Reading Corner

I just realized that we have not had our book club in a while, and I happen to be in the middle of four terrific books.

The first two are by friends. Julia Scheeres, my former co-worker at Wired News and New York Times best-selling author of the memoir Jesus Land, has a new non-fiction book about Jonestown. It is called A Thousand Lives, and it promises to be one, if not, the foremost “expert” on the topic.

For the book, Julia read over 50,000 pages of FBI documents, interviewed the survivors, family members of victims and authorities at the scene of the mass-murder suicide that claimed the lives of 909 people. She even followed the path of the pastor, Jim Jones, from his childhood in Indiana to the spot in northwestern Guyana where he incited the mass murder-suicide by cyanide. By the way, it is this event on November 18, 1978, that incited use of the term “drinking the kool-aid.”

After Jesus Land, a memoir about Julia’s upbringing in a fundamental Christian household that led to her and her adopted African-American brother being shipped off to the Dominican Republic for Christian reform school, she set out to write a satirical novel about a charismatic preacher in Indiana, which is where Julia hails. It was then that she decided to google Jim Jones, who was also from Indiana, and learned about the existence of the FBI files. A freedom of information request and two years worth of research and writing led to the publication of A Thousand Lives.

“You won’t find the word cult in this book, unless I’m directly citing a source that uses the word,” Julia wrote in her introduction. “My aim here is to help readers understand the reason that people were drawn to Jim Jones and his church, and how so many of them ended up dying in a mass-murder suicide on November 18, 1978. The word cult only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy. As one survivor told me, nobody joins a cult.

To date, the Jonestown canon has veered between sensational media accounts and narrow academic studies. In this book, I endeavor to tell the Jonestown story on a grander, more human, scale.”

I, for one, can’t wait to finish the book!

Another book I am looking forward to reading is our Katy Farber’s Eat Non-Toxic: A Manual for Busy Parents. The book is a quick read — a 65-page PDF, including pictures — about why you should care about toxins in your food, which foods contain what toxins, and my favorite — healthy and delicious recipes like this one:

Butternut Squash Soup
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 three-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 softball-sized sweet Vidalia onion, cut into chunks or rings
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
3 1/2 cups stock, divided Salt and pepper
1 or 2 tablespoons cream or unsalted butter (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Toss squash, onion and garlic cloves with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil; spread on glass baking dish and pour 1 cup stock over the top. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt.


Bake at 350oF for 1 1/2 hours or until fairly soft and a little caramelized- looking; check on the pan every 20 minutes or so and if necessary, add additional liquid to keep it from scorching to the bottom of the pan. Stir once during cooking.


.) Add squash, garlic, onion, and any liquid from baking dish into a large Dutch oven or stockpot. Add 2 1/2 cups stock and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper to the pot, and cook over medium-low heat for at least 20 minutes.


Purée all ingredients in a blender. Add back to pot, stir in cream or butter and adjust salt and pepper to taste.

source: at… soup.html

I have some butternut squash I have yet to use. I am all over this recipe!

Also, on my night table: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I just started it, and I am already taken in by the breath-taking views of Mexico. I love the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and apparently the novel is partly based in Mexico during their time in the early to mid-20th century:

In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

I’ve never read anything by Barbara Kingsolver so I am looking forward to this!

Finally, I just finished a (fiction) book by Ann Patchett called State of Wonder. This book was a page-turner! I was so immersed in Patchett’s world in the Amazon that at one point I actually looked it up to make sure it was fiction. I was also having bizarre dreams about it.

The book is about a doctor, Marina Singh, who is a researcher at a pharmaceutical company and ends up going to the Amazon to look into the death of a colleague. She is also encouraged by the company to check on another co-worker — who also happened to be a former professor of hers — on some research of a tribe, in which the women bear children well into their 70s. The company wants to learn their secret to create a reproductive drug in the United States.

The book captured me from the very beginning, starting with the death of the colleague and Dr. Singh having to tell the widow — and mother of three small children — the news. Then the twists and turns the story takes in the Amazon are fascinating and raise all kinds of ethical questions surrounding the ability to reproduce at such an old age, and also the condescension the developed world has towards more primitive cultures. I am looking forward to the discussion at my book club! Have any of you read this book? What did you think?

What is on your night table?


Eat, Freeze, and Cook that (BPA-free) Pumpkin!

Editor’s Note: You can find more tips for safe and healthy eating in Katy’s new ebook, Eat Non-Toxic: a manual for busy parents by Katy Farber. It was just released and is available now at Non-Toxic Kids and is 25% off this week during the launch.-Elisa

What to do with that pumpkin goo? I’ll show you, you dirty Oncler man, you…sorry, the rhyming was just so perfect. I think I’ve read the Lorax one too many times.  

I used to think that to make pumpkin bread, you had to buy pumpkin in a can. A can chalk full of BPA. Not good!

During my CSA this fall I received copious amounts of pumpkins. Finally, one day, I knew I had to deal with them.

The only difficult thing is cutting them open. Whew! I am glad I have all of my fingers. Please be careful while doing this. First, wash the pumpkin to remove dirt and debris.  Next, you want to cut your first pumpkin in half. Scoop out the seeds (save these for later if you want to make toasted pumpkin seeds–yum!).  

Then place the pumpkin on a baking sheet face down in a little water (so it doesn’t stick). Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes. Take it out and let the pumpkin cool completely. Then scoop out the soft fleshy inside.  Place inside a bowl and use a potato masher to squish and blend the pumpkin. Or you can put it in your food processor.  If the pumpkin is very watery, you can drain it in a colander first. The Pioneer Woman has a much more detailed post about this process with pictures, which is quite entertaining, too.  

Now you are ready to either use it in a recipe, or to freeze it. If you are looking for a tasty season pumpkin recipe look no further.  

Try these oh-so-tasty pumpkin chocolate chip muffins! They are fun to make with kids. We make them without the automatic mixers since I had two enthusiastic real life mixers of my own.  

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins (from Babble)

4 eggs, room temperature

1 c. vegetable oil

2 c. sugar

3 c. all-purpose flour

1 140z can pure pumpkin

2 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

1 t. Kosher salt

12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips

Makes about 36 muffins

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease and prepare a muffin tin and set aside.
  1. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment combine the eggs, oil and sugar. Add the pumpkin and mix well. In a separate bowl mix the flour, soda, cinnamon and salt. With the mixer on low add this to the wet ingredients until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips with a wooden spoon.
  1. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups until they are 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops spring back when touched. Enjoy!

Or you can make this lovely pumpkin bread with your fresh pumpkin. The bread freezes very well and makes a sweet gift during the holidays.

You will undoubtedly have extra, so you’ll need to freeze it. You can freeze it in biodegradable BPA free plastic bags, or better yet, use glass jars. Just remember to leave a lot of room at the top for it to expand so you won’t have broken glass to deal with. Here’s a a good post from green your way about the whole process of freezing food in glass.  

Yes! You can cook without the BPA and use every bit of those fall pumpkins.  

Editor’s Note: You can find more tips for safe and healthy eating in Katy’s new ebook, Eat Non-Toxic: a manual for busy parents by Katy Farber. It was just released and is available now at Non-Toxic Kids and is 25% off this week during the launch.-Elisa


Review: Why Great Teachers Quit

Over the break, I had the pleasure of reading a book by our very own Katy Farber. I always get a thrill reading books by people who I know and admire.

Katy, who not only parents two girls and writes for MotherTalkers and Non-Toxic Kids, but she is also an elementary school science teacher. (Where do you find the time, girl?)

In her first book, Why Great Teachers Quit And How We Might Stop the Exodus, Katy examines just that: why are so many young, smart and idealistic people exiting the field in droves within the first five years? While she did examine the obvious reasons of low pay and crazy hours, which left me convinced that teaching is not a family-friendly profession, her answer was much more nuanced.

For example, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the No. 1 reason teachers left high poverty, urban public schools was because of poor administrative support (50 percent) and not poor salary (26.9 percent). A lack of faculty influence (42.5 percent) was the second biggest reason teachers left poor urban public schools. As for teachers in low poverty, suburban public schools, they left due to poor salary (51 percent) followed by poor administrative support (30 percent). Notice that their reasons for leaving had nothing to do with the students.

Which leads me to one of the biggest factors driving out teachers: politics. Legislation like No Child Left Behind and standardized testing is decreasing student morale and forcing out teachers, who must take even more time from their busy schedules to supervise students during the test rather than teach or grade papers. Also, they have not been trained to supervise such tests in a way that would please legislators, often non-educators, mandating such testing.

What surprised me was that, while well-intentioned, these tests have not increased student achievement.

In some cases, when it looks as though test scores are going up, one must read the back story to understand whether all students were assessed, how the dropout rate plays into it, and how much quality teaching is happening. Houston, Texas, was touted nationally as a success story for raising the test scores of all of its students. The district claimed a low 1.5 percent dropout rate, but at Sharpston High School, 463 of 1,700 students left during the school year; none were reported as dropping out. Instead, they were assigned a code that meant they had changed schools, gone back to a native country, or gone for their GED, when many of them never reported these reasons to the school (Meier et al., 2004). The real story is that a new correlation has arisen from frequent standardized testing: falling graduation rates as standardized testing increases (Meier et al., 2004).

Interesting, eh? Another aspect of Katy’s book that I liked was that it wasn’t simply a whiny tome on the state of education today, rather it offered educators solutions to implement best practices. She visited schools all across the country and interviewed dozens of teachers both online and offline. She gave examples of schools that were actually implementing these practices, like, the Sherman Oaks Community Charter School in California, which allows teachers and staff 90 minutes daily of uninterrupted time to collaborate.

Here is a great example of how parents can partner with teachers to give children the best possible education:

In an era of dwindling budgets and jam-packed agendas, this may seem impossible. Not so, says Principal Peggy Bryan (Curtis, 2000). At Sherman Oaks, “Teachers meet while students have lunch, study hall, and a recreation period. Paraprofessionals — usually parents — come in during that time and oversee the children. ‘It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes all the difference'” (para. 8), she said.

While the format is always under revision, teachers use this time for planning, grade-level meetings, cross-grade meetings, and problem solving. This lends itself to a feeling of professionalism, colleagueship, and support…By providing built-in opportunities like this, Sherman Oaks fosters a collaborative community that works together to support every child, and every teacher as they constantly hone and learn their craft.

Katy’s book is a quick and delightful read, a mere 156 pages. But one area I would have loved to see her dedicate a chapter to is that of “education reform.” So-called education reformers like Teach for America, charter school proponents, and DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have rankled some in the teaching profession because they are non-union. But I am interested to see what success, if any, they have had.

There are a few ideas that I am especially curious as to whether they would work. One is year-round schooling as practiced by charter schools like KIPP in Texas. It makes sense that three-month summer vacations are not compatible with a working parent’s schedule, especially one who cannot afford day camps. Of course, I would rather parents receive vacation, too, but it doesn’t seem realistic in an era of fewer full-time jobs and people working multiple part-time jobs.  

The other, as proposed by Rhee, is more money in lieu of tenure. I wonder how many teachers would go for it?

Finally, I am wondering how the three-year teaching cycles as dictated by Teach for America is working for them. On the one hand, I am sad that children in high risk areas are experiencing such high staff turnover. But a part of me also wonders if some schools are so tough that it is better for a teacher to remain there only three years to avoid burnout — like the military, another tough job. I don’t know, which is why I’d like more research on this. What do you all think?


Saturday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

A study of more than 12,000 couples in Framingham, Massachusetts since 1948, has found that couples are 75 percent more likely to divorce if their closest friends break up, according to the Daily Mail in the UK.

Congrats to our Katy Farber over at Non-Toxic Kids, whose new book Why Great Teachers Quit was officially released this week.

Here are two more articles I’d like to highlight from Parents magazine. The first one, “The New American Dad,” was about fathers who are the primary caregivers in their families. Currently, 25 percent of preschool-aged children have their dad as their primary caregiver. And 28 percent of U.S. wives between the ages of 30 and 44 have more education than their husbands. The remaining 53 percent of couples have the same levels of education.

Another article, “Battling Tattling,” touched a nerve. (I could not find the article online.) It is a miracle I have not run out of my house screaming from all the tattling that goes on here. “Ari hit me!” a three-year-old Eli complains. “No! She hit me first!” a 6-year-old Ari retorts. And then a battle ensues, and usually, one or both kids cry. It is getting on my last nerve.

Fortunately, in the car, we have three rows of seats. Ari likes sitting in the last row, while Eli’s carseat is in the second row. At least there’s peace and quiet there. Whew!

But at home is another story. I tried one of the pieces of advice doled out by the magazine, which is to ask the child why they are telling on the other kid. “Are you trying to get your sister into trouble?” I asked Ari.

“Yeah, she knocked down my legos!” There goes that idea.

What do you do to combat tattling in your home? What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


3 Healthy, Local, Tasty Summer Treats

(First published on Non-Toxic Kids.)

Ah, summer. In summer local eating is so much easier. Vermonters wait for summer all year, and what a beauty it is. Pond swimming, river wading, berry picking — it is amazing, and over in the blink of an eye.

As for tasty summer treats that don’t include high fructose corn syrup (although we do have a maple creamee every once in a while in the summer!), here are a few ideas. Creamees, by the way, are the Vermont vernacular for soft serve ice cream. We go to a local farm to get creamees infused with Vermont maple syrup. A serious, delicious, summer treat after a swim or a mountain bike.

Make your own popsicles!  Here is a post I wrote about this over at MightyNest.  They’ve got these great BPA free mold you can use to make your own healthy popsicles at home.  It’s really easy, green, and fun. Kristen, a MightyNest founder, said her current favorite popsicle recipe is lemonade pops with floating blueberries. Yum!

Pick your own berries.  Just the other day, the girls and I stumbled across some wild strawberries in our yard!  We fed the mosquitoes as we picked the tasty little morsels for almost an hour.  You can’t get more local than your yard!

Then we got wise, and headed to Littlewood Farms, to pick their organic strawberries. Tucked away along a stream, this organic farm is a beauty.  They grow all sorts of vegetables, flowers, herbs and berries.  We walked down the path, taking in the Vermont mountain view, to the strawberry fields. The girls and I (with some of our dear friends) picked berries contently for about 30 minutes, the attention span of our preschooler and kindergartners.  I loved linking the action of picking with eating– and felt happy that we could chomp a few in the field, because they are organic.

We hiked back up and paid for our berries, much less than buying them at our local co-op.  We are still eating one pint, 4 days later, and I froze the rest for smoothies, to add to oatmeal, or as simple summer treats on hot days.

Eat from your garden. I’m not much of a gardener, but we planted a small children’s garden in the yard.  It is full of easy plants for kids (and their mother’s lack of a green thumb).  We’ve planted tomatoes, pumpkins, lettuce, and some annuals.  The girls love to rip pieces off from their lettuce, and from the basil pots in front of our house.  They are like rabbits, and will decimate an entire plant if I am not careful. But, I really don’t mind, because that is exactly the point. Eat what you have grown, eat local, eat healthy.

What are your family’s favorite summer healthy treats and activities? Wishing you long, lazy, summer days, filled with fresh berries, happy children, and sunshine.


Wednesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

The New York Times ran a sad story about how there are more Russian orphans today — 700,000 — than at the end of World War II. In the last three years, 30,000 of these children were returned by their foster or guardian families in Russia to the orphanage. That number does not include failed placements abroad. From the article, it sounds like it is in Russia’s interest to keep these children in orphanages for job creation purposes. Disgusting.

A 90-year-old woman in Independence, Missouri, will attend her first prom with her great grandson, according to an ABC News affiliate.

Wal-Mart will pay a $27.6 million fine for improperly disposing of hazardous waste in California, according to the Associated Press.

I recently commented in an Expecting Words blog entry about avoiding germs or illnesses in young kids. I was glad to see I was not the only one of the opinion that avoiding all germs is a losing battle. I used to bust out the hand sanitizer with my first kid, but now, as long as no one has a high fever or is puking, I allow contact with sick kids all the time. It is inevitable. In spite of all the precautions I took during Ari’s first year of preschool, we were sick all the time. Now I just make sure everyone washes their hands and has the flu shot and hope for the best. So far, knock on wood, we have not had the flu since Ari first began school four years ago. Colds, yes, but nothing major. Are you the type of parent to avoid all illnesses, take some precautions or whatever? Don’t forget to take my poll!

In somewhat related news, a very sick mom at the Mamasource newsletter asked for advice on how to entertain a 13-month-old while she recovered. Oh, I feel for her. Remember the days when sick days were actually sick days? Anyways, I want to echo the other moms in the newsletter — you have to subscribe to receive it — that when I am sick and the kids are healthy, I plop them in front of the TV, or ask family and friends for a hand. Most of the time, my husband and our friends have to work, so I just plop them in front of the TV, and then rely on play dates during off hours.

President Barack Obama will deliver a commencement speech at Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which won a White House-sponsored competition entitled the “Top High School Commencement Challenge.” The other five finalists, also listed in the press release, will receive cabinet secretary or senior administration officials to deliver commencement speeches at their graduations. What a great idea.

Congratulations to Katy Farber, who has been a contributing writer here at MotherTalkers. She now has a book on pre-order at Amazon called Why Great Teachers Quit: And How We Might Stop the Exodus. It sounds like a topic we’d discuss around these parts, and of course, she is a fabulous writer.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Friday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

Need extra motivation to quit smoking? This writer at Open Salon estimated that she saved $1642.50 this year alone after kicking the habit.

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial on why people insured through Medicare should support healthcare reform.

The Washington Post had a “trend” story on how applications to liberal arts colleges are down due to the recession.

In case you missed it, our “happy clam” mentioned that Sigg metal water bottles contained the synthetic, estrogenic chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Katy Farber over at Non-Toxic Kids wrote about it as well.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Tuesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell just signed a bill into law banning the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles, sippy cups and food and beverage containers. I agree with Katy Farber at Non-Toxic Kids that a federal ban would be nice. But every time a state bans BPA, companies are less likely to sell such toxic products anywhere in the country as they are loathe to create separate product lines for different states.

Forbes just named West Point the No. 1 college in the country for its rigorous curriculum and free education, according to the Yahoo Shine portal.  

Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco have identified a mother and daughter with a genetic mutation that causes them to require only six hours of sleep, according to USA Today. The bad news is that this rare mutation is found in less than 3 percent of people.

Also in USA Today: The newspaper ran a series of stories on how to help students pay back loans when they are unemployed during the recession.

Bazaar Magazine ran an article about open marriages. The actress Tilda Swinton said she and her husband John Byrne have such an arrangement.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Wednesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

I just wanted to post another reminder that a group of us are meeting at the Hard Rock Cafe in Pittsburgh tomorrow (Thursday) at 1:30 p.m.. We are meeting for the Netroots Nation Parents Caucus. Children are welcome!

Here are some directions via the “T” public transit: Exit the convention center and walk up 10th Street away from the river. Walk 3 blocks and take a right on Liberty Avenue. Walk 2 long blocks up Liberty — the cross-streets will be 9th and 8th streets — and on your left will be the Wood Street Galleries at the intersection of Wood Street and Liberty Avenue. The T station is down the escalator.

You will take the “outbound” train. The train numbers are 42S or 47L, but the sign should say “to Square Station” or “to South Hills.” It is easy in that the T has only one line in town. The train comes every 8 minutes and it is a 5-minute trip to Station Square. Expect to travel like 3 stops. Once you get to the Station Square stop, cross the street (Carson Street) and head towards the river where you will see the Hard Rock Cafe. You will walk about a block to get there.

The first 20 people to arrive will receive swag bags. Now onto other noteworthy news:

Despite its reputation as an expensive grocer, Whole Foods is doing alright in this economy, according to the Washington Post. Where do you do your food shopping, MotherTalkers?

Katy Farber over at Non-Toxic Kids is one brave woman. She just gave 10 vials of blood and a hair and urine sample for a Vermont study on chemical body burden. Just think, Katie: You are taking one for the team!

I hate to scare you about the estrogenic toxin bisphenol A (BPA), but Lynn Harris over at Babble had a very compelling — and frightening — article on it.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Would You Vaccinate for Swine Flu?

Congratulations to one of our contributors, Katy Farber of Non-Toxic Kids, for recently being quoted in the Washington Post.

Farber and others responded to a news story that the federal government will release a swine flu vaccine for children in October. From the Washington Post:

The federal government plans to get 100 million doses of the vaccine in October, reports The Post’s David Brown and Spencer S. Hsu. First in line for vaccinations: children. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says schools are “natural sites” to be the principal venues for delivering vaccines.

Brown tells me that for the swine flu vaccine, people will probably need two shots at least a week apart. These will be separate shots from the seasonal flu vaccine that doctors already insist all children ages 6 months and older need. The medical community is still determining whether the seasonal flu vaccine needs to be given at a different time from either of the two swine flu shots. Thus, he reports, it is conceivable that people might need three separate shot visits. Studies on the H1N1 vaccine, its effectiveness and its interaction with the seasonal flu vaccine have just begun.

Our Katy said she is not anti-vaccine but said this particular vaccine felt “rushed and a little intimidating.” She elaborated on her response at her blog.

What say you? Would you vaccinate your children against swine flu?

In related news, Katy is participating in a study to measure the amount of toxins, like flame retardants and pesticides, in her body. She is doing the public a favor. Let’s wish her well.