21 December 2012

One Million Moms

The NRA wants you to think that gun control means you can't have a gun in your house.  But apparently, the NRA also wants you to be free to keep a rocket launcher and a cache of AK-47s in your house.

Sorry, America, the right to bear guns can exist without being an absolute right to as much firepower as anyone wants.  I'm completely tired of the NRA controlling the conversation.

Hunters don't want to think that their right to hunt is going to be threatened.  But state Fish and Game departments already control hunting rights.  Hunting is permitted only during certain times of the year, and hunters are limited in the number of animals they're allowed to kill.

In Pennsylvania, four more people were killed today, and three police officers injured while the head of the NRA was calling for schoolteachers to be armed and saying we need to regulate movies, not guns.

(I'll admit I think he has a point about the movies.  The Offspring and I have seen numerous advertisements for a TV show about a serial killer.  On the side of the NYC bus.  But movie and video game violence need to be curbed alongside -- not instead of -- limiting the availability of guns.)

In Pennsylvania, you have to have a hunting license if you want to go out and kill animals.  You can bring home one deer, two turkeys, and one bear each year.  If you want to get yourself another deer, you can get another license -- to hunt with bow and arrow instead of a gun.  The list of days when you're allowed to go out and shoot things is complex, but limited; it's here if you really want to know.

One Million Moms for Gun Control, on the other hand, wants you to be free of the threat of gun violence. Following the lead of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which a generation ago finally got lawmakers to get serious about cracking down on drunk driving, One Million Moms is building a nationwide grassroots movement to oppose the gun lobby.

And guess who pays the NRA organizers's salaries?  The people who manufacture and sell guns.  It's not your right to bear guns they particularly care to protect -- it's their right to keep selling guns, even though this country already has more guns than people.

Join One Million Moms, even if you're a dad.  Let's put real pressure on lawmakers for real change.

16 December 2012

What If?

What if a woman, 20 years old, had shot her father and six other men, and twenty children, with dozens of rounds of ammunition?

Would that change the rhetoric around gun control?

Gloria Steinem pointed out a long time ago that the unnoticed and unmentioned feature of these mass killings is that the shooters are always male.

Women are constructed by significant segments of our society as weak.  Women are subject to male gaze, male desire, male appropriation, male violence.  What if a middle-aged woman -- a mother, maybe, a wife, a daughter, an employee -- opened fire?

If guns were associated with out-of-control estrogen instead of out-of-control testosterone, would lawmakers be scurrying to limit access?

If mentally ill women were inclined to violence, would that change access to and treatment of mental illness?

14 December 2012

Culture of Violence

When The Offspring was a baby, I swore there would be no toy guns in the house. Nine years later, somehow he owns several water guns and nerf guns.  I caved.

We have no television, we turned off the radio when he was a baby and never really turned it back on, and we're careful about violent movies.  Yet somewhere, T.O. has learned to cock his hands and make machine-gun noises.  All summer, the neighborhood kids played "Hunger Games."  Before school started, we finally let him read the book.

The news about the shooting doesn't seem to have filtered down to the younger kids. At pick-up from school, T.O. was holding a piece of graph paper, and said he wanted to go to Staples and get a whole pad of graph paper.

"Sure, what for?"

"I'm making a death maze."


"It's a really hard maze."

Then he said something I didn't catch (it's noisy among hundreds of kids who've just been freed for the weekend) about "ammo."

His imaginative world is full of weapons and violence.  It's a big feature of the books he reads -- Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl.  He's growing up in a culture where violence is constantly represented as exciting, honorable, and fun.

And that culture has been around us for millennia.  Last year, I read him The Odyssey, with all its depictions of death and destruction.  I lingered a bit over the scene where Odysseus scolds Eurycleia for her joyous reaction to the death of the suitors.  In Fagles' translation, Odysseus says: "No cries of triumph now. It's unholy to glory over the bodies of the dead" (XXII. 436-7).  Yet this is one line in a long narrative in which Odysseus' survival depends on death upon death upon death.

The anti-war hippy tunes that form our family soundtrack are lost in the winds of this culture.  Anything I've said about peace, pacifism, the wounds of war -- it's drowned in a cultural message that makes violence so much more engaging.

I don't really know, aside from moving to a remote island, how to insulate T.O. from that culture.  I can only hope that he will never find himself at the wrong end of a gun, and that at some point he'll turn aside from killing games and find other ways to express his energy and creativity.

And maybe, in my wildest dreams, he will use that energy and creativity to help to change the culture.

04 December 2012

Aftermaths and Catastrophes

Corlears Hook Park, next to our building, used to have whole rows of stately old trees, 80 or 90 years old.  When we first moved to the neighborhood, I kept taking pictures: it seemed the trees demanded it.
Many of those trees are gone now.  Three came down in Hurricane Irene and another nine in Hurricane Sandy, and the park has a completely different feel now: more open, brighter, yet without the majesty of the tall trees.

Corlears Hook park was damaged by the winds of Sandy.  Across the FDR Drive, the East River Park flooded.  A month later, there are still piles of rubble, flotsam and jetsam, tree limbs, and garbage: there just isn't enough people power to get everything cleaned up.  The dog run is in shambles.

These are local reminders that a month later, people in the region are still homeless, still suffering in various ways from the storm's destruction.  And I keep thinking of people and places elsewhere in the world: the tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake in Haiti.  Civilians, many of them children, in places riven by war, drought, famine.

My internal landscape was shaken by the hurricane, and I'm left more aware of the people around the world who suffer from ecological and political catastrophes.  At worst, I'm paralyzed: there's too much suffering, and I can do too little.

Yet I'm fortunate that my institution has given me space to develop two courses on the environment, and in those courses, I can help bring students to awareness of climate change and the resulting problems.  It seems too little, a tiny ripple in an immense pond, yet it's what I can do.

And so I need to push away the feeling that the world's problems are too big, and my capacities too small, and keep doing what I can do, and hope that those around me will also be inspired to action, and the ripple effects will build.

30 November 2012

Reader, I Shopped

Yes, I went into an actual temple of commerce on Black Friday.  Two, in fact.

I've chronicled my relationship with stuff and shopping for stuff: I feel as though I have too much of it, yet I'm reluctant to get rid of things because I might need them some day.

Some months ago, I decided to try not to shop any more.  I didn't last long: I'm addicted to books, and even I need a new garment now and then.  Or I want a new garment now and then.

But the attempt to stop buying things did reshape how I shop.  I had been shopping on-line sales to buy stuff I might need some day, rather than things I actually needed at that moment, and often things I didn't necessarily want: colors that were on sale rather than colors I wanted to wear, for instance.  This was a contributor to the excess.

I'm still on the email lists for some stores, because if I'm going to buy something, it might as well be at a discount.  But most of the time I delete the sale announcements unread, and don't waste all that time scrolling through sales listings to see if there's anything I might want some day.

Instead, I buy what I actually want, or see an actual, immediate need for.

I try to buy only items that replace other things: a threadbare blazer, a pair of pants that's gotten too short in the wash.  I also have gotten better at giving away (not throwing away) things that I can no longer use, but that others can, in one way or another. And sometimes I even get rid of something and don't replace it.

The closets and cabinets are far less stuffed than they were a year ago, and I've been saving time and money by not shopping.

Oh, and my purchases this Black Friday?  A pair of mid-weight lined hiking pants, and for The Offspring, a book and a book light for reading in the car in the winter. I went into the stores with the specific intention of buying those items, and that's what I came out with.  No extras, no impulse purchases, nothing I thought I might want on some future occasion.

19 November 2012

Bike Lane Rant

Did you know that bike lanes are only for bikes?
 That's right, bikes only.  Also: No Pedestrians:
Plus, they're one way.  Bikers, did you know that?  Here's a hint: the bike icon is right side up:
Also note the arrow indicating direction of travel:
 Still not convinced?  How about this?

16 November 2012

Greening Black Friday

Black Friday is often (but not always) the busiest shopping day of the year.  How do you lessen the environmental impact of your Black Friday?

Best bet: stay home.  Don't buy stuff, don't drive long distances to get to the mall, don't burn gas sitting in traffic jams.

Second best: do your best to shop responsibly.  In the right-hand column of this blog, there's a list headed "Where to Shop," where I've listed places that sell Fair Trade or otherwise environmentally sustainable goods, including used books and clothing.

Get, or make, gifts that don't include excessive packaging and that you know the recipient will use, rather than stuff that will end up re-gifted, stuck in the back of a closet, or at the dump.  Food, a fabulous scarf, a pair of really nice gloves or socks, a magazine subscription.

For Uncle Joe, who has everything?  Some nice chocolate or cheese, along with a gift in his name to a charity he'd appreciate.

Mostly, before you shop, think.  Don't make impulse purchases.  Consider the impact of anything you buy on your budget, your credit rating, and the environment.

15 November 2012

How To Help: NYC and NJ

[Updated 11/15]

At this point, it's all about volunteers and money.

People are still needed to go to the hardest-hit areas and help climb stairs, clean buildings and parks, sort donated goods, and transport food and other needed items to the people in need.

Cash is still needed to pay for help.  Food donations are still needed, but check your location's needs before you shop or donate.  If you can donate blood, please follow the links below to find your nearest location.  Bonus: you can get away with eating a second piece of pie on Thanksgiving.

New York City

Occupy Sandy was the first volunteer presence in much of the city and continues to coordinate aid to several areas.  Right now, they need blankets, flashlights, aaa batteries, gallon ziplock bags, cleaning hardware, especially brooms, flat shovels, mops, masks and gloves, hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar, baby/toddler food and formula, duct and scotch tape, toiletries (deodorants, tampons, soap, etc), can openers. To view the updated list or sign up to volunteer:
Occupy Sandy has set up a wedding registry on Amazon, where you can purchase needed items:

The City of New York has a list of ways to help:

Blood supplies were affected after the cancellation of many blood drives and the closing of blood collection centers in the area, and donations are needed:

New Jersey

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey is taking donations of cash, non-perishable foods, and diapers.  Check the website for the list of specific items:

The United Way of New Jersey is taking cash donations:


Please help me crowd-source this page.  Add confirmed information in the comments, email me at imagine1community@gmail.com, or post to my Facebook page, and I'll add items in the next update.  Thanks.

12 November 2012

Clean, Clear Water

It was the lettuce that got me thinking.  A head of lettuce from the farm, still shedding soil.  I looked at it on day three or four of our power outage and realized I couldn't eat it, unless I was willing to wash it at the fire hydrant while other people stood in line for water.

And then I realized I have no idea how people live in a drought, or in places without access to clean water for drinking and bathing.

I'm not talking about the kind of drought we get on the east coast of the United States every few years, where they tell you not to water the grass.  Nor even the drought we had in the west and midwest last summer, that cut corn yields and drove up prices and contributed to wildfires.

I'm talking about the kind of drought that caused famine in several north African countries last summer.  I know we have hunger in the US; there are significant numbers of people who can't be sure they'll get enough to eat tomorrow.  But in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia last year, people were dying for lack of food.

And according to UNICEF, there are 2.5 billion people around the world who don't have access to clean water.

I have no idea what that could possibly be like.  I can't imagine it.

Yes, I go camping, and use iodine tablets or a filter to purify water.  But I am so fully embedded in privileged access to clean running water at any time of day or night that I can not get my mind around what it would be like to live without it in my home.

After the power came back on, and then the water, and then the heat, I soaked the lettuce, limp by then, in some cold clean water for a few hours, and then made a salad.

For much of the world, the water isn't coming back on.  And our first-world over-consumption is only going to make it worse.

09 November 2012

Still in the Dark

Walking around the city the day after the hurricane, I looked at the carnage and the chaos -- no, those words are not too strong -- and had no desire to document it, to seek artistic or journalistic frames and juxtapositions.  The emotion was direct and raw, washed over me like the saturated air still seething in the aftermath of the storm.

But a couple days later, I grabbed this with my cell phone: the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn side lit up, the Manhattan side dark.
Being surrounded by places with power was a good thing.  One day we visited a friend and showered; she cooked us a meal using a stove! a refrigerator! running water! Another day I sat for hours in Barnes & Noble recharging phone and iPad.  One night we went out to dinner, and I briefly noted the atmospheric candle on our table.

If we hadn't lost power, hadn't been without heat and light and running water for those days, I suspect I'd feel a lot less empathy for those still without power; as it is, it's heart-wrenching.

And the region is still like that half-dark bridge: most of us are back to more or less normal lives, others are still suffering.  We need to remember them, and keep doing whatever we can to help.

07 November 2012

Is Cleanliness Overrated?

I sat in my car for a chilly hour and a half this morning while waiting in line for gas.  This gave me ample opportunity to notice how dirty the car has gotten.  To keep myself busy, I shook out the mats, brushed the seats with the snow brush, and dusted the dashboard.

Really cleaning, though, requires a vacuum cleaner.  A thorough cleaning would demand a steam cleaner for the seats.

Think about that for a minute: you can't clean a car without using electricity.  And that electricity probably got generated by burning fossil fuels, although there's an increasing chance of a contribution from solar or hydro or wind or nuclear power.

That got me thinking about cleaning as part of the environmental impact of stuff, beyond the need to use non-toxic cleaning products.

Do we need to wash every article of clothing after every use?  Should the need to vacuum (carpet) rather than sweeping (wood floor), or to dry clean rather than normal washing, be part of the decision making process when furnishing a home or buying clothing?  How can we limit cleaning and its impact?

04 November 2012


Living on the third floor, having no elevator access was little more than inconvenience, though pitch-dark stairwells were a danger.  I live in a 20-story building, and some of my neighbors, unable to navigate the stairs, were trapped for the duration of the outage.  Residents of the building checked on each other, helping where we could.

One night, I heard someone fall in the stairwell.  Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump, a cry, a couple of moans.  I listened for a call for help, and when none came, burrowed back under the covers, knowing I should have gone to help.


Before the blackout, I was in the midst of my worst asthma attack in three years.  I was using a nebulizer four times a day -- a machine that plugs into the wall to help deliver medication mixed with saline solution into the lungs in mist form.  With the power out, I switched to a metered dose inhaler to get the medication.

The next day, the attack finally broke.

I could climb those two flights of stairs.  I could walk the neighborhood and look at the damage.  I could bike to Union Square, where they were supposed to be giving out dry ice for the refrigerator.  I could go to the fire hydrant at the corner, fill buckets, carry them half a block and then up the stairs.


Official help?  Hard to find.  Yesterday, after power had been returned to most of the area, I saw national guard members distributing bottled water on Grand Street.  A few days ago, I passed a truck on East 10th Street with oatmeal and bread.  There were rumors of food in other places, but no system to inform people what was available, and where.

The New York Times posted updates with information about infrastructure, noting "tap water is safe to drink."  Since we had no tap water in our building, that seemed a bit of an insult, along with the Empire State Building, lit up like fireworks beyond the dark buildings of the neighborhood.

Facebook was sometimes the only source of information.  It's how we found out about the dry ice, though the official notice failed to mention times for distribution, so I made my first trip to Union Square before the truck arrived, and my second after it had run out.

03 November 2012

Flotsam and Jetsam

The morning after the power went out, I went for a long walk with the dog.  The wind was still blowing, but not dangerously; it wasn't really raining, but water seemed sort of to be sifting out of the sky.  I walked south along the East River, still bloated with flooding, stinking of marine fuel, and marveled at the things that had drifted in with the tide.  When I got home, I wrote the start of a blog post about them:
a pigeon, feet sticking out straight in front, one leg banded
part of an outboard motor
half a porta-potty
several pieces of PVC pipe joing
a gas mask
a small stuffed toy
bee hives in brightly painted boxes
a life vest, inside out
cars left in clumps, like bath toys

Early this morning I thought I heard surf breaking in the East River as the tide came in again.  I thought it must be my imagination twisting the gusts of wind, but when I saw the high water mark in the park, I reconsidered.
People, too, were washed up in the streets, stunned.  People who hadn't taken in the seriousness of the upcoming storm, hadn't had the information or the resources to gather supplies, to make a plan.  Dark stairwells, no flashlights, no water, cell phones drained of power.  A woman stood, anguish on her face, unable to step into the street.  Two lost young men decided they could bicycle to family, one to an aunt uptown, another to parents in Brooklyn. 

Later that day, another long walk.  In the river, two picnic tables, a length of what looked like metal pipe, at least 30 feet long and a foot in diameter, and an entire staircase.  We were driven out of our dark apartment, compelled to see the damage, yet unable to process the enormity of the destruction

28 October 2012

Top Carnivores

I've always kind of regretted that I never took an economics course in college.  Recently I bought a textbook on ecological economics by Michael Common and Sigrid Stagl.  The book is written primarily for students in environmental studies programs, so I was intrigued to read the authors' suggestion that it would also be an appropriate textbook for a beginning general economics course:
It is our view that all economists should appreciate that the material basis for economic activity is in the natural environment, and have some idea about how that works in relation to human interests.
It's a frequent truism that vegetarian diets have less impact on the environment than omnivorous diets, but a chart the authors include early in the book brings the point quite clearly home:
Human diets don't generally consist solely of meat.  But the chart points very effectively to the inefficiency particularly of eating meat from "top carnivores," animals that are themselves meat-eaters, like many fish.  If you're trying to cut back your own environmental impact, it turns out that your diet's diet is another thing to consider.

27 October 2012

Incremental Change

The philosopher W. V. O. Quine wrote that human knowledge forms something like a vast spider web, rather than a hierarchical structure based on some first principle, and that new discoveries in the sciences or the humanities change the web at one small point, but from there, additional revisions ripple outward.

I read Quine's Web of Belief back in college, in the last millennium, and my copy of the book is at my office (closed up tight in anticipation of the impending storm), so my memory may be faulty and is certainly dim, but I've always imagined a web of human knowledge that's always rippling slightly at a variety of different points as artists and intellectuals and scientists cogitate and create away.

I also like the metaphor of a web as a way of thinking about our own indiviual beliefs.  We learn new things, and they cause slight shifts in our own thought-webs, with the potential to ripple outwards across our entire thought-webs, with time and the willingness to be open to new ideas.

When it comes to ecological thinking, small steps are an important beginning.  But changing our habits, ever so slightly, has to be a constantly evolving process, with change leading to change and shifting beliefs constantly challenging our webs.

Putting food scraps in the compost instead of in the trash might get you thinking about wasting less food in the first place.  Recycling paper for municipal pick-up might lead to the realization that batteries shouldn't go in the trash, either.

The old green mantra is "reduce, reuse, recycle."  Note that "reduce" comes first.  Recycling is important, reusing things even better, but for real impact to occur, everyone needs to reduce consumption in the first place.

26 October 2012

For Love of Composting

This is Harmony Hazzard.  She loves her job!

Harmony works for GrowNYC, an organization that has started a huge city-wide composting and textile reycling operation so that apartment dwellers all over the five boroughs* can bring their food scraps and leftovers to be turned into soil, rather than dropped into a landfill where lack of air might mean they don't decompose for decades.

GrowNYC also collects clothing, towels, old sheets, rags, shoes.  Usable clothing gets sold, and other materials get recycled into filling for car seats, insulation, and other useful stuff -- and again, they stay out of the landfill.

Here's the list of locations where you can drop off compost and textiles.  Hint on the compost: store it in the freezer.  Won't stink, and also easier to transport when you're ready to take it to your neighborhood drop-off location.

The page also lists resources for recycling CFLs, cell phones, and other things you might be finished with, but that might be re-usable or recyclable. Whenever you're about to throw something in the trash -- think for a minute: can it be recycled or reused?


* Actually, it doesn't look as though they have any locations in the Bronx.  Hope that's coming soon.

25 October 2012

Yes, This Is Political

I believe that all human beings warrant equal respect, honor, opportunity, and dignity.

Laws in this country at various times in our history, and still today, do not grant equality to all people.  Gays and lesbians, people of color, immigrants (legal as well as illegal), speakers of languages other than English, poor people, and women are and/or have been disadvantaged under local, state, and federal laws in this nation.

In some cases, laws have changed, but customs remain that allow disadvantage and inequality to linger.  In those cases, I believe that we need laws that specifically counter disadvantage and inequality, rather than allowing individual and collective discrimination to continue.

Men and women are not equal, and equality of access and opportunity under the law requires, for instance, health insurance policies that recognize that fact, and that do not treat women as deficient or ill in the areas in which we differ from men.

Our current president has pursued policies that encourage equality and justice for all -- those big words upon which this nation was founded, but those concepts this nation still has not managed to implement fully and thoroughly.

The man who would be president has made it clear that he does not believe in equality and justice for all.  He believes English should be the US official language.  He would end health care provisions that guarantee equivalent access to men and women, to wealthy and poor, to healthy and sick.  He would fight for laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians. He would repeal the fair pay act that guarantees women equal pay for equal work.

If you believe that gays and lesbians, people of color, immigrants*, single parents**, poor people, and women deserve dignity and respect, then why would you vote for a man who does not respect any of those people?


* Hey, guess what?  I'm an immigrant.  A legal one.  Like the vast majority of immigrants to this country.

** You know what really got me ticked off?  When he blamed gun violence on single moms.  My grandma was a single mom.  Not her choice, but she managed.  Don't diss my grandma. Today would have been her 99th birthday.

24 October 2012

On Not Being Patient

When I was a kid and things weren't going my way, my Mom would invariably say, "It builds character."  I remember asking once, "Don't I have enough character yet?"

Apparently not.

Because I'm trying to be grateful: for doctors, for family, for health insurance, for flexibility at work, for enough money not to have to worry about choosing between health insurance co-payments and, say, food.

Instead, I'm grouchy, frustrated, and fearful.  I'm frustrated that the first round of medications didn't take care of the problem, and I got worse and had to go back for more.  I'm worried about the possible side effects of the medications, worried about the future, worried about the effect on my kid of having a chronically ill parent, worried about health insurance plans are, through higher and higher co-payments for doctor's visits and medications, placing ever more of the cost burden on the individual ill person rather than on the pool of people paying in.

As a person with dis-ease, I'm supposed to be (a) patient.  I'm not supposed to be angry about the things I can't do while I'm resting patiently, shrugging off symptoms and fatigue and side effects with good humor.

But lurking in the background is shame. Always the shame.  It comes from my own family dynamic, my own family history; but it's also part of the culture.  Go to the Mayo Clinic's web site and look up bronchitis, and there's an awful lot of noise about cigarette smoke as cause.  In other words, sick people brought it on themselves.

So guess what? I'm also angry.  Angry at being sick in the first place, angry at missing out on life while I have to rest, angry at the ways discourse frames illness, angry at feeling lousy.  So, character?  I'll have to work on that.

18 October 2012

Riding into Peace

Between the crashing fatigue, the sheer amount of stuff I was carrying home for the weekend, an incoming upper respiratory infection, and (TMI alert) a boil in a very bad spot, I was sorely tempted -- I think for the first time ever -- to hail a cab on my way out of Penn Station instead of biking home.

But New York cabbies take driving to the level of performance art, and it's not a performance I really wanted to be a part of, so I donned shiny things and turned on flashing lights and got on the bike.

The volume of vehicle and foot traffic in midtown almost made me regret it.

But as I reached Stuy Town and Alphabet City, and alien life forms gave way to natives, and the crowds thinned, rolling along the street became more peaceful.

I reached the river, and physical fatigue and discomfort (riding with a backpack is uncomfortable even without the aforementioned TMI), started to push back against the mental fatigue, and to my great surprise, my head started to clear.

15 October 2012

Baby/Toddler Donations Needed

Lauren Schmidt is a poet and teacher whose goal is to make the world a better place, an extraordinary person I'm fortunate to have as a colleague at Monmouth.

Lauren is a volunteer at Manna House, a home for young women with babies organized by a collective of Monmouth County religious institutions -- Christian and Jewish, Catholic and Protestant.  Besides providing housing, Manna House's mission includes helping the young women earn GEDs or vocational degrees and become independent.  Lauren teaches the young women creative writing, helps them get driver's licenses, takes them on outings to see plays, and in general is trying to do all she can to make their lives better.

The women, and their children, are in need of clothing, books, and toys.  The children range in age from 6 months to three years and need jeans, shirts, winter jackets, and other clothing.  The moms also are in need of clothing. 

If you have some gently used baby or toddler-sized clothing, or would be willing to make a donation or send a gift card for a store like Target or Old Navy, the best thing is to contact Manna House directly.  Contact information is here.  Mention Lauren.

(She also  used to work in a soup kitchen, and wrote a volume of passionate and moving poems about it, Psalms of the Dining Room.)

Please pass this on.  Thanks, y'all.

14 October 2012

Repair or Replace?

I've been thinking about how much easier our economy makes it to replace things rather than repairing them.  Amazon is always only a couple of clicks away, whereas repair requires leaving home.  On an actual errand. 

Or, more likely, errands, because different repairs require different shops.  Recently, I had some boots and shoes resoled.  Still on the list: get the handle welded back on a pan, and get a watch repaired.  All different locations.  Fact is, I bought a new watch months ago, maybe almost a year, because of the hassles with locating and getting to a good repair shop.  I'm still hanging on to the other watches, though, with the idea of getting them repaired eventually.

Recently, the front fender on my bike came loose and broke.

I've been meaning to get to the bike shop for a new fender, as well as some other adjustments.  But that's another errand, and I have to leave the bike, which means I have to find another way to get home.  So I decided to try fixing it myself instead.

A couple of screws, some gorilla tape, and a few minutes later:
How long do you think it will last?

13 September 2012

The Silent Third Guy

Three white guys, late 20s, privilege written all over their hair, clothes, musculature, bearing, walking across the street as I waited at a traffic light on my bike.

Guy #1: "Nice hat."
Guy #2: "Nice bag, wonder what's in it?"  Reaches for the bag clipped to the front of my bike.
Guy #3: Follows his pals across the street.

I don't react at all.  Just stand there, stunned really, at the stupidity of it.

And then they move on.  And I'm left, sick with fury and, yes, fear.  Just for the hell of it, they've made me feel vulnerable, shown me that they can target me if they choose.

Because I'm female? Female and middle aged?  Could they tell, under streetlights at 10 at night?

Not the first incident, and unfortunately, it won't be the last.

And I'm left wondering.  What would they have done, had I reacted? cringed, spoken, otherwise responded to the taunts?  Laughed uproariously?  Physically attacked me, in view of dozens of other people?  If they'd attacked, would anyone else have come to my aid?

Did the silent third guy maybe tell his buddies afterward that they were jerks?  Have you ever been the silent third guy?

At The Offspring's school, they're teaching the kids that the bystanders have the responsibility to intervene to stop the bullying.  I wonder: does such education have the power actually to change a culture?  And could it possibly have any effect on the gender dynamics of this kind of harrassment?

10 September 2012

Health Care Reform -- Justice for All

The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for "pre-existing condition" is from 1947.  Here it is:
Reno (Nevada) Evening Gaz. 14 Mar. 7/1   Many people with disabilities that formerly were not insurable can now secure this new health service and have these chronic pre-existing conditions removed or repaired.
This appears to refer to the creation of Britain's National Health Service, which occurred in 1947.  The "removal" or "repair" of pre-existing conditions sounds reassuring:  Get health care, get fixed.  Kind of like taking the car to the garage and getting a new air filter.

The  "pre-existing condition" -- a category for a person with an on-going illness -- is a new notion.  Disability theorists have long been pointing out that much about "disability" is socially conditioned, either in the material conditions that block movement (e.g. stairs for a person using a wheelchair) or in the social conditions that define people by abilities to perform certain physical tasks.

The "pre-existing condition," on the other hand, is a legal term, created by profit-bearing insurance companies for the specific purpose of avoiding giving coverage to individuals who might actually incur claims, and therefore reduce profits.

If not for emergency rooms, I'd be dead.  So would The Offspring.  But I might have been taken out of the gene pool before I got around to bearing The Offspring, so the question might be moot.  So you might argue that modern medicine, not insurance law, created The Pre-Existing Condition, by letting me live.

If you're healthy, if everyone in your family is healthy, then you get to go through life not worrying about these things.  Not worrying that if you lose your job, you'll lose your health insurance, and your ability to pay for medications or devices (manufactured by large, profit-bearing pharmaceutical corporations) that go on keeping you alive.

But for those of us who take those medications daily, twice daily, every pill and every puff is a reminder of mortality delayed.  Health care reform is a harbinger of hope that even if I have to keep taking pills, I can stop worrying that if I get too sick to work, I'll lose my health insurance. 

If you believe that society has no obligations to care for the young, the weak, the frail, and the old, then you probably think health insurance reform is government excess.  But if you think health care is a right and not an privilege, something everyone should have access to, not just those wealthy enough to pay, then health insurance reform is essential to a just and fair society.

04 September 2012

Throwing Away Perfectly Good Food

Mitt Romney and the top half of his muffin are right up there with average Americans, who, it turns out, throw out somewhere between a third and half of all food produced, depending on the study you read, and probably whether you're counting industry waste (unsold bananas) or just household waste (that uneaten head of lettuce).

As a refugee after World War II, my mother -- six years old at the time -- had to help her mother beg, borrow and steal food for themselves and three younger siblings.  My father was born during the Great Depression, and while he never went hungry, some foods were scarce and my grandmother got into a habit of Never Wasting Anything that persisted for the rest of her life.

Wasting things, and particularly wasting food, makes me crazy.  No, it's not actually true that there's a kid starving in Africa because you don't want to eat that Brussels Sprout.  But it might be true that there's a kid going hungry in Africa because of drought caused by overconsumption in North America.  

And one aspect of overconsumption is buying food you'll never get around to cooking, or throwing away the cheese rather than shaving off a bit of mold, or tossing a carton of milk because it's reached its "expiration date" without bothering to check if, in fact, it's still okay. 

The environmental hit is pretty heavy -- food waste is the largest single component of US landfills, and the amount of petrochemicals used to till the land, ship the soybeans to the cows, ship the milk to your neighborhood store and thence to your refrigerator, and finally, unused, to the dump, is significant.

So when Mitt's handlers try to pitch his cutting off the top of a muffin every single day and routinely throwing away the bottom half "because the butter sinks to the bottom while it's baking" as some kind of discipline, it makes me want to spit.

02 September 2012


So you're already limiting your purchases, buying better-quality stuff that will last for a long time, avoiding food waste, and recycling glass, paper, plastic, metal.  What's the next step in reducing the amount of stuff you send to the landfill?


My mother's compost bin is a big black cylinder with no bottom. Peelings and roots and inedible leaves and eggshells go in the top and come out the bottom as rich loam.  When it gets full, my mother lifts the whole thing up in the spring, digs in the compost, and plants stuff on the pile.  It thrives.

My cousin Harold's compost this year goes is a pile in the middle of a circle of sunflowers.  Harold is incredibly creative and his compost solutions vary from year to year, but they're always smart.  He's been seen to carry a banana peel home -- even if there's a compost bin to hand -- so it can go in HIS OWN compost pile.

I live in the bustling city of New York, and I don't have a back yard, so my compost bin is a little plastic bucket in the freezer.  (A fellow NYC composter clued me in to that trick, and it's a huge improvement on keeping a bin out on the counter if you can't empty it daily.)

A couple of times a week I go to a farmer's market at Union Square or Tompkins Square to make my contribution.  If you live in New York, here's a list of Greenmarket drop-off locations.  But there are others, if these aren't convenient: look for community gardens and ask around.  Other cities will have places to compost, sometimes in the parks, sometimes at the dump.

30 August 2012

Infirmity, Uncertainty, Hope

In a few weeks, my 7 a.m. ride to the train will be in the dark, which made me appreciate all the more this morning's sun, the cool breeze off the East River, and even the mostly seamless way millions of people make their way across and around and over and under Manhattan every day.

This got me thinking about the uncertainties of chronic illness.  I've been dealing with the limitations of asthma for as long as I can remember.  When I'm "healthy," I can't forget that it's waiting to attack again, often completely unexpectedly.  I have to be flexible, and work around it when it strikes; I have to remember that each episode will pass to keep from slipping into despair.  I don't know what -- how -- who I would be without it.

I can no longer think of myself as a runner, planning for races far in advance: the past few years have been repeatedly interrupted by months-long periods of illness after which it takes months again to scrabble my way back to a basic level of fitness.  Family vacations organized around hiking have been scuttled or modified; sometimes I can't bike to the train to get to work.

The interruptions are frustrating.  But not being able to bike, run, or hike consistently means that when I can do these things, I don't take it for granted.  I notice with joy the feeling of my body in motion, the various parts functioning reasonably smoothly together.

Remembering forced inactivity in the past enables the contrast that allows me to see this, but the anticipation of future infirmity brings home the appreciation of what I can do now -- much as the awareness of dark mornings to come made me see the sun this morning.  "Hope is the thing with feathers, / That perches in the soul ... / And sweetest in the gale is heard."

17 August 2012

Materiality, Evanescence, Books

I moved offices the other day, and while doing so, I got rid of a lot of books -- older editions of textbooks, duplicate copies of plays and epics, editions of Nietzsche's work that I read in college and realized I will never crack again.

I kept a lot of books, too.  Textbooks I use in classes I teach regularly.  Books I keep around for reference as I'm planning lectures.  Many, many books I read in high school, college, and grad school, that I may want to read again some day, or suggest to The Offspring.

(The reality, though, is that if The Offspring wants to read, say To Kill A Mockingbird, I'll probably get him a new copy, or maybe even download an e-book, rather than giving him my old paperback with the pages flaking apart.  Hmmm.)

I also kept a copy of a book on the history of mathematics.  It has "ESTES" in my father's very neat printing   across the top edge of the closed book.  My brother marked books that way, too, though usually at the bottom or outside edge; his handwriting is not so neat.  My own books have "H Estes" scribbled even less neatly in pencil on the title page.

And then there are the books with "Margaret and Helen Abbott" written in a clearly legible but old-fashioned cursive inside the front cover.  Margaret and Helen were twins, the older sisters of my grandmother, and went to college together at Wheaton, where apparently they took many of the same classes; I have jointly signed books in art history and literature. I also have books Helen acquired later, with only her name in the inside cover.

Margaret died before I was born, but Helen lived quite a long time.  She became a college librarian, the head of cataloguing at the University of New Hampshire, and when I was in college we started exchanging letters.  She had a dry sense of humor and a wide-ranging intellect. I'm an idiot: I never kept any of those letters. 

When I was working on my PhD, she asked me once if I was ambitious.  I countered: if she had lived today (that "today" being about 1995), would she have reached higher?  She probably would have, she said.

And so I pick up a volume of Victorian poetry, a textbook of art history, a book about Abbot Suger and Gothic architecture... and how can I get rid of them?

Meanwhile, I've begun acquiring books in electronic form.  After I die, will someone take the time before disabling my Kindle account to browse the annotations I've typed into my books? Somehow, I doubt it.

10 August 2012

"A Degree in Health Insurance"

Earlier this week, The Mate sorted out a medical bill from last year some time that had landed with a collection agency.  Sigh of relief.  It went to collection because the emergency room bill had a different date than the doctor's bill.  Because we arrived at the ER shortly before midnight, and saw the doctor some hours later.

It took a series of phone calls and faxes to get this sorted out.

The bill in question was for around $150, and a friend wanted to know why it was worth the hassle, why not just pay it? Because if we just paid all the bills that got spit out for one reason or another by the insurance company -- and they find myriad reasons for not paying -- we'd be in for thousands of dollars a year.

Suleika Jaouad put it this way in a recent piece in the Times
If you have a chronic illness in America, there’s a good chance you also hold a degree in Health Insurance 101, whether you want to or not.
The Mate has the degree; I've only done a bunch of course work: he's the one who has the job of sorting all this stuff out.  I don't know if Obamacare will take care of these issues.  I do know that when we lived in England while I was on sabbatical, we didn't have to deal with a single one of these problems.

Fire at California Oil Refinery

The Guardian is following the story of a fire at an oil refinery outside San Francisco -- where residents are being told to tape their windows shut to avoid breathing the toxic air, and nearly 1000 people went to hospitals seeking treatment -- but the last report on the issue that the New York Times saw fit to publish was three days ago.

Because what, if Americans think too hard about the fact that refineries can catch fire, they might demand more investment into renewable energy?

At least you can't call out the Times for being inconsistent on the issue.  Want to find out about news related to the environment? Drill, baby, drill, down into the Times' sections on business and science.  There's no section of the paper devoted to the topic.

Are the editors worried they'll alienate readers by actually covering environmental science with any prominence?

08 August 2012

How to Save the World

No, it's not impossible, and yes, there are actually things you can do.

David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy -- Without the Hot Air identifies what he considers the eight most important things to do to save the world.

1. Put on a woolen sweater and turn down your heating’s thermostat (to 15 or 17 ◦C, say). Put individual thermostats on all radiators. Make sure the heating’s off when no-one’s at home. Do the same at work. (Could save: 20 kWh per day)
2. Read all your meters (gas, electricity, water) every week, and identify easy changes to reduce consumption (e.g., switching things off). Compare competitively with a friend. Read the meters at your place of work too, creating a perpetual live energy audit. (Could save: 4 kWh per day)
3. Stop flying. (Could save: 35 kWh per day)
4. Drive less, drive slower, drive more gently, use an electric car, join a car club, cycle, walk, use trains and buses. (Could save: 20 kWh per day)
5. Keep using old gadgets (e.g. computers); don’t replace them early. (Could save: 4 kWh per day)
6. Change lights to fluorescent or LED. (Could save: 4 kWh per day)
7. Don’t buy clutter. Avoid packaging. (Could save: 20 kWh per day)
8. Eat vegetarian, six days out of seven (Could save: 10 kWh per day)

There's a ripple effect.  Change your life, let your friends and family see you making changes (but don't start to hector them about following your lead), and at least some of them are likely to start making changes, too.

06 August 2012

eBooks Are Taking Over The World

The folks at Amazon announced a few weeks ago that in the US, they were selling more books for Kindle than hardcovers.  And now they've further announced that in the UK, their eBook sales are greater than their sales of any printed books.

This information needs to be taken with the caution that other retailers are still selling printed books, so that the total number of books sold may still be greater in print than in electronic form.  Still, it's a major milestone, especially given that the Amazon people aren't counting free downloads of books no longer in copyright, books that people might actually be buying in printed copies if not for e-readers.

I'm torn about this.  I like books.  But I also like reading ebooks, especially in transit, because it's so much easier than schlepping paper copies.  I've preferred my news in electronic form for years: I get fussy about the ink that rubs off on my hands when I read.

Environmental impact? up in the air.  I read ebooks on both Kindle and iPad these days.  I use the iPad instead of a laptop much of the time, so using it to read books is a bonus activity -- I chalk up the impact of production to other purposes.  The Kindle, on the other hand, is a single-purpose device, purchased and used only for reading books.  I might be able to read periodicals on it, but I haven't explored that capacity.

Amazon isn't telling what chemicals and rare metals they're using in their various Kindle products, so it's difficult to make an adequate comparison of the impact of production (and eventual disposal) compared to production, shipping, and storage costs involved with printed books.'

The whole family uses our Kindle, and since we bought it last year, we've probably collectively read at least three dozen books on it.  One calculation comparing the two assumes reading three books per month, so that puts us on track to come out ahead, assuming nobody sits on the thing or spills a cup of coffee over it.

In any case, electronic books are a new reality.  Manuscripts co-existed with printed books for a couple of centuries, and it will likely be a long time before ebooks completely supplant printed books.  But eventually, it's probably safe to say, they will.  I wonder how they'll change our habits of thinking?

05 August 2012

Not Shopping (Much)

Phase Two of not shopping (much) is that I've been buying only stuff I need AND actually like.

I wore out my favorite pair of sandals, so I replaced them -- with a pair that is also dressy enough to replace a second pair that's about to fall apart, and comfortable enough to walk in for miles. I was able to replace two worn-out items with a single new one.

My swimsuit gave up the ghost while I was on vacation a few weeks ago.  I'd already been through the sale web sites in search of a replacement, because I knew the moment was coming, but hadn't bought anything because I didn't see anything I actually liked.  And I got lucky -- I found a suit I liked, that was a good fit, in an actual store.  And on sale.

I'm contemplating Phase Three, in which I'm going to sort through clothes and get rid of all the itemsI really don't like.  The idea of that simultaneously scares and excites me: I bought this stuff because I thought I "needed" it, so what will happen if I get rid of it? 

On the other hand, I really like the idea of opening my closet to get dressed and only seeing clothing I love.

04 August 2012

Solar Champion

Gerry Balasta is making the world a better place.  A few years ago, he made a film about people who live on a garbage dump in the Philippines, and he used the publicity surrounding the movie to set up a foundation that's putting people from the community through school.

Now he wants to make sure that people like them, who live in places with no electricity, can have light to study by.

Check out his work here.  Then tell everyone you know about it.  Thanks.

24 June 2012

Stuff and Shopping for Stuff

I'm still not shopping, except when there's actually something I want, like recently when we had five overnight guests the same night, and I decided to buy an air mattress so only The Offspring would have to sleep on the floor (on Big Agnes, so not in fact that serious a hardship).

Note that I used the term "want" and not "need" there.  We have numerous camping air mattresses, and I could have stacked a couple for my brother to sleep on, but I knew he's be more comfortable on a more bed-like one.  I "wanted" him to be comfortable when he visited.

Part of the issue with not shopping is redefining "need."  I own a lot of clothing that I've bought on sale because "I need that" -- for work, for working out, for pajamas.  One result is that I own a lot of clothing that I don't like much, that I bought solely because it was on sale.

I'm thinking of getting rid of all the clothes I own, but don't like.  The idea of this makes me quite nervous, so the starting point would have to be putting all this stuff in a bag in a closet someplace and waiting a few months to see if I missed anything.  Actually, I'd probably want to wait across two or three seasons, not only because of the seasonal differences but because of the differences in my work and non-work wardrobes.

I have a feeling ditching all that stuff I dislike will be incredibly freeing.  I'm going to have to keep working on that part of me that also finds it incredibly nerve-wracking.

28 May 2012

Green Bathroom

1. Toilet paper and tissue.

Buy brands that recycle their paper. Marcal is available in supermarkets, and is usually pretty inexpensive; Seventh Generation is in health food stores. The National Resources Defense Council lists more brands, including recycled paper content and some brands to avoid (notable: Charmin, Kleenex, Cottonelle, Bounty) here.

On the numbers of trees felled each year to make products from non-recycled or "virgin" fiber, check out this article from MSNBC.  Europeans use far more recycled toilet paper than Americans, and it's been claimed that soft toilet paper is worse for the environment than SUVs.

Also: hanging the roll so it rolls off the top rather than the bottom turns out to be better for the environment.  Something about the friction and the spin means it's easier to end up with more than you wanted if it rolls off the bottom.  Who knew?

2. Creams, gels, facial washes, and other toiletries.

When you think the package is empty, cut it open. You'll be shocked at how much is left in there. Cover what's left with a baggie or a piece of tin foil (rinsed and recycled from the kitchen) so it doesn't dry out.

Before you go and buy a new container of whatever personal care product you'll finish two or three weeks after you cut open the package, consider what's in it and investigate more sustainable alternatives: plants versus petroleum, natural versus synthetic colors and fragrances.

Also consider the packaging.  Can you buy a comparable product in a bar instead of liquid form, and avoid the plastic container?  How about a large container, rather than numerous small ones?

3. Cleaning products.

Conventional cleaners contain various chemicals that get into the air in quantities that are quite toxic and can contribute to asthma and other diseases of the airways.  Hire someone else to clean your home?  Talk to them about using human-friendly products: for their own sake as well as that of the planet.

27 May 2012

1.3 miles

The US Department of Transportation wants you to think about driving less.

Specifically, they point out that a significant percentage of the trips you take in your car are less than 2 miles long, and suggest that you ride a bike instead.  Go here to log your bike trips taken as part of the two-mile challenge.  For each trip you take, the makers of Clif Bars will donate $1 to an organization that promotes biking. 

This morning, I logged 2.6 miles to Whole Foods and back for groceries and various basics for the next couple of weeks.

That's right: $200 worth of groceries on a Brompton.  And while I've got the fancy Brompton pannier on the front, I did the rest with very low-tech accessories: canvas bags and bungie cords.  Didn't even need a backpack.

You'd be surprised at how many bags you can hang off the handlebars, and still ride without trouble.  Trick: balance the weight, and make sure the bags ride high enough not to hit the front wheel.

22 May 2012

Stillness in Motion

Tim Kreider wrote about biking through city streets in the New York Times earlier this month:
If you’re anything like me, you probably spend the majority of your time either second-guessing the past or dreading the future, neither of which actually exists; having to navigate those teeming streets narrows the beam of my consciousness to the laser’s width of the instant I actually inhabit.
In the same article, he referred to "blue-toothed doofuses" who walk willy-nilly into crosswalks and bike paths without paying any attention to their surroundings. That part made me laugh.

The part about biking focusing the mind is what caught my attention, though. Last month, a long conversation over lunch with a friend made me realize how much I need to take time to slow down.

If I take the time to pay attention while I'm cycling -- not in traffic, but along the East River, where I regularly ride -- I can find stillness in motion. If I stop letting myself get irritated at the antics of my fellow human beings and their furred friends, I notice the water.

It's not river, but ocean, and it's appropriately Protean. Sometimes surprisingly calm, but usually rolling or choppy from wind, from passing ferries, from the tides washing in from both New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. The surface glints, reflecting sky during the day, lights from bridges and buildings at night, obscuring all that swims in it or rests on its bottom.

And giving my attention to that glinting surface allows me to still my own mind, stop plumbing the depths, just be.

20 May 2012

Still Not Shopping (Much)

Back in March (on Pi Day, to be precise), I decided to see how long I could go without shopping.  The result has been very good: I had no idea how much energy I was spending on trying to track down deals, shopping without actually making purchases.

The Mate's birthday was yesterday, and he informed me that he had a couple of items in his Amazon wish list, so I went and ordered them and wrapped them for his birthday.  And I bought a couple of things for The Offspring at a conference last weekend.  But otherwise, I have stuck to the plan.  I've avoided buying summer clothing for The Offspring so far by cutting down four pairs of his long pants right above the holes in the knees and hemming them up as shorts, and I've realized I have enough clothing to keep me going for a very long time without needing anything new.

But on Friday, I drove to work for the first time in many weeks, and one of the reasons was that I wanted to run a couple of errands.  We've broken most of the glasses in the house, the pillowcases are getting rather ratty, and I wanted a clock for my office and some picture frames.

But I got off work and decided the pillowcases are fine as long as they're clean and mason jars are perfectly fine vessels for water and iced coffee and unless it's Shabbat, I just check the time on my computer anyway.  And if I'm taking my time away from the machines, I don't really need to know what time it is, anyway.  When it gets dark out, it will be obvious enough.

The no shopping thing has gotten oddly addictive.

18 May 2012

Is Driving Nuts?

It's Bike to Work Day, but I drove to the office instead, for the first time in weeks. 

Books tend to migrate over the weeks, and I had a bunch that needed to get back to the office, and others that needed to come home.  I could have done it a few at a time on the bike, but I'm trying to gear up for summer writing, and I wanted to just get it done.

Plus I needed to bring my academic robe and hood back to the office, where they live when I'm not at commencement.  They've already been back and forth in the bike pannier a couple of times, and were getting wrinkled.

I've been mostly traveling at human-powered paces lately -- on my bike, on foot.  And sitting in my car today, it suddenly seemed to me that enclosing oneself in a little metal and plastic box and hurling oneself across the countryside at 60 or 70 miles an hour ... is insanity.

06 May 2012

Climate Change Denial

The Guardian reveals that the Heartland Institute is behind a new advertising campaign in the Chicago area.

Pfizer and Microsoft are among the corporations funding the Heartland Institute, though GM has already pulled the plug. I wrote to Pfizer and Microsoft:
Please stop giving money to the Heartland Institute. Their recent campaign to sow doubt about climate change by suggesting that people who believe the scientific evidence that climate change exists are terrorists and mass murderers is beyond irresponsible. Thank you.
Pfizer wouldn't believe I was an actual human being until I followed a link they sent me in an email message.

It's All About Cars (Again)

I was out walking along the East River the other morning when a tall man ran silently past me in some of the new running shoes.  

I got to thinking about the controversy that's been raging this year among runners about whether or not to wear padded shoes, and whether to run with a heel-toe strike or on the balls of the feet.

And then I came to Stuyvesant Cove Park, where there are some wood-chip paths, and I walked onto one of them.  Immediately, I felt the difference: the surface is softer and more irregular than pavement, and my feet -- and everything attached to them -- were significantly happier.

And slowly it dawned on me that pavement isn't made for people, and people aren't made to walk, or run, on pavement. 

We've paved half the planet with asphalt and concrete to make it easier for cars and trucks to buzz around at high speed.  And the fact that we end up running and walking on all of that pavement, and arguing about what shoes to wear while doing it, is merely a side effect.  Even cobble-stone, with its irregular surface, is easier on feet, ankles, knees, and the rest of the body than asphalt or concrete pavement.

So we get back to the issue of urban planning.  How do we make it so that pavement isn't the only choice for people who want to walk rather than drive around, whether in an urban center or in a small town?  How do we come to understand that pavement isn't the norm, and shouldn't be the automatic choice of surface in all locations?

I write this with awareness that people who use wheelchairs need flat, firm surfaces to move on.  But how flat?  Are wheelchairs, too, designed for pavement?  Could redesign allow for mobility over a wider variety of surfaces with limited increase in difficulty of handling?

29 April 2012

Not Runner's World

Some things I'd like to see in Runner's World...

A cover model in any shade other than white.  (Yeah, I know: they featured one a few months ago.  One.)

A cover model with adipose tissue.  My calculated BMI is 21.5 -- well within the range of 18.5 to 25 that the people who study this stuff say is healthy -- and I've got love handles and stuff.  The RW claim is that they put real runners on the cover -- but somehow they only manage to choose real skinny runners. (You can check your BMI here, if you're curious.)

Along those lines, less attention to weight loss and more focus simply on eating healthily.  Bonus: more vegetarian and vegan suggestions.

Some discussion of running with chronic illness, and maintaining an exercise program when there are constant interruptions of varying length.  Physiological information about returning to exercise after breaks of various lengths due to illness or infirmity.  Strategies for finding motivation to keep attempting the same fitness goals, over and over again.

24 April 2012

Infertility Awareness Week

I was 29, The Mate a couple of years younger when we decided it was time for offspring.  We tossed the birth control, but months went by with no results.

Months turned into years, I finished my PhD and got a job in New Jersey, where state law mandated infertility treatment, and we decided to get some tests run to see if they yielded any useful information (e.g. a simple problem, easily addressed).   Nothing much.

The Mate and I both have chronic illnesses, and we both agreed that pursuing medical treatment for infertility amounted to inviting another chronic illness into our lives, and neither of us had the will to go that route.

Also, we weren't so sure this was the best use of medical resources, when there are people whose access to medical care is limited.

Yes, we tried adoption.  Oh, yes.  Guess what?  It's not so easy.  A story for another time.

But mysteriously, miraculously, after ten years I found myself pregnant, and after several months of radical disbelief, I found myself with a real live baby of my own.  

Eight years later, he remains a miracle. But the scars of those ten years remain, too.  Those ten years of longing, sorrow and -- yes -- shame will always remain part of my life.

The years don't evaporate because I now have a child; neither does the painful part of those years, and the fact that I'm ten years older, the grandparents are ten years older....

22 April 2012

Making Time for Stillness

Had lunch yesterday with a great good friend, and at one point we started talking about taking down time, settling into stillness for a while.

My mind raced across all the different plates I have spinning in the air, between parenting a high-needs kid and keeping the marriage alive and coping with chronic illness and a shoulder injury ... and the paying job, which is basically just nuts at this time of year.

And the summer is already planned to the hilt.  Vacation with extended family, vacation with our little nuclear family, an article to write, other articles and a book to revise and send off again, lectures and conference presentations to whip into article shape. And if I finish all that, I want to write a book proposal and write a short piece for Notes and Queries.  In other words, there's no way it's all going to get done.

On top of all that, I have a class scheduled, though it's now looking like it probably won't make enrollment, which is good given all the writing I want to do, but not so good for the bottom line.

So when she asked me if I could/would take some down time...  first I laughed, then I choked back a sob, the kind where you wonder if you start crying, if it would ever stop.  And then we went to Tompkins Square Park and sat for a few minutes, and as we simply sat on a bench under a tree, the idea started to seem less ludicrous.

Need to work on that.  Stillness.  Today, not tomorrow.

17 April 2012

Rhythm and Stitching

When I finished grading a set of papers last night, I wasn't done: I needed to turn a pair of The Offspring's pants into shorts.

I miscalculated.  In previous years, he's never outgrown shorts -- they just keep getting shorter.  This year, though, he noticed that all the other boys' shorts are knee-length, and he wants to fit in.

There are alternatives: I could have planned a trip to the Children's Place store in the neighborhood, or the Old Navy a little farther afield, and bought him some shorts for this season.   There's a budget, though, and that would mean trade-offs.  

I could have let him choose between short shorts and long pants.  But as an immigrant kid, I frequently wore weird outfits to school.  I didn't want to force that choice.

And there were three pairs of pants lying around, two with holes in the knees, the other way too short, and I took one of those, cut off the bottoms, and started hemming.

I was a little grumpy about the process.  My mother is a far better seamstress, and would have worked more quickly and more neatly; I wished I'd had more practice.   But they were corduroys, and that stuff is forgiving when it comes to seeing stitches.

After a few minutes, the rhythm of stitching took over, even though it was a frequently interrupted rhythm.  Everyone else was asleep, and the apartment was peaceful.  And given a break from a blinking-flashing-always awake screen, my eyeballs started to rest.

I finished faster than expected, and I was far less wound up than when I started.  It turned out to be a nice way to end the day: and as a bonus, fits in well with my financial and environmental commitments.

16 April 2012

The Not-Shopping Thing

Last month (on Pi Day, specifically), I made a decision to quit buying stuff, and I have to admit I haven't done a very good job with the project. 

I broke an earring while away from home for Passover, and talked The Mate into buying me a pair to wear.  I could have tried to fix the broken earring, could have gone earringless for a couple of days... but no.

I also bought a set of hiking maps, and a new road map, for the Catskills.  The Mate and I went there for an overnight last weekend, and as we were planning the trip discovered our hiking maps were printed in 1989. It's true, the mountain hasn't changed much since then, but trails do get moved, and sometimes even junctions shift (as we discovered on a hike in Harriman Park once, years ago, while using an old map set that left us a little confused, a little lost).

I've been tempted by some other purchases.  Running clothes, a copy of Jurassic Park for The Offspring, some glasses for the kitchen to replace the ones we keep breaking.  Plus for quite a while I've been wanting a clock for my office, and I still want one even though I'm "not shopping."

On the plus side, I haven't been spending time on retail web sites, browsing sale items, putting stuff in and out of my virtual cart.  I haven't been tempted to go into stores with sale signs to see if there's anything I might "need."  And when I went with The Mate to buy an end-of-season winter jacket (replacing one that's probably 15 years old), I didn't seriously consider any sale purchases of my own. 

It's a lot of energy, along with the cash, that I'm not spending.  And even though I haven't been completely consistent, the habit is shifted.  And it feels pretty good.

14 April 2012

Stars and Miscalculations

In March of 2002, The Mate and I climbed Springer Mountain in Georgia, the start of a week of packpacking. We were carrying minimal gear because we were also carrying video camera, batteries, tape, and sound equipment, and interviewing people setting off to hike the Appalachian Trail. Plus, March in Georgia; it would be significantly warmer than March in New York.

Overnight, the temperature dropped; we lay shivering in our tent and awoke to snow. Worse, we'd left muddy boots outside the tent, and there was nothing for it but to shove our feet in them and just keep moving forward while they thawed out. It was an uncomfortable morning.

The eventual result was a documentary, 2000 Miles to Maine.

I thought of that night last night while I lay shivering in a tent yet again. This time, it was a forecast for unseasonably warm weather, plus a bum shoulder; the mate was carrying most of the gear to a camp site not too far off a road, so we left a lot behind.

After hiking in short sleeves, we sat down to a cold dinner and some paper grading via iPad. The temperature was dropping rapidly, so we soon retreated into the tent, where we continued to get colder and colder. Eventually, the iPad (unimagined in '02) told us that the overnight low for the town we were camping in was expected to be 29 degrees.


When the dog started shivering, I brought him inside my sleeping bag with me, but even then I couldn't warm up. I slept fitfully, spending the wakeful hours listening for birdsong, which would tell me dawn was near.

Eventually, I got up to take a leak, and I looked up at the night sky, and was transfixed.

The Manhattan sky at night looks flat, a glassy surface with a couple of visible planets and a few dim pinpricks of starlight.

Last night, I looked up at the sky that our ancestors saw before the invention of electricity. It's a deep sky, scattered across with innumerable stars of varying brightness at different distances. I was looking at light a million years old and more.

Then, an owl, close by and startling, letting us know we were trespassing in its territory.

And instantly I knew that by morning the cold wouldn't matter. What would: stars across unfathomable distance and an owl in the darkness.

10 April 2012

Passing ... Or Not

Embodying an invisible disability means I'm constantly in a state of passing, whether I want to be or not, unless I make a deliberate point of naming the disability. 

But that act of naming flies in the face of what Robert McRuer calls, in his book Crip Theory, "compulsory able-bodiedness" -- a cultural norm that insists upon ability, or non-disability, as normal.

Naming myself "ill" or "disabled" is transgressive within this paradigm.  Failing to fake able-bodied status is to court shame in a cultural milieu in which the idea that "health is the only thing" is regularly trumpeted.  The "crippled" are objects for pity, because a full and fulfilling life , according to this mind-set, is possible only for the healthy and the able-bodied.

In other areas, I don't strive to be normal, whatever that might be.  I embrace my own idiosyncracies and oddities, and I seek out others who are odd and idiosyncratic because they tend to be interesting.

But when it comes to expectations about hiding illness or infirmity, I have a much harder time making transgression my own.

Part  of the  problem  has to do with the fact that living with infirmity is in fact a hassle.  It's just plain difficult to function when a major life activity like breathing is not going well.  But compulsory able-bodiedness has a corollary: we're supposed to buck up without complaint and bear our ills patiently.

But part of the story involves my own investment in that cultural mode of compulsion, such that claiming/testifying/confessing infirmity feels like a failure.  I'm trying to get beyond that, but I'm wrestling.

08 April 2012

Living on Boundaries

Growing up as a German immigrant in a small New England town meant not really fitting in anywhere. 

No marshmallow fluff, cocoa crispies or Wonder Bread for us. We ate dark, heavy crusty stuff, with stinky fish from mysterious cans and jars, and delicious -- and untranslatable -- home made food.

But I came to the US when I was less than a year old. I wasn't fluent in German and I didn't really know the culture. So when my family sent me to visit the German cousins, I didn't fit there, either.

It occurs to me that having a chronic illness is a little like being an immigrant: one doesn't fully belong on either side of the cultural divide.

I don't carry a cane or use a wheelchair, or possess any other marker that identifies me to bystanders as disabled. Yet I spend significant portions of each year gripped by illness. I no longer teach three-hour classes, because when I'm sick, I don't have the energy or the breath to go for that long.

I pass into and out of these periods of infirmity. There are also times when I can run, bike, swim, tussle with The Offspring. But those times of apparent health are marked by the awareness that the illness will return, unpredictable in its timing and in its severity.

Even when I'm healthy, I don't live in the country of the well. Yet occupying the territory of disability seems, for part of each year, a kind of untruth. Like Grendel and his mother, I am a mearcstapa, walking the boundaries between.

29 March 2012

Hack, Hack, Cough-cough

New Jersey Transit claims not to allow smoking in stations. But people smoke regularly at the Long Branch Station, and for years I've been complaining regularly about it to the NJT people.

I've mentioned it to the conductors.  They say it's not their job to enforce it.

I've gone to Customer Service at Penn Station in Newark.  They told me to call the police.

I called the Long Branch police.  They told me to call the New Jersey Transit police. Yeah, right.

I went to the ticket booth and asked the attendant to make an announcement reminding people they're not allowed to smoke on the platform.  "Attention passengers static.  Please be considerate of your fellow passengers and static static static platform."

(To be fair, there is also another ticket seller.  When she sees me coming, she goes right to the mike, and she's clear.)

I emailed the American Lung Association.  They said they'd see what they could do, and a few weeks later there were lots and lots of nice new "no smoking" signs in the station.  People still stand under them smoking.

I went to Customer Service at Penn Station, and got a nice email message thanking me for my complaint and telling me they would increase patrols at the station.

And I got to the station yesterday, and watched two men smoking under a no smoking sign.