27 December 2009

It's Complicated. Maybe It's Even Subversive.

As we were leaving the movie theater after watching It's Complicated, I turned to the mate: Isn't Meryl Streep older than Alec Baldwin? Sure enough: she's 60, he's 51.

This is a very interesting departure from the usual pairing of actors old enough to be the fathers, if not grandfathers, of the young women cast as their romantic interests. Think As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson pursuing Helen Hunt, Manhattan, with Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway. In The Bridges of Madison County, Streep is paired with Clint Eastwood, who is nearly two decades older.

The exception: The Graduate. Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson is the creepy married woman making a pass at Dustin Hoffman's recent college graduate -- but in real life, she was only six years older than he.

26 December 2009

The Guardian's People of the Decade

We're not "post-racial," and we're definitely not "post-feminist" as we end the first decade of the second millennium.

The Guardian's list of the Icons of the Decade includes the founders of Google, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, President Obama, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and the soccer mega-star David Beckham, alongside Osama bin Laden and Harry Potter.

The women?

Madeline McCann: a missing child, presumed dead. Carrie Bradshaw: a fictional television character (how about crediting the actress who played the part?). Britney Spears: famed for bad behavior. And finally, Mrs. Obama, as part of a package deal with the President.

Editors of The Guardian, what were you thinking? Were you thinking at all about what this list suggests about your attitudes about the accomplishments of women?

22 December 2009

Mid-Winter

The tide is high, the water is surprisingly still, and the sun is already sinking behind the highrises at 3:30 in the afternoon. And Blogger won't upload this picture facing the right direction, no matter what I do. Ah well... you'll just have to list to the right in order to look at it.

Great School Nurse

The Offspring's asthma means that he has to go to school sick on a regular basis, because every minor cold triggers the symptoms: difficulty breathing.

The alternative, keeping him home every time his asthma is acting up, would mean he'd be out of school for weeks every winter. Nope. Basically, unless he's throwing up or running a fever, he goes to school.

It's a scary thing. He'll wake up in the night coughing, wheezing, gasping for breath, we give him some medication to open up his airways, and then we send him off to school in the morning. He's never had an attack during the day that was bad enough to take him to the ER (nighttime is a different story), but still.

This year, he has a school nurse who reads email messages first thing in the morning, writes back to let us know that she'll be looking out for him, calls us up just to let us know he's okay, and even tells us how much she likes him.

It's one of those things: you don't realize how tense you've been until it's gone. For years, we've been sending The Offspring to school worried he'll have an asthma attack and no one will notice, or if they do notice, they won't know what to do. Now, suddenly, the tension is gone. He's gonna be okay.

His school nurse is going to make sure of it.

20 December 2009

Do Nothing But Read Day

I just learned that today is Do Nothing But Read Day! So far today, read The Times, went out to check out the snow, made applesauce to go with a last batch of latkes (now known in these parts as "fatkes"), and made and worked mazes with The Offspring. But it's almost time to get back to Reading.

18 December 2009

Interesting Composition

I bought the poster at the British Museum a few years ago while I was living in Cambridge; the Arabic calligraphy reads, "I love the flower that is slow to bloom." My mother contributed the Christmasy greens; in an old pagan ritual she's brought with her from East Prussia, she cuts branches from flowering shrubs and trees on St. Barbara's feast day to bring into the house so they'll bloom at midwinter. The menorahs are both gifts from the other grandparents.

And then I looked at them all together. I guess it sums up my very rambling family tree, though it probably misses a few of the branches.

I was raised more or less without religion, but in a nominally protestant Christian household, and converted to Judaism back in 1990. (Wow ... almost 20 years ago!) My family members include a bunch of WASPs, an Arabic uncle, a handful of African-American cousins and one Catholic one, some evangelical Christians, the occasional atheist, a raft of Germans, and a god-daughter adopted from China. In no particular order.

I've worried about bringing up my son with a strong Jewish identity among that profusion. But yesterday a little friend came over, and asked, "Do you celebrate Christmas?" I pretended not to listen with both ears wide open. His answer. "I celebrate Christmas with my grandparents, because they're Christian, but I'm Jewish."

So far, so good.

15 December 2009

Dear Sen. Liebermann,

You should be ashamed. You're single-handedly blocking true health-care reform and forcing the rest of your erstwhile party to accept a weakened compromise bill. It could be another generation before America once again has the political will to take on this topic. Are you going to be the one who goes down in history as blocking the advance of US health care into the 21st century, along with other developed nations? Are you going to be the one history decries as allowing health care costs to continue to spiral? You should be ashamed.

14 December 2009

Eat Less Meat! (say the Brits)

The Brits have made an official recommendation that people eat less meat and dairy. You can read more about it in The Guardian. They say it will reduce greenhouse gases and make people healthier. (They also recommend cutting back on processed foods, cutting back on waste, and skipping the bottled water.)

Can you imagine the US government making that kind of a recommendation, even though science completely supports it? The meat and dairy lobbyists would go nuts, the lawmakers from the farm states would filibuster, and the beleaguered representative or senator who dared to propose the bill would slink home amidst accusations of socialism, elitism, and anti-Americanism.

What the hell, give it a try. Write your senator (get contact info here) and suggest the US follow Great Britain in making an official recommendation, not just disguised in a nutrition pyramid that puts the steak next to the nuts, that people cut their consumption of meat and dairy products.

Soy how else can you get your protein? you may ask.

Soy has a bad rap, partly because it's used, like corn syrup, in highly refined form in a great many refined foods, and for those who are allergic to soy products, this can be a minefield. But you probably shouldn't be eating those refined foods anyway, and it has more to do with the fat and the salt and the chemical flavorings and preservatives than it does with the soy products. In any case, folks in China and Japan have been eating less processed soy products like tofu and tempeh for millennia.

People also worry that rain forests are getting cut down to grow soybeans. But you're not eating the majority of those soybeans ... the cows are. And it takes ten to fifteen pounds of soy beans and grain, plus gallons of water and untold amounts of antibiotics, to produce a pound of beef. If everyone at those soybeans as soybeans, instead of as beef, you could stop chopping down rainforests today.

23 November 2009

Fall in NYC

Some pretty pictures for the weekend. Going away to watch family members eat turkey. I'll be eating the veggies. Have a good T-Day, y'all!

22 November 2009

Sarah Palin's Legs

Ms. Palin posed for this picture for Runner's World, wearing running shorts and a long-sleeved, fairly snug-fitting top, leaning against a chair with a flag draped over it, holding what looks like two Blackberrys in one hand. Newsweek reprinted the photo on the cover of a recent issue.

Predictably enough, Palin objected to the use of the photo (which ran right next to a huge headline asking "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?"), claiming Newsweek's use of the photo is "sexist" and "degrading."

Yet Palin posed for the photo, which ran in Runner's World along with several other photos of her in longer, but more snug-fitting, running attire. Not only that, her public persona is built around sex appeal, with those high-heeled shoes and boots, the snug little skirts, blouses, and blazers, fitted so as to accentuate her figure. Then there's the tousled hair and the famous wink.

It's not as if papparazzi snapped an illicit photo of La Palin in a bikini, and Newsweek ran that on the cover.

I suppose I shouldn't be in the least bit surprised. Why should I expect Palin to articulate a reasoned argument this time, when, in 18 months in the public eye, she has yet to suggest that she's capable of any such thing?

20 November 2009

Consuming Holidays

Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, Valentine's Day. The holiday season is upon us. The lefty websites I read are full of advice about how green gift-giving and fair trade food shopping; the newspapers full of dire predictions about how much weight we'll gain.

(If you're interested, check out some of the links under "Where to Shop" in the right-hand column.)

But what if we scale back on the holidays altogether? Give to the charity of your choice -- or your loved one's choice -- instead of buying a gift, green or otherwise.

Simplify holiday meals and avoid throwing away unused food. Skip a meal once a week for the season; put the money saved in a jar each week, and pull it out next March and do something nice for yourself or someone else.

As others have pointed out before me, buying different stuff isn't going to change the world. Changing our habits altogether, making the effort each year to reduce consumption, and then the following year to reduce consumption some more, is the only real possibility.

Paralytic Diagnostics

The Offspring:
The reason they can't find the bug that's making you sick is because it keeps moving around. It's in your lungs and they test your lungs but it moves somewhere else so they can't find it. So they need to do something to paralyze the bug, and then they will be able to find it.

Well, it's as good as anything the doctors have come up with so far. What could I say? "That's a very good hypothesis."

19 November 2009

Testing, Testing, 1 2 3

EKG. Chest Xray. Spirometry. Blood test. EKG. Echocardiogram. CT scan. EKG. Blood test. Blood test. Blood test. Am I missing a blood test? Cardiac stress test. Blood test. Event monitor. Catheter angiogram. Lung function tests. Arterial blood gas test [failed]. Nerve conduction test. Electromyography.

And none of them show anything wrong with me.

18 November 2009

Time to Eat the Dog?

Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living is a new book by Robert Vale and Brenda Vale, authors of several other books about leading an environmentally conscious life. You can't buy it (yet) in the US, but you can look at it at the UK arm of Amazon, where it's described as "one subversive read," or read about it in The Guardian.

I'm not going to pay for international shipping, so I won't be reading the book until it's published in the US. And I'm not about to eat our pet, who has been a beloved member of the household since he adopted us almost two years ago. But here are some of my own ways of trying to reduce his environmental impact.

He eats vegetarian kibble. I researched dog nutrition when we got him and found out that dogs need taurine, an amino acid found only in meat. But the vegetarian dog foods contain synthetic taurine, so we're okay there. I also buy him a vitamin compound to mix with his food, just to be sure.

His dog beds consist of old blankets and towels. Easier to wash than one of those nice thick beds, and already around the house. Toys, leashes, sweaters, carriers .... you can go crazy buying all kinds of new stuff like that, or you can buy one or two items and stick with them until they've fallen apart.

No, I don't want you to eat your dog. And I have no intention of eating ours. But I am asking you to take the pet into consideration when you make decisions about consumption.

17 November 2009

Giving Thanks

My life came to a sudden halt three weeks ago, and I can't quite believe Thanksgiving is almost upon us. But there it is.

It's been a tough three weeks. I get short of breath at the slightest exertion (think: unloading the dishwasher, or even having a conversation), and the docs can't find an explanation. I've had a huge number of tests, some fairly invasive, and those are exhausting in themselves.

Yet I have so many things to be thankful for. The Mate is a pillar of strength. The Offspring is a joy.

I HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE. The bills are going to start coming in soon, and many of them will have been rejected on one or another technicality, and The Mate (it's always been his job) will be on the phone with the doctors' offices and the insurance company for days, getting it all sorted out. But I don't have to worry about going broke paying all the bills.

I have family. My mother and my mother-in-law each spent several days with us, helping with food shopping, cooking, looking after The Offspring, and being generally supportive.

I have friends. They have busy lives, yet they've taken the time to be with me, to send email messages, to talk on the phone, to help me hold up this burden. I have co-workers who have taken on my work with cheer and good will.

I have a home, I have warm clothing, I have plenty to eat (unlike one in seven Americans, and countless folks across the globe).

I will admit, I'm stressed out and I'm frightened. But I'm also immensely thankful for all that I have.

15 November 2009

Trying to Let Go of Needing a Solution

Wayne Froggart writes about core beliefs people hold that get in the way of happiness, or at least contentment. (Thanks to the writer of Lotsa Laundry for the link.) Stated in extreme forms, these are things like "I need love and approval" and "I must ... make no mistakes."

Here's the one that got me thinking: "Every problem should have an ideal solution."

Maybe not. Maybe every problem doesn't need a solution. Maybe some problems are for someone else to solve, and not for me.

I'm going to spend the next few days holding these ideas close, and see where they take me.

08 November 2009

How Do You Spell House Bill? R-E-L-I-E-F

One of my bigger fears, given that I'm responsible for a family in which every member has a chronic illness, is losing health insurance.

I've written here before about the hassles involved with being lucky enough to have health insurance; "errors" in billing mean roughly every second bill is denied for one reason or another, and The Mate has to spend half an hour or so on the phone getting it re-submitted.

It's not a done deal yet. It has to be further wrangled, and voted on, in the Senate. And it's not going to be perfect. But already I'm feeling immense relief, in political as well as very personal terms.

06 November 2009

The Power of One

Treehugger reminds us that one person can change the world in this article about Earthwatch.

Also, there's the importance of example. If you reuse a coffee cup, chances are a few people in your office will think about following your example, and someone will likely actually do it. If you let your friends and family know, in a low-key and non-judgmental way, how much lower the environmental impact of chicken is, compared to that of beef, maybe someone will eat beef a little less often.

And then from your actions outward, there's a ripple effect. The person you influence will go on to influence others. And so it grows. So hang on to your idealism and keep plugging away.

05 November 2009

Not Ready To Blog About This

Nicholas Kristof, in the Times today:
...our insurance companies evict people from hospitals as soon as they can stagger out of bed.
Guess that's why I'm staggering around at home.

03 November 2009

U. S. S. New York

I read about the arrival of the USS New York, with its tons of steel taken from the rubble of the World Trade Center, with mixed feelings.

I remember the morning, the second plane crash causing a wrenching shift in significance as everyone realized it was no accident: the city had been attacked. I remember the eerie quiet of the day as all ground and air traffic came to a halt. The streaming columns of people leaving Manhattan on foot. The attempts to contact friends and family as the city's tallest cellular transmitter had disappeared and land lines (and with them, internet service -- remember dialup?) clogged.

My mother was a war refugee as a child. On this day, she was aghast at the idea that her daughter, first-born child, brought to America to escape Europe's war ghosts, was living less than two miles from what was happening.

I was not among those who lost friends or family, though there were close calls. I can only imagine the horror and the grief for those who did.

I remember the day after, and the day after that, and the days that followed. The smoke clung to the city, hung over it, permeated doors and windows. Strangers were friendly. We sought to establish a "new normal."

The idea that the towers are back in the city today as part of the USS New York is comforting and exciting. I'm hoping to be able to go over and see the ship.

But I'm also uncomfortable about this: it's a war ship.

What if that metal from the downed towers had been used to create a ship of peace?

23 October 2009

International Day of Climate Action

Tomorrow is the International Day of Climate Action, organized by Bill McKibben and others at 350.org. Unfortunately, New York Times readers don't know anything about it. MicKibben is at Middlebury College in Vermont (that's part of the good old U S of A), but I had to go to The Guardian to find out about it.

Visit the web site, and see what you can join near you. Let me know if you took part.

21 September 2009

The S-Word

The Dad gave permission for me to post his letter to the Boston Globe:
Many naysayers are hysterical in their fear that SOCIALISM could infect our health care system. Of course it already has, in the form of Medicare.

Following the arguments of the fearmongers, we should eliminate not only Medicare, but also other nefarious tax-supported schemes such as free public schools, public libraries and public roads & highways. Each of these should be replaced by a system of user fees.

As always, he's brief and pithy. Thanks, Dad.

09 September 2009

Put "Civil" Back into "Civic Discourse"

Yesterday morning, a 1010 WINS reporter found someone who said he didn't want his child to hear Obama's speech encouraging kids to work hard in school, because he doesn't want the child to "grow up to be a community organizer." That last said in sneering tone.

President Obama is ... uh ... the President of the United States, and community organizing only one of the things he did on the road to that position (albeit something I respect a great deal).

Okay, I admit I'm guilty of a fair number of jokes about former president Bush's pretzel incident. But the fact that by the end of the day the various news stations were still calling Obama's address to the nation's schoolchildren "controversial" suggests a new low among Republicans in the lengths to which they'll go to attack Obama. Because he's a Democrat? Or is there another, nastier reason, having to do with his heritage?

Okay, not all Republicans. Laura Bush said she respected Obama for making the speech, and urged other members of the party also to show him respect. Way to go, Laura.

03 July 2009

Raccoon in Fort Tryon Park


There's a whole family living in this big hollow tree in Fort Tryon Park next to Cabrini Blvd. They're awful cute, but they're also tearing up the garbage bags on the curb in the neighborhood. Oh well. (Used the zoom feature on my Sony Ericsson W760 cell phone for this one; resolution isn't so great but it allowed me to get the shot.)

01 July 2009

Hail Lumpy Vegetables!

The European Union has just relaxed standards for vegetables and fruit sold in supermarkets, and will now allow curved cucumbers, forked carrots, and lumpy potatoes, eliminating laws established two decades ago. More from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, here.

The United States, naturally, lags behind. If you buy fruit and vegetables in a US supermarket, its grade depends upon uniform size and shape. Here are some samples of the regulations governing our produce:

For cucumbers:
§51.2229 Well colored.
"Well colored" means that not less than three-fourths of the surface of the cucumber is of a medium green or darker color, and that at least a light green color extends to the blossom end on one side of the cucumber.
§51.2230 Well formed.
"Well formed" means that the cucumber is practically straight and not more than very slightly constricted or more than moderately tapered or pointed.
For carrots:

§51.2374 Fairly smooth.
"Fairly smooth" means that the individual carrot is not rough, ridged, or covered with secondary rootlets to the extent that the appearance is materially affected.
§51.2375 Well formed.
"Well formed" means that the individual carrot is not forked, or misshapen to the extent that the appearance is more than slightly affected.
More from the USDA here.

Some of the produce that doesn't meet the requirements for uniformity in size, shape, and color may be used for processing, but much of it is thrown away. The United States needs to reform its agricultural laws to focus on safety, rather than on superfluous aesthetic considerations.

28 June 2009

Car Window Coverings: Reduce Heat and AC

Starting in 2012, California is set to require auto manufacturers to use special glass that will reduce the solar energy coming through the windows by 45 percent; in 2016, the windows will have to block 60 percent of the heat-producing energy. You can read more here at Treehugger.

Turns out you can go out today and have film applied to your car windows that will do the same job. Solargard claims their film will reduce heat by 66 percent; 3M claims a 99 percent reduction in UV rays but doesn't specify how much that will reduce heat in the car. 3M also makes a clear, rather than tinted, window film that will do the job without reducing visibility.

I have no idea how much this costs, and since it's Sunday morning, it doesn't look like I'm going to find out today. But when I do, I'll be back with an update.

26 June 2009

Rainbow over Upper Manhattan

Taken with my Sony Ericsson W760 phone camera.

22 June 2009

Useless Household Objects

In The Guardian today, Tom Meltzer fantasizes about some new household tools. The item from his list that I really want to bring home: "The silent blender: For people who love smoothies but hate excruciatingly loud noise." Other items on his list: a folding wok, a remote control that responds to "Accio Remotus," an ironing board that won't collapse.

On the other hand are all of those truly useless items we have lying around the house. I don't think I'm talking about the inkwell on my desk -- my Aunt Helen's doubles tennis trophy from 1921 (badly tarnished) -- that holds one of my quill pens made by a friend from a goose feather. These are useless, it's true, but each has sentimental and aesthetic value.

There are the weights next to the bed. At various points recently I've been ready to get rid of them, but I've used them twice in the past month. Maybe they're worth it, after all.

Kitchen appliances? Rice cooker -- used today. Blender, waffle maker, food mill -- within the week. Mortar and pestle, mixer, grain mill -- all within the past few weeks. Actually, yes, I do cook.

Clothing. Hmmm. There are, in fact, a few items in the back of the closet that I haven't worn in a long time, but haven't been willing to get rid of. I might, after all, get invited to a cocktail party one of these years, and want something decent to wear.

So, how about you? What's the most useless item in your home? Why do you still have it around?

(The green point of this post: keeping excess stuff makes us buy bigger homes, which take more energy to build, heat, cool, light, maintain, and so on.)

Piloting the Honda Fit Along the FDR Drive

For the past ten months, I've regularly been driving nearly the entire length of the Harlem River/FDR Drive -- 12 of 13.5 miles, from 178th Street to Houston Street and back -- to get The Offspring to school. At this point, I feel as though I know the road like the old river pilots knew the Mississippi.

Instead of shifting sand bars and treacherous currents, there are blind curves and lane closures for never-ending construction projects.

I know where the nasty pot-holes are, and I know the axle-eating catacombs in the road. I know the sections that are likely to flood when there's heavy rain, and I know the lanes to avoid because the road has settled into waves.

I know where the lanes get narrower and I really have to pay attention; I know where I can grab a sip of coffee. I know when it's not worth bothering to shift into a higher gear, despite the cars accelerating in front of me, because right around the next curve there will be a knot of traffic.

I know where I can pull off when my little passenger needs an emergency bathroom break.

And after countless drives past that sign that says "Triboro Bridge is now RFK Bridge," I'm likely actually to remember the name change, rather than continuing to call it the Triboro for the rest of my life.

Okay, I can count. It's been 40 weeks of school, ten drives per week, divided among two pairs of parents in the car-pool... that's an average of 100 drives per parent.

By September, barring unforeseen complications, we'll have moved down to the Lower East Side, within walking distance of school. Some day, I'll make that drive again, and the construction around the RFK bridge will finally have been completed ... and I'll get thoroughly disoriented.

21 June 2009

Bucket List, Continued

More places I want to see:
  • Dead Sea
  • Jerusalem
  • Pyramids -- both Egyptian and Mayan
  • Berlin without the wall
  • The Amazon and the Nile
  • Tibet

There's a common thread here, or a couple of them. I want to do a lot more traveling (I've already been in dozens of countries on three continents, traveling on foot and by bike as well as on buses and trains), and I want to see human monuments as well as natural stuff.

19 June 2009

"Bucket List"

Apparently, I've been living under a rock. I missed the movie of the above title, and the concept of making a list of stuff you want to do before you die. When somebody used the phrase yesterday, I had to ask for clarification...

At any rate, here are some of the things I want to do before I go:

  • visit Greenland, Iceland, Sicily, the Hudson Bay, Victoria Falls
  • travel the Silk route overland, preferably on foot and/or by camel or on horseback. (Yes, that's dangerous, which means I can't even consider it until The Offspring is through college; yes, I'll have to learn to ride a horse. And a camel.)
  • see Cape Horn and the Panama Canal
  • climb Mt. Olympus
  • swim in the Black Sea
  • hike the Appalachian Trail
  • run another marathon
  • ride my bike across America (yes, America, not the US)
  • play Mozart's piano sonata K 331 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
  • learn to fiddle
  • read The Odyssey in Greek

How's that for starters?

17 June 2009

Under the George Washington Bridge

I love the stone work. I do wonder when someone last opened that door.

15 June 2009

On Building Nicer Staircases

As reported in the Times, Ishak Mansi, a doctor at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine has written an article with some colleages proposing that stairs be made more pleasant -- and not hidden away in the corners of buildings -- to encourage people to use them more often and get a little more exercise.

I'm having one of those "why didn't I think of that?" moments. I'm impatient with elevators and escalators (to say the least), and I don't know how many times I've been forced to take one or the other because I can't find the staircase in a building.

Older buildings have wide, open, well-lit, central, and often dramatic staircases opening right off the main lobby. Think Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Public Library, British Museum. The British Library, in a new building, has a nice broad staircase to the second floor (the first floor, if anyone is reading this from the UK).

Then there's 666 Fifth Avenue, where I worked for a few years in the late 80s. I once shared an elevator for a few seconds with Jackie Kennedy Onassis, because the company I worked for occupied three (contiguous) floors, and you could only get from one to another by taking the elevator. Made me nuts.

The NYU Library has stairs, dramatic ones, that ascend next to the interior atrium. But if you're on the ground floor, you have to know the sneaky route through the reference area and around a study area on the second floor in order to reach the upper floors.

Is it a cultural difference? Are European buildings more likely than American ones to have open, pleasant staircases that are easy to find?

11 June 2009

More on Fish

Pret a Manger, the British sandwich chain partly owned by McDonalds, has eliminated their tuna sushi because of concerns about overfishing of bluefin tuna. Early reports were that they were eliminating all tuna products; Bloomberg has what appears to be the accurate report here.

Think about it ... do you really need that can of tuna fish for your lunch? Some alternatives: cheese, egg salad, PB&J -- or use walnut butter on your sandwich if it's the omega-3 fatty acids you're looking for in the fish.

Think about taking one step in that direction. Once a week, skip the tuna in favor of something with less impact.

10 June 2009

Airlines and Differential Environmental Impact

Airlines differ widely in the amount of emissions per person per flight, as reported on Treehugger, depending on the age of the plane, the amount of space used for first class or business class seats, and how full the airline keeps the flights. Economy class seats, unsurprisingly, are much lower in their environmental impact than first class ones.

And now, Travel Analytics will allow you to calculate the airline with the lowest carbon footprint for the route you want to fly. If taking the bus isn't an option, check out airlines here before you book your ticket.

Where Did Your Meal Come From?

The New York Times has a forum on line today about whether people who eat seafood should know where it came from (and how its fishing and transport affected the environment). Oddly, though the Times usually has people on various sides of these debates, all of the participants in this forum agree that those who eat fish should make the effort to inform themselves about the source of the meal.

The US passed a law in 2002 that required sellers of meat and vegetables to label such foods with the country of origin. The agricultural industry got implementation delayed for years, but it finally went into effect in March. That means if you can read the tiny, tiny type on the little labels all over your food, you can find out if it was shipped from Chile or New Zealand, or produced right here in the USA.

Country of origin labeling laws have been around in Europe for quite a while, and since countries there are fairly small, if you buy something from the same or even a neighboring nation, you can pretty conscientiously call it local.

For the US, though, we really need a state of origin law to tell us if those strawberries were produced in your own or a neighboring state, or were shipped or trucked or flown a few thousand miles to get to your local supermarket. Still, if you cook almost all of your meals at home, it's useful to know if your hamburger came from the US or from Argentina, or your kiwis from California or New Zealand.

The Times debate, on the other hand, focuses mostly on meals eaten out, where it's harder to know what you're eating and where it came from. The debaters recommend small fish lower on the food chain as lower in impact, both on the fish and on the environment more broadly.

Taras Grescoe writes that small fish are "still relatively abundant in the oceans." The use of "still" and "relatively," though, bother me, with their implications of decline, both past and future. I'd really like to see people think of animal products as a condiment, to be used in small quantities to flavor a meal composed primarily of nuts and beans, fruits and vegetables, and grains, rather than as a primary food group.

08 June 2009

Saving Money and Going Green in the Big City

E Magazine has an article about what they call the top five ways to save money by going green. Their list:
  1. Kill your lawn
  2. Make your appliances work for you
  3. Get back to basics
  4. Be energy-efficient
  5. Go on a low-impact diet
Read more details here. By "low-impact diet" they don't mean just food, but also buying used instead of new things and doing other things to cut back on your environmental impact.

But this article, like so many, seems oriented primarily to a suburban lifestyle with, well, a lawn. And outdoor space where you can hang a clothesline to limit use of the dryer. While apartment-dwellers also have appliances, they often come with the apartment, and we tend to have fewer of them than people living in houses. We also rely a lot more on public transit.

But we still buy stuff; we probably just throw more of it away because we run out of space faster. We order take-out in vasts quantities. So here are some proposals, in no particular order, to save money and lighten the environmental impact for city dwellers:
  1. If you can imagine throwing it away any time soon, don't buy it.
  2. Walk or bike instead of taking public transit; take public transit instead of driving or taking a cab.
  3. Pack lunch and water in re-usable containers; cook from scratch instead of ordering in; store the leftovers in re-usable containers and take them for lunch.
  4. Use a fan instead of air conditioning; keep your air conditioner filter clean; when it's time, get a more energy-efficient air conditioner.
  5. Go to Times Square and sit down on Broadway. Grin from ear to ear. Then send email to your elected officials and tell them to keep it traffic-free forever.

Any other ideas? Let me know!

24 May 2009

Don't Buy Conventional Cotton

Cotton is in your shorts, your T-shirt, your socks, and probably your underwear. It's a huge, global industry, and there are huge problems with it.

E Magazine gives a thorough run-down of the toxins involved in cotton production in its May issue. (Subscribe here.) In summary: Cotton production involves only 3 percent of the planet's land, but uses 25 percent of the pesticides; of fifteen pesticides regularly used on cotton, the Environmental Protection Agency considers seven to be potential carcinogens.

Harvested cotton is processed with bleach, treated with formaldehyde (another carcinogen) so it won't wrinkle, and dyed and printed with more toxic chemicals. The global economy means cotton is frequently grown in one place, processed in another, made into clothing in a third, and then shipped to a fourth country for sale.

All that shipping involves the emission of more toxins as I explained a couple of weeks ago, here.

Also, Uzbekistan has been using enslaved children to pick cotton. The Guardian reports, here. Companies that buy from Uzbek growers have insisted that the country sign on to International Labor Conventions. Whether they will follow what they've signed is another question altogether.

What can you do?

Buy organic cotton. Buy clothing made out of hemp, whose environmental impact is far lower than that of cotton. Buy clothing made out of recycled plastic. Buy used clothing. For some places to get this stuff, check out "Where to Shop" in the right hand column.

18 May 2009

Want A Pet? Please Adopt

What is this plea doing in a blog mostly concerned with environmental issues?

Well, there's the environmental cost of breeding ever more animals. There's also the issue of supporting breeders and pet stores that don't give enough attention to the welfare of the animals.

You could look for an animal at the ASPCA or at Petfinder. Or just go to your local animal shelter.

And once you have your new pet, consider environmentally friendly food and other products.

Thanks.

13 May 2009

Skunk Opposes Health Care Reform

No time for blogging: I still have final exams to grade. But I couldn't let this pass:

Rick Scott is funding a series of advertisements opposing whatever health care plan Obama might develop. He used to be the CEO of a for-profit health care company but was kicked out by his own board of directors in the midst of a huge scandal involving fraudulent billing of the government. Read more in the Times, here.

His methods in getting footage of people slamming Britain's National Health Service are described in the Guardian, here.

For complicated and much analyzed reasons, by the way, the German, French and Swiss national health systems -- in fact, those in pretty much any European country -- work much better than the NHS. That's why the NHS is so popular among those who profit from illness in the United States.

As Paul Krugman put it in a piece in the Times earlier this week describing the health industry's efforts to derail real reform, "what the rest of us call health care costs, they call income."

Call your senator. Write to your representative. Urge their support for comprehensive health coverage for all Americans.

24 April 2009

Capitalists Pay Scientists to Shut Up

Okay, the New York Times puts it this way: Industry Ignored its Scientists on Climate.

Fine, call me a socialist. My grandfather, back in the 1930s, was a union-organizing communist. (Long story.) Unregulated capitalism, as we're seeing over and over and over again in recent months, is bad news.

It's brought us to the brink of financial collapse, it brought us asbestos, it brought us corporate claims that cigarettes didn't cause cancer. It brought us high-fructose corn syrup (now linked to heart disease) as well as Splenda, Aspartame, and Saccharine. It brought us fast food. It brought us factory farming and genetically engineered food.

Some capitalists are motivated by making a product that will improve human lives. But too many are motivated only by making money, more of it, regardless of the human and planetary costs. Humans are by nature imperfect beings, and human organizations need checks and balances, regulations and oversight.

Okay. Rant over.

15 April 2009

Another Look at Shipping Emissions

A couple of years ago, it was all about plane flights. Environmentalists were worrying about the environmental impact of all the additional trips people were taking, compared to 30 or 40 years ago, for business as well as for fun, as well as about produce flown from one country to another.

Shipping stuff by sea seemed to be a far better alternative.

Now it turns out that governments have vastly underestimated the health and environmental impacts of shipping. According to recent studies reported in the Guardian, the 90,000 cargo ships plying the world's oceans are a significant source of emissions contributing to global warming, in part because of the size of the ships and their engines and in part because of the low-quality fuel used because shipping is subject to little regulation.

In response to problems with shipping emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules that would require ships to reduce emissions near the US and Canadian coasts. According to the New York Times:
The proposal calls for a 200-mile buffer zone in which shippers would be required to make large reductions in the pollutants they emit. For example, they would have to cut sulfur emissions 98 percent by 2015, by burning cleaner fuel or through a process of “scrubbing” exhaust gas to remove sulfur.
This seems like a good idea on the face of it: protect Americans from death and illness caused by toxic fumes. But the toxins emitted 201 miles out at sea aren't going to disappear. They'll still end up in the air and the water in America as well as elsewhere around the world, though maybe in somewhat less concentrated form than right around port cities.

What, then, is really needed?

One, clean up all the fuel used by all the tankers. And two, reduce shipping by buying less stuff and -- here we go again -- buying things locally grown and produced as much as possible.

13 April 2009

Sad Day for Queers

Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, pioneering queer theorist, is dead. (Duke University Press has an obituary here.) And amazon.com is claiming it's a software "glitch" that has taking sales rankings off her books, and others with gay and lesbian content, so that they won't appear on any bestseller lists and are harder to find in searches.

Amazon's initial response to an author's question about the removal of sales rankings from books indicated that they wanted to protect some readers from books with "adult comment." But after a tempest of comment from bloggers and Twitterers (who pointed out that books detailing heterosexual acts), the sales giant started to backpedal.

PCWorld is now reporting that a hacker is taking credit for spamming amazon.com with complaints about books with gay or lesbian content to get their sales rankings removed.

At any rate -- whether it was a glitch, a bad decision that's now being covered up, or the result of a malicious attack -- it's the end of the day Monday and amazon still hasn't restored the books' sales rankings. Barnes and Noble will still tell you that Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet ranks 75,086 -- behind Judith Butler's Gender Trouble at 29,031 and Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 at 15,613.

What power does Amazon have in the marketplace of ideas? What power might it acquire as newspapers fold and bricks-and-mortar stores disappear? Frightening thoughts.

05 April 2009

She's Not the First Bimbo

I'm bothered by all of the attention paid to Mrs. Obama's wardrobe, and the comparisons with Mrs. Sarkozy, as a sideline to President Obama's negotiations with G20 in Europe.

Mrs. Sarkozy is a former model, and since her marriage to the French president has continued in her career as a pop singer, so for her perhaps it's appropriate to focus on appearance. Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, is a Princeton- and Harvard-educated attorney who has been a dean of the University of Chicago as well as vice president for community relations at that university's teaching hospital..

Since President Obama was inaugurated, Mrs. Obama has reached out to military families, visited schools, and spoken about the importance of healthy food, among other initiatives that suggest she will use the potentially powerful platform of the president's wife to reach out to people across socioeconomic and political spectrums and build community.

03 April 2009

Excellent Question

On returning from a trip to the health food store in the neighborhood for non-dairy ice cream....

The Mate: How is Mr. Sano?

Me: His name isn't Sano, that's Spanish for "health." Like in "sanitorium," where you go to get your health back.

The Offspring: Then why do they sell treats?

Health Coverage: Broken

Problems with health care in the US are exemplified by three articles in The New York Times this week.

If you have a "pre-existing condition" -- which includes pregnancy (!), good luck in getting health insurance. Melissa Klettke bought an individual policy last year rather than paying higher premiums for an employer-sponsored policy. Three weeks later, she developed symptoms that led her doctors to suspect multiple sclerosis, and the insurer dropped her policy, claiming a bout of vertigo a year before proved she had a pre-existing condition. She's paid thousands of dollars for tests (and it turns out she doesn't have MS) and the insurance company isn't playing.

If you get insured through Medicare, good luck in finding a doctor to give you a check-up. Barbara Plumb's gynecologist decided to opt out of Medicare, and her primary care doctor doesn't know of any gynecologists who still accept Medicare insurance: the reimbursements are too low and the paperwork too onerous.

In the midst of coverage gaps like these, over a trillion dollars a years is wasted in our health care system each year because of unneeded tests and procedures done solely in an attempt to protect doctors from lawsuits in case something goes wrong.

Our system of paying for health care is broken. The health insurers want you to think that health care reform will lead to a decline in the quality of health care. Nope. But it will lead to a decrease in the profitability of health insurance.

I said it last week, and I'll say it again: when folks make money off of others' illness, it's just wrong.

29 March 2009

Fair Trade Easter Bunnies

So what is Fair Trade, exactly?

Chocolate, coffee, and other imported foods and goods get the Fair Trade certification from TransFair USA when sellers deal directly with farmers (rather than middlemen) and pay a fair price for goods made under fair labor practices and using environmentally sustainable farming practices.

The Fair Trade Federation has more information about the process.

Cadbury, manufacturer of some of Britain's most popular chocolates, has opted to use fairly manufactured and traded chocolate in their products -- but so far, only in the United Kingdom, and not in the United States, where Hershey manufactures products with the Cadbury label.

If your springtime activities include an Easter celebration, please include Fair Trade chocolate in the festivities. Granted, it will almost certainly be more expensive; if you spend the same amount on Fair Trade chocolate that you would on the usual stuff, you won't end up with as much of it. But maybe having a smaller amount of really good chocolate that you know doesn't support child labor or other abuses of farm workers is a good trade-off.

And sign a petition here to ask Hershey to follow Cadbury's UK lead and buy Fair Trade chocolate for all of its products as well.

28 March 2009

Silent Passage

A big part of Gail Sheehy's point in writing the book was that menopause shouldn't be a silent passage, and that we should get comfortable talking about it. Just the same, I'm embarrassed to mention that the book is on my reading list.

Sheehy wrote more than ten years ago. It doesn't seem very long ago at all that my mother asked what I thought about hormone replacement therapy, and I said I thought treating menopause as a medical condition was problematic. She decided not to go on the hormones, and recent studies of large populations are finding that HRT is not such a good idea, after all.

My mom liked to joke that "they're not hot flashes, they're power surges." Those, I'm not getting. She didn't mention night sweats or mood swings or heart palpitations. Or periods worthy of Lady Macbeth. I should ask, but that might be even more embarrassing than revealing it to the Internauts.

25 March 2009

Health Insurance and Big Bucks

The health insurance industry has agreed to more regulation, and in particular to stop refusing insurance to, or requiring much higher premiums for, people with "pre-existing conditions." These can be anything from diabetes, asthma or heart disease ... to pregnancy.

The New York Times quotes various lawmakers saying approving things about this shift. What the insurance companies are trying to avoid is the creation of any kind of health plan run by the government.

The problem with a national health plan: it would insure people without somebody making a buck. And it would, finally, clearly expose how much profit goes into the business of health coverage.

It's one thing to make a profit by insuring someone else for property loss. It's entirely another to make a profit by insuring health coverage.

It's just wrong.

24 March 2009

Corporate Green.

The New York Times has created a new section devoted to environmental issues, but it's a subset of the Business and Financial news page. You can't get to it from The Times' home page; you have to click on the Business section and then find it under "More in Business," where "Energy and Environment" is the last item on the right side of the page.

Or follow this link to the section, also called "Green Inc."

The Times is the Gray Lady, the self-styled paper of record in which readers can find "all the news fit to print." Apparently, then, all the environmental news fit to print is that which relates to business and finance.

Problem is, reversing climate change requires a paradigm shift in which much of what is done in the name of business and finance is eliminated or drastically changed. Global agribusiness, for example, needs to decline in favor of local production of food, sold by individual farmers to people in the nearby community.

Manufacturing processes that depend upon cheap oil so that goods can be shipped around the world, made into components shipped around the world again and then assembled into finished products once again shipped around the world? No good.

Business models that ignore environmental and community consequences for expansion? Nope.

Readers of The Times need thorough, comprehensive reporting on the environment, not just a little spillage of green ink.

20 March 2009

Rihanna: Distressing Reactions from Teenagers

Alarming numbers of 200 teenagers surveyed by the Boston Public Health Commission think Rihanna is to blame for the fact that Chris Brown beat her, leaving her looking like this.

The numbers don't seem to add up to 100 percent, but here are some of the statistics:
  • 51% said Chris Brown was responsible for the incident
  • 46% said Rihanna was responsible for the incident
  • 52% said both individuals were to blame for the incident, despite knowing at the time that Rihanna had been beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment
The American Bar Association has compiled some other statistics that put this in context. Among their findings are that one in five high school girls reports violence in an intimate relationship and that a quarter of high-school age kids say they know at least one student who has been a victim of dating violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that between 1993 and 1998 (the report was written in 2000) about a million women a year were victims of violence occurring in an intimate relationship. Younger women are more likely to be beaten.

It's like drugs, and sex, and alcohol, and cigarettes. We have to talk to kids about these issues before they get to be teenagers, and we have to do so early and often, in low-key contexts as well as in explicit ways.

Money where my mouth is? Well, I've talked to The Offspring about cigarettes. He's five; I figure I have a year or two left for some of the other stuff. But I try to take opportunities when they come; the other day he read "Crack Is Wack" on a city mural and asked about it, and I told him crack is a bad drug that messes with people's heads. Enough detail for now, I think.

19 March 2009

Trees


I love trees. I especially love trees in the winter, when you can see all of the branches, from the biggest down to the tiny ones.

(I took this picture with my Sony Ericsson W760 phone, which has a 3.2 megapixel lens. Not bad, eh? Shutter speed is fairly slow, though, so picture of The Offspring are harder to get.)

17 March 2009

Civil Unions for All

The state of Vermont is considering a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage; supporters say it's necessary because the civil union law passed in 2000 doesn't give partners the same benefits as marriage.

Simple solution: redefine civil union. Give members of a civil union all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, including health benefits and other protections as well as full responsibility for any children produced by the union.

And then open civil union to mixed-sex as well as same-sex couples.

Anyone who wanted to could have a religious wedding.

In Germany, many people marry twice, once in a civil ceremony and again in a religious wedding. The civil union is the legally recognized one; the religious ceremony more likely to be a large celebration with friends and family.

In the United States, couples get paperwork from a secular office such as a county clerk's office, and then it is completed by the religious officiant at the wedding. This seems to violate constitutional demands for separation of church and state, but as a well-established practice, this could continue to be used by couples having a religious wedding as an alternative to a civil union.

Am I missing something? Is this a solution that could possibly bother anyone?

16 March 2009

Trying to Life a Green Life

Sometimes I do pretty well, sometimes not so well. I'd like to be more consistent, but I'll just have to keep working at it.

Thumbs down:

Today, I disassembled one of two Ikea bookcases I'm throwing away, one four years old, the other perhaps eight or ten, both in perfectly fine shape. The first was bought to store food and dishes in a kitchen with almost no storage space, and at 16" deep, that worked well; the second was bought to match, for use with books, but that 16" turns out to be too deep for books. So when I move in the coming months, I'm not going to take them with me.

I'd like to be able to say I found a buyer on Craigslist or a taker on Freecycle. But instead I followed the path of least resistance and just took them out to the trash.

Thumbs up:

On the other hand, I'm running again, and feeling rather Rip Van Winklish in my odd collection of gear. I bought the sneakers last week; otherwise, no item is less than five years old (I haven't bought exercise gear since before the arrival of The Offspring), and some are at least 20 years old.

I know I bought the cotton gloves while I was living in China in 1987 or 1988, and the fleece vest and the bandanna aren't much newer. The polypropylene shirt is old enough to stink when I sweat. (I've heard about new, anti-microbial gear that doesn't do that; frankly, the idea makes me a little nervous.) The tights are from about ten years ago, when I was trying to bike in the winter, and I think the shorts are older than that. Oh, the socks. Plain old cotton ones, but probably only two or three years old.

15 March 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good:

Staten Island has its first wind turbine, providing electricity for the streetlights and sewage system in a new retirement community.

Bad:

Two-thirds of widely sold baby products tested by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics contain formaldehyde and/or 1,4-dioxane, both probable carcinogens, both by-products of the production process not listed on the labels. The list of products tested is here.

Ugly:

AIG already paid $121 million in bonuses to the people who brought it to the brink of collapse, and to a $170 billion bail-out. This weekend, they're distributing $165 million more to those same people. The AIG folks claim that the bonuses are in the folks' contracts and can't be rescinded.

14 March 2009

Cutting Back on Screen Time, Revisited

In short, I'm not doing a very good job. I've added Facebook to the mix, and despite predictions that the initial fascination would wane, I'm on there every day.

Do I really need to read the New York Times and the Guardian on line every day? More than once a day? Probably not.

One thing I have accomplished is to empty out all of my email in-boxes.

Back in January I decided on three things: shorter showers, less screen time, more time playing with barbells. Well, I'm doing pretty well with the shorter showers. The other two, not so good. I think there was a fourth thing but I can't remember what it was.

If I were on the screen less, I'd have more time to play with cast iron. Hmmmm.

And I don't recall setting any specific limits on screen time. So, here goes. No more than twice a day each on facebook, news, blogs, and solitaire. (I'd like to cut back to once a day, but I don't think I can do that right away.)

12 March 2009

Teaching Sexism?

At P.S. 140 in the Bronx, Michael Napolitano teaches a class with all boys, while another teacher (female -- of course?) has all the girls in another classroom down the hall. As Jennifer Medina tells it in the New York Times,
“There’s an aspect of male bonding, a closeness that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said. “I feel more like I am teaching them about right from wrong than I might have normally.” And he said he can “be a little more stern” with his students now. “If I get in the face of a girl, she would just cry,” he said. “The boys respond to it, they know it’s part of being a young man.”
It's an interesting experiment. The idea is that girls will be more comfortable asserting their ability, while boys will be less distracted, in single-sex classrooms.

Anecdotal evidence seems to bear this out: the father of one of the boys in the special class says his son is behaving better. The school principal says discipline is better and the kids involved participate more in class and take part in more after-school activities. These are important factors.

But the school also has a third classroom, with both boys and girls. And the kids in the co-ed class have been scoring better on city-wide math and social studies tests than the ones in the single-sex classrooms. A similar experiment done in the 1990s in California was stopped after a few years when, similarly, test scores didn't improve.

But perhaps more disturbing are the gender stereotypes being reinforced by, around, and in the classroom division. Boys need tough treatment. Girls cry. The girls' teacher has them do lots of collaborative work, reinforcing the idea that girls work well together, and scolds them "like a therapist." Ouch.

The school has 30 teachers, of whom only four are men. A better solution might be to increase the pay and improve the working conditions of classroom teaching until primary schools can attract as many male as female teachers -- so that both boys and girls will be as likely to have a male teacher as a female one in any given class.

Another important factor: training and frequent re-training in issues surrounding classroom dynamics as affected by gender as well as personality and other factors. Make sure all the teachers, male and female, are treating individual students as individuals, not as "boys" or as "girls."

One of the boy's in Mr. Napolitano's class, though, has learned well the perhaps unintentional lesson taught by the single-sex classes: “I am learning how to be a man.”

Remember "Math is hard" Barbie?

11 March 2009

If You Must Shop, Shop Responsibly

Child labor, hazardous toys, human rights abuses, bribery. Take the quiz here to see if you can identify the companies responsible for these dastardly deeds. To find out more about the companies with which you do business, check out Responsible Shopper at Green America.

Then you can decide: stick with companies whose business and personnel practices are ethical; join activists in campaigning against the dirtiest ones; buy used (sorry -- "previously cherished") items as much as possible; or have stuff repaired and keep using it.

10 March 2009

Call Your Senator: Support Public Transit

No Impact Man writes today that New York City's plan to save the buses and subways from fare hikes and service cuts is in danger, threatened by three downstate senators. He asks that if you live in New York State, you call the Senate switchboard at (518) 455-2800 and ask them to look up your senator by zip code. Once connected, tell the person who answers that you strongly support the Ravitch transit plan.

Under this plan, bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers will get a $2 toll (same as a ride on public transit). The money raised will be used to avoid service cuts and/or fare hikes on the city's buses and subways.

If you don't live in New York, please email this post (or No Impact Man's) to everyone you know who does live in New York State.

Use the comments to let me know how the emails and phone calls go. Thank you.

Update: For more information on Ravitch's plan, check out this in the New York Times. Also, it occurs to me that even if you don't live in New York, but you commute here or come for visits, you might contact the senator for the district in which you spend the most time and voice your opinion.

09 March 2009

Barbarians at the Cafeteria

The cafeteria turns out to be a tough place for a kindergarten kid to negotiate, which was somewhat of a surprise for me. I went to a private kindergarten because in the late 1960s in New Hampshire, public kindergarten was still an option a town could choose to pay for, or not. I was in a group of a dozen or so little kids, and I went home for lunch.

But in New York City today, kindergarten goes from 8:15 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. -- same school day as for the bigger kids. Pedagogically, this is very sound: kids who are cared for by someone who talks to them, reads to them, does craft projects with them, and takes them to the playground are just as well off at home.

But kids who watch television or are otherwise left entirely to their own devices while a caretaker works all day at home will have a much better time catching up if they start schooling early and for as much time as possible, especially if the language spoken at home is not English.

So the kindergarten kids eat lunch at school in the company of a couple hundred other little barbarians with a few harried aides trying to keep control.

First, there was the matter of the lunchbox. A kid in another class started hassling my kid because "Betty Boop is for girls."

Hmmm, by the time he gets to middle school, maybe the other kid will rethink that one.

The Betty Boop lunchbox was The Offspring's choice three or so years ago when we bought his first lunchbox. At the neighborhood Duane Reade, it was that or Homer Simpson. I have to admit I was kind of pleased. Recently, though, it finally got battered enough to be replaced, and this time the choice was plain black.

It wasn't until after that, that he finally told me about the problem with the Betty lunch box.

Then there were the rugelach. The Dad was packing lunch one morning last week and started putting chocolate rugelach -- one of The Offspring's favorite snacks -- into a baggie. "Noooooo!" There were tears, there was howling, and finally there was an explanation.

"The other kids will make me share!"

I suggested that he keep the rugelach hidden in the lunchbox, and pull them out one at a time when he was ready to eat them. The Mate told him to tell the kids that his Dad said he wasn't allowed to share.

I think I'd better get a hold of that book about all the important things the author learned in kindergarten and see if deception and appeal to higher authority are among them.

01 March 2009

There's No Such Thing as Clean Coal

For more information, check out "The Dirty Lie."

Nationalized Health Care

I've long been convinced, mostly on an anecdotal basis, that the US needs nationalized health coverage. All three people in my immediate family live with chronic illness. The copay for the doctor's office is $10. Each prescription is a dollar a day.

Not so bad, right? Now multiply that by two doctor's visits a month and calculate that between the three of us, we take a minimum of seven medications a day. That's a baseline of $2795, before emergency room visits ($50 copay each time) plus extra medications every time someone gets sicker. For far too many weeks of the year, someone in the family is taking an additional two or three or four medications a day.

Then there's the time and energy spent arguing with the doctors' office and the insurance company. Right now, we're in collection over a visit to the ER last winter. I went in with an asthma attack around 10:30 p.m. By the time I saw the doctor, it was after midnight. So the ER bill is dated Feb. 24, and the doctor's bill is dated Feb. 25.

The insurance company is refusing to pay because of the "discrepancy" between the two bills, and the doctor, reasonably enough, wants to get paid. The way the system is set up, he comes after us, not the insurance company, and we get caught in the middle.

The Mate has been dealing with all of this, ad nauseam. He is a saint in other ways, too.

Then recently I ran into a friend whose son had health problems last year. They're still working on paying off the medical bills: their health plan requires a $500 copay for a hospital stay -- on top of $100 for a visit to the emergency room -- and her son was admitted to the hospital several times as the doctors tried to sort out the illness.

Don't like anecdotes? Think these are isolated incidents? Go check out Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times today on the bigger picture.

President Obama is working to expand access to health care. The insurance companies and the pharmaceuticals industry, who make a lot of money based on our current broken system, are going to hit back hard, just like they did when Hillary Clinton tried to nationalize health care almost two decades back.

Make sure your elected officials know that your tax money, as well as what you pay for your own health insurance, needs to go to health care, not into the pockets of insurance company executives. If you don't know who they are, find your senators here and your representatives here. Send an email, make a phone call, or write a letter.

Thank you.

26 February 2009

Superman Was An English Major

Patricia Cohen wrote in the New York Times yesterday that "in tough times, the humanities must justify their worth." She quotes Andrew Delbanco, the director of the Columbia University program in American Studies, who says that humanities professors are in a state of "panic that their field is becoming irrelevant."

Panic? As an English professor, I don't think so. Whenever I teach literature to non-majors, I make a case about the importance of the course, and I do that regardless of the value of the Dow that week.

I talk to my students about how reading old books can help us understand our own lives. I try to show them how reading about times and places far away and long ago can help give us perspective on our own time and place -- precisely because of the temporal and geographical distance that allows a more dispassionate perspective.

I also remind them that a lot of what they'll be doing when they go off and do desk jobs is writing email messages (and maybe even the occasional memo) in which they have to try to persuade people to see or do things their way. All the reading and writing they do in their college humanities courses will help them learn how to persuade their co-workers to collaborate and their bosses to give them promotions or raises.

Degrees in history and political science (a field of the humanities, despite the name) seem to be a common qualification for political office: President Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Bush (lest you accuse me of liberal bias), John F. Kennedy, and Joe Biden all majored in one or the other (or, in Biden's case, both).

Some famous English majors include the astronaut Sally Ride, New York state governor Mario Cuomo, Superman -- well, okay, the actor Christopher Reeves, as well as other acting greats like Paul Newman, Emma Thompson, Susan Sarandon, and Harrison Ford. Penn State's football coach Joe Paterno was an English major; so was Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel prize in medicine, as well as baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti.

History, English, anthropology, political science, and other fields in the humanities teach students to think and to write, to ask questions and to keep learning. The world has been in a state of constant change for the past century, and it doesn't look as though this is going to change in the coming generations.

We need leaders who can think, who can ask hard questions, and who can adapt to change. We also need a society composed of people who can do these things -- who can ask the hard questions of the elected officials and help move the nation and the world forward in peace and prosperity into the next generations.

And me? I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and then moved on to graduate degrees in literature.

Education in a career-oriented field prepares students for a career. Education in the humanities prepares students to learn the fundamentals of a variety of different careers. It prepares them for life.

21 February 2009

Defining "Workout"

In my mind, I'm still an ex-triathlete.

To "work out" means to go off and do hill repeats on my bike, or run some 90-second 440s around the track, or swim a few thousand yards, or go out and run for a couple of hours.

In my dreams, I'm running another marathon, or hiking across the Alps, or backpacking a section of the Appalachian Trail, or bicycle touring in Greece. I've been lucky enough to do all of those things.

But these days, I walk for two miles and call it a "workout." And I am working on being gentle enough with myself not to call that totally lame.

19 February 2009

Recycle #5 Plastics

Preserve, a manufacturer of green household products, will now take your #5 plastics and Brita filter cartridges. Yogurt and shampoo are frequently sold in #5 containers, which aren't recyclable in many cities. Preserve will also take Brita filter cartridges and recycle the #5 casing.

The address to mail plastics to Preserve is here. A list of Whole Foods stores where you can drop off #5 plastics is here.

Why Do We Need to Save Queer Theory?

Lawmakers in Georgia want to get rid of professors who are doing research on and teaching sexuality and queer theory. CNN has a (misleading) report here or read about it in the Athens Banner-Herald here.*

According to Georgia state representative Calvin Hill, "Our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, math." Right... we don't need any historians, teachers, social workers, musicians. Henry Ford said it succinctly: "History is bunk." Ford also was a good buddy of Adolf Hitler's.

There are two important issues here. First, the issue of the legitimacy of queer theory and sexuality as topics of research and study. Scholars nationwide, and indeed around the world, have been engaged in queer theory in recent decades.

In just my own field of literary study, it allows for new approaches to texts from the point of view of alternatives to heterosexuality which may include chaste marriage (see Carolyn Dinshaw on the Middle English Life of Margery Kempe), homoeroticism (I'll make a plug for my own article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), or Beowulf's failure to marry and leave an heir, leaving his people in chaos after his death from dragon-venom.

I could go on. I could swerve over to issues of AIDS, gay marriage, and teenage parenthood, some of the topics addressed in courses on sexuality. But I'm going to stop here because there's a larger and more critical issue of academic freedom. The Georgia representatives want these professors fired because of the subject of their research and teaching.

Faculty need to be able to be free to do research, write, and teach without interference from the state. Full stop.

If, under pressure from Christians, we exempt queer theory from that freedom, what's next?

*If you read all the way to the bottom of the Banner-Herald article, by the way, you'll find an unfortunate comment from Georgia State spokeswoman Andrea Jones:
"Teaching courses in criminal justice, for example, does not mean that our students are being prepared to become criminals. Quite the opposite," said Jones. "Legitimate research and teaching are central to the development of relevant and effective policy."
So... queers are like criminals?

17 February 2009

Language Geeks Will Like This

The word "wordsmith" seems to be cropping up a lot in various places these days. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as "a skilled user or maker of words" and locates its print origin in an 1873 issue of the Contemporary Review.

Lately, though, I've been hearing the word used as a verb (a usage not yet recognized by the OED), so I searched further on Google* to see what's up.

I didn't find out, because I got distracted and transfixed by the Internet Anagram Server, also known as I, Rearrangement Servant.

I entered "grammatical." It answered:

548 found.
Displaying all:
Grammatical
Magical Tram
Magical Mart
Tarmac Gal Mi
Tarmac Lag Mi
....


If you want to see more of the list, go see for yourself.

*Slightly related note: I think my father has coined a new usage for Google. The Mom was searching with no luck for applesauce made in the fall. The Dad: "She Googled the freezer for applesauce, but didn't find any."

14 February 2009

Ten Thousand Villages

Just added to "Where to Shop": Ten Thousand Villages, a company that offers fair trade goods from all over the world on line as well as in shops across the United States and Canada.

The company sells beautiful hand made jewelry, stationery, gifts, and decorative and useful things for home and garden. Plus, you get to feel good about helping people in impoverished communities around the world earn a fair, living wage for their handiwork.

Here, a couple of wall hangings from Haiti and India:

09 February 2009

Weighing In, Reluctantly, On Ms. Suleman

The Mate and I spent ten long years longing for offspring before -- big surprise -- The Offspring made his appearance. (Yes, we attempted adoption. Maybe I'll tell that story another day.) So I really don't have it in me to judge Nadya Suleman for wanting children, and even for wanting several children, even though I don't think she's been particularly wise.

On the other hand, the environmental cost is clearly very high: fourteen children consume a considerable amount more resources than one or two, and going forward it's likely that those fourteen children will contribute additional numbers of people to the planet's burgeoning population in the next generation.

The other thing that bothers me about it is the medical resources used -- in vitro fertilization, frozen embryos, lengthy hospital stays for babies born prematurely and severely underweight and, most likely, further medical treatment for problems resulting from low birth weight (at birth, the biggest of the babies weighed 3 pounds, 4 ounces, and the smallest only a pound and a half).

Two weeks later, all the babies are still in incubators.

Doctors worry about babies being born weighing less than 5 1/2 pounds. That's almost four times the size of the littlest baby.

The Mate and I decided to forgo fertility treatment, for a host of reasons. We'd both been living with chronic illness for many years, and we just couldn't face signing up for more medical treatment. At least as importantly, though, we felt it wouldn't be right to use the medical resources required for fertility treatment when there were so many people out there with limited access to health care.

Obviously, our choice not to attempt pregnancy through medical intervention didn't mean that someone else with no health insurance was suddenly going to get access to excellent medical care. And however Ms. Suleman paid for IVF, and however she's paying for eight childrens' stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, those resources wouldn't be paying for well baby visits for un- or under-insured children if she hadn't had octuplets.

At the same time, we are in the midst of a health care crisis, with spiraling medical costs and tens of millions of Americans lacking in any health insurance. The costs associated with keeping eight tiny babies in intensive care for weeks, or even months, are staggering, and the series of choices made to arrive at that outcome is hard to support.

Even if some private citizen is paying, those are resources that would be better used to treat thousands of un-insured kids for routine and not-so-routine childhood illnesses.

Update: The New York Times estimates based on average costs of care for premature babies that the hospital care for the octuplets, until they're able to go home, could come to $1.3 million.

08 February 2009

Running on Empty?

Allen Salkin throws down the gauntlet in the New York Times with this challenge: "You Try to Live On 500K in This Town."

Among the costs of being a banker living in New York, Salkin includes private school ($32,000 per child), a nanny ($45,000 per year), dresses for the little woman's charity balls (three at $35,000), vacation (two per year at a minimum of $8,000 each), car with armed driver ($125,000 per year), garage for that car ($700 a month).

Oh, and then for a "modest three-bedroom apartment," $8000 a month each for mortgage and maintenance. Salkin also details the various taxes paid by our benighted banker. Wait, private school PLUS a nanny? That would imply that both mom and dad are working, which means they're not trying to survive on just that measly $500,000 a year.

Well, let's see. In 2007, the median income in New York City was $48,631. ("Median" is not the average, but the number at which point half the people make more, and half the people make less.)

More than our banker pays his nanny. More than the folks who press the banker's shirts, alter his $1000 Brooks Brothers suits, shine his (overwhelmingly, as Nicholas Kristof points out, he's a he) shoes, run the cash registers where his wife buys $425 worth of groceries every ten days (what are they eating? how much are they throwing away?), and, presumably, though the article doesn't mention this cost, more than he pays the woman (again, a near demographic certainty) who cleans his house.

In 2009, this English professor is living in New York City on an income far below half a million, in fact well below six figures. I'm fortunate to make more than the median income, but after taxes, it's not that far above the median.

Public school: $1000 donation to the PTA. Nanny: none. Dresses for charity balls: yeah, right. Vacation: can I drive there? Car: $12,500. Driver: none. Garage: $248 per month. Babysitter: $10 an hour. My modest three-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood just memorialized by the musical "In The Heights" has a mortgage of $1283; the maintenance just went up to $1000.

Candace Bushnell explains why our banker needs all the status symbols his money buys:
So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.
Huh. And I thought the joy of getting out of high school was getting beyond all that peer pressure.

Update: The Dad, a retired mathematics professor, points out that "median" is a kind of average -- just not the kind we're used to thinking about, where you add up all the values and then divide by the number of values. Sorry, Dad.

07 February 2009

Tiny Heartbreaks. Or, Learning from The Offspring

At synagogue today, they had the kids celebrating Tu B'Shevat (the New Year for Trees) by making little ... trees ... out of half a cucumber, lots and lots of toothpicks, and bits of dried fruit and candy. The payoff: the kids were going to get to eat the dried fruit and the candy afterward.

I helped pass around the dried fruit and the candy so I could surreptitiously check the labels, and as suspected, the fruit was preserved with sulfites and the candy had red #40. These set off The Offspring's asthma, so I had to go and quietly tell him he would only be able to eat the cucumber.

"I know," he said quietly.

I promised a treat afterward, and he pulled all the toothpicks out and happily ate the cucumber. After lunch he got trail mix with nuts, raisins, and carob chips, which he enjoyed with gusto.

His resigned acceptance of the situation made my heart ache more, I think, than if he'd cried or whined. Once again, I learned something from him about accepting the things we can't change, and appreciating the things we can have.

06 February 2009

Another New Habit

My daily walk and my two-minute shower both fell by the wayside last week because I was flattened by the worst sinus infection of my life. Just before I was felled, I was walking up to four miles a day and was feeling that it was time to try running again.

I'm better now and I've resumed walking, which means it's time to create another new habit. This time, I'm going to try to fit more exercise into my life by alternating between yoga and lifting light weights. Following the example of Leo Babauta, I'm going to start by attempting just ten minutes a day.

In his book, The Power of Less, Babauta writes that it's important to set goals, but also to set a limited number of goals. My big goal for this year is to improve my health by exercising more and getting better and more regular sleep. (I already eat very well, and I finally cut my junk food habit last spring; if anyone has a suggestion about what else I can do, fire away.)

I was hoping for a 30-day walking streak. The sinus infection cut that short. But I started again as soon as I could, because by that time, the habit was set. I've been trying to add more yoga and more weightlifting into the mix for years now and I'm hoping the ten-minute method finally gets me there.

05 February 2009

Quality of Life and Consumption of Resources

Colin Beavan of No Impact Man writes today about the problem of prioritizing our use of resources. He asks:
How many resources are we wasting--both as individuals and as a culture--on things that don't even improve our lives? If we made a rule of targeting resources only at things that delivered quality of life, we would end up automatically saving the planet.

I find this a difficult question, in part because the term "quality of life" must certainly mean many different things to different people. Also, the question itself implies a certain level of financial stability and comfort, things unavailable to so many people in the US and around the world.

The notion of "quality of life" seems to extend beyond minimal needs and into things we want. In this sense, one person's quality of life may be enhanced by a really nice pair of hiking boots, and someone else's, by a really nice motorcycle.

Beyond the question of differences in how various people might define "quality of life," I find the question difficult to answer for myself. Supporting a family on the salary of an English professor (without credit card debt or auto loans) means living a little on the lean side, and besides that we're fairly ecologically conscious, and we try not to buy things that are on a fast track to the dump.

I'm fairly constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce my ecological impact, and over the past couple of years, I've made some small changes. I've brought a towel to my office so I don't have to use so many paper towels. I've cut back on buying take-out for lunch, in large part because of the sheer amount of garbage this produces. I've always made an effort to buy clothes that will last for a long time (in both quality and style). In the past couple of years, I've tried harder to find used clothing and to buy things made of hemp, which has a much lower environmental profile than cotton.

But I do buy things that are clearly not necessary. Today, for example, I'm awaiting delivery of a new cell phone. Nothing wrong with the old one, but the new one has a significantly better-quality camera, and I want to be able to take better photos of The Offspring and download them to my computer so I can store them and send them to friends and family. To what extent will this improve my "quality of life"?

Plus I'm a sucker for books, for myself as well as for The Offspring. I could use the library more; I could buy used books. But I like owning books, and I like new books with crisp pages and unmutilated spines.

I don't have an answer to this today. No Impact Man has me thinking, as he often does. Go see what he has to say, and tell me what you think.

03 February 2009

Getting Rid of Junk Mail

A couple of years ago, I signed up to opt out of junk mail. You can do that through the Direct Marketing Association.

Unfortunately, this didn't actually have much of an effect on the amount of stuff I was getting in the mail, because it didn't stop the companies from whom I had ever ordered something by phone or on line from sending me catalogue after catalogue --or from selling (or as they call it, "renting") my name and address to other companies.

So a few months ago, I started collecting catalogues, and then I sat down one afternoon and made a bunch of phone calls. I requested that each company:

1. take me off their mailing list
2. take my information off their rent/sell/trade list

This has had a huge impact. The catalogues and their friends and their cousins have vanished from my mailbox, significantly reducing the amount of paper I throw in the recycling bin at the end of the week. It also means that I don't leaf through catalogues discovering things I "need" to buy.

Unfortunately, now what I get in my mail is mostly bills. And they're mostly from the health insurance company, billing me repeatedly for things that they are supposed to cover but have rejected, due to some combination of errors made by someone in the doctor's office or at the insurance company. If I made that many mistakes, I'd lose my job ... but that's a topic for another day.