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?

07 July 2016

My Grandmother's Cookbooks

For years, I've been saying that someone could do an interesting study of cultural history looking just at the cookbooks from my grandmother's kitchen. For now, I give you two recipes for creamed spinach:

1. From The Joy of Cooking, 1943 edition, by Irma S. Rombauer:

CREAMED SPINACH
4 servings

If this unfortunate vegetable--so often thrust upon resisting children and grownups--were given a fair chance by the following rule it might retire permanently from the comic papers and the vaudeville stage.
Pick over and cut the roots and tough stems from:
1/2 peck (2 pounds) spinach (when cooked 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups)
Wash it in several waters until it is free from sand and soil. If the spinach is old cook it for 20 minutes in:
1 quart boiling salted water (1 1/2 teaspoons salt to the quart)
If the spinach is new lift it from the water with the hands and place it moist, but without additional water, in a saucepan, cover it and cook it for 6 minutes, or until it is tender. Drain it well. Chill it. Chop the spinach, old or young, until it is as fine as puree, using a board and a knife, or a chopping bowl and a knife, or put it through a coarse strainer or ricer.* Melt in a skillet:
2 tablespoons butter
Add and cook for 1 minute (or if preferred until brown):
1 tablespoon or more very finely chopped onion (optional)
Stir in until blended:
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
Stir in slowly:
1 cup hot cream, top milk, stock or diluted evaporated milk
When the sauce is smooth and boiling add the spinach. Stir and cook it for 3 minutes or until it is thoroughly blended. If the spinach seems too thick it may be thinned with additional cream or milk. Season it well with:
Salt
Paprika
Nutmeg (very good but optional)
Serve it garnished with slices of:
1 hard-cooked egg
The French recipes call for 1 teaspoon of powdered sugar and the grated rind of 1/2 a lemon. These ingredients and the onion are optional. The flour is sometimes browned before it is added to the butter. Evaporated milk is good in spinach. Stock, cream or milk may be used in combination.
Remember that young uncooked spinach makes a good salad; that cooked buttered spinach and grapefruit salad are an ideal reducer's luncheon; and that cooked spinach greens are superb with Hollandaise sauce (page 381), with crisp bacon, minced, or with Sauteed Mushrooms.
*An ideal strainer may be purchased for about a dollar which makes this process painless. It is called a food mill. I am devoted to mine and shall reward it some day with an old age pension.

2. From Microwave Cookbook, JCPenney, 1984:

CREAMED SPINACH

2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1. Combine spinach, butter, and onion in a 1 1/2-quart glass casserole. Cover and microwave at Time Cook 1 (power level 7) for 6 1/2 minutes, or until spinach is very hot, stirring twice.
2. Stir flour into spinach, blending until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients. Microwave, uncovered, at Time Cook 2 (power level 10) for 5 to 6 minutes, or until mixture boils and thickens, stirring twice. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Raise your hand if you've ever bought anything by the peck, if you know what top milk is, if you own a food mill, or if you noticed that JCPenney uses the Oxford Comma, but Rombauer does not.

28 June 2016

Six Pack Rings

I sent an email message to Margaret Chin and Brad Lander today. They are the sponsors of the bill passed in May and scheduled to go into effect in October that requires grocery stores in New York City to charge customers five cents per plastic bag used.

I'm hoping they'll consider taking on the issue of those vile pieces of plastic that connect cans of beer and soda.

Readers, do you have any suggestions about how to deal with these? Can soda cans be packaged in cardboard like beer bottles? Do you know an inventor who can come up with a better way?

Or is the best solution to quit drinking soda, and switch to water?

=======================

Thank you for sponsoring legislation to charge a fee for plastic bags in NYC,  and getting it passed.

I'm writing to you today to ask if you'd consider taking on six pack rings, those plastic yokes that hold soda and beer cans together and then go into the landfill.

Many people cut them into little pieces before putting them in the garbage to avoid the problem of birds choking to death in them.

But the little pieces end up in the ocean, where fish and turtles and other marine animals mistake them for food and eat them. They also contribute to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other marine trash vortexes.

Thank you for considering this.

========================

Update: I got a reply from Vincent Fang, Council Member Chin's director of budget and legislation, saying he's going to look into it.


11 June 2016

I Said No

It was 30-odd years ago, and the phrase "date rape" hadn't hit my radar. I was completely sober and wide awake, but my "no" wasn't heard. My "no" wasn't loud enough, my sense of self-worth not strong enough, my body not powerful enough to give force to the word.

When rapes of college students make the news, I notice. I try to avoid reading the news articles, but end up consuming them. I have trouble sleeping, I cry a lot, I get outraged at statements that blame the survivors. And I wonder why after 30 years I can't move on and forget about it. 

The most recent case blew out my Facebook. The details were unavoidable. I raged about the rapist's refusal to take responsibility, the father's plea for leniency, the brief sentence handed down by the judge in violation of sentencing standards.

I read the survivor's statement, and I got choked up.

Eventually, I read the piece Joe Biden wrote, the open letter to the woman. I cried.

That night, as I tossed and turned and tried to sleep, I had an idea.

For the first time in three and a half decades, I thought: No.

No.

It wasn't my fault.

It's not that "no" wasn't loud enough, or I wasn't strong enough.

He should not have done that.

==============

That's rape culture. 

For 35 years, even though I knew that rape isn't the fault of survivors, even though I was outraged by the people who suggest it was, I believed in my own body that when I was assaulted, it was my fault. I believed in my own brain that I wasn't strong enough.

And then I cried some more, and for the first time, they were tears of healing.

28 May 2016

Capoeira and My New Shell

Freddy, a tortoise burned in a forest fire in Brazil, got a new shell by way of a 3D printer.
source: iflscience.com
I recently got a new name, "Tartaruga Marinha," "sea turtle," after two years of training at Capoeira Angola Quintal, and eight months after making a commitment to myself to take it seriously. Or as seriously as I could, given work and family obligations.

The story of Freddy and her new shell really resonates with me, because I feel as though Capoeira has given me, figuratively, a new carapace.

I came to Capoeira after a truck rear-ended my little car and left me with slipped disks in my neck and a shoulder that hurt all the time. My son had started training, and his teacher, Mestre Ombrinho, talked me into trying it, even though I doubted I could get very far.

My bad relationship with my own body reached much farther back than that car crash. As a little kid, I had exercise-induced asthma, but I didn't know that; all I knew was that when my sled reached the bottom of the snowy hill and I tried to run back up with the other kids, I'd be gasping and dragging, the last one up the hill every time. My only way to understand it was that I must be lazy or fat. Probably both.

I grew up and got medicated. For 29 years, I've taken twice-daily medication to keep my lungs clear, and a simple cold can send me into a spiral of breathing difficulties. I've had numerous asthma attacks severe enough to send me to the emergency room. I went backpacking and ran half marathons and a marathon and biked thousands of miles, between touring and commuting, and did a few triathlons, but still I considered my own body broken, traitorous, defeated. And then there were ten years of infertility, a whole other story but another experience that left me feeling alienated from and angry with my body.

When I started training, I'd watch the more experienced Capoeiristas and I'd constantly think, "I'll never be able to do that." I'd finish a class, and the next day my shoulder would hurt more, but then the day after that it would hurt less, and feel stronger and more flexible. So I kept going back.

As a child, I could do a cartwheel, but when I started doing Capoeira, I couldn't because of the weakness in my shoulder. But the instructors showed exercises that would build to an "Au," the Capoeira version of a cartwheel, and one day I found myself with my legs flying through the air.

Queda de rins is another signature Capoeira move that looks something like this:
source: Women in Capoeira
The goal is to balance on the arms, with both head and legs in the air. The first few hundred times I tried this, the pain and inflexibility and weakness in my shoulder left me nauseous with the effort. But recently, I managed to balance -- just briefly, but I managed it.

A few weeks ago, something strange shifted in my head. I watched one of the instructors demonstrate a move, and instead of rolling my eyes in frustration, I thought: "some day I'll be able to do that."

Recently, the instructor for the class I was in asked the students to try one-handed cartwheels. A couple of months ago, I'd have rolled my eyes and said, "No way." The other day, I tried it, managed a hop in the right direction, and laughed. Some day.

27 May 2016

How Not to Turn On the Air Conditioner

In the past ten days in my neighborhood, we've gone from a night-time low of 44 degrees, when I got my winter coat back out to walk the dog for the last time at night, to yesterdays high of 89. I work at home in the summers, and I'm sitting very comfortably at my desk with no air conditioning.

Comfortably, I said. How is this possible?

It takes a little bit more time and organization than flipping a switch so a beast in the wall can roar into operation. But not much. And it's a lot quieter.

It's also only feasible as long as nights remain cool: it's been going down into the 60's every night, and will continue to do so for most of the summer. There's always that one week in August when it doesn't go below 80 at night, and that's a different story. But for now...

Keeping my apartment comfortable during the day starts with making sure to let it cool down at night.  As soon as temperatures drop in the evening, I open all the windows to let the cool air in. The next step is to keep the place as cool as possible during the day, I cover windows when the sun is shining directly on them to keep the sun from warming the air inside. The light-blocking shade in the bedroom is most effective, but even the sheer curtain in the kitchen makes a difference.

As soon as temperatures warm up, I switch to iced coffee. I also drink cool water throughout the day to make sure I stay hydrated. Running a fan on a low setting to keep the air moving also helps. I also dress for the weather. In the winter, I keep warm with wool socks, long underwear, turtlenecks and sweaters. In the summer, those give way to tank tops and sandals.

I limit cooking during the day. I made coffee this morning, but sometimes I'll do that that the night before and then refrigerate it to drink iced. For lunch, I had a sandwich and a salad. Bonus: eating cold food cools my body. I save the bigger cooking for the evening when the air is already starting to cool again.

And last but not least, when I go outdoors, I walk on the shady side of the street when possible.

22 January 2016

Outdoor Workers

So, I'm back to biking to work in the winter. My students think I'm nuts. Lest anyone think I'm heroic for braving the cold, I want to offer a short list of people who work outdoors, year round, no matter the weather:

Mail carriers.

Delivery people. Some of them, like the UPS and Fed Ex carriers, get to sit in a truck in between having to go out in the cold and hump boxes around. Others get around on foot or by bike. Next time Seamless shows up at your door with lunch, consider an extra big tip.

Garbage collectors. I have to wonder if the heat of summer is worse than the cold, given the stench August produces.

Farmers. Animals and fields need to be tended, year-round, or you and I don't eat.

Traffic and parking enforcement officers and school crossing guards. Standing in one place, like the crossing guards mostly do, is the coldest winter job I can imagine. At least a lot of the other outdoor jobs involve moving around, therefore generating body heat.

Maintenance workers. You know, the ones who make the flowers look pretty in the summer, and shovel snow and spread salt in the winter. The ones who show up for work three hours before you do, to make sure the walkways around your office are clear and safe.