Sep 24 2013

Short Story in Rose Red Review

I’m pleased to share that one of my short stories, “The Witch’s Daughter,” is included in the current Hallowe’en-themed issue of Rose Red Review (a literary webzine).

This is actually a story that I wrote back in college. I recently dusted off some old files recovered from floppy disks, and this was one of them. Amusingly enough, it shared a title with one of my current novels in progress—I guess I really liked that title!

I hesitated about sending the story out, because frankly I’m not sure that it’s up to the quality of my current best work. But in the end I decided to go ahead and share it with an audience. Partly because it’s the closest thing to a horror story I’ve ever written. (I would probably call it dark fantasy, but it definitely includes disturbing themes and graphic imagery.)

But mostly, I just really like the last line.

Sep 23 2013

Arbëreshë Picnic


Bubbles were blown! Babies were bounced! Nonna made an incredible array of delicious foods and we all chowed down! At one point I passed Sol to somebody friendly-looking and didn’t get him back for two hours, which is the hallmark of a well-functioning extended family gathering if you ask me.





Bonus pictures: vampire baby! You can see his first teeth coming in.


And here he is just making a funny baby face:


Sep 14 2013

Vaccine Info for Masie

My sister is expecting a baby near the beginning of February: my first debut as an auntie! I’m so excited!

She’s in Portland and feeling a lot of pressure from the anti-vaccine crowd. In her words: “They make me feel like an awful person [for choosing vaccination], they tell me my child will hate me forever.” She knows I am a strong proponent of vaccinating for most preventable childhood diseases, so she asked me to put together some links and information for her.

Let’s start with the claim, often heard on Internet messageboards or sometimes from celebrities, that vaccines cause autism. They don’t. This claim began with a fraud, a paper published in The Lancet (a famous and well-respected medical journal) that was later withdrawn after it was found that the author had manipulated data and had multiple undisclosed conflicts of interest. That paper was a hoax and the author was later stripped of his medical license. But it set off a panic.

Since that time there have been a lot of studies—involving millions of children in several countries—and it turns out that there’s simply no difference in autism rates among those who are vaccinated and those who are not. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Medicine all agree that there is no link between vaccines and autism. The scientific consensus on this question is so strong that it is, frankly, no longer a question. It’s a settled fact. Vaccines do not cause autism.

Vaccines do sometimes have side effects, though. Sometimes they have serious side effects. It’s rare, but some vaccines can trigger seizures or cause very high fevers. So in considering whether or not to vaccinate, we have to do a risk trade-off analysis. Which is riskier, the vaccine or the disease?

Several years ago, many parents were able to look at diseases like measles and whooping cough and say, wow, these diseases are really rare. I’m not sure that I want to give my child this vaccine when they probably won’t even be exposed to the disease in the first place.

That reasoning is not irrational, but it depends on assumptions that are no longer true. Measles and whooping cough are both surging back. Other diseases, like polio, are worth vaccinating for even though the disease remains very rare in the U.S., because the polio vaccine has no serious side effects and in an age of global travel, a resurgence of polio is only one plane ride away.

I think the rational thing to do is to research each vaccine and consider the risk/benefit tradeoff separately. This is a fantastic website that goes through each vaccine and explains the risks associated with the vaccine versus the risks associated with the disease. In most cases the best choice is to vaccinate. For instance, on the pertussis vaccine:

Do the benefits of the pertussis vaccine outweigh its risks?

This question is best answered by taking a look at the side effects of the old pertussis vaccine. The old pertussis vaccine had a high rate of severe side effects such as persistent inconsolable crying, fever higher than 105 degrees, and seizures with fever. Due to negative publicity surrounding this vaccine, the use of the pertussis vaccine decreased in many areas of the world. For example, in Japan, children stopped receiving the pertussis vaccine by 1975. In the three years before the vaccine was discontinued, there were 400 cases of pertussis and 10 deaths from pertussis. In the three years after the pertussis vaccine was discontinued, there were 13,000 cases of pertussis and 113 deaths from pertussis! It should be noted that although the side effects of the old pertussis vaccine were high, no child ever died from pertussis vaccine.

The Japanese Ministry of Health, realizing how costly its error had been, soon reinstituted the use of pertussis vaccine. The children of Japan proved that the benefits of the old pertussis vaccine clearly outweighed the risks. The new “acellular” pertussis vaccine has a much lower risk of severe side effects than the old “whole cell” vaccine.

Pertussis is very common in the United States. More than more than 41,000 cases of pertussis and 18 deaths were reported to the CDC during 2012. However because of underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis, this number is likely to be a vast underestimate of the number of cases that actually occurred. It is estimated that most years between 600,000 to 900,000 cases occur in adolescents and adults. Sadly, most of the deaths from pertussis occur in young infants who struggle to breathe against a narrowed windpipe, leading them to turn blue or suffer spells of apnea. Because the pertussis vaccine does not cause death, the benefits of the pertussis vaccine clearly outweigh its risks.

A few things you can do if you remain concerned about risks associated with vaccines: make sure your pediatrician uses thimerosal-free vaccines. Ask the pediatrician about a delayed/alternate schedule for vaccination—I would not, however, delay DTaP given the resurgence of whooping cough. Personally, after doing our research, we stuck with the recommended vaccination schedule. But a delayed schedule is definitely better than not vaccinating at all.

I think the vaccine question is for the far left what the climate change question is for the far right. In both cases there is a very strong scientific consensus, and in both cases there are groups of people who passionately dispute that consensus. I am pro-science in both cases.

Having said that, I want to make it clear that I think there are valid grounds to critique the pharmaceutical industry, the lack of regulatory oversight around vaccines, et cetera. I think coming at these questions from a skeptical point of view, and doing your own research, is not a bad thing at all.

But I do think vaccine refusal is a bad thing.

On most parenting issues I am very “live and let live,” but fighting preventable diseases is an issue that affects society as a whole. In every population there are some—babies, the elderly, the immunocompromized—who are most likely to suffer or die from these illnesses, and sometimes these are people who can’t get vaccinated or for whom the vaccine is less effective. These most vulnerable people have to rely on what’s called herd immunity, and herd immunity only works when a high percentage of the population is vaccinated. So those who choose not to vaccinate are putting not just themselves or their kids at risk, but my baby and a lot of other people as well. I can’t view this issue through the rubric of individual choice. There really is an element here that’s about our responsibility not just to our own kids but to the communities we are part of, and especially to the most vulnerable among us.

And I also think it’s important to remember that these illnesses can be terrible. There was a video going around a while back of a baby racked by whooping cough. I knew I couldn’t watch it, and I don’t recommend you watch it either, but keep in mind that the severe coughing fits caused by pertussis can literally break a child’s ribs. Chicken pox can cause permanent brain damage. Measles can cause blindness. If you’re dwelling on the risks associated with vaccines, force yourself to dwell a little bit on the risks associated with the actual disease as well. Because none of these illnesses are trifling.

Vaccination is a hot-button topic, so I will be moderating comments closely. Respectful disagreement and friendly debate is always welcome, but I won’t hesitate to delete comments that veer toward personal attack.

Sep 13 2013

Gluten-free, Casein-free Corn-Apricot Muffins


The parents at Robin’s school have organized to contribute morning snacks to the classroom, and my first day to contribute was today. Now, here’s the restrictions I’m working within:

  • UMCS is a nut-free school
  • One child in Robin’s class is allergic to cantaloupe
  • Another child has a gluten intolerance and a dairy intolerance

Robert Frost once remarked that writing poetry in free verse is like playing tennis without a net. And honestly, I’ve come to feel similarly about cooking and dietary restrictions. I like them. They give me a structure to work within. So when I hear “nut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free,” I think: Oh, this’ll be fun.

On further investigation the dairy intolerance turned out to be a casein allergy. This is significant because it means that clarified butter (ghee) is okay. I decided to exploit that loophole and cooked up a batch of corn-apricot mini muffins for the Hummingbird classroom. They came out very well, so I thought I’d share the recipe! It’s adapted from Cook’s Illustrated—the original recipe called for all-purpose flour along with a stick of butter, 1/2 cup milk and 3/4 cup sour cream instead of the ghee and coconut oil. So you can backwards-engineer to the original if you like.

Corn and Apricot Muffins with Orange Essence

Take a cup and a half of dried apricots and either chop them or run them through a food processor until you get chunks the size of raisins. Put them in a saucepan with 2/3 of a cup of orange juice and turn on the heat until the juice comes to a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover the saucepan, and put it aside while you proceed with the recipe. The apricots will absorb the juice and plump up nicely.

Adjust your oven rack to a middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease your muffin tins with coconut oil or nonstick cooking spray.

Combine two cups of gluten-free flour (I like King Arthur brand), one cup of fine-ground, whole-grain yellow cornmeal, one and a half teaspoons of baking powder, a teaspoon of baking soda, and half a teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Whisk it all together. Do note: cornmeal is naturally gluten-free but if you are baking for someone with a gluten intolerance you still want to look for a brand that is labeled gluten-free, because otherwise cornmeal is often ground in facilities that handle wheat and there’s risk of cross-contamination. You’ll also have to look closely at the label to determine whether your cornmeal is whole-grain or degerminated; whole-grain is better for you and will give the muffins a richer corn flavor. Arrowhead Mills makes a good fine-ground, gluten-free cornmeal that’s also organic. In general I like Bob’s Red Mill a lot too but the store only had their cornmeal in a medium grind. (First world problems: the baker’s edition!)

In a second bowl, lightly beat two eggs and then whisk in half a cup of granulated sugar (I’ve started using raw sugar for most purposes on the grounds that less-processed substances are almost always better for you) and a quarter cup of packed dark brown sugar. Slowly (a little bit at a time, stirring after each addition) stir in a half cup of ghee and 3/4 cup of coconut oil. (If you store your ghee in the fridge you will need to melt it first.) Lastly stir in about a teaspoon of grated orange zest, and the apricots, along with any juice that didn’t get absorbed, from the saucepan.

Now fold the wet ingredients into the dry, stirring gently until the batter is just combined but not over-mixed. Use a large spoon to drop the batter into your muffin tins and bake until they are light golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffin comes out clean. If you’re doing mini muffins start checking after ten minutes; regular-sized will take a bit longer.

This recipe made a platter of 24 mini muffins with enough batter left over for the eight full-sized muffins pictured above. Those are shown with a sugar topping (granulated sugar mixed with grated orange zest), which is delicious, but I left it off the mini muffins in order to make them more healthful for the kids.

Sep 10 2013

When Comments Are Art

So, if you didn’t know, there’s this kind of spontaneous performance art that sometimes happens when people get together on Amazon and start leaving spurious product reviews. Sometimes it’s because the product itself is transparently ridiculous (BIC “For Her” ballpoint pens, Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer). Sometimes the product is just a convenient window for commentary on some sort of larger current-event issue: after the debate in which Mitt Romney famously claimed that he had “binders full of women,” commenters started leaving bogus reviews on office supply products, complaining about the lack of women included with the binders.

And sometimes the reviews are just a kind of offbeat collaborative fiction project. I actually bought Robin one of the “Black Dragon T-Shirts” based at least in part on the stellar reviews:

From reviewer O. de Frias:

“This is, without a doubt, the best black shirt with an angry monochrome dragon perched on two natural pillars on a cliff that I have ever seen. I know that when I get married, this is the undershirt I’ll wear. The amount of awesome displayed on your chest canvas while wearing this shirt, obviously a shirt given to man by Zeus himself, is currently impossible to calculate using our current mathematical constructs. We actually need to devise a new form of mathematics which we should call Wurm Theory in order to parse the data.

I’m going to explain to you what it’s like wearing this shirt. Each separate occasion merits a new stage of awesomeness being unlocked.

First wearing – You hear Sean Connery’s voice command you to be the greatest. Whether you want to or not, while this shirt is on your back you will comply.

Second wearing – The best theme song of all time is instantly created for you and sung by the dragon on your shirt which, contrary to what you would assume, has an awe-inspiring singing voice.

Third wearing – You ascend to a higher level of consciousness.

Fourth wearing – The “what came first, the chicken or the egg” riddle is conclusively solved.

Fifth wearing – Zeus reveals his master plan and the meaning of life.

Sixth wearing – You get like, $0.20 off all your Starbucks purchases, and some places even let you take the cup you used the day before and knock an additional $0.05 if you use that.

PROS: Dragon on your shirt, Sean Connery finally gets some steady work again
CONS: Some of the independently-owned Starbucks don’t let you do the used cup thing.”

Amazon not only tolerates these sorts of shenanigans, they’ve actually given their blessing by compiling a list of some of the most popular “funny reviews.” People! Sometimes they’re just the greatest.

Sep 9 2013


On my walk home today I was thinking about the nature of politeness in different social contexts.

In a crowded urban environment, ignoring other people is generally the polite thing to do. There’s so little real privacy, but people extend each other the illusion of privacy, and that helps. You travel through crowded sidewalks and trains in your own little imaginary bubble. And generally the only people who try to pierce the bubble are catcallers, panhandlers, pamphleteers and the like: people whose social advances are an unwelcome imposition.

Of course you acknowledge people who you have real business with, and over time you build up a friendly rapport with the folks at the shops and cafés you frequent. Also your neighbors, which in a true urban core means the apartment-dwellers whose units border yours. The term might extend to everyone on your hallway: it almost certainly doesn’t encompass the entire building. But in general, in public spaces, you respect the imaginary bubbles.

This leads to really interesting effects like the phenomenon of familiar strangers: people you see every day but never speak to. I think it’s also something that feeds into the famous reputation of New Yorkers for rudeness. (Those who visit large cities but aren’t familiar with urban social norms could easily find the we’re-all-politely-ignoring-you thing to be offputting, distant, and cold.)

Oakland is not dense enough for this rule to come into effect. Polite sidewalk interaction in my neighborhood requires a “hello” at minimum, with “how ya doin'” greatly preferred. (Note that there’s no question mark at the end, because it’s a statement, not a question. It is perfectly OK to answer with a matching “How ya doin’.”)

I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to this new norm when we first moved here. There’s an older gentleman who’s usually sitting out on his porch when we walk by after school, and I found myself walking on the other side of the street just because the psychic effort of exchanging a few meaningless pleasantries with a stranger every afternoon felt like a burden. It didn’t work, though. He just hollered across the street: “How ya doin’!”

Today on my walk home from picking up Davy, that gentleman was not on his porch. I wondered where he was—on vacation? Running an errand? I hope he’s not ill. I kind of missed him. On the other hand, there were a couple of people standing around a few houses down, folks I hadn’t seen before. “Good afternoon!” I waved across the street. “How ya doin!”

Sep 5 2013

Another First Day of School

Davy started a new year at Peter Pan today:

Davy going to school

That photo looks Instagrammed but it’s actually just blurry because neither Sam nor myself remembered to bring along a proper camera, and so Sam snapped one with his phone.

Sep 4 2013

Mario and Luigi

If you’re not intimately familiar with the franchise, Robin is here cosplaying as “Dark Moon” Luigi, sporting the Poltergust 5000 ghost-hunting equipment (i.e. a backpack and a broom).

Davy is just Mario and very happy to have a role in his older brother’s fantasy play. (Everyone in the family has in fact been cast: I’m Princess Peach, while Sam is Bowser, and Sol is a mushroom man.) The hats were a present from Pops and Mo—they arrived yesterday in the mail and the kids just about flipped their lids!


Sep 3 2013

Little Brothers

While Robin is off to his first day of kindergarten, Sol and Davy play together under Thora’s supervision:


Update: Robin was so much happier when I picked him up after school today! He said he had a good day, he likes kindergarten, and he’s looking forward to going back again tomorrow. Such a relief!