28 April 2011

Direct Democracy At Its Finest?

A Facebook screenshot. I know, it's tiny; here are some of the groups:
"Soldiers are not heroes."
"Remove the group 'Soldiers are not heroes.'"
"Petition to remove "Petition to remove 'Soldiers are not heroes' " group. "
And also, in ALL CAPS,
"Anyone in the "Soldiers are not Heroes" group are ignorant [unprintables]."
"'Soldiers are not heroe's' is Dis-Respective"
I could make a cheap point about grammar and spelling, but what really intrigues me here is the profusion.

How did Facebook end up with five different groups declaring that soldiers are not heroes, in the first place? Was it a single person who kept creating different groups in some kind of confusion about what had or had not already been accomplished? Friends? Strangers, all coincidentally up to the same thing?

And then, four different groups petitioning for the removal of the original groups... one very offended party? Four different ones? And the person asking for the removal of the groups asking for the removal of the other groups.... one of the original groups' creators? Someone else entirely?

If you're reading this, you may object that Facebook has no connection to "the real world." But it turns out to be one tool for communicating with other people, alongside email and flyers in your mailbox and the good old telephone, all of which have superseded smoke signals and the Pony Express.

It's messy and it's often mundane, but it's also an interesting laboratory for the dissemination and exchange of ideas. There are a lot of people out there on Facebook muttering to themselves, and a few standing on soap-boxes and hollering, and somehow in the cacophony, people manage to hear and be heard.

22 April 2011

Earth Day 41

Earth Day is nearly upon us again, and I'm feeling discouraged.

Starbucks will give you a free cup of coffee if you wander into any of their locations today with your reusable cup. At the time of this writing, 2,792 members of Facebook have joined "B Kind 2 Earth Day." At Earth Day Network, you can pledge an "Act of Green" to help save the planet -- by not buying bottled water, or turning off faucets, or switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, since the first Earth Day in 1970, US homes have expanded from 1400 square feet to a peak of more than 2500 square feet in 2007, with a slight drop since then. Meanwhile, we've bought more and more cars: in 1970, Americans collectively owned 89 million cars; in 2008, the figure was 137 million. Climate change is picking up speed.

I'm also discouraged about my own ability to reduce reliance on my car. I've done okay on the little things, like packing my own lunch rather than eating take-out to cut down on plastic; I've made the switch to bar shampoo, instead of the stuff in the plastic bottle. But after a semester of regular train travel, I've gone back to driving more.

In other words, the little corrections we've been inspired to make every year for Earth Day do almost nothing to counteract the forces that push ever-increasing consumption. We need to get serious, all of us, about reducing consumption in big ways.

That doesn't mean (just) buying "greener" alternatives of all the stuff we're already buying. It means eating lower on the food chain and wasting less food. It means buying a whole lot less of everything, making what we already have work until it wears out and can no longer be repaired, owning less stuff overall so that we can fit ourselves and our stuff back into smaller homes.

It also means drastically decreasing the amount that we drive -- and that, in turn, requires major structural changes in the way we live. So it also means political action at the local level to make neighborhoods amenable to walking and biking, and at state and federal levels to encourage the construction of more and better mass transit.

The Department of Transportation is asking for $128 billion in the 2012 budget. The vast majority of this will go toward highways; a mere $8 billion is allocated to rails, yet state governments are rejecting even this expenditure, seeking to divert funds instead to additional highway projects.

As the feminists said back in the 70s, the personal is the political. We need to be committed, personally and politically, to change at multiple and major levels. The little stuff isn't enough.

19 April 2011


Vegetarian, gluten-free seder. Somehow we managed it:
The orange on the seder plate comes in for a lot of interpretations: women in the rabbinate, gays in Judaism. In our case, it filled in for a beet, which we didn't have in the house, and which vegetarians have been known to put on the seder plate in place of a shankbone.

Last year, I made some mock-matzah out of almond flour and coconut oil. This year, papadums from the Indian store on 28th Street.

18 April 2011

Do Nothing for Two Minutes

Kdiddy at Moxiebird brought me to this website, which tells the viewer to listen to the waves and do nothing for two minutes.My sound was off. I listened to a truck backing up, and the wind gusting outside, and the dog wandering around the apartment.

After a few seconds, I found myself relaxing. Breathing. Letting go of the tensions of the day. All this is good. After my two minutes were up, I turned the sound on, and now I get to hear the waves in the background as I type this. If I listen carefully, I can hear a distant gull -- or maybe that's outside my actual windows, not inside the computerized ones.

TechCrunch sez the site is the brainchild of Alex Tew, who thinks social networking is changing the way our brains are wired. (Yep, I'm suspicious -- I wondered if the web site was spending two minutes erasing my hard drive or stealing all my passwords, so I went out and did some looking around.)

I like the site, I really do. I like the idea of taking a two-minute meditative pause out of the non-stop frenzy. But at the same time, I find the idea of simulated sea to be distinctly odd. What do you think?

16 April 2011

Unplug Challenge

I used to turn off the machine every Friday evening and leave it off until Saturday afternoon, but in the frenzy of overwork that was the end of Fall semester, I lost track of that practice.

In early March, I decided to go along with some Treehuggers who were unplugging all electronic devices, following the suggestions laid out in the Sabbath Manifesto about taking a weekly day of rest from the hurry of the week.

I still have a dumb phone, we have no TV reception in the house, and I seldom listen to radio or watch videos, so for me what that essentially means is turning off the computer. I've kept at it each week, shutting down before Shabbat dinner and keeping the machine off until after lunch on Saturday.

That first time, I actually felt a little unmoored. (I'm a little embarrassed to admit this: It should have been easy to pick up a book or a magazine.) For the next few weeks, it continued to feel a little odd.

But with time, it's starting to feel great to get untethered: no news, no FaceBook, no email, no KenKen for around 20 hours each week. And it's making it easier for me to shut the machine off in the evening and go to bed, too.

I'm in the midst of another end-of-semester frenzy, but when that calms, I'm going to push the unplugged time frame until sundown, and then try to keep it that way.

14 April 2011

In Memoriam

It's Poem in Your Pocket Day, as I learned from Magpie. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is out of fashion now among the Literati, but he was the first poet I got to know, because he's from Maine, whence my father hails, and he wrote a poem about some of my distant ancestors.

I'm tempted to post "An April Day," because it describes the lovely sunny weather we've had today. Yet my mood is bleak on this fair day, so instead, in memory of a colleague who left this world far too soon, I give you this:
A Nameless Grave

"A soldier of the Union mustered out,"
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.

10 April 2011

"Green" Printer Ink

I ran out of toner for my laser printer the other day. I'd already made the cartridge last as long as possible by taking it out and shaking it to redistribute the toner a few times, but finally it was really and completely empty.

So I was ready to go off to Staples to buy a new one, but The Mate insisted on buying instead from Cartridge World. He wasn't sure if they had them in stock, or if we'd have to wait while the old ones were refilled, and I have to say I wasn't very well-behaved about it all. I didn't want to wait while he made phone calls to get more information, and I didn't want to take any responsibility for doing any of that leg-work myself, and I got crankier and crankier about not being able to print stuff out.

Today he called them. Turns out not only are they open on Sunday, and there's a location not too far from us in the West Village, but they have refilled cartridges for both our printers in stock. And he went off and bought us two refilled cartridges, and dropped off our old ones for recycling.

The box is printed with a request that users return it to the store and the admonition, "Reusing is the highest form of environmental responsibility. Inside the box, the foil bag with the cartridge in it is likewise marked "DO NOT CUT OR TEAR! Zip Top Bag. Recyclable." Huh.

So ... yeah. I'm impressed with The Mate and with Cartridge World, and a little ashamed about being so unenlightened about my printer ink purchase. (If environmental responsibility doesn't do it for you, how about significant savings?)

07 April 2011

The Folding Bike Returns

The folding bike hasn't made many appearances here lately. The Mate's schedule of late makes it harder to spend five hours in a day in transit, even if it's five largely productive hours. It just gets me home too late.

Today I tested the trusty steed as a beast of burden to get groceries home from Whole Foods. I was worried the bag on the back would fall off the first time I hit a pothole, but it all worked out fine across Houston Street and back.

I pulled up next to a guy on a Vespa at one intersection. He peeled out when the light changed, but we both cracked up when I caught up to him again at the next traffic light.

03 April 2011

What Is It Like to Go Hungry?

The federal government is proposing cuts to programs that provide food to children and pregnant women; many people are fasting in protest.

What is it like to go hungry? My mother wrote this about her experiences in Germany after World War II.


At the end of WWII, I was almost six years old. We lived in East Prussia, near the Baltic Sea, next to Lithuania. When the Russian Army advanced we had to flee from our home. We were lucky to make it to a small hamlet called Beienrode in what later became West Germany. We, that is my mother, our nanny, my younger sister, brother and I. We arrived there January 31, 1945 and my baby brother was born four days later. My maternal grandmother joined us a little later. We were put up in two rooms in a duplex occupied by two elderly sisters.

What we ate that winter I don’t remember for sure. My mother received food ration cards for each of us, supposedly with enough calories for us to survive. The problem was that the stores were empty. The local farmers gave us some food; I remember soups of potatoes and water, sometimes a few other vegetables if the market had some. Once my mother received a huge bag of grated turnips. The turnips had been dried to the point of being burnt. According to the Geneva Convention they could not be used to feed prisoners of war so there were given to refugees. I remember my mother boiling the turnips, discarding the water to get rid of some of the burnt taste, then cooking them again, adding a few potatoes. We ate them thankfully – we were hungry.

Our village had several stores: a bakery, a butcher, a fish store and two small grocery stores. My mother or grandmother went to the stores every day to try to buy food. Some days word would get around that a store had received food – or flour for the bakery to bake more bread – and the women would rush to the stores, waiting in long lines hoping there would be food left when it was their turn. As the oldest child I would often accompany my grandmother on shopping trips.

Somehow we got through that 1945 winter.

Things were a little better when spring came. There were announcements about which plants that came up were edible such as stinging nettles that tasted like spinach when cooked. We children were told to go into the meadows and eat the blossoms of primrose flowers. We also sucked the lilac blossoms for the bit of sweet nectar that was in them. One of the fields was divided up into small plots and we could grow our own food to eat in season and to be canned for next winter.

In the summer we went into the woods to pick berries. We pulled a wagon with the two little boys in it, plenty of containers and some food for lunch. We were told to eat as much as we could while we were picking. It was fun.

In the fall, after the harvest of the grains we went into the fields, gleaned what was left behind and threshed the grains out. After the sugar beets and the potatoes were harvested we went into those fields and dug up what had been missed. From the sugar beets my mother pressed out the juice and cooked it into molasses. When the beech nuts had fallen from the trees we gathered them and peeled them, Each beechnut had a sweet nutty kernel on the inside. We also gathered acorns and peeled them. They were bitter. We ground them, my mother boiled them and discarded the water. They were still bitter, we couldn’t eat them.

Some nights my mother and the mother next door would go out into the fields of farmers to get food. She told me later that sometimes they were caught by a guard the farmers had stationed by their fields. My mother and our neighbor would plead, saying they had children at home who were hungry and the guard would let them take the food, saying, “but go to another farmer’s field next night”. The guards knew we were hungry. Many had children, too.

Some mornings my mother would get me up before sunrise. We would take our little wagon and go out of the village into fields that were further away to get food. We hoped no other traffic would be out this early. My mother would get as much food out of the field as possible: cabbages, carrots, turnips, potatoes, beans, peas – whatever was available at the time. I had to stand guard to call her if a horse wagon came by. I always was so afraid – I hated it. When we had enough my mother would cover the food with a blanket and we’d head for home.

Once on our way home one of the two local police men came along on his bike. He looked at us and our wagon. My mother said later that she looked into his eyes. He knew what we had and she knew that he knew. He looked away and went on. Most people during that time were very compassionate. We were lucky we lived in the countryside were the food grew. People from the cities came by bike or by foot begging for food.

We kept a few chickens and each Saturday evening we each had an egg with our supper. After rains we were told to gather earthworms to feed them to the chickens which we didn’t like to do. Instead, we tied strings on the chickens’ legs and led them out on the dirt road in front of our house to get the worms by themselves.

I was supposed to start school in the summer of 1945 when I turned six. However, there was no school anywhere all over Germany. There were no teachers, no books, no supplies and the school buildings that had not been bombed were used to house the homeless and for soup kitchens. Eventually there was a soup kitchen in our little village and we children were given delicious soup. We took along milk cans and if any soup was left we were given some to take home.

My mother and grandmother were creative cooks. For breakfast my mother would stir some flour and water together and drip it into boiling milk, a real treat if there was some sweetener to put on top. We would have fake “liverwurst” made with cooked cream of wheat to which had been added salt, pepper and herbs. Our “whipped cream” was milk cooked with flour to the consistency of cream, then cooled and whipped with vanilla and sugar. The first time we had real whipped cream we wouldn’t eat it. We declared that it was face cream.

In spite of all of this I had a wonderful childhood. We didn’t feel deprived because we didn’t know that this was not normal. We had no games, no books, no playgrounds. Every half-way decent day was spent outside roaming the fields and woods and constantly foraging for food.

Things gradually improved year by year after the war. However, to this day I cannot bear to throw away the smallest scrap of food. Every bit of leftover food goes into a container in the freezer to be used for soup. The saying in my family about anything goes, “Mom can make a nice soup out of it”. I have been lucky to have had enough food for my family and myself most of my life. My heart goes out to the people who do not have enough.

01 April 2011

Peace and Health

The news lately, local and global alike, has felt like a constant barrage. Last night I dreamed a massive barge was moving slowly and inexorably toward me in the East River, bearing another shipment of Bad.

This morning The Mate and I walked the dog along that river. Raw, wet wind flung sleet against our faces while the lead-grey river at its high tide churned and swirled beside us to set a metaphorically appropriate mood.

But there's an interruption to the flood of current events. My colleague Chris Hirschler spent his spring vacation in Guatemala working on public health projects with students and local residents, and he made a video you can check out here.

I sit around at home writing about the environment, trying to get people to think about their own habits and encourage them to make change, and to let that change ripple through community. Meanwhile, Chris and his students are out there doing concrete good -- and I'm inspired, and heartened.

Watch all the way to the end to see marshmallows get toasted like you've never seen before.