Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
One drizzly Tuesday in San Francisco's Mission district, 20 second-graders squirm happily in anticipation of making "funny-faced sandwiches" with nutrition coordinator Meghan Elliott. Pitas present themselves for decoration; Elliott doles out hummus, cheddar cheese, apple slices, raw spinach, and raisins. "Hummus is kind of like healthy mayonnaise," she explains, as her mostly Latino students eye the mystery spread. "It's made from beans so it's really creamy and full of protein, so it's good for your…" Half of the class immediately responds: "Muscles!" Soon students get to work on their sandwich designs. "This is aaawesome," a round-faced kid in the back exclaims as he dunks a plastic knife into the smooth spread. I approach a table of three girls and ask to take a seat. "We haven't tasted hummus before today, it's brand new to us," says a girl named Paulina, delicately adding spinach bangs to a pita face.
"If presented with a new food multiple times, there's been a lot of research that shows that kids will try it. Especially when they're around their peers, when they're in the classroom," Elliott tells me later, nibbling on posole (Mexican hominy stew) and a pomegranate-speckled salad in her office at Leonard Flynn Elementary School. Personally, I'm convinced she can get kids to try anything. Once, while working in Flynn's after school program, I watched her get my entire class of third graders to rave about raw kale.Nutrition Coordinator Meghan Elliott: Photo by Chris Black
Getting any kid to like raw kale is hard enough; Elliott's job at Flynn comes with challenges of its own. The school district categorizes 73 percent of the school's families as "socioeconomically disadvantaged," and the lure of cheap, fast food is real. The child obesity rate for San Francisco's low-income kids stands at 16 percent. And that's for kids in preschool. So while today's sandwich-decorating lesson may seem fun and light-hearted, it also aims to prevent serious chronic health issues later in life for these kids—diabetes and heart disease, for instance.
Through classes like today's, nutrition coordinators like Elliott spend the school year revealing new realms of affordable snacking possibility to students at low-income schools like Flynn. Elliott's employer, the San Francisco Nutrition Education Project, began in 2002 with funding from the USDA's Food Stamp Program and typically educates students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, many of them Latino and African-American. "Mortality rates are not highest among white, rich kids," Elliott tells me when I ask about the program's demographics. "A lot of the work we are doing is prevention for kids who need it, and schools that have families with fewer resources."
Hurley, the latest release from irreverent alt-rock foursome Weezer—and the band's first on indie label Epitaph—debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's chart of the Top 200 albums—not bad for a band whose loyal old fans had been griping that something (presumably something dark and evil) had become of the band they grew up on. The album marks a reversion to Weezer's earlier self, and not just stylistically; most of the lyrics evoke a state of perpetual adolescence. In "Memories," front man Rivers Cuomo recalls pissing in plastic cups before we went on stage / playing hacky sack back before Audioslave was in rage. And, in "Trainwrecks," We think it's uncool to be on time / Mooching off our friends is not a federal crime. The album is simple and nostalgic, with plenty of raw guitar hooks.
Hurley also addresses the band's present: In "Time Flies," Cuomo croons: Look into the mirror, there were lines around my eyes. And: I'm still in the race, and I'm barely keeping pace, but it's worth the ride. Which all might look kind of depressing on paper, but Cuomo still delivers his lines with the characteristic flippancy his fans so love: Even when I'm gone this stupid damn song will be in your head / I'll be looking down with a twinkle in my eyes. There's no forgetting that Weezer's still just a bunch of overgrown kids proud to put their nerdiness on display. We caught up with Cuomo recently to ask about his favorite music, aging rock stars, and what's on his iPod.
*Update:After this was posted, Duncan Hines pulled their commercial from YouTube, according to The Vancouver Sun. You can still watch the video below. A Duncan Hines spokesperson told me via email that "Our intent was to entertain fans with a fun video about chocolate glazed cupcakes, and nothing more."
When Duncan Hines partnered with film studio Filmaka to release a new ad campaign on YouTube this week for their "Amazing Glazes" frosting line, their aim was to "inspire creativity during the height of baking season" and portray how their icing "makes dessert sing." The theme of the first video is "Hip Hop Cupcakes," (see below), but rather than striking a chord with urban bakers, the video just seems to be pissing them off. Readers and bloggers have criticized the film's director, Josh Binder, and the dessert company's PR department for failing to see how the cupcake characters might be mistaken for performers in blackface. Director Binder has a number of videos that might be considered "controversial," like one for Western gear in which a cowboy lassos two women to be his companions, and another that shows samurai bread loaves crying "hi-YA!" at one another.
Binder's Duncan Hines commercial shows vanilla cupcakes that—when covered in gooey chocolate frosting—begin to sing. An enraged commenter on the site Racialicious complained: "I am appalled that there seems to be not one single marketing staffer at Duncan Hines/Pinnacle Food Groups with any awareness of the legacy of US minstrelsy and racism that is inextricable from the dark brown, red-lipped, googly eyed characters" depicted in the video. Writes a Womanist Musing blogger: "Do I really need to break down why Blackface cupcakes are racist? I sincerely hope this commercial is fake, because if not, it represents a direct attack on Black people."
Duncan Hines might have saved itself the outrage if they had searched for a different title for their bizarre cake characters other than "Hip Hop." Some viewers are perplexed at what makes the music from the video hip hop; there are no lyrics, for instance, and the music seems more focused on harmony than beat. "Black Eyed Peas sound more hip hop than that," writes an administrator on WooHa.com.
In 2004, Steve Dublanica started Waiter Rant, an anonymous blog that charted his vexations waiting tables at an upscale bistro in the New York City 'burbs. Four years later, Dublanica emerged from the blogosphere with a bestselling memoir of clueless patrons and coke-snorting kitchen staff. One of the hardest parts of being a waiter, he told Oprah, was attempting to master the calculus of good and bad tipping.
In Keep the Change, Dublanica sets forth on a dizzying quest to understand the mental math and morality of gratuities. Half travelogue, half manifesto, the book recounts his misadventures in tipping as he travels across America talking with a cross-section of the 3 percent of the workforce that relies on tips. He shadows doormen and parking valets, tries to make tip-jar-worthy espresso with Portland baristas, and interviews Vegas strippers between lap dances—all to "figure out how to tip with a clear and informed conscience."
Dublanica's advice: When in doubt, tip and tip well. Give baristas more than your change; 50 cents is "amazing," says a manager at Starbucks (which forbids employees from labeling their tip jars as such). Give your dog groomer 20 percent. Give altar boys at your wedding 10 to 15 bucks each. Give car-wash attendants three to five dollars directly, since supervisors sometimes steal their tips. One comes away from Keep the Change with a sheepish sense of having unknowingly stiffed many whose survival depends upon the kindness of customers.—Zoë Slutzky
This Studs Terkel-style oral history sets out to rebrand the US Border Patrol as more than just a political prop for the anti-immigration crowd. Through interviews with active and retired agents at a post in Arizona's scorching Sonoran Desert, the authors (one a former agent) cast the force not just as enforcers but humanitarians. One retired officer recalls holding impromptu funerals in the desert for migrants who didn't make it. The men in green, as the authors put it, "are the people you'd pray were on your trail and on their way." In spite of its one-sided view, Desert Duty brings to life a perspective on the border debate you rarely hear about.—Tim Murphy
In 1987, when Deb Olin Unferth was 18, she followed her charismatic boyfriend George to Nicaragua to "foment the revolution." This proved more difficult than they'd anticipated: The couple spent less time overthrowing an oppressive regime than fighting with each other, trudging through squalid streets, and getting robbed. This clearheaded and funny memoir captures the grit and chaos of a tumultuous moment in Central American history, but it's really a coming-of-age story. "It was the first time I dried clothes on a line, interviewed a politician, the first time I searched for food, the right road, the right bus," writes Unferth, who's now a novelist. She didn't become a revolutionary, but she did become a grown-up.—Kiera Butler
Dog, Inc. explores the curious history of pet cloning, from its roots in a 1928 experiment in which a German biologist replicated a salamander, to the present, when scientists are only too willing to help doting dog-owners reanimate their canine companions. After describing a range of pet-related experiments, from Snuppy the cloned puppy to fluorescent beagles and freeze-dried cats, Woestendiek wonders: Should we do something just because it's possible? At the heart of his narrative are the pet owners who refuse to accept that the clones bounding into their arms are only physical replicas of their departed mutts. As one remarks, "I can't wait until Booger 2 is born. I'm having to sell my home to pay for it, but that's OK, because I'll have my friend back."—Maddie Oatman
Update:Since this interview first appeared, Birbiglia co-wrote and directedthe filmSleepwalk With Me, which won an Audience Award at Sundance and premieres August 24 in New York City.
Eight years ago, comedian Mike Birbiglia began dreaming of a "hovering, insect-like jackal" hanging out in his bedroom. To defend his girlfriend from the mirage, he would jump up on his bed, strike a karate pose, and yell: "Abbie, there's a jackal in the room!" Birbiglia had drastic reactions to other dreams, too—in one, he stood on an imagined podium to accept a medal...and then awoke falling on top of his TiVo console, breaking it. As he writes in his new book, Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stories: "I thought, This seems dangerous.Maybe I should see a doctor. And then I thought, Maybe I'll eat dinner. And I went with dinner."
So the sleepwalking continued. One night, after a performance at a college in Walla Walla, Washington, Birbiglia ran full-force through a glass window on the second story of his hotel to escape an imagined missile intent on demolishing him. "I jumped through a window…like the Hulk!" Birbiglia told the emergency room attendants.
Birbiglia's condition, called REM behavior disorder, provided him with plenty of quirky material for his comedic performances, appearances on This American Life and The Moth, and his entry into the writing world. Sleepwalk With Me explores his somnambulant battles, attempts to fit in during adolescence, obsession with Mitch Hedburg, and tendency to ignore his father's advice. Direct and self-deprecating, Birbiglia never shies from giving us all the painful details of his mishaps. Mother Jones talks to the comedian about this unwavering honesty and his upcoming projects.
Mother Jones: How do I know you're not sleeping right now during this interview?
Mike Birbiglia: That's a good question. I think that if I were dreaming, I wouldn't be speaking so coherently. Usually, if I had an incident, I'd be shouting or mumbling. I don't really usually speak in complete sentences.