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.