Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Another Word about Healthcare and the Common Good

It’s not dark yet. The House of Representatives has passed, and the president has signed into law a new bill on healthcare. For this, I am glad. At the first of the year, I was advocating that we go back to the drawing board on this one. In my blog posting for January 2 I said “the amalgam of ideas masquerading on the Hill as healthcare reform should be scrapped. It makes much more sense to extend Medicare to all... The current legislative proposal seems to favor the insurance companies, just as the financial 'bailout' only favored the banks, and Medicare reform favored the pharmaceutical companies.”

I didn’t like the fact that the bill had been watered down to accommodate Republican interests, only to get no Republican votes. I didn’t like the fact that so many special deals were added to gain the vote of some Democratic congressmen who lacked the courage of any conviction other than the desire to be re-elected. It reminded me of how much the process stinks.

Even so, I am greatly relieved that this bill has passed. It is not a perfect bill by any stretch of the imagination. I also realize that there is still work to do in the senate, and there is opposition from several fronts, but it is my hope that the bill signals a turning point in our commitment to the common good.

A Society that Works

I began that entry on January 2 by stating what, in my view, makes for a society that works:

1. Access to education
2. Access to transportation
3. Access to healthcare

If everyone in every strata of society has access to these three things, we all benefit. We are divided in the United States on how to achieve these big three. On the one hand are those who say that the only way to achieve the common good is for all to work together in community. Then there are those who say, “I worked hard for my college degree, my BMW and my Blue Cross coverage. If others want it they should work hard too.” So many of us are so afraid that some undeserving person may get some relief, that we turn our backs on the widespread suffering and poverty that exists right here among us. Too many have been willing to partition themselves off from the needy and the working poor in an effort to not have to deal with the problem. Others are waging a crusade against injustice. Then there are those who realize that everyone benefits by living in a society that works to the benefit of all.

But Why Should the Government Do It?

“The government has absolutely no business getting involved in healthcare.” My own Southern democratic father uttered words similar to this back in 1965 when Medicare was passed. I think it was a dark day for him. However, no one was happier with Medicare when he and my mother became eligible. He had never dreamed that he would have been able to afford the medical interventions that added quality years to his life. Those were pivotal years when Medicare, Medicaid, and Civil Rights legislation were passed. The social landscape was changed for the better. President Lyndon Johnson knew that those “Great Society” measures were not smart politically, but that they were good for the country. He made the statement when Civil Rights legislation passed due to his constant behind the scenes working of the process, “We (democrats) have lost the South for the next generation.” He was right, those southern dixiecrats all eventually moved to the Republican Party. But he was also right in pushing for that massive legislation. I must confess that as a child of the South growing up in the 1960s, I did not have a favorable view of LBJ. Looking back, however, I am more and more impressed by his political courage in choosing the right thing over the expedient thing. [Side note: I also realize that LBJ totally missed it on Viet Nam – what can I say, he was a complicated man]

What does all of this mean for the healthcare bill that passed this week? It is not dark yet, my friend. For those who, like me, wanted a public option – or even Medicare for all – this is at least a starting point that will set us toward a more civil society. For those who have feared and vehemently opposed this bill, relax. Do not let fear be your guide. One day you will likely come to appreciate this measure just as much as my father came to appreciate Medicare. We have yet to see how smart this is politically, but any step toward improving the common good is a step in the right direction. As you can see, my sense is that it is definitely not dark yet.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Support Your Local Arts

Today I spent some quality time down at the local library. This was the day for the annual “Alabama Bound” event hosted by the downtown branch of the Birmingham Public Library. Every year the event brings in Alabama authors (or authors with Alabama roots) who have published recent works. We get to hear from these writers about their experiences and about the art and craft of writing. It is always an inspirational day for me.

This year was especially inspiring. To tie in the state-wide Big Read promoting The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Alabama Bound event today focused on Mark Twain. I cannot remember a time when I was not delighted by Mark Twain. I wrote a little piece about him in my blog on 1-17 10, "A Place for Saints, Sinners, Doubters and Jilted Lovers.” Today’s event began with Mark Twain impersonator, Will Stutts. Mr. Stutts brought Samuel Clemens to life. He gave us the man in his own words, white suit, white hair and white mustache, bringing us much laughter as well as insight into the human condition.

We also heard some local High School students present their own poetry. The three winners from the “Word Up Poetry Slam” competition presented their winning pieces. I was truly inspire to hear what these young people were thinking and writing in their poetry. One cannot despair of the future when one hears the voices of young poets.

After lunch we heard from four authors who told of their fist encounters with Tom Sawyer and the influence of Mark Twain. Alan Gribben, Twain scholar from AUM and authors Ted Dunagan, Faye Gibbons, and Chandra Sparks-Taylor each gave the audience insight into the life and works of Mark Twain. We heard how a boy growing up in south Alabama in the 1940s would later put his write about that boyhood, just as Samuel Clemmons did 100 years earlier. We heard how a young girl whose family could conceive of nothing greater in her future that getting a job in the local mill was inspired to greater things by reading about a world opened up by Mark Twain's writings. A young African-American writer told of her hopes that her fictional characters would exhibit the kind of relationships and friendships found in Tom Sawyer.

The close of the day brought a superb presentation from storyteller Dolores Hydock. If you ever get a chance to hear Ms. Hydock, mark it on your calendar and be there. She gave dramatic recitations from some of Mark Twain’s works. With no stage props, only her storytelling skills, we were able to visualize Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer debating on the best cure for warts (Huck with a dead cat in hand). We heard Mark Twain's stories come alive and learned of events from his life. We heard about Clemens' knack for bad investments and we learned of the tender loving relationship between him and his wife, Olivia. Laughter abounded and then I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room as we heard “The Californian’s Tale.”

If you live near Birmingham, watch for Alabama Bound when it comes back around next March. In addition, there are many other profitable offerings throughout the year from all of our libraries and other local arts venues. Find out what is happening and support your local arts events.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nuns and Healthcare

I just read in the Newsweek blog, The Gaggle that a group of nuns have come out urging congress to pass Healthcare Reform. The healdine states that the nuns "defy bishops." I must say, I have to love those nuns. Right away I said to my wife, "They have more heart and more education than any of those bishops."

I know something of whence I speak. Back in 2001, my wife and I attended RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)in our local Catholic diocese. The instructor for us adult inquirers into the Catholic faith was an very gifted Benedictine nun. During one of our theological discussions, she explained some of the dynamics that have been going on in the church for a while. In the education the priests, typically they go through seminary, are ordained and then are sent out to work in the parishes. For many of them, that is the extent of their theological education.

For nuns, however, many of them have received theological education throughout their lives. After they take their final vows, many nuns work as educators. Those nuns who want to continue their education take college and graduate level courses during the summers when they are not teaching school. It takes much longer to get a degree that way, but one of the consequences is that the nuns are exposed to the latest developments and thinking among academics and theologians. Back during the 1960s and '70s when so much was happening socialogically and theologically, the nuns were at the forefront of knowledge and development. Consequently, they tended to be up to date and on the cusp of events, whereas many of the priests and bishops were 20 years behind the times.

I believe in continuing education, and I believe in working hard to see that ethics, theology, and philosophy keep pace with our understanding of what is happening in the world. I cheer those nuns who are not only out there in the world working with people in need, they are also keeping their minds sharp and their thoughts current. When it comes to faith and religion, I think having the heart, having the dedication, and being in pursuit of knowledge are vital.

My hat is off to those magnificent nuns who are living their faith.


Friday, March 12, 2010

I Heard Mushrooms Singing

Here’s another culinary entry. I found a great vegetarian recipe in Gourmet magazine. It’s called “Cheesy Polenta Lasagne with Mushroom and Seitan” (click here to see the recipe). I have said before that cooking, like poetry, is a wonderful alchemy in which ordinary things are transformed into the extraordinary. Well, this one was indeed cause for celebration. I must say up front, however, that I had to make some adjustments in the recipe. My wife is allergic to garlic, so I eliminated that (but I did add some onion). I’m not sure what cremini mushrooms are, and they were nowhere to be seen, so I used sliced baby portabellas. Being unable to find Italian fontina either, I substituted it with ricotta cheese. The gruyere was too expensive for this month’s budget, so I used one of those shredded cheese combos that included mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, asiago, and romano. I knew I could find the polenta at our local Publix, and the seitan would, of course, be available at The Golden Temple, Birmingham’s premier vegetarian and health food store (one of my favorite spots in town).

It was a cool and cloudy March afternoon when I began to prepare this new recipe. After making the cheese sauce and setting it aside, I cooked the onion (instead of the garlic) in a heavy skillet with some olive oil and then stirred in the mushrooms. I have sautéed mushrooms on many occasions, but I always use butter in the skillet followed by a healthy splash of sherry. This recipe called for no additional oil or liquid for the cooking of the mushrooms, which were to be cooked and stirred in a medium-high skillet for about three minutes. I was using a wooden spoon, and about halfway through the process, as the mushrooms began to moisten and soften, a beautiful chorus arose from the skillet. As the wooden spoon made contact with the mushrooms, a high pitched “singing” was heard (I was reminded of the notes made when a moistened finger moves along the rim of a wine glass – yet this sound was different). It was a joyful sound that I had never heard before in all of my culinary adventures. For me it set the tone for the new dining adventure that was in the making.

In the end, dinner was a great success. My daughter, who does not like mushrooms, went back for seconds, and said it was not like anything she had ever tasted. I found it appealing and satisfying. I was glad to have the opportunity to use seitan (a wheat-based protein) and polenta. I can recommend the dish to anyone. I cannot guarantee that your mushrooms will sing, and since I made so many substitutions I’m not sure how far my result was from the original. I’ll make this dish again, and one day may be able to follow the exact recipe.

May all your conversations be rewarding, and may all your cooking be joyful.

*    *    *

Here is the original recipe retrieved online at

Cheesy Polenta Lasagne with Mushrooms and Seitan
Gourmet | February 2009
by Maggie Ruggiero

Makes 4 to 6 servings
active time:35 min
total time:1 hr


For cheese sauce:
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 pound Italian Fontina, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
  • 3 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated (about 1 cup), divided
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

For mushroom-seitan filling:
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 10 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 8 ounces seitan (patted dry and thinly sliced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 (16-to 18-ounce) logs ready-made plain polenta

Preheat oven to 425°F with rack in upper third. Lightly butter a 2-to 2 1/2-quart shallow baking dish.

Make cheese sauce:

Melt butter in a 2-to 3-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour until smooth, then cook roux, whisking frequently, until pale golden, 2 to 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat milk in a separate small saucepan until just about to boil. Add milk to roux in 2 batches, whisking constantly until very smooth. Bring to a boil, whisking, then cook, whisking, 30 seconds. Remove from heat and whisk in Fontina, half of Gruyère, nutmeg, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cover and set aside, whisking occasionally.

Make mushroom-seitan filling:

Cook garlic in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring, until beginning to turn pale golden. Stir in mushrooms, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are softened, about 3 minutes. Add seitan and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms and seitan are slightly golden, about 4 minutes. Add water and cook briefly, scraping up any brown bits.

Assemble and bake lasagne: 

Spread 1/2 cup cheese sauce in bottom of baking dish.
Slice 1 log of polenta into 1/4-inch-thick rounds and arrange enough rounds to cover bottom of dish, overlapping slightly. Spoon half of filling evenly over polenta, then spread with half of remaining cheese sauce (about 1 cup). Slice enough rounds from second log to form a second layer. Cover with remaining filling, then cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining Gruyère and bake until top is just bubbling and slightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Cooks’ notes: — Lasagne can be assembled 1 day ahead and chilled. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.
—Any leftover polenta log can be sliced and sautéed in oil or butter to serve with eggs at breakfast.

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