Category Archives: Food for Thought

News, Fake or Real

Yesterday, Clif and I went to the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) for a panel discussion hosted by its Senior College and the College of Arts & Sciences. The topic, as indicated in this post’s title, was News, Fake or Real. The panel consisted of Bill Nemitz, a noted Maine journalist and columnist; Mal Leary, a senior political correspondent for Maine Public Radio; and Jessica Lowell, a journalist at the Kennebec Journal.

Fake news is an issue very dear to my heart. Indeed, the notion that facts do matter is a central theme in my YA fantasy novel Maya and the Book of Everything.

It is my guess that as soon as humans acquired language, despotic leaders have told lies to maintain power and stroke their egos. However, in the United States, the current administration has brought lying to a new high—or low, depending on your point of view. On Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s advisors, even came up with a term—“alternative facts”—that many of us had never heard before. When Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, insisted that alternative facts were falsehoods, Conway did not even have the grace to look ashamed and instead barrelled on with her talking points.

At yesterday’s forum, Marilyn Canavan, the moderator, ended her introduction by asking, how are we to distinguish between news and opinion? How will we know if news is fake?

Jessica Lowell suggested that readers need to think critically to separate news from opinion. And fact from fiction. She noted how easy it was to share things on Facebook without knowing where the news was coming from and even admitted to having done this herself. (So have I.) Now, Lowell is more careful, and she stressed how important it was to stop and pause before sharing anything, to check the source.

Mal Leary spoke of how fake news often has a sliver of truth. As an example, he used a recent story about chocolate becoming extinct.  The bombastic headline was designed to draw people in, providing the site with lots of clicks, which in turn gives data and potential customers to advertisers. As it turned out, the article explained how climate change might affect chocolate production at some time in the future. But right now, there is no reason to hoard Hershey Chocolate Bars. Leary warned the audience to beware of websites that have weird endings such as .co. For example, Newsweek.com.co is not the same as Newsweek.com. Leary also warned us to beware of websites with no “About” section and of single-source stories.

Bill Nemitz told an amusing but sobering tale of how his publicity photo was stolen by “T.S. Hunter”—most certainly not the author’s real name—whose website was putting out information to disparage a victim of a police shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. T.S. Hunter had even constructed a snappy bio that described how he was a poet, the owner of a health food store, had two goldendoodles, and was in love with a muse with a guitar. (I must admit that as a writer, I was impressed by these specific details.) Nemitz pursued the matter, and eventually the blog was taken off the Internet.

Nemitz then defined fake news. First, it was news that was 100% false, such as many of the stories found in supermarket tabloids. Second, there was a gray area, which included news with a slant or a bias but had a grain of truth. Third, fake news could be pure propaganda. Fourth, it could be pieces that misuse data or scientific evidence. Fifth, it could come about because of sloppy or imprecise writing. Sixth, and perhaps most important, fake news is not news with which you disagree.

A Q & A followed the panel discussion, and many good points were raised and discussed. This forum started at 2:00 p.m. and ended at 4:00 p.m. Such a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon and such a relevant topic. Many thanks, UMA.

To end this piece, I am posting some pictures of UMA’s small but lovely campus in winter. And readers, not one of these pictures is fake.

 

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In Transition

Yesterday, Clif and I went to the Winthrop Center Friends Church to see In Transition 2.0, a movie about Transition, a movement celebrating community and the environment. It also re-imagines a different economy, based on supporting local stores, farmers, and artisans. Transition began in the United Kingdom, and some of you have perhaps heard of Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of Transition. (Transition Network.org provides a more detailed account of the movement and its various aspects.)

Released in 2012, In Transition 2.0 follows the usual rah-rah trajectory common to upbeat documentaries about the environment and social change. The gist of the movement is explained, and then big and small examples of action from around the world are featured—community gardens (relatively easy); a group that focuses on personal action (again, relatively easy); local currency (a little harder but manageable); and starting a small power company that is based on renewable energy (very hard).

I’m aware that the above paragraph makes me sound like a cynic when it comes to movements such as Transition, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a Mainer, I am very much aware of the problems addressed by Transition, especially climate change and the decline of small communities. I’ve already written about the weird winter we’ve been having and how this seems to be the new normal. Climate change is here, no two ways about it.

However, I haven’t written about how Winthrop, the small town where we live, has gone from having a vibrant downtown with clothing stores, a craft store, a five and dime store, and a little grocery store to having a few sandwich shops, some thrift shops, and not much else.  It’s been sad to witness this decline. There are many reasons for this, including the closing of major businesses and poor leadership. I could go into great detail about this, but I’ll stop here.

Therefore, my sympathies are with Transition, but having once been a part of a failed Green Committee, I am also aware of how difficult it is for people to come together to make a change.  And, to be fair to In Transition 2.0, the movie does acknowledge that groups do fail and even highlights one that has.

After the movie, the handful of us that came discussed what we had seen.  Maggie Edmondson, the Friends pastor, did a fine job of leading the discussion. However, because most everyone came from a different community, there was really no possibility of starting anything in Winthrop.

And yet. The movie and the discussion made me think more about what I can do to live a greener life, about how I should use less of everything, throw away less, buy more local food, and drive less. (This is very difficult in central Maine as there is not much in the way of public transportation). In fact, I grapple with these issues on a daily basis, and seeing this film has made me resolve to do better, do more.

The title of the movie, In Transition, aptly catches what we are experiencing regularly in this country and, I think, around the world. Fires and mud on the West Coast. Dreadful hurricanes in the South. Twelve inches of snow and frozen alligators in North Carolina. Flash floods in Maine in January.

We are, indeed, in transition. Now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

The Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, on January 22, 2018. More rain, more ice dams are predicted tonight and tomorrow, and these, in turn, could lead to more flooding. Good times.

 

Resting with a Cat on My Chest, Hoping for an Angel Sitting on My Shoulder

On Sunday evening, this was the scene at our house.

In fact, I wasn’t resting at all but rather reading and commenting on the many blogs I follow. This is always a delight as I can go around the world yet stay on my couch with my cat—the notorious Sherlock,  who certainly knows how to make himself comfortable—and my mug of tea.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was a merry blur of food, family, friends, and movies. We are a family keen on movies, and we saw two over the holidays—Coco, which we liked very much, and Murder on the Orient Express, a remake that got a resounding “Meh!” from all three of us.

Now it’s onward to Christmas, my favorite holiday. There will be Christmas movies to watch, cards to send, goodies to cook, presents to wrap, gatherings to attend, and twinkling lights to set out.

In Maine as well as elsewhere, December is the darkest month of the year, a good time to ponder the Christmas sentiment “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All.” Unfortunately, we are far from this notion, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on it, now and for the rest of the year, too.

And if we can slide in a little “ho-ho-ho,” so much the better.  This Christmas song—“We Need a Little Christmas”—perfectly captures the way many of us in the United States feel right now.

Here is a version by the folks from Glee.

I’m hoping to find that little “angel sitting on my shoulder” sometime soon.

A Time to Be Grateful

As noted in yesterday’s post, in the United States, we celebrate a holiday called Thanksgiving. This holiday always falls on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a time to eat (usually a lot!) and give thanks for the good things we have.

I’m not going to mince words. For progressives, this has been a very difficult year, and because of this, it hasn’t been easy to count blessings. The worries, ranging from nuclear war to dismantling the Affordable Health Care Act, are not trivial.

Nevertheless, there are blessings to be counted. So far, this country is at peace. So far, the Affordable Health Care stands. So far, there is a free press that hasn’t bent to those in power.

On a more personal level, I have a snug house, a loving family, and a terrific library that allows me to go far while staying home.

I also have a wonderful circle of friends. Today, I want to give special thanks to my blogging friends who have enriched my life is so many ways. Through pictures and words, I travel near and far, I learn new things, and I am immeasurably enriched by the creativity—in all its various aspects— of my blogging friends.

So many, many thanks to all my blogging friends. You not only enrich my life, but you also remind me that there is still much that is good in this world.

 

A Non-Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

All right. I have a confession to make. I am not a huge fan of Thanksgiving dinner. I know, I know. This makes me sound, well, Un-American. After all, this tradition is in honor of the gathering of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans way back before there were green bean casserole and sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. As legend has it, in the 1600s, everyone came together to celebrate the harvest festival. (This sounds a little too jolly and pagan for the Pilgrims, but what the heck. Maybe it’s true.)

And so it has gone, with the food changing over the years. When I was young, we had a meat and potato stuffing to go in the turkey and a medley of different vegetables. In the week before Thanksgiving, my mother baked like a crazy person, and her fudge was, in a word, incredible. (I often wish I had a fraction of her energy.)

I am sorry to say that for me, with my sweet teeth—never mind tooth—the fudge was the best part of the meal. I have never liked turkey that much, and mashed potatoes are a little too bland for my taste. Turnip and squash are all right, but my heart doesn’t leap with joy when I see them on the table.

Then there is the work. Oh, there is plenty of it, and everything must come out at the same time and be reasonably warm. Usually, by the time the food is ready, my appetite is nearly gone. After that comes the clean-up, and when it is all over, I feel like lying on the bathroom floor for an extended snooze. (A friend’s mother has done this, and my sympathies are with her.)

Last year, Thanksgiving was particularly rough. Shannon and Mike were in North Carolina, and Clif and I had been working hard on Maya and the Book of Everything. When Thanksgiving was done, I felt even more exhausted than usual, and I was seriously considering going out to eat this Thanksgiving.

But eating out at Thanksgiving is expensive—at least $100, including the tip, for two people—and it’s just not as cozy as being at home. What to do, what to do?

Dee, our New York daughter, is a vegetarian, and it suddenly dawned on me that my life would be significantly better if we had a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner, say, stuffed shells or baked ziti. Because while I’m not a fan of Thanksgiving dinner, I am a huge fan of all things Italian, and the baked pasta dishes can be—wait for it!—made ahead the day before Thanksgiving.

This notion made me so giddy that I thought, “Well, son of a biscuit, I could even make a chocolate cream pie on Thanksgiving morning if the rest of the food was ready.”

And so settling on stuffed shells, I proposed the alternative Thanksgiving dinner. Dee was all for it. She doesn’t eat turkey anyway, and our friends Alice and Joel, who will join us, are good sports and very flexible. However, now we come to Clif, who LOVES Thanksgiving dinner, but he, too, was a good sport and agreed to my stuffed shell suggestion.

But I could tell he was a little sad, and last night we had a quasi-Thanksgiving dinner of breaded chicken thighs, baked potatoes, corn, and stuffing from a bag. It was pretty darned good, and a snap compared with the real event. Clif’s desire for stuffing was satisfied, and clean-up was no problem at all.

Thus it is that onward, with a lighter heart, I go toward Thanksgiving. The house is reasonably clean, the shopping is done, and we have a plan devised for the rest of it.

I’ll still be making pumpkin bread. After all. But I have a funny feeling that stuffed shells will be a new Thanksgiving tradition in our family.

 

When Life Gives You Bruised Apples, Make Cider

The title of this post is a twist on the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But I live in Maine, and we do not have lemon trees this far north. (When that day happens, not even the most ardent climate denier will be able to refute the facts. ) So instead of lemons, I used apples, a fruit that grows in abundance in Maine.

But what I am really referring to is the Pine Tree Con, a  show we attended in Bangor this past weekend. It was a two-day event featuring all things comic books, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Clif and I had reserved a vendor’s table. As we had recently had a successful time selling books at The Great Falls Comic Expo, a similar show in Lewiston, we had great hopes for the Pine Tree Con.

Unfortunately, the Pine Tree Con was not only poorly attended, but in addition, those who came, mostly older teenagers and young men, were not at all interested in either Maya and the Book of Everything or Clif’s The Wave of Time.  A few vendors did well, but most did not.

Now here comes the cider part. Even though I didn’t sell many books, I still had fun. Simply put, the vendors who come to such events are a terrific bunch of people. I had a wonderful  time chatting with many of them. The table directly behind me belonged to a snappy young artist named Bob Raymond. His wife and young daughter joined him for much of the event, and as I was alone a lot of the time, they drew me into their warm, friendly orbit. Such a lovely family, and I was sorry to say goodbye to them when the weekend ended.

Then there was Nicholas Anderson, a talented artist and storyteller who has created a series called Planet Ripple, which features a young woman named Minnow, a protagonist with many disabilities, including autism.  On his books’ Amazon Page, in the About the Author section, Nicholas notes that he, too, is on the autism spectrum. So I was very touched when Nicholas came to me, as the event was winding down, to tell me how sorry he was that Maya and the Book of Everything did not receive the same public mention that his Planet Ripple series did. My response? You go, Nicholas! Take the publicity wherever it comes. I am also happy to report that Nicholas sold lots of books at Pine Tree Con. The audience was perfect for his work.

Finally there was Shawn French, a former sports writer who now works on video games, horror movies, and comic books. His Escape from Jesus Island is a tale of cloning gone horribly wrong and is “a twisted retelling of the Book of Revelation.” But not disrespectful, Shawn was quick to add. We had a great discussion about editing and writing, and he even gave me some sound advice: When editing, save what you discard. You might use it some other time.

These are just a few of the artists and writers I met,  but I’ll stop with the three I profiled.

Not surprisingly, I did a little Christmas shopping, and the presents I bought are zippy and local, just perfect for several people on my list.

All in all, even though sales were disappointing, a very sweet cider of a weekend.

 

 

In Praise of Decency and Hard Work

In the United States, this long weekend is Labor Day Weekend, a time to honor those who, well, labor. In the United States, many people work extremely hard, and hats off to them for all that they do to keep this country running—the teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, librarians, shop workers, volunteers, those who work at home, the caregivers. I could go on and on and have left many out.  For those at the very top who sponge so much out of society, I hope they appreciate the hard work that keeps them in place. (Snarky, I know, but appropriate for this time of widening inequality in the United States.)

Labor Day weekend is also a time when we bid a bittersweet farewell to summer. Yes, autumn is lovely, and there is much to look forward to, but barbecues and patio time are coming to an end.

Accordingly, we invited our friends Judy and Paul over for a barbecue on Saturday. Judy is a pie maker extraordinaire, and she brought over a raspberry pie for dessert. I nearly jumped for joy when I saw the pie because although I’m keen on all kinds of berries, raspberries are my favorite. As my 60th birthday is coming right up, I immediately proclaimed that this pie was a birthday pie. What then could Judy do but leave the leftovers with us? However, as she told me that she had two peach pies at home, I figured I was, in fact, doing Judy a favor by keeping the leftover raspberry pie. Or so I tell myself.

For the main meal we had potato salad made with sour cream and turkey bacon; chicken breasts marinated in a lemon, garlic, olive-oil  mixture and brushed with a mustard sauce; and corn drizzled with brown butter. Farewell, farewell sweet summer.

Over dinner, one of the topics that came up was the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. So many stories of brave, selfless people helping each other without regard for income, skin color, or ethnicity. Pets were rescued, too, which I found particularly cheering.

For the past week, I had been thinking about the heroism in Texas and about how people really do pull together during catastrophes. Now, if we could just do the same thing when there isn’t a catastrophe, in everyday life.

I mentioned this to Paul and Judy.

“Everyday life is hard,” Judy said.

So it is. Most of us can rise to the occasion and be our better selves during a flood or an ice storm or a tornado. But when things settle down, self interest, pettiness, and even greed too often kick in. While we all need to take care of ourselves and our families, it is very easy to cross the line to selfishness, begrudging others what we think we should have as a matter of course. In short, we have trouble being consistently decent to each other.

Decency, a humble concept, is hard work, something that must be continually applied not only to other people but also to how we treat animals, the earth, the water, the air.

Somehow, thinking about hard work and decency seems appropriate for Labor Day Weekend.