pronounced rubbernecking on both sides of the highway.
We stopped a couple times for coffee but Judy drove all the way through. I spent about 45 minutes lounging in the loading dock protecting her car while she unloaded her materials in the conference center, then she came back and started up the car.

Except it wouldn't start. No gas. We'd forgotten to put any gas in the car, we'd gotten all the way from North Carolina to Manhattan on one tank of gas and it had given out at the loading dock.

Luckily Judy had a gallon-sized water bottle in the car. She hates wasting things so she was reluctant to dump it out - "Look, it's nearly full!" As we walked to the gas station she was taking deep, hearty draughts (so as not to waste); I reminded her excessive amounts of water might be hazardous to her health and offered to pay fifty cents as compensation for the wasted portion.

We entertained ourselves by thinking about all the other places we could have run out of gas - the NJ Turnpike, for instance, or - even better - the Lincoln Tunnel. Quite entertaining.

We got back to the loading dock, made a funnel out of a Starbuck's coffee cup, poured the gallon in, and the car started right up. She patted it and pronounced it a good, faithful, and trusty vehicle.

Now I'm ensconced in Hannah's 5th floor walkup. One of her roommates is trying to move out and is having one of those Chinese puzzle experiences: there's no empty space so everything has to be jostled, re-adjusted, re-stacked, and re-stacked again in order to produce enough free space to open a packing box and put something into it. Then the packing box itself takes up space ordinarily used by these slender young folk as they sidle from one partially empty part of the apartment to another.

A niche approximately 2'6" x 5'6" was carved out on the living room floor for my pallet. It rained all night, nice music to sleep by. I dreamed about being in a rambling old complex of buildings by a lake.

Project for the morning: visit local thrift stores and find a long skirt to wear to services at this synagogue tonight. (The Urban Caballero is afraid to come with us - he'll have to sit in the Men's section with the guys in black hats - but he'll change his mind, I'm sure...)

I've also brought George Bain's book on Constructing Celtic Art on this trip with me and plan to take it to the library and put ink to graph paper for an hour or two, since it's too rainy for a walk.