Monday, September 29, 2014

Video Snob - Maroon 5 "Animal"

Maroon 5 released their new video for "Animal" today and it's just a mess. A bloody disturbing mess. But then again Maroon 5 usually releases ridiculous videos that are overly dramatic, unnecessarily violent and harbor no relation to the song itself. There was "Payphone", in which two bank employees who manage to outrun a rain of bullets from bank robbers go on a crazy run from the police, complete with a fiery explosion which makes NO BLOODY SENSE. Why run away from the cops if you are not the bank robbers? Why steal the car and blow up stuff? What does it have to do with discussing the end of a relationship, which is what the lyrics actually talk about?

And then there was "One More Night", which you'd think is about a guy who just can't stay away from a girl even though maybe it's not going to work out and NOT about a woman abandoning her partner and taking off with all her stuff, the baby and even the goldfish while he's off at a boxing match.

Which brings us to "Animal", which at least finally makes some kind of sense with the lyrics only to be seriously creepy. Maybe I'm just getting old, maybe it's because I have a little girl, but that is not right. When I watch this video I do not think "How nice of Adam Levine to use his stardom to bring awareness to abuse against women, whether domestic or from creepy stalker types." Instead I worry that this will lead to more glorification of violence, more romanticizing of rape. Also, it's kind of gross.

 What did you think?

I give it 4 out 5 snobby GaGas.

Anyway - to cleanse your palette here is the beautiful disturbing-done-right video for Sia's "Chandelier". Can't get enough!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Marriage Equality

I think this sums up absolutely everything I may ever want to say about marriage equality. In honor of the Supreme Court hearings going on this week:


Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: "Room" by Emma Donoghue

It's been a good six months since I read "Room: A Novel" by Emma Donoghue, so I won't be going into any details in this review as frankly, I don't remember them. What I will talk about primarily is how, intentionally or not, the book changed my life and that of my family.

"Room" is the story of a young woman and her five year old son Jack, held captive by the woman's abductor and rapist of seven years in an 11x11' Room. It is narrated entirely by Jack and can be divided into three parts (small spoiler alert): life in the Room, escape from the Room and life outside the Room. I expected to read about the horrors of this woman's life, the abduction, the psychological toll of imprisonment, rape and the responsibility of raising a child under these circumstances. But since the book was narrated by the five year old Jack whose mother has made a great effort to protect him from the situation they are in, what I got was entirely different.

What was most astonishing about the book, and what made me re-examine my own life, is that as far as Jack is concerned, life in Room is pretty good. His mother tries to give her son as normal a life as possible - they have a routine, they exercise, they read and play games, and watch a TV show or two a day. From a parenting point of view it was fascinating to note how the mother's parenting choices appear to have naturally fallen into something akin to attachment parenting - Jack is still nursing and they sleep in one bed (once Old Nick, the abductor, leaves for the night). But what is truly amazing is the simplicity of life in Room and the richness of Jack's experience during his life there, despite or even because of this simplicity. When they play, the use the same items for a myriad of different games. They have just five books, which they read over and over and which appears to drive the mom a little nuts but how dear and familiar those books are to Jack! In fact each item is so familiar to him that it has it's own name, he uses no articles when referring to Bed, Chair and most endearingly, Melty Spoon. And why would he? The objects in his universe are entirely limited - as far as he knows there is literally no other beds in the world.

Life in Room is safe, it is quiet, it is peaceful and all that Jack really knows of life is his mother's love. Contrast that with life outside Room, or "in the world" as Jack calls it, and you may find yourself longing for the serenity of Room. Life in the world is loud, and fast, and busy and full of people who are full of pleasantries but lack any depth of connection and most of all it is full of THINGS. There are just so many things in the world, so few of them necessarily, almost none of them precious.

Perhaps life in the world is best summarized by Jack himself:

"In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don't have jobs, so I don't know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.

Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't want to actually play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear." 

Obviously we are looking at an extreme case, a sensory overload. And I am not about to suggest that life is better locked away in a room somewhere. Having lived in this world all my life I am perfectly adjusted to it's pace, it's occupants and it's overall purpose, if one can call it that, but as a parent I had to examine if what I am offering my children serves their best interests. Even before I picked up this book I was already a firm believer in not over-consumerizing my kids. I tried to limit the amount of toys Offspring has and paid close attention to the type of toys we do choose - limit the plastic, nothing that makes noises and is operated by batteries, ideally something constructive such as blocks or Legos, perhaps puzzles. But still they pile up. And so does everything else we own.

So Husband and I made the decision to downsize our household. The objective: keep only what is
a) useful and actually used,
b) serves to educate or constructively entertain (e.g. books, computer, art supplies),
c) is of sentimental or esthetic value (e.g. childhood or travel souvenirs, art),
limit the number of the things we keep in multiple (e.g. only 6 forks, spoons, plates etc) and sell or donate the rest.

It took a week of full car load trips to the dump and Salvation Army until we saw any difference at all in the appearance of our home but the cathartic feeling of freeing yourself from so many possessions was truly amazing. So far we have finished the kitchen and most of the living room (the TV, VCR, DVD player - all gone!!!). We still have a long way to go but I think it is already making a difference in the way I feel about our home and our life.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Postpartum Itch

At about 5 weeks postpartum I developed an itch. It took nearly two months to get to the bottom of it, during which time I read many complains on online forums of similar problems experienced by new moms. Though everyone's itch may well be unique, I thought I would share my story in case it provides a clue for some other itchy sufferer out there.

My itch started in a small spot on my right hip and I thought it was a flea bite. But it quickly spread all over my legs, arms, feet, and to some extent, the torso (front, not back). There was no rash, but an itch so maddening that even though I've had eczema since I was a baby and have had to deal with something itching on a daily basis all my life, I could not help but scratch. I scratched till I bled. I scratched till I bruised. I looked like something out of a zombie film. Night time was the worst - Offspring was still waking every 2 hours to feed and what little sleep I got was interrupted by the itching. Laying for more than 15 min on one side caused the skin there to itch more. Once an hour I would get up, wipe myself down with cold water and stand in front of a fan cooling off the skin. Later I discovered witch hazel and would climb into the tub and cover myself head to toe with it. Sometimes I would put ethanol on the raw scratched bits because pain, it turns out, is preferable to itch (pain is also inhibitory of itch, so says Wikipedia).

I thought that the itch might have something to do with the pregnancy. A quick google search showed that there were other mothers out there who developed an itch at about the same time. Though itching is common in women who had epidurals, the only thing I was administered during birth was pitocin for the last 15 minutes of pushing. Still, I thought that the rapidly changing hormones may have been the culprit. So first I went to see my ObGyn. Well, actually, I ended up seeing the nurse practitioner, who told me that she too had a bad itch with each one of her children, which lasted about half a year, that she did not know what caused it and that I should just suck it up. So onto the dermatologist I went, who pronounced it eczema, gave me a prescription for a giant bottle of Elocon lotion (a steroid topical cream that I sometimes use for eczema anyway). I had to be careful about when I would apply the lotion, since I didn't want to get steroid cream on my baby. But even with my careful applications weeks went by without any improvement. By this point I was using a dried up loofah to scratch myself, as it was a bit gentler on the skin that my nails. I was going delirious with sleep deprivation and itch and was accompanied everywhere by the fumes of colloidal oatmeal and witch hazel.

I consulted with my friend's mom who is a naturapathic doctor. She thought that it might be a buildup of toxins or biles, due to a faulty liver or the gall bladder, I don't recall now. Without examining me she had to go by my description and I really appreciate her taking the time, but after a cleansing diet of milk of magnesia and some rather pricy homeopathic pills (yes, I was THAT desperate) I was no closer to the cure. Well into the second month of my torment I went to see my GP (actually, the nurse practitioner in the office). I just sat there crying for a while and then asked if there is anything at all she could do - perhaps a blood test? She had seen me a few weeks earlier (we tried unsuccessfully a Clarinex treatment) and agreed to do a full blood panel. The only thing that was off on the test results was an elevated eosinophil count, common in allergic reactions, some infections and pointing once again to eczema. NP prescribed Singulair, a leukotriene receptor antagonists, which Husband had been taking all along for his seasonal allergies. Within HOURS the itch was gone. Seriously.

I took the Singulair for a couple of weeks. We also started cosleeping with Offspring, which meant that I could get basically a full night's rest. And the itch went away for good. When I saw the NP for a something else a few months later she told me that she had another mother come in with a crazy itch at 5 weeks postpartum and she too benefited greatly from Singulair. So even though n=2 in our little experience here, I figure there is no harm in spreading the word about a possible pp-itch solution.

PS: if you are wondering why I include pictures of elephants, it's because they always seem so itchy to me.

UPDATE 9-29-14: Since the writing of this post I have had a second baby and since this post appears to have been helpful for some folks out there I thought I would include an update on post partum itch after baby 2.0 (who is over a year old now! Gosh, time flies...) The good news is that I did not get the itch after my second pregnancy/birth. I was prepared for it but it did not materialize. There were few differences between my pregnancies, if anything I was more tired and uncomfortable during my second. The kids birthdays are just days apart so I don't think the time of year (temperature, humidity etc) played a role. The second birth was far shorter (5 hours vs 21) and I had to take an antibiotic during labor the second time.

There were, however, two differences in the post partum period that I believe made the real difference:

1) I got more sleep than I did with baby #1 because we chose to cosleep with baby 2.0 from the start, which I already felt comfortable with and knew worked well for us. So I was more rested.

2) I was far less worried about messing everything up, harming the baby in some fashion, and just less anxious in general as my confidence in my parenting skills had improved. So I was more relaxed.

I think these two factors likely resulted in me NOT developing the eczema/itch that I did with baby #1. As always, I hope this helps someone out there who is itching! May you find relief.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Introducing the Video Snob

When I hear a song on the radio, especially if I like it, I often picture in my mind what a nice video it must have. I don't even know if there is still an MTV or VH1 type channel out there, but at least there is YouTube and time permitting I make a point of looking up said song to have the combined audio visual experience.

Sometimes the videos are fantastic. They are interesting, visually stunning, unusual, tell a story or are just plane cool in some other way. An example of a good video would be Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" and most of Lady GaGa's videos.

Most often videos are fairly plain. They feature parties, smiling dancing people, a few shots of the singer(s) singing, so mostly vague imagery or a not too elaborate story. Sometimes that's all a song really needs though, especially one that is mostly an upbeat dance tune. "Glad You Came" by The Wanted and "Stereo Love" by Edward Maya would fall into this category.

And then there are the videos that disappoint. Over the years I've come to realize that this must be a pet peeve of mine - boring, unimaginative, or worst of all - mismatched videos. This phenomenon is not unlike "the book was better than the movie," after all I have preconceived notions about what the video might look like, what the song is about, what feelings it inspires in me. Maybe the artist just feels differently. Or perhaps the artist was just lazy (or low on funds?) and thought that 3 minutes of watching him or her sing from different angles is satisfying? Anyway, I've decided to start a new series of posts in which I shall highlight my biggest video disappointments as they occur (and some from the past).

So here is my video snub of the week:     Ellie Goulding's "Lights"

The lyrics hold some drama, there is an interesting sort of change of pace towards the end - over all, a catchy song. I was picturing something medieval, probably due to the mention of a queen, or something Twilight-like, possibly because of something or other turning to stone. So for one thing I think this video is a mismatch. But then, to add insult to injury, there are the fabulous dance moves, the inexplicable tambourine, the seizure inducing lights (Oh... it says "Lights" in the title, so fucking original...) and the really high budget special effect twirly light things.

This gets 3 out of 5 snobby GaGas.

Let's cleanse our pallet with a truly haunting video for Fever Ray's "Keep the Streets Empty for Me" directed by Jens Klevje and Fabian Svensson.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The End (and Future) of Maternity Leave

Less than two weeks from now I will be returning to work after an extended maternity leave. I feel some excitement about returning to the lab, doing my job which I love, interacting with adults and wearing a real bra and earrings. I also feel a dread so great I have refused to even think about - the dread many mothers feel when entrusting their child to someone else's care, be it their partner, parent or daycare service provider. It's the dread of missing - missing the milestones, such as the first time she walks or says a word or even learns to wave; missing the little everyday things like her smiles, her kisses, her look of concentration as she babbles something to her teddy; missing holding her, the smell of her, the sight of her; and what's most dreadful to me is missing that connection with her that comes from being so in tune that I know that she needs to pee, or sleep, or why she seems grumpy at the moment. 

In preparation for our transition to daddy daycare I've been leaving the house for extended periods of time (3 hours - ha!) the last two weekends to give them some time to get into the groove of it. Yesterday I went to see Dark Shadows, an event I was looking forward to greatly as this was my first time seeing a movie since Avatar or similar. Aside from the fact that the movie was a giant disappointment (seriously, feel free to walk out during the Happening and don't look back. What a waste of my precious free time!!!) when I returned home and practically ran to my child with outstretched arms screeching "My baby!!!" I was completely ignored as she continued to methodically remove dirt from a flower pot and smear it on her pants. I waited patiently till she was done with this fascinating activity only to have her crawl away without even a backwards glance in my direction! I must admit this smarted.

Granted I have been very lucky. I have been able to take 11 months off by using a combination of disability leave, maternity leave and leave of absence and due to the awesomeness of my boss (and some blackmail). Most have not been this fortunate. I concede that there are women who return to work at the end of the 6-16 (depending on your employer) week leave with some relief. Out of my twenty or so friends who recently had children, one was glad to do this and felt it made her a happier, better mommy. But for most of us parting with our tiny newborns when we have just stopped bleeding from giving birth (~ 6 weeks postpartum) and are nursing them every hour or two day and night, and are loving the hell out of them - well it seems like torture. USA Today and the Mom's in Maine blog got me thinking about the plausibility of longer maternity leave for all American mothers (who want it). Did you know that Canadians get up to 50 weeks leave at 55% paid?

"France, 16 weeks rising to 26 weeks for third child – and up to 104 weeks unpaid. Yup, that’s 2 years. 
Germany, 14 weeks (100% paid) 6 of which taken before birth, then 12/14 months  at 65% paid. 
Sweden, 16 months parental leave (that’s right – for both mom and dad) at 80% paid. 
United Kingdom, currently 39 weeks paid, due to rise to 52 weeks paid."

In the US we have the Family Medical Leave Act (or FML eh?) for eligible employees only to take up to 12 unpaid weeks (including any time off just before giving birth, like those last two weeks where you can barely move for example). Well, it's too little in my opinion. I would be in favor of something to the tune of 6 months minimum, 9 months ideal and with at least some pay. A year would be easiest for employers I think as they could find a decent one year temp replacement. But as with any social program we run into the "who is going to pay?" and "why do you feel entitled to this?" problems. I think the Mom's in Maine blog covered some of the benefits of such an expenditure nicely. They include more successful breastfeeding and all the lifelong health benefits for mom and child inherent therein, and a better bond and more nurturing relationship between mother and infant and all the psychological and health benefits inherent therein. These aren't small long term benefits though they do sound all 'soft and fuzzy'. 


I haven't thought too much about politics lately but in thinking about why I'm so disgruntled with the state of this country (and why perhaps others are also) I have had a theory. It seems to me that the problem is that we are a two party state - two parties that are diametrically opposed on every issue. If party A believes X then party B will believe Y. Always. There is no middle ground. There is no third or forth option. Each party prevents the other from achieving what it wants and so nothing gets done. Perhaps this was a clever ploy by someone, to make sure this country remained at status quo and never budged but as any evolutionary biologist will tell you - if [a country] does not adapt, it will die out. Variation is the key to adaptability. So there are three options for the future: 
1. We abolish the two party system and get more parties up in here.
2. We split the US in to two countries, into North and South for example. Conservatives move south, Liberals north, we each get our own way.
3. We keep grinding our wheels in frustration for eternity!
Which one do you think will happen?

Husband and I are sort of like a two party system here at home. I'm all about protection (Watch where you put that knife! Don't let her crawl there! What are you doing with that flamethrower?) and he's all about freedom (who do you think she likes hanging out with more?). But because we respect one another I think we are able to build on each others strengths so Offspring is having a lot of fun exploring the world while not being over protected. So while I loathe to leave her, I think she'll be in excellent hands.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Breastfeeding SUCKsess

I've written and then erased this post four times now. It is so easy for me to get preachy and judgmental and I'm not sure that is the most constructive use of my time. Instead, I'll try to write about the things I did not know about breastfeeding before having a baby. First, I would like to point you to an excellent resource - This site has virtually everything you may want to know about breastfeeding, breast care, baby digestive systems, weaning (aka introducing solids) etc.

One of the things you'll hear about (or should hear about) in prenatal classes and baby books is the all important LATCH. The latch is the way the baby attaches to the nipple and since we don't have a lot of opportunity in our life to watch breastfeeding in action it may be useful to watch some youtube videos on the subject. Basically, you need to aim the nipple at the nose, not, as odd as it sounds, at the mouth. And if the latch is 'off' you will experience pain. At least, that's what I learned in all the classes. When Offspring came along I asked every nurse and doctor that stopped by to check on us if my latch was ok and everyone had the very unhelpful response of "It seems alright". When I developed bruises on my nipples I decided that my latch must have been off after all, but I now suspect the truth of the matter is that nipples need time to adjust to the rough handling they will be receiving for the next year or two, and soreness and sometimes even cracking (I have a scar to prove it), will be part of that. After a few weeks (or in my case a few months because of the bad crack) it's old news until teeth come along, those sharp little things and then you are in for a few more weeks of adjustment.

The other thing to know is that milk production is a system of supply and demand. When baby is first born the breasts produce colostrum, which is super good for baby but is low in volume. They will tell you it's all the baby needs till the milk comes in (which happens somewhere around day 3) but frankly Offspring was rather displeased and it is also the reason why babies may lose up to 10% of their birth weight before starting to gain weight. What's important to remember, is that the more the baby sucks to try and get milk out, the faster and more abundant the milk will be. So one important lesson is that supplementation with any kind of formula is not necessary and can in fact be detrimental to the whole process.

Breastmilk is amazing in so many ways. It changes composition throughout the day (more fat at night), with the weather (more watery in hot weather), contains EVERYTHING the baby needs for ultimate growth in just the right proportions no matter what the mother eats (though it doesn't hurt to eat healthy), is the right temperature, is free. You get my drift. The poop of breastfed babies does not stink, unlike that of formula fed babies. Strangely, breastfed babies also poop less but do not really get constipated as breast milk has a slightly laxative effect (as Husband discovered for himself).

One of the things I kept hearing about was that antibodies from mom would pass through the breast milk to the baby and protect him or her from infections, provide immunity against diseases mom had encountered and appears to ward off other illness and problems like ear infections, stomach infections and obesity. I couldn't quite figure out how ingesting antibodies would help baby acquire immunity until I read (on!) about how the baby's gut is 'leaky' till about 6 months of age. The cells in the gut are spaced far apart, leaving large gaps and allow entire molecules such as antibodies to pass directly into the blood stream. This is good for immunity but bad for allergies etc and is one of the reasons babies should NOT be introduced to solids till at least 6 months of age (not 4, as is so often the case in the US) because that's when the digestive system begins to mature. More on that later. Sceptical as I was, it seems to have worked for us at least. I got a terrible flu/cold when Offspring was about 3 months old and though I was a snotty slobbery mess she did not catch a thing!

The other thing I kept hearing about but did not understand fully until recently is the process behind hindmilk and foremilk. Foremilk is the first milk that comes out as the baby starts sucking, it is more watery and thurst quenching. Hindmilk comes next and is more fatty and filling. When the baby is done eating, the hindmilk that had moved to the front of the breast is left to sit till the next feeding and over that time the fats are reabsorbed by the body leaving behind - you guessed it - foremilk. Anthropologically speaking it seems that the best way to feed a baby is 'on demand', or more accurately 'on cue', allowing the baby to regulate his food/drink intake. It seems that biologically this is also true. When doctors started recommending scheduled feedings in the last century for fear of 'spoiling' kids by letting them dictate when they were to be fed the following scenario would play out - baby was fed for a specified time, lets say 10 minutes and then made to wait a specified time, let's say 2 hours till the next feed. Over that time whatever milk was in the breast turned to watery foremilk, so when hungry baby finally got a chance at the boob again he was unsatisfied, hungry and upset and he still only got 10 minutes and drank mostly foremilk! Meanwhile, the mother's body was producing less and less milk since it didn't seem like the baby was needing as much (supply/demand) and presto chango you have a situation of 'not enough milk' and a demand for supplementation (formula, early solids, etc). In reality, there is no such thing as 'not enough milk' (except I suppose in some super rare medical cases). And yes, the baby may need to be on the boob for hours at first, but that's the nature of the game people!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Catching Up

So my daughter, henceforth known as Offspring, will be seven months old next week. I thought I might try getting back into blogging a bit, time permitting. This may well become a parenting-adventure blog, who knows...

In the meantime, I'll try to summarize the last seven months. I had a pretty uneventful pregnancy and an excellent birth. It was a bit long for my liking - 21 hours, but that's pretty standard. The pushing was my least favorite part by far (about 3 hours) and left me with some complications that I'm still not entirely over. Other than that, I'm pretty proud to say, it was an unmedicated, pretty damned relaxed affair. Offspring is perfect in every conceivable way and the cutest thing I have ever seen in my life, ever. It's been said before, and I will say it again - I did not know I could love someone that much.

I've taken 11 months off from work, and frankly I'm not entirely sure I want to go back then either. I'd like to stay home maybe till she's 18 months or even 2 years. March is when my boss expects a decision from me so I have a lot of agonizing and pro and conning to do.

As far as parenting is concerned, I've been surprised to discover that I turned out to be one of those hippy attachment parenting types. Well, maybe not THAT surprised. So we cosleep (aka bedshare, sleep in one bed), nurse 'on cue', which at the moment is about 12 to 15 times a day/night, we do elimination communication (aka infant potty training), baby wearing (baby in a sling), I'm considering baby led weaning (no purees), and the only thing that didn't really work out for us was cloth diapers. I'm thinking each one of these deserves their own post so that's my plan for the near blogging future. I also have some baby book reviews for ya'll in case you are so inclined.

Mostly parenthood for us has gone something like this:
Me: "OMG, what do we do now about ____?"
Husband: "Dunno."
Me: (reads all available books, websites and blogs on the subjects, harasses all her parent friends and relatives) "No one seems to agree, isn't there a right way to go about _____?"
Husband: "Let's do ____, it feels right to both of us."
Me: "I'm a terrible parent."

I wish the afterbirth wasn't the placenta (which is in our freezer, by the way) but a manual.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Book Review: "The Emperor of All Maladies" by S. Mukherjee

Just finished reading "The Emperor of All Maladies - A Biography of Cancer" by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book got excellent reviews, was one of NY Times 10 Best Books of 2010 and scored Dr. Mukherjee a Pulitzer for General Nonfiction. It was heavy, and not just because it's 570 pages of hardcover goodness. Covered in painful detail is the history of cancer - from the first description of the disease by Imhotep in 2500BC to the sequencing of hundreds of cancer genomes, but mostly the countless, gruesome, revolutionary, often barbaric and mostly failed attempts to cure it. In fact I would go so far as to say that this book may be the authoritative text on the history of cancer treatment research. While homage is paid to prevention, causality and, to an even smaller extent, patient care, you will not find anything in this book to alleviate your anxieties or help you avoid joining the ranks of cancer patients (except maybe STOP SMOKING, you fool!). But it does open with this encouraging statistic - "In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetimes." Fan-fucking-tastick!

Throughout history there have basically been three approaches to cancer treatment - surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Surgery was first on the field, taking place long before there was anesthetic or antiseptic. In most cases, surgery did you in. I barely made it through the surgical chapters, especially Halsted's radical mastectomies. It must be a testament to the human drive to survive that anyone would consider undergoing such procedures. Radiation on the other hand seems the least intrusive of the three (and also the least discussed) - discovered as a treatment by 21 year old medical student Emil Grubbe who had worked in a Chicago factory that produced vacuum X-ray tubes (he even treated patients in the factory). Chemotherapy, however, takes up the majority of the book. The idea of a poison being used to kill rapidly dividing cells (and it was a looong time still till the biology of cancer was the least bit understood), came to Sidney Farber, a pathologist at the Children's Hospital in Boston, who began to experiment, for a lack of a better word, on children with leukemia, a disease that at the time could be fatal in as little as three days from onset of symptoms.

While interesting, "The Emperor of All Maladies" was a tough read. After I started having nightmares in which I was being diagnosed with cancer, I ended up having to restrict my reading to a few chapters a day. While I learned a lot, my major complaint about this book is it's long-windedness and an overabundance of information and detail. My other complaint, which I feel almost bad stating as it's not the author's fault, is that it's not entirely what I was hoping to read. While a history of research is certainly fascinating, especially after one is done reading about the horrors of cancer treatment, I would have liked to read about how NOT TO GET IT. But I suppose such questions are not yet answered. In fact, I think you will find that most questions are not yet answered about cancer, and we are hardly any better off now than we were a hundred years ago, which is a major downer.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

DIY: How to make sauerkraut

I'm Russian, and so have a deep appreciation for all things canned, pickled and otherwise preserved. Every year we make tons of preserves for the winter ahead. The following is my grandfather's (and his mother's before that) recipe for making sauerkraut. I note wherever applicable all possible modifications. Hope you give it a shot and enjoy it!

Here is what you'll need to get started:

- Knife and cutting board
- Large mixing bowl
- A container to ferment cabbage in, such as a large pot or a bucket (we use a 5 gallon bucket from local cafeteria that they buy boiled eggs in). If you want to use a glass jar, make sure it is one that you can fit your entire hand into and also the weight mentioned below. Wide mouthed containers are best.
- Some sort of lid for above container (our bucket comes with a lid, very convenient! but so does a pot)
- a plate a little smaller in diameter than your container
- something really heavy to 'press' the cabbage. Grandpa uses a rock, we use the weights from Husband's dumbbells inside multiple plastic bags
- Jars for storage

For each head of cabbage you'll need:

~2 carrots (optional but I really prefer carrots in my sauerkraut)
~1 tablespoon pickling salt (any salt without iodine will do)
caraway seeds (optional, I don't use them but some people like the flavor)
I would suggest picking cabbages that are as 'white' as possible, avoid greener looking ones. We've used purple cabbage in the past, and personally I didn't like it as much, but it does have a nice color!

I would do at least three heads of cabbage to start with. If you like how your kraut turned out, you can always make more.

Preparing the cabbage:

- Peel the first few leaves of the cabbage and wash it.
- Cut the cabbage. This can be done almost any way. Some people like really thin short strips of cabbage, others like larger chunks, or longer strips of cabbage. The flavor is not affected, but larger pieces will be more crunchy. Do not include the core in your cut cabbage mix (however, my grandpa likes to stick a core or two into the final pot with the cabbage and let it sit there and ferment). Cut all three cabbages and place them in your mixing bowl. (If you are doing a bigger batch like 6-12 cabbages, I would still only do about 3 cabbages at a time, it makes the mixing more manageable).

- Grate the carrots on a large grater. If doing 3 cabbages, you'll need about 6 carrots. Carrots add a touch of color and also a touch of sweetness to your kraut. If you don't like carrots in your kraut however, it is not necessary. Place grated carrots in mixing bowl with the cabbage.

- Add the salt. (Make sure it does not contain iodine!!!) This is possibly the trickiest part. The salt will draw out the juices from the veggies but it will also prevent the sauerkraut from spoiling while it's fermenting. In essence it will create an environment conducive to fermentation of your kraut by non-harmful bacteria. On the other hand, you don't want to over salt your cabbage as it will make kraut that's too salty. I've found that the ratio of 1 tablespoon of salt to 1 head cabbage is about right. HOWEVER, not all cabbage heads are created equal! If yours are rather small, then a tablespoon of salt will be too much! What I would recommend, is that you mix in about 2.5 tablespoons of salt first for your 3 cabbages and then if it's not too salty, add the remaining 0.5 tablespoons.

- Add caraway if using. I don't use caraway so I am not sure what a good amount would be. Try sprinkling it on till you like the looks of it, probably about 1 tablespoon per cabbage.

- Mix the cabbage and carrots with your hands, scrunching it a bit as you go. If you don't scrunch the cabbage, it will be a bit firmer and cruncher later, but the scrunching gets the juices flowing. If you scrunch too much and turn the cabbage to mush, the kraut will be non-crunchy/soft/limp. It will still taste good but be sort of flaccid. So I just scrunch a bit as I go. I do not see too many juices at this stage yet so don't scrunch till it's actually 'bleeding'.

- Taste the mixture, the saltiness should be pleasant but obvious. Add more salt if you feel it's necessary, add more cabbage if it's too salty. My ratio of 1 cabbage to 1 tablespoon should guarantee a good taste.

- Transfer the mixture into your fermentation container. If doing more than a 3 cabbage batch, repeat above steps for the rest of the cabbages and give everything a good mix once all the batches are in the fermentation container.

Note: some people add whey to the mixture. Whey contains live lactobacilli and shortens the time it takes to start fermenting. I do not use whey, but if I understand correctly, the appropriate amount is 4 tablespoons per cabbage.

Preparing for fermentation:

- By now you have placed the mixed salted cabbage into your fermentation container. The container should have a lid but it does not need to be air tight. Fermentation will produce gases that will need to escape. The fermentation itself is anaerobic (without oxygen) but the juices will keep the reaction submerged and away from air so don't worry about the air entering the pot.

- Press the mix down with your fists. You should notices some juices starting to form. Take your plate and place it upside down over the cabbage and push down. The plate should be smaller than the container's diameter, with about an inch around the edges. It will keep the cabbage down but allow juices and gases to escape from around it's edges. If doing this in a jar, you may use a small piece of tile or wood for the same purpose.

video of Husband scrunching and mixing, doesn't always play for some reason...

- Place a weight on top of the plate. We usually place our weights in a small mixing bowl and then on top of the plate, but we use a large bucket and have the space to do this. The lid of your container should be able to close so don't stack things too high. The weight needs to be heavy enough to keep the cabbage well compressed and the juices above the plate.


- Leave your container/kraut at room temperature to ferment. Cool fall temperatures are particularly conducive to fermentation. Hot summer days may raise the temperature too high and let your cabbage spoil. Cold temperatures will slow down the fermentation process. A temperatures in the high 60s low 70s is perfect.

- The cabbage will now begin to ferment. The salt will keep bad bacteria from growing/spoiling your cabbage in the first few days. Then the lactobacilli bacteria will have produced enough lactic acid to keep the cabbage from spoiling for the rest of the year. These bacteria are probiotic, very good for your digestive system, and the product is delicious to boot!

- Fermentation will produce gases and your kraut will start to bubble and foam. Once, or better yet twice a day, open up your container's lid and push down on the weight to release the gases. Husband takes out the weight and the plate, pokes the mix with a long knife, then places the plate down, pushes on it really firmly to let the gases out, then replaces the weight. You may also poke around the edges of the plate and not pick it up. You may see a white/milky tint to the juice. This is the lactobacilli and totally normal and good.

- The cabbage is to be kept in this way, poked several times a day, until all the bubbling has stopped. This may take anywhere from three days to a week. You will notice a smell of kraut, which sometimes smells perhaps a bit like fart. The cabbage should NOT smell putrid though. Granted we all have different definitions of putrid, but it will not smell sour, it will smell rotten if something goes wrong. Really, unmistakeably rotten. I've never had kraut NOT work out but I've smelled the kraut-gone-bad of others and it is definitely nasty. You'll know.

- At the end of this fermentation period (3-7 days) the kraut is done. At this point we transfer the kraut into glass jars, pressing it down (but there is no need to beat it up or compress it unreasonably), add some of the juice on top and close the lid. The process is NOT sterile and should not be. The lactic acid will keep the kraut from spoiling. After this we store our kraut in the fridge. If you have a cellar, it's even better. You want a dark cool place for ultimate kraut storage. You may eat the kraut right away, but it will only get better/more sour with time.