03 December 2015

We Need Gun Laws. Now.

More than 355 "mass" shootings already this year. Two, just yesterday. As of today, 12,223 people have died this year from gun violence and 24,722 people have been injured. Millions of friends and family members are affected.

But the NRA has convinced millions of Americans that any amount of regulation attached to gun ownership equals "taking away our guns." They give millions of dollars to people running for government at all levels to push the ridiculous claim that any amount of regulation is too much.

Hey, you know, we manage to regulate cars and alcohol and cigarettes and Sudafed without stopping people from acquiring and using any of them.

Hunters know that there are a bunch of rules about what you can shoot and when you can shoot it. In New Hampshire, deer season this year runs from October 31 through December 6, with different time frames depending on what kind of gun you're using. In Maine, you can't hunt on Sundays. You have to have a hunting license, and there are rules about how many deer you can bring home per year. No one is taking away anyone's right to shoot at animals with a gun, but the rules help protect the safety of hunters and other people using the forests, and they keep the deer population stable.

But it seems to be open season on human beings in the USA today.

I bought a car recently. I needed the Vehicle Identification Number of the car to get my insurance, so I couldn't get that organized in advance, and my insurance company closed before the car dealership, and without proof of insurance -- current insurance on the current vehicle, not last year's policy -- I couldn't drive the car off the lot.

Some states regulate guns. California, where one of yesterday's shootings took place. New York State. But violent people can buy guns with no background check, no waiting period, no regulations at all at gun shows in Georgia. From manufacturers like Glock and Men with orders of protection against them from ex-wives or girlfriends. People with a history of violence, people with criminal records. People with drug and alcohol problems that make them more likely to act and react violently.

If you own a car, you have to pay for insurance on it in case you get in an accident. If you drink and drive, you can lose your license. If you kill someone while driving, you might go to prison. No one is screaming that the government wants to take away our cars.

How we've reached this point when it comes to guns, I don't understand. Why the NRA wants you to think that any amount of gun regulation is unacceptable, I don't understand.

But it's beyond time for change. We need to show up at the polls and vote out the politicans in the NRA's pockets. We need national legislation that eliminates unregulated gun shows and closes the other loopholes to unregulated gun ownership.

We need national laws requiring regularly renewed licenses and insurance policies for all gun owners as well as rigorous background checks and waiting periods for new buyers.

We need them now.

24 November 2015

I Am Afraid of Donald Trump

In 1930, a lot of people thought an Austrian guy named Adolf was a buffoon who couldn't possibly take power and do any damage. His mannerisms were comical and his murderous fantasies would never go anywhere.

In the 1970s a lot of people thought an actor named Ronald who'd been in a movie with a monkey was a joke as a presidential candidate.

Ronald was elected and began a series of actions that turned American politics hard to the right. For one thing, his deregulation of broadcast media enabled Fox "News" to air misleading reports and outright lies under the tagline, "fair and balanced reporting." In that phrase, only the word "and" is accurate.

Fox and their yellow-journalist ilk are serving the same purpose that newspapers of that name served in the US in the 1920s, when people were comparing Jews to rats and Jim Crow laws were in full effect.

And in 2015, a lot of people think Donald Trump is a buffoon who can't be elected, but he's at the top of a pile of buffoonish candidates for the Republican presidential nominee.

And his rhetoric sounds like it's coming straight out of Nazi Germany.

His followers beat up a man at one of his campaign events who yelled, "Black Lives Matter." That sounds like Brownshirts.

He's been telling people he wants Muslims to wear identity badges. That sounds like Hitler.

He's been telling people Mexicans want to come to the US and take "our women."

He told Carly Fiorina to "quit interrupting" during the most recent Republican candidates' debate. Hitler's plan for women? Kinder, Kuche, Kirche: Children, Kitchen, Church.

If Trump is elected, he wants an America with only white men in power. He wants a society ruled by fear and suspicion. Stasi, anyone?

And he has a lot of supporters.

So did Hitler. A lot of people who said, after the Holocaust, "But we didn't know." "But we were told they were criminals." A lot of ordinary Germans who acquiesced in Hitler's program to round up Jews and gays, communists and Romani, the disabled and the chronically ill.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we rounded up Japanese people. People who had immigrated decades earlier, even their children, on the suspicion that they might be enemy spies.

It took a while for the Germans to figure out what to teach their children. When my mother started school in the 1940s, history ended before the Holocaust. But they've figured it out. Germany is taking 800,000 Syrian refugees. It's not going to be easy, and some people are complaining, but by and large the people are reaching out and welcoming them.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that Germany lived through a horrible war in their own country. Being bombed, having family members disappear, losing basic infrastructures, the stuff the Syrians are living through today, is part of living memory in Germany.

The US proposes to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. A tiny quantity. Even if they all came to New York City they would be a tiny fraction of the population, not enough to fill even a square mile.

But Trump is stoking people's fears. Despite an incredibly rigorous process of review, taking up to two years, for every refugee, Trump is insisting that President Obama wants to let terrorists into the country.

Trump has a platform, and he has a lot of willing ears. And I don't have any idea how to persuade his followers that he is a dangerous demagogue being deeply irresponsible with his divisive rhetoric.

He is also peddling lies. He is telling his followers that Obama proposes to resettle 250,000 Syrians, a figure apparently invented out of whole cloth. He claims that 97 percent of African-Americans who die of gun violence in the US are killed by other African-Americans, a claim invented by neo-Nazis whose symbol closely resembles the swastika.

I don't know where to begin in terms of asking people not to believe his fear-mongering mistruths. If you believe Trump, and you don't fact-check his outrageous claims, why would you believe me?

I am not afraid of Syrians. I am afraid of Donald Trump.

22 November 2015

A Judge Just Ruled for the Environment

Eight young people -- preteens and teens -- went to the Washington State Department of Ecology last year and asked them to write carbon emissions guidelines that would protect the state, and themselves, from the effects of climate change. When the state refused, they sued, with the help of the Children's Trust and an attorney from the Western Environmental Law Center.

They won. They won!

Judge Hollis R. Hill ruled that the government has a responsibility to protect natural resources on behalf of the people of the future.

Judge Hill wrote:
... as Petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…. The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law… cannot ensure the survival of an environment in which Petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.
Judge Hill reviewed the Washington State constitution, climate science, and statements made by the Department of Ecology, and concluded:
the state has a constitutional obligation  to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people.”
He also commented in particular on the role of automobile emissions and the failure of the state to deal with them. If you're so inclined, you can go read the whole ruling here.

Who knows? I don't know how many other state constitutions make reference to an obligation to protect natural resources. I don't know what potential there is for this to set precedent. But for the kids of Washington State, it's a pretty big deal.

20 November 2015

Notes from Vienna

My former NYC neighbor, Elizabeth Danto, has for the past two years been living in Vienna. She wrote this in early October:


I live in Vienna and for the last few weeks, I’ve been walking up Liniengasse in the 6th District to look at the newly renovated train station called Westbanhof, at the intersection of Mariahilferstrasse and. Most of the “migrants” arrive there, and though I regularly read the newspapers flashing their neon headlines about the hordes and hordes, I generally find nothing of the kind. Now I saunter through Westbanhof and its parks almost every other day, sniffing the air and looking at the posters, and find myself not only less distraught but actually far happier than I expected to be. And finally, after weeks of disinformation about the refugees arriving in Austria after escaping Syria and other countries hostile to humanity, the N.Y. Times got it right.

I have been watching liberation in the making.  Some governments, especially Hungary, are behaving very badly. For lots of their people though, this exodus is a deliverance; it may be a geopolitical disaster but it is not a human tragedy. It is wonderful that people can escape tyrants and land here. Sometimes Vienna feels like the last safe place on earth. Certainly that was one of my own motivations in moving halfway across the globe.  It’s a socialist city; you can feel in the bones.

Vienna is a quiet city. We know that a group of arrivals have come in only when we hear ambulances whirring down Gumpendorferstrasse.  But as soon as the news broke that the immigrants were leaving the Budapest train station on foot, car pools formed to go pick them up. Those in trains come mostly into the Westbanhof or the Hauptbanhof. I visited the Hauptbanhof last Saturday, and the kids had toys and big teddy bears and were playing in the station’s "mini Kunstler" (little artist") child play area. Most of the adults were on their cell phones (Wifi and phone charging stations are free, yes for migrants too). They looked stressed but not miserable. No one is too happy, of course; it feels like any airport or railroad station where people have been waiting too long.

"Muslims and Refugees Welcome"
Men hang in groups and women in other groups with children. About those photos that seem to show only men, or only women and children? Well, most come from cultures where women don't much mix with the men. Young women are simply not seen. Most of the arrivals seem to be families who are given the option of staying in Austria or moving on to Germany, no questions asked. In the area where one drops off donations, the men, generally, line up for assistance. Tables are laid out with water, food, socks, soap/toothbrush packs and toys. Once in a while a server from a nearby restaurant will walk along the tracks and hand out Chinese food containers or slices of pizza. Groups also cluster in the small parks on either side of the station; many are reading the information brochures or working on forms, or simply sleeping. Finally. Some arrivals are sleeping out in the open at the makeshift camp in Traiskirchen. A local right-wing Blatt complained that people were turning up at Traiskirchen in order to "politicize" the issue but you don't read much of that anymore because not only do the Austrians turn up to politicize, they also bring their children to politicize them, too. By the way, all the residents of Traiskirchen now have accommodations.

There have been collection points around the city for a few weeks now asking for clean clothes, shoes and backpacks. Almost all the food and clothing stores are running donation systems. My neighbor Claudia who teaches kindergarten said she's getting new arrivals every day. A huge pro-immigrant march was scheduled for October 3rd and our adored transgender winner of last year’s Eurovision contest, Conchita Wurst, was to lead the rally in song. [Update: Thousands rallied.]

Remember, the Viennese have been through this before. They’ve learned that support is to be shared by the government and the religious organizations. The Catholic organization, Caritas, has been superb. But each major religion has a state-supported organization, a "Kultusgemeinde" like the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft. The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde had an interesting article (in German, sorry, but parts of their site are in English) defending the Austrian Chancellor, who had recently been criticized for comparing the present situation to the Holocaust. A new portal, How and Where to Help, connects all the major charities and the government services, with opportunities to provide clothes, serve food, offer rides and beds and so forth. There are daily requests for specific kinds of assistance. Yesterday it was for interpreters. Today the requested donation was men's winter clothing. And toys, always toys.

Much of the police effort is going toward chasing down the traffickers, most of whom seem to come from Bulgaria and Romania. People turn over their life savings to the "schleppers" as they are called in German, only to be stranded, starved or killed on their way to safety.

And yes, Germany is taking on hundreds of thousands of the refugees because the country is desperate for workers. The birthrate is the lowest in Europe despite the kind of family benefits that would make Bernie Sanders blush. On the other hand, Germany just stripped Greece of its remaining financial infrastructure, and Merkel's demand for privatization meant that a company based in Frankfurt now owns all the airports in Greece.

What I do find appalling is the endless stream of horror photos of the arrivals. How exploitative can you get? Competing for the Pulitzer prize at the expense of human suffering is cynical and dangerous, and smells of the self-serving ambition of politicians who thrive on resulting false narratives. One of the more infuriating narratives is the distinction between the "good," the "political" refugees as opposed to the "bad," "economic" refugees. This alleged political dimension does not interest the Viennese in the least.

No one knows what the situation will be in six weeks. Municipal elections in Vienna will take place on October 11, and depending on whether the pendulum has swung to the racist Right (as the media predict) or to the supportive Left (which I think is much more likely) the need for moral support will have altered. And much else as well. [Update: Social Democrats remained in power.]

Meanwhile there's the area by the tracks themselves, where the men stand around, waiting, and women in hijabs are sitting here and there. Two signs, one in Arabic, one in English, explain that food and water are available, as well as medical help and translators.

The signs say:

We are doing our best to help you.

You are safe.

The City of Vienna.

19 November 2015

I Fear the Politicians, Not the Terrorists

I grieve for Paris, having visited there last December, and fallen in love during nearly a week of long walks, fabulous art and architecture, and an awesome playground for kids of all ages. I grieve for the Parisians, who will develop the sixth sense that New Yorkers have had since 9/11, knowing when terror threats are up just by the posture of the police officers.

But I'm more frightened by politicians like Donald Trump and Chris Christie than I am about the possibility of another attack on New York City. I'm terrified by the fear of the foreigner that they're stoking, by the fact that they're telling the American people that we should be afraid of Muslims.

I've been trying to write this post without waving the flag of the personal, but I can't seem to get beyond it. My grandfather fought on the wrong side of World War II. He may have commanded a Nazi tank, but the family stories are vague and full of conflict. I could go to the archives in Berlin, but I'm not sure I'm ready to face the truth, whatever it may be.

But this I know: I can not sit silently when people demonize an entire religion, an entire race, an entire people. And I can not sit silently, because of who I am. Because for my whole life I have lived with inherited guilt, with the nagging fear that fascism is somehow part of my genetic code. At the same time, I have lived my entire life feeling a sense of responsibility to speak out against bigotry of any form.

But how to speak out against Trump and Christie and the twenty-odd other governors who have said they don't want any Syrians in their states? I don't even know where to start. I try to think in words and I can only hear a keening in my brain, a mad banshee scream of terror. 

17 November 2015

A Backwards Solution to Junk Mail

I just got an email message from the Story of Stuff project, where they're doing lots of good things to lessen the amount of waste that we produce. This one was about junk mail, and how not to get so much of it.

Story of Stuff sent me an email link to Catalog Choice, an organization that lets people choose what junk mail not to get. Catalogs, credit card offers, reverse mortgages, phone and data plans, all the other unopened junk that comes in the mail, and maybe you tear it in half before you throw it in the recycle bin in the hopes that someone else won't use it to open an account in your name.

And it struck me that while this is probably a useful individual solution, and might be less time-consuming than calling all the mailers individually and telling them to get you off their lists, it's completely backwards, like so much that we do regarding the environment.

If we were serious about stopping the plague of junk mail and its carbon footprint, from production to transportation and delivery to transportation back out of each individual household to dump or recycling facility, we would cut junk mail off at the source.

What if ... we made it illegal to send junk mail? What if you could only get that LLBean catalogue if you told LLBean that you wanted it, and not because some other company sold them your name along with various associated personal information?

As with so many environmental issues, we need to re-think junk mail. We need to approach it not as an individual scourge but as a systemic, structural problem.

I don't know how to change that. But I'm going to start with email messages to Story of Stuff and Catalog Choice, suggesting that they push the junk mailers to rethink unsolicited mail.

23 October 2015

Hope on Guns: Is It Possible?

For the first time in a long, long time I'm feeling a stirring of hope that we can stem the plague of gun violence.

The idea, and I think it's brilliant: when the US Army and the NYPD and all the other government agencies buy guns, put language in the contracts with the manufacturers that holds them accountable for selling to the dealers that evade background checks, which they can do by selling at gun shows or on the internet or in states with lax laws and enforcement.

An interesting statistic: one percent of dealers are responsible for almost 60 percent of the guns used to commit crimes.

I just came from a press conference at Town and Village Synagogue, of which I'm proud to say I'm a member, launching Do Not Stand Idly By. As in, "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed" (Lev. 19:16).

Ten years ago, according to Rabbi Laurence Sebert, the major cause of death among children was car crashes; today, it's gun violence. And Sen. Chuck Schumer pointed out that we have limitations on the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech; we need limitations on the Second Amendment, guaranteeing the right to bear arms.

This strategy to put direct pressure on gun manufacturers by way of public-sector contracts is the brainchild of Metro IAF, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders. Turns out that 40 percent of guns sold in the US go to the military and law enforcement agencies. That's a lot of buying power, and they want to use it by working with police chiefs and mayor's offices around the country to make manufacturers accountable.

You'd think the guns are all made in the US, right? Hmmm. Turns out that manufacturers from Germany, Austria, Italy and Brazil are making a lot of these guns. And they're giving NRA lobbyists a lot of money to push for unrestricted gun sales.

So what can YOU do? Go talk to your local police chief, your mayor, your council person. Get them to add their name to the Gun Buyers’ Research Group Commitment Form. Write to your representatives in Congress and tell them to get behind this initiative. Let me know what you think.

16 October 2015

Back on the Soap Box

I don't know when the world decided it needed liquid soap instead of soap in bars. I think it had something to do with the emergence of germ-o-phobia and the addition of anti-bacterial chemicals to everything a couple of decades ago. And I totally get that bars of soap in places like public bathrooms can totally be germ magnets.

But for home use? Most soap sold in bars is still packaged in paper.
Liquid soap, however, is packaged in plastic. And it's ... kind of the same thing as bar soap, except with a lot of water added. So you get a double-whammy of extra petroleum: the single-use plastic package that goes in the landfill when the soap is all gone*, and the extra water weight that makes up extra shipping volume and weight.

Bar soap works great for handwashing. It works great as a body wash in the shower. Certain bar soaps (I like Dr. Bronner's) work well on dishes. And you can even get bar shampoo from a couple of manufacturers.

Just like body wash, there are lots of varieties: glycerin soap that won't clog your pores, deodorant soap, soap with lots of moisturizer to keep your skin from drying out. Some of the bar shampoos work better with dry hair, some better with oily scalp.

So, do me a favor? Think about switching from the plastic bottle full of soap to a nice solid bar the next time you run out.
* IF the soap is all gone. The design of a lot of the packaging makes it very difficult to use up all of the contents, so if you don't think to cut apart the bottle,  you end up throwing a quarter of the contents away.

01 October 2015

Brooklyn Bike Lanes: Bust

Me: Good morning officer. I've just biked here from the Manhattan Bridge and there's been at least one vehicle parked in the bike lane in every block.
Officer: Welcome to New York, HA HA HA.
Me: Good morning officer, I see you're a traffic enforcement officer and there are a lot of vehicles parked in the bike lane in this block.
Officer #2: That's not my block, somebody else works there.
I think it was easier biking in downtown Brooklyn a decade ago, without bike lanes, taking your chances in the free-for-all.

28 September 2015

Back on the Bike in New York

I've survived my first few bike rides back in New York City. After a year biking in Cambridge, where the streets are narrow and twisty but the cars are tiny and move slowly and the drivers accustomed to yielding to cyclists and pedestrians alike, I was feeling a little squirrelly.

It's great to be back on my Brompton (which cost me more than my first car, a ten-year-old Datsun purchased back in the 1980s) but there's also something to be said for being able to park a bike and run errands while being confident that the bike, and all its parts, will still be there when I return.

The new 25 mph speed limit is a huge improvement. Most of the cars actually seem to be doing that speed, as opposed to pushing the old 30 mph limit to 35 or 40, and it makes a difference. The traffic lights have been re-timed accordingly and it means that cyclists don't get shut out by red lights, block after block after block.

I ended up on Houston Street by accident because I forgot which one-way streets went which direction, and discovered the new bike lane feels quite safe. Until it's blocked in its entirety by delivery trucks, taxis, and livery cabs. There's a web site where you can report blocked lanes, but when I heard about it I actually laughed: I had just ridden from the Lower East Side to Penn Station and found blockages on every street I rode on, and almost every block.

The joy I felt when I saw one police officer giving a ticket to one truck parked in a bike lane was not schadenfreude. It was self-preservation.

Cars turning across the bike lanes are also still a major problem: they don't yield for bikes, but they do yield for pedestrians, so they cut you off and then stop suddenly, diagonally across the bike lane. Pedestrians stepping into the street while absorbed with their smartphones are also an on-going problem, and I've nearly been in two pile-ups as a result, when one cyclist slams on the brakes and then the next several have to react.

Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero plan is a huge boon for pedestrians and cyclists alike, but there's still a lot to be done to make New York truly safe for cyclists.

But to brighten your day, here's Gianni riding in style with Elizabeth:

11 September 2015

Editing at Sea

I came home from a year's sabbatical at Cambridge on the Queen Mary 2 -- the dream of a lifetime. I've spent a lot of time on the Maine coast. You can see ferries and cargo ships far out at sea, and I yearned to traveling on one of them, feeling the swell of waves, smelling the clean salt air, watching sun glint off water or storms whip up whitecaps.

I'd printed out my book manuscript, and my plan was to spend the voyage line-editing while watching the sea and its life slide by beyond the ship's rails. 

I was editing the chapter on Anglo-Saxon imagination and the sea, sitting in the ship's library and looking out at the fog, as repeated announcements asked a crew member to report to his supervisor in the kitchen. The ship was searched and he was determined to be missing; the captain turned the ship back. Eventually shipboard video was located that showed the crew member slipping overboard several hours before; given the water temperature, it was clear the search was for a corpse.

I joined crew members and other passengers on deck, squinting against the fog, trying to peer into the gray-blue sheet that was the water many feet below. At dusk, the captain reversed course once again, giving up the search.

The crew sails together for six months at a time, working seven days a week, 12 or 15 hours a day, then getting two months off before the next shift. They live in close quarters, share bunkrooms, get to know one another very well. They were rattled and upset. But the show -- and life aboard the Queen Mary 2 is nothing if not a show of opulence, service, entertainment, constant attention to the wants and whims of passengers -- went on.

After that, I sat in the library, concentration shot and editing abandoned, peering again into the fog, craving a sight of land, another ship, a whale (a few passengers had seen them) -- anything but the shifting liquid light that had surrounded us since we left England.

When we arrived in Halifax for a day on land, I eagerly inhaled the air and its odors: pine trees, hot sun on asphalt, decaying seaweed, truck exhaust. Coffee shops and human bodies and grassy earth. 

When we sailed into New York Harbor two days later, I awoke at 4 a.m. to take photographs of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. I suspect I was the only passenger also photographing the Port of Elizabeth and gazing with longing at the Shore Parkway, watching the late-night/early-morning traffic pulsing like the city's heartbeat.

Back on land, we went to Maine to visit family, as I've done every summer. I watched the big ferries and the cargo ships creep by on the water, barely visible far in the distance. And I was glad to be grounded.

09 July 2015

Over at Medieval Ecocriticisms, I've just posted my notes for remarks given in a round-table session on "the Twitterati" at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds last night. Here's the link, if you'd like to go have a look.

Thanks to Carla Thomas for organizing a great session, to my co-presenters Dorothy Kim, Jonathan Hsy, Kristen Mapes, and Angie Bennett Segler, and to a fabulous and engaged audience.

07 July 2015

Live-Tweeting Presentations and Lectures

Live-tweeting presentations is getting more and more prevalent. By and large I think it's a good thing: people who can't attend a given session or paper can learn about the key points made and look for published work from the presenter if they want to know more.

From a personal point of view, live-tweeting helps me follow a talk better. When I'm thinking in terms of conveying important points from a lecture in 140-character blurbs -- including attribution and hashtags -- I have to pay very careful attention in order to be tweet responsibly. Also, when other people are tweeting the same lecture, they often tweet points that I've passed over, so the record of the presentation is enriched by the presence of several tweeters.

That said, I'd like to propose some guidelines for responsible and effective live-tweeting.

1. Use the published conference hashtag plus a session number hashtag so that people can find and follow your tweets.

2. In your first tweet of a paper, identify the presenter by full name and provide the title or the topic of the talk. If you know the presenter or the information is provided, use the twitter handle.

3. In subsequent tweets, always attribute. People following your tweets need to know who is saying what, including in discussion at the end of a session. If you don't know a questioner's name, you can attribute a tweet to "question" or "comment" so it's clear it's not a statement made by one of the panelists. But attribute additional comments from the panelists. (When I live-tweet, I type the last name followed by the hashtags into the first tweet and then copy them so that I can paste them into subsequent tweets, saving typing time.)

4. If you don't agree with the paper, or you don't think the information is well presented, don't tweet. No one needs a paper trash-tweeted, whether a nervous graduate student or a senior scholar. Disagree privately in discussion at the end of the session, or contact the presenter directly. If you're going to disagree publicly, do it respectfully, after taking time to think over your position with respect to what you've heard.

5. If you are presenting and don't want your paper live-tweeted, or photographs tweeted of slides you're presenting, tell the session chair, who should then announce your reservations to the audience. If you enter a session late, it's probably best to refrain from live-tweeting a paper in progress, in case you've missed such an announcement -- or in case you've missed contextual information from the start of the paper that affects comprehension and interpretation.


6. If you are asked not to tweet, or not to tweet point-by-point, or not to tweet photos, don't do it. Be respectful of your colleagues.

Please let me know what you think.

05 July 2015

Just Say No To Compulsory Heterosexuality

Humans of New York posted a photo two days ago of a young teenager near tears. The caption: "I'm homosexual and I'm afraid about what my future will be and that people won't like me."

If you have a child, you've seen compulsory heterosexuality at work. A girl baby and a boy baby combat-crawl around, trying to get a handle on mobility, and someone says, "oh look, she's flirting with him." A boy toddler makes friends with a girl toddler, and someone talks about his "girlfriend." And so on, until she's thirteen and realizes she's attracted to girls and thinks she's the only one in the world.

Did you ever hear someone talk about a boy having a "boyfriend" at three?

Yeah, no, didn't think so.

But you know what? If you have kids, or work with them, you can push back. No, you don't have to suggest that a girl who can barely walk and talk has a girlfriend: why sexualize tiny kids? I'm in favor of letting them be kids.

But we can make sure our kids know gay adults. We can give them books about trans kids. We can model a variety of expressions of gender identity. Dads can take 3 a.m. feedings and clean toilets. Moms can assemble the furniture from Ikea.

When we talk with kids about their futures, we can be neutral about whether they'll be gay or straight or bi. With little kids, that's fairly abstract, though if we talk about marriage, we don't have to assume they'll marry someone of the opposite sex.

As they get to be pre-teens and teenagers, there are those important conversations about dating and consensuality. During those conversations, we don't have to assume, and speak as if, their explorations of physical intimacy will only be with people of the opposite sex.

The photo of that boy gets me all choked up. But we don't have to keep perpetuating a culture that makes young people feel so isolated and afraid if they realize they're not straight.

01 July 2015

We're Not Finished Here

Seventeen years ago this week I had recently finished my PhD and had signed a contract to begin a job at a smallish private university in New Jersey. I went off to the International Dyke March in New York City. A photographer with a press pass pointed his huge lens in the direction of my friends and me, and I panicked.

My job talk had been a queer reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, on the theory that if they didn't want to hire me after hearing it, then it wasn't the right institution for me.

Still, the university is in a pretty red county in a deep-purple state, and a careful academic analysis is different from photos with a bunch of women in various states of dress. Or not. I had met most of my future colleagues only at a long day of interviewing, and I had no idea how they might react if they saw that photo. And it was a tenure-track job. I didn't want to screw it up before I even arrived on campus. After I'd been on campus for a few months, the department rattlesnake let me know I wasn't the first choice candidate. Who knows?

The Supreme Court ruling making marriage equality the law of the land brings us a long way away from that day. It followed some smaller steps. Clinton's dictum of "don't ask, don't tell" for gays in the armed services now seems completely backward, as does Obama's slow movement toward gay rights.

But like the removal of the Confederate flag from many municipalities and state houses in recent days, marriage equality is a beginning, not an endpoint. Gays and lesbians can still be fired in many states. Churches are burning across the South, and people in power are silent.

We still have a lot of work to do. I don't want any gay or trans kid to fear coming out to her parents, or be shamed by his classmates, or get beaten up by acquaintances. I don't want any mother to have to fear for her sons. I want full inclusion for people who are disabled, who are trans, who have chronic illnesses. Not tolerance: acceptance and respect.

And I want us to quit using plastic and eating the animals.

Does that make me an outrageous idealist? Well then.

22 June 2015

The Charleston Shooting and Making Medieval Bodies

I've been thinking a lot about Charleston this week, and all the other recent shootings and cop-on-civilian violence. Trying to figure out how I can engage beyond ranting at friends and family.

I'd already been thinking about making my (MA-level) Middle English literature course about bodies -- normative bodies, "other" bodies -- and it occurs to me that I can push that in the direction of figuring out how we got to this place where we believe some bodies are more important than others.

Potential texts for the syllabus:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, Miller's Tale, Prioress's Tale
Troilus and Criseyde?
The Second Shepherds' Play
Sir Orfeo
The Knight with the Lion
The Hereford Mappa Mundi
The Tale of Two Married Women and the Widow
The Book of Margery Kempe
Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Maybe one or two of Marie de France's Lais

selections from The King's Two Bodies
Karl Steel's essay on making the human
something by Carolyn Dinshaw
selections from Metzler's book on medieval disability
excerpts from Lisa Lampert-Weissig's book on medieval poco
Asa Mittman's essay, "Are the Monstrous Races Races?"
Gillian Rudd on Sir Gawain
An essay from Medieval Masculinities
Something on medieval anti-semitism

It's probably too much. Maybe I'll ask each of the students to choose two of the essays, and report on them for the rest of the class.

I'm open to suggestions. I'd love suggestions, in fact.

19 June 2015

Dylann Roof and Mainstream Racism

Dylann Roof: "you've raped our women, and you are taking over the country."

Donald Trump on Mexicans: "They're rapists.... I will build a great, great wall on our southern border."

Jeb Bush on what he likes to read: "I like Charles Murray books to be honest with you." Murray is the author of The Bell Curve. He claims:
social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.... disadvantaged groups are disadvantaged because, on average, they cannot compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior.
The rationale for the Confederacy:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth...
South Carolina still flies the Confederate Flag. Still think Dylann Roof is a lone wolf?

12 June 2015

Most Commonly Used Words: All the Presidents

Luke DuBois at Hindsight Is Always 2020 has charted the most common words used by each of the presidents. The results are historically embedded, but the differences are fascinating. Here's the most common word used by each president:

Washington: gentlemen
Adams: France
Jefferson: limits
Madison: enemy
Monroe: parties
Adams: mutual
Jackson: bank
Van Buren: results
Tyler: Texas
Polk: Oregon
Taylor: empire
Fillmore: deem
Pierce: central
Buchanan: slavery
Lincoln: emancipation
Johnson: republican
Grant: products
Hayes: coinage
Arthur: likely
Cleveland: treatment
Harrison: wages
Cleveland: reserve
McKinley: Puerto
Roosevelt: corporations
Taft: procedure
Wilson: processes
Harding: relationship
Coolidge: veterans
Hoover: unemployment
Roosevelt: democratic
Truman: Soviet
Eisenhower: nuclear
Kennedy: alliance
Johnson: tonight
Nixon: truly
Ford: barrels
Carter: US
Reagan: deficits
Bush: idea
Clinton: 21st
Bush: terror

DuBois doesn't include Obama in his analysis, but the Boston Globe made "wordles" for several of his speeches. His most commonly used words in speeches from 2009 to 2011: nation, people, Americans.

Interesting contrasts among back-to-back presidents: limits / enemy, mutual / bank, slavery / emancipation, alliance / tonight, terror / nation, truly / barrels. Other than that, no comment.

09 June 2015

Vegan (Gluten-Free) Pantry

If you're trying to prepare vegan meals at home, it helps a lot to have a well-stocked pantry, supplemented with shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables once or twice a week, so you're not inventing the wheel every time you need to get supper together. Here's what I usually have on hand.

  • dried lentils, split peas, navy beans, chick peas
  • pasta, rice, quinoa, popping corn
  • canned tomatoes, black beans, kidney beans, chick peas, baked beans
  • baking: unrefined sugar, gluten-free baking mix, baking powder, baking soda, corn starch, cocoa powder, dark chocolate chips, chick pea flour, pectin, baking chocolate
  • jam
  • rice cakes, corn cakes, corn chips, potato chips, GF bread
  • cereal
  • nuts and nut butters
  • sunflower oil, olive oil
  • coconut milk
  • vegetable bouillon
  • coffee and tea
I keep canned beans on hand as well as dry ones for the days when I don't have the time or energy to cook dry beans from scratch, but since the cans are all lined with plastic, I avoid them with possible. I don't use bouillon very often, but it's handy to have on hand. I use a lot of red split lentils because they cook fastest. To cut down on cooking time for the dry legumes, I bring them to a rolling boil in the evening and let them sit overnight. The Mate and I usually make enough jam in the summer and fall to last all year -- strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, apricot, peach, plum. Last year after Sukkot I made jam out of the etrog, with a couple of oranges mixed in to sweeten it a bit. I used to think it was some kind of arcane process requiring lots of specialized tools ... but it turns out it's pretty easy.

I switched to unrefined sugar after I learned that the white stuff is filtered through charcoal, sometimes made from bones.

Herbs and spices: 
  • herbes de province, Italian seasoning, basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary
  • cumin, coriander, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon
  • curry powder, chili powder
  • peppercorns in a grinder, unrefined salt
I buy spices as whole seeds and grind them as I use them; they last a lot longer that way. For small quantities I use a mortar and pestle; if I need more, I grind them in the coffee grinder (and then wash thoroughly).  

  • vegetables and fruit
  • prepared soups
  • sorbet
  • compost
  • freezer jam
  • applesauce
Sometimes I buy frozen vegetables and fruit at the supermarket. But I also freeze a lot of my own. When fruit is in season, I buy extra for freezing: it works best to freeze them on a cookie sheet and then put them in bags or containers so they don't clump together.  Apple sauce is super easy to make: cube the apples, boil in a large pot with a couple of tablespoons of water until they're completely soft, run through a food mill, spoon into clean jars, and freeze.  When bananas go brown, I skin them and freeze them in chunks for smoothies, banana pancakes, and banana bread. 

Same with vegetables: I buy lots of kale, spinach, swiss chard, beet greens, and leeks in season, cook them, and then freeze in bags, flattened for easier thawing. (It's worth every penny to pay extra for the heavy-duty brand-name ones, because they last for many, many uses.) I make soup or baked beans in big batches and then freeze extra servings in pint mason jars. 

When freezing soup or jam or applesauce, use wide-mouth jars. Anything that gets narrower at the top will crack when the contents freeze. Leave a half inch or so of extra space at the top to accommodate expansion, and rest the lids on top of the jars when you put them in the freezer. Screw them on after the contents have frozen.

  • margarine, milk substitute, vegan mayonnaise
  • condiments of various sorts, including red and green chili pastes, tamari, pickled ginger, ketchup and mustard
  • maple syrup
  • tahini, for mashed potatoes and creamy soups
  • non-dairy cheese, yogurt; hummus
  • potatoes, carrots, onions, celery
  • greens
  • leftover soup, cooked vegetables
Greens have to be cooked pretty quickly after shopping, whether they come from the farmer's market or the supermarket. If I'm not going to use them right away, they go in the freezer. Root vegetables and celery keep for quite a while, so you can stock up at a farmer's market every couple of weeks.

  • fresh fruit
  • tomatoes
  • fresh ginger, garlic, hot peppers
I buy oranges, lemons, and bananas, but otherwise stick mostly to whatever is local and in season or I've managed to freeze when it was. Apples last for a long time if they're stored correctly, so in New York I can get local apples late into the fall/winter. Right now I still have some blackberries in the freezer, left over from last fall, foraged in the fields outside of town.


It helps to join a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm: you pay a few hundred dollars up front, and then you get a share of whatever vegetables and fruit the farm can produce all summer long and into the fall. Another alternative in New York City is Urban Organics, and some other cities have similar schemes where you get a weekly delivery, and fresh vegetables and fruit appear in your home every week. The variety is usually better than what's available at my neighborhood urban supermarket or farmer's market. With parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and the hungry post-war years in 1940s Germany, I have a deep aversion to throwing food away -- so I cook. 

The Mate and I do a lot of cooking on weekends -- steaming, baking, and roasting vegetables, baking quick breads, cooking up big batches of soup and stew. Some goes in the fridge, some in the freezer, and then on a weeknight when one of us is teaching late and the other is riding herd on the pre-teen while trying to finish grading essays or prepare for a class, we reheat some leftovers and bang, there's a healthy dinner on the table.


We buy fair trade when we can -- chocolate, coffee, tea, bananas. Hershey has committed to making sure all of its suppliers avoid child or slave labor ... by 2020. Yes, you read that right: the people who brought you the Pennsylvania theme park buy chocolate from suppliers that use slaves and children, and sometimes enslaved children, to pick the cocoa beans.


But here's the thing: unless you can buy yourself a farm, or you can devote a significant amount of time to your food, you're not going to be able to eat locally grown organic food cooked at home from scratch all the time. So do what you can and keep moving -- and instead of indulging in guilt, use that energy to advocate for better resources. Or go for a nice long walk while you remind yourself of all the things that you're already doing to curtail climate change.

31 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? How To Stick With It

This is the last in a series of three posts answering questions from a friend; the previous posts were on cooking vegan and eating vegan meals in restaurants.

This is the toughest one: what arguments do you tell yourself to stay with it? The decision to forego animal products is a personal one and, at the moment, a fairly counter-cultural one, and thus is bound to engender some flak or just bafflement from friends and family. And occasionally strangers.

There are a lot of reasons why someone would choose to go vegan, including concerns for animal rights, individual health, the health of the planet.

Various population-wide studies going back years have demonstrated that vegan diets are healthier than diets that include animals, as long as some attention is given to protein and vitamin B12, and as long as people eat a variety of foods regularly, including fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, and whole grains.

Climate science is also clear that vegan diets have less planetary impact than diets containing meat. It takes about ten pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, meat requires more water to raise than most vegan foods; all that feed needs to be transported from the field to the animal; and animals release a lot of methane as they chew their cuds.

Factory farming is horrifying in terms of animal welfare as well as pollution and the use of antibiotics and pesticides.

Some people argue that the problems with meat consumption can be solved by relying on local, sustainably raised meat sources. The problem with this is the size of the human population: to feed all the people sustainably raised meat in the quantities Americans eat would be impossible. There's just not enough land to graze all those animals.

Others advocate eating fish instead of meat because the sea appears to be an endless resource, covering nearly three-quarters of the earth's surface. But fishing, too, has been mechanized and industrialized. Many species are declining and ocean environments are threatened by pollution and bottom trawling. Eating only line-caught fish helps, but there's still the problem of eating high on the food chain. Fish farms are also an environmental disaster.

Finally, though, if you slip occasionally and eat animal products, don't beat yourself up. Re-commit yourself based on whatever the reasons you had for going vegan in the first place, and keep moving.

23 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Some Easy Recipes

My friend Karen asked for some help going vegan. This post is #2 in a series.

First off, if you're making drastic changes (or even not so drastic) to your diet, take it slow. Learn one new recipe a week and then slot it into your rotation. My favorite cookbooks are The Joy of Cooking (yes, really) and Laurel's Kitchen. Neither is a vegan cookbook, but both are very well written and go into depth about foods and cooking techniques. Laurel's Kitchen also includes a very handy food guide with information about nutrient contents of individual ingredients as well as their recipes; I wish the editors would update the book.

But I almost never cook from recipes; I read cookbooks for ideas and then add things into my own repertoire. I try to shop local, so I cook with what's on hand rather than shopping to prepare a particular recipe, and I have a few dishes in my head that take wide variation. Here are a few of my basics:

Creamy cauliflower soup

Wash and cut up a whole cauliflower. If if came with leaves, include them, but chop them into little pieces. Cook in a couple of inches of water until it's soft. Add soy milk, a tablespoon or so of tahini, and some salt (or a vegan boullion cube, if you're so inclined). Puree, but leave some texture. A stick blender makes this easy but it can also be pureed in a regular blender or a food processor. For safety, let it cool a bit first -- enough so it's not hot enough to burn -- and then reheat.

This also works well with broccoli, asparagus, or leeks and potatoes. For the latter, I saute onions and the chopped leeks for 15 minutes, then add cubed potatoes, cover with water, and boil until soft.

Lentil stew

Chop an onion, some garlic, and some celery (with leaves) and saute in a couple of tablespoons of oil of your choice. I like olive oil, which means you have to keep the heat relatively low and be patient. Once they're golden and maybe a little brown, add dried basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and some curry, with a little water so it doesn't stick, and stir in with the vegetables for a couple of minutes.

Add red split lentils (rinsed first) and some chopped greens (spinach, kale, collards...), cover with water, bring to a boil and then simmer until the lentils have fallen apart: 15 or 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them, and keep adding water as they absorb what's already in with them. Once they've disintegrated, add a package of crushed tomatoes and bring back to a boil (just) stirring constantly. Salt/pepper to taste.

You can substitute green lentils, navy beans, cannellini, black beans, or split peas, though they all take a lot longer to cook. Speed cooking time by rinsing them and putting them in a pot and bringing them to a boil and then letting them sit overnight; cook separately from the other ingredients. With split peas, leave out the tomatoes. For variety, add one or more root vegetables, or include more than one kind of bean. Black beans and chick peas or navy beans and kidneys are nice combinations.

These stews also work with canned beans. And you can boost the spices and serve over rice or quinoa or steamed potatoes.

Today, I used black beans, grated carrots, and a few tomatoes that needed eating, and then pureed the results with a stick blender.

Stir fry

This one also starts with onions, celery, and garlic, though I leave the pieces a lot bigger than for stew. It might have potatoes and eggplant or broccoli and snap peas and green beans or cauliflower and bell peppers and tomatoes, or any variety of other vegetables in combination. It might be flavored with green curry and some coconut milk, or indian curry and a little soy sauce, or soy sauce and chili peppers and green onions sliced in right before serving. I made a very inauthentic red coconut curry stirfry with beets and cannellini once. I might eat it over rice, noodles, or potatoes.


A salad spinner is super helpful for vegetarian cooking, not only for salad, but also for washing all those greens. Rip up some salad, wash and spin. Slice, shred or grate whatever other vegetables you have on hand -- cucumbers, carrots, beets, baby spinach. If you're so inclined, you can also add some cut up fruit. If you want to make it a meal, add cannellini, chick peas, hummus, or cubed tofu.  Dressing can be plain olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepp er.  Add vegan mayonnaise to make it creamy, or use honey and mustard.

The Bottom Line:

The agriculture industry has persuaded us that cooking is hard, maybe with some help from The New York Times Cookbook and Iron Chef. It's not. Learn to cook from scratch, with recipes in your head that you can modify based on what's around. Keep your kitchen stocked with basics -- a few cans of different kinds of beans, a couple kinds of dry beans, rice and pasta, and whatever dried herbs and spices you like. In the fridge, root vegetables and onions and celery last quite a while. If you can only shop once a week, cook the greens right away -- they keep well in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze them to add to soups.

08 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Eating In Restaurants

A friend asked for advice on going vegan. So this is the first of a series of posts in an attempt to answer some of her questions.

Eating vegan in restaurants can be a challenge. When I can choose the restaurant, I'm good to go; Indian restaurants almost always have good vegan options, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants also usually do.

At diners and diner-like restaurants, I usually do pretty well off the list of side orders, combining a couple of vegetables with some baked beans and a salad, for instance.

But sometimes you get stuck with a plate of wilted lettuce and tasteless tomatoes with salt and pepper out of little paper packets. Maybe some bread or home fries, if you're lucky. Then what?

If you know it's coming, you can plan ahead. I often carry a bag of almonds or cashews, as they make great vegan snacks and are also good to supplement an inadequate meal. If it comes as a surprise, I drink a lot of water and then go in search of more food. Even vending machines and gas stations will almost always have something vegan -- potato chips, pretzels, peanuts.

It gets easier. Around home, I've learned which restaurants have at least one item on the menu that I'm happy to eat, as well as a few with enough great options I actually re-read the menu each time I eat there.

If fast food is the only option, Wendy's salad bar can work; Taco Bell will sell you a tacos or a burritos with just beans and vegetables, and if you add enough of their tiny packets of sauce, they're not bad.

And I try not to be too hard on myself. The tofu and the chicken wings get deep-fried in the same oil, and the Vietnamese soup might contain fish sauce or chicken broth, but I try not to make myself crazy, particularly when traveling.

Hiking in the Dolomites and staying in mountain huts a couple of summers ago, I was getting really low on protein; day after day, I was eating polenta or potatoes and not much else, after I ran out of nuts and dried fruit. I was going to have to quit hiking or eat meat. so I chose the meat. I had to retreat to a corner of the bunk room and choke it down without anyone watching, and it still grosses me out to think about it, but boy was I strong the next day.

I try to learn from mistakes: When I went to the Lake District for a hostel-to-hostel hike a few weeks ago, I brought along a huge bag of TVP: dried soy chunks to reconstitute with water. Much lighter than nuts, so pound for pound, it goes much farther, and thus lasts much longer.

But also, I try not to beat myself up over the lapses. I'm never going to be perfect, so I just do my best and keep on moving.

19 April 2015

Second Shepherds' Play, Video Adaptation

I teach medieval drama in various contexts -- in lower-level survey courses, upper-level and graduate courses in medieval literature, and in courses on environment and literature. I've been trying for years to get The Mate (known to some of you as Doug Morse) to make a movie version of The Second Shepherds' Play: short enough to show in a class meeting and still get discussion time, and it's funny -- or should be, if played right.

Last year, he finally agreed. I applied for and got a small grant from my university to help pay the production costs, but it won't cover the full cost. So he's put the project on Kickstarter so that people can pre-purchase the film to raise additional funds for equipment and costume rentals, location fees, and to feed cast and crew for the six days of shooting.

Doug and I had arguments about whether the play should be shot in the original Middle English or in modernized form. In the end, we settled on a version using the language of the Towneley manuscript -- all the archaic vocabulary -- but pronounced in contemporary British dialects.

There will be a sheep, a live sheep, in the scene where Mak and Gil dress a sheep up as a baby.
Kenny wouldn't take milk from his mother and had to be brought indoors, where the family hand-fed him. He gets his name -- or maybe her name; apparently it's hard to tell with new lambs -- from the Kenmore Microwave box in which he spent his first few days.

Costumes will be period. The film will be shot on fields outside Cambridge that haven't changed much since sheep first grazed on them. Songs included in the play will be performed using medieval tunes.

Kickstarter is a fundraising platform that allows people to pre-buy a product in development, thus providing the cash for people to make a project rather than going into debt to get started. Doug just finished making a movie about board-game designers that was funded through Kickstarter. He's also completed adaptations of Everyman, The Merchant of Venice, and The Jew of Malta, all available from Films for the Humanities, where they're priced for library or departmental acquisition.

With this movie, he's trying to make it easier for individuals to buy a copy for classroom use. For $20, you can pre-buy a digital download of the video adaptation of The Second Shepherds' Play, and for $35 you get a DVD that also includes a copy of Everyman. He's also planning a documentary about contemporary shepherds on the farm where the video will be shot; that will be included with either the digital download or the DVD copy.

Previews of Everyman and Doug's other Renaissance adaptations are available on his website, Grandfather Films. Click here for more information about The Second Shepherds' Play and the accompanying documentary, or for advance purchase details.

Questions? gimme a holler.

15 April 2015

Google Maps and the Default Car

I use Google Maps pretty regularly to look for good routes for running* and biking, and to clock distances afterward. 
So I just sent them this message:
Every time I open Google Maps to get directions or track a run or a bike ride, the car automatically comes up as the automatic option; mass transit is second, walking third, and bicycle hidden behind an ellipsis. 
I am writing to suggest that you allow users to choose a preferred mode of transit so as not to have to reset this every time we use the program, or rewrite the program so that it will save the previous transportation mode automatically, rather than always defaulting to "car. 
Thank you for your consideration.
It took a long time to find a place I could send a message. Apparently, Google doesn't have a corporate email address, or if they do, it's well hidden. I got directed first to FAQs and then to a Help forum, but eventually found out how to send feedback on the map.

The comment form warns that users should not expect a reply. But I wonder if they'll give the issue any attention.


*No, I'm not back to running yet. I've been swimming, which feels great, and biking, which is okay as long as I don't have to put my feet down. When I can walk without limping, I'll give it a try. Marathon or half marathon on May 4? I don't think so. But there will be another.

14 April 2015

Drifting toward Vegan

It took me a long time, many years, to become fully vegan, and I still cheat for good butter. And I eat honey and I wear leather shoes.

I started on the journey after reading Diet For A Small Planet -- my mother had a copy kicking around -- and was completely appalled that they were razing forests in Argentina to grow beef for McDonald's hamburgers.

I quit eating meat, though I still ate cheese and eggs. Once every few months I'd got out for a hamburger with everything, and for a while I continued eating fish at family gatherings. It was probably years before I gave that up. And I only stopped eating eggs because I figured out they were giving me a rash, and cheese because it didn't agree with me either.

Unfortunately, "sustainably" grown beef actually isn't, despite industry claims to the contrary: it still requires large quantities of water as well as grazing acreage that can feed only a fraction of the planetary population. Grazing cows still fart methane. It's more humane for the cows, and if the cows aren't fed hormones and antibiotics, it is healthier -- but it's not sustainable for everyone to continue eating current first-world quantities of meat.

And the amount of meat we eat today is historically unprecedented: here's a graph from the World Cancer Research Fund, which wants you to cut back on eating meat because it's statistically linked with more cases of cancer. Correlation isn't causation, of course, but the data keep piling up

Chicken and eggs, by the way, require a lot less in the way of resources than red meat. Fish is pretty problematic given the violence to ocean environments of industrial-scale fishing operations.

Changing to a more sustainable diet doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. When I was a kid growing up in northern New Hampshire, billboards everywhere proclaimed, "Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day." These days, many families aim for Meatless Mondays or Vegan Wednesdays (or "Vednesdays," if you like your alliteration). Some families go vegetarian during the week but not on weekends. We cook vegetarian and vegan meals at home, but one member of the family chooses to eat meat at restaurants.

You can make a great vegan sauce for spaghetti or lasange by replacing the meat with chick peas, navy beans, tempeh, or bits of fried tofu. If you add a little parmesan for flavor, that's still healthier for you AND the planet than feeding half a pound of ground beef to everyone at the table.

If you want to drift toward vegetarian or even vegan, it doesn't have to mean a commitment to self-deprived asceticism. You can start by adding one recipe to your repertoire. A couple of weeks later, try out another. Make sure you find foods you LIKE. Instead of thinking in terms of cutting out meat, think in terms of adding vegetarian or vegan meals, or parts of meals, to the rotation, and spacing out meat-heavy meals. Maybe you'll continue to change over time; maybe you'll find a point where you're comfortable.

But the data are clear: reducing meat consumption, and in particular beef and dairy products, is the most efficient way to reduce your own carbon and water footprint. Eliminating beef from your diet would have more impact than giving up your car.

12 April 2015

The Magazine That Made My Brain Explode

I flew on a plane the other day. I know, I know; I should have taken a train or other ground transport. It was a short-haul flight -- an hour and a half over the mountains from Luton to Basel, with a train journey on one end and a bus on the other, and took nine hours from end to end. We could have taken the train in thirteen hours, but something about the ways train and plane travel are subsidized (or not) meant that the cost would have been several times higher. Multiply that by three travellers, and it's tough to take the environmental option.

At any rate, in the airport, waiting for the delayed flight, I found a fashion magazine lying around, and leafed through it with a curiosity drifting between anthropological and outraged. An actress was photographed in a dress that took 27 people 900-plus hours to make.

I haven't been able to find out where the 80,000 sequins were sewn on the dress, and what the seamstresses made per hour. Or how much a dress like that costs. Or how much Karl Lagerfeld, who designed the dress, makes, though The Google throws back numbers between $108 million and $58 billion.

You could do a heck of a lot of good with the money that flows into high fashion. What if you shaved off the top and bottom ends? What would it take to get rid of the fast fashion that underpaid Bangladeshi seamstresses churn out in death-trap factories, and simultaneously to get Oscar winners to show up in dresses costing, say, a maximum of $500? Who really needs shoes that cost $500? Or $10,000?

The other thing that made me nuts about the fashion magazines: it appears that white is the color of the season. What's wrong with white? It looks nice and crisp, it's cool on a hot summer day.

But you know what I've noticed? My black t-shirts last practically forever. Other dark colors, same story. It takes years and years of regular wear before they get stained or faded or holy. But white clothes? one fumbled glass of wine or coffee, and it's toast. Maybe you're better than I am at stain removal, or maybe you're not as clumsy as I am.

But I've just about stopped buying whites, because they just don't last. Even light colors do better.

There was nothing, NOTHING, in any of these magazines to suggest that maybe, MAYBE, the products they were implicitly -- and very explicitly -- hawking are terrible for the environment and terrible for the people who produce them.

While I'm on the subject of fashion? Making one pair of jeans, from growing the cotton to stone-washing the finished product so it looks ten years old, takes something like 10,000 liters of water. It also dumps massive amounts of toxic dyes into the environment and causing high levels of cancer and other illnesses in the communities where factories are located. Growing the cotton in the first place takes a huge amount of water as well as massive amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

So what do you do, besides swallow the guilt and keep moving? Buy jeans that don't look ancient, and wear them until they do. Or buy organic cotton with natural dyes. Or products made out of hemp or bamboo, which take far less water to grow. Most importantly, save up to buy the most durable clothing you can afford, and then keep it around until it falls apart.

02 April 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

The Mate, The Offspring and I went to the Lake District for a hiking holiday earlier this week. The weather turned mean on our first hiking day, but we decided to see how far up Scafell Pike we could get before the sleet, hail, and wind made it feel too dangerous.
We saw a group of people ahead of us -- teenagers, mostly -- underdressed for the conditions. One of them fell crossing a stream. Later on, we were passed by faster hikers, and as we followed them up, realized we had followed them off the trail. We stopped, and the fog drifted, and we saw a cairn 20 yards away and found our way back to the trail.

In my hubris, I thought one of those groups was going to run into trouble.

About 200 meters from the summit we turned back... and a few hundred meters farther down the mountain, I slipped, perhaps on a patch of hail or sleet. And slid, with my foot under me, down the surface of a wet rock.


The Mate dug the first-aid kit out of my packpack and gave me Tylenol (Paracetamol) and the Ace bandage. I took his poles and tried to use them as crutches to hobble, but progress was very slow.

A group of experienced hikers caught up with us, pointed out that it would take us hours to get out that way, pointed out that The Offspring was in the early stages of hypothermia, pointed out that I was likely to fall again and get hurt worse, and offered to call Mountain Rescue. I remembered the stair-like section of the trail with rain-water cascading down it below us. I gave up. Another pair of hikers also stopped to help.

We got out our space blankets, they got out another, as well as an emergency shelter. The Offspring and I wrapped up and huddled together and ate some food. Other hikers came along and passed thermoses of hot coffee and hot cocoa into the shelter and we drank, to help warm up; we'd already finished our own thermos of hot tea.

A helicopter came, but between the fog and the rocks, it couldn't land, and eventually it landed in the valley. So The Mate made the decision to walk out with The Offspring so he could warm up; two of our helpers walked with them. Four people waited with me. For something like three hours, before the first members of the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team reached me.

One of the doctors had seen The Mate and The Offspring near the bottom, and kindly let me know that they were almost out: a huge relief, as I was worried about them getting down safely.

The wrapped me in a massively thick "cas bag" and strapped me onto a sledge and took me down a path with lots of grassy patches that they could drag me across, but they also carried me over a river and several stiles. The efficiency with which they passed me hand to hand along a chain of people was incredible.
We reached the bottom, and somehow someone knew that the guys had hitched a ride back to the hostel and could warm up. They bundled me into an ambulance and took me to the nearest hospital.

All of the Mountain Rescue Team members are volunteers. They do not charge for getting people out.

At "A&E" (the ER), I was assigned an amazing nurse who stayed with me the entire time, making me tea and putting heated blankets over me (because after five hours immobile on the mountain, I still hadn't warmed up), wheeling my gurney to the x-ray department, chatting with me to keep my spirits up.

She tried to call the youth hostel to let The Mate know I was off the mountain, but just then got a message that he'd already called -- and was on his way with a man who was staying there for the night and offered to drive him over to pick me up.

We got back to Cambridge, and a neighbor brought  me more Paracetamol, an ice pack, AND a bouquet of beautiful flowers.
Accidents cascade. We might have gotten into really severe trouble out there if those guys hadn't stopped to help. The hiker community is an amazing group of people.

I'm allowed to start running again, carefully, in two weeks. There will be another marathon.

21 March 2015

Less Plastic With My Groceries

I talk a lot about the importance of buying local food. I also complain a lot about how everything is packaged in plastic. The other day, my colleague challenged academics to make changes in our own lives, to lead on the issue of climate change. So I made a commitment to myself to shop more at the farmer's market: local food, no packaging. Here's the haul from today's shopping trip:

From the supermarket. Not local. Olive oil from Spain, gluten-free pasta from Italy, coconut oil from the Phillipines, chocolate from Spain, curry powder packed in France, capers from Morocco. Beans and hummus say they're prepared in the UK. Hummus doesn't say where the ingredients came from; beans admit to "EU and non-EU" ingredients.
The chocolate is not Fair Trade, ohmygod. I always talk about the importance of Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and the like. Since we moved (temporarily) to the UK, I've been buying a lot of Lindt because, well, it's made in Switzerland, and it's really, really good. I'm going to have to re-think that.

Local foods purchased at the supermarket: yogurt, eggs, honey. But there's a farm shop a few blocks farther on; I should go there for eggs and honey instead of going to the mega corporation.

From the farmer's market: swiss chard, potatoes, beets with greens, broccoli greens, apples, and a cauliflower. The cauliflower and part of the broccoli greens are already in a soup.

All in all, better than last week's shopping trip, after which I threw away a ton of plastic packaging. But I can still do better.

20 March 2015

...Okay, A Half Marathon, Then

With excitement and trepidation, I signed up for a marathon back in January.

Three weeks ago, I re-injured my ITB, which I injured 20 years ago, after which I had to take several years off from running.  So maybe signing up for a marathon was a bit insane in the first place.

I took a couple of weeks off from running, did some biking and swimming and lifting to maintain fitness, and was ready to give it another try, and then came down with a cold. Unfortunately, I never just come down with a cold; I'm coughing up yellow goop and get out of breath climbing a flight of stairs.

And so with heavy heart but also some relief, I've changed my registration to the half marathon.  I'm already in shape to run it; I'll have five or six weeks after I'm over this chest infection to get myself back in shape, but hopefully keep the ITB loose and happy.

Those last couple of long runs were really, really painful; I think I took on too much, too soon. I'm looking forward to scaling back and training for a race I think I can complete comfortably. And maybe I can find another race in July.

Meanwhile, I'm still using the event to raise funds for Sustrans, a UK organization that raises awareness about sustainable public transportation while pushing for the development and maintenance of bike lanes. 

If you're so inclined, you can follow the link to a page where you can make a donation.

Meanwhile, I'm still amazed that I've been able to run as much as I have. It feels like a miracle that it's possible.  And the support of family and friends, in person and via social media, has been pretty amazing, and has gotten me through a lot of long runs so far. Thanks, y'all.

19 March 2015

Going Green As Moving Target

Two years ago, I embarked on the project I called "Ten of Tens" -- ten days on each of ten different habits to make changes in the direction of environmental sustainability. My projects included packing lunches to avoid take-out (and all the plastic involved) at work; eating more local food; using less water for dishwashing and in the shower; learning about the environmental impact of the foods I eat; switching to fair-trade coffee, tea, and chocolate; not buying things packaged in plastic; and buying less stuff.

It was a partial success. I didn't eliminate take-out, which is terrible for the planet and the body, but I cut back. I continued doing most of my shopping at the supermarket, but I made an effort to get out to the farmers' markets more. I've been almost take-out free this year, but then again I'm on sabbatical, and my desk is five feet from my kitchen. Buying local is easier here in the UK, where everything in the supermarket is marked with point of origin, but I STILL don't get to the farmer's market enough. And I don't know, but I think it's gotten even harder to avoid bringing home plastic packaging. At Sainsbury's, even the recycled toiled paper is wrapped in plastic.

But I keep trying. When I'm finished with the sabbatical I'm planning on buying some stainless-steel food containers for packing lunches -- I've been using mason jars, and they're heavy, and they break.

As of right now, today, I'm going to try to stop first at the farmer's market every time I go shopping.

Another of the issues I wrestle with is how much clothing I own. The 333 Project has been on my radar for a while, and it's a great idea: limit yourself to 33 items of clothing, including accessories, shoes, outerwear) for three months.

But exercise clothes are excluded from the accounting, as are pajamas, undergarments, and "in-home lounge wear." I do a lot of different kinds of physical activities, and I own almost as many items of clothing for exercise as I do for the rest of life.  I've been trying to avoid having a separate wardrobe for all the different activities. And you get 33 items of clothing for each season -- so in a three-season climate, that's 99 articles of clothing.

I've been trying to overlap as much as possible, for instance buying hiking clothes that look neat enough to wear in town. I dress a lot more casually when I'm writing at home than when I'm teaching, but it doesn't seem fair to allow an entire additional wardrobe of casual clothing, so I'm trying to bring my casual and work clothes closer together. There's a decluttering recommendation that you only buy an item if you're getting rid of another item; I've been trying to go two-for-one, though not always successfully.

Moving toward sustainability isn't a one-shot deal. It requires continuous adjustments and renegotiations. I'm trying to do better each year; it's hard, and I fail a lot, but I know I'm doing better than if I didn't try in the first place.

17 March 2015

Inescapable Plastic

I try to avoid plastic, especially plastic that is designed for single use before it goes to the landfill. So I don't use bottled water or liquid soap and I haven't had a takeout meal in months. But it turns out plastic is still inescapable, because everything seems to be packaged in it:

Yogurt, hummus, salsa
Bar soap
Deodorant, even the hippy-dippy salt kind; shampoo, toothpaste, contact lens cleaner, hair gel
Hand cream -- though I paid a pretty penny for some from in an aluminum tube from L'Occitane
Medications and supplements
Toilet paper, even the recycled kind
Dish soap and laundry soap (unless you can find the powdered kind, increasingly rare)
Dry beans, rice, pasta

This is a partial list, but look around your own home -- you get the idea.

Fruit and vegetables can be found without plastic packaging at the farmer's market, but not at the supermarket, where I otherwise do the bulk of my shopping, so the farmer's market requires a separate stop at a separate location. I don't do enough of my shopping at the farmer's market: life gets in the way.

In other words, even though I cook most of my food from scratch, almost everything I eat comes into my kitchen packaged in plastic which then goes into the recycling bin a few days later.

Plastic recycling is a kind of a scam, it turns out. You can recycle a glass bottle and make another glass bottle; you can turn an old alumin(i)um can into a new one. But used plastic is more limited: it can't be made into another one of the same item. It can be used for pipes, carpets, fiberfill, and fleece clothing.

It takes less energy to make a recycled plastic product than a new one, and it's better to recycle plastic than to put it in the landfill -- but it's far preferable not to use it in the first place. How do we put pressure on the manufacturers to stop?

11 March 2015

The Cooking-From-Scratch Scam

A comment about organic boxed macaroni and cheese being virtually identical to the regular kind crossed my radar the other day and got me thinking about how the food industry has taught us that we don't know how to cook.

I do almost all of my cooking from scratch, because I'm dealing with a variety of different food allergies and intolerances that make much of what's available in a box inedible, but also because it's how I learned to cook.

The food industry has created all kinds of boxed products and has taught us that we don't know how to cook. But it's not actually that hard to get all kinds of basic meals on the table.

You can make a basic mac and cheese with milk, flour, butter, and cheese. Maybe a little mustard or cayenne, if that's how you roll.  You heat those ingredients while the pasta is cooking in a separate pan, mix the two together, and bingo, mac'n'cheese.

The same dish, out of a box? While you cook up some pasta, you mix milk and butter and cheese powder in a separate pan, and after the pasta is cooked, you mix them together. One ingredient less than from scratch. It takes a minute or two to grate real cheese, or to cut it up in little pieces with a knife if you don't have a grater, but you're waiting for pasta to boil anyway.

Pancakes, ditto. Egg, milk, flour, baking soda maybe a little sugar and salt, cinnamon or vanilla, chocolate chips or blueberries if you want to go all out.  Or in my case, gluten-free flour, ground flax seeds, and soy milk. And it doesn't even require measuring cups; I eyeball it all.

Spaghetti sauce. It doesn't take that much longer to saute an onion and a little garlic and some celery with some dried herbs and then add tomatoes and cook down for a few minutes than it does to open a jar of prepared sauce.

Mashed potatoes? Yes, it takes longer to clean potatoes, cut them up, steam them, and then mash them with butter and milk (or olive oil and almond milk) than to shake some flakes into a pan of boiling water. But it's not rocket science.

If you're juggling jobs, kids, commutes, maybe caring for an elderly or ill family member, finding the time to scrub potatoes can seem impossible. And it takes some planning: you have to shop, you have to be able to store perishables until you can use them. The Mate and I do a lot of cooking on weekends, and make enough for lots of leftovers. Some get eaten right away, others go in the freezer for next week or next month or next year.

Which is not to say that we never eat beans from a can, tomato sauce from a jar, vegetables from the freezer, or a whole meal of Chinese take-out.

Cooking basic foods from scratch avoids a lot of the carbon footprint of shipping and production, particularly if you buy local products in season. And you get to avoid the excessive salt and sugar and chemicals that go into the bottled and boxed products. And you avoid a lot of plastic packaging.

Want to try? Pick one dish, google some recipes, pick the simplest one, and make it on three occasions. Then you'll know it well enough to throw the ingredients together without worrying about measuring precisely, to improvise if you're out of something, or to experiment with different flavors.