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July 30, 2009

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August 2, 2009
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Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch

By MICHAEL POLLAN

1. JULIA’S CHILDREN

I was only 8 when “The French Chef” first appeared on American television in 1963, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this Julia Child had improved the quality of life around our house. My mother began cooking dishes she’d watched Julia cook on TV: boeuf bourguignon (the subject of the show’s first episode), French onion soup gratinée, duck à l’orange, coq au vin, mousse au chocolat. Some of the more ambitious dishes, like the duck or the mousse, were pointed toward weekend company, but my mother would usually test these out on me and my sisters earlier in the week, and a few of the others — including the boeuf bourguignon, which I especially loved — actually made it into heavy weeknight rotation. So whenever people talk about how Julia Child upgraded the culture of food in America, I nod appreciatively. I owe her. Not that I didn’t also owe Swanson, because we also ate TV dinners, and those were pretty good, too.

Every so often I would watch “The French Chef” with my mother in the den. On WNET in New York, it came on late in the afternoon, after school, and because we had only one television back then, if Mom wanted to watch her program, you watched it, too. The show felt less like TV than like hanging around the kitchen, which is to say, not terribly exciting to a kid (except when Child dropped something on the floor, which my mother promised would happen if we stuck around long enough) but comforting in its familiarity: the clanking of pots and pans, the squeal of an oven door in need of WD-40, all the kitchen-chemistry-set spectacles of transformation. The show was taped live and broadcast uncut and unedited, so it had a vérité feel completely unlike anything you might see today on the Food Network, with its A.D.H.D. editing and hyperkinetic soundtracks of rock music and clashing knives. While Julia waited for the butter foam to subside in the sauté pan, you waited, too, precisely as long, listening to Julia’s improvised patter over the hiss of her pan, as she filled the desultory minutes with kitchen tips and lore. It all felt more like life than TV, though Julia’s voice was like nothing I ever heard before or would hear again until Monty Python came to America: vaguely European, breathy and singsongy, and weirdly suggestive of a man doing a falsetto impression of a woman. The BBC supposedly took “The French Chef” off the air because viewers wrote in complaining that Julia Child seemed either drunk or demented.

Meryl Streep, who brings Julia Child vividly back to the screen in Nora Ephron’s charming new comedy, “Julie & Julia,” has the voice down, and with the help of some clever set design and cinematography, she manages to evoke too Child’s big-girl ungainliness — the woman was 6 foot 2 and had arms like a longshoreman. Streep also captures the deep sensual delight that Julia Child took in food — not just the eating of it (her virgin bite of sole meunière at La Couronne in Rouen recalls Meg Ryan’s deli orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally”) but the fondling and affectionate slapping of ingredients in their raw state and the magic of their kitchen transformations.

But “Julie & Julia” is more than an exercise in nostalgia. As the title suggests, the film has a second, more contemporary heroine. The Julie character (played by Amy Adams) is based on Julie Powell, a 29-year-old aspiring writer living in Queens who, casting about for a blog conceit in 2002, hit on a cool one: she would cook her way through all 524 recipes in Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days and blog about her adventures. The movie shuttles back and forth between Julie’s year of compulsive cooking and blogging in Queens in 2002 and Julia’s decade in Paris and Provence a half-century earlier, as recounted in “My Life in France,” the memoir published a few years after her death in 2004. Julia Child in 1949 was in some ways in the same boat in which Julie Powell found herself in 2002: happily married to a really nice guy but feeling, acutely, the lack of a life project. Living in Paris, where her husband, Paul Child, was posted in the diplomatic corps, Julia (who like Julie had worked as a secretary) was at a loss as to what to do with her life until she realized that what she liked to do best was eat. So she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and learned how to cook. As with Julia, so with Julie: cooking saved her life, giving her a project and, eventually, a path to literary success.

That learning to cook could lead an American woman to success of any kind would have seemed utterly implausible in 1949; that it is so thoroughly plausible 60 years later owes everything to Julia Child’s legacy. Julie Powell operates in a world that Julia Child helped to create, one where food is taken seriously, where chefs have been welcomed into the repertory company of American celebrity and where cooking has become a broadly appealing mise-en-scène in which success stories can plausibly be set and played out. How amazing is it that we live today in a culture that has not only something called the Food Network but now a hit show on that network called “The Next Food Network Star,” which thousands of 20- and 30-somethings compete eagerly to become? It would seem we have come a long way from Swanson TV dinners.

The Food Network can now be seen in nearly 100 million American homes and on most nights commands more viewers than any of the cable news channels. Millions of Americans, including my 16-year-old son, can tell you months after the finale which contestant emerged victorious in Season 5 of “Top Chef” (Hosea Rosenberg, followed by Stefan Richter, his favorite, and Carla Hall). The popularity of cooking shows — or perhaps I should say food shows — has spread beyond the precincts of public or cable television to the broadcast networks, where Gordon Ramsay terrorizes newbie chefs on “Hell’s Kitchen” on Fox and Jamie Oliver is preparing a reality show on ABC in which he takes aim at an American city with an obesity problem and tries to teach the population how to cook. It’s no wonder that a Hollywood studio would conclude that American audiences had an appetite for a movie in which the road to personal fulfillment and public success passes through the kitchen and turns, crucially, on a recipe for boeuf bourguignon. (The secret is to pat dry your beef before you brown it.)

But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.

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2. THE COURAGE TO FLIP

When I asked my mother recently what exactly endeared Julia Child to her, she explained that “for so many of us she took the fear out of cooking” and, to illustrate the point, brought up the famous potato show (or, as Julia pronounced it, “the poh-TAY-toh show!”), one of the episodes that Meryl Streep recreates brilliantly on screen. Millions of Americans of a certain age claim to remember Julia Child dropping a chicken or a goose on the floor, but the memory is apocryphal: what she dropped was a potato pancake, and it didn’t quite make it to the floor. Still, this was a classic live-television moment, inconceivable on any modern cooking show: Martha Stewart would sooner commit seppuku than let such an outtake ever see the light of day.

The episode has Julia making a plate-size potato pancake, sautéing a big disc of mashed potato into which she has folded impressive quantities of cream and butter. Then the fateful moment arrives:

“When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions,” she declares, clearly a tad nervous at the prospect, and then gives the big pancake a flip. On the way down, half of it catches the lip of the pan and splats onto the stovetop. Undaunted, Julia scoops the thing up and roughly patches the pancake back together, explaining: “When I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. You can always pick it up.” And then, looking right through the camera as if taking us into her confidence, she utters the line that did so much to lift the fear of failure from my mother and her contemporaries: “If you’re alone in the kitchen, WHOOOO” — the pronoun is sung — “is going to see?” For a generation of women eager to transcend their mothers’ recipe box (and perhaps, too, their mothers’ social standing), Julia’s little kitchen catastrophe was a liberation and a lesson: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!”

It was a kind of courage — not only to cook but to cook the world’s most glamorous and intimidating cuisine — that Julia Child gave my mother and so many other women like her, and to watch her empower viewers in episode after episode is to appreciate just how much about cooking on television — not to mention cooking itself — has changed in the years since “The French Chef” was on the air.

There are still cooking programs that will teach you how to cook. Public television offers the eminently useful “America’s Test Kitchen.” The Food Network carries a whole slate of so-called dump-and-stir shows during the day, and the network’s research suggests that at least some viewers are following along. But many of these programs — I’m thinking of Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Sandra Lee — tend to be aimed at stay-at-home moms who are in a hurry and eager to please. (“How good are you going to look when you serve this?” asks Paula Deen, a Southern gal of the old school.) These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.) Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.

Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia never referred to her viewers as “housewives” — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “The Second Sex” that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts (féminisme, c’est bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.

3. TO THE KITCHEN STADIUM

Whichever, kitchen work itself has changed considerably since 1963, judging from its depiction on today’s how-to shows. Take the concept of cooking from scratch. Many of today’s cooking programs rely unapologetically on ingredients that themselves contain lots of ingredients: canned soups, jarred mayonnaise, frozen vegetables, powdered sauces, vanilla wafers, limeade concentrate, Marshmallow Fluff. This probably shouldn’t surprise us: processed foods have so thoroughly colonized the American kitchen and diet that they have redefined what passes today for cooking, not to mention food. Many of these convenience foods have been sold to women as tools of liberation; the rhetoric of kitchen oppression has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers and the cooking shows they sponsor to sell more stuff. So the shows encourage home cooks to take all manner of shortcuts, each of which involves buying another product, and all of which taken together have succeeded in redefining what is commonly meant by the verb “to cook.”

I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.” Balzer has been studying American eating habits since 1978; the NPD Group, the firm he works for, collects data from a pool of 2,000 food diaries to track American eating habits. Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty. (Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda.) At least by Balzer’s none-too-exacting standard, Americans are still cooking up a storm — 58 percent of our evening meals qualify, though even that figure has been falling steadily since the 1980s.

Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

After my discouraging hour on the phone with Balzer, I settled in for a couple more with the Food Network, trying to square his dismal view of our interest in cooking with the hyperexuberant, even fetishized images of cooking that are presented on the screen. The Food Network undergoes a complete change of personality at night, when it trades the cozy precincts of the home kitchen and chirpy softball coaching of Rachael Ray or Sandra Lee for something markedly less feminine and less practical. Erica Gruen, the cable executive often credited with putting the Food Network on the map in the late ’90s, recognized early on that, as she told a journalist, “people don’t watch television to learn things.” So she shifted the network’s target audience from people who love to cook to people who love to eat, a considerably larger universe and one that — important for a cable network — happens to contain a great many more men.

In prime time, the Food Network’s mise-en-scène shifts to masculine arenas like the Kitchen Stadium on “Iron Chef,” where famous restaurant chefs wage gladiatorial combat to see who can, in 60 minutes, concoct the most spectacular meal from a secret ingredient ceremoniously unveiled just as the clock starts: an octopus or a bunch of bananas or a whole school of daurade. Whether in the Kitchen Stadium or on “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star” or, over on Bravo, “Top Chef,” cooking in prime time is a form of athletic competition, drawing its visual and even aural vocabulary from “Monday Night Football.” On “Iron Chef America,” one of the Food Network’s biggest hits, the cookingcaster Alton Brown delivers a breathless (though always gently tongue-in-cheek) play by play and color commentary, as the iron chefs and their team of iron sous-chefs race the clock to peel, chop, slice, dice, mince, Cuisinart, mandoline, boil, double-boil, pan-sear, sauté, sous vide, deep-fry, pressure-cook, grill, deglaze, reduce and plate — this last a word I’m old enough to remember when it was a mere noun. A particularly dazzling display of chefly “knife skills” — a term bandied as freely on the Food Network as “passing game” or “slugging percentage” is on ESPN — will earn an instant replay: an onion minced in slo-mo. Can we get a camera on this, Alton Brown will ask in a hushed, this-must-be-golf tone of voice. It looks like Chef Flay’s going to try for a last-minute garnish grab before the clock runs out! Will he make it? [The buzzer sounds.] Yes!

These shows move so fast, in such a blur of flashing knives, frantic pantry raids and more sheer fire than you would ever want to see in your own kitchen, that I honestly can’t tell you whether that “last-minute garnish grab” happened on “Iron Chef America” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star” or whether it was Chef Flay or Chef Batali who snagged the sprig of foliage at the buzzer. But impressive it surely was, in the same way it’s impressive to watch a handful of eager young chefs on “Chopped” figure out how to make a passable appetizer from chicken wings, celery, soba noodles and a package of string cheese in just 20 minutes, said starter to be judged by a panel of professional chefs on the basis of “taste, creativity and presentation.” (If you ask me, the key to victory on any of these shows comes down to one factor: bacon. Whichever contestant puts bacon in the dish invariably seems to win.)

But you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when. The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth.

We learn things watching these cooking competitions, but they’re not things about how to cook. There are no recipes to follow; the contests fly by much too fast for viewers to take in any practical tips; and the kind of cooking practiced in prime time is far more spectacular than anything you would ever try at home. No, for anyone hoping to pick up a few dinnertime tips, the implicit message of today’s prime-time cooking shows is, Don’t try this at home. If you really want to eat this way, go to a restaurant. Or as a chef friend put it when I asked him if he thought I could learn anything about cooking by watching the Food Network, “How much do you learn about playing basketball by watching the N.B.A.?”

What we mainly learn about on the Food Network in prime time is culinary fashion, which is no small thing: if Julia took the fear out of cooking, these shows take the fear — the social anxiety — out of ordering in restaurants. (Hey, now I know what a shiso leaf is and what “crudo” means!) Then, at the judges’ table, we learn how to taste and how to talk about food. For viewers, these shows have become less about the production of high-end food than about its consumption — including its conspicuous consumption. (I think I’ll start with the sawfish crudo wrapped in shiso leaves. . . .)

Surely it’s no accident that so many Food Network stars have themselves found a way to transcend barriers of social class in the kitchen — beginning with Emeril Lagasse, the working-class guy from Fall River, Mass., who, though he may not be able to sound the ‘r’ in “garlic,” can still cook like a dream. Once upon a time Julia made the same promise in reverse: she showed you how you, too, could cook like someone who could not only prepare but properly pronounce a béarnaise. So-called fancy food has always served as a form of cultural capital, and cooking programs help you acquire it, now without so much as lifting a spatula. The glamour of food has made it something of a class leveler in America, a fact that many of these shows implicitly celebrate. Television likes nothing better than to serve up elitism to the masses, paradoxical as that might sound. How wonderful is it that something like arugula can at the same time be a mark of sophistication and be found in almost every salad bar in America? Everybody wins!

But the shift from producing food on television to consuming it strikes me as a far-less-salubrious development. Traditionally, the recipe for the typical dump-and-stir program comprises about 80 percent cooking followed by 20 percent eating, but in prime time you now find a raft of shows that flip that ratio on its head, like “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” which are about nothing but eating. Sure, Guy Fieri, the tattooed and spiky-coiffed chowhound who hosts “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” ducks into the kitchen whenever he visits one of these roadside joints to do a little speed-bonding with the startled short-order cooks in back, but most of the time he’s wrapping his mouth around their supersize creations: a 16-ounce Oh Gawd! burger (with the works); battered and deep-fried anything (clams, pickles, cinnamon buns, stuffed peppers, you name it); or a buttermilk burrito approximately the size of his head, stuffed with bacon, eggs and cheese. What Fieri’s critical vocabulary lacks in analytical rigor, it more than makes up for in tailgate enthusiasm: “Man, oh man, now this is what I’m talkin’ about!” What can possibly be the appeal of watching Guy Fieri bite, masticate and swallow all this chow?

The historical drift of cooking programs — from a genuine interest in producing food yourself to the spectacle of merely consuming it — surely owes a lot to the decline of cooking in our culture, but it also has something to do with the gravitational field that eventually overtakes anything in television’s orbit. It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Buying, not making, is what cooking shows are mostly now about — that and, increasingly, cooking shows themselves: the whole self-perpetuating spectacle of competition, success and celebrity that, with “The Next Food Network Star,” appears to have entered its baroque phase. The Food Network has figured out that we care much less about what’s cooking than who’s cooking. A few years ago, Mario Batali neatly summed up the network’s formula to a reporter: “Look, it’s TV! Everyone has to fall into a niche. I’m the Italian guy. Emeril’s the exuberant New Orleans guy with the big eyebrows who yells a lot. Bobby’s the grilling guy. Rachael Ray is the cheerleader-type girl who makes things at home the way a regular person would. Giada’s the beautiful girl with the nice rack who does simple Italian food. As silly as the whole Food Network is, it gives us all a soapbox to talk about the things we care about.” Not to mention a platform from which to sell all their stuff.

The Food Network has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch. The formula is as circular and self-reinforcing as a TV dinner: a simulacrum of home cooking that is sold on TV and designed to be eaten in front of the TV. True, in the case of the Swanson rendition, at least you get something that will fill you up; by comparison, the Food Network leaves you hungry, a condition its advertisers must love. But in neither case is there much risk that you will get off the couch and actually cook a meal. Both kinds of TV dinner plant us exactly where television always wants us: in front of the set, watching.

4. WATCHING WHAT WE EAT

To point out that television has succeeded in turning cooking into a spectator sport raises the question of why anyone would want to watch other people cook in the first place. There are plenty of things we’ve stopped doing for ourselves that we have no desire to watch other people do on TV: you don’t see shows about changing the oil in your car or ironing shirts or reading newspapers. So what is it about cooking, specifically, that makes it such good television just now?

It’s worth keeping in mind that watching other people cook is not exactly a new behavior for us humans. Even when “everyone” still cooked, there were plenty of us who mainly watched: men, for the most part, and children. Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen, performing feats that sometimes looked very much like sorcery and typically resulted in something tasty to eat. Watching my mother transform the raw materials of nature — a handful of plants, an animal’s flesh — into a favorite dinner was always a pretty good show, but on the afternoons when she tackled a complex marvel like chicken Kiev, I happily stopped whatever I was doing to watch. (I told you we had it pretty good, thanks partly to Julia.) My mother would hammer the boneless chicken breasts into flat pink slabs, roll them tightly around chunks of ice-cold herbed butter, glue the cylinders shut with egg, then fry the little logs until they turned golden brown, in what qualified as a minor miracle of transubstantiation. When the dish turned out right, knifing through the crust into the snowy white meat within would uncork a fragrant ooze of melted butter that seeped across the plate to merge with the Minute Rice. (If the instant rice sounds all wrong, remember that in the 1960s, Julia Child and modern food science were both tokens of sophistication.)

Yet even the most ordinary dish follows a similar arc of transformation, magically becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. Every dish contains not just culinary ingredients but also the ingredients of narrative: a beginning, a middle and an end. Bring in the element of fire — cooking’s deus ex machina — and you’ve got a tasty little drama right there, the whole thing unfolding in a TV-friendly span of time: 30 minutes (at 350 degrees) will usually do it.

Cooking shows also benefit from the fact that food itself is — by definition — attractive to the humans who eat it, and that attraction can be enhanced by food styling, an art at which the Food Network so excels as to make Julia Child look like a piker. You’ll be flipping aimlessly through the cable channels when a slow-motion cascade of glistening red cherries or a tongue of flame lapping at a slab of meat on the grill will catch your eye, and your reptilian brain will paralyze your thumb on the remote, forcing you to stop to see what’s cooking. Food shows are the campfires in the deep cable forest, drawing us like hungry wanderers to their flames. (And on the Food Network there are plenty of flames to catch your eye, compensating, no doubt, for the unfortunate absence of aromas.)

No matter how well produced, a televised oil change and lube offers no such satisfactions.

I suspect we’re drawn to the textures and rhythms of kitchen work, too, which seem so much more direct and satisfying than the more abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs nowadays. The chefs on TV get to put their hands on real stuff, not keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi; they get to work with fire and ice and perform feats of alchemy. By way of explaining why in the world she wants to cook her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” all Julie Powell has to do in the film is show us her cubicle at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, where she spends her days on the phone mollifying callers with problems that she lacks the power to fix.

“You know what I love about cooking?” Julie tells us in a voice-over as we watch her field yet another inconclusive call on her headset. “I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow.

5. THE END OF COOKING

If cooking really offers all these satisfactions, then why don’t we do more of it? Well, ask Julie Powell: for most of us it doesn’t pay the rent, and very often our work doesn’t leave us the time; during the year of Julia, dinner at the Powell apartment seldom arrived at the table before 10 p.m. For many years now, Americans have been putting in longer hours at work and enjoying less time at home. Since 1967, we’ve added 167 hours — the equivalent of a month’s full-time labor — to the total amount of time we spend at work each year, and in households where both parents work, the figure is more like 400 hours. Americans today spend more time working than people in any other industrialized nation — an extra two weeks or more a year. Not surprisingly, in those countries where people still take cooking seriously, they also have more time to devote to it.

It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.) In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.

Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake. Over the years, the food scientists have gotten better and better at simulating real food, keeping it looking attractive and seemingly fresh, and the rapid acceptance of microwave ovens — which went from being in only 8 percent of American households in 1978 to 90 percent today — opened up vast new horizons of home-meal replacement.

Harry Balzer’s research suggests that the corporate project of redefining what it means to cook and serve a meal has succeeded beyond the industry’s wildest expectations. People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children’s lunchboxes. (Now how much of a timesaver can that be?) “We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods,” Balzer told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.” Already today, 80 percent of the cost of food eaten in the home goes to someone other than a farmer, which is to say to industrial cooking and packaging and marketing. Balzer is unsentimental about this development: “Do you miss sewing or darning socks? I don’t think so.”

So what are we doing with the time we save by outsourcing our food preparation to corporations and 16-year-old burger flippers? Working, commuting to work, surfing the Internet and, perhaps most curiously of all, watching other people cook on television.

But this may not be quite the paradox it seems. Maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss. We might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely. Why? Perhaps because cooking — unlike sewing or darning socks — is an activity that strikes a deep emotional chord in us, one that might even go to the heart of our identity as human beings.

What?! You’re telling me Bobby Flay strikes deep emotional chords?

Bear with me. Consider for a moment the proposition that as a human activity, cooking is far more important — to our happiness and to our health — than its current role in our lives, not to mention its depiction on TV, might lead you to believe. Let’s see what happens when we take cooking seriously.

6. THE COOKING ANIMAL

The idea that cooking is a defining human activity is not a new one. In 1773, the Scottish writer James Boswell, noting that “no beast is a cook,” called Homo sapiens “the cooking animal,” though he might have reconsidered that definition had he been able to gaze upon the frozen-food cases at Wal-Mart. Fifty years later, in “The Physiology of Taste,” the French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin claimed that cooking made us who we are; by teaching men to use fire, it had “done the most to advance the cause of civilization.” More recently, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, writing in 1964 in “The Raw and the Cooked,” found that many cultures entertained a similar view, regarding cooking as a symbolic way of distinguishing ourselves from the animals.

For Lévi-Strauss, cooking is a metaphor for the human transformation of nature into culture, but in the years since “The Raw and the Cooked,” other anthropologists have begun to take quite literally the idea that cooking is the key to our humanity. Earlier this year, Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, published a fascinating book called “Catching Fire,” in which he argues that it was the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors — not tool-making or language or meat-eating — that made us human. By providing our primate forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, cooked food altered the course of human evolution, allowing our brains to grow bigger (brains are notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates of our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing: up to six hours a day. (That’s nearly as much time as Guy Fieri devotes to the activity.) Also, since cooking detoxifies many foods, it cracked open a treasure trove of nutritious calories unavailable to other animals. Freed from the need to spend our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.

Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would likely have fed himself on the go and alone, like the animals. (Or, come to think of it, like the industrial eaters we’ve become, grazing at gas stations and skipping meals.) But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, all served to civilize us; “around that fire,” Wrangham says, “we became tamer.”

If cooking is as central to human identity and culture as Wrangham believes, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have a profound effect on modern life. At the very least, you would expect that its rapid disappearance from everyday life might leave us feeling nostalgic for the sights and smells and the sociality of the cook-fire. Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray may be pushing precisely that emotional button. Interestingly, the one kind of home cooking that is actually on the rise today (according to Harry Balzer) is outdoor grilling. Chunks of animal flesh seared over an open fire: grilling is cooking at its most fundamental and explicit, the transformation of the raw into the cooked right before our eyes. It makes a certain sense that the grill would be gaining adherents at the very moment when cooking meals and eating them together is fading from the culture. (While men have hardly become equal partners in the kitchen, they are cooking more today than ever before: about 13 percent of all meals, many of them on the grill.)

Yet we don’t crank up the barbecue every day; grilling for most people is more ceremony than routine. We seem to be well on our way to turning cooking into a form of weekend recreation, a backyard sport for which we outfit ourselves at Williams-Sonoma, or a televised spectator sport we watch from the couch. Cooking’s fate may be to join some of our other weekend exercises in recreational atavism: camping and gardening and hunting and riding on horseback. Something in us apparently likes to be reminded of our distant origins every now and then and to celebrate whatever rough skills for contending with the natural world might survive in us, beneath the thin crust of 21st-century civilization.

To play at farming or foraging for food strikes us as harmless enough, perhaps because the delegating of those activities to other people in real life is something most of us are generally O.K. with. But to relegate the activity of cooking to a form of play, something that happens just on weekends or mostly on television, seems much more consequential. The fact is that not cooking may well be deleterious to our health, and there is reason to believe that the outsourcing of food preparation to corporations and 16-year-olds has already taken a toll on our physical and psychological well-being.

Consider some recent research on the links between cooking and dietary health. A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them. The French fry did not become the most popular “vegetable” in America until industry relieved us of the considerable effort needed to prepare French fries ourselves. Similarly, the mass production of cream-filled cakes, fried chicken wings and taquitos, exotically flavored chips or cheesy puffs of refined flour, has transformed all these hard-to-make-at-home foods into the sort of everyday fare you can pick up at the gas station on a whim and for less than a dollar. The fact that we no longer have to plan or even wait to enjoy these items, as we would if we were making them ourselves, makes us that much more likely to indulge impulsively.

Cutler and his colleagues demonstrate that as the “time cost” of food preparation has fallen, calorie consumption has gone up, particularly consumption of the sort of snack and convenience foods that are typically cooked outside the home. They found that when we don’t have to cook meals, we eat more of them: as the amount of time Americans spend cooking has dropped by about half, the number of meals Americans eat in a day has climbed; since 1977, we’ve added approximately half a meal to our daily intake.

Cutler and his colleagues also surveyed cooking patterns across several cultures and found that obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation. The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not.

So cooking matters — a lot. Which when you think about it, should come as no surprise. When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite. Now that check is gone, and we’re struggling to deal with the consequences.

The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

But if this is a dream you find appealing, you might not want to call Harry Balzer right away to discuss it.

“Not going to happen,” he told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.

“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.”

Crusty as a fresh baguette, Harry Balzer insists on dealing with the world, and human nature, as it really is, or at least as he finds it in the survey data he has spent the past three decades poring over. But for a brief moment, I was able to engage him in the project of imagining a slightly different reality. This took a little doing. Many of his clients — which include many of the big chain restaurants and food manufacturers — profit handsomely from the decline and fall of cooking in America; indeed, their marketing has contributed to it. Yet Balzer himself made it clear that he recognizes all that the decline of everyday cooking has cost us. So I asked him how, in an ideal world, Americans might begin to undo the damage that the modern diet of industrially prepared food has done to our health.

“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer, is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.”

July 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 5:19 pm
July 26, 2009
Corner Office | Carol Smith

No Doubts: Women Are Better Managers

This interview with Carol Smith, senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group, the media company, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

 Q. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?

A. The importance of winning over employees as opposed to bossing employees. I learned that lesson very, very early — in sixth grade.

Q. Tell me about that.

A. In sixth grade, I was head of the project to create a mural for the graduating class to hang in the auditorium. That’s a big deal. And I got a clipboard, I remember, and then I had all this power and I started bossing everyone around. And within days it was apparent that I was going to have a mutiny on my hands, and I was fired from the mural. They took my clipboard away. It was a lesson I learned very early in life about the difference between being the boss and being bossy. I often tell people, “Ah, that’s a sixth-grade clipboard problem here.”

I feel I’m a leader without ever really thinking I’m a leader, which is to say that I know when I walk into a room of employees, I command a presence, but I’m always feeling like I’m part of the gang. I don’t instantly sit at the head of the table. I sit in the middle of the table, always. I don’t want to sit at the head of the table. I want to be part of the process and part of the decision.

In the end I think that if you win people over, they’ll follow you. And of course you need other qualities, like honesty, decisiveness and the ability to confront. I’m a really good confronter.

Q. What do you mean by “confronter?”

A. I have been in this career for many years and I have seen, and this is a generalization, that women are better list-makers. They will do their to-do list. They will prioritize their to-do list. They will get through their to-do list. Maybe it’s because we do shopping lists. And if we have a problem — again, as a generalization — we will confront the problem and deal with it head-on.

I think that has really made me good at managing people, because I think they always know that they’re going to get a real answer.

Q. Can you elaborate?

A. When you’re about to give someone a bad review, they pretty much know it. They might not know they know it, but they know it. Do I always start out with a positive? Yeah. But if there isn’t any positive, I’m not going to try to find it if there isn’t anything. I will always give them my point of view and my side, and I will always keep the door open to hear their side, and I will always end with, “Here’s what you have to do to correct it.”

Confrontation — meaning, “You didn’t do a good job. That presentation was bad. It didn’t work, and here’s why it didn’t work” — is so much better than walking away from a sales call saying, “Great. Got to get back to the office, O.K.?” It’s better for everyone and I’ve never understood why people won’t do it.

Q. It sounds as if you’ve thought a lot about men versus women as managers.

A. I have, I have.

Q. Please share.

A. Hands down women are better. There’s no contest.

Q. Why?

A. In my experience, female bosses tend to be better managers, better advisers, mentors, rational thinkers. Men love to hear themselves talk. I’m so generalizing. I know I am. But in a couple of places I’ve worked, I would often say, “Call me 15 minutes after the meeting starts and then I’ll come,” because I will have missed all the football. I will have missed all the “what I did on the golf course.” I will miss the four jokes, and I can get into the meeting when it’s starting.

Men also, they’re definitely better on the “whatever” side. Things tend to roll off their back. We women take things very personally. We’re constantly playing things over in our head — “What did that mean when they said that?” — when they mean nothing. And I’m certainly not immune to this. So there’s a downside to women.

Q. Any others?

A. No. Although I will say that working for all women is just as bad as working for all men. I hate an office where there aren’t men and women together. I hate it, hate it, hate it. Men and women together is the best.

Q. If women are better managers, how come there aren’t more women in the corner offices of corporate America?

A. I ask you that. I think we’d be better presidents. I mean, we’ve got a really good one right now, but I find it so puzzling. I swear I don’t know.

Q. What have you tried to do less of over time?

A. Less of the, “I want to know who did that. Who decided to give that rate to that person?” I want less of that self-righteousness. I have a little bit of that and I think I’d like to have less of that — the, “You see? I told you so.” That’s definitely something I should work on.

I would love to do more — it’s corny, but it’s true — management by walking around. It really makes a difference. I know it does. And we all get caught up with being with our own little group. We all have our comfort zone.

Q. Any other comfort zones you’ve worked to get out of?

A. I’m most proud of the fact that I got out of being afraid of giving speeches. You have to be out there and you have to be up there, and you have to be the leader. It was something I needed to overcome. I did everything. I was the oldest person at Dale Carnegie. I could have had private lessons in my office. But I wanted to go there.

Q. Looking back, do you feel there was a moment or experience that set your career on a different trajectory?

A. I started working at 16. I worked all through college. Work brought me success and money and freedom, and then more success and more money and more freedom.

I failed a few times. I failed to get into the college of my choice. I failed to get into law school. And they were big failures for me, but I found the more I worked, the better I did, without ever having a goal. I didn’t have a goal. I wanted to be a lawyer and I didn’t get to be a lawyer, but all of a sudden I woke up one day and I was in publishing, and I knew what I was doing.

As I look back, I think that sometimes you can’t have the five-year plan for yourself. If you’re doing something well, you tend to keep doing it. That’s how you fall into careers.

Q. Do you have tricks for managing your time?

A. I come to work almost every Sunday for at least four hours to go through my e-mail. I did it when it was a real in-box, and I would go through it and write notes to everyone and then hand them out on Monday, and now I do it with e-mail. I’m glad I come in on Sunday. It’s the quiet time. I get things out of the way. I’m reacting, but I’m thinking as I do it, constantly going through things. So when I come in on Monday, it’s like my vacation day. I’ve gotten my e-mail down to under 30.

Q. Any other time management techniques?

A. I don’t waste time. If you want to chat, if you want to gossip, I’ll gossip with anyone, I’ll hang out. But when I’m working, I’m working. When you sit here in my office, we work. Men don’t do that as well as women do, either. All of sudden they’re on football. All of a sudden they’re showing videos of their son’s soccer game. Then they’re telling a couple of jokes. I’m not good at jokes during meetings. I’m very focused. I’m very singularly directed.

Q. Let’s talk about hiring.

A. I am living by something I read in Cathie Black’s book [“Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)”] which I sort of instinctively knew — that you’ve got to meet someone three times, and one of them better be over a meal.

You learn so much in a meal. It’s like a little microcosm of life. How they order, what they order. How are they going to give instructions to a waiter? Are they sending back the meal eight times? Can they keep the conversation going, especially if you’re hiring someone who is in sales? Are they asking smart questions?

Throughout a meal, the personality comes out, I think. Are you going to connect with us? Are you going to be part of the team, or are you going to be one of these independent players who wants to take all the credit? Are you good with assistants? Those are things you can find out in some subtle ways when you eat with someone.

Q. Any other tips on hiring?

A. Don’t hire somebody you don’t like. There is always a strong internal pressure to give a job to a person who has all the right credentials and says all the right things, even if something about her sends up little signals of alarm. They may be slight, but in my experience it is a great mistake to ignore them. Every time I went against my instincts and gave a job to someone who, though clearly capable, made me feel uneasy during the interview, it has ended badly.

July 23, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 11:55 pm

The Perfect Job for Sarah Palin

By Timothy Shriver  |  July 23, 2009; 11:19 AM ET  | Category:  Religion From the Heart

Amid all the babble about Sarah Palin’s recent resignation as Alaska’s governor and amid all the speculation about her potential presidential bid, few have noted a new job for which she is eminently qualified: civil rights leader for people with intellectual
disabilities.

The current fuss about Palin adds up to nothing more than posturing, spinning and playground name-calling. It’s what makes politics distasteful to so many. If I were her, I’d ignore all of it and forge ahead in a new direction, one where she could make a real difference.

All around the world, parents of children with Down Syndrome struggle against the stings of prejudice and fear while seeking acceptance for their children. There are precious few champions of this cause. The struggle of people with intellectual disabilities is an authentic civil rights movement, one in which Palin carries powerful credentials. Her infant son Trig has Down Syndrome.

She’d be fighting deep-seated prejudices. Over the years, I’ve heard countless cries for help from mothers and dads. I’ll never forget the father who emailed that he was being told to kill his baby daughter because of her Down Syndrome. Or the mother who was told her daughter with Down Syndrome was a “cabbage.” One woman was told to abort her Down Syndrome child because carrying the baby was akin to having a malignant tumor.

Most of these parents don’t dwell on the ways in which they themselves feel humiliated and scorned. They’re ready to fight for change. But they need help in creating social momentum, community awareness, political action.

Palin could be a force for all of those. Her faith, her recognition of the value of every life, would help her. And she could have leverage as a parent advocate that she couldn’t have as a politician.

As a parent, imagine the attention she could help draw to challenges children with Down Syndrome face in early childhood. There are far too few early childhood centers for children with special needs, far too few day-care options, far too few preschools that accept children with Down Syndrome. Palin’s name could do a lot for the cause of early childhood service improvements.

Imagine the impact she would have if she testified before Congress about the health disparities facing children with Down Syndrome. Good medical care is difficult to get and frequently substandard. I remember one medical professional telling me that care for children with special needs was usually “quick and dirty. Get them in and get them out.” Palin could expose the dirty secret that people with special needs are among the most discriminated against populations in the health care world.

Imagine Palin leading efforts to awaken her community and her country to the gifts of people with Down Syndrome. Today, when parents learn that they are carrying a child with Down Syndrome, the vast majority choose to terminate (some estimates are as high as 90%). This doesn’t have to be about the legality of abortion but rather about informing
prospective parents that people with Down Syndrome can lead happy and productive lives. That’s a message that both the conservative Sam Brownback and the liberal Ted Kennedy have endorsed. I bet they’d both welcome Palin as a messenger.

Some will argue that Sarah Palin is too controversial to be effective in these roles. To the contrary: she could be a uniter. On Friday, President Obama is set to announce his intention to make the United States a signatory to the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Couldn’t Palin join with the president in helping our nation renew its global leadership for full inclusion of people with disabilities?

When a child is young and vulnerable, a parent has a unique opportunity to speak with full authority about the need to change attitudes and services. Only a parent feels the struggle deep in her gut. Only a parent can know what it’s like to feel the sting of the
stares, the pain of a child’s humiliation.

Could Sarah Palin, private citizen, be a parent for this cause, one deeply rooted in the faith that teaches that all life is sacred? I think she could. I hope she tries.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:19 pm

I actually was 16 and pregnant

And while TV often bungles what it’s like to be a teen mother, MTV’s reality series got it (mostly, movingly) right

By Amy Benfer

Jul. 23, 2009 |

Last week’s season finale of the MTV reality show “16 & Pregnant” had my daughter and me sobbing together in under 10 minutes. The episode follows Catelynn and Tyler, two teenagers who decide, against the wishes of their parents, to release their daughter for adoption. The next day, a 30-second recap of the episode started us off again.

 

 

“Oh my God,” said my daughter, Sydney, nearly 20. “When Catelynn says, ‘I’m going to the hospital and leaving with nothing …'”

 

 

“I know!” I said. “And when they are standing in the parking lot and the baby is gone and Tyler looks down and he’s still holding the blanket!”

 

 

And there we were, reaching for the Kleenex again.

 

 

We weren’t sure what to expect when we first heard that MTV — the network that arguably started the reality TV craze with “The Real World” nearly a generation ago, the channel known for launching the second careers of Bret Michaels and Flava Flav — was planning a documentary-style series on pregnant and parenting teenagers. But we knew one thing: We were going to watch every single episode.

 

 

My daughter and I consider ourselves experts on the teen parent in pop culture for the simple fact that, in 1989, I became one. Back in the ’90s and into the early part of this century, when teen pregnancy rates were steadily declining (between 1991 and 2005, the rate dropped by a third), studios were perhaps a bit more open to portraying teen mothers as something other than an unmitigated tragedy: There was “90210,” in which the pregnant character, Andrea, ends up at Yale; the utterly charming, character-driven “Gilmore Girls,” in which the daughter, strangely enough, also ends up at Yale; and the weirdly revisionist version of “Riding in Cars With Boys,” in which the character played by Drew Barrymore does not end up going to college at all, unlike Beverly Donofrio, the former Village Voice writer whose memoir is the source for the film.

 

 

But lately, my daughter and I have had a hard time finding enough space on the TiVo to keep up: A couple of high-profile celebrity teen births, coupled with a slight (but still depressing) uptick in teen birth rates have led to an all-out cultural obsession with teen and/or unwed mothers. In this post-“Juno”/Bristol/Jamie-Lynn summer, we’ve had one patronizing ABC News “Primetime” special, hosted by Jay Schadler; a pregnant band geek on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”; Lindsay Lohan as a fake unwed mother in the straight-to-TV movie “Labor Pains”; and, my personal favorite, “THS Investigates: Teen Pregnancy Nightmares!” a one-hour special that came in the lineup right after “When Husbands Kill!” We also had “16 & Pregnant,” a show that proved so popular that it is getting a reunion show tonight and also coming back for a second season.

 

 

From the beginning, critics seemed concerned that MTV would somehow “glamorize” teen pregnancy. But I was worried more about the girls themselves: Often in our zeal to reduce teen pregnancy — a goal, I hope it goes without saying, I adamantly support — we end up unfairly reducing the girls who do become pregnant to little more than a public service announcement, as if by depicting their lives as unrelentingly bleak and unsalvageable, we will somehow scare every other teen into never having a broken condom, or even having sex in the first place. But pregnancy is just the beginning of a teen parent’s story: These are actual people, with actual children, and 18 years (at least) ahead of them to continue making decisions and taking action to build their family’s lives. Would MTV have the nerve to portray them in a realistic, respectful manner? Or would they end up being exploited into caricature?

 

 

As it turns out, they did a pretty good job. Six girls — two high school cheerleaders (Maci and Farrah), an Army brat (Ebony), a high school dropout whose mother is pregnant at the same time (Whitney), a party girl (Amber) and a couple considering adoption (Catelynn and Tyler) — each have a one-hour, self-contained episode that follows them for five to seven months, through pregnancy and young parenthood. They mixed it up pretty well, in terms of geography and class, but could have done a better job with racial diversity (five of the girls are white; Ebony appears to be biracial and lives with her white mother) — something we hope they fix in Season 2.

 

 

One of the best aspects of the show is that each episode is narrated by the teens themselves. “The goal was for them to tell their own stories, to narrate their lives and their feelings in a way that felt organic,” says executive producer Morgan J. Freeman. The girls were given small flip cameras they could use as “video diaries” to talk about their feelings in private whenever they liked. Some of the most revealing scenes between family members — an argument between Maci and her boyfriend, Ryan, en route to the doctor’s office, and one that ends with Farrah’s mother slapping her while driving, then telling her she’s “had enough of her belligerent anti-Christ attitude” — were captured on small cameras mounted inside the subject’s cars, with no crew present. “There’s not really a lot of sit-down interviews,” says Freeman. “It’s less about asking people to talk about their feelings and more about watching the action, what actually happens.” 

 

 

Each episode spectacularly culminates at around the 40-minute mark with a birthing scene, some of the most explicit I’ve seen on television. Initially, I was totally freaked out by the idea of a producer asking minor girls, even minor girls about to become parents, to consent to be filmed in stirrups, naked to the waist, in labor — but even I had to admit that it made for riveting, emotionally charged television — and certainly a heads-up to any skeptics that carrying and giving birth to a baby is a really big deal. (According to Freeman, refusing to allow cameras in the birthing room was not a “deal-breaker” and Maci, for one, chose to have her birth depicted in demure line drawings rather than real-life Technicolor.)

 

 

But the real heart of the show is the big questions: Do I stay in school, and if so, what will my friends think? Can I get my GED? Can I go to college? Can I hold a job? Do I live with my parents, or my baby’s father?

 

 

Young fathers struggle with their role, and some show real maturity and kindness. But even the bad relationships lead to some good questions (ones that, I might add, many adult women have yet to figure out): How do you get someone to step up so that the family works in everyone’s best interest? When your partner is not respecting you and your child, when do you stay and hope for the best? And when do you realize you are fighting a losing battle and take steps to make it on your own? In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the series, a tearful Maci asks her boyfriend, Ryan, if they would be having all these problems if she hadn’t become pregnant; Ryan, who proposed to her before he knew she was pregnant, tells her, “If we didn’t have the baby, we wouldn’t be together.” By the end of her episode, Maci was still mulling over her options; we may see what she decided on tonight’s reunion special.

 

 

In her New York Times review, Ginia Bellafante dismissed these girls as “real-life Junos who are not scoring in the 99th percentile on the verbal portion of their SATs” and accused MTV of promoting “working-class voyeurism” — citing, among other things, that Amber was “at least 30 pounds overweight before she even started to show” and eats Taco Bell while in labor. She concludes that the series’ “class prejudice” would believe that “if you’re not setting out for Wesleyan or Berkeley, then raising a child when you ought to be working on the yearbook is as good a road to character development as any.”

 

 

Actually, failing to acknowledge that two of the teens — Farrah and Maci — actually are enrolled in college while mothering infants sounds like “class prejudice” to me. (Also, I hear even Ivy League college students are overweight and occasionally eat Taco Bell, too). And since she brought it up, I’d just like to point out that being a teen parent doesn’t necessarily exclude one from Bellafante’s exclusive club of teenagers who count: I actually went to Wesleyan with my daughter, as did “Riding in Cars With Boys” author Beverly Donofrio 20 years before me; Ariel Gore, who had her daughter at 19 and went on to write six books and found the magazine “Hip Mama,” went to Berkeley.

 

 

No one’s asking teenagers to take the girls of “16 & Pregnant” as role models. But isn’t it fair to give them some space to talk about their own lives, rather than be talked about by others who see them as statistical symbols of social decay? Wouldn’t it be nice if some teens — and parents — who watch the episode in which Whitney’s friends ostracize her because they are afraid “they might get pregnant, too,” realize that stigmatizing this one girl’s pregnancy contributed directly to her dropping out of school? I’m guessing that few teens who watch a young girl try to hold down a job, school, a place on the dance team and still have time at home with her son are going to want to swap places with her — but some of them might come out with respect, even admiration.

 

 

The series actually managed to surprise me, too. From the beginning, I was bracing for the adoption episode, and wondering how they would handle it. Although only about 1 percent of all women choose to put their children up for adoption, it remains, in the popular imagination, one of the most palatable choices to adults who have never had to make that decision themselves: One avoids the dicey moral territory of abortion, and the equally unpopular position of being the kind of parent whom others are perfectly comfortable discriminating against. And yet the same people who urge a young girl to think of a 6-week-old fetus as a “child” can often be remarkably callous when it comes to acknowledging that giving up an actual child that one has carried for nine months and given birth to is, for most women, a much more excruciating sense of loss. In the past (when about 80 percent of young, unmarried women released their children), it was often not even much of a choice: Families and social workers presented it as the only moral option. So how would this episode play out? Would the parents really feel it was their choice? Would they acknowledge just how hard it was?

 

 

The show upended all my expectations. Catelynn and Tyler fight their own parents — who, in a twist straight out of “Gossip Girl,” married each other after their kids started dating — every step of the way. Tyler’s ex-con father, Butch, tells him he is disappointed in him: “You didn’t man up. You weren’t the cowboy I thought you were.” Catelynn’s mother, April (not long ago arrested for a DUI), puts a bassinet in the front room and calls her daughter a bitch for going to see the adoption counselor without her. But both of their kids insist that the life they have isn’t good enough for their child.

 

 

“The degree of their strength was not apparent to me when I first met them,” says Freeman. “At first, I wasn’t even sure they were going to go through with it. But you just watch Tyler carve out this safe space for him and Catelynn and their daughter and push back on the family. When I watched it, I was in awe. I thought, ‘Where is this strength coming from?'”

 

 

It’s an open adoption, so the adoptive parents, Teresa and Brandon, agree to share letters and photographs and remain in contact with Tyler and Catelynn (as well as appearing on national television, of course). They also witness their grief firsthand. In the delivery room Teresa gives Catelynn a silver bracelet and promises that she, and their daughter, will wear one that matches hers, so that the three will always be linked. Then Catelynn and Tyler end up in the parking lot, watching their daughter driven away and holding her receiving blanket.

 

 

Back on the couch, Sydney and I, both wiping tears from our eyes, started laughing at how ridiculous it was that we were both sobbing over a 30-second clip. “They should have kept her,” she said.

 

 

“No,” I said. “This is one case where I’m sure they really knew they were doing the right thing.”

 

 

Sydney is now a college sophomore. She is fluent in Spanish and loves her dog. She is kind and wise. Even as a teenager, I never expected to have a child until my 30s and now, at 36, I am the mother of a young woman. When I first became pregnant, I was certain there was no way I could do right by both of us. Nine months later I thought, yes, I think I can. And we did.

 

 

That was a long time ago. Twenty years ago, actually. Tomorrow.

 

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 5:26 pm
July 26, 2009

The Ultimate Obama Insider

By ROBERT DRAPER

On Jan. 25, 2008, the day before the South Carolina Democratic primary, Barack Obama endured a grueling succession of campaign events across the state. When his staff informed him that the evening would conclude with a brief show-up at the Pink Ice Ball, a gala for the African-American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Obama flatly refused to attend. “I’ve been to sorority events before,” he said. “We’re not gonna change anybody’s mind.”

Rick Wade, a senior adviser, Stacey Brayboy, the state campaign manager, and Anton Gunn, the state political director, took turns beseeching their boss. The gala, they told Obama, would be attended by more than 2,000 college-educated African-American women, a constituent group that was originally skeptical of the candidate’s “blackness” and that the campaign worked tirelessly to wrest from Hillary Clinton. State luminaries like Representative James Clyburn — himself an undeclared black voter — would be expecting him. They would be in and out in five minutes.

Obama’s irritation grew. “Man, it’s late, I’m tired,” he snapped. “I’m not going to any sorority event.”

The three staff members knew what their only option was at this point. “If you want him to do something,” Gunn would later tell me, “there are two people he’s not going to say no to: Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama.”

At the day’s penultimate event, a rally in Columbia, Gunn, Brayboy and Wade pleaded their case to Jarrett, the Obamas’ longtime friend and consigliere. When they were finished, Jarrett told them, “We can make that happen,” as Gunn would recall it. Jarrett informed Michelle of the situation, and when the candidate stepped offstage from the rally, Obama’s wife told him he had one last stop to make before they called it a night.

“I told Anton I’m not going to any Pink Ice Ball!” Obama barked.

Then Jarrett glided over to the fuming candidate. Her voice was very quiet and very direct.

“Barack,” she said, “you want to win, don’t you?”

Scowling, Obama affirmed that he did.

“Well, then. You need to go to Pink Ice.”

“And he shuts up,” Gunn recalls, “and gets on the bus.”

One year later, Barack Obama convened his first presidential town-hall meeting, in Elkhart, Ind. Responding to a question about the economy, Obama took the opportunity to warn corporate recipients of TARP money that “you are not going to be able to give out these big bonuses until you pay taxpayers back. You can’t get corporate jets. You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Officials in the already-reeling hospitality industry felt sucker-punched by Obama’s remark. “We began experiencing a serious downturn in business,” Jonathan Tisch, the chief executive of Loews hotels, told me. “There were mass cancellations, especially from the financial-services sector.” Tisch commiserated with Penny Pritzker, a developer, hotel entrepreneur and Obama campaign adviser, and word got around to her good friend and fellow Chicago businesswoman, the White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Jarrett raised their concerns with the president during his morning senior staff meeting. Obama was dismissive. His comments, he said to Jarrett, were not directed at ordinary business travelers but rather at companies that were bailed out at taxpayers’ expense. “And he moved on,” says an administration official familiar with the conversation, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. “It was a done deal — the president had spoken. But Valerie has a lot of credibility with him, and she can speak to him honestly. So she decided to go back to the president.”

“This is still an issue,” she told Obama on the morning of March 11, during an economic briefing in the Oval Office. “Even though you said what you said, people are taking it a different way, and it’s hurting the industry.”

The president relented. Obama directed Robert Gibbs, his press secretary, to clarify his remarks. Jarrett didn’t think that was enough, however. Before the meeting broke up, she mentioned that her staff had arranged for a dozen hospitality-industry chief executives to gather in the Roosevelt Room that morning with Obama’s economic adviser Lawrence Summers. Jarrett had just learned that Summers might miss the meeting. Why not seize the moment, she urged Obama: “Let them hear from the president directly.”

A few minutes later, Jarrett left the Oval Office, walked down the hall to the Roosevelt Room and greeted the travel executives. She had barely finished telling them, “The president really cares about this,” when the door flew open, and Obama strolled in. He shook everyone’s hand and then, to their astonished delight, took a seat. For the next half-hour, he listened closely and asked pointed questions. “It was the first time,” one amazed participant would later say, “that any president has sat down with our industry in any meaningful way.”

Before departing, Obama gestured to the unassuming African-American woman at the other end of the conference table. “Valerie’s my business liaison,” he told them. “She’ll be working very closely with your industry.”

That Jarrett had pulled strings to facilitate the meeting was inferred by the C.E.O.’s, one of whom said, “It all happened because one of his senior advisers clearly has a feel for things.” The executive didn’t know that the “feel” ran deeper than policy — that it was about trust: if Valerie Jarrett told Barack Obama that something was the right thing to do, he would very likely do it.

“I mean, he’s really by far smarter than anybody I know,” Valerie Jarrett said one morning this spring in her spacious West Wing office while elaborating on her close friend, the president. Jarrett is divorced and has a daughter, who attends Harvard Law School. She lives in the same Georgetown apartment complex as her close Chicago friends Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary, and Susan Sher, the first lady’s chief of staff. She tends to dress elegantly, as if planning to head straight from the office to an evening event (which is often the case), and that day was no exception. She also tends to keep her emotional thermostat set at room temperature, much like the president — unless the subject is the president, in which case the 52-year-old Jarrett can be almost breathless, as was the case now. “Not just smart-intelligent,” she went on, “but he’s perceptive, he watches body language. We just had a meeting, and one of his staff people. . . .” Jarrett offered a knowing smile. “If you weren’t really paying close attention, you wouldn’t notice that she was getting rather emotionally involved in the issue. It was clearly — to me, as a woman — something she cared passionately about. And I was watching him look at her, and he’s reading her completely. I look around at the other guys in the room. And none of ’em got it. None of ’em got it!”

“But you got that he got it,” I ventured.

“Oh, yeah,” she acknowledged casually. “Well, I know him pretty well. So I could tell by the look on his face. And I would’ve bet a dollar that when the meeting was over, he was going to hold her back. Sure enough, he said to her, ‘I want to talk to you for a second.’ ”

Among the narrative threads that course almost uninterrupted throughout the history of the American presidency is the inevitable presence in the White House of The One Who Gets the Boss. Karen Hughes got George W. Bush. Bruce Lindsey got Bill Clinton. Jim Baker got the elder Bush. And so on, back to William Seward’s evolving closeness with Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong reliance on the counsel of James Madison. Each such aide has served his or her president in a way that reveals the latter’s psychology. H. R. Haldeman understood the abiding social discomfort of Richard Nixon (who preferred communicating by memo, at times even with his own wife), and Haldeman spent much of his time as chief of staff keeping others away from the Oval Office. Bert Lance alone among the Georgians in Jimmy Carter’s White House could divine when their fussy boss required a budget-policy huddle, a joke or a moment of prayer. Michael Deaver, the deputy chief of staff who Nancy Reagan would say was “like a son” to Ronald Reagan, deployed the latter’s sunny aloofness with a P.R. man’s acumen, thereby elevating the former “Grade B movie actor” to Great Communicator status.

Valerie Jarrett is a Washington outsider with a Washingtonian’s mind-deadening job title: senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. Roughly translated, she is Obama’s intermediary to the outside world. But Jarrett is also the president’s closest friend in the White House, and it is not lost on her colleagues that when senior staff meetings in the Oval Office break up, she often stays behind with the boss. Her influence leaves few fingerprints. Over a four-month period of reporting, I struggled to understand Jarrett’s ineffable raison d’etre in the Obama White House. Perhaps proving that nothing succeeds like failure, my plaintive queries were unexpectedly rewarded one afternoon by a telephone call from the president himself. “Well, Valerie is one of my oldest friends,” Obama began. “Over time, I think our relationship evolved to the point where she’s like a sibling to me. . . . I trust her completely.”

Before long, his monologue slid into banality. Jarrett served “as my eyes and ears,” a “sounding board” and was ever helpful with “midcourse corrections.” When Obama was done, I pressed him for clarity. What was unique about their relationship as to make a Valerie Jarrett indispensable to the president of the United States? Surely, I said, it wasn’t simply the longevity of their friendship.

“No, as I said, she’s someone I trust completely,” Obama replied. “She is family.” Then he hesitated, appraising his own sentiment. “She’s family — she combines the closeness of a family member with the savvy and objectivity of a professional businesswoman and public-policy expert. And that’s a rare combination to have. You know,” he went on to say, “there are other friends of mine who are close to me but who don’t really understand the nature of my work. There are others who are extraordinary experts in policy and politics but don’t have that track record with me.”

Obama then explained what that combination of kinship and competence meant to him. As his surrogate, Jarrett is trusted “to speak for me, particularly when we’re dealing with delicate issues.” At the same time, he could rely on her “to monitor the dynamics inside the White House. She’s got a very good antenna about the disgruntled young staffer or tensions between a couple of principals.” (He declined to be more specific, saying, “Where she serves most ably involves issues that can be sensitive. . . . So I’m not sure I’ve got the killer anecdote.”)

From Obama’s professorial elucidation, those two recurring words — “trust” and “family” — insistently rang out. After our conversation, I began to reflect on Jarrett’s portfolio. Broadly speaking, it consists of “outreach” — endless meetings, conferences and speeches. The kind of job, in other words, that even a president who claims to be all about reaching out might assign to someone he can’t stand. But the bond between Obama and Jarrett indicates that her duties are important to the president, and in a very personal way.

Jarrett functions as Obama’s de facto conduit to the business community. Among the president’s economic team, only Jarrett, the former president of a Chicago real estate development firm, has actually run a multimillion-dollar business. (“The pendulum has swung from an administration that had a lot of experience in business to one that’s filled with regulators and academics,” one of Wall Street’s most prominent chief executives told me recently.) Her street cred with the private sector is an obvious asset to a president confronting a major recession. That said, Valerie Jarrett’s exquisite business connections have been important to Obama since his political ambitions first took hold more than a decade ago. “I think Valerie is the glue between the Obamas and their relationship with the external world,” a mutual friend says. “First Chicago, and then the network expanded exponentially, all over the country. She’s opened a lot of doors.”

Jarrett also serves as the White House’s unofficial champion of minority issues. This may seem superfluous, given that a black man inhabits the Oval Office — until it’s noted that Obama’s inner circle consists largely of white males, same as it ever was. As a top adviser acknowledged, “At the end of the day, when he’s with his closest staff, she’s the only one who has a sense of what it’s like to have a different background from everyone else.”

Jarrett’s shared experience with the Obamas is about race — and on a deeper level, about the coexistence, in the post-King African-American psyche, of conscience and ambition, activism and accommodation. Their identity rests on that fulcrum; it is, as Barack Obama would say, who they are. “I think the thing that’s important to the president and the first lady is this whole notion of authenticity,” says Martin Nesbitt, a Chicago parking-lot entrepreneur whose closeness to Barack Obama rivals that of Jarrett. “And knowing them as well and being as close a friend as she is, Valerie’s always there to say: ‘Yeah, but you know what? That’s not you. You wouldn’t say that. Somebody else is saying that. Barack Obama wouldn’t say that.’ ”

Authenticity has a lot to do with place, of course. Obama was a 23-year-old gifted transient who had yet to connect to the American Experience when he showed up in Chicago in 1985. His quest for identity ended there. “It’s the city that sucked in this kid Barack Obama and made it his home,” Michelle Obama told me. “He considered himself a native of Chicago, because of his community-organizing work, before I ever met him.”

The Obama White House is now populated with as many Chicagoans as it previously housed Texans. Their presence has produced a whipsawing change in ethos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that cannot be explained in strictly partisan, racial or even geographic terms — and of which the new occupants themselves seem unaware. The Texans and the Chicagoans each boast of their larger-than-life politicians, of their native hospitality (be it Southern or Midwestern). “When it comes to family and community, those values are very strong” in Chicago, Michelle Obama told me — eerily echoing the words of Laura Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention: “Midland was a place of family and community. . . . ”

The similarities end precisely there, because Mrs. Bush finished her thought about Midland with, “and it had a sense of possibility as big as the West Texas sky.” That notion of boundlessness, of pastoral exceptionalism, suffuses the Texas psyche. By contrast, the Chicago that has seen its way through urban malaise, balkanized wards, iron-fisted local governance and epic civil rights clashes has imbued the Obama White House with a far less gauzy mind-set. But the tenets underlying that worldview — struggle is a virtue; united we stand; cities matter — are every bit as fundamental to American idealism as the Texas-bred reverence of vastness and individualism.

The Obamas and Valerie Jarrett experienced firsthand the hard-won progress of a Chicago beset with racial and class divisions during the administrations of Harold Washington, who was the city’s first black mayor, and Richard M. Daley. “There was a certain sense we all shared that people can change, communities can change, cities can change,” Jarrett said when I asked her to talk about what Chicago means to her and the Obamas. “Overcoming adversity not only makes you stronger. It makes you more hopeful. Living through the transformation of the city — maybe we gained our confidence having lived through those days.”

Still, she told me, what Chicago provided Obama with most of all was family — beginning, of course, with Michelle Robinson. “In this narrow question of identity, it was that although they grew up in totally different worlds, she had the same kind of ‘decency and work ethic and sense of responsibility to give something back,’ ” Jarrett said. “But where she was totally different was how she was raised. She had these two parents who loved her dearly and sacrificed greatly so that she and Craig could go to the best colleges. My guess is that her dad was home for dinner every night — he was a huge force in her life — and she had the role model of what a good marriage could be and how to be a role model as a parent. Barack’s mother was very important to him, but he spent a great deal of his life living in a different place. So as all kids do, you always have a fantasy of what perfection would be. And my guess is that Michelle’s childhood was his idea of perfection. It allowed him to anchor himself with her and with her family. To me, that’s the most special thing about Chicago for him.”

It didn’t take long for Jarrett to become part of Obama’s patchwork family. As Daley’s deputy chief of staff, Jarrett was already one of the city’s power brokers in 1991, when her friend and co-worker, Susan Sher, suggested that she take a look at the résumé of a promising young African-American lawyer named Michelle Robinson. The applicant made an impression on Jarrett, and vice versa. “When we interviewed,” Michelle Obama recalls, “we connected because we had similar paths. She’d practiced law but had struggled with some of the same questions: Do I want to stay in a big firm? How do I build a life that’s meaningful and interesting?”

In less than a year, Michelle’s fiancé began to confide in Valerie Jarrett. He showed her pages from a book he was writing. That book, “Dreams From My Father,” explored Barack Obama’s inner struggle in a way that would later astound the friends of his youth, who knew only the mentholated unflappability that prefigured today’s Obama Cool. With Jarrett, he found himself doing what Barack Obama simply did not do: itemizing his self-doubt out loud. “He talked about how hard it was — things he hadn’t dealt with yet,” she recalled. “ ‘It isn’t just a matter of writing a simple story,’ I told him. ‘You’ve got to deal with the fact that your father left you at a very young age. And you lived in a variety of different settings at an age where it could’ve been discombobulating. Your grandparents are white, and you look black. Your friends in Hawaii all are different-looking, and that’s great — but you come to the mainland, and things are much more black and white, literally.’ ”

Jarrett was born of African-American parents in Shiraz, Iran, where her physician father was running a hospital as part of an American aid program. Obama’s fabled “exoticism” was therefore comprehensible to her, the president told me. “I think we both share an appreciation of the world outside our borders that ironically probably makes us appreciate more the values of America,” he said. “It also allows us to maybe travel between worlds and cultures in ways that have proven to be not only professionally important but emotionally satisfying. I guess another way of putting it is, she and I both are constantly looking for links and bridges between cultures and peoples. That’s central to who we are. And that probably has contributed to forging an even closer relationship than we might’ve otherwise had.”

Obama, as his memoir would reveal, sought connection to the heroes of the civil rights movement. Jarrett’s struggle had been of a different sort: how to measure up to the role models who filled her life. Her father, Dr. James Bowman, was an eminent pathologist given to wearing bow ties and trekking his young daughter across Africa for her summer vacations. Equally influential was her mother, Barbara, a childhood-development expert and the daughter of Robert Taylor, the first African-American to head the Chicago Housing Authority.

The fast track laid out for Valerie Bowman — a Massachusetts boarding school, then Stanford, then a law degree at Michigan, then marriage and work at a corporate law firm — was one she pursued without either resistance or zeal, “kind of like an automaton,” she told me. While Jarrett’s family rejoiced when Harold Washington was elected mayor on April 22, 1983, the atmosphere at her nearly all-white firm the next day was one she would remember as “polite silence.” Four years later, as a 25-year-old community organizer was wading into the tumult of her hometown, Jarrett, then 30, decided at last to reconnect herself to it. She quit both her marriage and her job, and in 1987, as the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, she went to work for Mayor Washington’s corporation counsel — relinquishing her high-rise office for a cubicle in the city law department. But like the “sibling” she had yet to meet, Valerie Jarrett had found a path of her own.

Over the next 15 years, her upward trajectory would outpace even Obama’s. Jarrett’s unhappy years as a real estate lawyer now paid off in a city law department tasked with maintaining Chicago’s business base. Washington died of a heart attack in 1987, but her work ethic and supple intelligence distinguished Jarrett in the eyes of Richard M. Daley, who took office two years later. The new mayor promoted her to deputy chief of staff — and later to the post of planning commissioner, thereby baptizing Jarrett in the racially charged torrent of urban affairs.

The experience of infuriating developers and neighborhood groups alike “toughened me greatly,” Jarrett says. From 1991 until 1995, she presided over a rancorous but largely successful makeover of the city’s landscape, tearing down blighted housing projects and relocating residents — those who qualified anyway — to far more attractive new developments in racially mixed neighborhoods. (After her tenure, the infamous projects bearing her grandfather’s name were demolished.) Meanwhile, she was raising her daughter and developing a social life that revolved around an intimate community of like-minded black urban professionals who, like Jarrett, sought advancement not only for themselves but for the local African-American community. Chief among them were the Obamas. Jarrett brought Michelle into the Daley administration, attended their wedding, threw a book-signing party for the “Dreams From My Father” author and generally assumed a big-sisterly presence in the young couple’s lives such that “I don’t think either of them made major decisions without talking to her,” Susan Sher said.

As Obama told me, “We’ve seen each other through ups and downs.” And for Jarrett, one such low point came in 1995, when she began to lose the mayor’s support. Wounded, Jarrett bolted for the real estate development firm Habitat — only to have Daley ask her to keep a foot in the public sector by offering her the post of chairwoman at the Chicago Transit Board. She accepted. Soon other boards beckoned, including the University of Chicago Medical Center and the Chicago Stock Exchange. Habitat made her an executive vice president. By 2002, it was as if the city had awakened one morning to find that Valerie Jarrett had taken over. For Barack Obama, her arrival was right on schedule.

“It was a lousy idea,” Jarrett said as she recalled the decision by Obama, then a state senator, to run for U.S. Senate after he was trounced two years earlier in a bid for Congress. “He called and said: ‘I want to come over. Let’s invite my closest friends. There’s something I want to bounce off of you.’

“Well, Michelle had already told me what it was. She said, ‘So we’re not in favor of this, right?’ ‘Absolutely not!’ ‘That’s the right answer!’ We conspired against it for all the obvious reasons. He’d just lost to Bobby Rush. He’d have to raise a ton of cash, and he didn’t have it. The field was unknown. He would have to travel all over the state. Michelle hadn’t been happy about him going off to Springfield, so the thought of him being away more with these two young children was not terribly appealing to her. And she didn’t really think he could win.

“So I cooked breakfast for him, Marty [Nesbitt], John [Rogers, an investment banker and close friend], Michelle and me. And rather than do what he normally does, which is going around the room and say, ‘What do you think?’ he said: ‘I want to run for U.S. Senate. Let me tell you why. I’ve talked to [the veteran state senator] Emil Jones, he’s a huge political force and he’s prepared to support me. When I ran for Congress I didn’t have that kind of support. And if I lose, then Michelle, I’ll give up politics.’ (She’s like, ‘Yes!’) ‘If I can’t do it this time, I promise I’ll get a normal job in the private sector, so this’ll be the last time I ask you to do this — unless I win. And money’s a problem, so Valerie I think you should help me because you’re in the business community, you and John. You two should think about helping me do this.’

“And he did this obviously far more eloquently and for 10 minutes or so. So I said, ‘So, what if you lose?’ He said: ‘If I’m not worried about losing, why are you? If I lose, I lose. But I think I’ll win.’ He didn’t convince me he’d win at that moment. He convinced me that it was worth a try — and that therefore he could. Which is always where he’s kind of been able to get me.”

Over the ensuing five years, the role Jarrett played in Obama’s political ascent was important but also confined. For his senatorial campaign, she made key introductions to the donor community, which helped the underfinanced candidate achieve legitimacy among a field of well-financed competitors. (At the same time, Jarrett did not dissuade Obama from involvement with the developer and influence peddler Tony Rezko, whom she regarded as “a snake,” according to a friend.) She was among the handful of close advisers who met in the Chicago office of the political strategist David Axelrod at the close of 2006 to carry on a rolling discussion of the risks entailed in a presidential run. And during the first six months of Obama’s presidential campaign, Jarrett remained in constant contact with him but otherwise stayed in Chicago to run Habitat — she had become chief executive in January — and the Chicago Stock Exchange.

That arrangement began to change on the evening of July 17, 2007, when Obama again convened a meeting at Jarrett’s Chicago town house. The presidential campaign was not gaining traction in the national polls, and several of Obama’s associates openly fretted that the emphasis on winning Iowa and the other early states had come at the expense of building a broad base of support across the map. The candidate was also not happy about fielding so many calls from African-American leaders who were critical of the campaign’s “postracial” demeanor. “Lots of things were bubbling up, and no one was really handling issues that would arise, either in Chicago [at headquarters] or on the road,” says Penny Pritzker, who was one of the meeting’s participants and the campaign’s finance chairwoman. “You needed another smart, capable, really close adviser involved who could play a bridging role. Valerie was the perfect solution.”

Not everyone would agree with Pritzker. Though the Obama campaign possessed scarcely a fraction of the melodrama afflicting John McCain’s operation, tension when it did exist tended to revolve around Jarrett. She never actually moved into headquarters, “and that was good and that was bad,” says the White House senior adviser, Pete Rouse, who at that time was Senator Obama’s chief of staff. “In the campaign, that she was sort of outside and free-floating complicated things at times.” Jarrett’s ambiguous role particularly annoyed the campaign manager, David Plouffe, who, several campaign sources say, did not care for her. Jarrett and Plouffe tangled over issues ranging from where the campaign should be spending its money to where the candidate should be spending his time. Outside advisers who could not persuade Plouffe on a matter knew they could then turn to Jarrett as a “court of appeals,” according to a campaign official.

Today Plouffe offers unqualified praise for Jarrett’s work as a campaign surrogate but says, “She wasn’t terribly involved in strategic issues.” This is probably true — but only because the campaign did not consider the matter of race to be a “strategic issue.” On this subject, Jarrett consistently and forcibly weighed in. It was Jarrett, several aides say, who helped convince otherwise skeptical senior staff members that Michelle Obama should go to South Carolina in November 2007 and give a speech addressing fears in the African-American community that harm might come to the black candidate. It was Jarrett who strongly encouraged Barack Obama to give his race speech — convinced when other senior advisers were not, says Dr. Eric Whitaker, a close friend of Obama, “that he could actually pull off the speech,” and that in the wake of the incendiary Jeremiah Wright tapes, now was the time to do it. Numerous campaign officials credit Jarrett, along with the communications director Anita Dunn and Stephanie Cutter, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, for helping to rehabilitate Mrs. Obama’s angry-black-woman image. (Three staff members say Jarrett encouraged the future first lady to focus on military families.) According to Clifford Franklin, one of the campaign’s African-American media consultants, “Having Valerie at the table kept African-Americans and Hispanics and women at the forefront of our outreach — where before it had been an afterthought.”

As Obama told me, the opportunities afforded him and Jarrett by their predecessors in the civil rights movement gave them both “a shared sense of obligation.” To her and the Obamas, failing to acknowledge the racial dimension of the 2008 campaign constituted dereliction of duty, even if silence on the subject was considered politically expedient by other senior campaign staff members. A moment of truth occurred last July, when the candidate predicted to a Missouri crowd that his opponents would be focusing on how Obama “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager fired back that Obama had “played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.” Momentarily flummoxed, the Obama campaign responded with a tepid insistence by Gibbs that the senator was merely “describing that he was new to the political scene.”

“But within the campaign, Valerie had been saying, ‘You guys, you’re not getting this issue right,’ ” recalls a top official. “And Obama communicated to his senior advisers that he thought we were a little gun-shy on race issues; that the reality was, he did look different. There were also African-Americans on our staff, some in relatively senior positions, who were clearly upset that we had not consulted them in the response. And she actually organized a meeting to discuss it.

“And that’s not just a process thing,” the adviser said. “Because moving forward, the candidate made it very clear to us that we were just a bunch of white people who didn’t get it — which, by the way, was true.”

That Obama required the presence of someone who did “get it” inevitably meant that he would want Jarrett in the White House. (“Of course!” Jarrett remembers Obama’s wife exclaiming back in September 2007. “Hasn’t he said anything to you yet?”) Last July, however, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois floated an intriguing alternative — namely, that Jarrett consider filling the Senate seat that would be vacated by Obama should he win the presidency. The notion gained enthusiastic support from different quarters. To her friends and family, becoming a U.S. senator would allow her to flourish on her own. To less admiring colleagues in the Obama campaign, it meant that they would not have to deal with her in the White House.

Jarrett discussed her options with the Obamas the weekend before the election. The candidate was typically analytical. Michelle was not. Jarrett says: “She came down very hard, saying that’s not what she wanted me to do. She said, ‘We need you in the White House.’ You have to understand. This is right before the election. We’re all really nervous. We knew by that point that chances are he’s gonna win. She’s about to embark on this entirely new episode in her life. And her attitude was like: ‘You’ve come all this way, and you thought this was a good idea, and now you’re gonna bail on me? No way!’ ”

A few days after the election, the president-elect told his new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, “I want her inside the White House.” Those who knew Obama understood what motivated his decision. How the decision would play out was less predictable. As one close adviser would say: “It’s like bringing in a family member. You can say all you want that they’ll be held accountable and that you’ll treat them like anybody else. But you can’t.”

One day this past December, Jarrett and her new chief of staff, Michael Strautmanis (formerly a paralegal at the firm where Michelle Obama worked), met in the West Wing with the Bush administration political strategist Barry Jackson. Two of the offices under Jackson’s purview — public liaison and intergovernmental affairs — were about to become Jarrett’s responsibility. After a cordial discussion about the duties she would inherit, Jarrett thanked Jackson and left the building. Strautmanis stayed to finish the meeting. Except for the Roosevelt Room, he had never seen the West Wing before and wondered if Jackson would mind showing him around. Jackson was happy to do so, and they spent a few moments walking the halls. Within a couple of days, Rahm Emanuel himself visited the West Wing to confer with his counterpart, the Bush chief of staff Joshua Bolten. In the course of their conversation, Bolten told Emanuel that Jarrett had been by, looking at office space.

Emanuel was not happy to learn this. He confronted Jarrett, and today he says: “There was a misunderstanding. . . . It wasn’t a dust-up.” As it would develop, Pete Rouse and Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff, assigned Jarrett the airy second-floor office suite formerly commandeered by Karl Rove and before that the first lady, Hillary Clinton. But Emanuel’s reaction, at bottom, had little to do with West Wing real estate. Instead, it conveyed the understandable wariness with which the other top Obama advisers greeted the only one among them who could claim to be a close personal friend of both the president and the first lady.

When I asked Emanuel what advice he gave Obama on Jarrett’s role in the White House, he smirked and replied, “My two cents to the president stays my two cents to the president.”

“Can you give me one cent?” I asked.

“One cent,” Emanuel said, “was: ‘If you do it, this will be unique, so here are the upsides and downsides we’ve got to be conscious of. This will be different.’ He said, ‘That’s fine, but this is how I would like to do it.’ ”

According to Jarrett, Obama urged her to take on a concretely defined profile, saying, “You don’t just want to come in as my friend, because you could be marginalized.” Rouse suggested the same solution but voiced the opposite concern. He recalls telling her, “If you don’t have line responsibility, you tend to wander, swim outside your own lane and get into other people’s work and irritate people and complicate things.”

Jarrett herself could recognize the potential complications, according to her chief of staff. “She said that one thing she doesn’t want is for people to believe that she would use her relationship with the president and leverage it against them,” Strautmanis told me. “It would be natural for people to have their radar up for that. And I think she’s been successful at establishing to the rest of the senior staff that they can trust her — that she’s not going to back-channel them to the president, that she doesn’t want to be a mini-chief of staff.”

“This town loves and is dying for a whiff of a Rahm/Valerie power struggle,” Cecilia Muñoz, Jarrett’s director of intergovernmental affairs, says. “And there isn’t one.” Certainly that is the case when compared with the gladiatorial clashes within previous administrations. But things have not been seamless between the two — and Muñoz would know, since Emanuel had lobbied her to take the intergovernmental-affairs job without even discussing the matter with Muñoz’s actual boss to be, Jarrett, who at that point had never spoken with Muñoz. The chief of staff has since been respectful of Jarrett’s turf, and the two get along “better than anyone’s expectations,” as Martin Nesbitt delicately puts it. Still, Emanuel talks to a lot of people around town, and when the subject is Valerie Jarrett, it’s fair to say that his words fall short of effusive. Their opposing qualities — deliberateness and sensitivity in Jarrett; speed and brutal practicality in Emanuel — may reside harmonically in Barack Obama. But what the two aides represent isn’t simply a function of velocity or decibel level. While both of them obviously want the president to succeed, Emanuel’s criteria for “success” are straightforward. Jarrett, according to Muñoz, is “very focused on why he ran in the first place” — a psychological calculation that only Jarrett would presume to undertake and which therefore is bound to drive others nuts.

“We have kind of a mind meld,” Jarrett told me about Obama. “And chances are, what he wants to do is what I’d want to do.” Jarrett’s discernment of What Barack Wants has sometimes found her taking unorthodox positions. In recent weeks, senior staff members have fought among themselves over an executive memorandum relating to the Recovery Act. Section 3 of this memo severely restricts contact with White House officials by registered lobbyists to discuss specific stimulus projects. Jarrett has argued that this requirement, while virtuous in theory, means that certain disadvantaged communities — represented, for example, by civil rights organizations whose directors happen to be registered lobbyists — will not be heard. “So there are these tough meetings,” one participant says, “where there are some very strong, very male voices basically saying, ‘The president said we were going to do it this way, and we have to do it this way, come hell or high water.’ And Valerie is one of a group of folks who are saying: ‘You know what? We said we were going to try it. We said we were going to see how it’s going to go. And we need to make sure we do this in a way that’s ultimately consistent with the values we brought to Washington and making sure that we accomplish what we set out to accomplish.’ ”

When I asked Obama if he runs every decision past her, he answered without hesitation: “Yep. Absolutely.” Some of their Oval Office one-on-ones find Jarrett — whose acute familiarity with the business community is unique in the West Wing — playing the impersonal role of trusted financial counselor, the president told me. “Throughout, for example, the debates taking place on how to deal with the financial crisis, I would sit down and get her read in terms of how we strike the appropriate balance between intervention to stem panic and not being so heavy-handed that we were changing in fundamental ways the nature of our free-market economy,” he said. “And her experience as a businesswoman and contacts with C.E.O.’s around the country was very helpful.”

But many of their conversations are far less clinical. Obama as president unburdens himself to his sibling/adviser just as he did while anguishing his way through the writing of “Dreams From My Father.” Jarrett shares his scorn for Beltway insularity and, attuned as she is to his determination not to lose touch with everyday American life, she usually accompanies him to town-hall events. Recalling a flight back on Air Force One with Obama after one such gathering, Jarrett told me: “He talked about — there was one family, nine people in the family lost their jobs. We talked about, ‘What does that do? You can’t even rely on your relatives, no support network.’ We always go through the day’s stories and talk about what touched either of us.”

It’s hard to imagine Obama conducting that kind of empathy session with Emanuel, Gibbs or even Axelrod. “She and Axelrod are the two he’s closest to but in very different ways,” a friend of both advisers said. “He gets brilliant political advice from David, and from Valerie he gets wisdom.” When I asked Axelrod himself to explain how Jarrett’s counsel might prove uniquely valuable to the president, he squinted a little and said: “Well, first of all I think, I mean, he is more likely to come to her with issues of personal concern — family issues, because he has a full plate and she’s also a very close friend. It’s important to have people like that around.”

“Can you recall a particular moment when she’s been that person for him?” I prodded.

The strategist assumed his basset-hound countenance. “There are issues all the time, but, uh, I’m trying to think of some that I would share with you. Because you know the nature of this is that there aren’t that many I want to share because of. . . . I need to think about it.”

Evidently Axelrod does not see in her the utility that Obama does. A weekly Wednesday-night gathering at Axelrod’s house — to discuss what one participant describes as “hard-core politics” — pointedly excludes Jarrett. Otherwise, she attends pretty much whatever she wishes. Though her portfolio — overseeing the Office of Public Engagement (formerly Public Liasion), the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the newly created Office of Urban Affairs — is dauntingly packed, her chief of staff, Michael Strautmanis, told me that he sees his job as “to run her office so that she can play that advisory role with the president.” Jarrett therefore has wide latitude over how she spends her day. She assisted her friend Desirée Rogers in selecting a chef for the White House’s Cinco de Mayo reception. Practically on a whim, she spent a day with Michelle Obama in Manhattan and that night donned a black gown to accompany the first lady to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People gala.

That Jarrett can pick and choose among meetings and priorities does not exactly ingratiate her with her White House colleagues. On one hand, she has devoted enormous energy to helping Chicago’s campaign for the 2016 Olympic Games — even pledging, rather ostentatiously, to personally direct a department out of the White House that would assist the Games’ operations in her hometown. By contrast, Jarrett has shown little interest in the White House effort to bring the World Cup soccer tournament to the United States in 2018 or 2022. More bothersome to her colleagues was that she seldom attended the senior staff briefings leading up to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, even though it was long understood that Jarrett would be on the front lines when the rollout of Sotomayor proceeded.

Still, the Obamas clearly benefit from Jarrett’s ability to freelance. In the early months of the administration, she often stepped in to assist the understaffed Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, by communicating with jittery chief executives in the financial-services sector. When Michelle Obama decided last month to beef up her first-lady portfolio, Jarrett slid over to the East Wing to lend a hand. She organized a dinner of the presidential historians Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek and Garry Wills with her and the Obamas at the White House residence on June 29. And two days later, Jarrett was at the president’s side to moderate a health care town-hall meeting in Annandale, Va.

When I asked Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Susan Sher, if she had seen Jarrett’s advisory role evolve in ways not anticipated, she smiled abashedly. What she didn’t appreciate then but did now, Sher said, was “how incredibly instrumental she’ll be in virtually everything.”

“Where’s my picture?’’ Valerie Jarrett exclaimed, addressing no one in particular. She stood up from the conference-room table in her office and walked over to the bookshelf. “They brought these to me today.”

She handed me two unframed prints. The first was of Jarrett standing on a staircase with a familiar-looking yellow creature. “I spent five years of my daughter’s life watching ‘Sesame Street,’ ” she said fondly — and indeed, in the photograph with Big Bird, Jarrett wore a meek smile as if in the presence of childhood royalty.

The image I turned to next was no less odd. It featured five figures seated on the couches and chairs of the Oval Office: the president, Jarrett, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich and the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Standing over me, and in a voice no less sentimental than before, Jarrett said, “I love that photo.”

That unlikely meeting — which took place two days after her and Michelle Obama’s appearance on the set of “Sesame Street” — had been arranged by Jarrett. Sharpton, Gingrich and Bloomberg were part of a group convening in Washington to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision by promulgating education as a civil right (though with obvious disagreements among them as to just how this civil right would be advanced). Sharpton had contacted Jarrett to see if a few of them could meet privately with the president so as to obtain the strong backing of Arne Duncan, the secretary of education. At a White House senior staff meeting in the Oval Office, Jarrett brought up the idea of having Sharpton and a few others over to the Oval Office.

“I liked the idea of getting this odd quartet together to come around an issue,” Jarrett told me. “Because it would show the American people that this is what the president is about, getting unlikely combinations together.”

When I talked earlier to Robert Gibbs about the gathering, he mentioned something that I now relayed to Jarrett: “If you would’ve started out a line by saying, ‘Reverend Sharpton, Newt Gingrich and Mayor Bloomberg walked into the White House together,’ I would’ve thought it was the start of a joke.” But the press secretary had also said, “I think it shows how important she thought that event was that it ultimately got on [Obama’s] schedule.” Of course, Gibbs wasn’t exactly saying that he thought such a meeting was important — which, judging by the measured smile on her face, Jarrett seemed to understand.

Pressing the point anyway, I asked, “If you hadn’t suggested that this meeting take place, do you think anyone else would have suggested it?”

Jarrett looked across the table at her friend, the White House communications director, Anita Dunn, who had dropped in on the interview. Dunn stopped taking notes and flashed Jarrett a look of abiding doubt.

“Probably not,” Jarrett then murmured.

“Probably not?” exclaimed Dunn, who had been virtually silent until now. “Absolutely not!”

Dunn’s outburst was freighted with a depth of appreciation that I had not picked up on elsewhere in the West Wing. Though Dunn is white, her words reminded me of the interviews I conducted with several African-Americans who had served at high levels in the Obama campaign. To them, Valerie Jarrett was something of a heroine. As they saw it, she got that Obama’s work as a community organizer in poor black neighborhoods wasn’t just a touching bit of back story but instead bespoke a personal commitment to change. She got the importance of campaigning for better schools and job opportunities for African-Americans, even if such talk wouldn’t make red states turn blue. She got that simply electing a black man would not make all urban traumas disappear. And she got that Obama got it, that this was central to his “authenticity” of which she was guardian — reminding the candidate, “Barack Obama wouldn’t say that.”

Without Jarrett, these officials said they believed, their opinions and the often-legitimate concerns voiced by black leaders like Sharpton would have been thoroughly disregarded by the white-dominated senior staff. “There’s a cultural nuance that they just didn’t get,” one such African-American staff member told me. “And the landscape of our campaign is littered with hundreds of stories where she intervened and voices got heard and decisions got made that might’ve gone a different way.”

As to just how much difference Valerie Jarrett’s various interventions had made, the staff member admitted he couldn’t say. It wasn’t for him to judge, anyway. That was between Obama and Jarrett.

if they actually do this…amazing!

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 2:06 pm
July 16, 2009

At Wal-Mart, Labeling to Reflect Green Intent

By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM

Shoppers expect the tags on Wal-Mart items to have rock-bottom prices. In the future they may also have information about the product’s carbon footprint, the gallons of water used to create it, and the air pollution left in its wake.

As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores is on a mission to determine the social and environmental impact of every item it puts on its shelves. And it has recruited scholars, suppliers, and environmental groups to help it create an electronic indexing system to do that.

The idea is to create a universal rating system that scores products based on how environmentally and socially sustainable they are over the course of their lives. Consider it the green equivalent to nutrition labels.

Rather than a retailer or a product supplier’s focusing on only a few sustainability goals — lower emissions or water conservation or waste reduction — the index would help them take a broader view of sustainability by scrutinizing and rating all sorts of environmental and social implications.

Did this T-shirt come from a cotton crop that was sprayed with pesticide? Was excessive packaging used to ship these diapers?

Wal-Mart’s goal is to have other retailers eventually adopt the indexing system, which will be created over the next five years.

“We have to change how we make and sell products,” Michael T. Duke, Wal-Mart’s president and chief executive, plans to tell about 1,500 of the company’s suppliers and employees on Thursday at a “sustainability meeting,” according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “We have to make consumption itself smarter and sustainable.”

The only thing less likely than a Wal-Mart meeting that sounds as if it were dreamed up by liberal-arts environmentalists may be that a number of scholars and environmental groups say that Wal-Mart is the only entity capable of making “sustainable consumption” a retailing reality.

“Nobody else could pull this off,” said Michelle Harvey at Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups involved in the creation of the index.

The question, of course, is whether even Wal-Mart can make it happen.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of work for a lot of people,” said Jon Johnson, a professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, whom the company asked to help create the index, along with Jay Golden at Arizona State University. “But obviously we’re optimistic about the prospects.”

Joe Cavaliere, a senior vice president for customer development at Unilever, a big Wal-Mart supplier, called the indexing idea “a great move forward for the industry.”

Wal-Mart’s sheer size has long enabled it to create ripple effects throughout corporate America whenever it adopts new ways of doing business.

For instance, Len Sauers, the vice president for global sustainability at Procter & Gamble, recalls that a few years ago, when his company and a few others began selling concentrated laundry detergent that uses 50 percent less water — and allows for a smaller container using less plastic — that version was slow to catch on.

In 2007, Wal-Mart decided it would sell only the concentrated detergents.

“Because of Wal-Mart’s leadership in that area, they were able to set a standard for the entire industry,” Mr. Sauers said. “That opened the door to allow it to progress very, very quickly.”

Procter & Gamble said sharing the new sustainability index across the industry was important.

“The last thing a supplier really wants is when you’re doing a separate index for every retailer,” said Tim Marrin, associate director of external relations for Procter & Gamble. “Wal-Mart has invited the Targets, the Costcos, the Tescos of the world,” he said, “to come up with a solution so that there are not 5, 10, 15, 20 different standards that retailers are implementing in their markets.”

But creating a single set of measurements for the entire retailing industry will be complicated. For one thing, some suppliers have concerns about their proprietary information.

And environmentally sustainable production and distribution methods will not necessarily be cheap.

“The first question is always, ‘It’s going to cost more,’ ” John E. Fleming, Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising officer, said in an interview this week. “But you know, I think we’ve demonstrated time and time again, if you reduce packaging, if you reduce energy, the costs go down.”

Wal-Mart plans to begin by asking its more than 100,000 suppliers around the world to answer 15 simple questions about the sustainable practices of their companies. Questions include “Have you set publicly available greenhouse gas reduction targets? If yes, what are those targets?”

The largest United States suppliers will be asked to respond by October. Deadlines outside the United States have not been set.

Wal-Mart said suppliers that choose not to participate would not be penalized, but warned, “then they’re probably less relevant to us.”

Whatever grumbling the index might create, Wal-Mart executives said that more and more consumers, especially those born from 1980 to 2000, will be making purchasing decisions based not only on price but also on which products do the least harm to the environment and the people, often in poorer countries, who produce them.

“These younger consumers, they care deeply about this regardless of what happens in the economy,” Mr. Fleming said. “When I go around to colleges and universities to recruit, sustainability is tops on their list. So I think this will help us build a better business model.”

If successful, the index could compel manufacturers and suppliers to create more sustainable products.

“If we could take a snapshot of products today in the store and then fast forward 10 years from now,” said Matt Kistler, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president for sustainability, we would see “dramatic changes.”

July 22, 2009

I LOVE THIS

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:19 pm

The Haul That Helps the Small
New Ventures Truck Farms’ Online Orders to Town

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

 

Twice a month, Laurie Smith and Mark Reinhardt load their refrigerated cargo van with stew beef and steaks, chickens and eggs, honey and salsa. All of it is produced by their Rappahannock and Culpeper County neighbors, and on this particular day all of it is headed to Northern Virginia, where customers who have placed online orders await the van’s arrival at one of six scheduled drop-off points.

“I don’t have to go to the farmers market or the farm anymore,” said Mary Malina, whose home on a leafy Annandale lane doubles as a drop-off location. “The food comes to me.”

Smith and Reinhardt’s year-old business, the Local Flavor, is one in a wave of online enterprises cropping up across the country to connect eaters such as Malina, who want local, farm-fresh food without farmers markets’ lines and limited hours, with farmers who would rather spend time working their fields than hawking their wares.

“Most farmers don’t know much and certainly don’t care much about marketing,” said Cliff Miller, owner of Mount Vernon Farm, whose pastured pork and grass-fed beef and lamb account for the bulk of the Local Flavor’s sales. “If somebody can communicate with the customers in urban areas and ideally even come and pick up at the farm and take it to the urban areas, that’s a big deal.”

Locally grown food accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, which hosted its first conference on local food systems on June 26.

But demand is growing. The market research firm Packaged Facts predicts local food sales will rise from $4 billion in 2002 to $7 billion in 2011. According to the USDA, there are 70 percent more farmers markets than there were a decade ago. About 12,500 farms offer community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, in which customers buy shares in the farm, assuming some of the farmer’s risk and receiving weekly or monthly boxes of produce in return.

Demand for local food is growing so fast, in fact, that it exceeds supply, said University of Maryland agricultural economist Jim Hanson. That, he said, is encouraging producers and eaters to seek new channels — including virtual farmers markets such as the Local Flavor and On the Gourmet, a Vienna business that launched last year — for getting food from farm to fork.

The Local Flavor was born in April 2008 when Miller, who had been taking online orders for four years, handed over his customer list to Smith and Reinhardt, who have so far kept their day jobs as a freelance marketer and Web site developer. They recruited eight other farmers to sell their products, which vary according to the season, through a common Web site.

For farmers, filling Web orders is less risky than traveling to a market where they never know what’s going to sell, said Joel Salatin of Virginia’s storied Polyface Farm, who earns half of his revenue delivering orders made online to the D.C. area.

“This way it is nonspeculative,” he said. “Everything is presold before we go.”

Smith and Reinhardt deliver to Warrenton and Fredericksburg in addition to making the Northern Virginia run, which includes stops in Reston, Sterling, Alexandria, Arlington, Annandale and — as of June — Fairfax City. More than 1,200 families are on their e-mail list. There is no restriction on how often or how much they buy, and about 100 place orders in any given month, Smith said.

Orders average $100, she said, but range from $9 for two dozen eggs to $500 for weeks’ worth of beef, chicken and lamb. Meat is by far the biggest draw, and Mount Vernon’s thick-cut, uncured bacon — more sweet than smoky — is difficult to keep in stock. The Remington Pepper Co.’s salsa has also earned a following; the chipotle variety is made from home-smoked local peppers, the “gourmet” variety from a blend of herbs and spices, including ginger. “I just kind of fell in love,” said Vicky Reiner, an Arlington court reporter who buys a half-dozen jars each month.

Sarah Fox, who hosts the new Fairfax City drop-off spot, said she spends several hours a day procuring and preparing seasonal, local meals, sometimes wrestling with how to use unusual foods that her husband has a habit of ordering. (“Stew meat, in summer?” she asks.) Echoing arguments articulated by Michael Pollan in his best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” she said she goes to such lengths because the food is more healthful, is more environmentally friendly and tastes better than food from the grocery store.

“Supporting local farmers is an idea that’s important to me,” said Fox, who grew up on a Virginia farm.

There is no agreed-upon definition for “local,” but Smith and Reinhardt aim to serve farmers and buyers who live within 100 miles of one another. The two either collect a commission from the participating farmers or buy the products outright and resell them at a markup.

Customers pay a flat $4.95 delivery fee, plus a premium for food that’s produced with high quality rather than low price in mind, Smith said. A grass-fed porterhouse steak, for example, costs $18 a pound, nearly twice as much as the grain-fed supermarket variety.

“It’s really worth it,” said Cherry Gaffney of Old Town, picking up filet mignon on a quiet residential street in Alexandria to celebrate her husband’s return home after a year-long tour of duty in Iraq. “What price,” she asked, “do you put on good health?”

Similar businesses are taking hold here in the Washington area and across the country, offering fewer choices, perhaps, than traditional food-comes-to-you services such as Peapod and Washington’s Green Grocers but a stronger allegiance to local farmers. On the Gourmet, a mobile local- and fine-foods business housed in a 24-foot truck, was started last year by a trio who met while working together at the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts. Sara Guerre said she and Libby Rector Snipe shared a love of food and were considering starting a catering business when they were inspired by the scads of food trucks popping up across the country, from Austin’s mobile creperie to a dessert truck in Manhattan. They bought a 1989 Utilimaster, and Chris Guerre, Sara’s husband, joined them in outfitting it with hardwood floors, custom shelves, a refrigerator and a freezer.

“We thought we could have everything that the farmers market has, and more, in one truck,” said Rector Snipe. A main draw is meat, said Chris Guerre, including Loudoun County lamb and grass-fed bison and beef from Culpeper County’s Buffalo Ridge Farm. Ice cream and milk come from a Pennsylvania creamery, and bloody mary mix hails from West Virginia. They sell a little bit of produce: salad greens, okra and peppers from the Guerres’ 800-square-foot backyard garden in Vienna.

Not all of On the Gourmet’s products are local; customers can pick up foie gras and white fig jam from France along with other high-end imports. But the three have found that local food is what customers want, said Rector Snipe, and they have jettisoned foreign products when they found closer-to-home alternatives. Truffle oil from Italy, for example, has been replaced with a North Carolina variety. It has been a successful strategy so far: The trio opened for business in May 2008 at farmers markets in Great Falls and Alexandria, then started offering online ordering and biweekly home delivery to a dozen customers when the markets closed for winter. In August, they plan to make deliveries weekly, hoping to tap customers who are too busy for farmers markets, and to open a storefront in downtown Vienna.

In Richmond last November, restaurateur Molly Harris launched Fall Line Farms, a for-profit virtual farmers market. She started with 25 customers, but by December, that had quintupled to 125 families. Now, more than 300 families order food from 40 local producers, who deliver weekly to drop-off spots around town.

Michele Credle of Chesapeake, Va., enlisted about 200 customers for her nonprofit buyers’ club, Essentially Organic, which took its first orders in May. Georgia entrepreneur Eric Wagoner has licensed Locallygrown.net, the software he wrote for a virtual farmers market in Athens, to about 100 other markets, most in the Southeast and Midwest.

Eleven food-buying clubs have launched using open-source software developed by the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, which started in 2003 and now boasts between $70,000 and $90,000 in monthly sales. And in the past year, clubs have started in Cleveland; Des Moines; Lehigh, Pa.; central Massachusetts; and Niagara Falls, Ontario, each with a slightly different business model.

The Local Flavor is still young and is not, as Smith put it, “a one-stop shop.” So far this year, the selection of produce has been thin because of the unusually rainy spring. In June, the only vegetable for sale was an heirloom variety of cucumber from Whipple Farms in Rixeyville, Va. But July’s warm days and clear skies have nudged the growing season along, said Smith, and on their next trip to Northern Virginia, the pair expect to offer locally grown peaches, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and potatoes.

“This is a seedling,” Reinhardt said of the business. “We’re cultivating it.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:18 pm

Two Military Daughters Start Sisterhood For Teens

by Daniel Zwerdling

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Moranda Hern (left) and Kaylei Deakin have started a support group for girls of military families.

Daniel Zwerdling/NPR

Teenagers Moranda Hern (left) and Kaylei Deakin are trying to organize the first major get-together for daughters of troops who have gone to war.

 

 

 

“During my dad’s deployment, it was a really tough time for my family. And the more we identified with other military youth from across California, we saw they had the same need. … We are growing the sisterhood, with our mantra: unite, inspire, lead.”

Moranda Hern

 

 

All Things Considered, July 20, 2009 · On the Internet, there are all kinds of videos of teenagers being teenagers. Some are breathing helium and then talking like Donald Duck. Others are squealing because they got asked on a date. There are endless variations of kids getting grossed out by pimples.

But a recent posting on YouTube.com is different.

“I’m Moranda Hern, and I’m a military teen,” says a young woman who looks like a cheerleader.

“I’m Kaylei Deakin,” her friend says, wearing a bright blond mohawk. “I’m 16, and I’m also a California military teen.”

The girls look straight into the camera, and sound proud.

“During my dad’s deployment, it was a really tough time for my family,” Hern continues. “And the more we identified with other military youth from across California, we saw they had the same need.”

The high school girls, who will start their senior year in the fall, have decided to do something that nobody has done before — not Pentagon officials, not governors, not mayors (at least, NPR can’t find a record of it). They are trying to organize the first major get-together for the children, specifically daughters, of troops who have gone to war.

“We’d like to boost these girls and their self-esteem and their self-confidence,” Deakin tells the camera.

“We are growing the sisterhood, with our mantra: unite, inspire, lead,” Hern adds.

They call their conference “The Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs” — a play on the title of a popular novel and Army speak for battle uniforms.

‘I Was Like A Social Pariah’

The story of the girls’ crusade is a reminder that since the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, the public has heard a lot of stories about troops and the toll the wars have taken on them — but the nation has seldom heard their children’s perspectives.

The teenagers have caught the attention of Brig. Gen. Mary Kight, the No. 2 commander in California’s National Guard, who says she’s determined to help them organize their conference.

Hern and Deakin say their idea was inspired by the misery they felt after their fathers, both members of the National Guard, went to Afghanistan. For instance, they say their friends basically deserted them.

“I was like a social pariah because my dad was gone, and they didn’t know how to handle it,” Hern says, sitting in her family’s backyard near Fresno.

Therapists who work with military children say this is a common problem, especially for kids like Hern and Deakin, whose fathers are working in the National Guard instead of in the Army, say, or the Marines. If their fathers lived on military bases, all the other children in the area would share the same problems. But National Guard troops are scattered around the community. Hern says none of her friends had military parents, so they didn’t know how to react when her dad went to war.

“They wouldn’t call me; they wouldn’t return my calls,” she says. “They wouldn’t come over, see how I was doing.”

She says she finally asked one of her friends why she had turned away, and the girl explained, “I just don’t know how to act around you. It’s uncomfortable for me. So I don’t even want to be around you.”

Two Families Upside Down

Hern says she and her mother became almost reclusive, like hermits, spending months glued to the TV, eating only one meal a day. Her mother, Molinda, confirms it.

At the time, Hern and Deakin didn’t know each other, but Deakin’s family’s life was turning upside down, too. When her own dad, Maj. Lorren Deakin, went to Afghanistan with the 576th Engineer Battalion, her grades plunged from A’s to C’s and even an F.

“My confidence dropped,” she says. She stopped practicing flute and French horn, which she had loved, and stopped showing up at extracurricular events.

Meanwhile, Deakin’s mother, Doreen, was struggling with her own emotional crisis after her husband went to the war — and the daughter started taking over some of her mother’s usual role, including watching over her two younger sisters.

“When the girls were misbehaving and we had guests over, I would discipline them, because my mom would just sit there,” Deakin says. Her mother confirms it.

“It was kind of embarrassing to me because my family’s always been a strict family,” the daughter says.

Deakin says she and her mother became so stressed that they started getting into physical fights. As she tells the story of how she begged her mother to organize a family Thanksgiving, and how her mother seemed disinterested, she starts sobbing.

Soul Mates

When their fathers came home, the girls say, things got even tougher — at first. Everybody had fantasized that the day their fathers stepped off the plane, everything would be OK again — their homes would be bursting with joy and love. But reality was different. One says her father was edgy and distant. The other says her father bossed her around like a soldier.

And that’s when Hern and Deakin met each other and knew they were soul mates.

“I mean, we only knew each other for like a day, and we were finishing each other’s sentences,” Hern laughs. They were attending a conference sponsored by Maria Shriver, the TV personality and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife, aimed at inspiring young women to follow their dreams. Afterward, Hern was on a bumpy flight home when suddenly she had a dream. She and Deakin should organize their own conference, to inspire and support military daughters.

Building The Support Group

They started tossing around ideas, in late-night phone calls and countless texts. Soon, they hammered out a detailed blueprint in PowerPoint form — and then asked to present it to Brig. Gen. Kight at the National Guard headquarters in Sacramento.

Today, Kight remembers trying to contain her emotions as the 16-year-olds stood in front of a screen in the National Guard conference room and laid out their ideas.

“I just wanted to run up and hug them, they had so much to say,” Kight says.

Deakin and Hern had thought of just about every detail. They had already booked a conference center. They proposed to transport girls there from up and down the state, partly using military buses and aircraft. They had scheduled early morning workshops on self-esteem and late-night pajama parties to build trust. They had a list of possible speakers.

“They reminded me that anything is possible,” Kight says. “I know that I wasn’t thinking like they were at that age. Because they are reaching for the sky.”

And Kight says she and her fellow commanders want to help them grasp it.

The Next Steps

Hern and Deakin are now planning to contact corporations such as Google, Disney and TOMS Shoes to raise money. And Kight says she and fellow commanders are mulling over ways in which the National Guard could help make the conference happen.

Hern and Deakin say they worry sometimes that none of these dreams will come true. But those moments pass quickly, and they feel confident again.

“There’s really no reason not to,” Deakin says. “Me and Moranda have the willpower, and whatever we can do, we’ll make it done.”

“Like, there were, especially in the beginning, people who thought this program was too big, too far-fetched,” Hern adds. “So if we didn’t believe fully and convince everyone — and ourselves — that it was going to happen, then it wouldn’t happen.”

Kight says there’s just one issue where she and the young women might disagree as they work toward staging their conference next year. Kight says boys whose parents have gone to war need help with their self-esteem, too. She wonders whether Hern and Deakin might be willing to make their conference coed.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 2:47 pm

July 20, 2009, 12:40 pm

<!– — Updated: 12:40 pm –>Challenging the “Horrors” of Adoption

By Lisa Belkin

A movie opening at the end of this week, called Orphan, is sending chills through the adoption community, and not because it is a thriller.

It tells the story of a family who adopts a young girl from an orphanage, only to have her terrify all around her with what appear (from the trailer, at least) to be evil and supernatural powers.

Fearing that this feeds the stereotype of older adoptive children as “damaged”, many adoption and foster care advocates are joining together to protest the film. They have already succeeded in persuading the studio to remove one line — “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own” – from the ads for the movie.

Now some are using the controversy to educate the public about the realities of older adoption. The Christian Alliance for Orphans, for instance, has created a website, orphansdeservebetter.org, with a section of statistics, which include:

An expansive 1994 study by the Search Institute comparing adopted teens to other teens found that:

  • Adopted teens scored higher on indicators of well-being such as school performance, friendships, volunteerism, self-esteem and optimism.
  • Adopted teens scored lower on indicators of high-risk behavior such as depression, alcohol use, vandalism, and police trouble.
  • Compared to their non-adopted siblings, adopted teens showed no significant difference in their perception of similarities between themselves and adoptive parents in terms of interests.
  • Children adopted transracially showed no differences in terms of identity formation and self-esteem, attachment to parents, or psychological health.

Many other studies have reached similar findings. These include:

  • Adopted children are well-integrated into their families and schools and show good psychological outcomes. There are few differences between children who have been adopted and their non-adopted peers (Palacios and Sanchez-Sandoval, 2005).
  • Long-term outcomes are positive for adopted children, and generally show little or no difference compared to non-adopted children (Benson, 2004).
  • The vast majority of adopted children show behavior patterns and emotional and academic adjustment very similar to those of non-adopted children (Palacios and Sanchez-Sandoval, 2005, Vrand and Brinich, 1999, Brodzinsky, 1987).
  • Numerous studies indicate that adoptive parents report high levels of satisfaction with their adoption (Barth and Brooks, 2000).
  • People who were adopted fare significantly better than those children who remain in negligent, abusive birth families, or in foster care or institutions (Maughan et al., 1998, Brodzinsky et al., 1998).
  • If adopted individuals did experience adoption-related struggles, most of these struggles significantly diminished or disappeared by young adulthood (Feigelman, 1997).
  • People who were adopted reported more confidence in their judgment than non-adopted persons, viewed others more positively, and saw their parents as significantly more nurturing, comforting, and protectively concerned and helpful (Marquis and Detweiler, 1985).

I have to admit, some of these facts surprised me. For years I’d heard stories of older adoptions that ran into trouble, and while I like to think that a horror film would not sway me, I am realizing that anecdote over the years already has. A letter of protest to Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute warned that the film “may impede recruitment efforts by feeding into the unconscious fears of potential foster and adoptive families that orphaned children are psychotic and unable to heal from the wounds of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.”

Do you carry these assumptions? Is it a film studio’s responsibility to challenge them? Or is this nothing but a summer horror film, just innocent, insignificant fun?

In a real life adoption thriller, hundreds of Canadian families who thought they were well on their way to adopting children from Ethiopia, found themselves in limbo last week when the agency arranging the adoptions suddenly went bankrupt and closed its doors.

CBC Canada reports on one family, Mark and Sarla Ksotelyk, who live outside of Edmonton, Alberta, and who had spent the past two years inching through the process to adopt a five-year-old boy and his three-year-old sister, when they were flabbergasted to see a notice of bankruptcy appear on the website of Kids Link International Adoption.

The couple has already adopted three children from within the Canadian foster system, and had been expecting to bring the Ethiopian siblings home in October. Now they are not sure who is caring for the children in the African orphanage funded by the agency.

“It’s a terrible feeling to be half way across the world and to know that your kids are in danger and in need and there’s really not much you can do about it,” she said. “You feel absolutely helpless.”

Far more so, one assumes, than you feel simply watching a make-believe horror film.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 2:45 pm
July 21, 2009
Personal Health

Much Has Changed in Surrogate Pregnancies

By JANE E. BRODY

With the birth last month of twin girls for Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, surrogate pregnancy once again assumed center stage. After years of infertility following the birth of their son in 2002, the couple chose to have another woman gestate the embryos they created.

Much has changed in surrogacy in the two decades since the high-profile Baby M case, in which the surrogate was the baby’s biological mother and unsuccessfully sought custody after the birth.

The legal proceedings in that case helped affirm the validity of surrogacy contracts, which are now standard. Some states have laws that protect the commissioning parents in surrogate pregnancies. And in a vast majority of surrogate pregnancies today, the surrogate has no genetic link to the baby.

Still, surrogate pregnancy is illegal in some states, including New York, and it remains fraught with controversy despite the fact that thousands of American couples — most of them not celebrities or especially wealthy — are happily bringing up children they could not produce on their own.

Emotional Strain

Joan Fleischer Thamen and her husband, Frank, of Miami Beach are among them. They married when she was 38 and immediately began trying to start a family, “but nothing happened,” Ms. Thamen said in an interview. They nearly exhausted their savings with fertility treatments and seven attempts at pregnancy through in vitro fertilization.

“After the seventh failure I was emotionally worn out,” Ms. Thamen said. “Then someone told me a friend had found a surrogate through the Internet. That’s how we found Cathy, who said ‘I really want to do this for you.’ We offered her what we thought was a fair amount — $12,000 — and said we’d hire an attorney to draw up a contract and we’d pay for her medical insurance.”

Three embryos left from the Thamens’ attempts at in vitro were implanted in Cathy’s womb. Ten days later they learned that one was viable. When Cathy was in her fourth month, Ms. Thamen discovered to her amazement that she, too, was pregnant and that their due dates were identical.

The Thamens are now the delighted parents of 5-year-old boys, David and Jonathan, born 23 days apart and “being raised as twins cooked in different ovens,” as Ms. Thamen says she explained to the boys. Cathy and her husband and son remain good friends with the Thamens; the families visit often and the Thamen boys consider Cathy an aunt.

Altruistic Motives

Surrogate pregnancies don’t always blossom into lasting friendships, of course, and many people consider the process repugnant. It has been called a violation of natural law, a form of prostitution or baby selling, an exploitation of poor women, and a privilege of the rich and famous who may not want to disrupt their careers or their figures by giving birth to their own children.

Reputable agencies and lawyers who specialize in surrogacy guard against the exploitation of women who serve as surrogates and against spurious reasons for seeking a surrogate pregnancy. In virtually every case they process, the intended parents, like the Thamens, cannot produce their own children, yet want children biologically related to them or choose not to wait the years it can take to adopt.

People may choose to have a gestational carrier bear their children if the woman lacks a uterus or has a malformed uterus; must take medication incompatible with pregnancy; or has had repeated miscarriages or failures at in vitro pregnancies. Or, in the case of a male couple or single male, if there is no woman involved.

As for charges of exploitation and baby selling, Pamela MacPhee, who was a surrogate for her cousin and his wife, says most surrogates do it for altruistic reasons. In her new book about her experience with surrogacy, “Delivering Hope” (HeartSet Inc.), she says the payment most women receive — typically $15,000 to $20,000 — “is for the services, time and sacrifice of the surrogate, not for the child directly.” And the amount paid is well below minimum wage when factored over nine months of pregnancy and the hormonal preparations that usually precede implantation of viable embryos.

Mrs. MacPhee, a married mother of three, volunteered to be a surrogate when cancer treatments left her cousin’s wife infertile.

“I couldn’t imagine my cousin and his wife not being able to have a family, and I wanted to help them,” Mrs. MacPhee said in an interview. She received no payments beyond a life insurance policy and medical expenses, as well as some luxurious gifts from the grateful parents-to-be, like a weekend at a spa.

But the two families were anything but casual about the matter. A psychologist evaluated the women and their husbands to make sure everyone was emotionally healthy, realistic and in agreement with the arrangement. A lawyer drew up a contract that guaranteed the baby would belong to the intended parents. Mrs. MacPhee said that Hope, now an 8-year-old with her parents’ genes, is thrilled about the special circumstances of her birth.

A Cautionary Tale

Arrangements for surrogate pregnancies don’t always go smoothly or have happy endings, especially if they are undertaken without psychological screening and legal guidance. Care must be taken to protect both the surrogate and the intended parents and to ensure that the parents’ names — and not the surrogate’s — will appear on the child’s birth certificate.

Melissa B. Brisman, a lawyer in Park Ridge, N.J., whose three children were birthed by surrogates, specializes in such arrangements, helping to secure about 300 surrogates a year for people who cannot conceive or carry a child. The intended parents may provide their own eggs and sperm or those of a donor. In addition to heterosexual couples, her clients include gay male couples, single men and single women.

Surrogate qualifications differ slightly by agency, but Ms. Brisman’s criteria are typical: The carrier must be between the ages of 21 and 44, must be a nonsmoker, must live in the United States and must have given birth to at least one child. She said that laws prohibit acceptance of surrogates from Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Washington and the District of Columbia.

Ohio, where the Parker-Broderick twins were born, is “a very popular state for gestational carriers,” Ms. Brisman said in an interview. “In Ohio, you can get the commissioning couple on the birth certificate even if a donor egg was used.

“People don’t become gestational carriers as a way of making money,” she continued. “Rather, their motives are altruistic.” Furthermore, she has written, “most carriers enjoy being pregnant and are emotionally rewarded by the experience of helping an infertile couple realize their dreams of becoming parents.”

Mrs. MacPhee said that for her, surrogacy was a transformative and fulfilling experience that “has had a profound effect on how I view myself as a person and has resulted in a closer relationship with my children and my husband as well. It has helped me realize what is most meaningful in life.”

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