September 25, 2004

Dollar Coins in the U.S.A.

While shopping at Trader Joe's in San Francisco the cashier asked me if I had kids. Confused but thinking that I was going to be offered some stickers to take to the kids I said yes. Instead of stickers, I was offered two dollars of my change in coins rather than bills.

Dollar coins are treated not as the currency that they are, but rather as novelty items. They're a treat for children, not a coin for every day use. At least, that is what the American public seems to think on the matter.

One paper dollar bill costs the government 4.2 cents to make and has a life span of about 20 months. One dollar coin costs the government almost three times as much to make at 12 cents per coin, but the life span of a dollar coin is 30 years. In other words, for the government to keep one paper dollar bill in circulation for the same length of time as a dollar coin, it would cost the government about 76 cents. Considering the number of dollar bills that are in circulation, Americans could save their government (and thereby themselves in taxes) quite a bit of money every year simply by using dollar coins instead of paper bills.

The vending machines that sell stamps in most post offices give dollar coins as change (though they don't accept them in payment, oddly enough). You can also get dollar coins simply by going to the bank and asking for them. (Granted, you'll have to exchange some paper money for them. Rob, my husband, usually buys $80 worth of dollar coins at a time.)

Simply by using dollar coins, you can expose others to them. The more people become comfortable with dollar coins, the more they may be willing to use them.

Come on, you reticent Americans. The Canadians have not only dollar coins, but two dollar coins as well! If they can do it then we bloody well can too.

September 22, 2004

Zucchini Flan with Tomato Coulis

This recipe is from the New York Times "Dining In" Section, September 3, 2003.

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
2 to 3 pounds zucchini, washed and thinly sliced (i use the side of my grater)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic (i don't measure. i just use lots)
5 eggs
1/4 cup cream or milk
4 medium tomatoes, preferably very ripe, cored and roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon sugar (i use brown sugar or sucanut)

1. Put half the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini, a large pinch of salt and some pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until zucchini wilts and gives up its liquid; add 1 tablespoon garlic. Continue to cook until zucchini browns slightly. (mine never really browns, but it gets pretty wilty.)

2. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees and set a kettle of water to boil. Beat together the eggs, cream and more salt and pepper. When zucchini is done, let it cool slightly, then scoop slices into egg mixture, using a slotted spoon. Stir. LIghtly grease an 8 by 4 inch nonstick loaf pan in a baking dish and put in oven; add water to come as far up sides of loaf pan as is practical. Bake until flan is set, but still slightly jiggly in middle, about 30 minutes.

3. While flan cooks, make tomato coulis: Put remaining oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add tomatoes, remaining garlic, salt and pepper, Basil and sugar. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 15 minutes.

4. When flan is done, cool it on a rack for a few minutes. Invert over a plate and unmold. (I don't bother. I just scoop it out for everyone.) Cool until warm, then slice and serve with tomato coulis.

The recipe says "8 servings as a first course or light lunch" but my husband and I will pretty easily split this between us as our entire dinner.

September 21, 2004

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith

Genre: Nonfiction
Author:Eric O. Jacobsen
Suburbs are a fairly new phenomenon. Before cars it was simply silly to consider building housing as far away from business as is the practice today. Most people had to walk or ride a horse drawn carriage to work, shopping, etc. and distances were spaced accordingly. (This is often referred to as building on a human scale.)

Today, however, the automobile has changed the landscape and a group of people called New Urbanists believe that it has been a change for the worse. Besides the environmental degradation caused by this new pattern of development, there are other, more social, issues at stake. Our cities aren't as grand or beautiful as they once where (Do you know anyone who would choose to visit Denver over Rome, or Pontiac over Paris?), they aren't as safe (Current redesigns of cities put fewer "eyes on the street.") and they aren't as conducive to building community. (How many neighbors can you stop and chat with when you're whizzing past in an automobile?)

New Urbanists have been around for over a decade, but for the first time (that I know of, at any rate) a Christian author has looked critically at the arguments that New Urbanists have made and has decided that not only should Christians support them, but should join wholeheartedly in the New Urbanist movement. Eric O. Jacobsen is excellent at stating the tenants of New Urbanism in a very concise, yet readily accessible way. But what I find even more exciting (and this is a step that I hadn't fully followed through on in my own study of New Urbanism) he ties their tenants to Biblical principles. He points out that evangelism, hospitality, even encouragement can all happen more naturally in a New Urbanist environment (as opposed to forcing these things in the suburban environment through programming and increasingly moving toward entertainment as a form of "worship").

I have lived in Colorado Springs (sprawl-o-rama) and in San Francisco (makes New Urbanists smile), and I've seen in my own life that these principals of architecture (of all things!) really do affect relationships. Sprawl is causing the average American to become lonelier, feel less connected, and to relate less often with people who are different than themselves (becoming more segregated than ever). I should point out here, for all those with a "small town" mindset, small towns are generally built on New Urbanist principals. It is easier to develop relationships in small towns not only because they're small, but because of the layout of the town itself. Suburbs, on the other hand, may have the same smaller amount of people, but are laid out such that community is much harder to come by naturally.

As Christians, we should be at the forefront of the New Urbanist movement. We have to have some means of running into neighbors that will lead to our giving of hospitality, making of friendships and sharing of the gospel. (I don't mean that we're accosting them with a gospel presentation every time we see them in front of their house, but passing by and meeting them in front of their house in the first place may later lead to a far more natural means of sharing the gospel later.) Meeting them on the sidewalk as we're walking to work/school/the store is a natural means of getting to know people (hence the title of the book).

New Urbanism doesn't mean that we all need to crowd into cities such as San Francisco and New York City, but it does mean developing our current cities in a more person friendly manner (on a human scale). This is not really a new movement at all, but a call to get back to basics. In Christianese, one might even call it "fundamentalism" in architecture.

Though I consider this a must read for most Christians, non-Christians may also be interested in this book, not only because it'll give them something to bug their Christian friends about, but because Jacobsen really does a fantastic job of synthesizing the issues. I’ve read a couple of different New Urbanist authors and of them all, I believe Jacobsen is the most concise and one of the better authors at getting to the heart of the matter in a way that makes the reader feel like they’ve had an “Ah ha! Now I get it!” moment.

September 20, 2004

Coming Home to Eat: the pleasures and politics of local foods

Genre: Health, Mind & Body
Author:Gary Paul Nabhan
While hanging out at a local, independent bookstore in town, I peered toward the "staff picks" table and eyed a book that I thought might be interesting. The book was called Coming Home to Eat. And as I sat in the store's big, overstuffed chair and began to read, I became hooked.

Gary Nabhan helped start the movement to save seeds, not genetically altered or hybrid seeds, but native seeds (as God had originally designed them). With a degree in agriculture, Nabhan has long been interested in the plight of family farms, the use of pesticides, etc. But at some point he began to see the value in eating foods that were grown locally as well as foods that were native to the area where he lived. With that in mind, he set out to eat locally (within 250 miles of his house) for one year. (If 4 out of 5 foods that he ate were local, he was satisfied with that.)

This book is a chronicle of that year. Written in a story format, he explores questions that both his friends and neighbors bring up as well as ones that nag at him personally. He tests the viability of living locally and admits to problems as well as to the overwhelming benefits (especially to the native peoples that live near him in Arizona and Mexico). When his story intersects with a political, social or agricultural issue, he delves a little deeper explaining the problems and possible solutions. He brought out facets of farming, cooking and eating that I hadn't even considered before (even though I've been investigating the organic vs. commercial issue for a few years now). And he brought in elements of food that I believe are true but seldom touched upon (such as the political or spiritual aspects of food and the land upon which it is grown).

Though Nabhan gives no indication of being a Christian in this book (If I had to guess, I say he was "spiritual" without committing to any particular religious affiliation.), he seems to have a far better sense of the ties between God and God's creation than most Christians I know. He recognizes the intimate place that food has in our lives, as well as the value of a connection to the earth. (While reading the book it dawned on me that here in Colorado we might pray for rain to end this drought so that there won't be watering restrictions for our lawns, but how often do we pray recognizing that the weather affects the food we eat? Seldom if ever, I suspect. We have a vague sense that the farmers aren't doing well, but we don't feel it personally, as if our own food resources were at stake... as if we could truly starve without rain.)

Nabham includes a quote from a manifesto produced by the Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture that sums up the local food issue fairly well, "When we buy local food, we are supporting community health: a network of farmers, food processors and fellow customers who live and work in our community, our regional landscape and our local economy. Personal health... and the health of the environment is at stake: Local foods do not generate the same pollution and waste the same energy as foods that are trucked, shipped or flown in from far away. [By eating locally] we are protecting our wildlife habitats, our waterways, and workers who are also our neighbors."

Lily's Ghosts

Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Author:Laura Ruby
Lily awoke to find that all three pairs of her shoes had been filled with strawberry jelly. What could it mean? Was her dead Uncle Max trying to tell her something?

When Lily and her mom move into an old family house, Lily begins to discover that there are a few skeletons in the family closet. Unable to get any answers from her mother or her Great Uncle Wesley, Lily and her new friend, Vaz, attempt to unravel the mystery behind strange phone calls, moving dolls, and well, that strawberry jelly in the shoes.

Lily's Ghosts will put a smile on your face. Laura Ruby introduces us not only to Lily's world, but to the world of the ghosts as well, some of whom don't seem to realize yet that they’re long dead. As Lily helps a ghost set things right, she also helps to improve her own life as she enables her mom and herself to settle down in one place for a change.

Lily's Ghosts is easy to read and despite the fact that it is a ghost story, its not all that scary (a little confusing at times, but then again, it is a mystery). I'd recommend this book for readers 10 and up. (I'm 35 and I enjoyed it.)

A Peculiar People: the church as culture in a post-christian society

Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Author:Rodney Clapp
Overview of the Book

Since the days of Constantine, the church has "enjoyed" a time of power and influence. Even in the United States, a nation that allows for the freedom of religion, Christianity has been the de facto state religion until only recently. But in the past few decades, much to the consternation of many who call themselves Christian, this tacit relationship has been not just threatened, but almost completely broken, leading to what is today referred to as the culture wars.

Rodney Clapp believes that the current climate, in the midst of these culture wars, is a good opportunity for Christianity to come to terms with itself. Many Christians operate under the impression that America is (or at least, recently was) a Christian nation. (In fact, much of the world sees the U.S. that way). But Clapp devotes a fair amount of time to his postulation that America could be better defined as a gnostic nation.

Clapp begins his book with an explanation of how the Church has gotten to where it is today (a point where many see it as largely irrelevant and useless). He then argues in great detail what the church should be: a people of God, a nation, with its own culture, its own language and its own customs. He by no means is referring to our current consumer-oriented christian culture (where Christians wear WWJD bracelets and speak in Christianese). He encourages the church not to become something new to fit with the times, but to rather recognize what we already are, and to take hold of the advantages that provides (advantages such as the tool, perhaps even a weapon, of forgiveness).

The type of church that Clapp is arguing for is most likely not what you might guess. He is certainly not saying that we need to be bigger and better as Bill Hybels (pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and in some ways the father of the American mega-church movement as well as the seeker-sensitive movement) would advocate, nor is he encouraging the marketing gimmicks of Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church). Rather, he’s encouraging the church to be the church: a group of people, learning together to follow God and to love each other.

Concerns -- Possible Problems You May Encounter in reading this book

One struggle I had in reading this book was that though Clapp uses familiar words, he uses them in a way that is unfamiliar. He really should provide a glossary of some sort so that the reader won’t get tripped up on his choice of words and miss his message. I’ve tried to compile a mini-glossary on my own (both to better help me understand what I’m reading, and to help my husband and others who are reading this book). Please note, the definitions listed below may not be exactly what Clapp meant when he used these words, but I tried to develop each definition based on context.

Political: Don’t even begin to think of this word in terms of Democrat vs. Republican (or whatever your country’s main political parties may be). When Clapp uses the word political (as well as I can figure) he is referring more to issues of national import, national identity, and national history (and in this book, the nation that is being discussed is the Church).` Unfortunately, I think that in a couple of instances, Clapp does use the word “political” to mean what we often consider it to mean (taking sides in a partisan setting). Which only adds to the confusion when one comes across this word.

Liberal: When we consider the word liberal, we often think in terms of partisan politics. Democrats are considered liberal. The media is considered liberal. Homosexuals are considered liberal. But when Clapp using the word, he’s harkening back to the origin of the word liberal from the Latin, liber, meaning free. In other words, independent. A right wing Republican can still be considered liberal in Clapp’s definition because it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with one’s view of the individual. A person who believes that their relationship with God is solely between them and God and not for perusal or input from other’s is liberal.

Retrenchment: I still haven’t figured this one out. If you’ve read the book and think you have a handle on this, please add it to the comments section. I know it has to do with the response of some Christians to the culture wars. And I know its a bad response. I think it has to do with trying to get things “back to the good old days” but I’m seriously not certain of that.

Kudos -- Specific Reasons You Should Read This Book

Narrative Logic: Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have written a book called Resident Aliens. In it, they describe a concept called “narrative logic.” Though I think they define the term better, I think Clapp does a better job at delving into various topics and showing how that narrative logic comes to play. All three of these authors that Jehovah God is a God of history. He has shown himself to and through his people and the story of his people has been recorded in the Bible. This narrative, then, guides the logic the church should use in making decisions (How do we relate to each other? What is our purpose? Who is God? How should we respond in this instance? etc.)

Purity of the Church: In the denomination that I am currently a member of, one thing that is promised upon entrance into the church is that I (the entering member) pledge to pursue the purity of the church. Despite the fact that we all say this, I think that we rarely do it (or even have any clue what it means to pursue the purity of the church.) Reading books such as this one, in my opinion, are a step toward that end. The book doesn’t lay out specifics of how a church should look (such as stating how many and what kind of meetings should be held each week, or stating which kind of music should be played), but gives a general outline (from many different perspectives so that if one doesn’t click with you another might) of what church is and how it should look. It should be a place of love and forgiveness, of community and of practicing together, in a safe place, how we should be living out in the world.

Good Group Discussion Book

Though this is a good book to read on your own, I suspect it would be exponentially better when read and discussed with others. Practical applications could better be drawn out. Difficult sections could be explained or argued about until they make better sense. And the topics that the book addresses are good to have brought up in church settings. As the church we should be mindful of who and what we are. We shouldn’t assume that we can glide through “church” without ever taking it seriously. (We often leave the serious business to the paid staff.)

Though I think a non-Christian might find this book interesting, it’s certainly directed at Christians. I believe that this book would be appreciated by anyone that likes to sift through ideas, concepts and philosophies. For those that don’t like sorting through the nitty-gritty, I’d recommend reading this book out loud with someone else so that they can help do that sorting (since I believe you’ll still find value in the activity).

September 19, 2004

John Kerry and George Bush -- cousins

The New York Times mapped out the genealogical relationship of Bush and Kerry today. (unfortunately, it appears that the newspaper didn't post the genealogical mappings on their website.)

They are:

9th cousins twice removed descending from Edmund Reade (1563-1623) of Wickford, Essex.

10th cousins once removed descending from Henry Herrick (1598-1671) of Salem, Mass.

10th cousins once removed descending from Thomas Richards (d. 1651) of Weymouth, Mass.

10th cousins twice removed descending from John Dwight (1601-1661) of Dedham, Mass.

11th cousins once removed descending from Rev. Edward Bukleley (d. 1621) of Odell, Bedfordshire

Half 12th cousins once removed (?) descending from Richard Clapp (b. 1528) of Sidbury, Devon

12th cousins twice removed descending from Henry Sherman (1510-1590) of Dedham, Essex

14th cousins descending from John Manning (d. 1543) of Downe, Kent

September 9, 2004

Nurture by Nature : Understand Your Child's Personality Type - And Become a Better Parent

Genre: Health, Mind & Body
Author:Paul D. Tieger, Barbara Barron-Tieger
When I had my first child I kept him mostly to myself. Others would offer to hold him but I'd refuse them, not so much because I wanted my little bundle to myself, but because it just seemed that he didn't want to go to anyone else -- for others he would fuss, for me he would settle right down in grand contentment. When my twin girls came along, I more than happily passed them off to others, not only because I was exhausted and needed a break, but because they were just as likely to cry, or not, for others as much as they would for me. They clearly didn't care who held them. Even as infants my kids made clear statements about their preferences and in so doing gave a peek into their personalities.

Lamentably, when others confronted me about my child rearing habits, I didn't have any outside sources to back up my theories about the differences in my children. Now, at last, I've found something that supports my hunches. It's a book called Nurture by Nature : Understand Your Child's Personality Type - And Become a Better Parent by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger. The book first helps parents to try to identify their children's personality types (as well as their own) and then describes expected behaviors, attitudes and needs of children by type.

Unfortunately young children can’t take personality tests themselves, so determining your child’s type is done through observation and comparison. My son's profile fits him so well that it seems like the authors had been watching him and had written down things about him that I had thought were unique to him alone. In the same way, the profile for my personality type fit me so well that it even described specific events that had happened to me as a child (such as sitting at the dinner table for hours after the meal because I refused to eat something). For my twin daughters, however, I'm less convinced of their type and have yet to find a profile that fits them as well as the ones for my son or myself. All the same, what I have discovered about the twins so far has already helped me to better encourage and discipline them.

Each personality profile describes not only over all characteristics of a specific type, but also how that personality will be manifested at various points in the child's life from infancy through adolescence. Though I haven't found the infant characteristics very accurate (at least for my kids), the preschool and school-age descriptions have, for the most part, been right on. The authors point out possible problem areas (such as the tantrums that my son threw in preschool), reasons for the problems (difficulties with transitions), and means of avoiding or dealing with the problems that will set the child at ease rather than demanding something of them that doesn’t fit their personality needs (like taking time in advance to prepare the child for upcoming transitions rather than forcing him to deal with them without warning).

My mother's philosophy in raising my sister and myself was fairness. Whatever I got, my sister got exactly the same thing or something comparable. But my sister and I aren't alike. As children we had very different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Nature by Nurture helps parents to identify the differences in their children and raise them more fairly not by treating them the same, but by treating them more in line with their personality types.

I'd highly recommend the book. In fact, I found several copies online for under $4 dollars (though it looks like the price has since gone up) and bought extra copies to hand out to friends and teachers. I still have to see if it'll get me through the teenage years, but I have high hopes.

Wal-Mart Values (the Wal-Mart paper in progress)

“Wal-Mart’s business was built upon a foundation of
honesty, respect, fairness and integrity.”
-- from Wal-Mart’s statement of ethics

Sam and Helen Walton opened the first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962 (the same year that Kmart and Target got their start). Though the chain initially grew at a slower rate than its competition, in the 1980’s its growth took off. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. opened the first SAM’s club in 1983 and the first Supercenter in 1988.

Unlike most retail chains, Wal-Mart’s identity is closely bound up with the image of its founder. Though Target and K-mart were both started by corporations (the Dayton company and the Kresge corporation respectively*), Wal-Mart was begun by a charismatic, and extremely competitive, country boy. As Sam himself admits in the forward of his book, Made in America, “my life is all wrapped up in Wal-Mart.”

Because of this, many people ascribe to Wal-Mart values that they have first attributed to Sam Walton. Sam grew up in a small town. He was a deacon at his church (before Wal-Mart took over his life). He had four kids and he enjoyed hunting. He appeared to be a Christian, all-American, family man. And if Wal-Mart was built by Sam and Sam was true to these values, then doesn’t it follow that Wal-Mart is a Christian, all-American, family oriented kind of business?

Though Wal-Mart does make a pretense of being these things when there might be a financial benefit to doing so, it’s fairly clear that Wal-Mart exists to make money. And if more money could be made from presenting a different image, I have no doubt that Wal-Mart’s image would change in a heartbeat.

Sam Walton

“I don’t know that I was that religious, per se, but I always felt like the church was important.” -- Sam Walton, Made in America

Sam went to church and was even a deacon. He felt that it was important to raise his kids within the church and explains, “Church is an important part of society, especially in small towns. Whether it’s the contacts and associations you make or the contributions you might make toward helping other folks, it all sort of ties in together.”

It’s interesting to note, however, that whenever Sam mentions church in his autobiography, it’s in relationship to community or values (both of which he used toward commercial ends). God doesn’t appear to be part of the picture.

The man lived, breathed, and ate retailing. In fact, he was so thoroughly invested in his retailing obsession that even family took second place. On vacations, it was a given that if they drove past a retail store (any retail store) they were going to have to stop so that dad could go in and investigate. Sam was constantly checking out the competition, searching out what they were doing right, and then adding that new found idea to his repertoire. And when Sam found an employee working for his competition that he thought was particularly competent, he’d offer them a job in his own store.

The man would work until 10 pm on a saturday night (this after getting to the office at 3 am to prepare for the Saturday morning management meeting) and then get up Sunday morning and go back to work. (I assume he'd leave work just in time to show up for the church service?)

Though Sam Walton might have claimed to be a Christian, the true driving spirit within him was Free Enterprise. While wistfully considering possible futures for his grandchildren he lists: 1) finding a cure for cancer, 2) bringing culture and education to the underprivileged and 3) becoming missionaries for free enterprise to 3rd world countries. And near the end of his autobiography, as he looks back contemplatively on his life, he says, “ I am absolutely convinced that the only way we can improve one another’s quality of life, ... is through what we call free enterprise -- practiced correctly and morally.”

Spiritually the man was bowing at the alter of retail, but before his employees and the public eye, he gave God and country lip service. Bob Ortega writes in his book, In Sam We Trust, “Once the satellite system was up and running, the annual meetings were broadcast to all the stores.... Every year, the production got more involved, the meeting longer, the flag-waving more intense. In 1989, the meeting began with videos of patriotic scenes played on three giant screens as 7,000 people recited the pledge of alledgiance; then, as the lights came up, a prayer followed, led by Walton at the edge of the stage, down on one knee, head bowed, and Wal-Mart baseball cap in hand.”

Perhaps Sam’s sense of spirituality can best be described in what has become known as “the Sam Pledge” (written by Sam Walton and described by him in his autobiography), "From this day forward, every customer that comes within 10 feet of me, regardless of what I'm doing, in this house, I'm going to look him in the eye, I'm going to smile, I'm going to greet him with a -Good morning,' or a Good afternoon,' or a What can I do for you?' - so help me Sam!" Sam saw himself as the god of Free Enterprise in America.

Walmart Values

“When Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart Stores, he established
the ‘Three Basic Beliefs’ to which we remain firmly committed:
* Respect for the Individual
* Service to our Customers
* Strive for Excellence
The Three Basic Beliefs go hand in hand with the integrity and
ethical conduct that is the foundation of our business.
-- from Wal-Mart’s statement of ethics

Wal-Mart claims to have respect for the individual, but I’m not sure which individual they’re referring to. They certainly couldn’t be referring to their employees. “Wal-Mart faces lawsuits in 30 states for allegedly forcing hourly employees to work overtime with no pay,” according to a Washington Times article. Wal-mart has fought against the unionizing of it’s employees several times, even to the point of shutting a store in Quebec down rather than have to deal with the union. And a UC Berkeley (pdf) study has determined that Wal-Mart’s employee practices cost the state of California as much as $86 million annually in health related and other assistance costs.

At the same time, the individual that Wal-Mart claims to have respect for couldn’t be those who are manufacturing the products they sell, either.

*George Dayton opened Goodfellows in 1902. In 1903 the corporate name changed to the Dayton Dry Goods Company, and in 1910 the name changed again to simply, the Dayton Company. In 1962, The Dayton Company opened the first Target ("a new idea in discount stores"). Kmart evolved out of Kresge's, which was started in 1899 by Sebastian Spering Kresge. The Kresge corporation opened the first Kmart discount department store in 1962.