20 January 2017

Be the Revolution. For My Mom

Last weekend, I went to the NYPL to a rally with Writers Resist and PEN America. PEN president Andrew Solomon commented that it has been, in the past, PEN's mission to protest restrictions on freedom of speech in other countries, that it's shocking that they're now working on that issue in the US. "We must pledge to remain shocked," he said.

Robert Pinsky read a poem written for the occasion, beginning "We choose our ancestors," and quoting from writers who fought for freedom. Michael Cunningham read from Ursula K. LeGuin's novel, The Dispossessed: "You can not buy the Revolution. You can not make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution."

We now have a new president. I'll be back on the streets tomorrow, marching from the UN to Trump Tower via 42nd Street and Grand Central, where people can go in and warm up. (Want to join in? Sign up here, information here.) I will march to protest the new regime's position on gay rights, women's rights, health care, climate change, voting rights, police violence, refugees ... pretty much the entire platform.

Last week, The Mate was worried about me going off to protest. This despite the fact that I marched often in the 80s, taking the bus from Philadelphia and, later, New York to Washington DC with the National Organization for Women. He joined me often enough.

Frankly, I was worried too. I now need twice-daily medication, I'm a parent, I'm just older and a little more fragile that I was 30 years ago.

Mate said, "This is your mother's fault."

And he's right, it is her fault. She was born in East Prussia in 1939, fled west with her pregnant mother and two younger siblings in late 1944, lived for a while in a refugee camp. Her father fought for the Germans in WWII. Some day I'll go into the archives and find out what he really did -- the stories vary. He died, according to one of the stories, from a sniper bullet on an otherwise quiet day in 1945.

She couldn't choose her ancestors. I can't choose mine. She gives time and money to libraries and schools, in her community in New Hampshire as well as in other countries. She's active in politics and conservation causes. And she raised me to speak up and speak out against injustice, anywhere, all the time.

She'll be marching tomorrow in New Hampshire, all 78 years and 115 pounds of her, feisty and unstoppable. I will march tomorrow in NYC. This one's for you, mom.

14 December 2016

Aleppo and the Children

I read the news from Aleppo -- residential neighborhoods shelled, civilians shot, women committing suicide rather than be raped -- with a heavy, heavy heart.
New York Times
Because, you see, my mother was born in 1939 in what was then called East Prussia and is now Poland, and in 1944, she and her family fled their home ahead of Russian troops moving across the area.

I've heard the stories so many times. Lying in a horse-drawn wagon covered in blankets looking up at the stars, traveling only at night. Saved by a Polish housekeeper (my mother's family is German) who spoke to a guard and got the family through. Three children climbing into the window of the train headed west by their very pregnant mother, who then persuaded the guards to let her on the train as well: "My children are in there." Life as refugees.

Yes, they were Germans. They were on the wrong side. Had they been Jews, of course, it would have been so much the worse for them. But at the same time, my mother and her two, soon to be three, younger siblings, were children, children who saw too much, suffered too much, had too much responsibility.

And so when I hear the news from Aleppo, I think of the children. Children who, if they survive, will bear psychic scars for the rest of their lives.


Is there anything we can do?

In the UK, The Independent recommends people call their ministers of parliament and ask them to start air drops of supplies, and put pressure on the Russian and Syrian governments to end hostilities, so I would think comparable calls to US senators and representatives would be worthwhile.

HuffPo has a list of organizations attempting to give aid in Syria that are taking donations, though at the moment many of them are hamstrung by the level of violence and chaos on the ground.

Of less immediate impact. scientific consensus is that drought in Syria, and the resulting pressure on food and other resources, is a contributing factor. Drought caused by climate change, that is. Educate people you know about the potentially dire impacts of climate change: in some reasons, considerably more drastic than 70-degree days in New York City in November or a little more rain or snow in the winter.

05 December 2016

Green Your Holiday

'Tis the season... of frantic shopping, and of appeals from "green" companies to shop with them rather than the other companies.

Maybe you want to put the brakes on all that consumption. I'm not suggesting you just say "no" to all gift-giving, but there are ways to make it more productive.

1. Give food that you know the recipient will enjoy that's maybe a little fancier and more environmentally friendly than what they'd have consumed anyway. Organic chocolates, fair-trade coffee or tea, a gift certificate to a farmer's market, a month's pick-up from community supported agriculture, a gift certificate at the neighborhood health food store.

In New York, some greenmarkets sell "wooden nickels." You pay with a credit card (there's a small fee that goes to their overhead) and you can buy wooden tokens worth $5 each to use later or give as gifts. Other cities have similar programs.

2. Give time. Commit to helping a friend or family member with cleaning, maintenance, a special home project, or a home-cooked meal.

3. Give donations in people's names, to charities they (and you!) support. Or commit an amount, and have a conversation about where they'd like it sent.

4. If you want to give material gifts, make them yourself or think hard about where you buy them. As with other purchases throughout the year, try to limit shipping, packaging, and other kinds of waste.

5. Recycle wrapping paper: easiest to do if you use bags and tissue paper with no tape. Or buy or make reusable cloth wrapping bags, or use the comics pages from the newspaper, or re-use cardboard boxes and decorate them.

04 December 2016

How to Eat Less Meat

Last week, I wrote that in order to lower your environmental impact, one thing you can do is eat less meat.

If you're thinking that's a good idea, but you're not sure how or whether it's healthy, I'm going to try to answer some potential questions.

How will I get enough protein?

Research about how much protein we need is on-going. Many nutritionists think that most Americans get more protein than they need. But some scientists think more protein is better, as long as it's not meat protein.

The most recent government nutrition guidelines switched from a pyramid to a plate. Half the plate contains fruit and vegetables, the other half whole grains and protein foods. If you're trying to limit meat, veggie burgers and tofu pups are one option, but it's good to mix them up with less processed foods. In any case, it's easy to get plenty of protein from beans, legumes, and nuts.

Back in the 1970s, people believed that vegans had to combine grains and legumes in carefully complementary proportions at every meal to get "complete" proteins. That idea still floats around, though it's been debunked; what vegans need is to eat a variety of different foods across several days to a week. But that's a good idea for everyone.

If you're cutting back on meat, you should think about what you're replacing those calories with. Switching from bacon and eggs to poptarts for breakfast? Probably not a great idea. A bowl of cereal with dried fruit, nuts, and seeds or a couple of pieces of toast with nut butter and sliced bananas would be healthier options.

I feel best on a diet of beans and legumes with lots of greens, and a little bit of whole grains and fruit. But everyone is different. If you cut back on meat without adding other sources of protein, you might find that you get hungry more often; in that case, you might need to make more of an effort to include plant-based proteins in your diet.

The important thing is to find some options that you like. Google "vegan recipes" and make a commitment to yourself to try out one new recipe a month. Or one a week, if you're feeling energetic about it.

Is it healthy?

It's well established that plant-based diets are healthier than diets heavy in meat, and reduce risk for heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory disease, and some cancers.

If you cut back on meat and dairy products, but don't cut them out entirely, and replace them with vegetable proteins and whole grains and vegetables, you don't have to worry about anything else.

If you completely cut out animal products, you need to pay attention to your intake of vitamin B12, because deficiency can lead to anemia or nerve damage. Nutritional yeast is one of the only plant sources. Soy milk and cereal and a lot of other foods are fortified with vitamin B12, so if you're eating plenty of those, you could be fine, but pay attention and consider a supplement.

You might also worry about getting enough calcium. Dairy industry advertising implies that you have to drink milk, but there are plant sources as well. Eating meat seems to increase our need for calcium, so vegans might not need as much.  It's in fortified soy products, collard greens, kale, tofu that's been coagulated with calcium sulfate (check the label), and various other greens and legumes. Or you can cover your bets by taking a supplement.

Iron is another potential concern. Cook in a cast iron pan and you'll be fine.

Will it cost me money?

If you buy a lot of faux meat products, maybe. Non-dairy milk substitutes are often more expensive than regular milk, unless you're buying organic milk. Food prices vary widely depending on seasonal availability and where you live.

But right now, the cheapest ground beef from Fresh Direct (which delivers groceries in New York City) is $3.99 a pound. A pound of pinto beans at $2.39 is good for 12 servings; a 15.5 ounce can of cooked pinto beans (3.5 servings) is 99 cents. You can do the math.

How can you tell if someone is vegan?

They'll tell you.

26 November 2016

Green Your Life

Our president-elect believes that climate change is a hoax. He has appointed, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a person with degrees in philosophy and political theory who doesn't believe scientific concensus about climate change. He has announced he is going to eliminate funding to the NASA division that studies earth science and gathers basic data on climate, year to year, decade to decade.

He is planning on reopening coal mining and expanding oil drilling and fracking. Climate groups like Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace will be fighting the new administration's proposals, and one way to fight back is to use your holiday gift-giving budget to make donations in the names of friends and family members. Lists of effective groups are here and here and here.

Meanwhile, you can make changes in your own life to reduce your carbon footprint, and encourage friends and family members to make similar changes. Many people making relatively small changes in housing, mobility and food consumption can have more impact than one person making drastic changes. 

1. Reduce your consumption of beef and dairy.

You don't need to go vegan to have an impact. Americans eat almost 215 pounds of meat per year, on average. That's 9.4 ounces per day: two and a half quarter pounders, four 6" turkey sandwiches from Subway, or nine slices of bacon. Cutting your meat consumption in half would have a significant environmental impact. Since lamb, beef, and cheese have the highest emissions of carbon dioxide and methane per pound, switching from steak to chicken wings has almost as much of an effect as going all the way to tofu-burgers.
Bonus: eating less meat is healthier.

2. Drive less.

Half of the trips people make in their cars are three miles or less; a quarter are less than a mile long. You can choose to make some of these trips by bike or on foot. 
If your community doesn't have safe walking or cycling routes, call up your local elected officials and join with other interested citizens. Transportation Alternatives lobbies for safer streets in New York City, and many other communities have similar groups.

Bonus: getting more exercise is healthier.

3. Downsize your house or apartment.

The smaller your living quarters, the less you need to spend on heat and and light. If you're considering a move, think about downsizing rather than upsizing. Meanwhile, switch from incandescent to LED lightbulbs and turn off anything that's not in use. In the winter, put on a sweater and turn the heat down a couple of degrees; in the summer, close the blinds on the sunny side of the house and sip ice water.

Bonus: You'll save money.

4. Don't buy so much stuff.

The businesses that send us all those catalogues and pop-up internet advertising are banking on making you want seasonally colored towels and placemat, clothing in new colors and designs, and yet another gadget for your kitchen. Just say no. 

But how to get off the buying cycle? Every time a catalogue comes in the house, call up the company and tell them to take you off their mailing list. Only buy things that you love, and that you think will last indefinitely. Make a plan that every time you buy something, you have to get rid of something. Want a new pair of shoes? Which pair are you going to get rid of? Contemplating a fancy new garlic peeler or lemon zester? What kitchen gadget will you take to the thrift shop to make room? 

Bonus: You won't need such a big house.


None of this has to be all-or-nothing. You might consider vegetarian breakfast on weekdays, and save the bacon for a Sunday brunch treat. If cooking is Your Thing, don't sweat the gadgets, but get your books from the library and forego another pair of yoga pants. Commit to one small change at a time. If you hate it, try something else. But do something.

12 November 2016

Now What?

Since the election, I've been trying to figure out where to put my energy to have the most impact on disrupting Trump's presidential program.

The bloggers at Savage Minds have pulled together a great list of suggestions and resources. Several Slate writers likewise came up with a good list of suggestions for action. Neither list includes gay and trans rights, and I've asked both groups if they might consider adding additional resources.

Yesterday, my family and my son's best friend's family went for a hike in Bear Mountain State Park. Both boys were born in New York City; three of the four parents, like so many New Yorkers, were born outside of the US. By the end of the day, up and down over Ramapo Mountain, the Timp, and West Mountain, I'd realized what I need to do moving forward is keep doing what I've been doing.

And to keep trying to do it better, with sharper analysis of how the Middle Ages shaped the modern, and how understanding the past can help us to understand where we are today.

I teach courses on environment and the humanities. I teach linguistics and history of the English language, and I include work on the relationship between social power and judgments about language. I teach medieval literature, and I look at how medieval cultural formulations about others continue to inform political discourse today.

On Monday, I spoke about the marginal monstrous semi-human figures drawn near the Nile River in Africa on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a world map drawn in England in 1300, and argued that contemporary discourse about Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants is in a direct line with medieval formulations of others. I pointed out that some humans treat other humans, and animals and landscapes, as "resources" in seeking profit and power, and that too ties medieval social structures with modern ones. I tried to ignore the Trump sticker one student had stuck to his laptop computer.

The difficulty I had on Wednesday morning, operating in a state of shock and grief with very little sleep, was that I had to go on teaching all of my students. What I said to them on that day, in between tears, is that our classroom must remain a space for civil discourse on difficult subjects and for respect for all.

Meanwhile, I've decided to return to blogging, with more regularity and more discipline. In the past year, I've averaged a post a month; I aim to return to posting once a week. I ask my students to blog and to think about how to write about academic subjects for a more general audience, but I haven't done enough of that myself lately.

21 September 2016

An Open Letter

I've seen several compelling pieces of writing today addressed to white people, asking us to figure out how to stop the shootings. People of color shot by police. Hands in the air. Evidence planted, testimony perjured. Boys shot in the back while fleeing.

I don't know what to do. So I wrote a letter.

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I'm writing to ask you to take a strong and vocal stance against police shootings of black and disabled men, and to make it an issue you will attempt to address substantively within the first 100 days of your presidency.

I don't know how to change a culture, within police departments as well as within our broader United States, in which white police officers routinely find it appropriate to shoot young men -- boys, even -- of color.

I do know that it has to stop. 

You will, I hope, soon be in a position to lead a national dialogue of reconceiving the role of the police in communities, retraining individuals and groups, and beginning to heal some of the rifts between black and white individuals and communities in our country.

Please make this a central part of your commitment to the people of the United States, if elected.

Thank you.

Tomorrow, I'll send versions of this letter to my local and national representatives. 

Please, if you're reading this, take a moment to write a letter as well. Write to your local chief of police, write to your state lawmakers, write to whoever you think is in a position to make a difference.