Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chicken Soup for the Bowl

Our LIFE class this week got a special treat; chicken soup! World renowned for its healing properties, chicken soup is a good remedy for many upper respiratory tract illnesses. Librarians Elise Sheppard and Jill Vu joined us to give us the Jewish and Vietnamese takes on this classic fare. Recipes below. Also below is a link explaining why chicken soup is so good for you. Our LIFE class left feeling fuller in wisdom and healthy goodness. Feel free to try one of these recipes at home with your family the next time cold and flu season comes around, or any day the week for a hearty and healthy meal.

Jewish Chicken Soup - AKA Jewish Penicillin
Rosely Himmelstein's winning recipe from Shabbat Across America's Chicken Soup Challenge
(Serves about 6)

•2 quarts of chicken broth (the recipe follows)
•1 chicken (about 3-4 lbs), quartered (I prefer a regular chicken to a fowl); rinsed
•1 large carrot, peeled and cup up
•1 large onion, peeled and cup up
•1 stalk celery
•1 leek, white and light green parts only; washed well
•1 parsnip, peeled and cut up
•1 parsley root, with greens attached
•1 sweet potato, peeled
•a handful of dill (about 3-4 stems)
•1 small rutabaga, peeled and cut up
•a few sprigs of cilantro (optional)
•Salt and pepper to taste

•Put chicken broth in pot; bring to boil.
•Add chicken. Return to boil; lower heat.
•Gently simmer uncovered for 1 hour.
•Add the rest of the ingredients. Simmer for one-half hour more; stir occasionally.
•Skim fat from top.
•Pour into bowls; into each add a slice of carrot and a sprig of cilantro.
•If storing, let soup cool before refrigerating. When cold, remove the fat that rises to the surface. Use soup within 2-3 days, or store in freezer.

Vietnamese Chicken Soup

•2 tbsp tamarind powder (optional)
•1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
•1 tbsp oil
•1/2 tsp minced garlic
•1/2 tsp Asian chili paste or hot chili flakes
•5 cups fat-skimmed chicken broth
•1 lb chicken (or fish/shrimp)
•1 cup pineapple chunks
•2 tbsp Asian fish saucs (nuoc mam)
•3 tbsp sugar
•1/4 cup lime juice (6 tbsp if you don't use tamarind powder)
•2 tomatoes (6 oz. total) rinsed and cut into 1/2 inch wedges
•2 celery stalks or taro steam (sliced)
•2 cups (6 oz.) bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
•2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves
•2 tbsp chopped rice-paddy herb (ngo om) or fresh cilantro
•2 tsp finely chopped fresh chilies or chili garlic sauce

•In a 5 to 6 quart pan over medium heat, stir shallots with oil until golden brown and crisp.
•Add garlic, chicken, and fish sauce to pan and stir until garlic is fragrant.
•Add broth, tamarind powder, sugar and bring to a boil over high heat.
•Add pineapple, tomatoes, and celery or taro steam.
•Cook uncovered just until chicken is cooked and simmered, 5-6 minutes.
•Add bean sprouts into hot broth.
•Ladle soup mixture into bowls and sprinkle with fried shallots, cilantro, basil, rice-paddy herb (ngo om) and chopped green onions. Add chilies to taste.

For more information on the therapeutic properties of chicken soup, go to

Check out this SlideShare Presentation:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Sentimental Journey

"Hats off! Here they come, those beautiful girls. That's what you've been waiting for. Nature never fashioned a flower so fair. No rose can compare; nothing respectable, half so delectable. Cheer them in their glory, diamonds and pearls, dazzling jewels by the score. This is what beauty can be. Beauty celestial, the best, you'll agree: all for you, these beautiful girls!"

So begins Follies, a musical by Stephen Sondheim about showgirls and their families visiting the theater they used to perform in one more time before it is demolished. Sondheim is considered one of the best song writers/composers in the business, and this was the first time he had written both the lyrics and music for a show (having written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, among others). Over the years Follies has left critics divided, the harsher critics saying the piece is a large spectacle of songs over a non-existent plot, while more favorable critics point out that Follies is more a retrospective on the history of musical theater itself. Either way, Follies has enjoyed several revivals since its 1971 Broadway debut, and has many songs that are now standards including "Broadway Baby", "I'm Still Here, and "Loosing My Mind".

This week, our LIFE class got to enjoy a trimmed-down performance of Follies given by our Academy of Lifelong Learning: Acting for Seniors troupe. Professor Ron Jones directed these burgeoning thespians though brief but bright performances of the shows main musical numbers. The house was packed for both performances, and after the applause, we can only say "Bravo!"

And what are we to think as we go home? What is the takeaway from the night's performance? The meaning of the story is always up to the viewer, and critics are perpetually torn on the issue. I like to think we should all "Learn how to laugh. Learn how to love. Learn how to live." That's my tip. Good night folks!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gifts In A Jar

Seasons Greetings LIFEers! Just in time for the holidays, Librarian Patsy Brautigam joined us to share her ideas for gifts in a jar. Easy, fun, inexpensive and homemade; these gifts in a jar make great gift ideas for any time of year. This project does require an investment of time to assemble the jars, so it is best to make several jars at a time.

Jars: you can go to any craft store and buy mason jars and lids, or you can use leftover (and washed) spaghetti sauce jars. Be mindful: the recipes in this blog call for 1 quart jars, and sauce jars are usually larger. You'll need to do your math to convert the recipes.

Decorating Jars: you can let the beautiful filling be the decoration, or you can paint your jars. If you paint the jars, be sure to use latex paint. Paint only the outside, especially if the contents are for consumption. You can cut decorative cloth circles to fit between the parts of the lid, and tie it off with ribbon or raffia. You can also cut out little notes to attach to the jar with the cooking instructions, if the contents are food.

Filling Jars: make sure your jar is packed tight. Once the jars are filled, tap jar on a counter top several times to settle the contents. Then fill any extra space with wadded wax paper. The lid fabric will hide the paper.

Fun Stuff: get creative! Instead of a jar, use a tulip-style ice-cream sundae glass for bath beads or bath salts, top off with a loofah and a red bath bead to look like an ice-cream sundae. See photo below.

Jar Contents/Recipes: see the slide show below for the recipes we discussed in class!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Leadership and Virtue

Greetings LIFEers! We were joined once again this week by Professor Jason Moulenbelt for a class all incoming Congressmen should take; business ethics. Business ethics is a bit of an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence. The two words just don’t seem to go together. But in this era of Enron, Tyco, BP, Wall Street, Magnetar, etc… a little refresher course on business ethics might be good for all of us.

If you take a business ethics class at a business school, you are more likely to study business law, not morality or ethics.
· Law – our democracy votes to make laws, which can have little to do with morality
· Ethos – what you do day-to-day, your actions
· Ethics – what you should do, morality
Example: Let’s say you are at a intersection with a stop sign and no one is coming from any direction. The law says you have to stop, but no one is coming, no one will be hurt or inconvenienced if you run the stop sign. If you break the law and run the stop sign, your actions are not immoral. But the spirit of the law is ethical – requiring people to stop at a crossing to avoid accidents and injuries. But many of our laws do not take ethics into account. Enron hiding their business dealings in phony companies was actually legal. Magnetar driving the sale of sub-prime mortgage CDOs while placing bets on their failure was also legal. So why are our laws seemingly not interested in morality?

First we need to understand utilitarianism, which is a principal many of our laws and economic system are based on. Utilitarianism is the idea that the greatest amount of good should be created for the greatest amount of people. The trouble is this theory measures happiness through money; every man will endure some amount of pain (work) for a certain amount of money. But this equation fails to take into account externalities; things you can’t put a price on. How much is your child’s smile worth, or a clean sunrise, or time with your family? At some point, utilitarian equations leave out our very humanity, which is what our ethics are based on – treating each other humanely.

Read Jason’s excellent slideshow below to see how this economic and law-making theory fails to take morality into account via the Ford Pinto. Also, check out ProPublica’s segment on the company Magnetar and its role in the housing bubble and wall street collapse here. You can also read the book or watch the film Smartest Guys in the Room which chronicles the rise and fall of Enron.

Aristotle said “in all things, moderation”, and this quote applies also to business ethics. Knowing that our business practices exclude the human element, remember to always look for the hidden externalities when putting together a cost-benefit analysis. You may find that the human costs are greater than you think.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Help the Honey Bees

What’s the buzz? I’ll tell you what’s a happenin’! (Jesus Christ Superstar reference, awesome musical.) Daniel Payne, local bee keeper, joined our LIFE class to talk about the not-so-secret life of bees and how we can help save the honey bees, and thus our own economy.

Did you know that most bee keepers make about half their money renting their bees? Many crops are pollinated by bees, so farmers rent bee colonies from bee keepers. Bees are trucked all over North America for this purpose. The big risk in bee transportation is overheating the colony. You see, a bee hive needs to stay at about 94° Fahrenheit for the larvae to survive, so the moving trucks need to be air conditioned or well ventilated to keep the bees alive. One hive can pollinate about 1 acre. California has 2 million acres of just almond trees (not to mention the numerous other crops pollinated by bees), so the bee rental business is very lucrative.

So why are bees important? Well, it turns out that bees are very hard workers and contributing greatly to our economy. They pollinate over 100 of the fruits and vegetables that we eat every day. Put another way, they are responsible for about ¼ of all the pollination work at an estimated value of $10 Billion per year. Without bees, we would have to pollinate these plants by hand, which means we would eat mostly grains. Food prices would soar, plants pollinated by bees would die off and so would the animals that feed on them. Would mankind survive? Probably. Would our entire world change for the worse? Absolutely.

So what is hurting the bees? Unfortunately, many things we are doing every day such as using pesticides and genetically modified crops harm the honey bees. Bees already have many natural parasites, which seem to be on the rise, especially Neonicotinoids are a common chemical in pesticides sold in the US. The pesticides become systemic in plants, so a bug lands on the plant, becomes paralyzed and dies within hours. The trouble is, it has a similar effect on bees. France and Spain have banned neonicotinoids, and other countries are considering a ban, because they believe the chemicals have contributed to massive bee colony deaths. Some genetically modified crops (such as BT corn) have naturally bug-resistant bacteria bred into the plant to make the plant bug resistant, but studies show this bacteria weakens the bees when they pollinate the plant, and makes the bees more susceptible to mites and other parasites.

That’s the bad news. So how can we help our industrious honey bees? First, you can start by using fewer lawn chemicals and pesticides that have neonicotinoids. That is tough because they are so common, but there are brands available. Check the labels. Second, buy local honey. The US imports millions of pounds of honey each year; clearly we are not supplying enough honey to meet demand. Buying local honey helps the US honey industry and keeps your local bee keepers in business. Again, read the labels on the shelf. There are even imitation honey brands available now. The label should say “pure honey” and made locally, or made in Texas, etc… Unfortunately, local honey does not necessarily help out with allergies, as the rumor suggests. Bees pollinate fruits and vegetables, so if you are allergic to local fruits and veggies, then yes, local honey can help offset your allergies, since you will be ingesting small doses of those pollens. But if you are allergic to trees, grass and molds, you are out of luck as bees don’t pollinate any of those plants. Third, grow a bee garden in your yard. Check out for which plants are bee friendly.

With a little effort, we can help our hard working honey bees and keep our economy buzzing along!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Graveyards and Genealogy

Have you ever noticed how many ways there are to say someone has died, without actually having to say some form of the word “dead”? They have passed on, gone to a better place, met their maker, bought the farm, kicked the bucket, bit the dust, cashed in their chips, pushing up daisies, their number is up, riding the pale horse, six feet under, sleeping with the fishes, taking a dirt nap, shuffled off this mortal coil, etc… Maybe we, as a society, are afraid to talk about death. Or maybe we just like to find clever ways to say the same old thing.

But our LIFE class isn't afraid to talk about death, or even loving the dead (as Claire hilariously stated – maybe we’ll have a class on that later, or maybe not). Library Director Mick Stafford hosted this week’s LIFE class, all about Graveyards and Genealogy, a topic that might have bored us stiff if Mic hadn’t knocked us dead with his grave humor. (Nudge, nudge, wink wink.) See, Mic isn’t the only one who can make bad puns about death. (For more bad puns about death, check out our earlier LIFE blog on the National Museum of Funeral History.)

You see, sometimes when you are researching your genealogy, you reach a dead end. (I’ve got a whole bag of these puns, folks). Maybe you are searching for a death record or a burial site. Maybe you are looking for an obituary. Or maybe you are just trying to find out about the lives of the people who made you eat peanuts with a spoon while sitting on plastic covered furniture when you were a dirty little kid. Gather as much information as you can; death date, death location (city, state, county) and start searching the web. But you don’t need to spend an eternity searching the web; links to helpful websites are below. – church records, obituaries, state death indexes, some international records – find obituaries, may charge you – search for a grave site – search for a grave site, and Mic’s personal favorite! - US GenWeb Tombstone Project - - find the grave site of a US Veteran - find the grave site of a US Veteran overseas
Library Databases - use the newspaper database or access archives database

Check out this SlideShare Presentation:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Food Carving Magic

The season of joy, sharing, and goodwill toward me is upon us and you know what that means - start cleaning your house now for all the parties you are going to have. It also means you are probably going to be cooking (and eating, and eating while you cook) a lot. This year, rather than serving the same old veggie plate that always serve, try "sprucing" it up by incorporating some food carving into the mix. This week our LIFE class was joined by Jackie Barnhart who taught us how to turn our veggies into flowers and other fun shapes.

To do any type of food carving, you will probably need a small knife; one that you can hold in your hand easily and control well. For some effects you can use a fork or a plastic carving tool.

We started with radishes. To make a rose, score a star of david shape into one side of the radish cutting down not quite halfway. Soak the radish in ice water to make it bloom. It takes about an hour for the radish to open. If you cut several lines across the radish, all in one direction, it makes a shape similar to a chrysanthemum. Or you can carefully use you knife point to cut out little circles and make ladybugs. (See photo below.)

Cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash: you can score down the length of the vegetable with a fork to make a frilled appearance, once the vegetable is sliced. (See photo.) Or you can cut deep notches down the length of the vegetable to make your slices look like flowers.

When carving, be sure to take color into account. Green, red and yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition to any party tray. Cut the tops off, gently scoop out the seeds and stringy insides and fill the pepper with cream cheese, sour cream or any other dip. Celery stalk heads (the fluffy leafy part) make great standing decorations.

For more information, check out these websites. (see the right side of the screen for more videos of food carving ideas)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Changcheng: The Great Wall of China

Ni hao, LIFEers! (That is "hello" in Mandarin.) This week our intrepid class traveled back in time (metaphorically speaking) to ancient China with the help of Professor Bobby O'Brien to learn all about the facts and fiction of The Great Wall of China.

Let's learn the fiction first; all those wonderful little things we learned about the Great Wall that give the wall its mystique, but have no basis in reality. Myth 1: you can see the Great Wall from space. People probably thought that because the wall was so long, you could see it from space. But think about it, we have highways that are wider and just as long, and you can’t see them from space. The fact is you can’t see any man-made object on earth from space. Myth 2: the wall is ancient, built before the time of Christ. The truth is the majority of the wall is less than 500 years old, built by the Ming Dynasty. Myth 3: The Great Wall has always been called “The Great Wall”. Like most walls, the Great Wall is a defensive structure, and the ancient Chinese had no more romantic notions about the wall then any Americans have about our border fences. Myth 4: there are people buried in or beneath the wall. This rumor probably started because Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, constructed part of the wall, and he was infamous for executing enemies, both foreign and domestic, and conscripting thousands of laborers to build the wall. However, bodies have only been found next to the wall, probably the remains of workers who died on the job. Myth 5: the Great Wall is one long continuous wall. The wall is actually composed of many sections, built by many different people over a thousand years. (See the bottom of the blog for a map of the wall.) Lastly, Gary Larson in one of his Far Side cartoons put forth another theory: he depicted two ancient Chinese warriors standing upon the newly completed Great Wall; one of them boastfully states "NOW we'll see if that dog can get in here!"

So that is the fiction, now how about the facts? Let’s go through the how, why and who. First how. The first builders made the wall out of the materials on hand; dirt, vegetation, stones, and compressed the pile down into a mound or levy-like structure. This was called “hangu” or a ramming technique. Later builders practiced dry-stone-walling, where trained builders carefully placed rocks so they gripped each other and did not need mortar to stay in place. The final building method used kiln-fired bricks. The bricks were made at the construction site and were as strong as modern day reinforced concrete. But even more amazing than the bricks was the mortar; made from a mixture of lime, clay and rice-flour. Today, in the parts of the wall made via this method, the bricks are eroding away but the mortar still remains.

Next up; why. Why did they build this huge wall? The wall was built for defensive purposes, to keep out various peoples over time; the nomadic Mongols, the Turks, the Shin-Nu, and possibly one really bad dog. The ancient Chinese considered the nomadic groups to the north to be barbarians; they were less cultured, couldn't write, had no technology, no agriculture, nothing that makes up the basics of civilization. For centuries the two groups would either trade or raid. The Chinese had tools, food, and art. The barbarians had excellent horses. Whenever trading ceased (either through policy or lack of interest) the raiding began and wall construction renewed.

Lastly: who. Who built the Great Wall of China? The wall began with the Zhou Dynasty (pronounced “Joe”, 1025-265 BCE). China consisted of several small states constantly warring with each other and the nomadic peoples, and the first sections of wall were meant to keep invaders out. Next, the Qin Dynasty (pronounced “Chin”, 221-206 BCE) expanded the wall. The first emperor united the warring states, and it was during this time the wall was called “Changcheng” or “the long wall”. The Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) greatly expanded the empire, built many roads and expanded the wall to its most westward point. They also built forts along the wall to serve as trading posts along the silk road. Several other dynasties built sections of the wall, but major building didn't resume until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming had tried and failed to conquer the Mongols, so they built a test wall in the Ordos desert. When the wall repelled an invasion, wall building was considered a necessary part of a successful defence, and the Great Wall began its era of greatest expansion. The Qing were the last dynasty, and faced a time of civil unrest. One of their generals sided with revolutionaries and opened the gates of Beijing to the invaders. With the enemies now permanently inside the kingdom, wall building ceased and the Great Wall fell into disrepair.

So how did the Great Wall become great? 17th century Jesuits visiting from Europe visited the wall and wrote home about it, coining the term “the Great Wall”. Voltaire and a host of others also wrote about the wall, expounding upon its impressiveness and probably contributing to many of the myths still around today. But it wasn't until the last century, and the growth of tourism, that the wall was internationally embraced. Even Mao said “you are not a real man unless you've got to the Great Wall”. After Maoist China, the government began to restore the Great Wall, embracing it as a symbol of China’s history and might.

For more information on the Great Wall, please check out these books.

See here for a map of the Great Wall of China, and all its many segments:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding Health Information

Greetings LIFEers! Today's class had something that all of us at some point will need to know: how to find information regarding health and treatment options. When seeking out information on health, there are many places you can go: to professionals for advice, like doctors, nurses, PAs or pharmacists; or you can use print resources like books, health columns in newspapers, magazines or newsletters. But today we focused on a third source of information: the internet, and Cheryl Rowan from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine joined us to teach us how to navigate those murky waters.

Lets say you are searching for treatment options for dementia. If you go to Google and type in "dementia" you will get over 16 million websites that cover that topic. Obviously you are not going to spend hours and hours going through each of those sites. If you look at just the sites that pop up on the first page, you see Wikipedia, which calls itself an encyclopedia but should never be used as a source for something as serious as health as it can be edited by you and me, which means you can change the definition of a cat to be a small breed of dinosaur and claim Marie Antoinette was president of the moon. So don't use Wikipedia.

There are four ways to evaluate if a website you are on is a good source for you.
1) Provider - who is in charge of the site? This information should be at the top or bottom of the main web page along with contact information. If you can't find out who supports the website and how to reach them, then the site is less trustworthy. Also, lets say you are looking up dementia and the site you go to is hosted by a drug or big pharmaceutical company, you should be cautious. The drug manufacturer may try to influence you to use their drug for treatment when you may have better options. So avoid those sites when you can. A general rule of thumb is to avoid .com and .net sites as they are run by companies and thus have a biased point of view. Look for .gov and .edu sites as these are government and educational sites respectively which are more research based.
2) Quality of Information - is the information expert reviewed and current? Our knowledge of medicine is growing fast, so information has an expiration date on it just like milk. Try not to use sources that haven't been published or reviewed in the last 2 years. And avoid unbelievable claims. If the drug they sell can make you live longer, feel better, loose weight and grow hair, it is probably too good to be true. Move on.
3) Funding - where does the money come? Many sites support themselves by letting companies advertise on their website. And ads can be deceiving. They can be designed to look like reputable websites when they are actually trying to sell you a product. WebMD is physician sponsored but supports itself with advertising, so you may see ads for treatment of dementia that aren't in your best interest.
4) Privacy - does the site ask for a log-in or personal information to access their site? Be careful, because sites can also get funding by sharing their customer lists, so by providing your personal information you are opening the doors for spam. The site should tell you how your personal information will be used. If you are okay with this, then proceed. But know there are many reputable sites out there that don't require this.

So now you've told us what to avoid, but are there sites we should go to first, you ask. Yes, I say! MedlinePlus, NIH, NIH Senior Health, AHRQ, National Institutes on Aging and Ask Me 3 are all sites that meet the four criteria above.

MedlinePlus - - is run by the national library of medicine, so it is a trusted government site. There are no ads. Also, purple buttons at the bottom of the page will convert the website into over 40 languages, although you will lose some content, depending on the language. At the top of the page, a purple button that says "Spanish" will convert the page you are on into Spanish; a handy source for an English speaker helping out a Spanish speaker seeking health info. Health topics are listed A-Z. They have drug and supplement information and surgery videos and interactive tutorials.

NIH Senior Health - - is senior friendly and focused on senior health issues. Again, this is run by the government so there are no ads. All the content is physician approved. At the top of the homepage are buttons that enlarge the type, change the contrast and even have a voice read each page to you.

Agency for Healthcare Research Quality - - covers key topics for consumers and patients. It also has a guide for comparing medical treatments and free email updates.

National Institute on Aging -

Alzheimer's Association -

AskMe3 - - gives you help determining what questions to ask your doctor or health care provider. Bases health on 3 questions: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important for me to do this?

For more information on health research, please contact

Cheryl Rowan
Houston Academy of Medicine - Texas Medical Center Library
1133 John Freeman Blvd.
Houston, TX 77030
phone: 713-799-7880

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Talk: Speak Truth to Power

This week our LIFE class was joined by Mignette Patrick Dorsey who talked about her book "Speak Truth to Power", the story of her father, Charles Patrick, a civil rights pioneer. When we think of civil rights heroes, we think first of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but there were many people who pushed for civil rights in ways large and small before the national movement in the 1960s.

Charles Patrick's role as civil rights pioneer began with a traffic incident in 1954 in Alabama. While waiting to back into a parking space, a white woman pulled in to the space instead. When he confronted her about it, the lady became agitated and stated that her husband was a police officer and implied that she could park wherever she wanted. The woman reported the incident to her husband and some time later, Mr. Patrick was assaulted by the police. In those days, it was common for a black man standing in front of a judge to say "I failed your honor", a plea similar to "no contest" regardless of innocence as the law (and unlawful) were quick to lynch. But Charles Patrick had had enough. As a veteran of the Korean War, Mr. Patrick didn't want to hide the truth. He took the beating case to trial. He won the civil trial; the offending officers were suspended. The case was then appealed directly to the personnel board, and this time the offending officers were fired.

But Mr, Patrick's story goes beyond his decision to speak his truth to the powers that be at the time. It is the story of a community that was tired of the status-quo and was ready for change. Many citizens; black and white, Christian and non-Christian, spoke out against his mistreatment and wrote letters to the city government letting them know the voters would not support any elected official who opposed Mr. Patrick. Although we tend to think of civil rights as a series of a few highly publicized events which catapulted the movement into the mainstream, it was really the culmination of many smaller unreported stories of people just like Charles Patrick that caused a groundswell of action to push our nation into a new era.

To learn more about Mr. Patrick's place in our nation's history, please check out the website below.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beading for a Cause

Greetings LIFEers. This week's class was about beading for a cause. The project: lanyards. The cause: children's neuroblastoma cancer foundation. The LIFE class spent our hour happily beading lanyards, the strings that go around the neck to hold a name badge or security card. Most lanyards you buy are boring fabric or elastic, but you can turn your lanyard into an attractive necklace through beading. Our instructors were from the NB Lanyard Project, a devoted group of mothers who create and sell lanyards to raise money for the children's neuroblastoma cancer foundation.

Neuroblastoma is the most common form of cancer in infants, with an incidence rate almost double that of leukemia, and has one of the lowest survival rates of all childhood cancers. The average age at diagnosis is 17 months, and nearly 70% of children are at the advanced stage of the disease by that time. But despite these startling facts, children's neuroblastoma research is tragically underfunded compared to other childhood diseases. All of the lanyards made in our LIFE class this week were donated to the NB Lanyard Project to help raise funds for this tragic disease.

For more information on The NB Lanyard Project, go to

For more information on children's neuroblastoma, go to

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Convex, Double Bevel and Chisel Point

Have you ever been out to dinner with a terrible conversationalist and thought to yourself, "someone, please, sharpen this knife"? If so, Professor Jason Moulenbelt is here to save the day, by teaching us LIFEers how to sharpen knives and other blades. (Side note: injuring yourself to get out of boring or awkward situations is never advisable. Instead, try faking a headache or an emergency phone call.) It was a full hour my friends, and the class hung on Jason's every word. The excited tension in the room was so thick you could cut it with a ...well, anyway, moving on.

Did you know that in most states you can only legally carry a blade that is 4" or less, but here in Texas, it is 5"? Which made Jason guilty of only one count of bringing a weapon on our campus, for the 9"golok, which was pretty cool. Jason walked us through the anatomy of a knife, ways to tell if your blade needs to be sharpened or honed, and then methods of sharpening or honing your blades. FYI, did you know scissors are merely two long chisel points put together on a pivot? That being said, you still shouldn't run with scissors, or chisels.

Sharpening vs honing? Who will win? Actually, you will, when you learn the right way to do both, since you will have knives in great shape, ready to cut through anything with minimal effort. Sharpness is defined by how well your knife cuts into something. Honing will make sure the blade is straight and thus makes a clean cut. An easy test to tell if your blade is dull is the thumbnail test. Run your blade GENTLY over the back of your thumbnail. If the blade bumps along, then it needs to be sharpened.

To sharpen your blades, you can either do it yourself, or take your blade to, as Jason put it, " a reputable knife sharpening place, not the mall." To do it yourself, you can use several tools, but Jason was quick to remind us that you get what you pay for. The best sharpening tools are usually Japanese water stones, Arkansas water stones, or diamond files. The stones need to be kept wet so the metal filings coming off the blade get whisked away and not embedded in the pores of the stone. Remember in the old days when your grandpa used to spit on the stone before sharpening his knife? Same principal.

To sharpen stones, pay attention to the angle you are holding the blade as you push the edge away from you. One way to tell you have the correct angle is to color the edge with a magic marker. When you sharpen at the correct angle, you should remove all the color. Also, pay attention to the grit of the sharpening material. A lower grit removes more material, but most knives don't need a low grit sharpening unless you really damaged your knife. When honing, pull the knife towards you on a firm strop. Strops can be made of many types of material, but are traditionally leather.

See the pictures below of our exciting class, including Jason's arsenal, I mean, tool display. Then read the slide show about blades, edges, and ways to sharpen a knife. With so much knowledge, soon you'll be the sharpest knife in the drawer! Aaaaaaaand I'm done. See you next week!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Greetings LIFEers; this was an exciting week as we got out of our chairs and put our dancing shoes on! We were joined this week by John Clement from the Houston International Folk Dancers, who gave us the fundamentals of folk dancing. Folk dancing is defined as any dance that people do in a social situation. As such, folk dancing changes over time. You could argue that the rock & roll dances of the 60s were a type of folk dance, that gave way to disco in the 70s and hip-hop of the 80s and 90s. But generally, people think of folk dancing as group dances done in lines or circles with simple steps. We learned several of these dances this week.

From Serbia, to Greece to the Israeli Waiter Dance, the LIFE class took a dancing tour of Europe. Of course, mere words cannot describe the dances. To get the most out of it, you must participate. This was the first time in LIFE history that our regular meeting room actually got HOT! But the time flew by as we danced around the room, and we thanked John for his instruction and his patience.

For more information on folk dancing in the Houston area, check out the Houston International Folk Dancers web page, where they offer group dances and instruction.

Until next time....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Eating in the Raw

Bon appetit! That's what Julia Child always said at the end of her show, the French Chef, after teaching her audience how to cook meats, casseroles and sauces heavy in cream and butter. But as delicious as her food was, healthy it was not (unless you include the healthy French lifestyle of lots of walking and activity) which is why there is a focus on healthier eating through raw foods. Our LIFE class was thrilled to learn all about it from Elizabeth Harris, who joined us from her newly opened restaurant, Art of Pure Food.

So what is raw/pure food? Well, raw food is any food that is uncooked (or cooked under 114°F) unprocessed and organic (all natural soil, fertilizers and pesticides). Eating food raw gives you the active enzymes and nutrients that cooking and processing usually destroys. Living food consists of plant seeds that have sprouted, so their enzymes are at their most vital and active. Raw and living foods have more antioxidants, less fat, less cholesterol, fewer calories and helps you build and maintain a healthy digestive tract.

Although this seems like a recent trend, this diet has been practiced and preached for over one thousand years, and started to take off in the west as early as 1900, although it didn't reach mainstream culture until the 1980s here in America, with the publication of Leslie Kenton's book "Raw Energy-Eat Your Way to Radiant Health". Today, most grocery stores have organic produce and vegetarian/vegan sections of their stores to cater to this diet. And of course, there are restaurants sprouting up that have only raw foods on the menu. While scientists and nutritionists still debate the pros and cons of a full vegan diet, there is no doubt that a diet high in vegetables, grains and fruits is best.

Now you may be thinking, carrots and celery for the rest of my life, how exciting. But that is where restaurants like Art of Pure Food step in. You can eat many of your favorite dishes (including desserts, yeah!) following the raw food diet. And to prove that, Elizabeth taught us how to make chocolate truffles, which were delicious and nutritious, two words that I thought don't normally go together.

Chocolate Truffles
Prep time: 15 minutes - Servings: 24 truffles

  • 1 1/2 cups raw almonds soaked overnight & drained

  • 1/4 cup raw organic cacao powder

  • 5 pitted dates soaked for 30 minutes

  • 1/4 cup organic raisins soaked 30 minutes

  • 1/2 cup raw shredded organic coconut
    • Instructions:

      Soak the almonds for approximately 8 hours and drain. Soak raisins and dates for 30 minutes, drain water and set aside. Place drained almonds and cacao powder in food processor and process until finely chopped. Add drained pitted dates and raisins to processor with almonds and cacao, process until everything is combined and mixture starts to pull away from the sides into a paste. Remove mixture and roll into small balls the size of a nickle. Roll the balls in the shredded coconut. Other suggestions: roll into cocoa powder or finely chopped nuts instead. Keep refrigerated.

      If you'd like to visit Art of Pure Food, please see the link the below. They also teach classes in raw cooking, accept groups and feature art of local artists on their walls. Bon appetit!

      Art of Pure Foods
      14520 Memorial Drive, Suite 16
      Houston, TX 77079

      Wednesday, September 1, 2010

      From Fantasy Coffins to Funerals of the Famous

      Greetings LIFEers! This week's class was a grave history in funeral and burial history. Our instructor was Lucy Gonzales, from the National Museum of Funeral History here in Houston. Our parking situation is crazy here at the college, due to the start of the semester and all the construction, so she was a little late, but fortunatly not late....get it? Late. Just a little funeral humor to get you going. Not funny? Hmm, usually knocks them dead at the funeral da bum. Anyone, anyone? Man, this crowd is a bunch of stiffs.......okay, I'll stop.

      So, burial history. Fascintating subject. Did you know back in the 1800s and 1900s that many funerals were held in the home? The funeral director would come to your house, clear out your living room and bring all the necessary furniture to display the body. A family member sat with the body day and night until the burial. Families were required to wear mourning colors (usually black, although white is also a traditional color worn to funerals) for 2 years after the death of a loved one. After 2 years they could wear a little beige color around the cuffs and collar. They could return to regular clothes after 4 years. Imagine that, 4 years of wearing mostly black. While very slimming, it seems like it would become depressing, especially with higher mortality rates in those days. Some folks could wear black for decades. Queen Victoria, so distraught over her husband Prince Albert's death, wore black for the rest of her life (40 years), although she disliked black funerals, so for her funeral London was decorated in purple and white.

      Now the ancient Egyptians embalmbed their dead, and we still do today, but we use modern(ish) techniques. Embalming is mostly a Christian/western practice today. Traditional Jewish law and Islamic law forbids embalming and encourages burial within 24 hours of the death, if possible, and Hinduism discourages embalming. As we learn more about the toxicity of formaldehyde (probable carcinogin), more and more people are choosing not to be embalmed. The embalming process is really for the living, to better present the deceased to loved ones, who can more easily grieve for the deceased if they appear more life like. The last decade has seen the rise of green funerals; deceased not being embalmed, and being burried in biodegradable caskets under trees instead of tombstones.

      For more information on the history of funerals, including presidential and papal memorabilia, visit the National Museum of Funeral History, off I-45 between Airtex and Richie.

      Check out this SlideShare Presentation:

      Wednesday, August 25, 2010

      An Unexamined Life

      Why do you do what you do? In a multi-verse of infinite possibilities, are you doing this because it is what everyone around you is doing, or because this is the choice you would genuinely make, even in a vacuum? I often ask myself this question when I see a woman with a really ugly purse. Does she really like that purse, or did she buy it because the fashion magazines declared that purse to be the "it-bag" of the moment and she is trying to squeeze herself into other people's perceptions of cool, trendy and popular? Of course, this question is not just handy in identifying stupid fashion trends. Applied on a broader scale it helps us understand our own behaviors by making us confront how we make decisions. And this, my fellow LIFEers is the basis of philosophy, a subject we had a teasing glimpse into by Professor Mark Thorsby this week.

      "The unexamined life is not worth living." So said Socrates, in Plato's Dialogues, Apology. Professor Thorsby took us through his views on how 3 famous philosophers would address that statement. Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher in mid 1800s, focused mainly on the ideas of the subjectivity of truth, and faith. Kierkegaard would argue that an unexamined life is ultimately an ignorant and dogmatic life, because the person never questioned the world around them and accepted the "truths" given to them by society. Next, Karl Marx, a German philosopher in the mid 1800s, applied philosophy to socio-economic struggles and determined that working classes are alienated from their true nature because they don't own their work. Marx would have responded to Aristotle by saying an unexamined life is an alienated life, that until you realize you have no ownership over your work (your ability to transform the world) you are removed from your true potential. Lastly, Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher in the late 1800s, who believed that morality evolves with society. Nietzsche would say that the unexamined life is a common life, one lived with the herd, never challenging the social norms. The examined life is radical, untethered from assumptions.

      "So what should we do?" you ask. Are we supposed to question our every action? Why do I brush my teeth, why did I buy a blue Honda Odyssey, should I obey this stop sign if no one is coming the other way? The answer is "yes". No, there is no ultimate answer, and the answers that do come will be as varied as the people who ask the questions. But if there is no ultimate answer, why bother asking the question, and isn't saying there is no ultimate answer an ultimate answer itself? And if the answer varies by the individual experience, then truth is completely subjective, thus negating the idea of "truth" at all, right? Uggh, my brain hurts from all this heavy thinking. I think I'll watch some TV. Now which channel should I watch? Wait, should I even ask that question? Does the fact I'm asking that question have any meaning? Arghhhhh!!!

      Wednesday, August 18, 2010

      Touring Taste of Dance Salad Festival

      The artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas disagreed about style. Degas believed a good painting needed a pretty subject. Cassatt believed that composition was most important and to prove her point, she composed a painting of a servant girl at her toilette, titled Girl Arranging Her Hair. The model is not a classical beauty by any means, but the painting is fascinating none the less. The beauty of the picture comes from the rigor of the composition, the angles of the girls arms and braid to the furniture behind her, and the gentle contrast of colors. Degas conceded the point.

      So what does this have to do with dance, you ask? Everything! For those not well-studied in dance, the general thought is that dance is all about (traditional ideas of) beauty; the movement, the music, the costumes, even the dancers themselves, etc... Not so! Just as Cassatt proved in painting, what makes dance really fascinating is how the dance uses the space; the contrasting angles formed by the dancers; and how lighting, costumes, music and even props can help tell the story. In this week's LIFE class we watched a movie of some of the dances performed at Houston's Taste of Dance Salad Festival.

      Unfortunately we cannot show the movie we watched in class this week on the blog, so you will need to take my word for how interesting and enjoyable it was. The class favorites seemed to be a dance by Mats Ek and his wife (both in their 60s, proving that dance is for all ages, not just skinny 20 somethings) and the dance of a woman going about her day, with a male dancer enacting all the objects she comes in contact with. Watching him become clothing, jewelry, food, a phone, and (class favorite) high heels through dance was amazing. See the links below for the 2011 Dance Salad Festival, and check out dance events here at Cy-Fair too.

      Houston's Dance Salad web page:

      Mary Cassatt's Girl Arranging Her Hair:

      Wednesday, August 11, 2010

      "If it Ain't Got That Swing"

      Hey all you hep cats and smokin' sluggers! Hope you caught our LIFE class this week giving the low-down on black baseball and music in the Jim Crow era. Dr. Larry Hogan, Senior Professor of History at Union College and Dr. Robert Cvornyek, Professor of History at Rhode Island College laid it all on us, right where it all was. Their gig was so solid, I don't really need to break it down for you, ya dig? Check out their presentation, while I take five. Keep it cool....

      Only The Ball Was White

      Wednesday, August 4, 2010

      Cypress Once Had a Rodeo and a Hot Artesian Well

      Greeting LIFErs! This week we were joined by Jane Ledbetter and Karen McGilvery from the Cypress Historical Society to give us the history of the Cypress area and a virtual walk-through of Cypress Top Historical Park.

      We believe Cypress got its name from the numerous Cypress tress that lined the banks of the bayous at the time, although none remain today. Cypress looked very different in the 1700-1800s: there were few trees as the area was mostly prairie. Cypress remained mostly unincorporated farmland until mid 1840s when the first stage coach lines and Post Office developed. When Texas became the 28th state in 1845, Cypress began to grow due to a large influx of mostly German immigrants, who gave their family names to streets which still exist today.

      In 1856 a railroad was built from Houston to Cypress, and the first locomotive was affectionately named "Ebenezer". But the area never really grew, as yellow fever, diphtheria, and other illnesses took a toll on the population until 1897 when Ed Juergen helped develop the community. He built the "Tin Hall" (a dance hall and gun & rifle club) and also the Juergen store, both of which survive today. In 1910, while drilling for oil they instead discovered hot water, and town had 2 hot pools and 1 cold pool which attracted folks from all over the Houston area. The Cypress rodeo began in 1944, mostly for goat roping, but it grew into a full-fledged rodeo quickly.

      Please look through the slide show below to learn more about our town's history, and check out the Cypress Historical Society and Cypress Top Historical Park when you have the chance. It is also time to register for the next year of the Academy of Lifelong Learning. See the links below.

      Cypress Historical Society:
      Cypress Top Historical Park:
      Academy of Lifelong Learning:

      Wednesday, July 28, 2010

      Empanadas of Argentina

      ¡Buenos días! LIFEers showed up hungry for today's class on making Argentinian empanadas. "Empanada", as it is written in Spanish and Portuguese, or "impanata" in Italian, derives from the verb "empanar" meaning "to wrap in bread". Thus, empanadas are small bread pastries surrounding some type of filling, which varies by region. Mexican empanadas usually contain a fruit filling whereas Italian impanatas often contain cheese and/or vegetables. The Argentinian empanadas we made in class contain ground beef and green olives.

      Empanada recipe
      • 1 onion, chopped
      • 1 pound ground beef (not lean)
      • 2 teaspoons paprika
      • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
      • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
      • 1/2 cup pitted green olives, chopped (10 oz jar)
      • 2 cloves garlic chopped
      • 1 egg
      • 2 packages of frozen empanada dough (1 package has 16 dough slices)

      Brown the ground beef with the chopped onions and garlic on low heat, adding the spices when it begins to brown. Add the olives. Since the meat will continue to cook in the empanada, don’t cook it thoroughly in the pan. Let it cool. Spoon a small amount of the meat mixture onto the center of a thawed empanada dough slice. Fold the dough over the meat like a taco. Pinch one end closed to hold the juices inside. Then pinch the entire top of the empanada closed, using a pie-crust-like pinching technique. Brush the sealed empanada with egg. Bake in the oven at 425 for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Serve plain or with hot sauce. Makes 32 empanadas.

      You can buy the frozen dough at Phoenicia.

      To try empanadas around Houston, visit these locations:
      • Manenas Deli -

      • Asturias Bakery -

      We also learned about Yerba Mate tea, a popular beverage of the gauchos, which is rumored to be healthy and help you loose weight, but is also supposedly tied to increased incidents of throat cancer in the gauchos that drank it daily. Todo en moderación, I always say. The gauchos drank the tea in little wooden cups, of which we had several examples in class. ¡Hasta luego!

      Wednesday, July 21, 2010

      Playing in Shadows: Negro Leagues in Texas

      Play ball! Today's LIFE workshop attendees were in the cat-bird seat for a major triple header. First up to bat was Author Robert Fink who gave us a thorough history of the Negro Leagues. From weekend past-time to full-time touring job, many of baseball's finest swung for the fences without ever going pro. Not until the 1950's did the pros start hiring players away and the leagues one-by-one folded. Trivia time: of Texas' 13 players in the Hall of Fame, how many are African American? Answer later in the blog, so you'll have to keep reading.

      Next to step up to the plate was Gary Crawford, operator of Gary specializes in following up on our remaining Negro League players and is working towards getting these major contributors to American history recognized by the MLB and the White House.

      And just to make sure today's workshop was a grand slam, we were joined by Johnny "Lefty" Washington of the Houston Eagles . Lefty regaled us with many tales, including the time he hit Willie Mays with a ball in the ribs, the reason behind Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe's other nickname, and stories of serving with the US Marines in Korea. Listening to Lefty speak, we were filled with nostalgia for the way the game used to be played, before rigid rules and steroids. As Lefty said about today's players, "they're larger, but not better." It was an honor and privilege to listen to an American patriot and living legend.

      The answer to the trivia question above is 9. Below are links to books on the Negro Leagues and Gary Crawford's website. I think that just about covers all the bases. For more information on the history of African Americans to baseball, check out the Library's exhibit "Pride and Passion: The African American Baseball Experience". We have events going on from July 14 - August 27.

      Featured book "Playing in Shadows":