Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Everyone should be safe from violence

(My latest Addiction and Recovery column)
By Bob Gaydos

This column regularly stresses the fact that, while things may seem desperate, there can also be hope in the midst of an addictive situation. That does not mean that people in the middle of an alcohol- or drug-fueled crisis ought to deny the reality of what is happening or place themselves or others in danger because of some wishful hope that the danger will magically -- hopefully -- go away.
There’s a time to have hope and a time to protect oneself from the threat of an alcoholic or addict in the throes of the disease. Members of the Al-Anon Family Programs learn at their first meeting that they cannot control the behavior of the alcoholics in their lives, or their disease. What they can do is take care of themselves, including, if need be, protecting themselves from the violence that can sometimes accompany the drinking.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. You won’t find Al-Anon publicly supporting any of the worthwhile programs devoted to educating the public about the problem or to protecting victims or potential victims. That is not because Al-Anon members don’t know or care about the issue. Quite the contrary. But Al-Anon, like Alcoholics Anonymous and other anonymous, 12-step programs, has traditions that guide members’ and groups’ interactions with the public.
In sum, there are no interactions. Not officially. As the group’s literature explains, Al-Anon’s long-standing tradition is not to engage in any public causes and to avoid controversy. The reasons are simple:
 1. Doing so would distract members from the group’s primary purpose, which is to help the families of alcoholics.
 2. Becoming involved in some public cause opens the group to outside influence. It puts the integrity and credibility of Al-Anon at risk from those who may not share its goals, but rather, might want to exploit its name. Members are free to voice their opinions and support any causes they choose, without attaching Al-Anon’s name to it.
However, just because Al-Anon will not publicly support some effort to combat domestic violence does not mean it doesn’t recognize the problem. Honesty is the touchstone of recovery. One of Al-Anon’s approved books that deals specifically with domestic violence is “From Survival to Recovery. Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home.” The title speaks for itself, but the authors go out of the way to include a special message on page 9, before getting into the body of the book. The message is clear and concise in addressing the issue:
“Al-Anon’s gentle process unfolds gradually, over time. But those of us facing violent, potentially life-threatening situations, may have to make immediate choices to ensure safety for ourselves and our children. This may mean arranging for a safe house with a neighbor or friend, calling for police protection, or leaving money and an extra set of keys where they can be collected at any time of emergency. It is not necessary to decide how to resolve the situation once and for all --  only how to get out of harm’s way until this process of awareness, acceptance and action can free us to make choices for ourselves that we can live with.
“Anyone who has been physically or sexually abused or even threatened may be terrified of taking any action at all. It can require every ounce of courage and faith to act decisively. But no one has to accept violence. No matter what seems to trigger the attack, we all deserve to be safe.”
The passage actually comes from another Al-Anon publication, “In All Our Affairs: Making Crises Work for You.” It is as straightforward a bit of advice as one can get anywhere on the issue of violence, alcohol-related or not. This, from a program that makes a point of not generally giving advice.
A bit of advice here: Anyone living with problems related to someone else’s drinking or drug abuse -- including violence or the threat of violence -- can find welcoming ears,  understanding and help in Al-Anon.
To find an Al-Anon meeting in New York state, call (800) 344-2666.
The national meeting information number is (888) 425-2666.
On the web: http://www.al-anon.alateen.org. or http://www.alanonny.org.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Can we just not call it food?

By Bob Gaydos
What do beavers have in common with raspberries?

Sometimes, a little bit of curiosity can ruin your appetite.

I love raspberry-flavored, frozen Greek yogurt. I defy you to find a more soul-satisfying treat, especially with some dark chocolate shavings sprinkled on top.

Recently, having become a more conscientious food label-reader, I
noticed a story on the Internet about ingredients that don’t have to be listed, but come under the heading of “natural flavoring.” Among the “natural flavoring” ingredients listed was “castoreum.”

“Hmm, something from the castor bean?” I wondered.

Off to Google I went and soon found myself in a state of shock, disbelief and a little bit of, well, disgust.

It turns out that castoreum is a yellowish secretion from the castor sac of adult male and female beavers. The castor sac is located between the anus and genitals in beavers and, along with its urine, is used to scent mark the beaver’s territory. Sweet.

While I had to admit the source made it a “natural” ingredient, I also wondered why the natural flavor of raspberries wasn’t sufficient. And more to the point, I wondered who the genius was who decided that the exudate from a sac located next to a beaver’s anus would be a good thing to add to yogurt to improve its flavor. What was the “Eureka!” moment? Who did the first taste test?

It turns out castoreum has been used for years in perfumes. So I imagine it wasn’t such a leap to go from putting a dab on the wrist to wondering if a shot of beaver sac juice would enhance the flavor of ice cream, candy, yogurt, iced tea and gelatin, especially, apparently, strawberry- and raspberry-flavored foods.

In case you’re wondering, the Food and Drug Administration puts castoreum in the “Generally Regarded As Safe” category. Maybe so, but I am generally going to think twice before I buy raspberry yogurt again.

As it happens, the search for information on castoreum also led me to data on what I at first thought was the source of castoreum -- the castor bean. More bad news.

The castor bean (actually a seed) is regarded as the deadliest plant on the planet. It is the source, yes, of castor oil. But it is also the source of ricin, a powerful poison with no known antidote. The bean is also the source of a food additive identified usually as PGPR. I have learned that when I see a bunch of letters like that on a food label, it’s wise to find out what they mean.

So, remember the added ingredient to my favorite dessert -- the chocolate shavings on top? Guess what’s listed on the label of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars? Yup. PGPR. Polyglycerol polyricinoleate.

  PGPR is a sticky yellowish liquid that acts as an emulsifier -- it holds the chocolate together. It is also much cheaper to produce than cocoa butter, meaning Hershey’s can give you less chocolate in its chocolate, at lower cost to itself, thus making more profits. PGPR also lets the candy sit on the shelves much longer and still be considered safe to consume. Apparently, we’re supposed to ignore that word ricin in the middle of the PGPR as well as the lack of cocoa in the chocolate bar. The FDA says PGPR is safe for human consumption, although lab tests on chickens showed what was described as reversible liver damage.

Finally, while still looking at the Hershey’s label, the word vanillin caught my eye. Again, not necessarily what it seems to be. Yes, vanillin is an extract of the vanilla bean and is used as an additive in lots of foods. But, because of the rarity of the bean and the cost associated with producing it, much vanillin today is of the synthetic variety, coming from lignin, which is a byproduct of, ahem, wood pulp.

So there you have it, my favorite dessert: ricin and wood pulp sprinkled on top of beaver scent-marking sac juice. Some days it just doesn’t pay to read the labels.


Friday, October 4, 2013

What's it all about, Faust?

By Bob Gaydos

I was privileged recently to enjoy a local opera company’s production of “Faust,” by Charles Gounod. Based on Goethe’s legendary German tale, this is no easy opera to tackle and the Hudson Opera Theatre in Middletown, N.Y., more than did it justice.

I also came away from the production with a renewed awareness of what a cad Faust was. Or was he a rake? A rapscallion perhaps? Good words all, and yet each with a slightly different take on what kind of scoundrel the opera’s title character was. They are also words that, unfortunately, have pretty much disappeared from use in American conversation.

What would Faust be called today, in everyday American English? I wondered. Hmm, a disillusioned old man, a scholar no less, who makes a deal with the Devil to provide Faust with youth and the unquestioning love, adoration and physical pleasures of young women. In return, Faust agrees to give his soul to the Devil forever, in Hell. Faust even identifies the object of his desires -- a young, teenaged virgin, Marguerite, who is impressed with his seeming sophistication and his attention to her -- and the Devil helps him woo and win her with a dazzling array of jewels. In the process of his “conquest,” Faust gives the girl a sleeping potion (provided by the Devil) to give to her mother so that she will not disturb their night of, let’s call it love-making. The potion kills the mother, leaving Marguerite guilt-racked and further vulnerable to the attentions of Faust, who promptly abandons her.

Long story short: Marguerite gets pregnant, is ostracized by a society that doesn’t look kindly on young, unmarried mothers and is brutally condemned by her brother, a soldier returned from the wars. In utter depression, with nowhere seemingly to turn, she kills her baby, is arrested, thrown in prison and condemned to death. At this point, Faust, the lout, returns with an offer to help her escape (again, courtesy of the Devil).

Clearly, the man is an a--hole.

At least, that’s what he’d be called today, I concluded. That’s it. One overused obscenity providing not the slightest clue as to the true nature of the man’s churlish behavior. It seems to me that when words lose their precision they eventually lose their meaning. Communication gets fuzzy. And so, Congress is a bunch of a___s. The president is an a____. The guy who cut me off in traffic is an a____. My boss is an a______.  My brother-in-law is a flaming  a______.  Rush Limbaugh is an a______. (Well, sometimes it works.)

In the spirit of the late Bill Safire, I have compiled a list of words that could be used -- once upon a time were used -- to describe men of questionable, if not dubious, character. You may have noticed a few sprinkled throughout this piece. In the process, I have become impressed with the diversity of choices the English language once offered to describe insensitive blaggards like Faust.

There’s a good one. Blaggard, or blackguard. It’s derived from
Old English usage, meaning a “black-hearted” person. Like Faust. It can mean a villain, a rogue (another rarely used good word), an evil person or someone with dubious morals. Faust personified.

Let’s go back to “cad.” It is defined in one dictionary as “an ill-bred man, especially one who behaves in a dishonorable or irresponsible way toward women.” Perfect.

For the record, my list thus far includes: scoundrel; wastrel; ne’er-do-well; rogue; cad; lout; laggard; reprobate; scalawag; rapscallion; rascal; bounder; oaf; blackguard; boor; and dolt

The French, of course, always have a word for anything. In this case, considering it’s a French opera, the perfect word for Faust is roue. A roue is defined as a dissolute person. That is, someone devoid of most moral value, especially one who places values on sensual pleasures. Think Michael Caine in “Alfie” and Warren Beatty in “Shampoo.” Matthew Mcconaughey in most anything today. The word roue comes from rouer, meaning to break on the wheel, the feeling being that such a person deserves to be punished in this manner.

A roue is the French version of a favorite of mine, a rake, which leads to the exquisite lothario and libertine and, eventually, to perhaps the one commonly used modern word that accurately fits the young-teenager-loving Faust: lech.

I’m open to further suggestions for my list. Indeed, if we weren’t such a nation of language lay-abouts and if we weren’t in such apparent denial about the variety of villains in society today, we could revive some of these perfectly usable and descriptive words. And we could give the A-word a much-needed rest.