Archive for February, 2010


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By now we all know we’re too fat. It’s in all the media, and we see it at the mall, the airport, and in our closets. We know it raises the risk of many serious diseases, including several types of cancer as well as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. What we may not know is what it means for our ability to get good care.

I read a lot of sonograms, and that’s a good thing: ultrasound is noninvasive, not super costly, and free of harmful radiation. Even after years in practice, I still feel magic as images spring in real-time from a slender wand moved across an abdomen. How amazing, to see so much so quickly and with so little effort! It’s not a Star Trek tricorder, but it’s darn close.

These days, though, the degree of difficulty is increasing along with our collective waistlines. Ultrasound is great for thin people, but sound waves have trouble penetrating the abundant fat that more and more of us possess. This makes it hard to see what’s going on, and that’s not only frustrating, it can be downright dangerous. What you don’t know, it turns out, can indeed hurt you.

One such problem is accumulation of fat in the liver, which interferes with liver function but isn’t usually serious; in rare cases, it can lead to liver cancer. The fat in the liver, like the fat beneath the skin, resists the sound waves and masks what lies within. This condition, called ‘fatty infiltration,’ used to be uncommon, but now I see it several times a day. Too much fat also makes ultrasound in pregnancy more difficult, which can mean increased risk of complications. And obesity isn’t just an issue for ultrasound: it poses problems for all diagnostic imaging, x-rays to MRI.

Being obese or overweight is complicated, to be sure. But if you need more motivation to fight against it, think forward to a day when you might feel that wand on your stomach, struggling to see inside. You—and your doctor—will want answers, not uncertainty.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 5/25/2010 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)


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I’m waving my hand like an idiot, saying ‘hi’ to the towel dispenser over and over, but getting no love in return. Where is that blasted towel? Surely the motion detector will reward my frantic efforts any second now, any second …but no motor whirrs, no white sail of paper unfurls from the slot, nothing. It’s like I don’t exist, shunned by the cool kids all over again. I lean closer and scrutinize the face of my new enemy, only to discover that the sensor is, in fact, on the bottom of the beast—not on the front, like I expected.

This, of course, was after I’d fought with the auto-dispensers for the soap and water. The tap was stony-faced and smooth, with neither switch nor sensor for the uninitiated. Bone-crushing drought gave way to random scalding flood, with no hope of moderating either temperature or torrent. The soap I didn’t solve on my own: I watched another user surreptitiously to learn the secret handshake, after which the nozzle divulged a tiny grudge of pinkish slime.

And before that, naturally, was the auto-flush toilet: an instrument of torture to provide the perfect finishing touch to any modern airport sojourn. Long before the music started, the dervish whirled into action, madly flinging ice-cold water where it was least wanted. When I was ready, it sulked like a child denied candy before dinner, turning its back and pouting sullenly. At least there was an actual button an actual finger could push to force it into action. As I left the stall, it flushed again, unbidden, from pure spite.

After all this whining, you may not believe I’m a fan of no-touch fixtures in public restrooms: I am, truly. But this great concept has, for the most part, been executed poorly. We’re a little safer, but is this really progress? With all those extra flushes, are the toilets really saving water? Is the aggravation worth the gains? Beats me….now smile, and wave to the sensor on your way out.

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Eating fire

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I have no idea how it happened. Both my sister and I, offspring of Midwesterners whose idea of ‘spicy’ is Cantonese-style with a little ginger or some garlic, love it hot. Perhaps we are changelings.

For me, the hotter the better: it’s not hot enough unless it makes my nose run and my eyes water. Jalapeños don’t really cut it–they’ve been bred down to the lowest common denominator so the masses can enjoy their poppers without crying foul, or filing lawsuits for assaulted dignity. Chipotles, for the most part, retain some fire, and I use them often in cookery to good effect. My favorite chipotle-bearing recipe of the moment, black bean and sweet potato stew, is sweet, hot, smoky, and substantial. Serranos are decent, and most of the year they are my fall-back pepper when I need one freshly diced. But my true love is the habañero: loud as sirens, bright as flames, and positively stuffed with Scoville units. The lurid orange color of their skin is an added bonus, as is the fruity edge that moderates the heat a tad.

Recently I heard about a pepper new to the west, the ghost chili of Assam. Also called the poison pepper, its appearance is deceiving. Roughly 3 and a half inches long and a demure orange-red, it looks a bit like any number of its kiddie-zone cousins. But this baby is so hot, the legend goes, that to eat it is to feel as if you’re dying. To put things in perspective, Jalapeños typically don’t exceed 10,000 Scoville units, while habañeros—my Caribbean queens—pack between 300-600,000. The ghost chili, by contrast, tops one million Scovilles—one million! The roof of my mouth blisters at the very thought. But I know I’ve got to try it; no self-respecting chile-head would hesitate. Stand by with the fire extinguisher, will you?

This essay aired as part of the Perspectives series on KQED-FM (88.5 in the San Francisco area) on August 13, 2010.

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The catalog is glossy, full of rich descriptions, brilliant photographs, and clever line art. It’s seductive by design, like all such marketing collateral, and I fall willingly into its world of garden fantasies. Though the artwork is spectacular, it is the names that really do a number on me. Each variety of seeds is more evocative, alluring, and desired than the last—which would be great if I had unlimited space, and time, but I am blessed with neither. Too much choice is often difficult.

Who could resist, for example, the lure of ‘Purple Passion’ asparagus? ‘Diablo’ Brussels sprouts promise thrills, if not a bit of danger. ‘Orange Chiffon’ Swiss chard hints at delicious, frilly mystery. Then there’s ‘Green Tigress’ zucchini, an appellation sure to make even experienced gardeners reconsider vows of ‘never again’. And ‘Runaway’ arugula, a real eye-catcher, invites to parts unknown but bound to be exciting.

For those with more refined sensibilities, how about ‘Panache’ parsnip, or ‘Ambition’ shallot? Style and success are hard to argue with. The more romantically inclined may favor ‘Early Dawn’ cauliflower’s whisper of new blushing day, or ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ romaine’s warm hues in the dull of winter.

Adventure-minded gardeners would do well to consider ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, or their close cousin, ‘Red Samurai’. If you prefer radishes, ‘Rebel’ should do nicely. Pining to run the bulls at Pamplona? Then ‘Corno di Toro’ peppers are for you. If the county fair is more your style, ‘Cotton Candy’ pumpkins may be calling you.

Which ones will I fall for? I think I’ll try some ‘Romeo’ bell peppers—a good dose of passion is always welcome in the garden. I’ll add a bright ‘Flashy Troutback’ lettuce to the mix, and perhaps some ‘Martian Jewels’ sweet corn. Who am I, mere mortal after all, to resist such siren invitation?

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It rolls around in your mouth, then spills slow and lazy off the tongue. Some words are like that, soft and friendly despite not being often heard. As such, they provoke curiosity and interest, as much for their sound as for their meaning.

Tilth is one of those words. I love it partly because it is so rarely heard, partly for the ideas and images it brings to mind. It describes a quality of soil, a certain lightness of being, that plants desire and need. ‘Fluffiness’ is one component, but there’s so much more—surface tension, particle size, density, and permeability are in there too. The ideal combination of these attributes is the goal of organic gardeners and farmers everywhere, and we strive to reach it with every bed we dig. Depending on the starting point, this may mean a great deal of sweat and soil amendments.

Every time I plant a crop, whether placing seeds directly in the earth or setting transplants in a bed, I run my fingers through the soil and think of tilth. Is the soil light enough? Is it too compacted, or too sticky? Will it give my plants the support and oxygen they need, and encourage them to bring forth the bounty I seek, whether leaf, or pod, or fruit?

Tilth matters because it is the soil, in the end and the beginning, that must be nurtured, groomed, and fed. Gardeners often misapprehend this, focusing their efforts on the plants themselves and neglecting the soil that creates them. It’s understandable; the plants are what they want, for food, ornament, or medicine, while soil may just seem like unimportant, lifeless dirt. Getting concepts like tilth is vital to the shift we need to make in thinking about food and nourishment: get the fundamentals right, and you don’t need to rely on artificial, unhealthful, and potentially damaging measures to grow a bean, a melon, or a lush tomato.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 6/30/2010 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

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