Sunday, September 30, 2007

Good Calories, Bad Calories

I'm so excited! My preordered copy of this book by Gary Taubes arrived in our mailbox Friday. I've read a few pages so far, and I'm not disappointed! The key fact about the title and picture: the "bad calories" are in the toast, not the butter. Hooray! A mainstream book that exposes the "great low-fat diet hoax," as Barbara Ehrenreich has said.

In that brief bit, I (1) saw much that I know, but put together all in one place for the first time, (2) saw something presented in a way I'd never thought of before, but that is now so obvious and perspective changing, and (3) learned a fact I'd never known. I can't wait for more!

Now to curl up on the couch with a nice bowl of Palak Paneer (it came with a free CD!) and read a little bit more.

Good Calories, Bad Calories at was ranked at #125 when I checked in early last week. On Saturday, it was ranked #44. Today, it's #43. Still only 5 reviews, though.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Robot Cake

Saturday morning. Don went out to run errands: get the oil changed and tires rotated in preparation for our big trip to Missouri coming up in October, drop off and pick up and the library, pick up grocery essentials that we've run out of, mainly eggs.

Ulysses happened to notice the KitchenAid mixer in the corner of the kitchen counter. "Robot. Oh, robot! Cake, Mama, cake. Robot. Cake!"

Up until a few weeks ago, Ulysses interpreted everything possible in his environment as a train. Zippers on jackets were train tracks, blocks in a row could be pushed like a train, and so on. Abruptly, his obsession shifted to robots. I'm not sure what the trigger was, or if there was a trigger. But overnight, the free-standing dishwasher became a robot while it was in operation, our old webcam that stands on three legs became a robot, and now the red KitchenAid that I love so much had become a robot, too. He wanted to see this robot in action.

Cake -- why not?

"Would you like to make a cake?" I offered.

"Yeah!" he said, hopeful and excited. As if he hadn't actually expected a yes answer.

"OK," I said, measuring what my next words should be. How to do everything that had to be done before cake-making could begin, without tripping the panic switch? What could U
comprehend? He needed to trust that we were really going to make this cake, even though the first thing I had to do involved leaving the kitchen. "He understands a lot more than you think he does," my mother-in-law had told me during her visit in June. "A lot more." I decided to aim high.

"We'll look in a book. We'll find the cake we want to make. We'll read and learn what to do. Then we'll make the cake."

U looked startled. "Book?" he said, incredulous. A non-sequiter.

"Yes. We'll find a cake we want in the book, and then we'll make it. Any cake you want."

He scrutinized my expression. "A ... cake book?" he asked.

"Exactly," I said.

He looked doubtful, but climbed down off the stool he'd been using to admire the KitchenAid closer up. His face seemed to say, "This I've gotta see."

Now came the trickiest sell: doing seemingly un-cake-related things without inciting a riot. "I'm going to the bathroom and I'm going to get dressed. Then I'll clean up the kitchen. Then we'll look in the book and then we'll make the cake." He was carried along by my confidence -- at least, that was my plan -- and didn't complain. I think he might have been waiting to see what random object I was next going to connect to cake. "Clean up!" he echoed, happily.

After a few minutes, I was ready to search. I pulled my Cook's Country 2005 and 2006 compilations off the shelf -- lovely, retro-plaid cover with red cloth bindings -- and hunted fast, while the spell held. I couldn't believe my luck in finding this after a few moments: Quick and easy cupcakes from scratch especially for the parents of toddlers, from the April/May 2005 issue. Could anything be more perfect?

I studied the recipe hastily, then showed it to Ulysses. It was set with a lovely, two-page, full-color spread. "Would you like to make this?" I said. "Yeah," he answered, nodding.

"OK, let's go." I tried to retrieve the book and get us moving back towards the kitchen. "Let's go make cupcakes. C'mon. Let's get going."

He sat with the book, not answering me. "Apple upcake!" he said after a few seconds, pointing at the photo of a cupcake done up like an apple. "Flower! Ice cream! Hey, bird! Bird upcake" I sat back down and looked at the pictures of cupcakes with him. "Hockey ball!" he said.

Hockey ball? That one was frosted white and iced with baseball-like stitches. "That's a baseball," I said.

"Hockey ball upcake," he corrected me. Whatever.

He studied the recipe pages for a few minutes, with running commentary on all the pictures. I responded to all the picture IDs, while studying the recipe over his shoulder. After a few minutes, I supposed this was our new activity, and I let go the plan to actually make the cake. Suddenly he jumped up and ran towards the kitchen. "Come on, Mama! Cake! Let's go! Come!"

Aha! Just as I wanted to study the recipe, so did he. He had taken to heart what I'd said earlier: read, learn, do.

I headed for the refrigerator to get out four eggs. They needed to be room temperature, so I filled a steel bowl with hot tap water to get them warmed up. I opened the refrigerator door, and ...

Donald was out grocery shopping. We were out of eggs.

How was I going to make cake now?

Then I remembered seeing in the 2006 compilation a recipe that dated from the rationing of World War I. It was a cake that used no eggs, no butter. It had come to be called "Wacky Cake" because of the assembly method: Pour the dry ingredients directly into the greased cake pan. Make three wells in the flour mixtures. Pour vinegar into one, oil into the second, and vanilla into the third. Pour a cup of water over top, give a quick, partial stir, and shove the mess into the oven. It's supposed to mix as it bakes.

I found the recipe and showed the picture of a confetioners-sugar-dusted chocolate cake square to Ulysses, holding my breath as I said, "Would you like to make this cake?"

He looked at the picture. "Yeah," he said, happily.

Whew. Now, about the assembly part. Ulysses was standing on the stool by the KitchenAid, looking lovingly at that robot. There was no way I was going to leave the robot out of the process. That was the whole point! I got out ingredients and measuring cups and measuring them out one by one, calling out what I was doing. Ulysses echoed everything, and took each cup and spoon full of powder and oil and liquid in his hands carefully, emptying each ingredient into the bowl. I fitted the KitchenAid with the whisk at his request -- I would've used the beater. We ran that robot just as long as he wanted, and then poured the batter into the wells of a cupcake pan. I told him to stay carefully away as I opened the oven and put in the pan. Then I called him over to flip the light switch. That's our deal with the stove and oven -- it's the one control on it that he's allowed to touch.

I was so proud of how he handled the ingredients, how he listened to all my instructions, how patiently he stood back while I managed the oven. He also listened when I told him the pan coming out was hot.

By the time Don got home and the groceries were put away, the cupcakes were ready to eat. Ulysses was thrilled and so was I, to have something that we'd really baked together. They were pretty good, too, for being made with vegetable oil and water. I joked to Don that these war-ration cupcakes could be marketed as a premium product today -- they're vegan, after all!

But best of all, it was robot cake.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Parent talk

I never get a sense of solidarity when I venture to talk with other parents about parent stuff or kid stuff. I get a sense of separateness. Oddballness. Alienation, even.

Today, in the waning minutes of my workday, a co-worker brought up that this Saturday would be her baby's first birthday. She has three children, the most of anyone in the digital department. Then she made some remark I didn't quite hear about formula. Then I heard her say, "Formula is expensive!" and laugh.

"Formula?" I asked.

"It's expensive!" she said.

"You're not nursing?" I said. I suppose I shouldn't have said that. But I did.

"No," she replied. "I tried to." Then she added, "Not very hard!" and laughed again. Or did she say, "I tried hard" and laugh?

I was completely at a loss. What on earth could I say to that? How do parents talk to one another? It's as if other parents live in a completely different world of parenting than I do. I tried another tack. "So now he's eating food?"

"Oh, yes, we give him Gerber's. Sometimes he wants our food," she said, and laughed again. "But he eats Gerber's, yes."

Again I was confused. If you're looking forward to ending the necessary expense of formula, why take up the new, unecessary expense of baby food?

In my estimation, jarred baby food is one of the biggest rackets I've ever seen. It's little more than junk food for babies. It's got hardly any protein and even less fat. You can't live off it. It's just pureed vegetables with occasional hints of superprocessed meat byproducts. Even the organic stuff uses mechanically separated chicken for its meat products -- one of the foulest innovations of the industrial food age. A jar costs more than half a dollar, even though all it contains is four tablespoons of watery, stewed goo. A few penny's worth -- maybe -- of cooked fruit or veg. And beyond the money, there's so much packaging. All that glass, all that shipping, all that processing, for such a tiny amount of food. A brazen misuse of the earth's resources. It's just a really bad deal from every possible angle.

When I pass by the baby food section of the supermarket, I marvel that the industry manages to find enough idiots to buy enough of its stuff to keep the product lines going. Cooking and freezing little ice cubes of mashed veggies for Ulysses had been so easy and cheap. I'd only done it two or three times, because it was so easy to make so much, relative to the portion size.

I did enjoy shopping for baby food a few times, though. I'm not a fanatic. It was a lot of fun to shop in a completely new food section of the supermarket, to check out a new range of items. It's like getting takeout food once or twice a month, for the fun of it. The food's not as healthful, economical or low-carbon-footprint as what you can make at home -- but there are other reasons to choose one meal or another.

"I think we only ever bought about five jars of baby food," I said. "Mostly for the novelty." I turned to another co-worker, an earthy-seeming kinda guy whose third child is due to arrive in about a month. "How about you, did you buy baby food?"

"Sure!" he said. "We still have baby food. We buy it."

"But it's so expensive to buy, and it's so easy and cheap to make," I said.

"Yes," he said. And he laughed. "That's true!" He shrugged.

I turned back to my computer. I was silent for a moment. "Well, I got nothin'," I said. The two parents laughed, and so did the co-worker who sits next to me. He's expecting his first child in April. "The only thing I would know to say now," I added after another pause, "is: 'But you're playing right into the hands of The Man!'"

More laughter, to my relief. "Oh, I'm not going down that slippery slope!" said the father.

"There's no "slippery," I said. "I jumped directly to the bottom of the slope."

I finished up my work for the day, feeling tongue-tied and separate in a room full of parents.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The perfect cone

After the show, Ulysses and I walked on State Street. The weather was beautiful, and there was still plenty of time on the meter. We ducked into a few boutiques, where I started my new hunt for a handbag.

I love the one I've been using for the past five years or so, but it's just plain wearing out. It looks like a tapestry, in rich, dusky reds, greens and ochres. It has a leather arm strap with a clever zipper all down its center. The strap actually comes apart into two straps, so you can wear the handbag as a backpack. And it has a zipper, which I've come to regard as a wonderful feature for anyone who stuffs their handbag with digital equipment like cameras and phones and important stuff like a wallet and eyeglasses. It has an inner zippered pouch, which is great for someone who gets a small, important object into their hands, like a flash drive or a little slip of paper with a phone number on it or a twenty-dollar bill, and needs to put it someplace really secure and unforgettable while thinking about twenty other things at the same time.

Worse even than fraying all over, the beloved bag's zipper is starting to give out. Do I put a brand new zipper on a beat-up old bag that was $2 at a yard sale in 2001? Or what?

I managed to get U in and out of some boutiques, and found a few things that were close, but I didn't find the right combo of durability, security in closure, and aesthetic je ne sais quois. Meantime, Ulysses was learning a lot about the varieties of objects and environments that will evoke the phrase, "No touch!"

We came upon the Ben and Jerry's ice cream store. I lifted him in the air to face the cartoon ice cream cone painted on the door. "Would you like some ice cream?" I asked.

"Ice cream?" he said, surprised. He regarded the door, and the picture on it. I let him down and opened the door. He had never been in an ice-cream parlor before. He hadn't been near the ice-cream counter at the Memorial Union since he was an infant. This was a new system to him.

I hoisted him up onto my hip so he could see the ice creams in the big cartons on display behind the glass, maneuvering among the knots of other customers. "Look, Ulysses, ice cream!"

"Ice cream?" he repeated, doubtfully.

"Yes!" I replied. "You say which ice cream you want, and that nice man or that nice lady will give you an ice cream cone." He looked interested. I continued, pointing out his favorite flavors. "Look, there's chocolate ... there's coffee ... vanilla ... wow, that one has a lot of chocolate." Then, to the people who had entered just behind us: "You go ahead, we're still deciding."

Behind the glass was a display of sample cones available. Waffle, sugar, and so on. Several sugar cones had been dipped in chocolate. Some were covered with candy sprinkles of various types. Ulysses saw one that had little pastel circles of candy, a little smaller than the confetti from an office hole puncher. He tried to reach over the glass for it.

"No, no, " I said, drawing him back, "They give you the cone. You tell them what ice cream you want in it. Anything you want."

Ulysses whimpered and reached toward the cone. "Do you want chocolate?" I asked.

"No. No cho-kit."


"No coffee."



"Strawberry? Raspberry? Look, these have fruit right in them."

"No!" he said, now sounding a little stressed. "No ..." he pronounced it slowly, carefully: "Aw-beh-eee."

And then we were up. The woman came over to wait on us, but I was still pointing and suggesting. Meantime, Ulysses was straining over the glass for the chocolate-dipped cone again, and starting to become frustrated. "Well, let's start with one of these cones," I said, "And we'll figure out the ice cream next."

With a friendly look, the woman turned from us and stepped away.

Ulysses began to panic. The cone was right there in front of him. Obviously this was a store, obviously the thing was for sale, obviously he was being invited to choose a treat. So what were these conflicting things going on? If he wasn't allowed to reach over and get it himself, then why didn't the store person give it to him? Why would she just walk off in the middle of the transaction?

After a few long seconds, she reappeared, having fetched a perfect, confetti-chocolate-dipped cone from a freezer. Ulysses looked relieved. The dissonance was resolved.

Now to the ice cream. Ulysses had moved from "No," to no response at my suggestions. Now the woman behind the counter joined in. "How about strawberry? That's a kid's flavor." She moved her scoop towards the carton, signaling the idea of "let's try this and see if it works."

In my my mind, I felt I could see the future: the uninvited ice cream landing on the perfect cone, staining it with color and moisture, wrecking its purity forever. The future through the eyes of Ulysses. Quickly, I said, "How much is just the cone?"

She looked surprised. "The cone? Oh, ah ... Seventy-five cents. Eighty with tax." I handed her a dollar and collected my change. Ulysses, thrilled, took the cone into his hands. I think he even said, "Thank you." Anyway, one of us did.

Did she make that price up on the spot? Tax and all? Maybe. I didn't mind. She had to say something. I was just glad that she said something that worked. "We might see you again in a few minutes," I said, "After we leave and he realizes that we need to come back here to get the ice cream!"

"Sure," she said, "No problem."

We made our way slowly towards the block where the car was parked. I was balancing the time left on the meter with the time it would take us to get back to the shop once Ulysses realized he had left the ice cream zone with an empty cone. Then I saw how content he was. He held his cone before him, watching it with a smile. I carried him three blocks. Three contented blocks.

"Aren't you going to eat that?" I asked. He looked at me as though I might be a little mad. Perhaps he didn't realize it was edible? No -- it was rich with the smells of chocolate and candy.

"Buttons!" I heard him say, softly, from the back seat, as we drove towards the car wash. We got the Platinum Special: floor mats taken out and cleaned, the interior scrubbed down. We waited inside the car wash building. Ulysses alternated between watching cars being washed through the windows and appreciating the cone in his hand. When the van was ready, he handed me the cone so he could clamber up into his seat. Then he turned and held out his hand for the cone.

We drove towards home. I looked forward to telling Donald the adorable story of how Ulysses just wanted a cone, and not ice cream. Suddenly, I was there, in the future, at home. While I was telling the story, in this future world, Ulysses, also in the future, was headed for the refrigerator. He was reaching up and tugging at the freezer door. And he was handing his cone to me. To be filled with ice cream. In a flash, I understood everything.

There was no ice cream in that freezer.

I made a detour to the local supermarket and stood in line for some Breyer's All-Natural Vanilla. Ulysses stood beside me, holding his cone. He didn't look at what I was buying.

I was taken aback when the clerk said, "$5.99." That sounded like a lot, even for a premium brand. I emptied the change from my pocket and paid -- and realized that I had been ready to pay over $3 for a single serving of premium ice cream at Ben & Jerry's an hour earlier. In that light, six bucks for a half-gallon looked plenty reasonable.

We pulled up to the house. I let Ulysses out. He ran up the steps, ignoring my efforts to interest him in playing in the yard first. I opened the door. He made his way past me, strode to the refrigerator, and reached up as high as he could, tugging at the freezer door.

I opened it and lifted him. He saw the absence of ice cream and looked stricken. I pulled the ice cream out of my tote bag and held it in front of him. He smiled. "Ice cream!" he said, and held up the cone. Patiently, he waited as I found the scoop, undid the plastic band around the lid, and crowned the perfect confetti-chocolate-dipped cone with a perfect scoop of vanilla.

He came back a few minutes later for a refill. The cone was intact.

He got several refills through the afternoon and evening, some hours apart. That was good; it gave the cone a chance to firm up in the freezer. He never bothered with any supper, either.

The perfect cone is still in the freezer. Intact.

Live show

Today Ulysses and I went to see Circus Boy perform as part of the free Kids in the Rotunda Series at the Overture Center downtown.

We've gone to these events before. Or, I should say, we've attempted to go. Or, even more precisely, we've been briefly present in the auditorium while some of these events were going on. Let me tell you, for a 90-second payoff, that's a lot of work. Not the least of which is just finding a parking spot and hauling a 30-pound bundle of joy several city blocks in at least one direction. (Use a stroller? Ulysses don't sit in no stinkin' strollers!)

So I was amazed when, a few minutes after arriving at this show of circus stunts -- juggling and such -- Ulysses got me to my feet and pushed me (he steers with little gentle, but insistent shoves to the backs of the knees) around the back of the crowd and down the steep slope of the bench seating area -- it's sort of terraced right into the topology of the room, and not built into individual seats, thank goodness -- to the very front row, by the stage apron.

A dilemma presented itself: signs described the empty bench area as reserved for those needing sign language interpretation, so it would be wrong to try to sit there. On the other hand, if we sat right where we were, at the base of the steps in the aisle, someone would come over soon and tell us we had to move because of fire regulations. (Like at the Indian classical dance concert for kids in 2006.) And if I tried to move us back to watch from the back of the house, there'd be heartbreak and screaming and me carrying a thrashing bundle four blocks to the van.

I saw -- or convinced myself that I saw -- a thinning of the throng front row center. Guerrilla-like, I threw myself belly down and scrambled to it. U followed. I squinched as low as possible on the floor in front of the stage, as close as possible to the little feet on the bench behind me, hoping to not attract the attention of the fire rules enforcers. Ulysses practically danced with glee -- and not at a height that would disturb the people behind, so that was good.

His eyes took on that shine of excitement -- the all-consuming world-of-wonder look of happiness, awe, thrill, that only a child's face can register.

He laughed at all the jokes, even the ones he couldn't possibly get. ("This trick is the reason that for seven years ... I have never ... had a single ... girlfriend.")

Circus Boy stuffed his mouth full of ping pong balls in preparation to spit them high in the air and catch them back in his mouth. Ulysses laughed. Before starting the mouth juggling, Circus Boy paused to waggle his tongue, incongruous between those enormous ping-pong-ball-stuffed
cheeks. Ulysses practically fainted with happiness at the sight. He rode a tiny, tiny bicycle -- the world's smallest, he called it -- in circles around the stage (this was the clue from which Don and I figured out later that this was the same guy we'd seen at Circus World Museum years ago, I think in 1999).

Circus Boy climbed a wide, metal runged ladder and balanced atop it, holding it clapped between his knees, his legs improbably threaded through the rungs. He needed to keep rocking the ladder from foot to foot on the ground to keep the balance, apparently. He ladder-walked around the stage, gently making fun with the audience volunteer while juggling a trio of long-necked, silver clubs. Ulysses loved this so much that I had to throw my arms around him and hold on tight to keep him from running up onstage. I looked up at Circus Boy's face. He knew he was balancing on a ladder, but had he ever had to do that while an enthusiastic toddler tried to climb on? I wondered. I tightened my grip a little.

After the show, we stood in line for an autographed DVD of Circus Boy's greatest feats. Ulysses didn't understand the line -- why we should be standing stock still instead of going somewhere and doing something. Fortunately, the merchandise table's skirting was coming undone, so Ulysses threw himself into the task of repairing it. Our turn came, and I pulled him away from his work and handed him a five-dollar bill. While Ulysses looked at the money, seemingly wondering why he was holding it, Circus Boy took it out of his hand and replaced it with the DVD. That Ulysses understood. "DD!" (DVD) he exclaimed, happily.

The disc came with our choice of a poster or a set of juggling balls, with instructions. I chose the balls, of course. Something to learn from and do versus something to look at, or figure out where to store? Easy. Ulysses handed me the DVD so he could receive the clear, plastic three-pack of colorful, sand-filled juggling balls from Circus Boy (I learned later, from the DVD, that his actual name is Bobby Hunt). He regarded them seriously.

"He loved the show," I said. "Thank you," said Circus Boy to me, and to U: "What's your name?"

"Ulysses," I answered.

"What a great name!" he said, "How old are you?"

U looked briefly up at Circus Boy, then returned his attention to the balls. "He's three," I supplied.

Circus Boy smiled at Ulysses, but got nothing back. "He couldn't care less," he said, with a disappointed little laugh.

It was reasonable enough, I knew, but it was completely wrong. Not only had Ulysses been rapt throughout the show, but it was the first live show ever that Ulysses hadn't walked out on. It was a milestone. Then U was struck hard when he understood that he'd purchased a DVD of the live show -- I saw it register on his face when he saw the picture on the case cover, and it bore out after we got home and he played the disc with his new DVD-operating skills. To top it off, he'd been presented with a pack of not one, but three beautiful balls. "Balls," he whispered. "Boi--ng, boi--ng..." he trailed off.

And now Circus Boy thought I was only being polite when I said this boy loved the show.

"He's overwhelmed," I said. "He loved the show."


"He loved the show," I said again, with emphasis. "He's going to watch this DVD eight thousand times. Tonight. And now he can learn to juggle," I said, indicating the balls.

Circus Boy looked in a new light at the way U was studying the balls. "He's three? He can learn to juggle. It's a lot of fun."

"He can learn to juggle, and then I can learn to juggle," I said. "Then we'll take our act on the road!"

"You can be my competition," he said.

I smiled.

Friday, September 21, 2007

What I wish I'd said to that vegetarian

One co-worker was saying to another, "I never had duck. I hear it's supposed to be really fantastic. I do regret that. I regret not having had veal, or rabbit. Duck, especially."

I swiveled in my chair and asked, playfully, "Why don't you try it, and then you won't have the regret?" But I realized as I was speaking, why not. He must be a vegetarian.

"Because they're made of dead animals," he said. He and the co-worker he was chatting with -- also a vegetarian (and should've been another clue for me) -- laughed.

"Oh, got it," I said.

The second guy picked the thread back up: "I never had a brat. I used to really regret that. But you know, now when I see one, I just think it's really disgusting!" They both laughed.

A "brat," short for bratwurst and prounced to rhyme with "lot" and not "hat," is the summer cookout staple of Wisconsin. When people cook out, a brat is as likely to be found as beer or pop (that's the local term for soda). As likely, no less.

A brat is fatter around, much darker in color, and a little longer than a hot dog. In texture, it's more rustic than a hot dog, also; the meat is not ground into a smooth pate, but has more of a coarse, meaty quality. When grilled, broiled or fried up in a skillet, its skin becomes crispy, giving way under the teeth with a satisfying pop. Outside of Wisconsin, bratwurst I've seen in supermarkets tends to be pre-cooked and ivory white; here it's meat-red in the store and dark brown after cooking.

"I had a brat for lunch, thanks," I said.

"Oops! Sorry!" said the guy dissing brats. We all laughed. "But it's still disgusting," he said.

"Well, I don't get the kind with all kinds of junk in them," I tried to explain. "They're all natural."

The first guy said, "Right, all-natural floor sweepings!" Both thought this was funny.

"Nooo! We get all our sausage from Usinger's. They use old-world recipes and traditional ingredients. It's just ground meat, with spices."

Silence for a moment. Finally the first guy spoke. "But it's still dead animals. With spices." He shrugged and shook his head as he said it. Both laughed. It was the definitive word. I saw his point of view: If dead animals are not proper food to begin with, the preparation is irrelevant.

"Yes, in natural intestinal casing." So we could all laugh together. I played along.

Now for what I wish I had said.

That is, had I made this connection at the time, instead of hours later.

The day before, I happened to look at something the "disgusting brat" guy had on his desk around lunchtime. It was an individually wrapped snack, a "Fiber One Chewy Bar." The Oats and Chocolate variety. I can't remember what compelled me to inspect somebody's lunch, what made me curious about this particular bar, but I asked him if I could pick it up and look at it. "Oh, sure," he said. "These are really pretty good."

The way it was wrapped, I had to fold up part of the wrapper to reveal the ingredients. They were horrifying! I also found them online at the General Mills web site for this post.

Fiber One Chewy Bars, Oat and Chocolate Ingredients: Chicory root extract, chocolate chips with confectioners shellac (chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose, milk fat, soy lecithin) ethanol, shellac, hydrogenated coconut oil), rolled oats, crisp rice (rice flour, sugar, malt, salt), barley flakes, high maltose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, canola oil, honey, glycerin, maltodextrin, palm kernel oil, tricalcium phosphate, soy lecithin, salt, nonfat milk, peanut oil, cocoa processed with alkali, natural flour, baking soda, color added, almond flour, peanut flour, sunflower meal, wheat flour, mied tocopherols added to retain freshness. The nutritional information panel listed 4g fat, 29g carbohydrate (9g from fiber and 10 from sugar) and 2g of protein.

Is this what people think is healthy food? A lot of the stuff in here is horrible, and just the fact of hyperprocessing all these ingredients, and then hyperprocessing those components together with each other, ensures that the end product will be completely devoid of any wholesomeness or vitality, regardless of whatever the individual parts were. But one thing jumped out at me.

"Shellac?" I said. "Hey, vegetarians can't eat these bars. They've got shellac."

"What?" he said. "What is shellac, anyway?"

"It's made from insect wings."

Well, not quite. The Wikipedia entry, which he called up, told us this: "Once it was commonly believed that shellac was a resin obtained from the wings of an insect (order Hemiptera) found in India. In actuality, shellac is obtained from the secretion of the female insect, harvested from the bark of the trees where she deposits it to provide a sticky hold on the trunk."

The secretion of an insect -- that part doesn't bother me in itself. Honey answers to the same description.

I did notice one other thing. In the course of the conversation, the guy picked up the bar to read the ingredients. He started reading from the nutritional panel first. It was a few seconds before he realized that it wasn't the ingredient list. Not like he was dense -- but like he wasn't familiar with the distinctive layouts that make those things instant visual giveaways. That is, like somebody who isn't in the habit of reading those labels. Then he fumbled a bit before he could find the ingredient list. Again, not like he was dense -- like he wasn't familiar with the customary ways that these labels are commonly tucked here and there on packaging.

A corollary to that thing. Once he had looked at the ingredient list, what he saw didn't seem to bother him.

I was amazed and appalled. Amazed that anybody would eat such a piece of junk. Appalled that this such a product even exists. It was disgusting. I didn't say so, because I thought it would be impolite. Maybe I should quit thinking that.

I'm not a dietary purist, but I would not eat that disgusting thing if you paid me. OK, fifty bucks. I'd eat one of those bars if you gave me fifty bucks to do it. Maybe a hundred fifty.

So ... what I wish I had said the next day. After the general agreement over the unsuitability for dead animals as food.

"The entire animal kingdom agrees that dead animals are, in fact, food. At least I know better than to eat shellac."


Friday, September 14, 2007

Upside Down!

This morning U and I watched an educational DVD called "Noodlebug." The title song: "Noodlebug, noodlebug, helps you give your brain a hug..." Which sounds to me like the way a headache feels, actually.

The last time we watched this was at least six months ago, maybe even last fall. It didn't engage U and he didn't go in for endless repeat viewings of it. This time, though, was different. He sang along (with his trademark accurate pitch and timing) and danced along to just about everything. When a group of kids slid down a slide, one by one, in fast motion, he cheered. When the video reversed so that the children seemed to be sliding up backwards, he laughed and shouted. That gag got funnier with each viewing.

In the first number, a row of live-action children intermixed with cartoon children, set against a cartoon background, sing that modern classic, "The Wheels of the Bus." U sang along, but his lyrics were "Upside down! Upside down!" It went for the verse about the wheels, and also for the people bouncing. By the second or third viewing, he'd noticed and adapted to the real lyrics, but I thought his version was far more entertainng.

Also adorable: when we were sifting through the DVDs to pick something, I read off "Pee-Wee," when I got to Pee-Wee's Playhouse. "Pee-pee?" he asked.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sing, dance, music

For as long as he's been talking about it -- since last winter, maybe -- Ulysses has used the word "dancing" to mean all kinds of music. If someone is playing an instrument, or singing, or dancing, he gets happy and points and says, "Hey! Dancing! Dancing!" Usually then he imitates whatever the person or puppet or cartoon character is doing.

If he's upset, and I try to soothe him with singing, he gets angry and says, "No! No dancing!"

This morning, he said to me, for the first time, "Sing!" Tonight he was watching Finding Nemo (his new favorite show since last weekend -- 11 million viewings and counting) when I came home from work. He sang along to a number where the characters were singing in low voices like some sort of Tiki gods, and turned to me: "Sing!" He pulled my jaw down so that my mouth opened. "Sing!" he commanded until I began to sing along to the song I had never heard before (I haven't watched the whole movie yet, myself) as best I could. That pleased him. "Singing!" he said, and smiled.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Glenmorangie Single Highland Rare Malt Scotch Whisky

Handrafted by the Sixteen Men of Tain. Bottled in Scotland. Aged 18 years.

So says the cardboard canister where Ulysses' little toy green plastic soldiers live. Donald calls them "the drunken Highlanders."

Danny, our ferret, was having evening runaround time, where we let down the baby gates that keep him in the ferret-safe zone. Rummaging through U's toyland, he came upon the Highlanders' tube. I'd set it on the floor by U's train table, but I couldn't find the lid. Danny propped his front paws on the rim, and finding the mouth of an upended tunnel, he followed the primal ferret urge to dive in.

Crash! went the tube as it fell on its side with the weight of Danny's long and bendy body. Soldiers and jeeps and helicopters poured out. U ran to see what had happened and found Danny nosing among the tiny troops.

"No, no, Gee! No!" Danny jumped, startled. U righted the tube and replaced the soldiers.
He picked it up and brought it to the dining table, where I was sitting. Carefully balancing it on the tabletop, he pushed it a safe distance from the edge.

"There!" he said, and stood still for a moment, regrouping.

Then Ulysses spun to face Danny, who was still at the scene of the crime. He took a few steps towards the little animal, lifting a finger meaningfully.

"No touch, Gee! No! No touch!" With each firm "no" Ulysses shook his head and wagged his finger back and forth sideways, drawing an arc of disapproval through the air. Danny stared up at the boy, frozen.

Then the lecture was over. U dropped his hand to his side, staightened, and turned towards me, brightly, as if for approval. Or to say, "Well! I certainly told him!"

Danny bolted from the room.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Mickey Cow

When I came home from work, Ulysses was playing with his Mickey Mouse wind-up toy, a mechanical contraption (no electronics, no batteries) with a belt that rolls the Mickey cast across a screen while the Mickey Mouse Club theme plays.

"Puppy!" he said as Goofy rolled by. "Arf! Arf!" Pluto got a similar reaction.

Donald Duck caused much excitement; U watched him in The Three Caballeros non-stop for two days over the weekend. "Duck! Hey, duck!"

Then Mickey came onscreen. Ulysses said, "Cow! Cow!"

"That's a mouse," I said. "Eek, eek! That's Mickey Mouse."

"Mooo!" lowed Ulysses. Just then Minnie Mouse popped into view. "Cow, cow!" he said. "Mooo!"

Ulysses put the toy aside and pulled me to the TV, in front of which dozens of DVDs in plain paper sleeves were strewn on the coffee table. (Don't try to straighten them up, or you'll get in trouble: "NO! No touch!")

"Which one would you like to watch?" I asked. He handed me one. "This one is Thomas the Train." I said.

"Thomas. Choo-choo! No," he said. We put that one aside.

One by one, he handed me discs and I ID'd them: Speed Racer, Wallace and Gromit, Gumby, Betty Boop, Felix the Cat, Three Caballeros (I pointed out that this was the duck movie). He repeated the names and shook his head, saying, "No," for each. Then he handed me a disc of Disney cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s, a collection named, "Starring Mickey."

"This is Mickey Mouse!" I said. Blank stare. "Mickey! It's the mouse! From your toy!" Blank stare. I hot-footed it to the dining table and brought back the toy. I held it alongside the disc. "Look, it's this guy. See? It's the same. This disc has this mouse. This mouse is on this disc. It's him. See?" Again and again I pointed back and forth between the disc and the wind-up toy.

"Him ... him," he said, concentrating on deciphering my message. Then he lit up. "Aha!" he said, and smiled. "Not bad!"

We loaded up the disc together. Mickey's face appeared in the classic Disney starburst at the opening of the first short film.

"Look!" crowed Ulysses. "Cow!"

Monday, September 3, 2007


Today Ulysses used this word for the first time: "Nothing." Here's how he used it.

I came upon him fiddling with the lock on a closet door, intense concentration on his face.

Me: What are you doing?

He (jerking up to meet my gaze): Nothing.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Zoo Trip

Sunday before Labor Day. U and Don and I went to the zoo. Click for pictures. I took along our new cheap ($30 in a blister pack at Shopko) digital camera. The idea is to be able to snap some photos without the committment of carrying around the heavier good camera (a Fuji FinePix).

2007_0902 Zoo Trip

Ulysses rode the new carousel, his first time on one. He loved it. I stood by him, one hand on the aluminum rod and one protectively behind him, resting on the back of the warthog. Big tusks.

As we stood in line minutes before, I had given Ulysses a dollar to give to the attendant. He gave it back to me. I pressed it into his hand as she approached, and she took it before he had a chance to return it to me again. He hadn't seen that use for money before: a service. A privilege. The right to do something. He knew of money as the thing you give the cashier when you want to make an object yours to take home from the store.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

New camera

I bought a new little camera today. Inspired in part by David Pogue's mention in his latest Circuits column in the New York Times of how nice it is that even cheap digital cameras take decent pictures nowadays. So I bought the cheapest camera I could find with the least amount of trouble.

The point is to have something that'll go in a pocket and can be forgotten about until I have the notion to use it. Something I won't regret lugging along. has lots of cameras that are around $30. Shopko had a few that were only $15. So I drove over to check those out. They were too extreme -- the one by Philips had a max resolution of something like 288 x 350 pixels! And no flash. I found a $30 deal by Cobra. Don took a few pix tonight. Tomorrow we'll take it for a test drive in the daylight.

Not bad!

Being pushed in the main basket of the shopping cart on the way to the checkout, past the front-of-store impulse-buy islands, Ulysses noticed a tree of lollipops, the superball-shaped kind that come in lots and lots of flavors and colors with a little tag on each one that tells you what kind it is. He caught hold of a pop sphere as we rolled by, and so I stopped -- partly just to keep the display from slinging through the air.

U grabbed tighter onto the pop and frowned, with a low, quick whimper. Ready to fight for the right.

"Do you want a lollipop?" I asked. "Which one do you want?"

His expression melted into one of surprise. He looked more directly at the pop in his fingers and his grip loosened. It was a muddy, pinkish color, and I could read the label: marshmallow. It wasn't a pop he'd choose -- just the one he'd managed to grab.

His expression changed again as he surveyed the lollipop tree more critically. I read the labels as he went: tutti-frutti, pina colada, banana cream. Finally he put his fingers around the brightest pink pop on the tree. I looked at the label: pink lemonade, a flavor I expected he'd like. I helped him pluck it from the white, cylindrical trunk.

When we got to the cashier's lane, he placed it on the counter directly in front of the young woman there and looked up at her. But I had something to return, and she motioned me towards the customer service counter. I tried to push my cart on through the lane, but Ulysses stood fast, still looking up at the cashier. She was making no move towards picking up the pop, the only thing on her counter. After all, my cart still held the rest of my merchandise.

Ulysses held up one arm and jabbed downwards at the pop with his index finger, a swift, single gesture, his gaze steady all the while. That caught the cashier's eye. They regarded one another for a moment.

"We'll go ahead and buy the lollipop here," I told her, and handed Ulysses some coins.

At last! The transaction was complete.

Now it was just to finger the cellophane in anticipation of the moment I'd be done at the service counter. Minutes later, at last, we were outside. Outside the store! The place where packages can be opened! I helped him unwrap the pop. He held the stick in his fist, staring. I don't think he's ever had such a big piece of candy. He looked up at me, questioning.

I leaned over and tasted the pop. "Mmm!" I said. It was a nice, citrus-y, fruity taste, and not cloying -- exactly pink lemonade.

U, emboldened, took a lick. "Mmm!" he said. "Not bad!"

"'Not bad'?" I repeated. "Not bad!" I laughed. U laughed, too. "Not bad!" he said again and again, his eyes merry.

At home, I said to Don, "Do you know what Ulysses said when he tasted his lollipop?"

Before I had a chance to go further, Ulysses piped, "Not bad!"

The cave

Don got the first season on Gilligan's Island from Netflix. There's a show I never saw all the way through. The Lost Pilot, featuring a different professor and two completely different young women ("secretaries from the United States," as the alternate theme song describes them), is especially trippy.

In the first episode, some of the castaways set an elaborate trap involving a cave, a vine, and some precarious rocks. Some other castaways stumble upon it. What might happen?

At first sight of the cave -- before any of the castaways mention it -- Ulysses pointed, with excitement, and said, "Cave!"

Where did he learn that? Dunno. I expect that'll start happening more often.

Not the zoo

We tried to go to the zoo, but there was a huge football game at Camp Randall, the UW stadium, about a half mile or so from the zoo, scheduled to start at 3 pm. Little would we have known. Football could disappear from planet Earth tomorrow and it would be months before we would notice it was missing. Actually, I don't know how we would notice it was missing. Once you adjust for our hearing people complain about it.

Click the picture and choose Slideshow.

2007_0901 Not the Zoo, Grasshopper

By the time we arrived at the zoo -- around noon -- Badger fans had helped themselves to the zoo's scanty parking spaces and were comfortably tailgating.  Was anyone handing out tickets? Was 
anyone protecting the parking spots on behalf of the zoo? Of course not. It's for
Badger football, so it's OK.

There was no parking on the nearby streets, of course. Just people standing with signs promising $20 spots on their driveways or whatever. So we went to a playground in another part of town instead. Traffic on the way home an hour or so later was terrific! The roads were choked with busses and cars feeding in from the highways, on their way to the big game.