Praying for Cookies

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A group of little children sits on the floor at the foot of their teacher. It is the 1960’s, in Castro’s Cuba. Winning hearts and minds is most effective when the heart belongs to a child, as these young ones are going to discover.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have milk and cookies?” the teacher says to the thin faces peering up. They look excitedly at one another, nodding, smiling.

“Well, let us all bow our heads, close our eyes, and pray to God that He brings us some.” All heads bow and the teacher leads in prayer.

“Children! Look!”

They look around. Nothing. Their faces fall.

“You must not have prayed hard enough. We will pray again.”

“Children! Look now!”

Disappointment again. They are told to try a third time: God must not have heard them.

Then………well, God did not hear them or He didn’t care, she says. They are told to pray one last time. Deflated, they do. Slumped shoulders, tightly clasped hands. As expected, nothing happens.

“This time we are going to pray to our leader, Fidel Castro,” says the teacher to the group with a determined voice. They wearily bow their heads.

“Children! Look! Castro has heard your prayers!” Trays of cookies and glasses of milk are brought in to squeals of delight and smiles all around.

Maybe a group of communists was born that day. At least one child wasn’t, however, and that was my future Spanish professor in college, who related the story to my class. I recently thought of it again. I have been thinking about hope: what I hope for, who I put my hope in, how fragile it can be, how another person can crush your spirit. As an adult I can use my experiences to refix my eyes on my goals. When my hope gets derailed, I can eventually find my way back. My heart grieves for those children back in Cuba whose hope was purposefully taken. We should all be so careful of the words that we speak to ourselves and especially to our children.

The Bad Green Boy: A Short Story

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Robby never listened to nobody. We walked to school and back every day and he didn’t listen to me, his big sister, nor heed what Momma or Daddy told him do. He always had a better idea.

He couldn’t resist showing me up with his rock-skipping skills. “Bet I can make it skip seven times, Jemima!” he started bragging as we neared the water. He knew I could only do it a measly two times, on a good day that is. He put down his bundle of books and after-school field clothes and looked for the perfect, smooth stone.

“Whatever,” I rolled my eyes and looked impatiently on. Sure enough, it skipped seven times.

“Look at that dam the beaver’s makin’ down stream. I want to check it out. I bet that’s the beaver that ate Momma’s cherry tree clean off.”

“Dang it, Robby! You’re gonna make us late again and Teacher is going to tell Momma and I’ll get in trouble!” I felt a deep responsibility to watch out for nine-year-old Robby, but he made my life difficult.

Well, we made it to Sweet Home School just in the nick of time. It was a one-room school-house in the little town of Van Lear, TN. Since more families had moved in lately, it was rumored that they might build another room on to the school. We might even get another teacher next year.

I looked down at my dusty, bare feet at the schoolhouse door. Every kid came without shoes that I knew of except the Hendersons that is, who had shoes for school and church. I didn’t care. I hated shoes. They made my feet sweat and rubbed my heels. Besides, they would get stained a bright green if I wore them in our tobacco field after school anyway. It was September, and even though school had started again, we were both expected to work in it every day before supper.

We were half-way to school one morning when I broke out of my daydream, noticing that Robby was no longer trailing behind me.

“Dang it, Robby! Where are you?” I yelled.

“Up here!” came a yell from a maple a piece back toward home.

“Get down! Momma says you’re always in trees. You’re gonna get full of chiggers, too.” That seemed to work and he started climbing down as I came nearer.

“Where did you put your books and clothes?”

“Over there. He nodded with his head.”

“Robby, I don’t see your work clothes!”

“Didn’t bring ’em.”

“What! You’re so going to get in trouble. You’re going to get your good clothes all dirty and green. Then Momma’s going to fuss at me,” I looked at him angrily.

“Aw, I’m tired of carryin’ ’em.”

“You got to carry your books, so what’s the big deal carryin’ a shirt and pants too?”

“I don’t need ’em. You’ll see. I promise: I won’t get my clothes dirty.”

I wasn’t so sure. I huffed my disapproval and started walking faster toward school. I figured I was doomed, but he was right so many times when he said he could do something. I held out a little hope.

It was so hot that afternoon as we walked slowly toward home and to the field of tobacco next door. We were tenant farmers now, since we lost our farm last year. What we now rented wasn’t nearly as beautiful as the home place where I was born. We had to carry water farther for the tobacco plants from the creek for these fields. Summer rains had been scarce this year. I felt as wilted as the plants under the scorching rays and the clay earth was like cement under my feet. At least the weeds weren’t thriving.

But the caterpillars, big hornworms, were monsters. Big, ugly green beasts that could devour a leaf in a singe day. After watering one section, we had to fill a couple buckets with a bit of kerosene from the can behind the barn. Then, one by one, pull them off, checking underneath the leaves too. It was all I could do not to gag as I quickly grabbed their swollen bodies and tossed them into the bucket. If we saw any stray leaf shoots growing off the plants as we worked, we broke them off too. When finished, we were a green, sweaty, dirty mess of a kid.

“Robby, now how are you going to keep your school clothes clean?” I looked doubtfully at him. He nimbly dodged the plants as we watered them. Maybe he really can do this, I thought to myself with growing admiration. I had changed mine behind a tree.

Then the bug-picking began and I lost sight of Robby in the 4 ft tall plants. I had to transport myself mentally to forget as best I could what I was actually doing. Periodically I hollered out for him and he answered me. Once, I heard a car on the gravel road near the field slow down and someone laughing and shouting out a window, “What in……Hey boy, you hot out there or somethin’?” Good thing he hasn’t run off to climb a tree, I thought. I was so relieved to hear Momma ringing the dinner bell for us to come in.

“Robby, d’ya hear that?” I yelled.

“Yeah. Uh, you go on,” he said so quietly, I almost couldn’t hear him.

“What’s wrong? You didn’t get your clothes all dirty did you?”

“Uh, no………they’re clean.”

“Well, then, come on!”

“I need a minute.”

“For what?”

“Nothin’. Tell Momma I’ll be there in a minute.”

It wasn’t far at all to the house, after rounding the barn. I went on and cleaned up at the water spigot near the back door by the kitchen.

Momma and Daddy had just sat down at the table when I came in. I explained that Robby would be coming soon. We waited.

“I’m going to say grace. That boy will have to eat his food cold,” Daddy said and then proceeded to say his usually lengthy grace. I just barely heard the door close. and the chair scoot on the floor.

“Amen.” We all opened our eyes.

“Good Lord in Heaven!” said Daddy with his eyes riveted on Robby. I stared in stunned silence with my mouth open. Momma put her hand to hers.

Robby’s face and arms were encased in red clay mud. Two eyes peered out with a surprised, innocent expression.

“I just got so hot workin’ outside. The mud felt cool. Pigs cool off that way, cows too. It really works!” he said triumphantly.

“You go outside this minute and clean that off. And don’t get any mud on those clean clothes neither,” Momma directed him.

He was gone a long time. As we were finishing up, the door eased open and a sheepish face appeared.

It was green. So were his arms. Apparently, so was his entire body.

Yep, I got fussed at, but not nearly as much as Robby. That boy had taken off all his clothes to avoid getting them dirty in the field. The tobacco leaf juice and the hornworms had succeed in coating his naked body in a green stain from head to toe. Realizing that, he had tried to disguise himself with mud.

In spite of the alternating scrubbing and spanking, scrubbing and spanking of his life he got that night, he stayed green for an entire week. He never left his work clothes at home again, but he still doesn’t listen to me.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people in my family is probably not a coincidence, but nevertheless meant in love and good humor.

Holy bacteria, Batman!

The Caucas mountains have produced people of very great age, where living to over one hundred is taken for granted. Long ago nomadic shepherds found that milk carried in leather bags would ferment and self-carbonate, becoming the favorite drink. A connection between longevity and kefir doesn’t sound coincidental when you study this strange clump of “grains” that make up the catalyst for this nutritious drink.

Legend has it that Muhammad himself brought the first kefir grains to this region and forbade the people from sharing it lest they lose its “magic”. This story would explain why the method of kefir preparation remained a mystery for so long. There is truly nothing like it in all the world.

To make kefir, you must first have a clump of “grains”, which is really a group of yeast and several species of bacteria all stuck together. It does grow at a slow rate and can be divided and shared. It is essentially immortal if cared for. The grains are put in a container of milk (cow, goat, sheep, coconut, rice, or soy) which is then placed in a warm, dark place. Leave it undisturbed for about 24 hours until it’s the consistency of smooth yogurt. If left for twice that amount of time, it turns into curds and whey, somewhat like cottage cheese or cream cheese. When the kefir is finished making, the clump of grains is removed (it usually is floating on the top) and stored in a small amount of kefir awaiting the next batch.

The bacteria partially digest the lactose in the milk, making it perfect for people who are lactose intolerant. It makes the milk high in calcium, amino acids, and a host of vitamins. It actually creates antibiotic substances and is anti-carcinogenic. Although it contains yeast, it can control Candida, or excessive yeast in the intestines. It is a probiotic par excellence. It contains tryptophan in abundance which relaxes the nervous system. In the past when there was no other available treatment, it has been given successfully to patients in the treatment of tuberculosis, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders.

It can be used as a drink or in cooking. I stopped buying buttermilk years ago after making kefir. I substitute it for buttermilk in my biscuits and cornbread. My favorite drink recipe is blending one chopped frozen banana, 1 c kefir, 2 TB honey and a handful of any other frozen berries. I don’t think I could drink it unsweetened, because it’s really tart. That is one reason why it doesn’t have a great shelf-life at the store: They put so much sweetener in it to appeal to most people’s taste, that the bacteria go berserk with all that food (sugar). It can make it very “fermenty”.

Wether it came from Muhammad, or just naturally formed inside the leather pouches of shepherds, it is a magical clump of bacteria full of health benefits: A bacteria superhero. Give it a try and you may even live a little longer.

Vanilla cow poop

For centuries people all over the world have enjoyed the scent and flavor of vanilla, the most expensive spice after saffron. The Spanish discovered it in xocolatl, chocolate, the favorite drink of the Aztec’s. They combined honey, water, chocolate, and vanilla. 

Vanilla comes from a beautiful orchid. The only natural pollinators are a humming-bird and bee found in Mexico. The flower blooms at sunrise and dies at sunset. If not pollinated during this tiny window of time, it dies without producing a bean that can later be harvested.

In the 1830’s a 12-year-old slave discovered that he could successfully pollinate the flower by hand. Today, we have vanilla extract, flavoring, and scent, because of the implementation of this same method, which made it possible to produce more than the less reliable natural method.

High demand has caused a world-wide search of other sources of vanilla. The primary component, vanillin, has been extracted from Chinese red pine and clove. An unexpected plentiful source was found in the 1930 ‘s – lignin –  a by-product of the paper industry.

That “imitation vanilla” that you choose over the pricey “pure vanilla extract”, probably comes via a paper mill. It’s never even come close to a vanilla bean. Also, anything that says it is flavored with “vanillin” is not vanilla at all, but from one of these other sources. Which brings me to the title of our story…

Each year Harvard University hands out its “Ig Noble” awards to findings and studies that can make you both think and laugh.  In 2007, at her own expense, Mayu Yamamtoto from Japan flew in to receive her award. She discovered a way to extract vanillin from cow dung. It was her utmost hope to help the planet by finding use for this most plentiful of commodities.

Just like no one thought it important to notify you of your “vanilla” coming from wood pulp, don’t expect a grand announcement of the change to cow dung if it happens. Oh, by the way, did you know that the world’s largest consumer of vanilla flavoring is…….. Coca Cola?

Dressed to kill

Cultures vary widely in their views of feminine modesty and immodesty. Long ago, missionaries were distraught when visiting a Christian church in northern Congo. The missionaries suggested that the women wear blouses. The church leaders unanimously rejected the idea. It horrified them. At that time only prostitutes wore such coverings, since they were the few who could afford them.

In Micronesia a chief forbade any woman to enter the village with a blouse on, demanding instead that a grass skirt be worn that reached the ankles. Bare breasts, modest. Bare legs, unthinkable.

As an exchange student to Germany in the 80’s, I didn’t shave the whole time. Part of it was just to make my parents cringe upon my return, but part of it was an open-mindedness on my part to the culture. Not shaving meant you were just a regular girl. At that time it was seen as unneccessary and even as something a hooker would do. (This is exactly the former view here in the US not that long ago.)

Much of what we consider modest is culturally determined, but is it the right thing to do? Is it even healthy? What if there was something you wore, primarily because of modesty, that could kill you? Would it be moral to wear something that did THAT to your body? What if you could decrease your risk of a deadly cancer by 125 times by not wearing it?

Got your attention yet?

In a study of almost 5,000 women, Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismajijer found that if women:

  • wore their bras 24 hours per day they had a 3 out of 4 chance of developing breast cancer
  • wore bras more than 12 hours, but not to bed had a 1 in 7 risk
  • wore bras less than 12 hours had a 1 out of 52 chance
  • wore them rarely or never had a 1 in 168 chance (the same incidence as it occurs in men)

Any study that shows even a doubling of cancer chances usually gets the medical community’s immediate attention. (Think cigarettes and lung cancer.) But don’t wait for them to endorse a treatment that is both free and painless. Multiple millions of dollars are spent each year on medicines and treatments that leave women disfigured at best, though I see them as beautiful creatures regardless.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am not saying go topless – you can be modest and braless. You can wear a camisole or put band-aids on your nipples. Yeah, you read that right. The freedom of movement might freak you out at first, but you will be amazed at how much better you feel. You see, what’s happening is the bra puts pressure on the breast, limiting circulation and inhibiting the flow of toxins away from the breast. Circulation in the lymphatic tissues under the arms is absolutely essential for good health. Cancer is not the only disease that can be prevented.

For more information that will stun you, I suggest the book, Dressed to Kill. Plus, here is a link that has helpful info: http://www.all-natural.com/dressed.html

An accidental invention and your pots and pans

How did the search for a new refrigerant become a popular kitchen item? It started back in the 1930’s when GM and DuPont went on a joint venture to create a new refrigerant. The result – freon. Encouraged by the finding, DuPont began independent research along the same line.

Dr. Roy Plunkett of DuPont got the brilliant idea to combine a gas (having an unpronounceable name) with hydrochloric acid. Bracing themselves, he and his assistant opened the valve to the tank: Nothing happened except white flakes fell out. Risking an explosion, Plunkett sawed the tank in half. On the inside was the slipperiest synthetic solid ever invented, teflon.

It’s first use was in gasket seals for the Manhattan Project. Yes, the one with the atomic bomb.

A French engineer obtained a small amount which he thought would be great to coat his fishing gear. “Honey, could you put some on my frying pans?” his wife asked. Leave it to a woman to find the practical application for it. Patented in 1954, by 1960 it was on store shelves.

Too bad for us.

I know, who wants to use a chisel to remove a previously beautiful omelet from a pan? Each time a teflon-coated pot or pan is heated to medium heat or higher, components on the surface break down and release a toxic chemical called PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid), which the EPA has named a “likely” human carcinogen. DuPont has been heavily fined for allegedly hiding data about this toxicity.

How pervasive is it? In a 2007 study, Johns Hopkins found PFOA in 99% of 300 umbilical cord blood samples. Even though it doesn’t admit to any dangers, DuPont has reduced the amount of PFOA’s by 97 percent and says it will discontinue its use by 2015.

There are other similar non-stick coatings on brands like Stainmaster, Duracote, Resistal, Autograph, T-Fal, and Calphalon that release up to six toxic gases when heated even at just 325 degrees. And remember that teflon can survive forever in your body and the environment. I also avoid aluminum because of its possible link to Alzheimers.

There are some safe alternatives to cook on. Remember “the wonderful iron skillet”? (See that post.) Stainless steel, ceramic and porcelain enameled ware are others. My current favorite is Green Pan Cookware. It’s nonstick coating is made from sand-derived silica. Target carries a complete line.

Don’t despair. There are safe alternatives for you and your family that don’t involve chisels and hammers to remove stuck-on food.

Why did people stop making soap at home?

In 1900, your chances of getting cancer were one in 80 approximately. In 1950, it was 1 in 20. What changed? One significant factor was that during WWI, there was food rationing and a shortage of tallow and lard for soap making. Most people up to then made their own soap that was used for most all their cleaning needs. Also, at that time women were entering the workforce because of a labor shortage.
Companies came to the “rescue” with “soap”, really detergents, that were cheap. Most women were grateful for one less burden of soap making. Unfortunately, petrochemicals were used, because they were abundant and cheap. It was also discovered how to make things smell good cheaply with synthetic ingredients. But remember, you are covering your whole body with this stuff – every day – even babies whose skin is about 40% thinner and therefore more susceptible than adults.

There is so much to think about when trying to keep our families healthy. Eating right, exercising, etc. I have always tried to buy organic, whole foods as often as possible, it wasn’t until this past year that I found out about the effects of petrochemicals and synthetic ingredients on our bodies in the personal care items we used everyday. Eating healthy is great, but you could unknowingly be damaging yourself and your family at the cellular level with these and other products: DEA, sodium laurel sulphate, propylene glycol, synthetic fragrances/colors and artificial ingredients.

You can research them yourself. I make no claims to know the research exhaustively, but there is real scientific  research available to those who seek to be informed. Be aware that the cosmetic and perfume industries are very powerful and influential. I have tried with my products to fill a need for those who want healthy families, but have tight budgets – like me! I make chemical-free soap and shampoo. Right now I just sell locally.