Friday, April 30, 2010

An Impromptu Audience With a Short Man

Aundre Johnson with joystick at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by Elisabeth Trydal Andersen.


I think director Aundre Johnson might be a little miffed if I were to reveal the mystery star in "The Third Rule," his short about two unemployed slacker dudes Don (Jason Biggs) and Peter (Joel Moore) who have two days to pay rent - or hit the road Jacks.

Besides The Daily, the rag that is reporting about doings at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, has already outed him on the front page. One outing per festival is enough.

I'm sure that this veteran director of short films who has a day job as a producer of original content for Twentieth Century Fox Television and who runs the film production company, Posh Films, wouldn't mind if I dropped a few hints about the Star Who Won't Be Named. For instance, the actor has a title, an Oscar, a foreign accent and he and the Los Angeleno have been friends for 10 years.

"We met at a party, and he came up to me and introduced himself," AJ said with just a tad bit too much insouciance during an informal chat in the Tribeca press center. He is chill about this association, but not every semi-unknown auteur is getting a casual phone call from this acting behemoth during which he asks for a part in his latest work, even if he did study film production at Chapman University and continued his higher education at The Richmond American International University in London and Collège International de Cannes.

"The Third Rule," which has one last showing Sunday on a bill with other shorts, is generating quite a bit of buzz at Tribeca in its own right. According to the scuttlebutt, it is fresh and funny. Fans, however, should thank AJ's peeps for getting it in front of them. "It was a contact at Shorts International that sent my film to Tribeca," he said of the outfit that distributes his work. "I wanted this film to be in Tribeca but didn't submit until after they saw the film and asked me to send it in for consideration."

Imagine those odds. “The Third Rule,” for which AJ has feature-length aspirations, was one of 47 shorts selected from more than 2,000 submissions. And it was nominated in the Best Narrative Short category. "I knew it was going to be my film or one or two others. And one of them won,” he said referring to “Father Christmas Doesn't Come Here.” (More on that film and its director shortly).

Not bad for this quick-and-dirty affair. "I had four days to prep it," meaning the process of scouting locations, locking down props and a crew and all the other tedious business that must first happen before a frame of film can be shot.

This wasn't quite what he had in mind "but that is when the actor was available" and so went this bit of guerrilla filmmaking. AJ didn't even have a script; he wrote it as he went. When The Star entered the picture he felt a mild urgency to get a few more words on his blank pages. "When filmmakers talk about it taking two years to write a script, I'm like 'what have you been doing'" because clearly one can get a short done in four days. After all, it's not like anybody is building Rome.

“The Third Rule” will have a screening on the bill, "Shorts: Between the Lines," at 6 p.m. Sunday at Tribeca Cinemas. Visit www.tribecafilm.com for all Tribeca Film Festival information and venues.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Good Reason to Laugh Amid Life's Grind

Sarah Steele and Catherine Keener in "Please Give." Photo by Piotr Redlinksi/Sony Pictures Classics courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

WITHOUT planning to, I saw the most delightful film last night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

In “Please Give” a Manhattan couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) buys a neighbor’s adjacent apartment. The catch is that they must wait until the elderly lady (Ann Guilbert) dies before they can occupy it. In the interim, they and their teenage daughter make an effort to try to get to know the neighbor and her two granddaughters.

A leitmotif in “Please Give” is aging. A grandmother who has lived out most of her life. A teen experiencing the growing pains of youth. A husband who is having a miniature midlife crisis. A callous granddaughter’s indifference to the elderly. A caring granddaughter and radiology technician who befriends the women to whom she gives mammograms. Old furniture and knickknacks appreciated by some and carelessly discarded by others.

As director Nicole Holofcener (“Friends With Money”) observed during a Q&A after the film, “aging is happening all around us.”

The film is also about what can unfold when circumstances throw people together. Upscale furniture store owners Kate (CK) and Alex (OP) make an effort to befriend Andra (AG) and her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). It is awkward going at first. After all, they are waiting for the old woman to die so that they can knock down the wall for the big expansion, a fact that Rebecca reminds Andra of more than once.

To break the ice Kate and Alex throw a birthday dinner for Andra. It’s a delicious example of the comic and dysfunctional aspects of the family dynamic at work. The couple’s teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), late to table and wearing panties over her face, bonds with undiplomatic Mary around the latter being honest about and offering to help with a huge zit that has taken up residence on the former’s nose.

After dinner Andra is presented with a cake with a lone, large candle on top. When she struggles to blow it out an impatient Mary does it for her, and everyone cheers as if Andra did it herself. When Andra’s asked her opinion of her birthday cake she says with monotone honesty, “It’s dry.” The gift of what appears to be scents are not her brand, she informs Kate. Rebecca, who is understandably wary of Kate and Alex, thanks them. Later, Andra drops her gift in the rubbish shoot. Though not a success, the dinner marks the beginning of easier relations between the two camps.

“Please Give” has a strong and likable ensemble cast. The players have good chemistry, and none of the acting is awkward. It has an organic feel, which adds to the enjoyment. These are the kind of people you’d want to have as friends, even Mary who is good underneath all of her bluster and bluntness. Kate would make a great best friend, though she would need a good talking-to about her guilt over doing well and having much in a city where so many have so little. Really? How many New Yorkers attempt to lay $20-dollar bills in the hands of the homeless, albeit admirable the gesture?

The characters are New York and specifically Manhattan archetypes. In fact, “Please Give” is shot in the Manhattan apartment that inspired the film. In a case of taking a page from one's own life, NH used the experience of a friend who bought the apartment of an elderly neighbor to inform the ethos of "Please Give." As fate would have it that apartment and the building seemed a perfect location for the film shoot.

It does our hearts good to escape life’s momentary troubles to smile or laugh. “Please Give” provides that escape. It is a light and frothy entertainment that has no higher pretensions or aspirations. And that is at the heart of its appeal.

“Please Give” will have a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival at 3:45 p.m. today at Village East Cinemas. Visit www.tribecafilm.com for all Tribeca Film Festival information and venues.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Observing the Latest State of "The Arbor"

Manjinder Virk as Lorraine Dunbar in “The Arbor.” Below, Natalie Gavin as Andrea Dunbar in a scene from the film “The Arbor,” depicting a scene from the play, “The Arbor.” Photos by Nick Wall courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

IN a scene near the end of “The Arbor,” Andrea Dunbar is waiting on the platform with baby Lorraine for a train. When the train arrives she takes Lorraine out of her carriage and mother, baby and carriage board the car. It takes off and we see baby standing on mother’s lap and both are looking wistfully out the window.

It is this scene that in part drew director Clio Barnard to “The Arbor,” she said after its world premiere Sunday night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. "I was touched by that understated expression of love."

“The Arbor,” an often shockingly sad and always engrossing film about the troubled relationship between British playwright Andrea Dunbar and Lorraine Dunbar, takes its name from AD’s first play about a white girl who is impregnated by her Pakistani boyfriend. Named for the street that AD grew up on, Brafferton Arbor, the play was a school project that would reach the eyes of London’s Royal Court Theatre artistic director Max Stafford-Clark who would later stage the work in 1980.

To tell the story of “The Arbor,” which serves as an update on this community a decade after it was the focus of a play commissioned by MS-C, CB spent two years recording interviews with residents of Brafferton Arbor. She talked to friends, relatives and just about everyone relevant to AD’s life. To blur as much as possible the line between documentary filmmaking and fiction filmmaking, CB used actors to lip-synch to the voices of these real-life people. In other words, the voices in the film are the voices of the players in this true story, not those of the actors we see on screen. It is not clear why she used this technique to color outside the lines because it is not obvious that the actors are lip-synching. It's an interesting hook but does nothing to enhance the story. On the otherhand, nor does it detract from it. Indeed, it is a triumph of acting for those who have suffered through myriad films that have been poorly dubbed.

Initially, it was a bit disconcerting and a wee bit awkward listening to the actors tell the stories of the real characters. (As an aside, it is hoped that CB will add subtitles for those unaccustomed to that garbled, under-enunciated North English accent.) But soon the actors became the people they were portraying. It is hard for me to separate Manjinder Virk from the real Lorraine, though one of the producers said they were careful to ensure that there was no resemblance. There’s a lot of talk in “The Arbor.” Normally, I would have preferred a little more action, but to show some of what befell Lorraine, such as a brutal rape and torture by a boyfriend/pimp, would have been unbearable to watch.

AD was a member of Great Britain’s vast underclass or, as the BBC refers to the poor and hopeless – downtrodden – who lives on the tough Buttershaw Estate or projects. Streets on the estate such as the Arbor are places where despair, drunkenness, drug abuse, spousal/partner abuse, teen and unwed pregnancy are the norm. And they are dens of racism, evidenced by the reaction to AD’s Pakistani boyfriend. Despite AD’s early success with “The Arbor” and later “Rita, Sue and Bob Too” – also staged by RCT – she could not rise above her circumstances, instead falling into an abyss of inappropriate men and alcohol that may have contributed to her death in 1990 at age 29 of a brain hemorrhage in a pub. "She died in her home, didn't she," says Lorraine who was also 29 when CB began recording her interviews in 2008. "She practically lived there anyhow."

It is into this world that the part-Pakistani Lorraine – who is at the center of the film – was born. It was Lorraine who saw her mother at her worst. She was in tow when her mother visited various pubs. And when she didn’t accompany her mother she could hear her coming home at night, almost always accompanied by a man. One night when Lorraine was pretending to be asleep she heard her mother tell one of her men that she wished the child had been not born and that she could not truly love her half-Pakistani child as much as her two white ones. That revelation seemed to thrust Lorraine into a life of drug abuse, unwed motherhood, prostitution, pimps, prison, a sugardaddy and a short-lived quickie marriage. CB says Lorraine, who was in prison as recently as 2007 for the manslaugther death of her son, is doing well now. One can only hope that she can keep it together, for so often in the past she’s failed to overcome her addiction to crack and heroin, which seemed to always land her in a hot mess.

Those of us who have mothers who did not love us or who we thought did not love us empathize with Lorraine. We are familiar with that despair and desperation. We cheer the precious few times when it seemed she would defeat her circumstances. And we morn her repeated failures. Yet we want her to find a way to rise above and stay above her hurt and pain, to not allow it to beat her down. We know it's possible to overcome. Prisons, insane asylums and cemeteries are full of the Lorraines of the world. And so are boardrooms, government bodies and grand concert stages.

“The Arbor” will have additional screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at SVA and at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday at Village East Cinemas. Visit www.tribecafilm.com for all Tribeca Film Festival information.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Extra Helpings of Love Today for the Planet

The opening scene in "Into Eternity." Photo Heikki Färm F.S.C. courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival. "Oceans" photo from Disney Pictures. Razia Said CD covershot from raziasaid.com.

IMAGINE building a gi-normous tomb three miles below earth for some remains – remains of the 300,000 tons of nuclear waste variety. Incidentally, it must not be disturbed for at least 100,000 years, lest Armageddon ensue. That’s what the Finnish are doing to atone for their share of nuclear waste. Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen uses this example as a raison d’etre for “Into Eternity.” In the documentary, he ruminates about how future civilizations can be forewarned to not touch that!

It’s fitting that “Into Eternity,” one of the 132 films in the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, will have a screening today – Earth Day (at 5:45 p.m. at the Village East Cinema).

All over the world Earth Day is being celebrated and commemorated through film, talks, art exhibits, recycling initiatives, marches, protests, music, etc. This is the humble list that is capturing the imagination of Yours Truly.

Also showing at TFF today is “Climate of Change,” which I led off with yesterday in my TFF preview (at 5 p.m. SVA).“COC” puts the spotlight on various little people who are trying to make the earth a better, cleaner place where they live.

First, Disney brought us “Earth.” Today, the studio offers “Oceans.” Narrated by actor Pierce Brosnon, it takes us with directors/divers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud into the ocean deep using state-of-the-art underwater technologies to explore the harsh realities therein and to observe the fascinating creatures that call it home. The film promises an “unprecedented” snapshot.

Razia Said, on of my favorite Gotham-based singer/songwriters, is celebrating Earth Day with a release party for her latest CD, “Zebu Nation” (at 9 p.m. at S.O.B.’s). RS conceived this record to help raise awareness about the devastating effects “of slash and burn agriculture and climate change” in her
native Madagascar. The Boston Globe says of “Zebu Nation” that "insistent, hypnotic rhythms share the bill with ethereal ballads ...” I’m inclined to agree about a record that pays homage to the rich musical culture of Malagasy.

Learn more about the Tribeca Film Festival and theater venue information at www.tribecafilm.com; check local movie listings for showings of “Oceans”; get tickets and reservations to Razia Said’s “Zebu Nation” CD release party at reception@sobs.com or contact S.O.B.’s at 212.243.4940; download a free song from “Zebu Nation” at http://razia.bandcamp.com/track/babonao-free-track-download; see a video link at http://razia.bandcamp.com/track/babonao-free-track-download, and purchase “Zebu Nation” at http://razia.bandcamp.com/.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tentacles of Tribeca Reach Doha and Beyond

A "Say No to Plastics" parade at Patna, India in a scene from "Climate of Change." Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

A group of 13-year-olds in India on a hate campaign against plastic and a man in Togo, West Africa with a love jones for solar power are proof that little guys can make a difference. Can we talk? Joan Rivers is a piece of work. So is, for instance, naming a child – a costly decision in more ways than one.

These are not just non sequiturs, but partial synopses of “Climate of Change” from the folks behind “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work” and “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Exposes the Hidden Side of Everything,” three of the 132 films to be shown at the ninth Tribeca Film Festival through 2 May. TFF opens today with “Shrek Forever After,” the fourth and alleged final installment of the popular franchise in its world premiere.

TFF closes with “Freakonomics,” which appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for an eternity, a fact to which Yours Truly can attest because as an editor in the paper’s news service once upon a time before she was laid off, it was often my job to “cross” the i’s and “dot” the t’s before the list was sent to clients the world over. I often wondered whether “Freakonomics,” served up by the talent behind “Super Size Me,” would appear in other iterations, and here it is at TFF.

The humble little film festival that Robert De Niro&Company created in 2001 after the attacks on the World Trade Center to revitalize a devastated Lower Manhattan boasts some interesting vital stats. Eighty-five feature films, 38 countries, 44 world premieres, seven international premieres, 15 North American premieres, six U.S. premieres and 12 New York City premieres, as well as panel discussions, press conferences, awards and so forth. On the roster, too, are 47 short films including two that on paper have captured my imagination. “Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn recounts the fascinating story of the Japanese-American farm girl/costume designer/Civil Rights activist-author. And in “A .45 at 50th” actor James Cromwell waxes gleeful about his encounter with the Black Panther Party.

The festival broadens its reach this year with two additions. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which was launched in October and showcases international film with a focus on Arab issues. It is co-hosting with TFF the “Shrek” premiere and several other events during the festival. The second newbie is TFF Virtual. Through this portal anybody anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can follow the festival online.

New York-based film buffs will discover that many TFF events require a badge, pass or special invitation. And the film screenings are not for the faint of wallet at $16 for evening and weekend screenings and $8 for those weekdays during the day. But community-minded TFF has come through with some pretty good freebies. The Tribeca Drive-In will be open for a movie an evening from 22-24 April, including Tom Hanks’ “Big” smash (Friday).

On 1 May is the Family Festival Street Fair, featuring the usual eye candy but a few surprises, too, including the red carpet at BMCC Tribeca PAC. Strollers on the red plank can be photographed with famous personnages from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Another first is a free screening of a TFF featured film, “The Snowmen,” a coming-of-age-tale concerning a gaggle of outcast boys. Also on 1 May for good sports is Tribeca/ESPN Sports Day. Expect games, competitions and stars, as well as a BMX Jams Tour, weather permitting. Rounding out the freebies are two series of panel discussions about screenwriting and the business/technology of moviemaking under the banners, Tribeca Talks: Pen to Paper and Tribeca Talks: Industry, respectively.

Stay connected here for comments and reviews throughout the festival.

Visit www.tribecafilm.com for all Tribeca Film Festival information.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Mother of a Story, As Told to Oprah

Nadya Suleman has an awesome job with loads of responsibility.

“I’m struggling. I’m surviving. I’m staying afloat.”

With those words Nadya Suleman ended her interview with Oprah today. You probably don’t know her by her proper name. But you do know her by the moniker, Octomom unless you’ve been under a rock in Timbuktu the last year or so.

The woman who last year infamously and famously became the first ever to give birth to eight healthy babies at once has been demonized, ostracized, ridiculed, mocked and harassed by the media for months. She already had six, for at total of 14 children. All the lies that have printed and uttered about her ... I’m surprised she has not been linked to an al-Qaida cell. She wrote Oprah to ask for an audience, and it was granted. As part of the deal she agreed to invite Oprah’s cameras into a day of her life. Intense doesn't begin describe it.

Several weeks ago, I watched her interview on The View – and I am a fan of the show – but I was annoyed at The Women. NS could barely get a word in. There were five women asking her questions at the same time, not bothering to wait for an answer. NS didn’t come across in the best light because in the face of indictments crafted as rapid-fire questions she started that cackling laugh. Who could blame her, for it was clear that The Women had her on the show to judge and accuse, rather than try to understand her motivation, which Oprah managed without being judgmental or indulgent.

Visit oprah.com to see excerpts. But keep it here to get my highlights: She didn’t plan to have eight children at once. The sperm bank or whatever agency had her eggs in storage was pestering her to deal with the eggs or incur various charges. She was doing well at the time – everyone was OK – and she decided why not. But she never imagined, “based on my previous birth pattern,” that she would birth eight children in one go.

Knowing what she knows now – if she had a do-over – she would not have had as many eggs implanted. She went to great pains, however, to assert that she does not regret giving birth to her children because she loves them. Repeatedly, she said her children are her responsibility and she would take care of them. And, no, she would not name the father. “That would be so unfair to him.”

At one point she got food stamps for a year with the six children. When she learned that food stamps are tied to welfare she stopped receiving them. She also traded Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, for private insurance. She doesn’t want to be a burden on the system, she explained.

In an effort fill an emotional need within herself, the 34-year-old only child had the first six children. Six are too many, she conceded to a bemused Oprah. She understands that. She gets it. She gets it that one parent per child is not enough, that two parents to a child is not enough. And she doesn’t have the time to give 14 children all of the physical and emotional support they need, even with a sometimes revolving door of three nannies. Imagine four people handling 14 children, more than half of them infants – whew!

Though she got $100,000 for posing in a bikini in Star Magazine, she is not proud of having done it. But a mother has to do what a mother has to do, especially when she has 14 mouths to feed, staff to compensate and a mortgage, etc. And the money will be running out shortly, so she needs something else. But there are some things she won’t do. For instance, a reality show, which she rightly acknowledges would exploit her children, who did not ask to be born or for an invasion of privacy.

And there are other things she won’t do for money, even a whole lot of it. “If they paid me $100 million I would never do a porn film,” said NS, who claims she had three such offers, one coming shortly after the birth of the eight. She’s holding out for something “respectable.”

This bright, beautiful, intelligent and insightful woman didn’t seek publicity – she became what she terms “a carnival attraction” by virtue of her extraordinary accomplishment. Other than setting up a Web site to solicit donations, appearing on “The View” and today on “Oprah,” she has avoided the media. And what a savvy move appearing on Oprah! It will be interesting to see the fallout from such respectable exposure.

One thing NS learned from the experience, is that we all realize that sometimes we do things to fill an unmet need. Oprah had a great analogy. “Some people are addicted to drugs or alcohol, you were addicted to having children.”

Observed NS, who can’t take her children to the park without being hounded by the paparazzi, “I have done more growing in the last year than I have in the previous 34 and a half.”

Normally, Yours Truly would not comment on such a story but after listening to NS I felt compelled to speak. To speak out of a frustration born of myriad wild speculations about this Octomom creature. She has such clarity, or she is a damned fine actress. I believe her. She speaks like someone who has been kicked in the butt by life and may actually learn something from it that she will heed henceforth and forevermore.

The woman definitely has issues. She’s probably a little crazy. She’s broken in parts. But let those of us who are not cast the first stone … I thought not. Let us, then, extend some respect and understanding to Nadya Suleman. Let’s deal with it. She has 14 children. She can’t ungive birth to any of them, and she gave Oprah to know in response to the query that she has not given any thought to giving any of her children up for adoption or placing any of her children in foster care. In addition to the nannies, she has help from her real friends whom this experience has clearly identified. For the record, she does not see more kids or a man anytime soon.

NS needs heavy doses of compassion. Enough of the haters. Girlfriend needs some (agape) lovers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Big Apple Owns a Piece of My Heart

The statue of The Bard in Central Park. Below, the elm trees are surrounded by a fence, which bears a placard that reads, "Help protect the American elm. Please keep out." Photos by Yours Truly.


HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is back! In New York after 68 days in North Louisiana where I was looking out for my Ma Ma who was admitted to hospital 31 January. She’s out and recovering beautifully. As for me, I have loads more to say about Monroe. But for the moment, Gotham tales.

AT the baggage claim at LaGuardia after the flight from Dallas-Fort Worth, I noticed it. Then in the taxi on the way home. And also when the nice lady taxi driver helped me with my bags. And yet again when I waged an epic battle to get my burden up the lone, long flight of stairs leading to my apartment door.

Even more palpable it was after I dropped my bags, greeted my roommate and set out on the streets of the Upper East Side of Manhattan last Tuesday night for some dinner. It felt as though I had not been away at all, as if I’d just walked out the door the night before for pizza. Except the night before I was crying on my cousin’s shoulder, mourning the makeover of my hometown of Monroe, Louisiana that left it almost unrecognizable.

Nine weeks I’d been away from New York. Nine weeks because my mother needed me. But walking across First Avenue toward Second Avenue in search of pizza, then to the wine shop a couple of blocks north of my apartment where I was sure to find a well-chilled bottle of Cristalino sparkling wine felt exceptionally routine and familiar.

The feeling persisted the rest of the week. The following night I attended a preview of Camper’s latest shoe line. On Thursday was Zac Posen’s shopping party at the New Yorker Hotel to celebrate his collaboration with Target, followed by a fashion show at the Paramount Hotel featuring the frocks of Indian designers, including Tia Cibani (Ports 1961). The last two days New York Entrepreneur Week on Thursday and Friday. And let me not forget Thursday afternoon bible study.

Remotely dissonant seemed none of this gadabouting. Had I actually been away? Of course. I had the plane tickets to prove it and plenty of witnesses. I didn’t dream it up like a character on a TV show who dreams up an entire season. A figment of my fertile imagination it was not. Pleased that my transition has been so seamless, though the seamlessness is surprising for its familiarity.

The feeling was most palpable Saturday evening as I strolled through Central Park, one of my favorite spots in Manhattan. At Fifth Avenue and East 79th street, I entered steps away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I made my way southwest toward the Boat House Café and the Great Lawn. This walking was the perfect elixir for the extreme fatigue that all day had been drawing the energy out of me. It was exhilarating to be walking again wherever I pleased after two months of relying on cars to get around.

The park was a vision. The trees seemed bigger, their leaves greener. And so they were, it is spring after all. I missed this oasis in the middle of manic Manhattan. Tears formed a reservoir in my eyes and in double quick fashion were streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t bother to wipe them away or hide them. I felt no embarrassment. I was happy. These were tears of joy!

Passing the statue of William Shakespeare near East 72nd St and the enclosed family of elm trees nearby I got an epiphany. Everything – airport, streets, parties, meetings, park – was familiar and comfortable like home. What a relief after two months of feeling displaced. To now be in a place that I understood, that made sense …

As I gazed through the gaps of the gnarled trunks of those elms – a sight for blurry eyes! – I got another epiphany. Monroe, Louisiana is my hometown. New York City is where my heart is. It is my home.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Oprah, My Town Is Dissin' Your Zone Defense

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

DEAR Oprah:

Hello … I hope you are sitting down.

On two different occasions yesterday a driver was coming at me so fast from behind that I was certain that I was going to be rear-ended. I braced myself for impact or a quick departure from the road. Luckily, each driver stopped just in the nick of time. Incredible as it may seem, that’s happened several times in the last few weeks.

One day I was waiting for an approaching car to pass so that I could make a left turn. In the time it took the driver to reach me I could have, of course, made the turn. I could have also had a manicure, pedicure and shopped for a few personal items at CVS.

A few days ago the driver in front of me sat until the green light was about to turn yellow before she went through it. I thought she was sleeping at the wheel because her head was bent down like she was dozing off.

Oprah Winfrey has designated April 30 "National No Phone Zone Day." Image from Harpo Productions, Inc.

All around me automobiles are going too slow or too fast or swerving to avoid each other or to avoid going off the road. These drivers are not drunk or high – at least not on drugs. At least I don't think so. What I am sure of however, is that they are DWT, that is driving while talking/texting.

Oprah, please consider visiting my hometown of Monroe, Louisiana to make a personal appeal to residents to stop driving while talking/texting. Sooner or later someone is going to be seriously injured or killed by someone involved in this dangerous practice. Already, thousands of people around the country have died or been injured in DWT incidents.

The last few months you have been on a mission to convince drivers in the United States, and I am sure the world at-large, to stop using their cell phones to text and talk while they are driving. You have a catchy phrase for it in “No Phone Zone.” I applaud you for bringing this to my attention. It was not until recently an issue near and dear to my heart because I live in New York. I mainly get around on public transport. Occasionally, I take a taxi and who knows what they are doing in the front seat. In any case, there is a hands-free law on the books.

Indeed, you have made a big issue out of DWT. On several occasions you have dedicated segments or the entire Oprah show to this issue with facts, stats and charts to hammer home the point that DWT is dangerous and deadly. Numerous guests have disclosed how their DWT or someone else’s has impacted their lives. In every case there has been injury and/or loss of life. Visitors to Oprah.com can take the NPZ pledge and even create their own 60-minute public service announcement, which may be aired on your show. You routinely ask guests to take a NPZ pledge and most of them do it in part. Most who can’t give up talking at the very least pledge to use a hands-free set while talking. While only marginally better than holding the phone, it is a start. You’ve issued an edict at Harpo Productions that no employee is to do phone business for while driving. You've also requested that employees conduct no personal phone business while driving. A whole section of your Web site is dedicated to convincing people to stop DWT.

Yet, in Monroe where I have been the last nine weeks on family business at least half the drivers, in my estimation, either do not watch your show or have decided to ignore your pleas. This is such a good cause I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to join. I’ve noticed the aforementioned and other incidences of DWT such as serial tailgating because I am driving again for the first time in 11 years. I earned my driver’s license on March 2 after attending driving school, taking the vision, written and driver’s test and for several weeks familiarizing myself with Louisiana traffic laws as if I were studying for comps. Unfortunately, in Louisiana, which is the case in most of the rest of the country and world, there is currently no law on the books outlawing DWT. Only a handful of municipalities like New York and Washington, D,C., outlaw hand-held phones. The laws will eventually change, but only after the senseless loss of more life.

Last week as I was leaving the supermarket parking lot, two drivers of SUVs almost crashed into each other. One was on the way out; the other was on the way in. Both were chatting distractedly on their cell phones.

Oprah, come soon – maybe on April 30, which you have designated “National No Phone Zone Day" – before somebody else is seriously injured or killed.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.


Best,




V. Wright
E-mail: vevlyn@yahoo.com

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Where the Magic of Learning Began Is Changed

Teachers and students at J.S. Clark Magnet School. Photos from mcschools.net


HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

MRS. WRIGHT, (no relation), my 2nd-grade teacher stands out in my mind for two reasons. First, she assigned me to a left-handed desk. No doubt, she thought she was doing a good thing because it would be easier for me to write. After all, I was – and still am – left-handed. While I had to twist and contort my body in the right-handed desk to write, and it sometimes put too much pressure on my dangling lower arm, I was managing just fine, thank you very much. I was mortified. My staring classmates were mystified. No one teased me, but I know they were thinking about it. Why couldn’t Mrs. W. just mind her own business, my 2nd-grader’s mind groused.

The other reason I’ve never forgotten Mrs. W. is because it was in her 2nd-grade class that I learned comprehension. “No calling words,” she would warn, meaning that we students not only had to read a passage but had to write and recite what it meant. One did not leave her class until one had such mastery and proficiency. I had many other fine teachers at J.S. Clark Elementary School. No one taught math like Mr. Martin or spelling like Miss McCaa.

In subsequent years, particularly living in places like Boston, Paris and New York where I encountered and befriended people who received what are considered elite educations in European and Eastern boarding schools, I always declared that I received a comparable primary school education. I still stand by that claim. A primary school is like the foundation of a structure. If the foundation is weak, so is the structure. I could cope with pre-calculus and trigonometry in high school because of the fundamentals I learned in Mr. Martin’s 5th-grade math class. Likewise, I scored well on standardized tests for comprehension and distinguished myself on many college papers because of Mrs. W's good work. I had a good start.

All of this came flooding back to me a couple of weeks ago when I was driving along Washington Street – one of the many streets in Monroe – that has been transformed, almost beyond recognition. In my peripheral vision I saw J.S. Clark on a structure and thought nothing of it. Seconds later, though, I realized that I just passed my elementary school. How changed it was! What happened to the two modest partial-brick buildings standing parallel to each other like two planks? They’d been obliterated, I believed until the next time I drove across Washington. This time I saw that the familiar structures were still intact, only that a new front had been constructed to adjourn them and add new office space and an entryway. There were other changes, too. The playground had been transformed with more swings and such. And a building that was across the grounds from the auditorium had been torn down and was now a parking lot. Yet another change was the school’s name: J.S. Clark Magnet School, serving students PK-6, not 1-6.

One morning after observing my mother’s physical therapy at the nursing home, I stopped by this J.S. Clark Magnet School. I walked around the grounds, allowing the memories that would to wash over me. I remembered all of the stray pencils I collected and the many recesses I spent on the monkey bars. Unsuccessfully, I tried to remember what stood once upon a time where new things now did. And after fruitless efforts to find the principal’s office after walking in the direction of the cafeteria, I just walked into the nearest opening confident that I would find my way.

Students get their exercise on in physical education class in the gym.

The halls seemed smaller, naturally since I was now larger. The walls were covered with drawings and decorations that spoke to their surroundings. One familiar object on the walls was a picture of and plaque about the school’s namesake, who was amongst other things, a Louisiana native, Harvard man and the first president of my undergraduate school, Southern University.

A few minutes later I was standing at the school office where I introduced myself to the secretary, Mrs. Yerger. She is an affable woman of retirement age with a pleasant countenance and with lots of handy information about the school and surroundings, including the graveyard next door, which I vaguely recalled. “It has a lot more people in it,” she volunteered when I observed that it seemed smaller when I was a student.

Mrs. Y. introduced me to Dr. Susan Cole who is Clark’s Program Coordinator and possibly its biggest cheerleader for the magnet school. “People are fighting to get into this school. We have a waiting list for students and teachers,” she boasted.

And Dr. C. stuffed me with myriad facts and figures and accolades that spoke to Clark’s status as one of the best magnet schools in the city, state and country. Dr. C wasn’t just talkin’ either.

Schooldigger.com, a school search tool for parents that rates schools on scores, class sizes and other variables, gave Clark a perfect five stars. Only one other local public elementary school earned the distinction. Clark, too, is one of the few public schools in the state to earn a perfect 10 rating from the nonprofit education resource, GreatSchools. Further, the school is highly ranked on the LEAP21, though its ranking dropped 11 points from school year 2006-07 to 2008-09. This could be explained in part by higher scores at other schools in the state, because the performance of Clark students on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program for the 21st Century tests has changed very little. LEAP21 tests are designed to measure the proficiency of 4th- and 8th-graders in English language arts, math, science and social studies.

Alas, Louisiana still has one of the worst educational systems in the country – even at the primary school level, according to the latest “Nation’s Report Card” from the U.S. Department of Education. Of course not all primary schools are created equally. Clark is one of the best schools in the city, and the city has one of the best school districts in the state – better than many schools/districts in higher-ranked – states, which is why I believe I got such a good primary school education. So will current Clark students.

While Clark is still predominantly black, it is now integrated, attracting students from both the predominantly black south side of the city and white students from the predominantly north side. “I tell people that we’re not South, we’re not North. We’re midtown,” Dr. C. asserted about Clark, which is her custom for all who have ears.

I was a student at Clark in the late 20th century during the waning years of the Industrial Revolution. In the early 21st Century, near the beginning of the Technological Revolution, primary school education is a very different animal. Clark has a Young Astronauts Program, DARE, Gifted Program and an In-House Zoo. The students are required to wear school uniforms. There is a Technology Club and Student Council. Parent contracts must be signed before students can be enrolled at the school. Little of the Clark I knew exists because it is a magnet school, with a specific mandate, Dr. Cole explained. “Magnet schools are encouraged to create a new identity for themselves.”

From some angles the exterior of Clark is unfamiliar.

And so Clark has. Schools like it all over the country have had to change to meet the challenges of educating young minds in a far more complicated and sophisticated world than the one in which I came of age.

It is bittersweet. I am sad that I do not recognize the place where so many rudiments were poured into me. Yet, it’s heartening to know that Clark is still providing the kind of primary school education that can stand proudly with The Dalton Schools (current tuition, $34.1K) of the world.

Learn more at http://www.mcschools.net/site435.php; www.schooldigger.com; www.greatschools.org; http://www.doe.state.la.us/lde/saa/2273.html; http://nationsreportcard.gov/about.asp;www.dalton.org.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Spoils of War Outlive Their Captor

A detail shot of the serving platter from Beulah Calloway's 64-piece China set. Photos by Yours Truly.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

I’VE been living in my late aunt’s house two months now. I’ll call her Aunt N. She retired to Monroe from Saginaw in the late 1990s to be near my mother, her sister.

Over the last couple of months I’ve made some interesting discoveries/re-discoveries about house-living and Aunt N’s in particular.

One of the first things I noticed is the huge closets in every bedroom. There is, too, a smaller closet on the hall and, a linen closet. A closet just for the sheets and towels. Imagine that! The combined closet space is almost as large as some New York City apartments. In fact, a large closet in a New York apartment is a huge selling point. One must think in context, though. A large closet – mine, for instance – in a New York apartment is less than half the size of the ones in this house.

There is generally sufficient space for just about everything here, though I would venture to say that Aunt N needed a larger house or, fewer things. Another feature of the house is a deep freezer. Where else is one to store those foods that should be frozen? The refrigerator freezer is mainly for ice and Popsicles or maybe a chicken pot pie. But meat, game, ice cream, extra bread and butter go in the deep freezer.

The deep freezer is in the utility room where the washer and dryer hang out. How easily one forgets such conveniences. Aunt N extended the size of her utility room to accommodate another closet and for general storage space for various whatnots. Without a doubt, hers is definitely larger than a lot of NYC studio apartments. It is also in the utility room where I discovered the plunger, to my great relief. And it is home to a rake and hoe. I mean garden tools, not people.

The sugar dish and eight plates that are part of a collection that has been well-preserved.

The most interesting of my discovering by far, though, is the presence of my late grandmother’s good dishes staring back at me from my Aunt N’s China cabinet. Had they been crying out to me for weeks? Tear-stained or not, the years have treated them well. They are in mint condition. Even as a child I admired the ivory-colored China set with silver trim. My grandmother would cart it out for special occasions such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, or if we were hosting a very special guest. Though one of my chores was washing dishes (but not pots and pans) I was exempted from washing these dishes. My grandmother always washed them, dried them and returned them to their proper place with tender-loving care.

The saddest day of my life was well over 20 years ago. It was the day that Beulah Calloway senior died. I was in class at my elementary school when someone from the principal’s office came in and whispered something to the teacher. I was called forward and led out to the principal’s office. Awaiting me was my aunt-in-law and the bearer of the bad news. Aunt S – who inexplicably called me Old Lady – helped me into the car, and we set out for my home in silence.

It was Aunt S’s custom to joke with me and tease me, but I believe she was intentionally quiet because she understood that I was processing the news in my child’s way. Heretofore, I'd not known anyone who'd died – at least not personally. I didn’t cry. I just sat ramrod straight in the passenger seat and looked straight ahead. I was stunned and in denial. It didn’t seem real, nor should it have. I’d just seen my grandmother before I left home for school that morning, before I bid her good day and walked the half block to the bus stop. When we got home I bolted from the car, ran into the house and made a beeline for the forest green leather sofa where my grandmother had died a few hours earlier in her sleep. I sat. And wept.

Over the next few days life was aswirl at the Calloway house, for BC was a beloved and revered figure. Visitors were in and out all day every day with food, offers of assistance and condolences. Even one of my teachers dropped by. The phone was ringing off the hook. Several of my great aunts served as hostesses. Relatives were arriving from all around the country, including Aunt N from Saginaw.

One night when Aunt N was at my grandparents’ house she passed through the kitchen where I was assisting one or other of the great aunts. There was nothing remarkable about her being there. She might have been going to one of the bedrooms or to the bathroom. We paid her no mind. She’d stopped in the short hall that separated my bedroom from the bedroom of another aunt, Aunt E, who occupied a large room in one corner of my grandparents’ house. Aunt N knocked; Aunt E opened the door and soon they were chatting amicably.

From left, my grandmother's salt and pepper shakers, sugar jar, milk/cream pitcher and butter dish.

In double-quick fashion, though, voices were rising. Now there was shouting, mainly from hot-tempered Aunt N. According to family lore, the two never got along – even as girls. “She didn’t treat my mother right,” Aunt N disclosed to me without elaboration a couple of years ago when I pressed her for details.

The fuss captured the attention of us in the kitchen. From what I could make out they were arguing about who should get their recently deceased mother's linen and some other things. Then the subject of her good China – Gold China Elegance made in Japan– came up, followed by a little piece of hell breaking out. The shouting escalated to curses, accusations and threats, immediately followed by blows. I recall my grandfather and uncle dragging away Aunt N, literally kicking and screaming. Aunt E slammed her door and retreated into her hovel.

In the days after the funeral a number of my grandmother’s things would go missing – linen, clothes, jewelry, hats. And the 64-piece China set.

All these years later it is safe and remarkably sound, and I hope to make it mine – without a fight.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Pimping Sweets, Snacks – Even Your Water

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

When I opened my late aunt’s refrigerator and cupboards on my first day in Monroe – whoa! It was full of foods containing additives designed to extend their shelf life, but which would shorten our lives. Leading the way were foods – soft drinks, sauces, jellies – containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). A close second was those containing trans fats. In double-quick fashion I rounded them up and threw them out.

I thanked God that I’d packed food, including nuts, olives and Cabot Unsalted Butter, which I was introduced to a few years ago at the time I discovered both the Food Network and Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. She uses the Cabot regular butter because I am sure she does not have high blood pressure as I do.

Exposing the ills of trans fat and all unhealthy foods/additives/chemicals is part of my humble initiative to make the world a better, healthier height-weight proportionate place, with the admonition that at least moderate exercise is mandatory for any healthy lifestyle. In the last couple of days in honor of Easter, I’ve commented on chocolate, HFCS, eggs and flour. For more details, read: http://vevlynspen.blogspot.com/2010/03/fond-memories-of-licorice-and-cherry.html and http://vevlynspen.blogspot.com/2010/04/chickens-that-are-free-to-come-and-go.html

Today, I conclude with trans fats and soft drinks.

TRANS FATS
I was of a strong mind to pack my olive oil but my better judgment convinced me that the large bottle would not make the trip intact. When my glance passed over the Crisco shortening in my aunt’s cupboard, that decided that I would not be preparing any foods requiring oil until I could get some olive or canola oil.

These oils come from the healthier fats. However, all fats must be consumed in moderation to protect against illnesses such as heart disease and stroke. The four major dietary fats in our foods are trans fats, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Trans fats and saturated fats are considered bad, while their counterparts are considered good and are contained in olive, canola and other oils that generally come in liquid form.

Let’s count the reasons that trans fat should be eliminated from our diets: 1. They raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels; 2. Lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels; 3. Increase the risk of developing heart disease; 4. Increase the risk of a stroke; 5. They are associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, amongst other bad things. Surely, no sensible body would need more convincing to rid his diet of trans fat.

Fortunately and unfortunately for the unsuspecting public, trans fats are omnipresent. In shortening, margarine, cookies, cakes, doughnuts, crackers, corn chips, potato chips, pork rinds, frozen foods, fried foods – particularly commercially fried foods. That includes chicken, pork, fish, hamburgers, French fries, onion rings, apple pies, etc.

Trans fats are (alias, trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils) created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. The American Heart Association, one of the sources I consulted for this article, has on its Web site a very informative booklet titled “Face the Fats.” Read it at http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3045789

Chew on this bit of trivia from Dr. Mehmet Oz: “Trans fat was originally designed for candle wax, but the market died with the advent of electricity.” Candle wax? Yikes! (Dr. Oz has a great sense of humor, serious sense of purpose, his own TV show and Web site, as well as a smashing gig as director of the Cardiovascular Institute at New York Presbysterian/Columbia.

Why would manufacturers use such an additive, one might wonder? Dr. Oz has some theories, but the AHA puts it best. “Companies like using trans fats in their foods because they’re easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time,” it writes on its trans fat Web page. “Trans fats give foods a desirable taste and texture. Many restaurants and fast-food outlets use trans fats to deep-fry foods because oils with trans fats can be used many times in commercial fryers.”

Does this mean that we should stop eating out? No, but it means we should greatly decrease our visits to such establishments. We can also pressure them - and we all know who they are - to cook with oils that do not contain trans fats. Remember, the power of the pocketbook. Further, we could as families and individuals cook more of our meals at home, allowing for control over the amount of everything potentially harmful in our food.

Good news for supermarket, grocery store and convenience store shoppers is that manufacturers are required to list the presence of all fats, including trans fats, on food labels. Customarily, if a food does not contain trans fats, it is listed prominently on the package. The back of my bag of lightly salted Kettle Brand potato chips goes to great pains to inform me and all who have eyes that not only do they contain 0 grams of trans fat, they contain none of the following: 1. MSG, 2. artificial flavors; 3. artificial colors; 4. preservatives; 5. GMO ingredients; 6. gluten; 7. nothing artificial, and 8. contain only "real food ingredients."

Still, I read the label - as every consumer should - before I purchased them. Are my Kettle chips a healthy snack? Consider: They contain no trans fat, but in one serving or about 13 chips do contain 1 gram of both saturated and polyunsaturated fat, as well as 7 grams of monounsaturated fats for a total of 9 grams of fat. Each gram of fat has about 9 calories. One serving of these chips has 150 calories, of which 80 come from fat. That equals 14 percent of fat for someone on at 2,000 calorie-a-day diet. A baker's dozen of potato chips also contain 0 cholesterol, 5 percent sodium, 12 percent potassium; 5 percent carbs, 4 percent fiber; 0 sugar, and no measurable protein. I'm no Dr. Oz but I think he'd advise going easy on the chips. Just because a food does not contain trans fats does not means it’s healthy. I eat the Kettle chips in moderation, and never as a snack. A snack in my eating plan is something like a banana, nuts or celery/carrots w/ or w/out a nut butter.

While movements are afoot to require restaurants, including the chains, to either stop cooking with trans fats and/or to list which foods contain them, they are not yet required to do so. Buyer, beware. Buyer, be aware.

SOFT DRINKS
A few weeks ago I had my cousin and her family over for Sunday lunch. It is the same cousin who in part inspired this series of articles.

Her husband and teenage daughter are two of the most finicky eaters I have ever encountered. They love fried foods, however. Fourteen-year-old Brownie, her nickname, loves soft drinks, too. She’s a big fan of Sunny D, which contains HFCS as do most sodas and processed fruit juices. Sunny D was part of the haul that I banished to the trash upon my arrival.

Fresh-squeezed orange juice is healthier than juice made from concentrate. Photo courtesy of Tree-Pictures.com. Photos above of cherry pie, oil and butter are courtesy of the American Heart Association.

The challenge was to make a beverage that would meet Brownie’s approval, since I couldn’t lawfully or morally ply the child with Merlot. I decided on tea. I sweetened it with light brown sugar and added lemon and a ton of oranges – a favorite of Brownie’s.

When she sat down she gave me to know in no uncertain terms that she did not like tea. Undaunted, I coaxed her by talking up the oranges. I poured a trace amount in her glass and begged her to try it.

“You like it,” I asked hopefully,

She looked over at her father and smirked. Sheepishly, she turned to me, No, ma’am.

Back to the drawing board for me and possibly a lot of parents who may be trying to wean their kids (or themselves or spouses) off of soft drinks, even if they are diet sodas.

“Did you think that just because diet soda was calorie-free that it was guilt-free, too? Sorry,” writes Dr. Michael Roizen on doctoroz.com. “Even drinking diet drinks is associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome,” a combination of medical disorders that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes

And from “The Enforcer” more bad news. “Consumption of sugar (or its equivalents, like corn syrup) in soft drinks has been linked to obesity in children and adolescents,” said MR, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. “But a recent study of almost all 50-year-old men and women in Framingham, Massachusetts, found that having more than one soft drink daily, whether sugared or diet, increased the risk of metabolic syndrome by 44 percent over a four-year period. The risk was increased similarly whether the drink was sugared or diet.”

In an article titled “How Can I Stop Drinking So Much Soda?” on webmed.com are some soft-drink alternatives that include sprucing up water with mint, lemon and frozen strawberries. Others are coffee, tea and soy milk. Probably more palatable is a homemade juice spritzer: “Combine one or two parts seltzer, mineral water, or club soda with one part 100 percent fruit juice (try fresh orange juice).” Yum!

Learn more about the issues discussed in this article at the following Web sites: www.americanheart.org; www.doctoroz.com; http://my.clevelandclinic.org/; www.webmd.com

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Chickens That Are Free to Come and Go

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

During my walk earlier this morning, I heard a spot on the radio advertising a local elementary school’s 2,500-strong Easter egg hunt. How timely, for it is today that I lay down some “nutritional” tracks about eggs and flour.

This is part of my humble initiative to make the world a better, healthier height-weight proportionate place through basic nutritional education and, with the admonition that at least moderate exercise is mandatory for any healthy lifestyle. With these mandates and with Easter food intake on the brain, I had some choice words yesterday about chocolate and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Accompanied by a dizzying array of statistics that I don’t believe are of the, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics” variety, I put forth some compelling reasons to consume both with care – or not at all. For details, read http://vevlynspen.blogspot.com/2010/03/fond-memories-of-licorice-and-cherry.html. Tomorrow, I conclude with trans fats and soft drinks.

EGGS
They have been the objects of scrutiny – no doubt we’re all familiar with their role in causing high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), which can cause arteries to clog and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. This bit from the American Heart Association and pretty much the consensus view of the medical community.

On doctoroz.com, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective states, “Although eggs used to be considered an ideal protein source, in the past three decades they have been wrongly accused of contributing to heart disease. As a result, some people have switched to eating only low-fat egg whites or using egg substitutes.

However, BWHBC gives the OK to those in “good general health” to have no more than seven eggs a week, regardless of how prettily they are decorated. Eggs are also one of several food sources of Vitamin D, which helps build strong bones, and protects against heart attack and high blood pressure. They are also nutrient-rich relative to their calories. And eggs from free-range chickens, BWHBC adds, “fed organic diets high in essential fatty acids contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids - more than eggs from chickens in conventional factories.”

In other words, the best and most healthful eggs to buy for the Easter egg hunt or to make meringue for lemon pie or for omelets or for just throwing in the face of some deserving body – these eggs would originate from chickens that are allowed to roam around as they did in my grandparents’ large backyard – to my great shame. They would not be packed in cages like sardines. These would be from chickens that are fed grains – chicken feed is what my grandfather called it – as opposed to say, other chickens. One example is perhaps the large brown Farmhouse Eggs that I picked up at Brookshire’s. They are from natural, grain-fed, roaming (hopefully more than five minutes a day, which is the minimum USDA requirement), nesting, cage-free hens.

FLOUR
Like chickens, humans need grains, too. As the AHA points out, “dietary fiber from whole grains, as part of an overall healthy diet, helps reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower risk of heart disease."

Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, corn, or another cereal – without any part of the grain being stripped – is a whole grain. Whole grains are one of two major types of grains. The other is refined grains. Unlike refined grains, whole grains are also filling, which can slow weight gain and its side effects.

Unfortunately, when refined grains are ground into flour, for instance, the bran and germ that are the core of any whole grain are stripped. Most of the B-vitamins and iron are taken, but some are restored after processing to "enrich" the flour. However, the fiber is taken and not added back, negating virtually all of the nutritional value of enriched flour. In other words, white bread does nothing to help reduce cholesterol levels or the likelihood of heart problems. Same story for all of the mouthwatering cakes and pies made using enriched flour. And, yes, even for wheat bread if it is not made with 100 percent whole grain flour, meaning the flour has not been enriched. Because it did not need to be. Because none of its nutrients were ever removed.

Confusing, I know. It took me 20 minutes to choose a loaf of bread last week, and when I got home I realized I’d bought the wrong thing. It was made from “wheat flour.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Not so fast! Wheat flour is enriched because it is made from refined grains. “Whole wheat flour” and “100% wheat flour,” are made from whole grains.

Incidentally, I found no proper flour in Monroe until after I visited the health food store, Fiesta Nutrition Center. It stocks whole wheat flour, whole wheat pastry flour and unbleached flour from my brand of choice, Arrowhead Mills, which I buy from my favorite health food store in Manhattan. On a visit to Brookshire's just yesterday, I found three good flours: Gold Medal All Natural Whole Wheat Flour; Hodgson Mill Old Fashioned Whole Grain 100% Stone Ground All Natural Rye Flour, and King Arthur Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour. FYI, the 5-lb. bag of Gold Medal is on sale for $2 with the Brookshire's shoppers' card.

Grudgingly, I returned that loaf of bread and exchanged it for Nature’s Own, a wheat bread made from 100 percent whole grains. It also contains no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors and no HFCS. As an added bonus it bears the AHA’s Heart Healthy Seal. What sealed the deal for me, however, was the first ingredient in the list: whole wheat flour. Are you listening Dr. Michael Roizen?

The man Dr. Mehmet Oz calls “The Enforcer” is very bullish on 100 percent whole grain flour. “Anything other than 100 percent whole grains means they took the good stuff out. And don't fall for the misconception that "enriched flour" is healthier than regular flour,” he writes on doctoroz.com. MR is the chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. “The enriched means they took all the good stuff out, and put a little of it back in. Enriched flour is not much better for you than straight sugar.”

Sweet heaven!

Learn more about the issues discussed in this article at the following Web sites: www.americanheart.org; www.doctoroz.com; http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/; www.brookshires.com; www.fiestanutritionctr.com; www.arrowheadmeals.com; www.naturesownbread.com; http://my.clevelandclinic.org/.
 
Creative Commons License
VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at vevlynspen.blogspot.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at vevlyn@yahoo.com.