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.

31 July 2016

What Professors Do: Writing, Embodied

I've been working like crazy to finish edits to my book since my semester ended, sitting at my computer for 12, 14 hours a day, eating meals at my desk, drinking coffee by the quart. I worked steadily from early May, when I finished my semester, through the end of June, when The Offspring finished school; we then took a two-week family vacation, after which I returned to the routine. I've been taking time out to walk, bike, do Capoeira, and go for the occasional run.

My book, on environmental aspects of Anglo-Saxon literature, connects with my commitments to environmental activism and cultural change. It feels to me like the most important thing I've ever written. Usually I find editing a slog, but on this project I'm enjoying crafting the prose, trying to make the project as strong as possible.

I haven't taken enough breaks: the other day I ended up with a spasm in my lower back.

I've put my computer on an old Ikea drawer unit and piled up an empty box and two yoga blocks for my mouse.

I'm on muscle relaxants, which have their side effects. I've been walking more and I've added a lot of yoga into the mix. Even standing at my desk aggravates the tension; I have to stop every few minutes to move around and stretch. My back is too frozen to do Capoeira, which usually loosens it up; even yoga is difficult.

I've been remembering what Jeffrey Cohen wrote, last summer, about his own writing lockdown to write Stone, which he documented on social media:
Reading through these posts now I can see that there will come day when my relentless drive will cause me harm.  
Well, honestly, it did cause me harm: I was something of a wreck by the end of the process, emotionally and physically. I injured my shoulder badly enough that it took several months of physical therapy to restore full function. People think the life of the mind is not dangerous, but it will kill you, if you let it. 
I've had his words at the back of my mind all summer, but I've been ignoring them, hoping I could get away with the schedule I've been keeping. I've been pushing myself hard because we have plans for another family vacation in August, and we don't leave until the book is finished. (Right, plus a few other projects I've been putting off.)

On my desk: a random business card, with "Race to the Face" written on the back for inspiration. Officially known as the Top Notch Triathlon, this is my favorite triathlon ever, and consists of a bike ride from Franconia Village to Echo Lake, a swim across the lake, and a hike/run up to the top of Cannon Mountain, former home to the Old Man of the Mountain. If I got enough work done, I was going to drive to New Hampshire, spend a few days with my parents, and do that triathlon.

I didn't.

Jeffrey writes, too, about anxiety and insomnia; I've been plagued by both this summer as well. During the day, I focus on the book; at night, my mind wanders among the numerous projects I'm ignoring to get this done. Overdue book reviews, overview book chapters, overdue responses to other people's work, overdue book orders for fall classes.

I want to follow Jeffrey's advice to his own earlier self: "chill the hell out." I want to spend more time with spouse, son, parents, dog. I want to hike more, run more, read for pleasure. I want time to cook good meals and enjoy them.

But I've finished the last edit of the book, done on a printout, and I just need to enter those changes into the computer file and send them off. So here I stand, at my desk, beavering away.

The reality: I never finish all the projects I plan over the summer. I'm always already behind at the end of the academic year, not only on research and writing but also on tasks related to teaching and faculty governance, often reviled as "committee work," but potentially very important in terms of shaping one's institution.

Last spring semester, I tried to cut back on take-out food, partly because it's not very healthy, but more importantly because it all comes in single-use plastic containers. I failed miserably, and eventually realized it was because I was too busy to cook meals and pack food for the workday.

I keep telling myself that if I work faster, work harder, get more done, I can take a break. But there's always another project. I have to figure out how to let some of this go. I know that I can say "no" to future projects, but for the moment, I'm stuck on the hamster wheel with no way off.

Jeffrey puts it better than I can, so I'll end with this:
...underneath the processes I describe run currents of apprehensiveness, fear, self-punishing discipline, and relentless drive that I do not think is healthy and is certainly not offered for emulation.

27 July 2016

Female Body as Unexpected Object

The thing that aggravates me most about biking while female is when people look straight at me and then step right in front of me, causing me to have to slam on the brakes, lay rubber, eat my handlebars, and occasionally eat pavement.

During the summer, I bike as an obvious female. During the winter, all of the layers mean I'm taken for a man almost all of the time. The differences are huge.

Drivers give more room to female cyclists because they assume we're inexperienced or incompetent. I once had a police officer look at me and climb on top of a barrier to get out of the way. Yes, there was plenty of room for me to get by. Yes, I can ride in a straight line, even at slow speeds. But he and his buddy thought it was hilarious to act as though I was likely to run into him by accident.

The assumption of incompetence is aggravating, don't get me wrong. But I'll take the extra clearance, because it means an extra margin of safety in case I need to avoid a pothole, an opening car door, or a texting pedestrian.

When winter clothing disguises my gender, and when people look at me, they generally get out of the way, either pausing to let me pass, changing course, or speeding up. In the summer, it's obvious that I have a female body (and I often bike in skirts, because they're comfortable and don't get caught in the chain). I regularly get ignored. Maybe they figure since I'm female, I won't mind stopping for them. Or they assume they should have priority over a lesser member of the species. 

But I suspect it's like the gorilla in the basketball game.

Daniel Simons and his psychologist colleagues made a video of people playing basketball. They showed it to people and asked them to count passes, and in the middle of the video they had a woman in a gorilla suit walk through the middle of the game. 
from Dan Simons' research page
Half the people watching the video don't notice the woman in the gorilla suit. Simons calls the phenomenon inattentional blindness, and it happens when people "fail to notice unexpected objects."

I suspect the juxtaposition of mammary glands and the front wheel of a bike is, for many people, an "unexpected object," because if there's a bike, they expect to see a male rider. So their minds just don't process the information that there's something they should pay attention to, and they step into the street right in front of me. I nearly hit a guy today when I had to brake hard on top of a subway grate and didn't have much traction. He didn't even notice.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the intersections of objects and female bodies in the Exeter Book Riddles, the subject of the final chapter of my book on Old English literature and environmental issues. It seems to be a social construction that lingers, a millennium later. My fellow bikers, what do you think?