14 December 2016

Aleppo and the Children

I read the news from Aleppo -- residential neighborhoods shelled, civilians shot, women committing suicide rather than be raped -- with a heavy, heavy heart.
New York Times
Because, you see, my mother was born in 1939 in what was then called East Prussia and is now Poland, and in 1944, she and her family fled their home ahead of Russian troops moving across the area.

I've heard the stories so many times. Lying in a horse-drawn wagon covered in blankets looking up at the stars, traveling only at night. Saved by a Polish housekeeper (my mother's family is German) who spoke to a guard and got the family through. Three children climbing into the window of the train headed west by their very pregnant mother, who then persuaded the guards to let her on the train as well: "My children are in there." Life as refugees.

Yes, they were Germans. They were on the wrong side. Had they been Jews, of course, it would have been so much the worse for them. But at the same time, my mother and her two, soon to be three, younger siblings, were children, children who saw too much, suffered too much, had too much responsibility.

And so when I hear the news from Aleppo, I think of the children. Children who, if they survive, will bear psychic scars for the rest of their lives.


Is there anything we can do?

In the UK, The Independent recommends people call their ministers of parliament and ask them to start air drops of supplies, and put pressure on the Russian and Syrian governments to end hostilities, so I would think comparable calls to US senators and representatives would be worthwhile.

HuffPo has a list of organizations attempting to give aid in Syria that are taking donations, though at the moment many of them are hamstrung by the level of violence and chaos on the ground.

Of less immediate impact. scientific consensus is that drought in Syria, and the resulting pressure on food and other resources, is a contributing factor. Drought caused by climate change, that is. Educate people you know about the potentially dire impacts of climate change: in some reasons, considerably more drastic than 70-degree days in New York City in November or a little more rain or snow in the winter.

05 December 2016

Green Your Holiday

'Tis the season... of frantic shopping, and of appeals from "green" companies to shop with them rather than the other companies.

Maybe you want to put the brakes on all that consumption. I'm not suggesting you just say "no" to all gift-giving, but there are ways to make it more productive.

1. Give food that you know the recipient will enjoy that's maybe a little fancier and more environmentally friendly than what they'd have consumed anyway. Organic chocolates, fair-trade coffee or tea, a gift certificate to a farmer's market, a month's pick-up from community supported agriculture, a gift certificate at the neighborhood health food store.

In New York, some greenmarkets sell "wooden nickels." You pay with a credit card (there's a small fee that goes to their overhead) and you can buy wooden tokens worth $5 each to use later or give as gifts. Other cities have similar programs.

2. Give time. Commit to helping a friend or family member with cleaning, maintenance, a special home project, or a home-cooked meal.

3. Give donations in people's names, to charities they (and you!) support. Or commit an amount, and have a conversation about where they'd like it sent.

4. If you want to give material gifts, make them yourself or think hard about where you buy them. As with other purchases throughout the year, try to limit shipping, packaging, and other kinds of waste.

5. Recycle wrapping paper: easiest to do if you use bags and tissue paper with no tape. Or buy or make reusable cloth wrapping bags, or use the comics pages from the newspaper, or re-use cardboard boxes and decorate them.

04 December 2016

How to Eat Less Meat

Last week, I wrote that in order to lower your environmental impact, one thing you can do is eat less meat.

If you're thinking that's a good idea, but you're not sure how or whether it's healthy, I'm going to try to answer some potential questions.

How will I get enough protein?

Research about how much protein we need is on-going. Many nutritionists think that most Americans get more protein than they need. But some scientists think more protein is better, as long as it's not meat protein.

The most recent government nutrition guidelines switched from a pyramid to a plate. Half the plate contains fruit and vegetables, the other half whole grains and protein foods. If you're trying to limit meat, veggie burgers and tofu pups are one option, but it's good to mix them up with less processed foods. In any case, it's easy to get plenty of protein from beans, legumes, and nuts.

Back in the 1970s, people believed that vegans had to combine grains and legumes in carefully complementary proportions at every meal to get "complete" proteins. That idea still floats around, though it's been debunked; what vegans need is to eat a variety of different foods across several days to a week. But that's a good idea for everyone.

If you're cutting back on meat, you should think about what you're replacing those calories with. Switching from bacon and eggs to poptarts for breakfast? Probably not a great idea. A bowl of cereal with dried fruit, nuts, and seeds or a couple of pieces of toast with nut butter and sliced bananas would be healthier options.

I feel best on a diet of beans and legumes with lots of greens, and a little bit of whole grains and fruit. But everyone is different. If you cut back on meat without adding other sources of protein, you might find that you get hungry more often; in that case, you might need to make more of an effort to include plant-based proteins in your diet.

The important thing is to find some options that you like. Google "vegan recipes" and make a commitment to yourself to try out one new recipe a month. Or one a week, if you're feeling energetic about it.

Is it healthy?

It's well established that plant-based diets are healthier than diets heavy in meat, and reduce risk for heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory disease, and some cancers.

If you cut back on meat and dairy products, but don't cut them out entirely, and replace them with vegetable proteins and whole grains and vegetables, you don't have to worry about anything else.

If you completely cut out animal products, you need to pay attention to your intake of vitamin B12, because deficiency can lead to anemia or nerve damage. Nutritional yeast is one of the only plant sources. Soy milk and cereal and a lot of other foods are fortified with vitamin B12, so if you're eating plenty of those, you could be fine, but pay attention and consider a supplement.

You might also worry about getting enough calcium. Dairy industry advertising implies that you have to drink milk, but there are plant sources as well. Eating meat seems to increase our need for calcium, so vegans might not need as much.  It's in fortified soy products, collard greens, kale, tofu that's been coagulated with calcium sulfate (check the label), and various other greens and legumes. Or you can cover your bets by taking a supplement.

Iron is another potential concern. Cook in a cast iron pan and you'll be fine.

Will it cost me money?

If you buy a lot of faux meat products, maybe. Non-dairy milk substitutes are often more expensive than regular milk, unless you're buying organic milk. Food prices vary widely depending on seasonal availability and where you live.

But right now, the cheapest ground beef from Fresh Direct (which delivers groceries in New York City) is $3.99 a pound. A pound of pinto beans at $2.39 is good for 12 servings; a 15.5 ounce can of cooked pinto beans (3.5 servings) is 99 cents. You can do the math.

How can you tell if someone is vegan?

They'll tell you.

26 November 2016

Green Your Life

Our president-elect believes that climate change is a hoax. He has appointed, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a person with degrees in philosophy and political theory who doesn't believe scientific concensus about climate change. He has announced he is going to eliminate funding to the NASA division that studies earth science and gathers basic data on climate, year to year, decade to decade.

He is planning on reopening coal mining and expanding oil drilling and fracking. Climate groups like Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace will be fighting the new administration's proposals, and one way to fight back is to use your holiday gift-giving budget to make donations in the names of friends and family members. Lists of effective groups are here and here and here.

Meanwhile, you can make changes in your own life to reduce your carbon footprint, and encourage friends and family members to make similar changes. Many people making relatively small changes in housing, mobility and food consumption can have more impact than one person making drastic changes. 

1. Reduce your consumption of beef and dairy.

You don't need to go vegan to have an impact. Americans eat almost 215 pounds of meat per year, on average. That's 9.4 ounces per day: two and a half quarter pounders, four 6" turkey sandwiches from Subway, or nine slices of bacon. Cutting your meat consumption in half would have a significant environmental impact. Since lamb, beef, and cheese have the highest emissions of carbon dioxide and methane per pound, switching from steak to chicken wings has almost as much of an effect as going all the way to tofu-burgers.
Bonus: eating less meat is healthier.

2. Drive less.

Half of the trips people make in their cars are three miles or less; a quarter are less than a mile long. You can choose to make some of these trips by bike or on foot. 
If your community doesn't have safe walking or cycling routes, call up your local elected officials and join with other interested citizens. Transportation Alternatives lobbies for safer streets in New York City, and many other communities have similar groups.

Bonus: getting more exercise is healthier.

3. Downsize your house or apartment.

The smaller your living quarters, the less you need to spend on heat and and light. If you're considering a move, think about downsizing rather than upsizing. Meanwhile, switch from incandescent to LED lightbulbs and turn off anything that's not in use. In the winter, put on a sweater and turn the heat down a couple of degrees; in the summer, close the blinds on the sunny side of the house and sip ice water.

Bonus: You'll save money.

4. Don't buy so much stuff.

The businesses that send us all those catalogues and pop-up internet advertising are banking on making you want seasonally colored towels and placemat, clothing in new colors and designs, and yet another gadget for your kitchen. Just say no. 

But how to get off the buying cycle? Every time a catalogue comes in the house, call up the company and tell them to take you off their mailing list. Only buy things that you love, and that you think will last indefinitely. Make a plan that every time you buy something, you have to get rid of something. Want a new pair of shoes? Which pair are you going to get rid of? Contemplating a fancy new garlic peeler or lemon zester? What kitchen gadget will you take to the thrift shop to make room? 

Bonus: You won't need such a big house.


None of this has to be all-or-nothing. You might consider vegetarian breakfast on weekdays, and save the bacon for a Sunday brunch treat. If cooking is Your Thing, don't sweat the gadgets, but get your books from the library and forego another pair of yoga pants. Commit to one small change at a time. If you hate it, try something else. But do something.

12 November 2016

Now What?

Since the election, I've been trying to figure out where to put my energy to have the most impact on disrupting Trump's presidential program.

The bloggers at Savage Minds have pulled together a great list of suggestions and resources. Several Slate writers likewise came up with a good list of suggestions for action. Neither list includes gay and trans rights, and I've asked both groups if they might consider adding additional resources.

Yesterday, my family and my son's best friend's family went for a hike in Bear Mountain State Park. Both boys were born in New York City; three of the four parents, like so many New Yorkers, were born outside of the US. By the end of the day, up and down over Ramapo Mountain, the Timp, and West Mountain, I'd realized what I need to do moving forward is keep doing what I've been doing.

And to keep trying to do it better, with sharper analysis of how the Middle Ages shaped the modern, and how understanding the past can help us to understand where we are today.

I teach courses on environment and the humanities. I teach linguistics and history of the English language, and I include work on the relationship between social power and judgments about language. I teach medieval literature, and I look at how medieval cultural formulations about others continue to inform political discourse today.

On Monday, I spoke about the marginal monstrous semi-human figures drawn near the Nile River in Africa on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, a world map drawn in England in 1300, and argued that contemporary discourse about Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants is in a direct line with medieval formulations of others. I pointed out that some humans treat other humans, and animals and landscapes, as "resources" in seeking profit and power, and that too ties medieval social structures with modern ones. I tried to ignore the Trump sticker one student had stuck to his laptop computer.

The difficulty I had on Wednesday morning, operating in a state of shock and grief with very little sleep, was that I had to go on teaching all of my students. What I said to them on that day, in between tears, is that our classroom must remain a space for civil discourse on difficult subjects and for respect for all.

Meanwhile, I've decided to return to blogging, with more regularity and more discipline. In the past year, I've averaged a post a month; I aim to return to posting once a week. I ask my students to blog and to think about how to write about academic subjects for a more general audience, but I haven't done enough of that myself lately.

21 September 2016

An Open Letter

I've seen several compelling pieces of writing today addressed to white people, asking us to figure out how to stop the shootings. People of color shot by police. Hands in the air. Evidence planted, testimony perjured. Boys shot in the back while fleeing.

I don't know what to do. So I wrote a letter.

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I'm writing to ask you to take a strong and vocal stance against police shootings of black and disabled men, and to make it an issue you will attempt to address substantively within the first 100 days of your presidency.

I don't know how to change a culture, within police departments as well as within our broader United States, in which white police officers routinely find it appropriate to shoot young men -- boys, even -- of color.

I do know that it has to stop. 

You will, I hope, soon be in a position to lead a national dialogue of reconceiving the role of the police in communities, retraining individuals and groups, and beginning to heal some of the rifts between black and white individuals and communities in our country.

Please make this a central part of your commitment to the people of the United States, if elected.

Thank you.

Tomorrow, I'll send versions of this letter to my local and national representatives. 

Please, if you're reading this, take a moment to write a letter as well. Write to your local chief of police, write to your state lawmakers, write to whoever you think is in a position to make a difference.

31 July 2016

What Professors Do: Writing, Embodied

I've been working like crazy to finish edits to my book since my semester ended, sitting at my computer for 12, 14 hours a day, eating meals at my desk, drinking coffee by the quart. I worked steadily from early May, when I finished my semester, through the end of June, when The Offspring finished school; we then took a two-week family vacation, after which I returned to the routine. I've been taking time out to walk, bike, do Capoeira, and go for the occasional run.

My book, on environmental aspects of Anglo-Saxon literature, connects with my commitments to environmental activism and cultural change. It feels to me like the most important thing I've ever written. Usually I find editing a slog, but on this project I'm enjoying crafting the prose, trying to make the project as strong as possible.

I haven't taken enough breaks: the other day I ended up with a spasm in my lower back.

I've put my computer on an old Ikea drawer unit and piled up an empty box and two yoga blocks for my mouse.

I'm on muscle relaxants, which have their side effects. I've been walking more and I've added a lot of yoga into the mix. Even standing at my desk aggravates the tension; I have to stop every few minutes to move around and stretch. My back is too frozen to do Capoeira, which usually loosens it up; even yoga is difficult.

I've been remembering what Jeffrey Cohen wrote, last summer, about his own writing lockdown to write Stone, which he documented on social media:
Reading through these posts now I can see that there will come day when my relentless drive will cause me harm.  
Well, honestly, it did cause me harm: I was something of a wreck by the end of the process, emotionally and physically. I injured my shoulder badly enough that it took several months of physical therapy to restore full function. People think the life of the mind is not dangerous, but it will kill you, if you let it. 
I've had his words at the back of my mind all summer, but I've been ignoring them, hoping I could get away with the schedule I've been keeping. I've been pushing myself hard because we have plans for another family vacation in August, and we don't leave until the book is finished. (Right, plus a few other projects I've been putting off.)

On my desk: a random business card, with "Race to the Face" written on the back for inspiration. Officially known as the Top Notch Triathlon, this is my favorite triathlon ever, and consists of a bike ride from Franconia Village to Echo Lake, a swim across the lake, and a hike/run up to the top of Cannon Mountain, former home to the Old Man of the Mountain. If I got enough work done, I was going to drive to New Hampshire, spend a few days with my parents, and do that triathlon.

I didn't.

Jeffrey writes, too, about anxiety and insomnia; I've been plagued by both this summer as well. During the day, I focus on the book; at night, my mind wanders among the numerous projects I'm ignoring to get this done. Overdue book reviews, overview book chapters, overdue responses to other people's work, overdue book orders for fall classes.

I want to follow Jeffrey's advice to his own earlier self: "chill the hell out." I want to spend more time with spouse, son, parents, dog. I want to hike more, run more, read for pleasure. I want time to cook good meals and enjoy them.

But I've finished the last edit of the book, done on a printout, and I just need to enter those changes into the computer file and send them off. So here I stand, at my desk, beavering away.

The reality: I never finish all the projects I plan over the summer. I'm always already behind at the end of the academic year, not only on research and writing but also on tasks related to teaching and faculty governance, often reviled as "committee work," but potentially very important in terms of shaping one's institution.

Last spring semester, I tried to cut back on take-out food, partly because it's not very healthy, but more importantly because it all comes in single-use plastic containers. I failed miserably, and eventually realized it was because I was too busy to cook meals and pack food for the workday.

I keep telling myself that if I work faster, work harder, get more done, I can take a break. But there's always another project. I have to figure out how to let some of this go. I know that I can say "no" to future projects, but for the moment, I'm stuck on the hamster wheel with no way off.

Jeffrey puts it better than I can, so I'll end with this:
...underneath the processes I describe run currents of apprehensiveness, fear, self-punishing discipline, and relentless drive that I do not think is healthy and is certainly not offered for emulation.

27 July 2016

Female Body as Unexpected Object

The thing that aggravates me most about biking while female is when people look straight at me and then step right in front of me, causing me to have to slam on the brakes, lay rubber, eat my handlebars, and occasionally eat pavement.

During the summer, I bike as an obvious female. During the winter, all of the layers mean I'm taken for a man almost all of the time. The differences are huge.

Drivers give more room to female cyclists because they assume we're inexperienced or incompetent. I once had a police officer look at me and climb on top of a barrier to get out of the way. Yes, there was plenty of room for me to get by. Yes, I can ride in a straight line, even at slow speeds. But he and his buddy thought it was hilarious to act as though I was likely to run into him by accident.

The assumption of incompetence is aggravating, don't get me wrong. But I'll take the extra clearance, because it means an extra margin of safety in case I need to avoid a pothole, an opening car door, or a texting pedestrian.

When winter clothing disguises my gender, and when people look at me, they generally get out of the way, either pausing to let me pass, changing course, or speeding up. In the summer, it's obvious that I have a female body (and I often bike in skirts, because they're comfortable and don't get caught in the chain). I regularly get ignored. Maybe they figure since I'm female, I won't mind stopping for them. Or they assume they should have priority over a lesser member of the species. 

But I suspect it's like the gorilla in the basketball game.

Daniel Simons and his psychologist colleagues made a video of people playing basketball. They showed it to people and asked them to count passes, and in the middle of the video they had a woman in a gorilla suit walk through the middle of the game. 
from Dan Simons' research page
Half the people watching the video don't notice the woman in the gorilla suit. Simons calls the phenomenon inattentional blindness, and it happens when people "fail to notice unexpected objects."

I suspect the juxtaposition of mammary glands and the front wheel of a bike is, for many people, an "unexpected object," because if there's a bike, they expect to see a male rider. So their minds just don't process the information that there's something they should pay attention to, and they step into the street right in front of me. I nearly hit a guy today when I had to brake hard on top of a subway grate and didn't have much traction. He didn't even notice.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the intersections of objects and female bodies in the Exeter Book Riddles, the subject of the final chapter of my book on Old English literature and environmental issues. It seems to be a social construction that lingers, a millennium later. My fellow bikers, what do you think?

07 July 2016

My Grandmother's Cookbooks

For years, I've been saying that someone could do an interesting study of cultural history looking just at the cookbooks from my grandmother's kitchen. For now, I give you two recipes for creamed spinach:

1. From The Joy of Cooking, 1943 edition, by Irma S. Rombauer:

4 servings

If this unfortunate vegetable--so often thrust upon resisting children and grownups--were given a fair chance by the following rule it might retire permanently from the comic papers and the vaudeville stage.
Pick over and cut the roots and tough stems from:
1/2 peck (2 pounds) spinach (when cooked 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups)
Wash it in several waters until it is free from sand and soil. If the spinach is old cook it for 20 minutes in:
1 quart boiling salted water (1 1/2 teaspoons salt to the quart)
If the spinach is new lift it from the water with the hands and place it moist, but without additional water, in a saucepan, cover it and cook it for 6 minutes, or until it is tender. Drain it well. Chill it. Chop the spinach, old or young, until it is as fine as puree, using a board and a knife, or a chopping bowl and a knife, or put it through a coarse strainer or ricer.* Melt in a skillet:
2 tablespoons butter
Add and cook for 1 minute (or if preferred until brown):
1 tablespoon or more very finely chopped onion (optional)
Stir in until blended:
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
Stir in slowly:
1 cup hot cream, top milk, stock or diluted evaporated milk
When the sauce is smooth and boiling add the spinach. Stir and cook it for 3 minutes or until it is thoroughly blended. If the spinach seems too thick it may be thinned with additional cream or milk. Season it well with:
Nutmeg (very good but optional)
Serve it garnished with slices of:
1 hard-cooked egg
The French recipes call for 1 teaspoon of powdered sugar and the grated rind of 1/2 a lemon. These ingredients and the onion are optional. The flour is sometimes browned before it is added to the butter. Evaporated milk is good in spinach. Stock, cream or milk may be used in combination.
Remember that young uncooked spinach makes a good salad; that cooked buttered spinach and grapefruit salad are an ideal reducer's luncheon; and that cooked spinach greens are superb with Hollandaise sauce (page 381), with crisp bacon, minced, or with Sauteed Mushrooms.
*An ideal strainer may be purchased for about a dollar which makes this process painless. It is called a food mill. I am devoted to mine and shall reward it some day with an old age pension.

2. From Microwave Cookbook, JCPenney, 1984:


2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1. Combine spinach, butter, and onion in a 1 1/2-quart glass casserole. Cover and microwave at Time Cook 1 (power level 7) for 6 1/2 minutes, or until spinach is very hot, stirring twice.
2. Stir flour into spinach, blending until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients. Microwave, uncovered, at Time Cook 2 (power level 10) for 5 to 6 minutes, or until mixture boils and thickens, stirring twice. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Raise your hand if you've ever bought anything by the peck, if you know what top milk is, if you own a food mill, or if you noticed that JCPenney uses the Oxford Comma, but Rombauer does not.

28 June 2016

Six Pack Rings

I sent an email message to Margaret Chin and Brad Lander today. They are the sponsors of the bill passed in May and scheduled to go into effect in October that requires grocery stores in New York City to charge customers five cents per plastic bag used.

I'm hoping they'll consider taking on the issue of those vile pieces of plastic that connect cans of beer and soda.

Readers, do you have any suggestions about how to deal with these? Can soda cans be packaged in cardboard like beer bottles? Do you know an inventor who can come up with a better way?

Or is the best solution to quit drinking soda, and switch to water?


Thank you for sponsoring legislation to charge a fee for plastic bags in NYC,  and getting it passed.

I'm writing to you today to ask if you'd consider taking on six pack rings, those plastic yokes that hold soda and beer cans together and then go into the landfill.

Many people cut them into little pieces before putting them in the garbage to avoid the problem of birds choking to death in them.

But the little pieces end up in the ocean, where fish and turtles and other marine animals mistake them for food and eat them. They also contribute to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other marine trash vortexes.

Thank you for considering this.


Update: I got a reply from Vincent Fang, Council Member Chin's director of budget and legislation, saying he's going to look into it.

Update 2: I got a reply from someone in Brad Lander's office saying she's interested in the issue. And then I saw an article about a small brewery that has developed edible six-pack rings. If New York lawmakers can find a way to encourage soda and beer companies who do business in the city to adopt these rings, it could have much wider impact eventually.

11 June 2016

I Said No

It was 30-odd years ago, and the phrase "date rape" hadn't hit my radar. I was completely sober and wide awake, but my "no" wasn't heard. My "no" wasn't loud enough, my sense of self-worth not strong enough, my body not powerful enough to give force to the word.

When rapes of college students make the news, I notice. I try to avoid reading the news articles, but end up consuming them. I have trouble sleeping, I cry a lot, I get outraged at statements that blame the survivors. And I wonder why after 30 years I can't move on and forget about it. 

The most recent case blew out my Facebook. The details were unavoidable. I raged about the rapist's refusal to take responsibility, the father's plea for leniency, the brief sentence handed down by the judge in violation of sentencing standards.

I read the survivor's statement, and I got choked up.

Eventually, I read the piece Joe Biden wrote, the open letter to the woman. I cried.

That night, as I tossed and turned and tried to sleep, I had an idea.

For the first time in three and a half decades, I thought: No.


It wasn't my fault.

It's not that "no" wasn't loud enough, or I wasn't strong enough.

He should not have done that.


That's rape culture. 

For 35 years, even though I knew that rape isn't the fault of survivors, even though I was outraged by the people who suggest it was, I believed in my own body that when I was assaulted, it was my fault. I believed in my own brain that I wasn't strong enough.

And then I cried some more, and for the first time, they were tears of healing.

28 May 2016

Capoeira and My New Shell

Freddy, a tortoise burned in a forest fire in Brazil, got a new shell by way of a 3D printer.
source: iflscience.com
I recently got a new name, "Tartaruga Marinha," "sea turtle," after two years of training at Capoeira Angola Quintal, and eight months after making a commitment to myself to take it seriously. Or as seriously as I could, given work and family obligations.

The story of Freddy and her new shell really resonates with me, because I feel as though Capoeira has given me, figuratively, a new carapace.

I came to Capoeira after a truck rear-ended my little car and left me with slipped disks in my neck and a shoulder that hurt all the time. My son had started training, and his teacher, Mestre Ombrinho, talked me into trying it, even though I doubted I could get very far.

My bad relationship with my own body reached much farther back than that car crash. As a little kid, I had exercise-induced asthma, but I didn't know that; all I knew was that when my sled reached the bottom of the snowy hill and I tried to run back up with the other kids, I'd be gasping and dragging, the last one up the hill every time. My only way to understand it was that I must be lazy or fat. Probably both.

I grew up and got medicated. For 29 years, I've taken twice-daily medication to keep my lungs clear, and a simple cold can send me into a spiral of breathing difficulties. I've had numerous asthma attacks severe enough to send me to the emergency room. I went backpacking and ran half marathons and a marathon and biked thousands of miles, between touring and commuting, and did a few triathlons, but still I considered my own body broken, traitorous, defeated. And then there were ten years of infertility, a whole other story but another experience that left me feeling alienated from and angry with my body.

When I started training, I'd watch the more experienced Capoeiristas and I'd constantly think, "I'll never be able to do that." I'd finish a class, and the next day my shoulder would hurt more, but then the day after that it would hurt less, and feel stronger and more flexible. So I kept going back.

As a child, I could do a cartwheel, but when I started doing Capoeira, I couldn't because of the weakness in my shoulder. But the instructors showed exercises that would build to an "Au," the Capoeira version of a cartwheel, and one day I found myself with my legs flying through the air.

Queda de rins is another signature Capoeira move that looks something like this:
source: Women in Capoeira
The goal is to balance on the arms, with both head and legs in the air. The first few hundred times I tried this, the pain and inflexibility and weakness in my shoulder left me nauseous with the effort. But recently, I managed to balance -- just briefly, but I managed it.

A few weeks ago, something strange shifted in my head. I watched one of the instructors demonstrate a move, and instead of rolling my eyes in frustration, I thought: "some day I'll be able to do that."

Recently, the instructor for the class I was in asked the students to try one-handed cartwheels. A couple of months ago, I'd have rolled my eyes and said, "No way." The other day, I tried it, managed a hop in the right direction, and laughed. Some day.

27 May 2016

How Not to Turn On the Air Conditioner

In the past ten days in my neighborhood, we've gone from a night-time low of 44 degrees, when I got my winter coat back out to walk the dog for the last time at night, to yesterdays high of 89. I work at home in the summers, and I'm sitting very comfortably at my desk with no air conditioning.

Comfortably, I said. How is this possible?

It takes a little bit more time and organization than flipping a switch so a beast in the wall can roar into operation. But not much. And it's a lot quieter.

It's also only feasible as long as nights remain cool: it's been going down into the 60's every night, and will continue to do so for most of the summer. There's always that one week in August when it doesn't go below 80 at night, and that's a different story. But for now...

Keeping my apartment comfortable during the day starts with making sure to let it cool down at night.  As soon as temperatures drop in the evening, I open all the windows to let the cool air in. The next step is to keep the place as cool as possible during the day, I cover windows when the sun is shining directly on them to keep the sun from warming the air inside. The light-blocking shade in the bedroom is most effective, but even the sheer curtain in the kitchen makes a difference.

As soon as temperatures warm up, I switch to iced coffee. I also drink cool water throughout the day to make sure I stay hydrated. Running a fan on a low setting to keep the air moving also helps. I also dress for the weather. In the winter, I keep warm with wool socks, long underwear, turtlenecks and sweaters. In the summer, those give way to tank tops and sandals.

I limit cooking during the day. I made coffee this morning, but sometimes I'll do that that the night before and then refrigerate it to drink iced. For lunch, I had a sandwich and a salad. Bonus: eating cold food cools my body. I save the bigger cooking for the evening when the air is already starting to cool again.

And last but not least, when I go outdoors, I walk on the shady side of the street when possible.

22 January 2016

Outdoor Workers

So, I'm back to biking to work in the winter. My students think I'm nuts. Lest anyone think I'm heroic for braving the cold, I want to offer a short list of people who work outdoors, year round, no matter the weather:

Mail carriers.

Delivery people. Some of them, like the UPS and Fed Ex carriers, get to sit in a truck in between having to go out in the cold and hump boxes around. Others get around on foot or by bike. Next time Seamless shows up at your door with lunch, consider an extra big tip.

Garbage collectors. I have to wonder if the heat of summer is worse than the cold, given the stench August produces.

Farmers. Animals and fields need to be tended, year-round, or you and I don't eat.

Traffic and parking enforcement officers and school crossing guards. Standing in one place, like the crossing guards mostly do, is the coldest winter job I can imagine. At least a lot of the other outdoor jobs involve moving around, therefore generating body heat.

Maintenance workers. You know, the ones who make the flowers look pretty in the summer, and shovel snow and spread salt in the winter. The ones who show up for work three hours before you do, to make sure the walkways around your office are clear and safe.

12 January 2016

Trump's Words Matter

I was minding my own business on the M14A bus yesterday afternoon when a man using a motorized wheelchair boarded. The bus driver asked the people in the disabled seats to get up so the new rider could turn his chair around. Except that's not what the driver said. What he actually said was, "You have to get up. He's going to keep us waiting for half an hour."

The driver didn't raise the seats for the rider, as drivers usually do; instead, he retreated into his seat area, and then followed the man toward the seating area, flicking his chin several times behind the man's back, in a clear gesture of contempt, if not profanity.  The rider raised the seats himself, reaching from his chair while bracing himself with one foot on the floor.

Several of the other riders started muttering. "Look, he can walk." "This is ridiculous." And so on. Finally I said, "You don't know how much pain it causes him, or how much exhaustion, to put weight on his feet." They shut up, thankfully. The man slumped over the handlebars of his chair: physical fatigue? emotional exhaustion? Who knows?

Back in November, Donald Trump mocked a New York Times reporter with a physical disability. "You ought to see the guy," he said, gyrating his arms in an apparent imitation of the reporter's stance. He said he was just gesturing, a claim few believed. And in defending himself, he dug a deeper hole, claiming political correctness is the problem: "a lot of us don't have time to be politically correct."

Trump has brought political discourse to new lows in his contempt for Mexicans, immigrants, Syrians, refugees, disabled people, Muslims, and women. Did this thing happen on the bus because of what Trump said? I don't know, but he's certainly cleared space for such disrespect to flourish.


Update: When I wrote this post, I also reported the incident to the MTA. Today (Jan. 13), I received an email message from the MTA saying they're going to identify the employee and follow up with his supervisor.