Wednesday, October 26, 2011


“Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People,-- to create thus a Distinction betwixt 'em,-- 'tis the first stroke.-- All else will follow as if predestin'd, unto War and Devastation."
--- Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
The above quote was my opening salvo in a draft blog post full of righteous indignation at the proposed Maryland redistricting plan that bisected the Cape. Like most Capers, I was outraged at the notion that our tight-knit community would be split down the middle into two separate congressional districts. What kind of gerrymandering insanity would divide the interests of a well-defined, cohesive locality, leaving half of us within a strange part waterfront, part Baltimore beltway, part Howard and Montgomery County constituency while lumping the other half into a chunk of Anne Arundel bizarrely attached by a land bridge to the belle of the beltway, Prince Georges County? Really?

OK, it's not like Hampton Drive would have become the Mason-Dixon line or the Berlin Wall. It would not have been a line dividing one lifestyle or set of beliefs from another. No physical barrier would prevent movement from one side to the other. It was not drawn to banish, ostracize or otherwise relegate one group of people or ideology from another. The line was simply drawn in the interest of political expediency as a way to balance out numbers of voters to the best advantage of the majority political party.

Capers responded with justifiable concern, passionately expressing their dismay on the public comments page of the Maryland redistricting website. In addition, the CSC Improvement Association prepared and submitted a thoughtful and persuasive letter to the Governor's Advisory Committee, the text of which follows:
On behalf of the 7,500 residents of Cape St. Claire, I am writing to vehemently oppose the Committee’s new congressional redistricting proposal. Cape St. Claire is a waterfront community located on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay comprised of more than 2,300 single family homes. The community is bounded on three sides by bodies of water: the Little Magothy River, the Chesapeake Bay, the Magothy River, and Deep Creek. Indeed, our connection to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is fundamental to our community identity, and has been since Cape St. Claire was founded in 1949.  
For the past 20 years, Cape St. Claire has been part of the 1st Congressional District, as were most of the Chesapeake Bay waterfront communities in Maryland. The new proposal arbitrarily divides our tight-knit community into two separate districts -- with one precinct in District 3, and the other two precincts in District 4. While because of our size we vote in three precincts, the community participates in elections as a whole: we have Candidate Forums in which all residents participate; we routinely host our Congressional Representatives at community meetings; and while we may have thousands of residents, we act very much like a small neighborhood.  
Splitting our community into two districts will confuse and disenfranchise our residents. An arbitrary line will have been drawn through the heart of our community which will create an abomination where one resident can't have a conversation with his or her neighbor about their common representative--that surely cannot be a responsible way to encourage participation in our great democracy. In the words of one of our residents (who serves as a poll judge on election days), "splitting Cape St. Claire will be logistical hell come polling day."  
We are equally astounded to read that some believe that we have more in common with Prince George’s County than with our Chesapeake Bay waterfront neighbors. And since the community is split in half, does this mean one half of our community identifies with Annapolis (District 3) while the other half has more in common with Landover and Greenbelt in District 4? Cleary, our interests are not being represented in this proposal.  
We understand that a line has to be drawn somewhere. But, to split a community in half--one that is only a square mile in size is ridiculous. To add insult to injury, putting one half of that community in a district that runs right up to the District of Columbia line demeans and dismisses the 62-year history of our community's ties to the Annapolis area. We respectfully request that Cape St. Claire, in its entirety, be placed within District 3 with the rest of the Annapolis area and other central Maryland waterfront communities with which we share so much in common.
Lo and behold, when the governor submitted his finalized plan to the General Assembly, the Cape was intact once again! Somebody was actually listening on the other end of the line. The whole of our community was redrawn into District 3 - the tortured light green district on the map below - contiguous only by boat at the mouth of the Magothy River and by a thread east of Baltimore City. Taken as a whole, it looks like a duck pointing at western Maryland. The light blue-green District 4 shaped like monster arms is where half of us were almost relegated.

While our voices were thankfully and refreshingly heard on this particular occasion, I still am not at all comfortable with the process. Had it not fit conveniently in the Democrat's overall redistricting scheme, I doubt the change would have been made. The redistricting that occurs every ten years following a census is not a pretty business. It necessitates the drawing of lines to divide states up into contiguous districts that contain roughly equal numbers of people ostensibly ensuring "one person, one vote" per Supreme Court guidelines.

The kicker is that state legislatures, in our case the Maryland General Assembly, are generally responsible for Congressional redistricting. In other words, the state's majority political party has control of the process and can pick and choose where they want to slide district lines to the best advantage of their party. It's done with equal ruthlessness by both parties and has a major impact on the outcomes of elections.

In recent history, the political parties have become increasingly overt in their attempts to create districts that promise the best results on election day. No contortion of a state map into district boundaries is too extreme. While redistricting with any kind of racial bias is not permitted by the Constitution, there is nothing prohibiting partisan-based motives. Here is a nice example from Illinois:

Illinois district contiguous only by
virtue of the highway to the left.

and another interesting district courtesy of the infamous 2003 redistricting of Texas:

Some of Tom DeLay and Rick Perry's handiwork splitting
heavily Dem. Travis County into three solidly Rep. districts.

Neither of the major political parties is above exploiting this conflict of interest. The primary goal of this latest round of redistricting in Maryland was to pick up a seat for the Democrats in the next election by increasing the vulnerability of 10-term western Maryland representative Roscoe Bartlett (maybe that's who the District 3 duck is pointing at). The system seems fundamentally flawed when a party in power can dramatically impact the outcome of congressional elections - the politicians picking the voters instead of the voters choosing their representatives. And since the party in power likes it that way, they have no incentive to change the system.

It makes my skin crawl, like so much of politics these days. While gerrymandering is nothing new and many would argue a necessary "part of the game", it seems to have taken on a whole new level of unfairness in recent decades. The country has been carved up into increasingly polarized constituencies as our system of government continues to be warped and manipulated in favor of those in power or with monetary influence.

For any of you who would like to have a go at this dirty business yourselves, I came across an online redistricting game. It's actually a pretty fun learning tool - a little slow to load at first, but worth your patience. If you have kids and would like to demonstrate the complexities and partiality of drawing congressional lines or just want to better understand it yourself, this is a great way to do it. You can play the role of party heads named Libby Rahl or Conner Servative and shift the district lines in several imaginary states until the number of constituents is correct while simultaneously pleasing or angering animated representatives. Some of the representatives' names include Tyree Hugger, Manny Pulative, and Celia Coen-Valley. Entertaining and educational at the same time!

For the next ten years at least, Capers can rest easily knowing that our interests still lie together on the congressional map. Neighbors across the street from one another on Hampton Drive will still be represented by the same Member of Congress. Next time around, who knows where they will put us or how they will divide us. The only thing that is certain about the redistricting process is that they will in fact divide us - with a "Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt".

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taylor Swift Is Making Me Eat Oatmeal

At my annual OB/GYN checkup earlier this year, my doctor suggested that I have some blood work done as it had been a while since my last blood letting. My doctor, by the way, looks about eighteen years old and bears an uncanny resemblance to Taylor Swift. She is a lovely, bright young woman, and from what I can tell a fine doctor, but I don't know if she's the best choice to usher me into my fragile menopausal years.

With each yearly visit, more and more parts of me wrinkle and sag further south while Dr. Taylor Swift is just coming into her prime. I worry it could get ugly on an intensely hormonal, insecure day. As I sit vulnerably on the paper-covered exam table half exposed in an open-front hospital gown, I start to imagine myself in a glowy, hazy Taylor Swift video where Dr. Taylor and I do a guitar duet version of You Belong With Me:
My part: 
'Cause she wears short skirts
I wear an ugly gown
She's a cheery MD
And I'm in the stirrups
Dreamin 'bout the day when I sit up and find
That my breast exam is all normal this time.
Taylor MD comes in: 
If you can see that I'm the one who understands you
Knows your per-i-od and does your pap smee-ee-arr.
You belong right hee-ee-eerre.

You're-old-but belong right here.
The ladies might appreciate my ditty. Guys - you will have to come up with your own tune about coughing and prostate exams. Too bad for you Taylor Swift is an OB/GYN and not a urologist...

Anyway, back to the blood work. I kept putting it off with plans of losing a few pounds and getting in better shape before coming face to face with my cholesterol levels. In the past, my total cholesterol has been a little high, but my LDL or "bad cholesterol" was within normal range and the elevated total resulted from a high HDL or "good cholesterol" level. Even though my total was a little above the recommended numbers, I rationalized that my excess "good cholesterol" got me off the hook from worrying about it.

Well, I finally dragged myself down to the lab to get my blood drawn since the extra ten pounds I'd been carrying did not seem to be in a hurry to drop off. I fasted for the obligatory twelve hours before my appointment. Why is that so ridiculously hard to do? Basically just skip breakfast. You would have thought I had not eaten for days by the time I weakly crawled into Wawa for coffee and a Sizzli after the lab visit. I suspected the results of my blood test were going to mean changes to my diet, and I wanted to get in a last relatively guilt-free greasy breakfast.

When the results came in the mail, I was not too terribly surprised to learn that my total cholesterol was forty points higher than five years ago. While my "good cholesterol" was still very high, my "bad cholesterol" was now seventeen points above normal range. At the bottom of the lab report, a handwritten note from Taylor was scrawled which read, "Start a low cholesterol diet and follow up with your primary care doctor." There it was - the directive from Taylor Swift to clean up my dietary act:
And you've got LDL that could clog up this whole town
You haven't checked it in a while, need to bring it down
You say you're fine
I know you better than that
Hey what you doing with a Sizzli like that.
Cause she wears short skirts
I wear sweat pants
She's a cheery young thing
And I need some implants
Dreamin 'bout the day when I wake up and find
That my bathroom scale has been wrong this whole time...
Sooo. Here I am a few weeks later having made some modest changes to my fitness and eating behaviors. I am trying to be more consistent with my exercise and do something physical each day whether it's a bike ride to Graul's instead of driving or a short run. I have also cut back on high cholesterol foods, and I try to work fish and vegetarian meals into our dinner menu two or three times a week. I still allow myself eggs here and there because I love them.

The other dietary change I've made is adding the mother of all cholesterol busting foods to my breakfast menu. Yes, I'm talking about good old reliable oatmeal. I've made attempts in the past to embrace oatmeal, but somehow I've resisted preparing and eating it on a daily basis. I'm not a creature of routine in general, so I guess that should not be a surprise.

For the past two weeks, however, I have cooked myself a bowl of old fashioned oats every morning, and I have to say, I have become a fan - you might even say a groupie. While oatmeal is not glowy, hazy, Taylor Swift smooth, youthful, and glamorous, it does perk up nicely with the addition of some well chosen enhancement products. Just as a little collagen cream, face spackle, and matte powder freshen up my saggy, mushy exterior, oatmeal becomes pretty darn appealing when topped with an assortment of fruits, nuts and spices - instant oatmeal facelift! Here are before and after pictures of my oatmeal:

Sad old oatmeal
Oatmeal post-facelift

I bet most of you can find a way to like oatmeal if you get creative enough. You can cook it with almond or soy milk instead of water, swirl in some honey, nutella, or peanut butter, top it with granola or yogurt, or add chopped apples. strawberries, or even dark chocolate chips. My version here is cooked with a drop of vanilla extract and cinnamon and topped with some brown sugar, sliced almonds, banana and dried cranberries. I used pumpkin spice yesterday with chopped pecans and some crumbled ginger snaps. Just keep some basic ingredients on hand and have at it.

I personally like the old fashion variety of oats. They cook up in five minutes on the stovetop and have a better texture to me than the quick or instant kinds. Steel cut are also good but take longer to prepare, and that's just not doable for me. I get distracted and forget about them and end up with a pot of inedible, solid glop.

You know, I think Taylor Swift is great - both the artist and the doctor. I am secure enough in my aging skin to appreciate their youthful energy and beauty and confidently stand alongside with the wealth of experience and battle scars that come with maturity. I was there once, and they will be here one day - looking for ways to dress up their mushy, saggy oatmeal and get their cholesterol in check. We have to keep our senses of humor and perspective intact to make it happily and healthfully to the finish line.

Here's Taylor's adorable video for You Belong With Me released back in 2009 when she was 19 years old. She's a ripe old 21 now and seemingly wise for her years. May we all be so.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cape Mom's Magic Mumbo Sauce

Over the summer, I opened up the local section of the Washington Post to find an article about someone I know - a fellow Caper. It was a lengthy one about a local DC condiment called mumbo sauce. Despite living in DC for two years and within thirty miles of the city for my entire adult life, I had never heard of mumbo sauce. I was too busy starting a career and then a family to stop and immerse myself more deeply in the real DC (just one of the things I would go back and tell my younger self to do).

When I say the real DC, I'm not talking the exclusive streets of Georgetown or the power brokering K Street corridor but the REAL DC - the DC where people are born and raised and live their lives. DC culture is less touted than in other great US cities, perhaps because of the District's unrealized statehood ambitions and the consuming distraction of being the seat of federal government. Also, the accelerating gentrification of the city is eating up and pushing out much of the authentic diversity of the local scene. The rich homegrown traditions and innovative local music and arts communities persist, however, for those who know it as their hometown.

Fellow Caper, Arsha Jones, is someone who can tell you a thing or two about the "real" DC. She is DC born and raised. I first met Arsha just after volunteering to take over the Cape St. Claire Elementary School website. As interested as I was in working with the website, I didn't know squat about web design. I learned enough from the previous webmaster to maintain the existing site, but I had no real clue what I was doing.

Arsha approached me at one of our PTO meetings and introduced herself. Her oldest was just entering kindergarten at Cape Elementary. She was an accomplished web designer by profession, and she offered to help revamp the website using up-to-date tools that were more powerful and easier to maintain. I couldn't believe my luck. Her energy and expertise had dropped right into my lap - both greatly needed and appreciated. I owe what little I have learned about blogging and website creation to her patient tutelage.

When I opened up the Post last July, I immediately recognized the name and photo of Arsha in the article about mumbo sauce. Somehow in her free time between raising three very young kids (with another on the way), working as a web designer, and blogging, she had started making, marketing, and selling her own mumbo sauce. I get dizzy just thinking about it. Her energy and entrepreneurial spirit simply amaze me. Her product is sold under the name Capital City Mumbo Sauce.

Arsha selling her Capital City Mumbo Sauce
at DC's Eastern Market in Capitol Hill

I won't retell her full story or the background of mumbo sauce here since it's told better by the actual reporter who got paid to write it in the Washington Post Article. When I finished reading it, I went straight to the computer and ordered myself a bottle of her mumbo concoction. It arrived in my mailbox soon after, and I used it that evening to smother a dish of baked chicken for dinner. My family happily licked their fingers through the meal and declared it "yummy!".

As Arsha says on her website, the flavor and consistency fall somewhere between barbeque and sweet and sour sauce. It would make a great glaze for pork chops or ribs and sets off especially well against salty flavors. While we thoroughly enjoyed it on our baked chicken, from what I understand, the true calling of Mumbo Sauce is as a coating for chicken wings or fried chicken - DC's answer to buffalo sauce.  That is what makes mumbo sauce aficionados swoon.

You know those tastes that we grow up with and are acutely linked to our memories of a place? For me, the flavors of my childhood revolve around the mexican food of the California central valley or the southern dishes of the Carolina low country. We love them because they are delicious but also in large part because of the fond attachment we have to their place in our upbringing.

Mumbo sauce is one of those flavors or even THE flavor for folks who grew up in the African American community of DC. Arsha has quickly tapped into a sentimental market of DC expatriates who are overjoyed to have access to their beloved mumbo sauce. Just take a look at the testimonials on the website to get a feel for the meaning of this sauce to people who know it and the various ways it is used.

I highly recommend getting a bottle or two or three of this sauce for yourselves. The sweetness of it might be an acquired taste for anyone who did not grow up with it, but I acquired it pretty darn fast. The vinegar and very slight bite of heat from cayenne put it over the top for me. I expect you will find myriad ways to apply it to your own favorite foods. If for no other reason, it's worth trying just to add to your database of knowledge about local cuisine, and even more importantly, to support a hard-working local Cape wife and mother of four who is enterprising enough to start a new business.

Best of luck to Arsha on this new venture! I know she's rapidly acquiring a cult following. I am feeling some mumbolicious inspiration for tonight's dinner plan myself. As I type on my now sticky computer keyboard, I am dipping Utz Party Mix into a dish of bright red Capital City Mumbo Sauce...mmmmm.