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:
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.

01 February 2009

Food Dye and Prescription Drugs

Food manufacturers have to list all the sweeteners, food colorings and preservatives their product contains. So do manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs. But did you know that labeling of "inactive" ingredients remains voluntary for manufacturers of prescription drugs?

I didn't either. Until this morning, when my asthmatic son's peak flow (a measure of his ability to breathe) had plummeted from 210 to 165 overnight, after an evening dose of Azithromycin prescribed for an ear infection combined with a sinus infection, after a week of night-time coughing fits.

My son takes three prescription medications daily to keep his symptoms under control. But when he gets an upper-respiratory infection, things get immediately worse, so we treat the symptoms pretty aggressively with over-the-counter medications.

We don't keep candy around. Halloween is the only opportunity for my son to have sweets. Since he's allergic to dairy, the chocolate candies are generally out, so this year we let him have a few lollipops and skittles and the like, and then "lost" the rest of the haul. His asthma spiked. Over the months since then, we've narrowed it down to Red #40 as the culprit.

So, we went through all the OTCs. Threw out all the ones with Red #40. Searched multiple pharmacies, read the miniscule type on numerous labels, and eventually found alternatives without any red dye.

Then my son coughed all week. We took him to the doctor. I already mentioned the diagnosis. We asked the doctor to write on the prescription label that he needed a formulation without any red dye. My husband went to the pharmacy. The pharmacist can't find anything anywhere on the package that mentions inactive ingredients.

So this morning I took a walk over to my neighborhood Duane Reade. It being a Sunday morning, the place was empty, so the pharmacist had time to talk to me and inspect the labels on a whole bunch of different containers. Nuthin'.

Which is when I came home and did another Google search and found this, from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Because of an increasing number of reports of adverse reactions associated with pharmaceutical excipients, in 1985 the Committee on Drugs issued a position statement recommending that the Food and Drug Administration mandate labeling of over-the-counter and prescription formulations to include a qualitative list of inactive ingredients. However, labeling of inactive ingredients remains voluntary. Adverse reactions continue to be reported....

If you're reading this blog, do me a favor. Go write to the FDA, the Surgeon General, or the President. Tell them that labeling of inactive ingredients needs to be mandatory on prescription drugs. In fact, tell them that prescription drugs don't need any food coloring. If you do, would you please let me know?

Thank you.

Oh, and by the way? Red #40 and various other dyes known to cause reactions in a small part of the population -- but which the FDA insists are safe -- will be phased out in Europe by the end of the year. Big Pharma will be insisting it's too expensive to reformulate their medications without the dyes ... but if they're not already for sale in Europe, they will be by the end of the year.

The Problem with Screen Time

Last night, I gave myself a very good demonstration of the problem with screen time. A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to figure out, if I'm just on line reading the papers, it's different from, well, reading. So there I was on the couch last night with laptop. I was sleepy and should have gone to bed, but I wanted to look a couple of things up first. Three hours later, I had played a few games of Spider Solitaire, looked a few gazillion times at CrackBook, read around in the Times and the Guardian and the Huffington Post, and googled Nadya Suleman. I vaguely recall that I watched one embedded YouTube video, but I have no recollection of what it was about.

Had I been reading a book, I would have had to work hard enough to engage with the author's argument, or with a narrative. That probably would have persuaded me pretty quickly that I was tired enough to go to bed.

The punch line: I forgot to look up either of the things I turned the computer on for.