31 March 2013

Ten of Tens: Retrenching

This month, I'm going to try to take on reducing clutter.  It's part of the "reduce" leg of the green triad.  Usually I interpret "reduce" to mean reducing purchases, thus making it arguably more important than "reuse" or "recycle" because it hits consumption at the knees rather than addressing its effects.

But "reduce" also means getting rid of stuff that's lying around unused, so as to simplify life and limit the need for storage space.  I generally resist getting rid of stuff that's perfectly useful because I fear I might need it some time.  My mother is a war refugee, my father a depression baby -- hanging on to anything that might come in handy some day is deeply ingrained.

But recently I've been taking another look.  On sabbatical in Cambridge a few years back I was invited to a May Ball, for which I bought a gown at a thrift shop and (oh my) schlepped it back to New York.  Really, I'm never going to wear it again.  T-shirts and turtlenecks with holes in them, that I keep around for pajamas and weekend wear have to go.  Why do have a package of weatherstripping, anyway?  Do I really need all those old towels, baby blankets, kid toys, books I'll never read again? The goal: to take every single thing off shelves and out of drawers and boxes and crates and see how much I can send to thrift shops or recycle bins.

De-cluttering wasn't on my list back in January, when I hatched grand plans for adopting new habits that would lead to greater environmental awareness and sustainability in my personal life.  I vowed to take on a new habit, task, or challenge -- albeit a small one -- for each of the next ten months.  So far, I've done better at things that weren't on the list.

In January, I attempted, and failed, to eat more local food.  On the other hand, though it wasn't the plan, I did a lot better at packing my lunch, and avoiding the vast amounts of waste (and the not-so-healthy meals) that go with take-out.  In February, I tried, and failed, again with the local food, but also went off-piste by returning to yoga as a daily habit, and that one is sticking, though it's not really an environmental commitment. In March, I aimed low at reducing water waste, with reasonable success.

So April's task will be to try to get beyond the fear that I might want [item x] some day, and spend some time each weekend unpacking the cabinets and closets to make them more useful by virtue of being less overstuffed.  I'm starting with the pantry, trying to eat my way through the food already stored there before buying more.

26 March 2013

How to Make a Difference

I used to cook regularly for a soup kitchen. When I was hugely pregnant with The Offspring, I got light-headed in the heat and had to stop. For years, I told myself I'd go back. But a full-time job plus child care turned out to be a more challenging combination than I ever dreamed, and while certain things about parenting have gotten easier, it still demands a whole heck of a lot of time. Okay, so I give up. I'm not at the soup kitchen any more.

Meanwhile, though, I've been blogging, an activity that can be done in much smaller chunks of time. I think about issues I want to blog about on the train, on the bike, in the kitchen, in the shower. I can grab a few minutes between work or family responsibilities to write a few paragraphs, even a few sentences. Sometimes it takes me days to finish a post, and that's okay.

Eventually, The Offspring will move out, and different kinds of time will be freed up again. And eventually again, I'll retire. At the points of transition, I'll have the opportunity to rethink what I spend time on. For now... I do what I can.

And now I'm talking to you, dear reader. Yes, you can make a difference. But how? You're just one person, with limited impact.... Margaret Mead has been quoted so often it's more or less doctrine: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Find your cause. You need a cause you're truly committed to, because sometimes it will feel like you're the only one. Your commitments may change over time; that's okay. The world changes, and as you learn more, you'll see different facets of it that will seem less or more important.

Find a group of people who share your views. Depending on your temperament, you may do well with a traditional face-to-face community, or you may prefer to interact with people on line.

Study your cause, and keep studying, keep learning more. There's always more to find out, more knowledge being created. Become the creator of knowledge.

Figure out what you have to give, now: time, money, a skill. Later, you may have more money, less time (or the other way around), different skills, and as you keep learning and re-evaluating, you may be in a position to help differently. But don't wait until you have [x]. Do what you can, NOW.

That said, if constraints on time or money limit your availability to help now, don't beat yourself up.

Do what you can. Don't give up.

I Need a Break from my Break

I didn't do so well on the spring break to-do list.  I got the first of the conference papers written, and went to the conference, and heard so many great papers and had so many heart-breaking conversations with students nearing the completion of their PhDs that my brain is full.

I got the car taken care of, important because the conference involved a road trip, and I knocked off some doctors' appointments.

Grading?  Yes, got some done.  Getting ahead on work for the rest of the semester?  Joke.  Which is why April is the cruelest month: because spring break is always too short and the lists of things to do too optimistic. Catching up on sleep? Yeah, right.

What day is it again? What am I teaching today?  Where's the coffee?

20 March 2013

Part-Time? Intermittent? Interruptive?

I'm looking for a new word, because "chronic" doesn't fit my own embodiment of dis-ease.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "chronic" thus: "Of diseases, etc.: Lasting a long time, long-continued, lingering, inveterate; opposed to acute."  Also: "continuous, constant."  The term fits the pain and stiffness in my shoulder, lingering from last year's incident when a runaway truck collided with my car.  The pain isn't particularly severe, and it's sometimes worse than other times, but it's always there, and fairly predictable: If I use the arm, the pain will be worse.  If I carry a backpack, or lift weights, or go swimming, it will aggravate it.  At the end of the day, when I try to get to sleep, I notice it.  It's always there.

The asthma, on the other hand, comes and goes, in intense and unexpected shifts and reversals.

Oh, the disease is always there, and I take medication twice a day to keep it under control, and there are things that will pretty predictably set off a reaction: inhaling smoke, eating mushrooms, drinking wine are all guaranteed troublemakers; getting a cold or flu sometimes sets off worse symptoms, but sometimes doesn't.

I decide what I eat and drink, though reading ingredient labels is a constant hassle and trying to eat in restaurants can be vexing.  Inadvertently breathing smoke from a fireplace, a cigarette, a can of sterno, a gas heater, or an idling truck is a lot more difficult to control.

Sometimes, one of these triggers -- or a combination -- will set off a mild reaction from which I recover in a few hours.  Other times, an attack might be so severe I'll find myself winded from loading the dishwasher or taking a shower; climbing stairs becomes a project.  It might take a week to recover, or six weeks, or three months.  That, too, is unpredictable.

The Oxford Thesaurus: American Edition suggests, among others, irregular, discontinuous, sporadic, spasmodic, random, fitful, and broken as synonyms for "intermittent."  What I want is a word that means both "random" and "spasmodic."  I also want some sense of the body being attacked rather than attacking itself: the triggers are environmental even though the bodily response is auto-immune.

What think you, sisters and brothers in the land of disorders that buck and hassle and kick on some days, and subside in meek docility in others?  How do we name our embodiment?

19 March 2013

Where to Shop

The old mantra, reduce, reuse, recycle, begins with "reduce."  As in, better to avoid shopping altogether.  Learn to live with less.  Buy things that will last, and then get them repaired rather than replacing them as they wear.  But we do need food, shelter, clothing.  We need tools to cook with, we need furnishings for our homes.

The place to start, then, is buying used.  Double bonus: you buy something without the environmental costs of new manufacture, and you keep an item out of the landfill.  Some places to start: Better World Books, Craig's List, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, your local thrift or consignment shop.

When used won't do, you can shop from a store with explicit commitments to environmentally friendly materials and good labor practices across the supply chain.  Some of the better options:

American Apparel
Seventh Generation
simple shoes
Sustainable NYC
Ten Thousand Villages
World of Good

Among manufacturers that sell clothing in the US, only H&M, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Abercrombie and Fitch have signed on to the  Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Green America recommends fabrics made out of bamboo, organic cotton, industrial hemp, recycled polyester, soy silk or cashmere, and wool.  They also publish The National Green Pages, a directory of green businesses, as well as a newsletter with information on fair trade practices across a variety of industries.

In the absence of transparency about labor rights, industrial methods, and green materials, we all need to keep reading about corporate practices and putting pressure on individual companies to improve their records.

18 March 2013

What Professors Do: Spring Break

My plans for "vacation":
  • Grade papers
  • Take the car in to the garage (overdue oil change, overdue 100,000 mile service)
  • Get new tires for the same car (they're not bald yet, but they're getting old)
  • Prepare assignments and get ahead on course reading for the rest of the semester (because for academics, April is the cruelest month)
  • Do research and write (two conference papers and an overdue journal article)
  • Doctor's appointments (to schedule a procedure for after the semester is over)
  • Go to a conference (meet grad students, preside over a session I've organized, give a paper)
  • Cut back on coffee and catch up on sleep (see: April)
Academic friends and colleagues: When was the last time you took a vacation during your vacation?

17 March 2013

False in Advertising

Mayor Bloomberg wants to stop people from buying huge sodas because he's worried about the amount of sugar people consume in their drinks, and its contribution to obesity, diabetes, and related diseases.

I think he has a point, but I think there's a larger problem with grossly misleading food advertising that encourages people to think that total junk is healthy food.

Case in point: check out this advertisement for General Mills kids' cereals:

It will be a little hard to read at that size, but the ad makes the claim that whole grains are the first ingredient in all General Mills kids' cereals.

They're not technically lying: here's the ingredient list for Lucky Charms, just one example of their cereals:
Whole Grain Oats, Marshmallows (Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Gelatin, Calcium Carbonate, Yellows 5 & 6, Red 40, Blue 1, Artificial Flavor), Sugar, Oat Flour, Corn Syrup, Corn Starch, Salt, Trisodium Phosphate, Color Added, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) Added to Preserve Freshness.Vitamins And Minerals: Calcium Carbonate, Zinc And Iron (Mineral Nutrients), Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), A B Vitamin (Niacinamide), Artificial Flavor, Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2,(Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin Mononitrate), Vitamin A(Palmitate), A B Vitamin (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3.
The first ingredient is, indeed, whole grain oats.  But different sugars are listed five times in all: two listings each of sugar and corn syrup, plus dextrose, another kind of sugar, through the (legal) trick of listing the marshmallows as a separate ingredient.

The nutrition "facts" section of the label reveals that a 3/4-cup serving of the cereal contains 2 grams of dietary fiber, and 10 grams of sugars.  Three-quarters of a cup of plain oatmeal? 7.7 grams of dietary fiber. That means the serving of Lucky Charms contains less than a quarter of a cup of whole grain oats, and all the other ingredients add up to more than half a cup.  

Meanwhile, 10 grams of sugar adds up to two and a half teaspoons.  What the heck is taking up the rest of the volume in that three-quarters of a cup?  Looks like it's mostly corn starch (also listed twice) and oat flour (not identified as whole grain, therefore almost certainly refined).

Back to that advertisement, which I found in a parenting magazine while waiting at the doctor's office a couple of months ago.  It's designed to make parents think these cereals are healthy, kind of like an apple.

And what context do parents have to challenge those claims? Nutrition information that gets into the media usually involves sound-bites about isolated pieces of information: low fat versus high fat foods, sugary drinks versus artificial sweeteners, eggs and chocolate are healthy this week but excess sodium is still bad; but how much sodium is excessive?  Confusing, contradictory, and ultimately unhelpful.

What's missing is education about diet in general.  Pyramids and plates and various other gimmicky graphics try to do something, but what the nation needs is to educate a generation in school over the long term, year after year after year, not just in a single day or week or even year, about the general parameters of a healthy diet.

What's missing is also meaningful regulation about the kinds of claims advertisers can make about food.  General Mills isn't alone here; I've seen billboards for Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's with the word "healthy" on them.

Oh, and Yellow 5 & 6, and Red 40? Banned in Europe for their effects on kids' behavior, made out of petroleum. Yes, if Lucky Charms are in your home, you're eating the same stuff you put in your car at the gas station.

10 March 2013

Uninheritable Books

"Margaret and Helen Abbott."  So reads the inscription on the flyleaves of a handful of books on my shelves, books shared by my Great-Aunt Helen and her twin sister Margaret, who died before I was born, when they were first-year college students.

My family is rich in books, and in people who cherish books.  A copy of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is inscribed "J. W. Robinson. 1900."  My father has added a post-it note: "I assume that this J. W. Robinson is Dr. John Robinson, who was my first dentist.  He was married to Aunt Margaret Robinson, a sister of my Grandfather Abbott." A leatherbound and undated copy of Pope's collected works, including his translations of Iliad and Odyssey is unfortunately uninscribed, as is a disintegrating 1904 edition of Edward Lear's Nonsense Books.

A copy of Dickens' A Child's History of England has "Dec. 4th, 1878. Lena Farrington. Winter Term." A copy of Webster's Ancient History might have been a school copy, as it has several names inside the front cover, including that of Ethel M. Woodbury, who might be the great-great-great-aunt Ethel who lives in family lore as the painter of numerous Maine landscapes, but I'll have to check with my father.

But these books aren't really books, if books exist to be used: they're too fragile. I could probably read the copy of Venus and Adonis without destroying it, but Nonsense Books is printed on paper that is falling to pieces, and even opening it to look for an inscription risks further damage.

My own book purchases, these days, are drifting more and more toward the electronic, on account of portability as well as a desire to be divested of stuff: a desire in conflict with the desire to hold on to those whispers of long-gone family members, some of whom I never knew but who live on in the memories of those I love and have loved.

But really, I'm not buying the books: I'm acquiring a license presumably valid until I die, but subject to termination before then by various market forces.  And books, of whatever physical or spectral form, are simply a record of some sort of cultural moment.  Some few survive for generations and even centuries, but most rightfully fall into oblivion.

A significant percentage of my books are intellectual productions whose value is already fading slowly as their scholarship or editorial practices are superseded.  Then there's a bunch of of contemporary fiction, poetry, prose.  I own no first editions, no rare books, just a profusion of volumes I use as I attempt my own analyses of old texts already much commented upon.  If I don't get rid of them before I die, someone will be stuck disposing of them.

The Offspring may one day sigh or chuckle over a jumble in which Ecofeminist Philosophy, Living Letters of the Law, and Klaeber's Beowulf rub up against tattered covers of The Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary, guides to hiking in the White Mountains and in the Alps, and The Joy of Cooking.

If anyone wants one of my books, it will be as keepsake, memento, not as usable text.  The electronic files will not be available as memorial objects carrying emotional freight forward into another generation; those who remember me will have to recall mind and body: a moving target.

And for today, that's okay with me.

09 March 2013

Who Knows?

Chronic illness is assumed to be predictable.  If you, the patient, follow the advice of the medical professionals, take your medicines, eat well, get your exercise, avoid triggers, then you will effectively "manage" your condition.


I used to think of myself as a Runner.  I'd pore over race schedules  and the calendar and plan out running routes for weeks, even months, in anticipation of a big race.  Now I think  of myself as someone who gets to run, sometimes.  This week, I can't run.  I may be able to run next week, probably the week after that ... but who  knows?

Here's the earliest definition of "patient" in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Enduring  pain,  affliction, inconvenience, etc., calmly, without discontent or complaint; characterized by or showing such endurance." The use of the word to refer to a person with an illness appears about the same time: the very definition of "patient" is intertwined with the notion that one will suffer, but should do so in silence.

I come down with a cold or I come into contact with an allergen, and who knows?  My body might shrug it off, or it might go into dragon-slayer mode, my lungs retracting and twisting into inutility.  One day, I ride a bike or climb a mountain; the next day, climbing a flight of stairs may be beyond me.  I have not gotten accustomed to the suddenness of the shifts, though the extent of the changes surprises me less than it once did.

During episodes, there's fear.  How long will it take to recover?  Will this episode leave me more impaired than before?  Between episodes, there's fear.  What will trigger the next?  When might it come?  Will I become unavailable to family, lose time at work, miss out on vacation activities?  Managing the stress becomes a constant part of "managing" the illness.

08 March 2013

Seen From the Air

On a flight from Boston to Newark the other day, I noticed some things that you can see from the air.  Since I was following the rules, my phone was switched off and I couldn't get photos, but I found some of them on Apple Maps:

Strip mines, their contours flattened by elevation, but still obvious in their outlines.
Golf courses, fields, obvious even in the monochrome brown of winter, highways.

The husks of ships, rusting in the waters around Staten Island.
Parking lots. In the middle of a day on Monday, empty parking lots.  Who builds parking lots that sit unused?  What are they for?  How many parking spaces are there in the US for every car?  How much excess parking capacity have we created so that people can move between home, work, school, leisure, always anticipating an empty spot?

04 March 2013

Day Fourteen

Two weeks ago, I decided to try to return to daily yoga practice.  All I asked of myself was one sun salutation.  One night about a week ago, the asthma was so bad I couldn't manage even that, so I did a few seated and prone poses.

Just two weeks, and my back has stopped aching, my head is clearer, I'm sleeping better, my stress levels are down.  I took a fantastic yoga class with my parents over the weekend, and have now decided to add a weekly class to my own solitary practice.

If this is what two weeks can do, what about two months? Two years? Two decades? This could be quite an interesting experiment.

01 March 2013

Stinking Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Worldwide, governments subsidize fossil fuel use far more than renewables:

The US doesn't make the list of the top 25 countries granting these subsidies, but the huge oil companies that get the subsidies -- Shell , ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips -- rake in huge profits selling heating oil, jet fuel, gasoline and diesel in the US, those profits augmented by the subsidies paid out by governments in Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.  

The graphic is from an article from Treehugger, which also points out that the environmental, health, and economic costs of mitigating pollution and dealing with its effects aren't even included in those amounts. 

What costs?  Well, take for instance the cost of health care, which as we're reminded on a minute-to-minute basis these, days, is spiraling.  A short list of conditions well know to be caused or exacerbated by air pollution includes heart and lung disease, as well as damage to kidneys, liver, brain, and nervous system.  

Plus, recent research suggests that increases in autism, ADHD, and other learning disabilities could be attributable to a variety of environmental toxins, including car and truck exhaust.

The US should be levying pressure on Iraq, Saudia Arabia, and Russia to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. We also need to take the lead world-wide in developing alternative energies.