Friday, March 31, 2006

Vegetarian Times - Bad Customer Service

A couple of weeks ago, somebody on the GoVegan Forum posted a note about a clearance sale at the Vegetarian Times website. I checked it out and ordered two books: The Nutritonal Yeast Cookbook by Joanne Stepaniak and Cooking with Gluten and Seitan by Dorothy R. Bates and Colby Wingate. I received the Nutrional Yeast Cookbook, but not Cooking with Gluten and Seitan. Instead, I received The Whole Foods Diabetic Cookbook by Patricia Stevenson and Michael Cook.

Of course, the package arrived late Friday night, so there was no way I could call about the mistake until Monday. I called the number on the sales order that came with the books. It was one of those automated answering systems, and I did not know the extension number of the person I wanted to speak to. So, I left a message with the receptionist. She did call me back the next day and left me a message on my cell phone; I was in the middle of teaching a lesson, and I do not answer my cell phone when I'm working. Anyway, she told me I had to call a completely different number. I dutifully called that number and left a message with that organization, the Home Bar (?) Publications Bookstore. The recording on that sytem was also of poor quality, so I am uncertain of the name. Did anyone answer at that extension? Of course not. But the lovely woman's voice told me I could order by leaving my name, number, credit card number, and the order number of the book I wanted, and would I please speak clearly. Has anyone called me back from that location? Of course not.

So, this morning I tried the Vegetarian Times website again. Go see for yourself on the Contact Us page. There is no number or e-mail address for customer sevice. So, I tried the phone number again. Yet, again, I left a message for the receptionist. No one returned my call. I waited two hours and called again, this time finally getting a real person. She (her name was Sharon) confirmed the information I was given previously for the bookstore manager in Virginia. I said I left a message for them two days ago and no one had returned my call. She reiterated that the number I called was the accounting office and that I had to deal with the bookstore manager. I then asked if there was a complaint department, someone I could register a complaint with. I was transferred to someone who did not identify herself and said the reason I did not get a call back was because they (the people in Virginia) are out of the office at some trade show and that I would be able to reach them on Monday. I said, "You must be joking," and then she hung up on me when I started to explain how I was unhappy with their customer service.

Something tells me this frustrated little story isn't over yet.

Teacher Strike?

Wednesday of this week, my union, UESF, held a meeting for a strike vote. I heard yesterday that the teachers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike: article here. This was clearly a lot of posturing on the union's part. There are still two more mediation meetings to take place in April. We won't go on strike unless both of those meetings fail. The fact that the district and the union are in mediation is one indication of how difficult these negotiations have been. But, frankly, while I do not look forward to going on strike, I will. We have not had a new contract for about nineteen months now. And we have not had a raise for four years, not even a cost of living increase. It is simply an unacceptable situation. To say that the district is poorly managing its human resources, namely the teachers and paraprofessionals who do the brunt of the work, is a vast understatement.

I heard on the local morning news that Oakland teachers are also planning to strike soon.

A Focus on Vocabulary

Yesterday, we had a professional development day at my school. (We're closed today for Cesar Chavez Day, which is why I'm writing this at ten in the morning.) We spent the morning on teaching vocabulary. A couple of weeks ago one of my colleagues, Nancy, and I spent a Wednesday at a middle school where we received the training that we then taught yesterday to the rest of the teachers at our school. It went really well. I was worried because a lot of our professional development time is not well-spent, and we don't look forward to these days. But Nancy and I put together a pretty good morning training, if I do say so myself. And I did get some good feedback as well. The other fifth-grade teacher at my school said we did a good job, and my student teacher said he learned a lot. If you're interested, you can see the research article, A Focus on Vocabulary, that was one of the resources we used in our training.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Weekend Cooking

Last weekend I made dinner while my mother and grandmother were visiting. Neither of them are vegan. I used the Shook 'n' Cook Breading from La Dolce Vegan! by Sarah Kramer on some seitan "chicken" that I made. I baked it and it wasn't too bad, just a little dry. Oddly, when heated up in the microwave the next day it was more moist. Next time, I'll either pan fry the chicken or make some gravy to go with it.

I made two side dishes from The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas. The Sweet Cinnamon-Maple Glazed Baby Carrots were really good. My 22-month-old son loved them. I also made the Scalloped Cauliflower or Broccoli. I didn't have any vegan cheese on hand, so I made the cheesy sauce that I use for my stovetop macaroni and cheese. I used a combination of cauliflower and broccoli. This dish also turned out really well. It was a nice change from steamed or oven-roasted veggies.

My mother and grandmother liked all the dishes, but they've both been supportive of my being vegan. Still, it was nice to hear the compliments.

This weekend I cooked up a storm to celebrate the end of Parent-Teacher Conference week. This morning, I baked. I made the Cinnamon-Walnut Coffee Cake from La Dolce Vegan! I used the topping as a filling, pouring about two-thirds of the batter in the cake pan, spreading the "topping," and then covering it with the rest of the batter. I then actually topped it with cinnamon sugar. It turned out great!

I also made a variation on the Raspberry Fig Breakfast Bars from The Garden of Vegan by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer. My wife picked up some organic dried white peaches at the farmer's market near her work. I rehydrated them in some warm water and used them as the filling instead of the figs and raspberry jam. The Breakfast Bars taste awesome, which is why I keep making them. Everybody in my family likes them. But, they are a little on the crumbly side. So this time, I also tried adding a couple of flax eggs to the oat mixture to make it hold together better. I always add a tablespoon or two of ground flaxseed to my baked goods, so this wasn't much of a stretch. They did hold together better. And they tasted wonderful. I can't wait to try it with fresh white peaches.

I also made Roasted Breast of Seitan Turkey from The Nutritional Yeast Cookbook by Joanne Stepaniak. I just got this cookbook in the mail this weekend. Somebody over at the GoVegan Forum posted a note about a clearance sale at Vegetarian Times. I also ordered Cooking with Gluten and Seitan, but they sent me the wrong book; have to deal with that tomorrow. Anyway, the Seitan Turkey turned out quite well. I actually wasn't expecting much, but it was delicious. I also liked the gravy that I made from the pan juices.

To go with the Turkey as a side dish, I made the Sweet Potato Gratin with Pineapple and Coconut Milk from Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson. The cardamom in this dish is what sets this one apart. It is not low-cal or low-fat by any stretch, but it is vegan and it is tasty.

Earlier in the day, just to have something else simmering away, I made the Perfect Hominy White Bean Chili from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson. I haven't tasted this one yet; I'll have it for dinner tomorrow night, but, man, it smells good. I was just intrigued by this recipe. I've never had chili with hominy before, but I just had to give it a try.

And for dessert... I made strawberry ice cream using the "Anything Goes" Fruity Ice Cream recipe from How It All Vegan! by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer. I bought an ice cream maker just a few weeks ago. I'm really enjoying making and eating my own homemade ice cream. I've found that if you process the silken tofu and sugar into a mousse-like consistency, then add the other ingredients, it makes for a really nice soy ice cream.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Parent-Teacher Conferences are Over!

I'm tired... but it's over. I met with the parents of all thirty of my students this week. And I am exhausted. Teaching is hard work, but it's not nearly as tiring as talking to other adults about their children.

And it wasn't that I was dreading any of them (the adults or the conferences). In fact, all the conferences went really well. I just decided this year that I was not going to stress myself out about them. I got a little stressed worrying about whether I would finish all the report cards in time, but not about actually meeting with my students' parents.

You know you're tired when your child's preschool teacher comments that you look a little run down, as happened yesterday. I just looked at her with my weary smile and croaked out, "Parent-Teacher Conferences." We nodded knowingly to each other and not another word was said.

But it was nice to have it acknowledged just how tired I've been this week. And it also was just one more piece of evidence of just how wonderful my son's preschool teacher is.

Anyway... I'm glad it's Friday, and the weekend is upon me. I need to do some serious relaxation and rejuvenation. I need it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Becoming Vegan

The title may be deceptive. I've been vegan for about a dozen years now. But I'm just now reading Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. The quote below is from their book.

"It's also true that some people are at a loss when it comes to shopping for and preparing nourishing vegan means or don't know how to obtain balanced vegan meals when eating out. So they think vegan (or vegetarian) diets don't work for them or aren't sufficiently nourishing. It's not that it can't be done, it's just that they haven't learned how to do it. This is not entirely surprising because most of what we learned about food and cooking while growing up was geared to meat-centered diets, not vegan diets. Thus, most people need to spend some time acquainting themselves with this new way of eating. Attending cooking classes, reading, and learning about practical issues and nutrition through vegetarian events can make a big difference in gaining new skills."

I've been a lazy vegan for quite a while. It's not that I was lax about being vegan, that I cheated and ate ice cream or something like that, but more that I was a lazy cook. I relied too much on store-bought vegan foods. Not that there's anything wrong with them; some of them are quite good. I happen to really like Boca Burgers. But you can only really eat them once a week.

I relied on two cookbooks by Joanne Stepaniak, Table for Two and Vegan Vittles, for a long time. And in the last handful of years, I've received other cookbooks as gifts, notably The Whole Soy Cookbook by Patricia Greenberg with Helen Newton Hartung and The Complete Vegan Cookbook by Susann Geiskopf-Hadler and Mindy Toomay. I guess once family and friends really accepted that I was vegan and that I wasn't going to go back to just vegetarian the cookbooks started coming in.

Of course, now, I'm cooking for more than just my wife and I. We have two young children. Liam is now four and Aidan just turned 22 months old. So, I'm much more cognizant of my own well-being and of the loved ones that I cook for. I've been educating myself about nutrition and buying vegan cookbooks faster than I could possibly utilize them.

I have to say that Morgan Spurlock's film Super Size Me had a big impact on me and my wife. It was a huge motivator in cutting fast food out of our diet. In fact, we've cut way back on eating out period. I'm also reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. As I said, I was lazy. It's just so easy in our culture to rely on convenience foods.

The good news is that we're eaing healthier. I am educating myself about nutrition in general. I recently finished SuperFoods Rx by Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews. And, of course, I'm currently reading Becoming Vegan. And I'm enjoying cooking.

This past Christmas I decided that my wish list would not be full of DVDs and jazz CDs; it would be full of vegan cookbooks and cooking utensils. I have rediscovered my love of cooking and baking. Baking was always therapeutic for me, even back when I was an omnivore. In fact, I got away from baking because vegan baking seemed so daunting to me, but I have been learning, trying recipes, making mistakes, and coming up with some mighty fine vegan baked goods.

I'm a self-taught cook. I've yet to take any cooking classes, but I'm looking into that too. I've just been more adventurous, trying recipes that I wouldn't have tried before because they looked too hard. And I've become totally addicted to the Food Network. I've learned so much by watching others cook.

So, to wrap up, I think Davis and Melina were spot on, which is why I quoted them above. Growing up in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest, I am definitely a product of that culture, so the choice to be vegan has had its challenges. But I have never been malnourished. More importantly, I've begun to truly accept the joys of vegan cooking. And the eating too, of course.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Two Great Quotes

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth." - Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

I've included the Beston quote, because it's always been one of my favorites, and somebody over at the GoVegan forum reminded me of that fact. So, it's here now too.

My grandmother is down visiting, and she said this thing the other day that really stuck with me. I had been making some comment about karmic retribution, when she said, "I'm really careful about what I put on my wheel." And then she went on to explain that when she was younger she put stuff on her wheel that came back around to her, in other words, she did some things she regretted and they came back around and bit her in the ass. Well, I think it's wise. You may have some fancier, more grandiloquent way of saying the same thing, but I like the simplicity of what my grandmother said.

And I'm trying to be really careful about what I put on my wheel.

Monday, March 20, 2006

National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. I'm just here to get the word out. If you're at all interested, go check out the
Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation. They have information on more than just colorectal cancer.

I care because my dad has colorectal cancer, and everyday I wear my Buddy Bracelet, which says: "Colorectal Cancer: Preventable. Treatable. Beatable!" I don't want anyone else to go through what my dad is going through. And it hasn't exactly been a cakewalk for everyone else in my family.

I encourage you: go, read, find out what you can. Know what the symptoms are. Find out what changes you can make to your diet to decrease your chance of contracting cancer. The information is out there. What's stopping you?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Poncho Sanchez

Yesterday, the wife and I went to see Poncho Sanchez in concert. We got Grandma to watch the boys, we drove down to Saratoga and saw the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band at the Carriage House at Villa Montalvo. One, it was a great venue, very intimate. Two, it was just a great show. I've only been listening to Poncho for the last two or three years. I was introduced to him by my father- and brother-in-law. Poncho regularly records both studio and live albums. Now that I've seen him live in concert, I totally understand why my brother-in-law prefers Poncho's live albums. The band was just tight, a great horn section and awesome percussion, in other words, a perfect latin jazz band.

With two small children, we don't get out as much as we used to. Now that we have to be a little pickier about what we do when we do get a chance to go out, we have been seeing a lot of live music. We used to go to the movies all the time, but I have to say I'm enjoying the music a lot more.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry - But Not Vegan

I was just over at the Forum where somebody mentioned that Guinness is not vegan. Tomorrow's St. Patrick's Day, so you know I'll be having a pint of Guinness. I'd probably be having a pint of Guinness even if it wasn't St. Patrick's Day. I am not giving up drinking Guinness. (And, no, I am not an alcoholic.)

On a more general note, I do consider myself vegan, but I have never been stringent about seeking out vegan beers and wines. I realize some people will be upset or disappointed by this, but then that's their problem and not mine. I know and understand that animal products are used to make beer and wine, but that's something that ethically I can live with.

I have a good perspective on being vegan. I don't see it as deprivation. I eat well. Many people will ask, "What do you eat?" The assumption being, of course, that I am depriving myself of good, healthful foods. It's a whole way of thinking about being vegan that's influenced by the omnivorious, meat-and-potatoes diet of our culture. I just refuse to think about it that way. My choice to be vegan is just that, my choice. It's something that I chose for me. I don't impose it on anyone else, not even my children, and I don't proselytize about it. For me, it is both filling and fulfilling, literal and figurative.

However, I am not going to deprive myself of alcohol that is made using animal products. Veganism is already an extreme choice. I've seen it written that 1% of Americans are vegan. That's a relatively small group. I'm proud to include myself in that group. It's right for me in terms of my health. It's right for me in terms of my ethics and spirituality. It's right for the environment. And, it's also impossible to be 100% vegan in our culture. I do the best I can. I'm vigilant about reading labels. I quit buying soy cheese because they're mostly made with casein, an animal protein. But I'm not going to give up drinking the occasional glass of wine or beer because it's not vegan. I eat well, and I want to drink well too.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

District Snafu

I'm working on my report cards for the third quarter and the upcoming parent-teacher conferences, which are next week. I'm not really wild about report cards. If I never had to fill out another report card, I'd be a happy teacher. They're just a necessary evil, I guess. If I could just teach, I mean really teach, and not have to evaluate my students, that would be bliss. Sadly, this is not so.

I'm annoyed because parent-teacher conferences are next week, from the 20th to the 24th, but the end of the quarter isn't until the 30th. Somebody in the district office apparently doesn't know what a wonderful tool a calendar is. My principal was on the ball and e-mailed them back in September pointing out this little discrepancy, but said e-mail was ignored. Typical. And here I am, preparing report cards for the third quarter that really only reflect about seven weeks worth of teaching and learning, when it should be for a full nine weeks.

While it's an annoyance to me, it's a disservice to my students. I teach one major writing assignment each quarter: narrative, book report (response to literature), research paper, and persuasive essay. Well, the research papers are turned in, according to my schedule. But since I'm not working on my schedule, but on the district's, which is pushed up two weeks, there's no way I can grade all the research papers in time and include them on this report card, where they belong.

I hope they won't make this mistake again. But in the meantime, I feel perfectly justified grumbling about it here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Liam and I at Land's End

So I spent way too much time figuring out how to post a picture to my profile. Well, I finally figured out how to do it. It's a shot of me and my son Liam at Land's End with the Golden Gate Bridge (obviously) in the background. It's an old shot, but one of my favorites.

About this blog:
My name is Richard Walker. I live in San Bruno, California. I am a teacher, husband, and father of two boys. I like to cook vegan meals, read, and listen to jazz. This blog will attempt to record those roles and interests of my life.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A Garland of Red

I was driving to work this morning and on KCSM the DJ mentioned that it was Red Garland's birthday. So, I decided today was a good day to start my blog. I've been considering it for the last few days, but wasn't sure if I was going to jump in or not. Well, I'm a big Red Garland fan, and I decided this was a sign. So, here I am.

"A Garland of Red" was Red Garland's first album as a leader of his own trio. He signed a five-year contract with Prestige Records after Miles Davis tapped him to be in his quintet and people began to take notice of his talent. Of course, this is Davis' first great quintet, with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Red recorded many trio albums with Paul Chambers (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums).

This album has some jazz standards, opening with Gershwin's "A Foggy Day," followed by Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance." Both of which are fine covers that portray the tone of the lyrics, though all the songs on this album are instrumentals. Then Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" really swings in the hands of this trio. They end side one with a slightly bluesy "Makin' Whoopee."

Side two opens with an uptempo "September in the Rain," which has great bowing by Paul Chambers. Then they slow down again with another Rodgers and Hart song, "Little Girl Blue." Before going out, they really kick into gear with Charlie Parker's "Constellation." They end with a Garland original, "Blue Red."

"The word garland immediately brings to mind a string or wreath of beautiful flowers. It also represents a collection of short literary pieces usually consisting of poems and ballads. Without considering it a semantic license, I believe I can assume that garland applies in the same sense to this collection of short musical pieces consisting of standards (ballad tempo and above), a blues and an original. In this collection, however, there are two garlands, the one being presented and the one who presents it." - Ira Gitler