25 February 2011

Health isn't The Most Important Thing

"...it's the only thing."

Saw that on the office of somebody's door last semester, someone who works in the field of health. And it really bugged me, but it's taken me a long time to put my finger on exactly how and why it's bugging me.

I got it.

It creates a polarity, divides people into two distinct groups of people, with no possibility for existence in between.

The healthy? Lucky. I suspect, too, that a lot of people who subscribe to this belief also think that the healthy are doing lots of things right. They don't smoke, they eat well, they exercise, they've banished their personal demons, all through strength of will.

The unhealthy, by contrast, are unlucky or badly behaved, or perhaps simply weak in discipline. They brought diseases upon themselves or simply chose poor genetic material.

(I'm using "unhealthy" very broadly here to mean anyone with a physical or mental impairment, whether caused by illness or accident or roll of the genetic dice, as well as anyone with a chronic or intermittent illness.)

Placing the unhealthy in the position of culpability has a number of problematic effects, one of which is the attitude that society doesn't need to provide health insurance, because people should take better care of themselves so they won't get sick and won't need to see the doctor.

Calling the unhealthy "unlucky" is also problematic. It suggests that those who are unhealthy can't be happy or productive. It suggests that those who are not completely able and disease-free should be pitied. Also, they should probably take better care of themselves and avoid activities that exacerbate the illness, even if they're activities that allow independence. And this becomes paternalistic.

So let's hang on to the first part of that sentence on the door: "Health isn't the most important thing." Because it's not.

It's entirely possibly to live a rich, full, varied life while "unhealthy."

24 February 2011

Like Atoms in Space

When I'm riding my bike along the East River at dusk, it seems as if all of New York City is in motion. With me on the pavement are other bike commuters, recreational cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers, and the occasional couple canoodling on a bench -- and they, too, will soon move on.

On the river beside me, the ferry on its way to New Jersey, the river taxi coming from one of the airports. A few minutes earlier or later, and I might have seen one of the evening cruise boats, or the huge Department of Environmental Protection ship moving slowly but inexorably along the water.

On the other side, the FDR drive, headlights and taillights speeding by in both directions, and now the flashing lights of an ambulance, just as quickly gone.

Overhead on the bridges, subways and buses bringing people home from work, or in for the night shift, or just out for the evening. Trucks: produce, clothing, books and beer and all the other things you can buy in the big city.

Even higher, a helicopter choppering its way downtown, headed maybe for the landing pad at the South Street Seaport, or maybe going on to cross New York Harbor for Staten Island or New Jersey, or maybe just aiming for a spot above one of the bridges to report on the traffic.

And far above that, airplanes aiming across America or out over open water, carrying passengers to Cleveland or California or Korea, a million stories in the sky.

The high rises on the other side of the FDR, with lights flickering on inside: such temporary landing places for all this bustle, seeming, in this magic hour of transition from light to darkness, to possess little more permanence than a park bench.

22 February 2011

Logging Work

Last week, I wrote with dismay that Kean University is requiring professors to keep time sheets proving that they work at least 35 hours a week.

Out of curiosity about how many hours I actually spend working, I started keeping track of my own time. To my own surprise, I spent 41 hours and 45 minutes working last week. Working, that is, at tasks related to my academic position -- so not including child care, household responsibilities, reading the paper, checking Facebook, or writing this blog.

Why surprise? Because The Offspring came down with a virus at school on Thursday, and I had to pick him up in the middle of the day, thus losing half that day and the entire day on Friday to work. I also spent several hours in the car on Saturday driving The Offspring to The Grandparents, where he's spending his winter vacation, so again no job-related tasks.

I'm going to keep this log for at least another week. I'm now quite curious about how much time I actually spend working during a "normal" week.


A log is a large piece of wood -- a material used extensively through much of human history for fuel and construction material.

The Oxford English Dictionary records that in the sixteenth century, the word "log" began to be used in a more specific sense to mean a piece of wood attached to a line, thrown by sailors into the water, and allowed to drift behind a ship, with the line unwinding as the ship moved forward. After two hours or so, the "log" would be pulled back to the ship, and the length of the line that had unwound in that time measured, to find out how fast the ship was traveling.

The distances would, each time, be entered into a "log-book." And in the early nineteenth century, we get "log" as a verb meaning to enter information into a log-book.


I have a feeling I'm not going to be entirely thrilled about how many hours I discover, in the next week or two, I spend "at work" -- at my office or at home, at night after The Offspring goes to bed, on weekends while he's reading a book or out with The Dad.

20 February 2011

Unions and Student Achievement

It's going around Facebook: five states prohibit collective bargaining for teachers, and their students rank lowest in the nation in average SAT scores. But is it true?

Well, no.

Here's a map from the National Council on Teacher Equality that shows the five states that prohibit teachers from unionizing. The states: Texas, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and Virginia.

The data:

According to a table posted here, the five lowest states for combined scores in all three subtests are Maine, Hawaii, South Carolina, Georgia, and New York, with Texas coming in at #6.

(I'm using the total of scores on all three subtests for this ranking; the website only provides the scores broken down by subtest, so I copied the data into an Excel spreadsheet to do the addition and the comparisons.)

However, this data is skewed by the percentage of students who take the test; more takers seem to translated to lower scores. Maine requires all juniors to take the SAT; 90 percent of students in fact take it; and Maine has the lowest average scores in the nation. Next on the list, with 85 percent of students taking the SAT, is New York, which also falls into the five-lowest group.

But South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas have lower percentages of students taking the SAT -- 67, 71, and 51 percent, respectively -- so on the assumption that where better students self-select to take the SAT, the averages should be higher. So the fact that those three states rank 3rd, 4th, and 6th should still prompt a hard look at educational policies, and how they might be affecting achievement.

(How about Virginia and North Carolina? 12th and 8th from the bottom, respectively, with 63 and 68 percent of students taking the test.)

Update: I looked up ACT scores, and it's not true for those, either. I was wondering, though, if Texas is an ACT state and that's why such a low percentage of students take the SAT -- but only 33 percent of Texas students take that test. Is this the result of former Governor Bush's No Child Left Behind policies?

18 February 2011

Assault on Education

At Idaho State University, the state Board of Education has suspended the faculty senate.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, the state legislatures want to ban unions entirely, including the unions that represent college faculty and public school teachers.

In New Jersey, faculty at one institution are being required to fill out time sheets to prove that they actually spend a whole 35 hours a week at work.

In South Carolina, the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would require all faculty to teach at least nine hours a week. A Republican state representative said "I think we need to have professors in the classroom and not on sabbatical and out researching and doing things to that effect."

What does he think faculty are up to when they're "out researching"? Where does he think knowledge comes from? (Also, maybe he doesn't realize that it's a tiny number of faculty who teach fewer than nine hours a week -- 12 or 15 is standard at many schools.)

In New York City, the mayor appointed a schools chancellor with no experience -- none at all -- in any kind of education system.

A lot of this is about labor. New York's governor Cuomo is also apparently thinking of unions when he writes that the state's education system is "bloated with waste and inefficiency."

But I'm struck by the number of assaults specifically on teachers.

What is it about education as a profession -- from kindergarten through graduate school -- that has the public steaming so badly? Is it the disconnect between a public that sees education as a credential to be paid for, and a faculty that demands it be worked for? Or something broader and deeper than that?

Smoking and NJ Transit (Again)

Smoking on the train platform at Long Branch continues to be a problem; NJ Transit has refused to take constructive action. I've just written this letter to the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic:
I’m writing in the hope that you can help with suggestions for constructive action.

I regularly take the New Jersey transit train from New York City to Long Branch, NJ, and though there are no-smoking signs along the platform at the Long Branch Station, people routinely smoke under them.

I’ve asked train attendants to remind the smokers they’re not permitted to smoke on the platforms; they say it’s not their job. I’ve asked the station attendant to make announcements reminding riders that smoking isn’t permitted on the platform; sometimes she does. I’ve asked smokers myself to stop, and received very rude responses.

I’ve contacted the NJ Transit customer service office. Their official response: “Call the police when you see someone smoking.” They also suggested that I not speak to any smokers myself.

(It should be irrelevant – everyone is entitled to clean air – but I’m asthmatic, with severe allergy to smoke of all kinds, and recovering from a bout of pneumonia last month.)

Do you have any contacts at NJ Transit? Any suggestions about how to draw more attention to this issue and get NJ Transit to act constructively?

Thank you very much for your time.

My next step might be the local papers. Anyone reading this have another idea?

Update: Nine minutes after I sent the above message, I got this reply:

Thank you for your email. Let me start some conversations about this. I appreciate you making me aware of the situation.

17 February 2011

Should Environmental Action Hurt?

I just stumbled over a carbon footprint calculator that tells you how much carbon you can avoid spewing into the environment by making various lifestyle changes.

One of the sections available is drinking less. And I learned that if I cut out my habit of drinking a glass of wine or a little single malt once a week or so, I can reduce my carbon output by something like 266 pounds a year.

Context: if I ride my bike to work one day a week instead of driving, I save 2619 pounds of CO2.

More context: I've never in my life been drunk. Having a drink relaxes me a little at the end of the day, and I like the taste. I've gone weeks, months, sometimes years, without having a drink and without missing it.

But for some reason the idea that I should cut back leaves me feeling kind of whimpery.

Which raises another issue. If I'm already doing lots of things to try to reduce my environmental impact -- avoiding meat, trying to drive less, choosing fair trade coffee, living in a small apartment rather than a big house, even drinking relatively little alcohol -- what responsibility do I have to cut back further?

To what extent should changing our lives make us uncomfortable? Can we reverse, or even slow, climate change without collectively being very uncomfortable?

16 February 2011

Updates: Plastic-Free Commuter Workout

Plastic-Free February: I said I was going to try to pack lunch every day this month to avoid the amount of plastic that comes with lunch at my institution's lunch joint.

I've done pretty well. I've met people for lunch on two days, but otherwise I've packed from home -- until today, when the alarm didn't get set and I ran out of time. But I survived on almonds and miso packets that I keep in my desk, plus fruit from a meeting I went to. Got home famished.

As for the commuter chronicles ... I took public transit and the folding bike to work again yesterday, for only the second time this semester. (This is week five.) Last week it was so cold, I was worried about freezing myself, and also worried that the switches would freeze and the trains would run late. So I drove.

But with the weather warming up and the days getting longer, I'm looking forward to spending a lot more time on the bike in the coming weeks.

And I've been doing pretty well at getting off the couch and into the gym, plus I've been getting more walking.

There is an issue: the treadmills all face a bank of four televisions. I don't get sound -- there are headphones for that -- but I have yet to figure out how to change the channel, or have the courage to turn the machines off, and I've unwillingly watched a show with a whole lot of shootings and blood, and then there were the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, who were so mean to each other I just wanted to go home and shower. And it wasn't the sweat I wanted to wash off.

But soon I'll be able to do my running outdoors, and use the gym just for the weights, which don't face the TVs. I'm still looking for an event of some sort to train for, to push myself harder to get in shape. Maybe an early summer 10K or even a late summer half-marathon, if I chicken out of entering the lottery for the Mount Washington Road Race.

I keep running across this idea that we should be kind to ourselves lately. I guess I've reached the point where I'm ready to hear it. So I'm trying to focus on the times I've done what I wanted to, rather than beating myself up for the times I haven't.

15 February 2011

Accounting for Time

Kean University is requiring faculty to fill out time sheets to prove to administrators that they work at least a 35-hour week.


First of all, most of the faculty I know work at least a fifty-hour week. And most of us work seven days a week. I'm going to attempt to keep a time sheet for the next seven days, starting with getting up this morning to check email.

This will tell me how many hours I really spend working this week, but it will also be interesting to document how work saturates my life. The New York Times attributes this to technology like the Blackberry, but I remember my parents--also college professors--working nights and weekends through the 1970s (when I was a kid at home) and I know they continued to do so until they retired.

I started off this morning with ten minutes checking email, answering messages from a couple of students who didn't make an in-class essay yesterday to try to set up times for both to make up the work.

Also on the agenda for today: grading and writing detailed feedback on the essays, which the students will revise at home; re-reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and chapter 2 of Lawrence Buell's The Future of Environmental Criticism for discussion in class tomorrow; and revisions to "Research In Progress," an annual report for the Old English Newsletter.

Plus I'll attend what looks like to be a long meeting of the Graduate Studies Committee at which we'll review various curricular changes for graduate programs across the university, and then lead a workshop for undergraduate students interested in going to graduate school.

Yes, a long day. And tomorrow morning I start over.

10 February 2011

What's In Your Bag?

After I posted a list of what I keep in my wallet, I came across What's In Your Bag on flickr. Magpie wanted to know why all those photos look so neat and tidy. So here's my question for today: What's really in your bag?

I don't actually know what's in my bag. So I just dumped the contents on my desk to find out. Here goes. Truth:

Supplies (you know what I mean)
Xopenex inhaler
Burt's Bees lip balm
Cell phone
Miniature Swiss Army knife, connected by a short lanyard to a tiny LED flashlight
Valentine's day "rose" purchased from a student group to help buy hats and mittens for children in need
Plastic gadget to connect chopsticks for use by a little kid (not the chopsticks, though)One stray dime
Five band-aids
One-dose packet of Tylenol Sinus
One-dose packet of Advil

Oddly enough, there are no reading glasses in there this morning, no pencil or pen, no stray receipts.

I'd have said the pharmaceuticals had been in there for months, forgotten, except that the Tylenol expired last October, so maybe it's been years. The chopstick gadget has also been unused for a very long time.

So ... 'fess up. What's really in your bag?

09 February 2011

Where Is Tiger Dad?

There's been a lot written, and undoubtedly far more said, about Amy Chua and her vision of motherhood.

Some of the commentary talks about Chua's vision of parenting. A lot of it asks why she calls herself a Chinese mother when she was born in the midwest, and her strict ideas have a lot in common with those of immigrant parents from various cultures.

But this evening, as I watched The Mate supervise The Offspring's violin practice (for 20 minutes, not three hours, and it was The Offspring's choice of instrument), it occurred to me that once again parenting is assumed to be the domain of the mothers.

Whether Ms. Chua's parenting is applauded or reviled, it's as a mother we're judging her, and we're judging her against other mothers -- not against fathers, or against parents as a team.

08 February 2011

Getting Off the Couch

I've made it to the gym twice since shaming myself in public, both times at lunchtime (thanks, J).

Here are some things I've learned:
  • Two sets on the weight machines is enough. I don't need to take the time for three.
  • Television is even more annoying than I realized.
  • Pop music gets on my nerves after a while, too.
  • People grunting every time they heft a weight? Give it a rest.
  • Singing along with their ipod? Oh boy.
  • Last but not least: my state-of-the-art Pearl Izumi workout tights? Very, very 90s.
I need a goal. I'm looking for a goal to work toward, some time in early summer. One ambitious possibility: The Mount Washington Road Race. The race t-shirt (my mother owns several) says "only one hill" -- but it's a long, long hill.

Whaddya think? Am I totally nuts?

Sustainable NYC

I recently bought a wallet made out of recycled billboard at Sustainable NYC on Avenue A between 8th and 9th Streets, I love to browse all the great stuff they have for sale -- fair trade jewelry, green cotton socks, and stuff made out of recycled materials. Here it is:
I was there to buy gifts. But I'd been looking at my old wallet for some time, trying to decide if it was battered enough to replace, or if I should think about trying to get it repaired, and when I saw this, well, I bought it.
I was a little worried about durability. But it's been six weeks or so since I bought it, and no sign of any wear and tear so far, despite the fact that I've got it fairly well stuffed.

Current contents:
Metrocard and ten NJ Transit tickets (Newark Penn Station to Long Branch)
Debit card, two credit cards, pre-tax medical benefits card, health insurance card
Four pictures of The Offspring
Driver's license and employee ID card
NYU and NYPL library cards
Some cash

What do you carry in your wallet?

07 February 2011

Another New York Morning

I stuck my stuff in the car on the way to work this morning and asked The Mate, who was already inside, to pop the hood so I could add windshield washer fluid. I fiddled with the latch for a while* and finally got the hood up -- just in time to see a rat slither away between the battery and the engine block.

I dropped the hood, screamed, jumped back, tripped over an empty windshield washer fluid bottle (it's the season), managed to stay on my feet, and ended up in the middle of the street, where fortunately there wasn't a car coming or this might have been tragedy, not comedy.

When I found my footing again, The Mate was still sitting in the passenger seat, open-mouthed by now. "Pop the hood again." I fumbled some more and got the hood open again as The Mate emerged from the car and I told him what happened, and filled up the windshield washer tank.

"You screamed like a girl," he said. Well, yeah. Hey, New York, after twenty-two years, it seems like you still have a surprise or two in store for me.

We got back in the car and I drove off, with my head practically sticking out of the roof of the car on account of being high on all that adrenaline. "Next time, knock first," said the ever-practical Mate.
*I've had so many cars by now, it always takes a while to remember how to open the current one. The list: '76 Datsun 210, '86 Dodge Omni, '90 Dodge Colt, '93 Nissan Sentra, '96 VW Golf (fun to drive, but a money sink--got rid of it after six months), '99 Toyota Corolla, '07 Honda Fit. More trivia: I like the little hatchbacks; I like manual transmission; I've never bought a new car.

06 February 2011

Help Me Get Off The Couch

I'm trying to get back off the mailing list for Title Nine. I moved, I bought an undergarment or two, and all of a sudden I'm getting their catalogues again.

(A few years ago, I started calling all the people who were sending me junk, and telling them to take me off their mailing lists. Apparently, you also have to instruct them not to rent or sell your information. It worked: after several months, the rivers of junk mail slowed to a stream, and eventually to a trickle. It does take some maintenance, though, if you ever buy anything on line.)

So now I have these catalogues coming to the house filled with pictures of incredibly buff and quite skinny young women. The little boxes of text suggest they're real people, working moms who somehow find time to mountain bike competitively or rock climb professionally or surf several days a week. All of this makes me feel incredibly inadequate.

Hey, even when I was doing triathlons, I didn't look like those women. Ten years and one child later, I look even less like them. My BMI is a nice healthy 21.1, and I walk almost daily, even with pneumonia -- it's not like I'm a total couch potato. But there's a lot of flab.

But I know I'm supposed to get more exercise if I want to avoid getting completely decrepit as I get older. And carving out the hour that takes, three or four or five days a week, seems to be completely beyond me.

Maybe admitting to that in public will shame me into changing my slothful ways. Anyone wanna throw in a pep talk or a trick? (NO, NO, NO, I'm not getting up an hour earlier to get the exercise in. Just NO.)

04 February 2011

Plastics Again: Bag Lunch

Responses tell me that my rant about the ubiquity of plastic in our lives missed the point, or the spirit, of Plastic Free Month. So... some more serious thoughts.

I've been buying Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, and watering it down in a pump dispenser in the kitchen for handwashing. But I'm going to try going back to bar soap in the kitchen. I'm also going to try giving bar shampoo one more try, once the current bottles of shampoo run out.

Also, I saw mention somewhere of powdered dishwashing soap, in a box instead of a bottle: did they mean for handwashing? If that's for real, it would be another good improvement. (On that subject: did you know that the major brands of dish liquid are made out of petroleum? Another reason to use something like Seventh Generation, even if you have to buy it in a plastic bottle.)

But this is the big one: I bought lunch on campus twice this week. Yikes -- an awful lot of plastic, right there. So here's a vow: I'm going to try to bring lunch every day for the rest of February. Means I have to be more careful about stocking up and cooking on the weekend, to make sure that if there aren't any leftovers, there's at least bread for a sandwich.

(What can I say? I don't really like sandwiches. Yeah, yeah, go report me to HUAC.)

03 February 2011

Back on the Bike!

Operation Mass Transit took a break because January was Sick Month around here. Actually, it started in December, but I won't bore you with what my colleague calls an organ recital.

Except for this: I made the mistake of thinking I wasn't going to get better. And then suddenly I was.

The bike path on the Manhattan side of the East River, under the bridges, was almost mine alone tonight. One or two joggers, a couple of people sitting on benches, but otherwise just my own shadow chasing itself as I passed the street lights, and the water a flicker of colored lights refracted and reflected from buildings on the Brooklyn side.

Years ago, The Mate filmed a scene for a movie under there. Our Hero, riding his bike, got doored* and ended up in the hospital, where the wife and the girlfriend ran into each other visiting him.

I was line producing the movie -- low-budget, of course -- and my job to prepare for shooting that scene was to drive around the city looking for discarded mattresses to pad the actor's impact. Yep: before bed-bugs became the scourge they are today.

Soon enough, the days will get longer and warmer and I'll be sharing the path again with joggers, fishermen, tai chi devotees, pedestrians, children, shopping carts, and who knows what other manifestations of humanity. For now, I'm enjoying the solitary ride and putting up with the icy wind.

*getting doored is when you're riding along, minding your own business, and someone in a parked car opens a door right in front of you. Depending on speed of travel and reaction time, you might stay upright and maybe eat some handlebar as you scream to a stop just in time; or you might slam into the just-opened door and end up on the pavement on the other side. No, this is not urban legend.

01 February 2011

Plastic Free February

Rodale Press, publisher of Organic Gardening, Bicycling, Prevention, and other magazines and books about health, is encouraging people to give up plastic for the month of February.

Their ground rules:
1. No buying or acquiring new plastic.
2: No cooking with plastic or storing food in plastic.
3: Minimize all other plastic use.
It's an interesting thought experiment, but I don't actually think I can do this.

So much of the food I buy is packaged in plastic. Yogurt, ketchup, mayonnaise, bread, hot cereal -- even gluten-free flours, dry beans and rice. (Which, now that I think about it, is odd. If King Arthur can sell flour in paper bags, why not Bob? Must be a contamination issue.)

Most of my vegetables come in a cardboard box courtesy of Urban Organic. But frequently we pick up some extras -- most often, a bag (whoops, plastic) of onions or celery.

Also, my trash gets bagged up. In plastic. It's a requirement of the building I live in that the garbage go down the building's garbage chutes in bags, so I've reverted to bringing groceries and other purchases home in plastic bags so I can then use them for the trash. (At least each bag gets used twice; I could bring cloth bags to shop, but then I'd have to buy garbage bags.)

I have food storage containers made out of glass and metal, but most of the lids are plastic. I use mason jars (with metal lids) for some food storage, but it's often impractical, especially for bringing lunches to school and work.

I sort of assume that when the organizers of this said "no cooking with plastic" they meant not microwaving stuff in plastic containers. No microwave in my house, so no problem there, but I do own a mesh strainer with ... plastic handles ... and another strainer made entirely of plastic ... and a salad spinner made ... well, you get the idea.

And what about the handles of stainless-steel pots and pans? Crock pot ... rubber feet and plastic cord. Rice cooker: plastic all over the outside. Coffee pot: stainless body, plastic base, handle, and lid. Even the knives have plastic handles. (
Cast iron, at least, is completely free of plastic. Though I vaguely recall that when I bought one of the cast iron pans, there was a plastic coating I had to scrub off before use.)

Whaddya think? Am I just making up excuses, when I should be in my kitchen tossing out all the plastic containers and lobbying my building to provide an open bin for unbagged garbage?