Friday, November 8

Editorials & Ignorance

I ran across a reference to this editorial (, which has apparently been causing quite the furor. I have had some experience with the phenomenon plaguing the article’s author and can empathize with his frustration. I can also validate some of his arguments: the still struggling economy and mass expansion of digital media have altered the playing field for all workers and in many ways the world is still trying to catch up. Then, too, of course, there will always be those who try to take advantage of others and get something for nothing.

But I think that the troublesome trend the author so resents has roots in a much larger issue, as well. The alarming reality is that a huge proportion of Americans simply don’t understand the basics of how a business works.

I have seen the evidence of this in every field I’ve worked in or with. People of all ages, education levels and backgrounds have absolutely no frame of reference for the critical, behind-the-scenes infrastructure essential to keeping businesses functioning. Although few would ever phrase it so bluntly, most carry a vague conception that every business has a pot of money somewhere fueling its operations. The pot naturally and continuously grows, simply as a natural byproduct of the business’s operations. What difference does a little pro bono work, goofing off, or inefficiency make? Surely someone somewhere else in the organization is simultaneously creating a surplus and it will all even out in the end.

Admittedly, this deeply flawed assumption is rarely their fault. Once, it was standard practice for children to work in the family business from a very young age. They were exposed early and often to the workings of a business, learning new positions as their abilities increased and thereby acquiring a picture of the business as a whole. By the time they were ready to learn a trade or take on significant roles in the company, they had a solid understanding of how every task – from sweeping the floors to serving customers to working carefully and efficiently in the back – impacted the success and prosperity of everyone involved.

Modern youth, but contrast, are forbidden to work until 16, and often can’t get hired until 18 due to severe restrictions on what they are allowed to do. Most of the work available to them falls in tightly limited spheres removed from any association with the management or operations of the company. Your average retail associate, restaurant hostess, or teacher’s aide shows up for their shift, does the specific tasks they’re assigned, and leaves. They work might be overseen by a shift supervisor/ assistant manager, or occasionally the general manager, but will typically have little opportunity to cross train, and even then only into an equally confined position. Even internships are of little use as, in most cases, they are also narrowly confined as a result of insurance and corporate privacy concerns.

College graduates fair no better. I know very smart women with Masters degrees who know nothing about the back-of-house necessities of running a business of any size. It simply wasn’t taught in their coursework, and they’ve never worked for an organization in which such functions were not the sole domain of nebulous individuals performing specialized functions in a separate office – often far removed from their own workspaces. They genuinely have no frame of reference for the amount of time, energy, or resources that go into performing another person’s task.

Of course such individuals can ask for free creative work with a clear conscience and without a second thought. Our brains reflexively and unconsciously assign an inconsequential value to that which we cannot quantify (the inputs necessary to create the requested output), and our standard operating assumptions (that individuals engaging in business must automatically be generating supporting income in that mysterious pot of money) assure us that they must have the time and energy to spare, so what is there to stand in the way?

Certainly, proper respect for all working individuals – regardless of their gifts or fields – is a worthy and appropriate goal. But perhaps, more than shifting our perspectives on our peers, we need to shift our perspectives on our systems. This is merely the latest alarm bell, alerting us to the devastating impacts of segmenting and specializing tasks to such narrow degrees and denying both our youth and our employees the opportunity to understand businesses as whole entities. Small businesses are consistently the documented as the largest job growth sector in America’s struggling economy – if we act soon, by reducing restrictions and barriers to their success (and their employment of young people) we can still harness their potential as deeply eye-opening learning experiences and train up the next generation of workers to truly understand how and why businesses and individuals fail or succeed.

Wednesday, November 6

Eating Rats

Several years ago, I spent about a year as the primary food safety instructor for all my employer's units in our region. I was pulling together materials for yet another food safety class when the salmonella- contaminated peanut butter scandal broke.
Not the least bit surprised by the outbreak, I was nonetheless horrified by a casual comment quoted in a national newspaper by an employee of the besieged peanut butter company (who no doubt was quickly quarantined and castigated by the resident PR people when they were alerted to his gaff). He told the journalist, in a somewhat mystified manner, that everyone knows there are rats in the peanuts - but usually the roasting process kills them off.

I couldn't help but think back to that gut-twisting comment when I read that a new study shows that 12% of America's spice imports are contaminated with rodent hair (and by extension, feces).

Researchers suspect that the spices may be responsible for far more salmonella outbreaks that can be proven, in part because food-borne illnesses in general are dramatically under reported (many people attributing their gastric upsets to the flu, or just shrugging it off as part of life and never following up with reporting or the testing necessary for health departments to document the case), and in part because people rarely report spice usage when recounting their diet during research for an outbreak. Think about it - you would report that you had pizza or chicken, perhaps, without ever thinking that the basil or oregano you topped those meals off with could be the cause of your illness.

Do I think that this news is something to panic over? No. Realistically speaking, we consume spices in such small quantities that their potential for negative health consequences is a very small threat compared to many of the other food-system atrocities we also currently face. Furthermore, from a strictly practical standpoint, there are many spices that cannot be reliably grown in the U.S., and the production/distribution chains for them are impossibly difficult to trace, regulate and hold accountable. That kind of time and effort is simply not practical when there are so many bigger, more serious issues to address.

This news does, however, renew my determination to grow as many of my own herbs as I can next summer and to supplement my stock wherever possible with locally-grown options. There's nothing I can do about the cinnamon I buy, except to purchase from reliable (preferably organic) companies and trust that they are doing all they can to ensure quality. But so many every-day spices from oregano and basil to thyme and red pepper flakes are cheap and easy to make myself - as long as I plan ahead. So as we head toward winter and begin planning for next year's gardens, will you consider joining me in going a few herbs of your own? Every step, no matter how small, towards healthy diets and food independence is powerful and so, so worthwhile!

Tuesday, November 5

Mud, Sweat & Beer: A Review

Over the summer, my husband and I did three obstacle runs: the Warrior Dash, the Tough Mudder, and the Spartan Sprint. The Dash and the Sprint were 5ks, and the Mudder was about 11 miles. I have never been a runner, and the entire experience was new to me. I’ve been thinking for a while about reviewing the events for the benefit of anyone else thinking about getting into obstacle runs, and finally settled on the following abbreviated format, which I hope covers everything without getting too boring for those of you who have no intention of ever running one. 

(All obstacle photos pulled from the race websites, since I couldn't get the logos to copy over here.)

Distance: 5k (about three miles)

Pros: The obstacles were well spaced along the course, and challenging enough to be interesting without being brutal or out of reach for the less experienced or less fit participants. Lots of friendly banter between runners throughout the course, and the warrior-themed outfits sported by many participants bring a fun, easy-going air to whole event. The ability to choose your event time and free open showers at the end were also bonuses!

Cons: I liked the festival grounds the least – the visibility was lower and the walkways a bit narrower than the others, making it harder to meet, hang with, and keep track of friends or teammates.

Notes:  I hadn’t been sick as a dog the morning of the run, this might have been my favorite. Definitely a great place to start for anyone looking to dip a toe into the waters of obstacle running!

Distance: about 11 miles

Pros:  I loved the atmosphere at this event! It was all about viewing the course as a challenge, and powering through to the finish. The other runners on the course were your teammates, and you worked together and encouraged each other whether you knew them or not. Everyone was upbeat and the people working the event throughout the course were amazing in their attitude and energy. The obstacles were well spaced, absolutely stretched you to your limits, and were a thrill to overcome, but there was no shame in bypassing one if you needed to. I enjoyed and pride in completing this one the most.

Cons: First, it’s long enough that you need to plan a whole day for it (as opposed to the Dash, which you could complete in a morning and still plan to do something else in the afternoon/evening). Second, you don’t get to choose your start time and if you’re not at least halfway through the course by their cut-off time (I think 2pm), you are pulled from the course and don’t get to finish because they have a required kill-time by which everyone must be done and if you’re not at least halfway you’ll never make it. (That would suck.) Third, there is a charge for spectators, so unlike the Dash, you can’t bring your family and friends for free to cheer you on or party with you later.

Notes:  Watch the videos for these obstacles before you go so that you have some idea of what you’re facing, then go have a blast! Also, I strongly recommend packing GU gels or your preferred equivalent – this took us 5 hours, and we needed a recharge part way through. They hand out bananas, but if you’re like me and don’t do bananas, you’ll want an alternative. Also, the sense of humor in this event was fantastic – we passed as sign at the 5k mark that said “if this was the Warrior Dash, you’d be done now!” Lol!

*We're already signed up for TM 2014 - anyone want to join us?!

Distance:  5k

Pros: This is the event for highly social people. Between the pre-parties and after-parties, you could easily make an entire weekend out of it. There is no charge for spectators, and there are plenty of kids-themed activities to keep your mini-humans busy while you’re on the course.

Cons: This was the least well managed event, in my opinion. Signage to find things like the bag check was lacking, and the parking situation was atrocious. Obstacles were poorly spaced, creating long stretches with nothing and then two or three obstacles right on top of each other. The 5k Sprint and 13 mile Beast were running concurrently and partially sharing courses, which made for some confusion and led to Sprint participants being pushed past by more competitive, highly time-conscious Beast participants, which also tarnished the happy atmosphere. Staff was noticeably less engaged than at the Mudder, as well. 

Notes: I don’t expect to do the Sprint again; I didn’t enjoy it enough. I would consider doing the Beast at some point in the future, simply because there isn’t really an equivalent elsewhere, but would definitely plan around the poor management when dealing with technicalities like parking, bag drop, etc.

General Notes

Beware the inclines – in both directions. I knew there would be (steep) hills involved, but I was simply not prepared for slopes so aggressive that I (and many others) practically crawled up them. Make sure you practice running on steep inclines before you tackle anything more than the Warrior Dash, or you’ll find yourself walking large portions of the run. (This is my area of biggest growth needed before next summer!)

Don’t wear cotton. It will soak up mud and water immediately, and you’ll be soggy the rest of the day! Wearing clothing designed for wicking that won’t weigh you down and that might even dry a bit between obstacles if it’s sunny. J

Do wear gloves. Not necessary for a 5k, but a god-send during the Mudder!

Braid your hair (girls). Don’t try to pile it on top of your head – it will catch on every obstacle. Low braids, crown braids – think simple, secure and tight. Don’t rely heavily on bobby pins, as you’re not likely to keep them in!

High traction shoes are worth their weight in gold. You will be going up and coming back down slopes that are muddy, rocky and otherwise tricky. Take your safety seriously and wear sneakers with the most traction you can find!  

Monday, November 4

How Children Succeed... or Don't

I only recently figured out how to use my library's download-able audio book feature, and I was delighted when my efforts were rewarded with the ability to listen to How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.

This has been on my reading list for ages, but I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy, so it was with much anticipation that I hit the "play" button and waited for the greatness to begin.

Only instead of heralding greatness, I found that the title disguised a great mess! Although the author is quick to state his very reasonable- sounding thesis up front, the book quickly devolves quickly into divergent, uncoordinated and sometimes blatantly unrelated material. The content meanders without clear purpose before slumping into long stretches of un-engaging and overly detailed observations about disadvantaged students and their teachers. It never manages to recover into a coherent, cohesive or compelling conclusion.

I didn't find a single argument that hadn't been already made (and far better presented) in other places, but the author treats them all like startling new material.

What galled me the most was that after spending an entire book proving (perhaps accidentally) what we already knew - that stable homes and capable, loving parents are the key to creating healthy, well-adjusted and successful children at every economic level - the author tries to blame our education system and politics for the massive failure rates of impoverished children. He accuses us of not spending enough money on education and anti-poverty measures and suggests that only a handful of deeply committed educators are actually making a difference and the rest should be scrapped. 

As I always am when such discussions arise, I remain appalled and baffled at this logic. How is it the school's fault or a politician's fault that a child was born to a drug addict mother and a dirt-bag father who has 15 kids by seven different women? What possible sense does it make to spend eight or ten hours a day for 18 years trying to mitigate and compensate for the physical, mental, social and emotional damage being caused to children, only to send them back to hell hole in which they live for fresh damage every night? It's not about poverty, or intelligence or "the system" - it's about the reality that we as a society are letting people clearly unfit to take care of so much as a goldfish have and keep as many children as they can pop out, even though we KNOW that it means lifetimes of abuse, abysmal odds for recovery and success, and is the number one cause of gangs, murderers, serial killers, serial rapists and other violent, incorrigible criminal activity. (That is not hyperbole - it's a proven fact.)

How many more children need to end up murdered and thrown away by parents who should never have been allowed to have them in the first place before we acknowledge what has painted clearly before us for more than a century and agree to tackle our social ills at the root - in our homes?

Sunday, November 3

Homemade Pepperoni

Pepperoni has been scarce around our house for the last couple years. We try to avoid unnecessarily added nitrates/nitrites and commercially processed meats, which means regular pepperoni is off the table. Safe alternatives are few and far between, and everything I was able to find online was astronomically expensive.

Until it occurred it to, in a long overdue flash of insight, that I should absolutely be able to make my own. So I went hunting for recipes and discovered this recipe for homemade spicy pepperoni. The first batch lasted less than a week - we found excuses to eat some almost every day. The second batch I more strategically sliced and froze promptly, so it's holding out a bit better.  :)

(Please forgive the terrible photos.) Because I used standard sea salt rather than curing salt (which contains nitrates), the meat did not turn the reddish/pink that commercial pepperoni does. (If you look at the photos accompanying the recipe I used, you will notice that the curing salts she used did turn her batch a more familiar pinkish/red color.)

This took surprisingly little time, even considering that I ground my own pork. (Practicality based on what was available - not a Martha Stewart complex, honest!) You literally mix all the raw ingredients, toss them in the fridge and ignore them for a couple days. (I found the 72 hour batch better consistency-wise than the 48, and plan to make that my standard.) Then you take five minutes to roll it into logs and pop it in the oven, and another 5 minutes when it's done to slice and bag it. That's it! Less hands-on time than it takes to make a batch of cookies.  :)

Color notwithstanding, the flavor of this is right on for traditional pepperoni! Being a food geek, of course, I had to do the math and find out what the cost comparison was.

Ready for this?

My homemade pepperoni is between 1/4 and 1/3 the price of the (nitrate-free) commercial equivalent!! 

I used pork instead of beef because I couldn't get out to the farm and the beef options in local supermarket are spotty and unimpressive at best. I can consistently get antibiotic free, all natural pork for good prices, though, so that's what I went with. (Hence the 1/4 to 1/3 range - making the recipe with pork puts me at 1/4. Using beef from the farm would put me closer to 1/3.)

It cost me $5.27 to make a roughly 2 lb batch of pepperoni. (Started with just over 2 lbs of raw meat and the end product can be expected to weigh slightly less, due to the loss of water and fat.) Although I can't slice it quite as thin as the commercial stuff, my logs were wider than standard and it still goes a pretty long way (if you can restrain yourself to cooking with it rather than sitting down and eating the whole log straight off the cutting board!).

I know that making your own pepperoni is certainly not for everyone, but I hope that seeing that it can be done encourages people to challenge their own assumptions (as mine were challenged) about what we can and can't do to take more control of our own food security.

Friday, November 1


In her newest book, Hopelifter, author and natural encourager Kathe Wunnenberg reaches out to other women to share the value of being an encourager and practical tips on how to become one. The first half of the book focuses on the Biblical imperative of encouragement and the author’s experiences founding the Hopelifters organization; the second half contains single page “recipes for hope”, labeled and sorted by topic for easy reference, designed to provide readers ideas on how to encourage others in difficult circumstances.
The book has some very positive strengths: it reminds women to be realistic about what they are able to do in their current season of life, acknowledges the importance of meeting core roles (wife, mother, etc.) first with our time and energies, provides a solid scriptural basis for encouragement, and teaches readers to saturate all the encouraging efforts in prayer to make sure they’re providing words and actions of life and hope instead of accidentally doing damage through poorly timed/ executed/ uninformed words of actions, however good the intentions behind them.

That said, other portions of the book felt out of place or off topic, such as the author’s experiences founding the Hopelifters organization or the emphasis on leaders establishing prayer teams, etc. The recipes for hope section at the end was also only marginally of interest. I appreciated its intent, and some tidbits of advice were valuable, but it largely felt repetitive and as though much of it should just have been common sense.