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?

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:

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:
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:


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.

Update 2: I got a reply from someone in Brad Lander's office saying she's interested in the issue. And then I saw an article about a small brewery that has developed edible six-pack rings. If New York lawmakers can find a way to encourage soda and beer companies who do business in the city to adopt these rings, it could have much wider impact eventually.

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.


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.