31 March 2011

Staying Away from BPA

Earlier this year, I wrote about the problem with tin cans: they're lined with plastic containing BPA. A friend just sent me a link to an article with more information on the problems with the chemical -- used as an additive to make plastic softer and more pliable -- and recommendations for how to avoid it.

According to the article, it should be easy to avoid drinking bottled water, eating with plastic utensils, or storing food in plastic containers; moderately difficult to switch to French press coffee and avoid microwaveable meals; and hard to stop eating food out of cans.

I found the difficulty ratings curious. Bottled water, plastic forks, French press -- check. (I also like the French press because there's no filter to throw away, and after breaking a few glass ones, I switched to a stainless steel one that will last forever. Why wouldn't using one be easy?)

But I don't own a microwave, and when I did for a couple of years recently, I was using it to reheat leftovers (in glass containers), bake potatoes, warm up coffee gone cold and, memorably, attempt to bake a couple of beets (they caught fire: not just smoke, actual flames). I can't imagine wanting to eat a microwaveable meal. (Do they make vegan ones? Maybe that has something to do with it.)

I've been cooking my own beans lately (right now, there are black beans in the fridge and pintos cooling in the crock pot) and have been working toward avoiding cans altogether. There's still some canned coconut milk and one stray can of chick peas in the larder, but I'm getting closer.

But avoiding plastic containers? I've been having trouble with that. I have some stainless steel containers in the house with lids that don't fit well, and some glass bowls with plastic lids as well as plenty of empty canning jars, at this time of year. But the glass sits at the back of the cabinet unused, and it's the plastic containers I go for, time after time -- because I know it won't break.

27 March 2011

It's The Stoop, And I Like It

I was having coffee with a friend the other day. I'll call her "Anne" We were talking about using on-line fora to create virtual communities with students and colleagues, and I said that one of my reasons for joining was to try to foster community among students in my department's MA program.

Anne asked what Facebook is about, and here's the explanation I came up with: it's the stoop. Anne and I met years ago when we were both graduate students and lived in adjacent buildings in the East Village. Whenever the weather allowed for it, after a day of teaching a learning, reading and writing, we'd emerge to hang out on Anne's building's front steps.

We'd greet people, dogs, children who walked by. Sometimes just a nod, sometimes a wave to someone on the other side of the street. Some people would stop for a brief chat, others would sit and join us for a while. We got to know the people in the neighborhood.

And it struck me, talking to Anne the other day, that Facebook is a virtual neighborhood. For me, it brings together old friends, more recent friends, and family members. In a much earlier time, all of these people would have lived in the same neighborhood, and we'd see each other regularly, mostly for a wave or brief greeting, sometimes for a longer conversation.

Lawrence Buell writes in The Future of Environmental Criticism that the spaces we inhabit have become like an archipelago, with spaces where we live and work, where we went or our children go to school like islands in a sea, no longer connected, and the people associated with each activity also now distinct.

Facebook brings them back together into a single virtual space. On my way to work, or on my lunch break, I can nod to an old friend or chat quickly with a cousin in a different state or on a different continent. I can send a message to a colleague who lives thousands of miles away.

Sometimes it turns out that friends from vastly different parts of my life know each other. On Facebook, I've become acquainted with a friend of a friend who knows my aunt in a different state.

Anne wondered about Facebook and privacy, about what it means to be "friends" on Facebook with colleagues or students. I pointed out that we don't sit on the stoop or walk through the neighborhood in our underwear. We choose the personae we show the world, whether in "real" life or in a virtual one. People have more freedom in a virtual universe to re-invent themselves, but most of the people I know who are also on Facebook don't do so.

(Yes, there are villains on Facebook, and like the "real" neighborhood, it has various dangers and pitfalls. But that's a whole other post.)

We need neighbors. We need community. In an increasingly fragmented world, in which we carry around a variety of different identities, Facebook does something to bring all of those selves together.

24 March 2011

My Mis-Spent Middle Age

You know what makes me crazy about plagiarism? The burden of proof is on me, as instructor, to document it.

That time going painstakingly over a paper and, for at least the first several pages, checking every passage I think has been "borrowed" inappropriately and tracking it down, is such god-awful work, and that time would so much better be spent in so many, many other things.

I simply fail students who cut and paste big chunks of text from a web page and passed it off as their own. But when the plagiarism is more subtle, there's substantial institutional pressure to give the student another chance.

Which means I then have to read another draft of that student's paper, and check again to be sure that the corrections have been thoroughly made.

And yes, I do understand that learning to write and to document sources appropriately and well is a recursive process, one that takes a great deal of practice. Yet I can't help but wonder how it's possible that an upper-level English major or a graduate student hasn't gotten the hang of it yet.

I will never get that time back. Will the student learn enough out of the experience to make that worthwhile? I have no idea.

22 March 2011

Somebody Else's Problem?

At the gym yesterday I was subjected to some more enforced television viewing while I warmed up on the treadmill for a weight workout. This time, it was the news. Shootings, fires, other kinds of violence exemplifying the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.

Plus a lengthy discussion of food and radiation. A lengthy discussion of the steps the US authorities are taking to make sure that food exports from Japan aren't radioactive.

And it went on, and on, and on, and on, with no reference to the people of Japan, those left alive to cope with this massive disaster, those many thousands who have perished and their hundreds of thousands of friends and family members.

I've been reminded a lot, in all this reporting about the earthquake and the tsunami and the aftermath, of the reporting of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 -- an event far less catastrophic than what has struck Japan.

The most gruesome of images, played over and over, feeding and stoking an almost salacious interest in the tragedy, the tragedy of others. And lately the constant forwarding of videos of the tsunami with comments like "awesome" seems to me to structure this new tragedy as something that doesn't belong to us, that happened to a different people in a different place and now we can forget.

I was lucky, back on that sunlit day. I was a whole mile away from the towers, looked from a mile away at the airplane-sized hole in the north tower, watched from a mile away as a tower dropped to the ground. I was able to stay in my home as the city fell silent, as cars and buses vanished from the streets and planes and helicopters from the skies above. I did not have to walk miles to get home, as several friends and family members did, and I did not lose a loved one, as did numerous acquaintances.

Yet for months afterward, after the world was finished ogling the images of destruction and death and had moved on, the residents of lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn continued to breathe the smoke as the fire continued to burn. Nearly ten years later, a new tower finally rises at the site, but the gashes and scars in the earth -- and in the psyches of many victims of that tragedy -- remain.

Today the people of Japan have barely begun to cope with the disasters that tectonic plates and human greed have wrought. But America has moved on to worrying about our imported nori and fish and rice, completely oblivious and apparently indifferent to the years of pain and work it will take to rebuild homes and bodies and souls.

17 March 2011

Radical Fatherhood?

Here's the chorus to one of my favorite songs from Peter, Paul and Mary:
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done.
Parenting has changed me, quite radically. Since I was almost 40 when The Offspring was born, I had plenty of opportunity to come into myself in adulthood. I'd lived on three continents, completed a Ph.D., worked at several different and interesting jobs, including teaching, reporting the news, and managing book production for a publishing company.

Since becoming a parent, I've become more patient and more forgiving, of myself as well as of others. I've been stymied by the challenges in being a patient and forgiving as well as appropriately stern parent, day in and day out, but I keep working at it, keep trying again to do better.

I've been astonished to discover the depths and the breadth of my love for my son, and to realize my parents felt that much love for me.

American and European societies changed fairly drastically in the 1970s with the feminist movement. But it has mostly been women who have changed: men have mostly kept on doing the kinds of things they'd been doing all along, while women have started to behave more like men.

I was endeared to The Mate, when we met a little more than 25 years ago, because he wasn't a "typical man," but did "feminine" things like talk about emotions and notice when someone is suffering. He has never asked me to be any more or less, or any different, than who I am -- never asked me to fold myself into social expectations for women.

Today, we juggle parenting; our usual calculation is that he does 75% of the childcare and I do the other 50%. He's one of a decent-sized handful of fathers we know who stay home with the kids while the moms go off professing and doctoring and lawyering and traveling the world in business.

I have a hunch that real, radical social change will happen when more men -- a significant number of men -- take the hands of their sons and daughters, and settle in to the day-to-day challenges and joys and plain old slog of parenting.

13 March 2011

Whither the Weather?

When I go to The Weather Channel to check the forecast these days, I never know what I'm going to get. Sometimes I get the temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes in Celsius -- which always gives me a moment of panic.

Sometimes it's in Chinese:
and sometimes in Spanish:
I have no idea what determines what I get on what day. But it's always a nice reminder that I live in a multilingual, multicultural city.

11 March 2011

Ecofeminists, Anglo-Saxons, and the Sea

What my desk looks like after several days straight of working on an article:
That cup of coffee looks like it's awfully close to the edge, and I'm surprised the sheet of paper at the near edge (a conference registration form) hasn't already slipped to the floor.

A friend I had lunch with yesterday laughed for quite a while when I told her what I was writing about, and then called the subject "outlandish." So today I'm going to try to articulate why I think it's important to write about this subject.

As I write, tsunami waves are racing across the Pacific ocean after engulfing Japan. We live on land, and we don't often think about our relationship with the world's seas, but they cover around two-thirds of the earth's surface, and from them we get millions of tons of food every year. Interestingly enough, about two-thirds of the human body is also water.

The need to think about the sea from the point of view of human environmental impact is exemplified by the BP oil spill, the Pacific Garbage Patch, and declines in fish populations worldwide, among many other things.

Ecofeminist ethicists point out that philosophers have thought about human selfhood in terms of oppositions between human and nature, reason and emotion, for millennia, going back to Plato and re-articulated by Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Descartes, among others. In this view, ethical relationships with others are based upon rights -- to things like life, freedom, the pursuit of individual well-being.

The problem with this is that things in the natural world, being non-human, are not presumed entitled to any rights. This, in turn, leads to the assumption that the non-human world exists for humans to use in their pursuit of individual freedoms.

There's another problem: women are, in this oppositional world-view, identified with emotion and with nature, and are viewed as less rational and thus less fully human than men.

Ecologically-minded feminist ethicists, then, argue that in order to rethink our relationship with the planet, what's needed is a dismantling of the dualist conception of human/nature, male/female, reason/emotion, and so on.

Instead of defining our selves in opposition to others who are different, we need to define our selves -- and our ethical behaviors -- in relationship to others. Instead of beginning with universals and seeing particular situations as tests of those universals, we need to begin with local, individual relationships -- between people, between people and animals, between people and places -- and work out ways of making those relationships reflect mutual respect rather than the assertion of individual rights.

But why do we need the Anglo-Saxons? I'm referring to the people of England between about 600 and 1100, when Beowulf was composed, and before the arrival of the French-speaking Normans.

We need history, because it helps us to understand our current position in the world. The ideas articulated by the English in the year 1000 or thereabouts lie behind the ideas we have today, and can help us understand them both through continuities and through contrasts.

Contemplating the Anglo-Saxon familiarity with the sea as articulated through literature of the time can help us think about our own relationship to the world's oceans today. Thinking about the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons filtered and disseminated the dualisms of Augustine can help us to understand the ways in which our own society still bases legal and social structures on them.

So the study begins with the local, and hopes to encourage a reader or two to think through to the present, to think historically and globally about the fact that humans, too, are a part of nature.

10 March 2011

Some Trivia

Back when I was first blogging, I stumbled over plinky, a web site whose writers come up with questions every day that people can use for material on twitter, Facebook, blogs, or whatever. Apparently I thought the questions were intriguing enough that I signed up to get email messages once a week with the list of the week's questions.

Usually I just glance at them and delete the email message. But this week's list struck me somehow:

Sunrise or sunset?
If you were a professor, what subject would you teach?
Share a story about your worst date ever.
If you could learn one extreme sport for free, what would it be?
What's one of the most difficult decisions you've ever had to make?
Would you care to dance?
How many languages can you speak?
My answers:

I am a professor.
I haven't been on a date in more than 25 years.
Does surfing count?
It still haunts me. I don't know if I'll ever blog about it.
Two with reasonable fluency, one with some profiency, and I can torture the natives as I try to order a meal in three others. Wanna know how many languages I can read?
So there's some trivia for you for today.

09 March 2011

Cool Pens, and Old Friends

There aren't all that many people I've known for longer than I've known The Mate. One is Justine, who I met in a philosophy course in our freshman year of college.

Justine has a talented daughter, Kate, who made these pens:
The red and yellow striped one on the left is her Gryffindor pen; I've got one on order for The Offspring. The dark brown one in the middle is made out of the same stuff they use for clarinets, and the light wood one is certified sustainable olive wood. She uses other kinds of wood, too, and various kinds of acrylics.

Wanna see how she makes them? There's a video here. She's very good with power tools, and her parents are very good about watching her use power tools without worrying that she's going to lose fingers.

If you want to buy one of these pens, I can put you in touch with Kate.

**Truth-in-blogging disclaimer: I have not been paid to write this, nor have I received a free sample.**

08 March 2011

The Trouble With Writing

One of a series of quotations cast in brass and embedded in the sidewalk between Fifth and Park, chosen by someone with a whimsical sense of humor.

100th International Women's Day

A colleague at my university reminds me that today is International Women's Day -- and in fact it's the one hundredth celebration of the day.

Back in the late 1980s, I lived and taught for a year at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, and there, they made a big deal of this holiday, reminding people in advance, celebrating it widely and publicly on the actual day.

Here in the US, it's easy to miss. The nation is busy demonstrating the meaning of Schadenfreude, in its lurid fascination with Charlie Sheen's implosion.

My colleague writes that this is a day to celebrate the women who came before us.

I celebrate my mother, who has lived for decades with a chronic illness that might cripple many but who refuses to let it stop her from running up Mount Washington, climbing all of the mountains in New Hampshire, and then doing it again in the winter, volunteering at the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in the winter, and fighting in her town to keep corporate interests from paving over open spaces to put in parking lots and big box stores.

I celebrate my grandmothers, each of whom raised a family of four children as a single mother.

My great-grandmothers. One insisted that her granddaughters, and not just her grandsons, be sent to college. One helped a family survive starvation in post-war Germany. One, in the 1970s, made a doll whose dress folded up and down to reveal two different faces -- one Black, one White, celebrating interracial family. Of the fourth, I know nothing.

Oh, and check out Google's home page today.

07 March 2011

Seeking Roots

I'm reading a lot of ecocriticism. Some of it focuses on human connections to place, and this is always something that has been troublesome for me: I don't know where I belong, and I never have.

And this, the ecocritics say, is precisely the problem with our era, call it late modernity, call it the industrial age, call it the age of reason -- ecocritics point to dislocation from place as one of its causes and symptoms and problems.

My father's family has been rooted in Maine for generations, and a few cousins still live there -- but not my father, an academic laborer and thus a migrant. My mother was a war child, a refugee, uprooted with her family from East Prussia to (West) Germany. East Prussia had ceased to exist before I was born, yet when I speak German, I'm told it's with a Prussian accent. West Germany, where I was born, has similarly ceased to exist, absorbed into the (not so newly) re-unified nation.

My mother tongue? German, apparently, though I have never spoken or written or read it with the facility with which I read and speak and write in English. In German, I struggle for words, struggle for grammatical constructs, lose track of the verbal particles as they swim across Twain's sea to emerge at at the end of the sentence.

In Germany, which has changed drastically from the place of my mother's youth, I struggle with the right levels of familiarity; I speak "without an accent" yet struggle to get my mouth and my mind around the language.

But in the United States, too, I'm an outsider. I don't "look like an immigrant," because I'm Caucasian. I don't "sound" like an immigrant, because I use English like a native speaker; I "don't have an accent." But I speak a language other than English at home; I maintain ties to another country; my passport says "Butzbach," and it seems to me that at border crossings the INS agents always pause to note my place of birth.

I feel the shame of the immigrant, the shame of difference, the shame of family ties in another place, the shame of ancestors who behaved truly badly.

I'm most at home in New York, a city above all of transplants from other places. I feel at home among migrants, immigrants, people with a million different stories of hyphenation and hybridity. Yet, some ecocritics say, that very condition of transplantation/translation is the symptom of modern dislocation and the trouble with modern life.

Since I moved away from my parents, I've lived in six different towns and cities on three continents. After twenty-three years in New York, I've lived in seven apartments in four different neighborhoods. At the moment, I'm committed to staying put until The Offspring gets out of high school in ten years. Will that be long enough to put down roots?

06 March 2011

Environment and Disability?

Can I bring environmental thinking together with analysis of how society constructs disability?

On the one hand, it ought to be obvious, because so much "disability" is in fact created by socially constructed obstacles.

On the other hand, much environmental writing has to do with idealization of individual experiences in nature that seem to require not merely absence of "dis-ability," but the ability to undertake seemingly superhuman feats of strength and stamina.

Things like climbing cliffs, walking for weeks through the woods, surviving only on what "nature" offers.

If one requires daily medical interventions (even in the form of medications) for survival, or if one needs relatively flat and smooth surfaces to move, then such feats of environmental engagement are put fully out of reach.

I'm going to stop now, before this line of thinking causes the top of my head to blow off. But a train of thought has been put in motion.

Urban Environmentalism

For a class I'm teaching, I've been rereading Lawrence Buell's The Future of Environmental Criticism. Wonderful work, but this stuck in my craw:
...the possibility of 'sustainable' living in a fast-urbanizing world might seem out of the question. It is hard to quarrel with the proposition that 'sustainable city' is oxymoronic. The 'ecological footprint' of modern cities in Europe and America -- the amount of land required to produce the resources they consume in relation to the land they occupy -- is something like 200 times larger, on average.... Meanwhile, 'consumers in the high centers of industrial civilization can take for granted the continued supply of mink from the Arctic, teakwood from India and ivory from Africa, without being [held] in the slightest degree responsible for the environmental consequences of their lifestyles' (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997: 222).
Several things bother me here.

First, if you took all the people who live in a city and spread them out across a rural or suburban landscape in the configurations in which people now live in those places, I guarantee you the ecological footprint would only grow. In cities, people live in apartments far smaller than the average suburban or rural house. They share parks, playgrounds and pools, instead of having so many individual backyards for children to play in. They use public transit or simply walk to work instead of having to drive everywhere. These are just a few of the environmental economies enabled by urban living.

Also, smaller apartments means less stuff, period. Years ago, my cousin found an article someplace in which a city dweller was quoted as saying, "If I can't eat it or wear it, I don't buy it." Obviously, urban apartment dwellers use furniture and pots and pans and other durable goods ... but there's just less space for all that stuff than in a big house outside a city.

Second, it's by no means the case that no one who lives in a city has any sense of the environment. Just one example: No Impact Man. I could give you myself as a second example, but Colin Beavan has a lot more followers.

Third, the vast majority of city dwellers aren't buying Indian teak and African ivory and arctic mink. They're plugging along at or near subsistence levels, making things last as long as possible, making do with what they have, taking the train and the bus to work and school, and just generally moving through life with less individual environmental impact than they would if they lived in a house in the suburbs or even on a farm in the country.

Yes, urban environments are disconnected in some important ways from nature. But if you took all the people in the cities and spread them out, they would have an even larger environmental impact.

03 March 2011

Spring Break, Professor Style

Orlando? Fort Lauderdale? Paris? On the couch watching videos?

No, none of the above.

Grade papers.
Grade exams.
Grade more papers.
Calculate and submit midterm grades.
Review transcripts for grad students in our program and send requests to the computer to move things around, because a programming glitch means courses aren't appearing in the right categories.
Answer email messages complaining about grades on papers (see above; I submit feedback on line so they don't have to wait until after the break to get it back).
Answer emails from advisees about course registration for next year (the course schedule has just been released).
Draft an article.
Revise a different article.
Draft a new course proposal.

If that all gets done, work on a book proposal.

That looks like enough to keep me busy for the next month or two; too bad the break is only a week.

Too bad I'm also hoping to do some work around the apartment (we moved in July and still don't have window coverings up, except in the bedrooms), catch up on sleep, jump-start my exercise plan, go to a lecture at Columbia, get some renovations started in the kitchen, and spend some time with my kid.

01 March 2011

Wardrobe Malfunction

Lost my gloves on one of the trains on the way home today. Fortunately, it was 40 degrees for my glove-less ride home, and fortunately it's only a 15-minute ride ... but the paws got very chilly.

And they were my favorite gloves.

Well... it's a good thing spring is almost here and I won't need gloves at all much longer.

Creating Habit

I've done the bike/train ride combination to work enough times now that it's become habit, and instead of worrying about navigating the route, finding platforms, making connections, getting off at the right stop, I can settle down pretty immediately and get to work or take a nap.

I also have head space to enjoy the trip. Pretty chilly this morning: 34 degrees when I started my trip, 38 when I got to the other end of the train trip and got back on the bike. That proved an important four-degree difference, given a stiff wind, so that the second leg of the bike ride was really, truly pleasant, with a bright blue sky and warm sun at my back.

(This also exemplifies the importance of the idea that "there's no bad weather, only bad clothes." I was dressed for the temperature, which meant I didn't have to be uncomfortable, even on the earlier, colder end.)

I also played along with Plastic-Free February, after my initial snit about how impossible it in fact is to avoid plastic, by committing to bringing lunch to work rather than buying it at the student cafeteria, where I end up with a salad in a plastic bowl and some rice and beans on a styrofoam (!) plate.

(Here I sit, typing on a plastic keyboard in a plastic chair at a desk with a plastic top next to a lamp with a plastic shade, drinking coffee out of a plastic and metal mug. In a few minutes, I'll print some documents using a plastic printer and edit them using a plastic mechanical pencil.)

Bringing lunch, too, has become habit, enabled by planning ahead to make sure there are either leftovers from a recent dinner or bread in the house to make a couple of sandwiches.

Now: Back to Operation Get Off the Couch. I've been trying, with reasonable success, to work out at lunch time, but there are just too many days when I don't even take lunch. Which means bigger changes: making time to work out either early in the morning or late at night, before or after work.

So I'm going to try this: getting up 45 minutes earlier twice a week *** shudder *** to go for a 30-minute run. I'll save the longer workout for the days when I can get out at midday. But somehow, I need to change my habits to make a routine of getting more exercise.

I'll give it a shot for the month of March.