Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's the Size That Counts

Back in the 1970s, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had an infamous bit called the Fish Slapping Dance. Two men in military khakis took turns dancing on the edge of a dock and slapping each other in the face with fishes. The first man used a small fish and the second man took out a large one and whacked the first guy off the dock into the water.

For some reason, that skit recently came to mind when I heard about how regular Atlantic salmon might soon be replaced by a much larger genetically engineered (GE) species. Wait a minute, you might say. Salmon are already reasonably sizable fish. Why would you want to develop one that was several times bigger yet?

The answer: So you can knock the other guy off the dock. In this case, the other guy would be commercial fishermen catching wild salmon, regular salmon farmers or anyone trying to compete with a fish that grows to mega-maturity in 16 to 18 months versus the usual 30 months required by Mother Nature’s Atlantic salmon.

So who wants to be the Royal Food Taster for Corporate America? Relax. We are told by the impartial company that hopes to market this big guy that there is no difference between GE salmon and the original version. That is, aside from the fact that the GE version is made by taking the eggs of an Atlantic salmon and fertilizing them with the irradiated sperm of another similar species, Arctic char. The eggs are then pressure-treated to alter the chromosomes, then doused with 17-methyltestosterone so that the resulting females are “neomales” that produce sperm instead of eggs. The Neomales then mate with regular salmon females whose eggs are pressure-treated again to alter their chromosomes. Just as nature intended!

Their phenomenal size comes from a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon joined with DNA from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish). Since the resulting fish grows several times larger than the original salmon in a record amount of time, you can make a lot of money selling these babies.

I imagine there will be a simple test to see if diners are allergic to this new genetic combination. It goes like this: If following ingestion, you become sick or die, then you may be allergic.

The FDA is on the verge of approving the GE salmon. So should we be worried? Well, some groups are opposing that approval because they feel the science supporting the safety of this fish is iffy. Those groups include Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the Organic Consumers Association.

These unAmerican spoil sports have written to President Obama, urging him to discontinue the approval process for the GE salmon. Why are they belly-aching? Well, during the GE salmon development phase in 2005, the GE fish exhibited an unusually high frequency of physical deformities. Apparently, only 7.9 percent of the final version of the GE salmon were judged to be free of any malformations. If you wanted to be negative about it—shame on you—you might say that 92.1 percent were malformed. Maybe that’s because the version that will land on your plate will have three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two. On the positive side, that means you’re getting more chromosomes for your money, which makes it an outstanding value.

Can you avoid eating this new form of salmon-y goodness? Under current law, labeling is not required to differentiate GE foods. The only labeling you can expect to see on a genetically engineered salmon fillet is country-of-origin labeling, which is required on most (but not all) seafood. Since all of the mega salmon will be produced in Panama, an uncommon location for farmed salmon, you could avoid buying salmon from Panama. Of course, not all fish must be labeled this way. Salmon sold in fish markets and processed salmon, such as smoked salmon, do not require country-of-origin labeling.

Even though you may be perfectly happy with the smaller Atlantic salmon and its genetic makeup, Corporate America is not. So brace yourself to be smacked with some genetically engineered salmon. It soon may be dancing into a supermarket near you!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tenacious G at the Diner

Of late, my 84-year-old mother has developed a tendency to latch on to random ideas and not let go. This past Tuesday was no exception.

I sprang my mother from her assisted living facility for a 45-minute joy ride through the lush countryside of northwest New Jersey. The destination was Genesis Farms where I pick up my produce every other week. It's a nice outing for Mom and we get to spend some quality time together.

Her first random idea: Eggs are the enemy. When we got to the farm, I expressed disappointment that there were no eggs. Apparently the locally grown variety had sold out because of the recent national salmonella scare. Then, as if lecturing in a classroom, Mom turned and announced loudly to everyone in the farmhouse that "eggs are no good for you and you shouldn't be eating them." This, from a woman who vainly tried to get me to eat egg salad sandwiches for most of my childhood. Was she secretly trying to kill me? As a backup plan, I thought we could stop at Ralph's Egg Farm on the way to lunch. Mom would not hear of it. Not eating eggs had intensified to an impassioned cause. So I promised her I would not get any. This made her happy.

For lunch, we partook of a hallowed Jersey tradition and stopped off at a local diner. Like most restaurants of this ilk, the menu had a few hundred selections and Mom responded by taking a quick look, clapping shut the menu, then announcing that she would have whatever I was eating. Unfortunately, what I preferred to eat was a salad and I knew that wasn't what she wanted. I chose three favorites of hers from the menu and asked her which she liked best. She chose the hot turkey sandwich. Then I ordered a Caesar salad.

Second random idea: Food must match. The waitress left and Mom glared at me as if I had tricked her into ordering lutefisk with arsenic. She informed me in no uncertain terms that she would not eat her meal. I would have to eat it, because she had wanted the same thing I was ordering. I did not follow this logic, but the realization set in that despite my desire to have a salad today, it would have been better to have ordered the hot turkey sandwich.

There was a long silence between this realization and when the waitress finally brought the food. Mom stared at me, her arms crossed. It reminded me of my own stubborn posture when I was little and she had insisted that I could not leave the table until I finished eating everything on my plate.

The waitress came, my mother quietly watched her set down the food and she stared at it angrily because it did not match mine. “Just try it…” I suggested. “It looks good.” Fortunately, Mom was hungry, so she grudgingly picked up a fork, discovered her lunch was tasty and soon scarfed down the entire meal before I finished my salad.

“I’m glad you liked it,” I said, hoping for detente.

“I wanted the same thing that you had had,” she replied bitterly. This had never been a requirement before, so it had caught me off guard.

“You’re lucky you didn’t order it,” I said. “It wasn’t very good.” Which was true. It was a boring pile of lettuce crowned with overly dry chicken chunks and little else. It did not inspire hunger, so I had it wrapped to take home.

Perhaps this latest twist in Mom's behavior is karmic payback for my being an impossibly picky eater when she was raising me. I feel certain I was not a delight to have around at meal time.  Now it's her turn. When you think about it, sooner or later, life has a mysterious tendency to balance things out.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Spotless Sunshine of Your Mouth

When I was growing up, people drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and had yellow teeth. I am not endorsing any of these things, but I am feeling a bit disgusted over all the hoopla about having dazzling, white teeth.

Apparently, if our teeth are not brilliant enough to blind astronauts re-entering the atmosphere, we are no longer sexually appealing and become the object of sneering ridicule. Let’s remember something, folks: Mother Teresa had yellow teeth, Churchill had yellow teeth, and so did most of the great movie stars of the 1940s. So if compassion, leadership and glamour can smile with citrine choppers, then so can the rest of us.

A 1993 study in the Journal of Dental Research tested tooth whiteners containing carbamide peroxide—whatever the hell that is—for toxicity when ingested. Since this stuff is slathered on your teeth, they reasoned, you are bound to swallow some of it. Their conclusion was that, in female rats, "large doses of commercial preparations of tooth whiteners may be acutely toxic, sometimes fatal." Whew! Thank God we are not female rats.

Two years later, another study published in that journal found that the amount of carbamide peroxide bleaching agent that humans might expect to ingest during a procedure "may come close to or exceed" theoretical safety limits. This does not mean tooth whitening will make you ill; it just means the jury was out as of this 15-year-old study and I was not able to find anything more recent. The point is, why add more pollution to your personal environment for something dumb like tooth whitening when there is already plenty of toxins to go around?

It is bad enough that we are given inferiority complexes for not looking like pouting, anorexic models. Now we have to paint our teeth like picket fences and smile. Frankly, with the state of the world the way it is, I am not interested in doing either.

How about going back to basics? The goal should be to brush and floss, avoid excessive sweets and visit the dentist once a year for a checkup and cleaning. If you don’t have a toothache, abscess or bleeding gums, everything is fine.

It’s time to take our teeth back from the dental profiteers and flaunt off-white with pride. Remember, it is not how incandescent your teeth may be, but having them still in your jaw so you can chew with them that ultimately counts for something.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stop Whining About Summer

Recently, I have seen a number of posts on the Internet in which people whine about the end of summer, as if it will never come back. Don’t worry. Come June 21, 2011 at 1:16 p.m. EDT, it will return with plenty of 90+-degree days to keep you happily dehydrated. It’s been great, but now it’s done. Get over it.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the long, sunny days of summer, but heat at this point in my life is redundant. I generate enough of my own. Give me autumn with its brisk temperatures and bright confetti leaves crunching under my feet. My neighbors’ wood-burning stoves scent the air with pyro-maniacal perfume and the howling winds outside make my toasty home feel delightfully cozy.

Autumn marks the harvest, and with it, some rich holiday traditions. First, there's Halloween, which allows us to revisit our childhood. Then there's Thanksgiving, a wonderful nondenominational event that reunites families—albeit for one precious day. They both revolve around my favorite pastime of all—food.

When I pull out my cool weather clothes and pack up my summer duds, it feels like I suddenly have a whole new wardrobe. Turtle neck shirts, slacks and boots are a welcome and comfortable change. Yes, I like summer apparel, but cool weather clothes cover up flaws that their warm weather counterparts leave exposed. And who could be sorry to see humid, bad-hair days replaced by dryer air that eliminates the unisex Einstein look?

I recognize that some people may not live in parts of the country where the seasons change. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the year-round agreeable temperatures of, say, San Diego. Been there; loved it. But I grew up where there are four seasons and I would become bored if they didn’t change every three months. Maybe this is a sign of meteorological Attention Deficit Disorder, but I welcome the changes in weather, landscape and traditions as they unfold.

Now it is autumn’s turn. So grab your fall jacket, warm up some cider and pumpkin pie—and stop mourning the death of summer! It ain’t dead; it’s just passed out from the heat.

They're Out to Get You

Cable news channels fill me with dread. From the latest broadcasts, it’s become clear that the world is a dangerous and squirmy place.

Let’s begin with bed bugs. They have infiltrated the New York metropolitan area where I live. These 6-legged vampires have taken up residence in airlines, businesses, movie theaters, schools, apartment buildings and private homes. Apparently, they love to travel and often come home in people’s suitcases. Historically, they have feasted on American blood since the 1700s when they journeyed over here from Europe aboard the wooden sailing vessels carrying our Founding Fathers. They are difficult to get rid of, but you can detect them with the help of a specially trained dog named Roscoe.

Meanwhile in Florida, there is a growing infestation of African rats that are the size of 6- to 9-pound cats. They come out at night and are not afraid of people. If you look outside your Floridian home when it is dark, see many pairs of tiny glowing eyes and hear some high-pitched snickering, you may have these super-sized rats in your neighborhood. They are no relation to the large mouse in Orlando. Called Gambian pouch rats, these critters have not yet made it up this way, but their smaller cousins have. I once saw two rats in love strolling lazily along the rails of the subway in New York City.

After stressing over these little beasts, you may feel like you need a vacation. Say hello to Norovirus, otherwise known as the stomach flu. Because it is a virus, this microbe is completely immune to antibiotics. You can catch it directly from infected people or the surfaces they touch as well as through food contaminated by an infected food handler.It won’t kill you, but it can make you wish it had, with gastrointestinal symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to problems at the opposite end. It is highly contagious and loves to take cruises. (Don’t we all?) Its favorite place to lurk is public restrooms so holding it in until you can get to your cabin could be considered a mediocre strategy for avoiding it.

In short: The world is an icky place, but you can take precautions to reduce your risk of encountering these pint-sized predators. Just stay clear of hospitals, military bases, workplaces, schools, public transportation, theaters, gyms, apartment complexes and private homes. Safe places to be might include a raft out at sea, the top of the Himalayan Mountains or the Antarctic in winter.

Perhaps the best strategy of all is to avoid watching cable news channels.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alas, Mr. Roddenberry....

My Sixties generation wanted to give peace a chance—working with about the same odds, it would seem, as the Powerball lottery. Despite our distrust of The Establishment, strange grooming habits and sneering disrespect for our elders, there was a pervasive optimism that a better world would come.

Ours was a decade that witnessed the civil rights and equal rights movements, the mop-topped Beatles invasion, the Sexual Revolution, the Timothy Leary drug culture, several horrifying assassinations and Mankind taking a giant leap onto the moon. Growth and change are seldom easy.

Our futurist guru, Gene Roddenberry, led the way by showing us evidence of this better world every week on Star Trek. Huddled in front of our televisions like grunting Neanderthals around a campfire, we listened to stories of the 23rd Century where there was no racial or gender prejudice on Earth because most of it was now re-directed toward alien species. Any food you wanted could be materialized through a wall-mounted replicator, the ship’s doctor opined about how disease and mental illness had finally been cured, and Scotty was always there to beam you up.

Flash back to the 21st Century and it’s time for some impatient foot tapping. Rather than moving toward reconciliation, the country appears, more than ever, divided into uncompromising factions goaded on by an equally contentious media. The world seems to revolve around Big Oil, Wall Street bonuses and multinational corporate profits—all blithely exchanging currency while the sea level slowly rises. We could charitably look back on our optimistic youth as charmingly na├»ve, or simply admit that we were dribbling stupid.

More than 40 years after Captain James T. Kirk launched his five-year mission, the closest thing to a replicator is mediocre coffee machines that gurgle like disgruntled toilets. If rising cancer rates and stress-related illnesses don’t finish us off, the decaying healthcare system will. And Scotty’s job has been outsourced to a thickly accented helpdesk employee located in a Third World nation somewhere outside the Orion Nebula.

Should we consider it karmic that in our Viagra years, we are left with deflated real estate, atrophied 401Ks, bankrupted pensions and expiring unemployment benefits? Remember, we were the generation that prided itself on not being materialistic. And The Who sang about how we hoped we’d die before we got old. [NOTE: If you are over 50 and reading this, you did not accomplish that goal.]

But here we are, and we might as well make the best of things. Our present, dim financial situations would appear to provide us with some outstanding, character-building opportunities—such as basking in the comfort of a sustainable, eco-friendly cardboard box under a highway overpass or partaking in the epicurean sport of dumpster diving behind our favorite restaurants.

The Sixties generation has lived long enough to see a large chunk of the news media usurped by a billionaire from Australia, the U.S. Congress leased by lobbyists and our hopes for peace undermined by a seemingly endless number of struggles in the Middle East. We have watched the events of 9-11 ignite the match of hatred against Moslems, immigrants, unions, gays, pacifists, the French, socialism, the Dixie Chicks, Dan Rather, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, literacy and intelligent political debate.

It makes one wonder: Is the world we inhabit today just some twisted hallucinogenic flashback or was our Sixties paranoia of The Establishment, in fact, an astonishing, collective prescience of things to come?

Only two centuries to go before the Enterprise fires up its warp drives for its five-year mission. Let’s hope we can clean this mess up before Captain Kirk arrives.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tenacious G

My mother is 84 years old and has the constitution of a Russian tractor driver. She survived a brain hemorrhage six years ago and has almost fully recovered. She has never had a cavity, toothache or headache. The only notable health issue she has experienced is an irregular heartbeat that was addressed with the implantation of a pacemaker—something that makes her seem all the more impregnable, like a Bionic Viking Grandmother.

Recently, we went shopping for a double bed for her assisted-living apartment. She had had a twin bed, but one day she hopped onto it, overshot the landing and flipped to the floor on the other side. The result was a broken toe, which she continued to walk on to everyone’s horror. Once the toe was properly set and bandaged—she never required any painkiller—the family decided that a double bed might prevent this type of mishap in the future.

Before we entered the mattress store, Mom smiled sweetly and whispered to me, “When we get in there—shut up.” I asked her why and she said she didn’t want the saleswoman to know too much. Why, I wondered…would we have to kill her?

When we entered the store, the very pleasant saleswoman greeted us and asked what we were looking for that day. Mom eyed her suspiciously. I responded by explaining our quest for a double bed. She pointed out a few mattresses in our price range. Mom plopped herself on various models, clutching her purse tightly in both hands, squinting for a thoughtful moment, then loudly announcing either that the beds were “awful” or “felt alright.” I made some small talk with the saleswoman and Mom impatiently walked over to me and shouted, “Shut up! You talk too much!”

Viking Grandma had spoken. I smiled, the sales lady smiled and I promised Mom that I would refrain from talking. “Good,” she replied with irritated satisfaction, and proceeded to wander around the store in an aimless sort of way.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that my mother is not lucid. While she does sometimes have days when she has problems conjuring up the right word, she most definitely understands everything going on around her. And with a candor unique to the elderly, she has no problem telling shopkeepers when their goods are too expensive, shoddy or just plain ugly.  She also feels it is her moral duty to rate how my hair looks and if I have dressed to her liking. Poor posture is also up for grabs. The courteous veneer that we all learn to don throughout life has long since worn away for her, and she reports things strictly as she sees them.

I guess after having grown up during The Great Depression, pinching pennies and doing without to save for retirement, raising two children, and caring for a sick mother and husband then losing them both, she has earned the right to drop all pretenses and speak her mind.  She is a rugged survivor. And she storms the ramparts of social convention, wherever the gauntlet may land.

(C) Copyright 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Opiate of the Lasses

Imagine this: someone on television holds up an object. Picture anything you want—a new laptop, gold jewelry, garden gnome, wrinkle cream, whatever. She smiles directly into the camera, making eye contact, as if you were THE ONE. And she tells you that there will never be a value like this again. Someone standing next to her nods, knowingly. Nor will there ever be an object—like this—that will meet so many needs in your life and be the envy of your backbiting friends and stalking enemies.

Unfortunately, there are only 8,000 of these objects left and they are FLYING off the shelves. Added to that stress, the special price you are being offered will expire at the end of the show. The clock is counting down. It’s now or never, Sophie. Even though you didn’t know this object existed 30 seconds ago, lust is now rising from your pelvis. Look at the customer reviews scrolling down the screen—a veritable roll call of orgasmic satisfaction. The phone number flashes; the website URL flashes. Your breathing grows heavy. They beckon to you like objectified sirens luring your bank account toward the craggy rocks surrounding the island of Poverty.

Mesmerized, you order said object—which can be returned unconditionally at your expense—and succumb to the Bacchanalian debauchery of jiggling materialism parading shamelessly before you. Sold out! If you got this object, the hostess assures us, you were VERY lucky. One week later, a small package arrives containing said object, and life goes on, with a little less cash in your bank account. 

Why did you buy this thing that will probably sit on a shelf unused until the next garage sale? What were you thinking? You will ask this for the next three months, as it appears on your credit card statement in three easy payments.

Finger pointing is the American Way, so I blame my spouse for getting me hooked on home shopping. I always thought those channels were insipid pabulum for people who were incapable of reading a book or watching the History Channel. I didn’t think home shopping could happen to me. Then one night my beloved crooned, “Watch this with me! The hostess is really entertaining!” Indeed, she is. That is her job. And she does it well.

At a time when landfills are growing like aggressive tumors along our landscapes, and millions of people are wandering homeless and starving, the home-shopping frenzy seems borderline immoral—and, God save my soul, I am guilty. Perhaps, while I am still employed and capable of paying my rent, I can atone for my covetous behavior by placing money in the collection plates of The International Rescue Committee or some other deserving charity that actually does something redeeming and meaningful with my cash. It’s not too late to turn off the television, pick up a book and return to fiscal sanity.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Food Anxiety

When I was growing up, people opened up cans, heated up the contents and ate the mushy results without complaining. Well, okay, canned asparagus is disgusting, so is succotash, but for some reason I could not get my parents to understand that.

The point is, people ate bad food, did NOT try to understand the importance of diet and did not take supplements. In short, life was simple. You ate, developed a chronic disease and died. No thinking involved. No one tried to lecture you about anything or make you feel guilty about fat, flaccid vegetables or pounds of sugar.

Today, we are told that our vegetables are laced with insecticides, our meats are infiltrated with hormones and antibiotics, and anything with any promise of nutrition has been pasteurized or irradiated to the point where even bacteria turn up their microscopic noses at the prospect of eating it.

And don’t get me started about eggs—they’re bad for you, they’re good for you, they’re bad for you, they’re good for you. Either way, they may harbor salmonella. The only course left is to eat organic and join a commune.

Sadly, even that won’t do. Regardless of what we eat, we are told we need nutritional supplements. First, there are multivitamins. Not enough. We need to add essential fatty acids and calcium/magnesium to protect our hearts, avoid knife-wielding mood swings and keep our bones from dissolving. Still not enough. We need glucosamine (not good for diabetics) so our joints won’t stick like the Wizard of Oz Tin Man after a rain. But wait, our minds are going, so we need Ginko Biloba so we can remember all the supplements we’re supposed to take. And finally, the latest revelation: we lack vitamin D3 because we are all so busy sitting inside working on our computers that none of us get any natural vitamin D3 from sunshine anymore.

Okay, so now we all know what we need to take. No. It is not that simple.

Now the news is that, like our food, our supplements are crap, and we have to buy an extraordinarily expensive brand of supplements because our bodies are not able to absorb nutrients from the reasonably priced brands. The reasonably priced brands also apparently contain up to 90% fillers that may be bad for us.

Having second-mortgaged our homes to afford noncontaminated foods and quality supplements, more information comes our way. The China Study was published. Why we did a study in China—land of lead paint, tainted baby formula and poisoned pet food--I will never know. But it concludes that calcium and maybe even vitamins—except vitamin B12—may not be necessary after all; what we really need is magnesium and a vegan diet.

Magnesium, apparently, among other things, keeps us calm. Good thing. Because the stress of trying to achieve good nutrition amid a poisoned or genetically altered food supply, poorly absorbed supplements and the shifting sands of nutritional advice is enough to make a wary public want to dump its never-ending line of helpful nutritional prophets into a vat of organic fertilizer.