16 December 2014

Fear of Side Effects / Call Me Superwoman

Theorists of disability have very rightly criticized the "medical model" suggesting individuals should be rehabilitated, normalized, fixed, in favor of a social model calling for modifications to the built environment that avoid putting, as Leviticus forbids, a stumbling block before the blind, or, for instance, stairs when a ramp or a sidewalk-level entrance would allow more equal access.

My experience of disability, however, involves interactions with the world that are hindered by exacerbations of chronic illness, typically asthma attacks triggered by upper-respiratory infections that for most of the people who catch them are at worst an annoyance, as well as by life-threatening allergies to things that other people aren't in the least bit bothered by. Or that they love, like mushrooms and cats.

Building streets with curb cuts and buildings with ramps as a matter of course is an obvious act of inclusion. Eliminating smoking in public areas to help everyone avoid upper airway disease is a no-brainer. But object when Edinburgh University gives a cat a library card or a cafe owner opens the premises to cats, and you might get death threats.

Actually, I'm not interested in challenging anyone's right to consort with cats, though if a friend has a cat, I can't visit, ever, and The Mate hasn't eaten mushrooms at home in years. I am trying to make the point that the idea that disability is a socially constructed phenomenon, rather than an individual problem subject to remediation, is problematic in my experience.

Chronic illness seems to depend upon a medical model. The wheelchair icon and the understanding of disability as constructed by exclusionary social practices both suggest that disability in individuals is stable. But chronic illness seems to be characterized by flux, whether progressive decline or alternating periods of illness and remission. Medical help, usually in the form of pharmaceuticals, can delay decline and treat attacks and exacerbations. Sometimes medicine is needed to keep a person alive long enough to recover and return to remission.

If there were a pill that made my allergy to cats go away? I'd take it in a minute.

Actually, there is such a pill: prednisone.

The problem with prednisone, as with many other medications people take for epilepsy, asthma, depression, crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, to name just a few, is side effects.

Maybe a medication is extremely effective in treating a symptom, and the side effects are so minor, that it's not worth worrying about.

Maybe a medication works like that for most of the people who take it, but for a small minority, it turns out to have life-threatening effects.

Maybe it wasn't anticipated during trials that a lot of real-life people taking the drug under investigation would also be taking another medication at the same time, and the interaction between those two medications would turn out to be potentially lethal.

Maybe the test population didn't include any women, because women's hormonal cycles were long thought to screw up the results, and the drug turns out to be more effective in women. Or less effective.

Drug development and testing is done by people in lab coats, with careful measurements of doses, conditions, and outcomes. It sounds like science, it smells like science, it must be science. But real live people turn out to be so different in their responses to medications, including reduction of symptoms as well as side effects, that treating individuals turns out to be more art than science.

With some medications the line between effectiveness and toxicity is narrow. Or non-existent. If I took enough prednisone to eliminate my cat allergy I'd probably have a few great years. Manic years, since prednisone also is known to affect moods; it makes some people depressed and suicidal, but it makes me fly high as a kite. Kind of fun, and I tend to get a lot of work done, but not necessarily what I want when my body needs rest to recover from the infection that triggered the attack.

But then the side effects would almost certainly take over: weight gain, suppressed immunity, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, psychosis, dementia.

Last week, I did a six-mile run and I lifted some weights, as well as other exercise. Monday morning, I woke up so sick I got winded brushing my teeth. I am the stumbling block, or in any rate my lungs are; there's no social reorganization that will change the fact that I need to breathe, or I'll be dead.

Even Harry Potter needed the occasional hit of oxygen during that underwater scene.

So I take just enough prednisone to control the symptoms. I watch as my cholesterol and A1C levels creep up, despite a vegan diet and lots of exercise. I need the medicine; I fear the side effects. As for the mania? I finished a book chapter, outlined another, and wrote two blog posts today.

Call me superwoman.

15 December 2014

What I Can't Live Without: Clean Water

What can you not live without?  A cousin asked me that excellent question after I wrote my last post about minimalism in the kitchen.

I'm on sabbatical at the moment, living in a furnished apartment in the UK, with a tiny kitchen containing far fewer pots and pans and gadgets and appliances than my kitchen, or rather storage locker, in New York.

And even my New York kitchen is fairly small by white upper-middle-class American suburban standards.

I've been mulling over that question for the last several days, because I've also spent a fair amount of time cooking in even more minimal conditions on camping trips.

What I can't live without includes a knife, a cutting board, a pot. But it also turns out to include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and some variety of gluten-free flour. Home-made jam and applesauce and thai curries and Indian utthapams and bhajis and vegan soups and stews. Enormous salads. Bowls of cooked greens.

And lettuce and other greens, as I discovered during the lower Manhattan blackout after Hurricane Sandy, require large quantities of running water for cleaning. You can scrub root vegetables in a small amount of water, then rinse with another small amount. Most fruit can do with just a quick rinse, and legumes don't require too much more than cooking water.

But greens -- kale, collards, chard, spinach, bok choy, and lettuce -- I wouldn't want to have to live without those, not for the long term.

We take clean running water casually, so terribly casually, for granted, in North America and Western Europe.  Even as we buy vast quantities of bottled water, we forget that in large parts of the world -- and even in parts of the US -- the water isn't safe to drink or take a shower in.

I am very glad not to have to live without clean running water.

10 December 2014

Fighting for Minimalism

I've lived in apartments in New York City for the past 25 years, and that means keeping possessions to a relative minimum unless I want to pay for storage for stuff that I then won't be able to use ... because, well, it's across town in storage.

Today, I ran across the Haters Guide to the Williams Sonoma Catalogue, which includes this gem:
The Williams-Sonoma catalog will not rest until you need a separate pot for every single goddamn thing you make.
For a while, I owned a crock pot that I'd found in my building's recycling area, with a note promising, "it works!" Since I'm either home all day or out for fifteen hours, I never left the thing unattended, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I could cook more efficiently in -- gasp -- a normal pot on the stove.

By that time I'd moved, twice, paying movers to schlep that crock pot down five flights, up four, back down the same four, and up three. In the last move, I finally after nearly 25 years in New York City moved to an elevator building, but still.

In the end, the crock pot ended up at the Salvation Army. Maybe now some other poor soul is using it based on the promise of better meals than you can make with a normal pot on a normal stove.

But the thing about Black Friday and Cyber Monday and our consumer-driven society in general is that, with the exception of kids moving out on their own, people pretty much already own all the pots they need. And so Williams Sonoma, and for that matter Walmart, need to persuade you that you need MORE pots in your kitchen.

If they can find a way to sell you DISPOSABLE kitchenware, for instance single-use roasting pans or pie pans, then they've hit the jackpot.

It takes WORK to avoid advertising. I regularly make phone calls to get people to stop sending catalogues, but one on-line purchase can mean another whole pile of them. I've installed ad-blocker on my PC, but I still see advertising on my iPad. And internet advertising is a special horror:it takes extra discipline not to click through to the next web site, and the next.

Everyone wants me, or rather my limited amount of disposable income. Another pot, a better cleaning product, another sweater, a new pair of socks, a better health plan. I'm constantly fighting the capitalist barrage of advertising trying to persuade me that I need another item.

And budget considerations aside, it's an environmental issue. How do you fight the good fight?

17 November 2014

Green Christmas

It seems early, but then I want to get this post up before Black Friday. Christmas has become, for many people, a holiday of massively commercial proportions. Hannukah isn't far behind. With the commercialism comes a massive environmental impact. So here are some ideas about how to minimize the impact.


Consider making gifts, if you can, or buying from a craft market featuring the creations of local artisans, rather than buying on Amazon (with all that shipping and packaging) or Walmart (of the dismal labor record). Think about gifts that the recipient can use and enjoy -- food? -- rather than things that will need to be stored indefinitely.


Food waste is a major contributor to over-consumption, with estimates for how much of our food we throw away ranging from 30 to 50 percent. As you plan your holiday meal, or meals, think about food waste. We all cook extra to make sure everyone will have enough to eat. Can you make plans to freeze leftovers for future use? Make the turkey bones into soup, maybe even with leftover vegetable side dishes?


There's the packaging that stuff comes in. Would you consider choosing purchases based on the amount of packaging? Amazon comes to mind again. But making stuff by hand or buying locally also has good potential to reduce packaging. Then there's wrapping paper. We keep a box of used wrapping paper; other families use cloth wrapping bags and reuse them every year; others use the comics section of the newspaper for wrapping.


With family in Europe and across the US, I travel a lot, and I often end up flying instead of using ground transport, and I often travel by car rather than on trains or buses. So I feel a bit hypocritical including this category. But the point is for everyone to think about areas where they can cut back, and different things will work for all of us. Think about carpooling or, if possible, taking a train or a bus to your destination. Shopping locally can also limit driving time.


The Hershey corporation has made a commitment to ending the use of child labor in its source chains... by 2020. You can end child labor in your own chocolate today by purchasing fair trade chocolate.

Happy holidays, y'all.

03 November 2014

Joseph of the Colorful Coat as Climatologist

A guest post by Bill Menke, October 9, 2014

I would like to use the story of Joseph to illustrate the problems that we scientists experience in talking about Global Warming.  The Joseph that I am referring to is the Biblical character who you might have encountered, either from having read the Book of Genesis, or by having seen the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph’s story is long and complicated – a fine story to tell around a bonfire in a Middle Eastern desert – but here I am focused on only a small part of it, the part that concerns Joseph’s prediction of an Egyptian famine. The short of it is that circumstances allowed Joseph to guide Pharaoh‘s response to that famine better than any of us scientists have been able to influence our own society’s response to Global Warming. I want to tell you why.

Here’s an abridged version of Joseph’s story …

Pharaoh had a dream  He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat … After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile  And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up. He fell asleep again and had a second dream: Seven heads of grain, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprouted--thin and scorched by the east wind.The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream. In the morning his mind was troubled, so he sent for all the  wise men of Egypt. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but no one could interpret them for him. Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, "Today I am reminded of my shortcomings.Pharaoh was once angry  and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrewwas there with us ... We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us …So Pharaoh sent for Joseph Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. … I cannot do it," Joseph replied to Pharaoh, "but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires." Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "In my dream Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, "The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream. The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. … And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt.Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.  This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine." The plan seemed good to Pharaoh  So Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt."
Book of Genesis, New International Version1

A really key part of this story is that Pharaoh, the political leader of Egypt, realized that something was wrong.  Now, I don’t want you to get distracted by this realization coming in the form of dreams. Today, we don’t take the content of dreams seriously.  I’d rather you think of Pharaoh as an astute leader with an intuitive feel for the rhythms of his society.  He begins to suspect that something is amiss and that suspicion manifests as dreams, either as a literal expression of the Pharaoh’s subconscious mind, or a metaphorical device of the Biblical storyteller.  The point is that the initiative to investigate comes from Pharaoh, himself.

Folks, issues involving climate are just not on the radar screen of the great majority of our leaders.  This is not to say that the more committedamong them don’t sense problems and take the initiative to understand them and to solve them, but they are focused on different problems – economic problems, foreign relations problems, and so forth.  I think this points both the subtlety of the climate problem - we can’t smell rising CO2after all - and to the degree to which we of the Industrial Era are sundered from Nature.

I’m not sure who in today’s White House might play the role of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer.  He seems to have had more influence than the White House’s chief chef but to have been well outside of the inner circle of advisors and Cabinet Secretaries.  But in any case, not only didhe bring Joseph to Pharaoh’s attention, but he gave him a strong recommendation based on his own eyewitness account of Joseph’s abilities.

I don’t know what kind of testimonial would make a compelling case forus scientists.  Both the public and the political leadership confer us a fair degree of respect, in a distant sort of way, but the same time portray our opinions as esoteric and politically naïve.  But more importantly, although we are recognized as having achieved some practical successes - building the Bomb, curing polioinventing the Smart Phone and so forth  our ability to forecast the future is seldom acclaimed.  And, in fact, climate change is a new arena in which no long history of scientific predictions is available.

We scientists portray ourselves as being guided by the transcendent lawsof physics and chemistry with much the same spirit that Joseph portrays himself as merely the conduit through which God’s words are spoken. We do not invent Global Warming; we simply report an inevitable consequence of rising CO2 levels that changthe heat balance of the atmosphere.  Pharaoh accepts Joseph’s ability to speak for God to a far greater degree than, say, the Congress of the Unites States accepts the ability of climate physicists to speak for the First Law of Thermodynamics. In the modern world every authority is suspect.

Joseph was in the very enviable position of speaking to the leader of what was, for all intents and purposes, the only political power in the affected region. Pharaoh could unilaterally decide to adopt Joseph’s program and know that its success would not depend upon the actions or inactions of his neighbors.  As a subsequent part of the story reveals, Pharaoh did have to deal with an influx of starving refugees (among who were Joseph’s brothers). But no invading armies arrived, intent upon carrying away Egypt’s stockpiles of grain.

The region that is both responsible for, and affected by, Global Warming is the whole world.  The United States is only of several major emitters of CO2 and only one of the many nations to be affected by its consequences.  No CO2 reduction unilaterally made by any nation is likely to have anything but symbolic value, for other nations can easily take up the slack.  Any lasting solution will require an international agreement whose negotiation will be a slow and tedious process.

The scenario that Joseph presents, of seven years of plenty followed by seven of hardship, is one which resonates with Pharaoh.  It connects with his experience in the same way that yet-another water shortage resonates with the mayor of Los Angeles. The Pharaoh had experienced famines before, had witnessed their horrors and the land’s slow recovery from them.  Unfortunately, none of us alive today have prior experience with Global Warming.

We scientists have not done well articulating what Global Warming is all about.  Nor have we done well explaining why it is a concern and especially why its effects are to be feared.  Few of my fellow scientists would ascribe to the apocalyptic scenarios put forward by the more extreme environmental activists – a group composed mostly of non-scientists.  Nevertheless, most of us agree that the world will change and many of the changes will cause great human hardship.  But here I think that our knowledge of history – I mean geological history – jades us. Anyone who has studied the earth knows that our planet has experienced great changes and that every change has engendered both winners and losers.  Scientists, committed to the power of the mind, are inherent optimists. Perhaps we can adapt in such a way to be among the winners. Global Warming is not nearly as simple as famine. And complexity leaves rooms for ambiguity.

Joseph’s solution to the problem of the forthcoming famine is simple: spend the next seven years of plenty stockpiling enough food to get through those seven lean years.  And the fraction – a fifth – of each year’s harvest that must be put aside is manageable. Pharaoh agrees that it can be done and orders the program to start.

Scientists have not put forward a plan for stopping Global Warming that is anywhere near as workable as Joseph’s.  We know at the very least that we must stabilize atmospheric CO2 at its current level and preferably reduce its level back to what it was in 1980. To stabilize it, we must either stop burning all fossil fuels or, alternatively, capture and store all the CO2 that their combustion produces.  To go further and actually lower CO2 levels would require the capture and storage of three decades-worth of burning.  Both scenarios are possible. Alternative sources like wind and solar can replace fossil fuels and sequestration technology can scrub CO2 from the atmosphere.  But both are massive undertakings of daunting scale.  Saying that the United States needs to install one million wind turbines, for that is the number it will take, is not the same as building them. Congress is not going to fast-track myproposal to expedite construction.

I envy the clarity of Joseph’s message to Pharaoh.  But as a scientist trained in the rigorous estimation of error, I shudder at the certainty with which it is presented, for it goes against scientific culture in which everything is subject to probability.  Hour before its landfall, the chances are ninety percent, not a hundred, that the hurricane will hit New York. We scientists cannot calculate precisely how severe the effects of current CO2 levels will be and so rightly state large bounds on our predictions.  Sea level will rise somewhere between one foot and threeby the year 21002Our perspective is laudable, yet we are focusing on the wrong question.  There is no reason to think that CO2 will stay at its current level and every reason to think that their rise will be steady, or even that it will accelerate.  The two-thirds of the world’s peoples who are at the bottom of the economic ladder are rushing climb up – a process fueled by fossil fuels.  The probability of hugely painful climatic impacts is one hundred percent in a burning as usual world. Somehow, we scientists need to get that across.

1Gensis 41:1 – 41:41, www.biblestudytools.com/genesis/41.html

William Menke is a Professor of Earth Sciences at Columbia University.  He researches earthquakes and volcanoes and has won several kayaking awards. He also spends a lot of time hiking and taking photographs.

19 September 2014

Cultivating Memories

The whole bucket list thing has bothered me for a long time, but I couldn't put my finger on why -- and Rebecca Mead has just nailed it in the New Yorker:
Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge—or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara—is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.
Mead suggests, instead, a list of "touchstones to be sought out over and over."

I've been wanting for years to go to Wales. I finally got there a few weeks ago, and spent two days exploring along the route of Offa's Dyke, and three nights camped at the foot of Mt. Snowdon, climbing in rain on our last day in Wales.

But we got lucky: by the time we reached the summit, the weather had cleared, and we had stunning views off into the distance in all directions.

During the trip, I realized there's a good chance I'll never go there again: life is getting shorter at the front end. But Mead points out that we can still revisit such things in memory. I will enjoy the recollection for the rest of my life.

Some other memories I cherish:
  • climbing Mt. Washington as a teenager with my family, including my Guatemalan brother
  • biking across the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece, stumbling across 3000-year-old bridges and other ancient sites along the way
  • camping at the foot of Snæfellsjökull in Iceland
  • bicycling around Lake Constance with the Alps in the distance
  • crossing the Berner Oberland on foot with The Mate
  • hiking in the Dolomites with the Mate and The Offspring
  • biking in the Outer Hebrides with the Mate, on our honeymoon
  • looking the Beowulf manuscript in the British Library
  • living as an exchange student in the Valais with my Swiss family
  • climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire with several of my cousins, just last summer
  • sightseeing in Rome with The Mate and The Offspring
I love the idea that, even if I never hike those trails again, never again see the Parthenon or the Colosseum or look down from the summit of Mt. Snowdon, I can always summon the memories of places I've been and people I've spent time with.

And that appeals to me a lot more than making a list of 100 or 1000 things to do or see and crossing them off as "done."

18 September 2014

Do Plastic Bag Bans Do Any Good?

The short answer: YES.

Mother Jones reports that California has just banned plastic bags, but says "hold the rejoicing."

The article contains a lot of good information: you have to use a paper bag three times to reap an environmental benefit over plastic, when production costs are taken into account, and you have to use a cotton bag a whopping 131 times.

But if you shop twice a week, you'll get through those 131 uses in just over a year.

I can't speak for suburban folks with big cars to bring home huge loads of groceries, and big pantries and closets and freezers to store weeks of groceries at a time, but as a long-time city dweller, I can tell you I shop at least twice a week.

Some cloth bags might not last a year, particularly once they've gone through the wash a time or two, but I've had many cloth bags for a decade or more.

But here's what I think is the key statistic from the article: in studies in Ireland and California, 40 percent of shoppers didn't use a bag at all after bans or fees were imposed.

That blows all the re-use statistics out of the water.

Think about it: how many times have you left a convenience store with two items in a plastic bag, only to take one item out immediately? or both? Even if your community doesn't ban bags, think about just saying "no" to the bag next time. Or pick up the phone and call your local elected official and tell her or him to add a bag ban to the legislative agenda.

08 September 2014

What Professors Do: Disability

Last week, this incredibly powerful essay crossed my radar: Katie Murphy writes about being a disabled student and having to ask all of her professors for accommodations during the first week of the semester.

It resonated with me in two important ways. One, I hate having to ask for accommodations, as a professional or as a human being.

Excuse me, your cigarette [that you're smoking under that no smoking sign] is triggering my asthma, would you mind putting it out? Usually, those requests get met with hostility from the smoker and silence from everyone else in the vicinity.

As a professor, I don't really get sick days. I'm expected to teach my classes. All of them. And if for some reason I can't make it to class, I'm expected to arrange for coverage.

This is one thing if I know I will be at a conference during a class meeting: I can plan an exercise that the students can do in class under the supervision of another faculty member. But if I get sick, I can't expect a colleague to be able to show up and teach what I was going to teach that day. Mostly because small departments depend upon having faculty in different fields to teach a wide range of courses, and much of the time, there's no one in my department who could just do what I do.

So I've made arrangements, after discussions with my department chair and the head of human resources, to teach on line at times when I can't breathe well enough to stand in front of students while talking for 75 minutes. Or three hours.  Or sit in front of them while managing a class.

These days, I get that sick once or twice a semester. The acute phase is usually over in three or four days, but it then takes three or four weeks to get back to full energy levels.

This means that my syllabus includes information to the effect that because of documented chronic illness, class may have to be moved on line at some point during the semester. And I'm told I have to point this out to my students on the first day of class in case someone should be uncomfortable with it and decide as a result to switch into a different section.

I hate having to do this.

I loathe having to paste this boilerplate into my syllabus every semester; I loathe having to ask my doctor each year for an updated letter confirming medical recommendation for the accommodation; I loathe having to hand it over to my department chair; and I really hate having to talk about it with my students.

In her blog post, Murphy does a truly great job of articulating the emotions that go along with this:
I have to engage in a little mental boxing match with self-doubt: “Do I really even need those accommodations? I could get by without them, right? I did before.” And guilt: “I’m wasting my professor’s time. They’re going to hate me. I’m such an inconvenience.” And shame: “A good student and a stronger person wouldn’t need all this stuff.
... Disabled people grow up learning to hate themselves, to hate their disability, because the world we live in hates disability for no logical reason. And sometimes the best way to fight that kind of illogic is with more illogic.
Self-doubt, guilt, shame, self-loathing. Check, check, check.

Except I fear that my supervisors AND my students are going to hate me, feel inconvenienced, suspect I might be malingering and really don't need these accommodations.

Murphy goes on to make a really excellent case for getting beyond those feelings. If you didn't already click through, go do it now, and read. You might even weep.

The second way that Murphy's essay resonated with me? I felt shame of a completely different kind. Shame that it never occurred to me that even though I know this burden, I have never seen it from a student's point of view. And so in my syllabus I have the standard boiler-plate about accommodations not being possible without documentation, see me in the first week of the semester, blah blah blah.

When I return from sabbatical and teach again, I will be removing that boilerplate, replacing it with something human, encouraging my colleagues to read Murphy's essay, and requesting that as a department we come up with better boilerplate.

And I will go on trying to conquer the self-loathing. That's harder, though.

22 August 2014

I Got Tagged

... by my lovely cousin Amy, to take part in the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge.

The Challenge has its detractors, some of whom think it's a stunt and others of whom worry that other organizations will see a drop in donations, but by and large I think it's a positive thing.

Nevertheless, I've decided to respond in my own way.  

Later today, I'm going to the pool, and I guess I'll go ahead and dump a bucket of ice water over my head, or let someone else do it.

I've also made a donation to the ALS Assocation.  And to the American Cancer Society, and to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.

ALS has, I supposed, touched my life; I once had a fitful, fearful, fretful night, after being told I needed to be tested for it, and then an hour or so on a gurney given electrical shocks to make sure all my nerves were working right. They were. Eventually, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and thankfully, a week of antibiotics took care of it.

Cancer and Crohn's Disease have also touched my life. I have several family members who have lived with, or died from, either disease, and typing that sentence opens a hole in my heart. But those are not my stories to tell, so I'll leave it at that.

Finally, I've reached out to the local synagogue to ask about volunteer activities. I'm on sabbatical and this is a good opportunity to spend some time giving back. 

There are other organizations I could volunteer through, but volunteering as a Jew feels important and right at a time when antisemitism is on the rise again in Europe. Here in England, a store recently removed kosher goods (produced in Poland and the UK) from its shelves in response to "anti-Israel" protests: Judaism in general conflated with protests against Israeli actions in Gaza. And at a protest on the market square in Cambridge the other weekend, a man carried a sign reading "Israel = Nazis."

Made me sick.

And so I feel it's important to identify with Jews and Judaism in a public way.

Thank you, Amy, for tagging me, and thank you for getting me to think about these things, and getting me to make a commitment to volunteer work in the year to come.

21 July 2014

Potty Parity: No Joke

A letter to the Connecticut Department of Transportation:


The newly designed rest areas on the Merritt Parkway are an improvement on the old ones in several ways. But  every time I stop at one, there's a huge line at the women's restroom (and no line, ever, at the men's.)  Finally, yesterday, while I was waiting in the long line for the women's restroom with my son who had already finished his business, I asked him to go back in and count.

Two stalls, two urinals.

In the women's bathroom? Two stalls, full stop.

This raises several questions.

What were your architects thinking?  Why not provide at least as many options for relief in the women's bathroom as in the men's? Or make several individual, unisex stalls, with sinks outside?  

Why design a series of new facilities that create lengthy wait times for women (and their male family members traveling with them)? Why not create facilities that enable equal wait times, knowing social constructions of restroom activities require more time for women?

(No, it's not simply biological difference.)

How much time is lost by women waiting in these lines, in the aggregate? Would anyone think to calculate lost productivity?

Please consider redesigning the remaining new facilities, and retro-fitting those already constructed to eliminate this disparity. Thank you.


If you use the Merritt Parkway, and you're so inclined, you could submit your own comments on the situation here.

30 June 2014

Blogging While Color-blind

Around about a decade ago, I bought a book called 40 Over 40, a book of advice about getting dressed after age 40.

I was bored with what amounted to the uniform I was wearing -- chinos, turtlenecks and blazers for work, jeans and T shirts the rest of the time.

My sense of embodiment and my gender identity were also shifting pretty significantly as the result of an unexpected pregnancy after ten years of infertility, and after that an even more unexpected live birth, and then raising a baby and a toddler and eventually a child, and eventually shedding a deeply felt sense of unreality about it all. Mostly.

The book has a lot of good advice, actually, about dressing for your actual body, keeping your closets organized, only buying -- and wearing -- clothing you love.

There's also a fair amount in the book about color, including the advice to wear clothing to match your hair and eye color. So, over the years, I bought a few items in greens and browns to pick up my eye and hair color.

Ready for the kicker? At some point, I somehow found out that a "brown" blazer I'd bought wasn't actually brown, but plum colored. It took a while, but eventually it occurred to me to ask people about the colors of the other brown clothes I'd bought. It turned out several of them were not brown, but one or another shade of purple.

I do have this vague childhood memory of being tested for color-blindness, and having trouble in the brown-purple range.  But I had no idea that I was, in fact, color-blind: I can distinguish greens and blues and reds and oranges just fine. Yet it appears there's significantly more purple in the world than I can see.

It's a funny thing to learn about yourself after half a century.

28 May 2014

So You Want to Play in Traffic?

You're thinking about riding your bike to work, but nervous? Here are some answers to the questions that might be worrying you.

Problem: You'll sweat on the way to work.
Solution: Bring a spare shirt. Keep deodorant and, depending on the level of formality expected at your office, a couple of blazers at the office. Or even drive in on Monday morning with the week's wardrobe and drive home with it again on Friday afternoon.  If you use hair gel, keep that at the office too and use it when you get there after you take off your helmet.

Problem: You haven't ridden a bike since you were thirteen.
Solution: Practice. Take the bike out early on a Sunday morning when there's not much traffic and, if it would bother you, not too many spectators. Go to an empty playground or a park, and...
  • Practice riding in a nice straight line.
  • Keep your thumbs hooked over the handle bars, and one finger on each brake, and your elbows nice and loose so you don't feel like your fillings are going to fall out every time you hit a crack in the road.
  • Look over one shoulder, then the other, to see what's coming, still while riding in a straight line.
  • Practice signaling left and right, by sticking one hand and then the other wayyy out to the side so nobody can possibly miss it. And make sure you're still riding in a straight line.
  • Come to a complete stop, still in that nice straight line, and then start up again without letting the handle bars sway left or right. Much.
  • Try braking and accelerating while signaling.
  • Practice turning with one hand, and then the other, off the handlebars.
  • Find some parked cars, or a parked car by a building, and practice riding between them. Get to know how much clearance you need.
  • If you can, find a dirt road or a trail and ride around to see how it feels. If you hit a patch of sand or gravel, you'll notice that you can stay up if you can keep the bike in a straight line (there's that again) and keep the wheels turning.
Problem: It might rain.
Solution: Check the weather forecast the night before, and again in the morning. Buy rain gear according to your budget, and carry it with you depending on the chance of rain and the temperature and how uncomfortable you'll get if you get caught out. If you can, get a waterproof/breathable jacket, but even then, see item one.

Today, there was a 30 percent chance of rain in the morning, plus cooling temperatures throughout the day. I biked to the train station in a T shirt, with blazer and rain jacket in my bag; I wore the blazer for the ride from train station to office, and on the way home, wore both blazer and jacket -- for warmth. I didn't get rained on during any of the legs. Layers are helpful year-round, because you'll warm up after 10 or 15 minutes of riding, and temperatures can change quite a bit between 8 a.m. and 5 or 6 or 7 p.m., depending on when you head home.

If you do get caught -- or decide to ride -- in the rain, slow down. Braking takes longer, sewer hole covers and train tracks are treacherously slippery, and you never know what's under that puddle. Also drivers will be less likely to see you, because of crud on the windshield plus because they won't expect bikers out there -- so take extra cautions.

Problem: It's dark.
Solution: Lights and brights.  Your rain jacket can be any color, as long as it's neon; you might also want a reflective vest and ankle reflectors. Put red blinking lights on the back of the bike, on your helmet, on your backpack if you carry one, and a white light on the front of the bike.

26 May 2014

Remembering the Dead

I find Memorial Day complicated: my maternal grandfather fought for the wrong side.

My mother grew up, and I was born, in Germany. For her, there is only "the war" -- World War II, which left her family refugees, her father killed in action. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm glad he didn't survive the conflict and I'm glad I never had to meet him.

The story is he served in a tank unit. The story is he was a mechanic. The story is he was a common soldier. The story is he was a lieutenant. A photo shows a uniform with the death's-head insignia. The story is he was wounded and sent home, yet chose to return to combat. Twice.

Some day, I will go into the archives and find out what facts may have survived. I want to know; I don't want to know.

It's small comfort that my other grandfather served in the US merchant marine in that same war, or that my father and several of his relatives served the US military, and even, several generations back, the Union army.

Today, we're exhorted to remember those killed in action for the United States. World War II was surely a just war; the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows much else about the conflict. Yet the US did much that was unjust in that war, interning people of Japanese descent, refusing entry to Jewish refugees, discriminating against African-Americans who were drafted or volunteered to serve.

The wars we have fought since then are more difficult to justify. Yet American soldiers die, or they return alive but wounded in body and soul. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Returning veterans are refused the care they need to re-enter society as successfully functioning civilians, even allowed to die for lack of medical care.

Today's parades, in honoring the veterans and the fallen, seem also to celebrate war itself. We need to find a more nuanced way to remember the past, and acknowledge the realities of the present. We need to learn to seek peace and pursue it.

10 May 2014

A Different Kind of Awareness

May is Asthma Awareness Month, and the Centers for Disease Control wants you to know that "you can control your asthma."
The page acknowledges that "we don't know what causes asthma, and we don't know how to cure it." But if "you" are "living with" asthma, it's your responsibility to keep it under control.
There's more:
Although asthma cannot be cured, it is possible to manage asthma successfully to reduce and prevent asthma attacks, also called episodes. Successful asthma management includes knowing the warning signs of an attack, avoiding things that may trigger an attack, and following the advice of your healthcare provider.
This bothers me for so many reasons, I barely know where to start. 

An "episode" sounds like something you watch on tv.  An "attack" sounds significantly more sinister. 

The grammatical construction of "your asthma" suggests that the person owns the illness, but the construction of all the ideas on the page suggests that the asthma owns the person.

I might live with asthma, I might have asthma, but it's not "my" asthma. And I am not "my asthma."

"You," the person with asthma, are admonished to stay away from anything that "may trigger" an attack.

"May" (why not "will"?) suggests multiple possibilities, and by extension the impossibility of avoiding everything that could trigger, let's call it an "exacerbation," which directly contradicts the insistence that "you can control your asthma." If "we" don't know what causes asthma, how are "we" who "live with" the disease supposed to recognize and be able to avoid all, or any, possible triggers?

My list of triggers includes several foods and additives; airborne things like smoke, dust, mold, and chemicals; various animals; upper respiratory infections; and exercise.

Yes, exercise. I exercise anyway, because it helps to reduce the severity of the disease on a day-to-day level as well as during "attacks," but I have to be careful.

Most of the things that trigger my "episodes" are pretty common.  I don't know if it's usual for people to have such a long list, though.

I cringe when I hear someone sneezing or coughing near me. There are plenty of respectful smokers, but others stand right under the no-smoking sign and light up, or walk down the street waving a lit cigarette, and I don't always see them until after I've inhaled what they're trailing. Eating in restaurants is your basic crap-shoot.

The problem with the admonition to "avoid triggers" is that it lays all the responsibility on the indidivual rather than calling for the community to mitigate potential toxins as much as possible.

The claim that "you can control your asthma" is made twice, alongside the exhortation to "learn to control your asthma." Maybe it's meant to be encouraging: "you" don't need to live with symptoms. But it also implies that a person who has an attack is at fault for failing to avoid the triggers. If you "can" control your asthma, then if you have an "episode," it must be because "you" screwed up.

Reality: asthma is poorly understood; there is no cure; it can't always be effectively controlled. We live with it every day. And we go on living.