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Monday, August 31, 2009

No, REALLY, don't eat raw cookie dough

  Your mother always told you not to eat the cookie dough. Not just because it was a greedy thing to do, and not just because you'd wind up with fewer cookies, but because there were raw eggs and possibly other ingredients that desperately needed to be baked to make them safe for you to eat.

Strangely enough, mothers who give this advice now have a mascot for their cause: Linda Rivera, Hospitalized After Eating Nestlé Cookie Dough, Tries to Stay Alive - (, 8/31/09). It is a very sad story, and I hope she pulls through. It's also a bit of a "scary" warning story that your mother, ever cautious, might appreciate. Plus, it is a commentary on the trust that people have, however misplaced, with the food industry.
The Rivera family never gave much thought to food-borne illness. "You watch a commercial, you go into a store and you just assume it's okay to eat," said Linda's husband, Richard, a sales manager for a Web site. "I assume if it's on a shelf, it's safe. But this whole thing has changed the way I look at food."
Assuming that something is safe because it is on a shelf is such a peculiar thing. Think of cigarettes; think of pesticides that home gardeners apply without following the safety instructions; think of anything really gross that you have seen sold as "food" but would never personally eat.

Just because it is sold in a package, doesn't mean it is good for us. And it especially doesn't mean it is "clean" and safe to eat RAW. (Or cooked, actually. [Early childhood hospitalization for salmonella story omitted.]) You know this, I know this... But there is a misplaced trust out there, where a bit of grown-up skepticism is called for instead.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Friday, August 28, 2009

Zombie literature: oral histories

  World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks is so well written that it will have you re-evaluating your plans for natural and unnatural disasters in both fictional and non-fiction contexts.

The book is set in a future in which the entire world has been devastated by a plague that transforms its victims into the living dead. The living dead are slow and noisy, as you would hope, but they also infect their victims with alarming speed, and are extremely difficult to eliminate. Sure they can freeze, but they also revive upon the spring thaw; they can function on the bottom of the sea or as floaters for indefinite periods of time without being broken down by salt water; they can be locked into prisons without fresh victims, and remain dangerous indefinitely... The global outbreak has devastating, world-wide consequences. Nowhere on land or sea is safe.

The book documents the stories of survivors from around the globe as the tide is turning, and the living are reclaiming the planet. Reports from many nations, many types of civilians and specialists, soldiers and doctors, are included. The documentary nature of the project is very broad, and very compelling. The book jacket jokingly calls the author "the Studs Terkel of zombie journalism," and it is a funny and fitting description.

I blame Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for making me reconsider books on the subject of zombie plagues generally. World War Z was a natural follow-up choice: it has been out a few years, it was a NY Times bestseller, and it takes a very different, documentary, first person, oral-history approach to tell the story.

I especially was interested in the use of this approach: one of my NaNoWriMo novels was written entirely as a transcript of a Fresh Air-style interview of a person whose experiences included the political and economic collapse of the U.S., an internal civil war, the division of the territories into many separate countries, and the burden of recovering with sharply limited natural resources. I wanted to see if there were any natural parallels that the oral history approach would lead to on the disaster recovery topic. The short answer is: just a few, mostly due to the natural resource issues. The zombie plague is so devastating, and so treacherous, that merely recovering from being bombed by your own government without the risk of being eaten by your neighbors and relatives seemed leisurely in comparison.


As a San Franciscan, I'm pretty aware of basic disaster preparedness tactics. I own flashlights, candles, wrenches to turn off gas, bottles to port water from my water heater if the water goes out, tablets to purify water if the supply stays on but is compromised, weatherproof gear, and so on. One of my friends has multiple survival kits of lights, crowbars, blankets, energy bars, and goodness knows what else in multiple locations. He lives in a flat neighborhood built on landfill, so I won't be visiting him during either an earthquake or a zombie apocalypse. My place is on a hill, but on sandy soil; the main part of the house could be accessible to zombies if I don't block the front windows and destroy the rear steps, though I imagine the zombies could easily fall off my neighbor's roof onto my patio to make my life difficult. I've been bargaining with a friend in a third story apartment for safe haven in exchange for augmenting his survival supplies with good wine, but I'm not sure his building is as safe as he believes, and I don't trust him with the case of wine in the meantime...

There are so many things to consider, and good fiction inspires you to look at the world in new ways. I'm not paranoid as a result of reading this... what was that noise? Did you hear that? No? Sorry. I was saying, it makes me think a little differently, expands my creative thinking just a bit, and that is a good thing.

I'm really bummed about the sea not being safe, however. That had seemed like such a lovely idea. But it was a hope without a logical basis, beyond a theory that swimming is too complicated for zombies. Floating can still be treacherous.


I bought this book at a used bookstore on Valencia. A block away, I received an exclamation about how great the book is, and word of the movie coming out next year, both unbidden from a stranger.

I love this town.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:30 PM

Like Cinderella

  When I am recovering from being very sick, I am sometimes lucky enough to have short, beautiful reprieves from my symptoms. The breaks always occur in the evenings, and they don't usually last more than three hours. I suppose it could be some sort of change in temperature that my body goes through after the sun sets, or a shift in my body's daily energy cycles. It doesn't matter whether or not I've eaten, though being hydrated helps.

At 7 or 8 at night, without any change of medicines, all of my symptoms - fever, aching, congestion, coughing, hazy thinking - dramatically subside. Resting all day pays off, and I feel light, very alive, and sensitive to everything that my illness had dulled in me - colors seem so bright, the air feels heavy enough to push at, sounds seem to resonate more. It feels as if my fairy godmother came to spruce me for the ball, but also gave me a shot or two of whiskey and some strangely tinted glasses.

I've been exhausted, headachy, and coughing all day between naps, and I likely will be coughing again around 1 a.m. But right now, the world, the City, everything around me is just humming with beautiful intensity, and I'm happy to be here. Thanks, fairy godmother!


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Celebrity to die for

  Can you imagine being an artist included on a death list maintained by a country your country was at war with? Especially if you were a playwright? It would make writing plays feel so... important. Like you were a valuable cultural treasure, even if this was the weirdest way of having your status revealed.

I was tickled by this item from Noël Coward - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
Had the Nazis invaded Britain, Coward was scheduled to be arrested and killed, as he was in The Black Book along with other figures such as Virginia Woolf, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells. When this came to light after the war, Coward wrote: 'If anyone had told me at that time I was high up on the Nazi blacklist, I should have laughed ... I remember [writer] Rebecca West, who was one of the many who shared the honour with me, sent me a telegram which read: 'My dear – the people we should have been seen dead with'.
(This must have made covering the Nuremberg Trials even more interesting for Ms. West.)

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:55 AM

Tempest in an overpriced organic tea pot

  I think I know what Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's actual, failed evil plan was for his recent, wacky editorial John Mackey: The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare - ( I'm surprised it didn't work, because it generally does.

If you are unaware, the CEO of Whole Foods has inspired boycotts and barrages of thoroughly entertaining counter-commentary by slamming not just Obama's health proposals, but the very idea than any living person should feel entitled to health care, food, or shelter in a classic conservative opinion piece that is even now, somewhere in this country, being used to deny orphans in some backwater child-warehouse a hot lunch.

He argues for some hilarious right-wing positions, such as that only charity should provide care for the uninsured (recently laid off executives and 40-years-of-service machinists, this means you!), and that what is covered by insurance should be based on what is profitable and popular. Popular likely is intended to mean profitable, as there is no mechanism for "popular choice" voting on your coverage when you are diabetic or have cancer.

I, personally, am convinced that Mr. Mackey thought no one would actually absorb the details of his position, that it would be impossible for anyone to take a stand against his positions, because he put in some information that is guaranteed to wipe the minds of all American readers. I'm going to quote him here, at risk of having you find yourself wandering aimlessly beside a freeway, unsure of how you arrived there. Here are his words:
Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.

Recent scientific and medical evidence shows that a diet consisting of foods that are plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat will help prevent and often reverse most degenerative diseases that kill us and are expensive to treat. We should be able to live largely disease-free lives until we are well into our 90s and even past 100 years of age.
We all know it: Americans ignore science-based diet and health advice of all kinds with amazing mental skill. You can literally watch people's eyes roll back into their heads as they experience a terrible, brief struggle to justify the chicken-fried steak with French fries in front of them, knowing that every major scientific institution has repeatedly announced that, moderation be damned, that crap will kill you. As a culture, Americans block this kind of data out so eagerly, so quickly, that they are temporarily disoriented and lose their place in conversation before realizing where they are, erasing all information recently absorbed, and dipping the next bite of fried batter into melted butter.

I believe this: Mr. Mackey was so convinced that our minds would be wiped clear by our panic to justify our alarming way of eating that the rest of his editorial would seem nearly sane. It failed, which shocks me: this may be a first in this country. A variety of incredibly powerful forces had to work in concert for this brain-wiping not to work. I'm currently crediting several things: the dissatisfaction of the lucky insured with their coverage (if this is the best we have to offer, we should reboot and try again); the masses of the newly uninsured who realize that they still have physical bodies, despite not having jobs; Obama's popularity; and the fact that Mackey didn't drop the mind-wipe-bomb until people were already feeling outraged.


The best part of the timing of this editorial: it is during the Obama Administration. If this we were still under the previous Administration, Mr. Mackey would be assigned to be the first responder to all flu pandemics, anthrax scares, and other health menaces. He would be the first to say that if the free market hadn't already developed a cure for pig/deer/cow/hamster flu, we aren't rich enough to deserve to survive it anyway. That would be awesome.


P.S. To Mackey: it's not "other people's money" we're going to spend on health care, it is MINE. I want my taxes spent on health care (among other things), like millions of other people. That's called popular choice, and you mention it often enough that you might know what it means.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:00 AM

Monday, August 10, 2009

Turns of phrase

  Issue 29 of McSweeney's (, in addition to being a beautifully produced book, as always, contains a brief and very compelling horror story, perhaps most compelling brief horror story I've read in years. It is called A Record of Our Debts, by Laura Hendrix. It is about a plague, madness, and hysteria. In just 10 pages, it manages to convey dread in a way that many books take hundreds of pages to achieve.

I recommend it zealously.

Issue 29 has many strange and interesting stories, on an unexpected (well, unexpected if this weren't an issue of McSweeney's) range of topics and in different styles. There is a strange story called History Lesson by Nelly Reifler, which has some language I enjoyed turning over in my mind. You'll think the line that begins
But he held, in his heart's black capsule...
is the one I'm going to quote for you, but my first choice is actually
As if life were endless, which in this story it is not.
Such a line to deliver early in a short story!

Issues 30 and 31 are still waiting for my attention...

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:03 PM

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Postal Fetishism

  cyanotype mail art by A.E. Graves
If you've known me for more than a few years, you've probably received mail from me. I am a letter writer. Historically, I have been a SERIOUS letter writer, averaging more than one piece of outgoing social correspondence daily for multi-year stretches. I had pen friends in four countries, and long lists of far-flung friends who could count on me for postcards and longhand letters while they were away at grad school, or medical school, or just plain away. I send postcards while on international trips. I own fountain pens in multiple colors. I have a Strategic Stationery Stockpile that could see me through a decade.

I love receiving mail even more than I enjoy sending it, which poses an obvious problem: most other people are NOT letter writers. Over time, the ratio of letters received to those sent has diminished. I have changed my tactics: the people who write regularly are showered (flooded, deluged) with fancy letters and cards; everyone else who I wish to stay in contact with gets a glossy photo postcard now and then (mostly then). I've also joined a group of artists that does nothing but exchange hand-printed photographs, which has netted me a few lovely pieces, but very few.

There are people who specialize in the art of mail. Actually, they specialize in the art of mail art. You may have seen the people confessing to PostSecret (, or looked at Ruud Janssen's International Union of Mail Arists blog, (, or any of the work of the Fluxus movement... I need to know more people like that.

To tide over my postal desires until I have such friends, I'm hoping for console myself with a book fix. While my current austerity plan does not permit me to purchase art books, I hope to put on my fake pope hat and sell myself an indulgence to buy Make Every Day a Good Mail Day, and perhaps even attend the book release party. The book is about making your mail artsier, and the previews show some adorable illustrations that make me realize I haven't been spending enough of my time having cool, custom rubber stamps made. Which I really ought to do.


As an aside, here is a list of other items forbidden to me under my austerity program beyond books about making even more things than I already make:

-bottled wine for my own consumption (OK to purchase for others when attending parties)
-fancy olives (like at Rainbow's olive bar [swoon])
-cosmetics, or anything else Sephora sells, other than lipstick (sunblock OK)
-Polaroid 600 film, even though the very last batches are up for sale, and this is my last chance...
-art supplies for anything other than photography
-clothes (this is just an excuse: I hate buying clothes)
-anything sold at Paper Source
-take-out or delivered dinners
-concert tickets (I would have made an exception for Frank Black this weekend, if I thought I could have actually acquired the tickets...)
-bubble bath, or any other bath-related indulgence
-more cameras (ha ha ha)
-film (but making my own is okay)
-anything material I've wanted for less than six months, and probably anything I've wanted for more than six months, too.

It has been pretty easy to stick to this plan, as I am spending all of my money on wet collodion supplies, and my all-cash budget won't allow for anything fancy. Apparently, the answer to the musical question 'do I want this or collodion?' is always collodion. Pretend to be surprised.

Did I mention that mail is a simple, inexpensive, thoughtful pleasure? It is.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:41 PM

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Oh, how I love Wikipedia

  If I had been born before photography was invented, and were permitted to pursue interests similar to the interests I have now, I probably would have been a scientific illustrator. So I love things like this: File:Haeckel Asteridea.jpg - The 40th plate from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (1904), depicting organisms classified as Asteridea. (

LOVE. Love love love.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Monday, August 03, 2009

Superior Soba

  bowl of Yasai Soba at Cha Ya Vegetarian Japanese RestaurantThere are summer nights when a big, steaming bowl of yasai soba is THE perfect thing for dinner. Most summer nights in San Francisco involve wading through a thick, cottony, wet fog, so soup has obvious merits, but a really GREAT soba soup especially hits the spot.

I don't think I've talked up Cha Ya Vegetarian Japanese Restaurant until now. It is located at 762 Valencia (near 19th Street), and it is a simple restaurant with white walls, bright lights, and clean wooden tables. It serves extremely fresh, nicely presented, simply flavored Japanese foods. What makes it stand out is that it is a Japanese VEGAN restaurant with more than 100 items on the menu, a short but pleasant sake menu, and a quiet, mellow feeling (once you have recovered from indecision paralysis over the vast array of options and menu combinations).

Their soba soup is SPECTACULAR. The soba is a wonderful, firm texture, cooked to perfection. The broth is subtle, but really delicious: earthy, flavorful, and satisfying. The yasai soba toppings - sliced green onion, seaweed, squash, lotus, mushroom, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot, tender little sprouts - come in just the right amounts relative to the amount of noodles and soup, and are just at the right level of tenderness...

The menu is so vast, it is hard to do it justice. In the interests of expanded knowledge, I have visited several delicious times.

Their sushi - the glories of vegan sushi! - is tasty, and the sushi with tempura in it is novel.

Their tempura is good, though the main reason I want to order it is because their togarashi (likely "shichimi togarashi"), a chili powder, sesame, and mixed spice condiment, is the tastiest I've had anywhere. All on its own, it is addictive. I would buy some if they sold it, and then abuse it terribly.

The stuffed eggplant is exotic-looking and comes in a thick sauce, though it is slightly complicated to eat without breaking it into smaller pieces.

The Cha Ya Nabe, which is a pretty array of veggies over glass noodles in a savory sauce, is fabulous.

The teas are all high quality, there is a good selection to choose from. I haven't worked my way through all of the sake options, but I have enjoyed those that I have tried so far. (Most recent visit: tasty Tamon Gold. Mmmmm. The gold flakes are slightly distracting, but it has a good flavor.)


Blandness is an occasional side effect of a philosophy of Japanese cooking: each ingredient should carry its own flavor, and not be overpowered by the others. There is an emphasis on simplicity of seasoning for this reason in most Japanese dishes, and those of us who love chili-fires won't find that sort of burning satisfaction in this cuisine. The Japanese also enjoy sweetness with their dishes in places I expect savoriness, especially in cooked sauces. Certain on-line reviews fault the restaurant for blandness, and admittedly the only dish I haven't liked is the bland tofu custard with veggies stuck into it, but I found that to be an exception to the otherwise very delicious menu.

Cha Ya serves fresh, delicately flavored, delicious, food from an impressively long menu. I recommend it for those who already like Japanese food, and who want to branch out from the boring, short list of options most places provide.


I have added Cha Ya to my list of favorite San Francisco restaurants, and have made a few other, minor updates to the list.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:39 PM

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