28 December 2010

The Promised Photo

So here I am, all dressed up for biking in the winter.

Under the helmet, a thin fleece hat. Under the obnoxious vest, work clothes, windblock fleece, winter jacket. For the legs: long underwear, heavyweight cotton chinos, windblock nylon pants. And for the feet: smartwool socks and waterproof hiking boots.

I have to admit, it wasn't all that cold, that day. In the next couple of months I'm very likely to face colder weather, for which I plan to dig out the neoprene face mask. I'll also need some warmer gloves.

With time, and routine, it's gotten easier, and I've come to realize that while it takes longer than the car trip, it's far less unpleasant. I don't run into traffic jams, I don't have to troll the neighborhood for parking, I don't have to drink extra coffee to stay awake for the late-night drive home and then lie in bed vibrating from the caffeine overload as I try to get to sleep.

And hey, I did it: public transit one day a week for the entire semester. And in the spring I'm not just going to try to duplicate the feat; my goal is to take a minimum of three public transit trips to campus every two weeks, and to try for two trips a week.

Yeah, I'll be keeping you posted.

21 December 2010

Duelling Dads

A friend stopped by to warm up after the school run this morning, and then we all went back out together to return to school for a celebration of the kids' fall study of Central Park.

The Friend, carrying the forgotten violin: Here, you take the violin, I'll take the bike.
Me: Nah, it's okay. [picks up bike, trots down stairs]
The Mate (pride in his voice): I didn't marry a girly girl.
The Friend: Well, my wife can work a double shift at the Blue Water Grill!
Me: Gales of laughter, possibly slightly hysterical from overwork.

Both The Mate and The Friend, it might be noted, do primary child care while The Moms are off at work.

(And by the way: I did it. Public transit at least once a week, all semester. Photo soon.)

16 December 2010

Two Great Reasons to Eat at the NoHo Star

The NoHo Star has a great menu and they let you sit forever. I was early for breakfast with a friend this morning, and they let me sit and nurse a cup of coffee for 45 minutes, instead of making me wait for "the rest of the party," like most New York dining institutions.

Plus they've foregone Christmas decorations this year, and instead made a donation to Housing Works.

I got an exam written there this morning, and then I had a long and very lovely breakfast with my friend Wheelchair Dancer, with no visual or auditory riot of reindeers and sleighbells.

(For more on holiday donations, see this lovely post by my other friend, Magpie.)

15 December 2010

Cold Commute

I left the car in the office parking lot and took the train home. I didn't try to ride the bike today: too cold; a colleague was nice enough to drive me to the train station at one end, and I took the bus home at the other end.

It was cold anyway. Cold platforms, cold trains, cold bus. And three hours in transit (using the bike at each end speeds things up a bit, but it's still a long trip).

Hot soup when I got home, two kinds left over from last weekend.

Now I'm thinking I might be being a bit too stubborn about this project of taking public transit to work once a week.

Then again, I slept on the train on the way home, instead of drinking more coffee to get myself more jacked up to try to drive safely and then have more trouble sleeping.

So, tomorrow: warmer clothes for the train ride back to work; layers so I can shed when I get to the overheated office.

12 December 2010

Blaming is Easy

A recently released poll says respondents blame students, and to a lesser extent their parents, for failure to finish college.

The news stories about the poll, though, don't give the popular perceptions any context. So they allow readers to jump on the bandwagon blaming the kids for not finishing school.

Actually, it's finances. A few students drop out because they're just not doing the work. But if those kids come from relatively wealthy families, chances are they'll transfer to a different school, or at most take a year or two off and then continue.

The ones who drop out and don't go back are the ones who can't pay. They're struggling to pay the bills, much less tuition; they have family responsibilities; they can't get financial aid for part-time study.

To increase college graduation rates for lower-income Americans would require vast structural change in the way we expect people to pay for college. Rather than expecting students from lower-income families to cobble together jobs and outrageous amounts of loans, we'd actually have to give these kids free tuition and money to live on while in college.

But a nation that has the stomach to cut taxes for the rich clearly doesn't want to give an equal chance to the poor. We believe, as a nation, that the rich deserve their money, and the poor deserve their fate.

After all, if they drop out of school, it's their own fault.

08 December 2010

Biker Chronicles

I got colder standing on the platform at Newark waiting for the delayed train this morning than I did actually riding the bike. Problem was I had already stripped a layer while on the PATH.

It's windy, though, and the home stretch in the dark is going to be cold.

06 December 2010

Do We Really Need That? Department

For $39.95 each, you can buy ostrich eggs at the Houston Street Whole Foods. Locally grown, just across the river in New Jersey. For a sense of scale, check out the duck eggs on the shelf above; they're about the size of chicken eggs.

You break, you buy, presumably, so I was fairly tentative around them, but I did heft one, and was impressed by how heavy it was. It felt as though the shell was quite thick -- but then again, I wasn't going to test that.

I'm going to guess that they taste like chicken... eggs.

05 December 2010

Another Sunday, Another Hike

We've been hiking every Sunday all fall: The Mate, The Offspring, The Pet, and Yours Truly.

The Offspring has been learning about stamina, both physical and mental. We The Parents have wondered each weekend if it's the last hike of the season, before it gets too difficult to keep the little ones warm.

So far, though, as water and chocolate bars give way to thermoses of hot tea and hot cocoa, and sunglasses and t-shirts to layers upon layers, it's gone okay.

The Little Dog had to be carried out one week, but The Offspring is learning great stuff about stamina, both mental and physical, and discovering that the tough parts of the hike, where he has to be cajoled to continue, give way to great memories of views and scrambles and the great feeling of physical accomplishment at the end of the day.

Today he slipped and whacked his knee on a rock, bruising it fairly badly. It was hurting him quite a bit, even after a dose of Advil, and we gave him the choice: keep going and complete the planned loop, or turn back.

He thought about it for a while, and decided he needed to turn back. And then he limped out, often holding Dad's hand for help, occasionally piggy-backing with Mom.

At one point, I offered to carry him up one of the last inclines, and he said no, he'd walk, maybe I could carry him later when it was flat or downhill. So we got to a flat patch, and I picked him up, and he cried a little, and then when I got weary and had to put him down again, he soldiered on.

He's a trooper, that kid. And I admire him.

03 December 2010

Disabled Feminists

Just ran across a couple of blogs new to me: FWD/Forward: Feminists with Disabilities and Wheelchair Dancer.

Lots of great insights in both places. Check 'em out.

Biker Backlash and Obesity

The makers of a device used in obesity surgery have asked the FDA for permission to expand its range, allowing it to be used in more than a fifth of adults rather than only the fattest few.

Meanwhile, a few cranky drivers are putting pressure on the Bloomberg administration over the expansion of bike lanes in New York City.

What's the connection?

Bike lanes increase safety not only for cyclists, but also for pedestrians, thousands of whom get killed nationwide every year when struck by motor vehicles.

Bike lanes, like walking, encourage exercise.

Bike lanes are part of Bloomberg's plan to increase access to public transit -- and use of public transit, too, encourages walking a few blocks to train stations or bus stops at either end, rather than walking just a few feet to one's driveway.

Studies have shown a connection between driving and obesity: kids in urban neighborhoods with the most traffic end up the heaviest, and the ways in which suburbs are organized systematically limits opportunities to walk or bike -- to work, to school, to leisure activities.

What's not needed is for the makers of devices used in bariatric surgery to make more money (at great risk of side effects to large segments of the population) by cutting more people open to put a belt around their stomachs.

What's needed is a radical restructuring of the ways in which cities and towns are organized, with residences located near commercial areas and new zoning plans that scrap strict divisions between the two in favor of (carefully thought through) allowances for mixed construction, so that people can choose to live where they can walk or ride a bike to work.

That needs to go hand in hand with the construction of safe sidewalks, and the use of traffic signals at intersections that allow safe crossing for pedestrians, rather than making pedestrians an afterthought.

Oh, and the provision of bike lanes, so that cyclists don't have to choose between riding in traffic or riding on the sidewalk.

01 December 2010

Week Fourteen

Yes, I'm still going. Did the bike/train/bike commute yesterday in anticipation of the storm today, which proves to have been a good choice.

No more time for blogging. Miles of words to read before I sleep.

24 November 2010

Experimenting with Pie Crust

My mother came for The Offspring's birthday earlier this fall with two pumpkins. I cooked them up and downloaded a recipe for vegan pumpkin pie, and thus began The Season Of The Pies.

After those first two pumpkins were history, I bought four (4!!) more on a trip out of the city, and it's been pumpkin pie almost every week.

I've been experimenting with gluten-free, dairy-free crust.

This week, I tried 1 1/2 C Bob's All-Purpose GF Flour; 1/2 C almond meal; 1/4 C sugar; 1/2 C Earth Balance margarine; and 1/4 C coconut oil, chilled. (No salt: the margarine already threatens to make the crust too salty.)

I cut the grease into the flour in the usual way, and the coconut oil softens so that it all blends together without needing any water, and then I press the dough into the pie pan: it's too sticky to roll out.

I'm still not thrilled, though. It's heavy and just tastes a little too doughy.

Any of my cook friends out there have any ideas for modifications?

Biker Chronicles Continue

Only one day on campus this week, and it was a long one; doing the bike commute meant it was going to be even longer: I left home at 8 a.m. and got back around 10:30.

But riding after dark in the quiet streets of Long Branch late this evening I was reminded of being on sabbatical, cycling home after a late lecture or a day trip to London.

Anything that reminds me of sabbatical is pretty much a good thing -- it doesn't get much better than a year with no teaching responsibilities and access to some of the world's best libraries, with plenty of time to use them.

Sometimes in New York and New Jersey, I get cranky on the bike ride: I get no respect, and in fact frequent disrespect, from pedestrians as well as from motor-vehicle drivers. But then I run into things like this:
And since I'm on a bike, and not in a car, I'm moving slowly enough to take it in and really appreciate it.

Two and a half weeks of teaching left in the semester, then finals. Might I actually make this public-transit project last through the entire term?

16 November 2010

A Slight Corrective to the Weather Report

According to the weather forecasters, there's an 80 percent chance of rain in New York City today, going up to 90 percent this evening.

But my bike rides to the World Trade Center PATH station, and from the Long Branch station to my office, were dry.

It turns out an 80 percent chance of rain means there's an 80 percent chance there will be rain somewhere in the region at some point during the forecast period. It doesn't mean there will be rain across the entire region 80 percent of the time.

So that leaves a pretty good chance of dry conditions in any given place, at any given time. And this morning I lucked out.

Still -- I brought the rain suit in case it's wetter this evening. Don't need to get drenched.

Lost track of the number of weeks, by the way. But now it's officially a "streak," and it's reached the point where I'm driven by a weird compulsion to keep it up, just for the sake of not breaking it.

Update: No rain on the way home, either. Luck was with me today.

15 November 2010

It's The Little Things

I got far less done today than planned.

I moved the car for street cleaning. I re-read Everyman.

I finished grading a paper -- a graduate student's paper, a smart one, with complicated and unusual issues arising from the student's unfamiliarity with the norms of study in English programs, and so it took an unusually long time to read it, and to write feedback.

I cleaned the kitchen -- at least once. I kept track of The Offspring in the playground after school, and I walked him home, and I fed him, more or less continuously from arriving home until bath time.

I lined up a speaker and started planning a reading of Old English poems for a student event. I wrote thirty-four email messages, mostly in response to student questions about papers and the upcoming event, several about a PTA fund-raising drive, and various other random ones.

I supervised homework and violin practice. I oversaw bath and the taking of medicine. I rubbed The Offspring's back, and sang him to sleep.

The day-to-day routine of parenting doesn't lend itself to a sense of Accomplishment. Yet all the little things add up to Love, Security, Structure. Important stuff.

11 November 2010

Honor Veterans by Working for Peace

In memory of the veterans of war in our nation and others, I'm making a plug today for Veterans for Peace, an organization of which my father has been a member for many years.

Many veterans suffer for the rest of their lives as a result of the traumas experienced on the battlefield. It seems to me the best tribute to their sacrifices is to work to eliminate war so that others will not have to suffer as they have suffered.

Today I salute Willy, Phil, Philip, Carole, Maude, and Paul. (Yes, women are veterans too.)

10 November 2010

Still Chugging Along

It's week eleven of making the bike/train/bike commute happen at least once a week, and I can't quite believe I'm still at it.

This morning I got out the serious winter gloves -- fleece on the inside, windproof/waterproof fabric on the outside. (It's supposed to "breathe," too, but doesn't do that so well.)

This morning as I got on the PATH train, a rider getting off sidled up and told me he has the same bike. There should be some kind of group for Brompton riders where we can share our delight in our wheels.

09 November 2010

Just Do It?

The Offspring didn't want to go to school on Monday.

He did, actually, because he had new glasses he wanted to show off to his friends, but he felt like crud after a night of coughing and a big dose of medicine in the morning.

And so this is what I told him: When you have a chronic illness, you have to keep moving even when you don't feel your best, because the alternative is to miss out on life.

As with many things, he took it in without comment. He's likely to mention the conversation at some point -- in a few weeks, maybe a few months.

Not a conversation I envisioned having with a seven-year-old when I was imagining what it would be like to have a child. Then again, little about life with him is what I imagined.

Is Tofu Processed Food?

Even though October is over, and even though I failed to go a month, much less a week or even a day, without consuming processed food, I'm still thinking about it.

This morning's breakfast was pumpkin pie. Vegan and made from scratch at home, including the crust. But one of the ingredients was tofu.

Which led me to wonder: does tofu count as processed food?

So naturally I went to the Intertubes to find out, and I learned that there are numerous web sites that assure readers that tofu is easy to make at home and doesn't require any special equipment.

There's a recipe here, and another one here, and also here and here.

So ... I could make my own tofu. But unless I'm willing also to make my own soy milk, it would get expensive: the amount of soy milk required to make tofu would cost a lot more than just buying the equivalent package of tofu.

Short answer, then, is no: tofu is not processed food.

The pie is safe.

08 November 2010

New York Needs Marriage Equality

Here's a letter I've written to Andrew Cuomo:
Dear Governor-Elect Cuomo,

It's an embarrassment that the state of New York has not passed a marriage equality bill, and it's an outrage that the reason for this is that Sheldon Silver has buried the bill in committee, not allowing a vote to come to the Assembly floor.

I hope that as Governor, you will press for equality in marriage in the state of New York and get the bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. And I hope you'll encourage legislators to vote for the bill so that New York can set an example for the nation, as it has done on other civil rights issues in the past.

Thank you for your consideration.
Please feel free to adapt the letter (or even steal it) and write to Cuomo and other legislators, too. Please let me know in the comments if you've done so. Live in New Jersey or another state? Write to your elected officials anyway.

Thanks, y'all!

04 November 2010

Seasonal Slippage

I cracked open a new package of Xopenex yesterday morning. Made me feel like a junkie.

Years ago, a fellow traveler in the land of the chronically ill came to work in a T shirt that read, "Hard Drugs Changed My Life." We both hooted and guffawed over that one.

For nine or ten months out of the year, I simulate a healthy person. I exercise, I eat well, I sleep more or less regularly, I take my routine meds, and No One Has To Know that I move freely in the Land of the Healthy only as a Resident Alien.

Winter comes, and it gets more complicated. That provisional identity comes under attack, susceptible to sudden revocation at any time.

A couple of weeks ago, I started slipping into a hole. I was catapulted back out by steroids and antibiotics, awed and humbled once again by the power of modern medicine (and its side-effects) -- and beyond grateful for doctors and pharmacies and health insurance.

I'm also trying to avoid looking down into the abyss, trying not to think too much about the fragility of the status quo, trying to go on living -- not exactly in denial, but without dwelling on the possibilities.

03 November 2010

Why I Like My Bike/Train Commute

I like the bike ride to the PATH Station. I like getting work done on the train. I like the ride to campus. I like not having to hassle with traffic.

(Yesterday's weaving text-messenger was a particularly odious instance of having to share the road with actual other drivers.)

I'm not so crazy about cycling from campus back to the train station in the dark. NYC's streets are well-lit at night, but those in Long Branch, not so well lit. Even in my reflective vest and even with my lights, I feel invisible -- and according to a study Planet Green reported on the other day, I probably am.

I'm not so crazy about having to share the Long Branch train station with smokers.

And there's the perennial problem of, well, personal hygiene; it's hard not to work up a sweat while riding, unless I'm completely underdressed and therefore freezing. I've had a spare blazer in my office for some time now; I might add a spare shirt or two for the days when I miscalculate.

(Week ten, and thus far I've kept up with my plan to take public transit at least once a week, starting with the department meeting the week before classes started.)

01 November 2010

October Was Unprocessed Food Month

Eating Rules ran a challenge last month: go for the entire month of October without eating any processed food.

I only found out about it around October 25, but I gamely signed on anyway. (Latecomers could pledge to give up processed food for a month following whatever date in October they started.)

I was curious: I wanted to think about what processed foods I have in my diet. Eating Rules defines unprocessed foods thus:
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.
Anything else, therefore, is processed. Jam? We make our own. Ketchup? Well, no, but I could. There are jars of store-bought hot sauce and salad dressing in the fridge, but I also make my own.

I was feeling pretty smug about my own diet because I actually do eat mostly unprocessed food. If I'm not cooking myself, I'm eating in a restaurant where vegetarian food is prepared on site.

But almost immediately after signing on to the project, I failed. I realized it was almost time to fetch The Offspring from school, and I hadn't eaten lunch, so I grabbed a handful of cheese slices and some corn cakes and scarfed them down on the way out the door.

Yep, vegan cheese slices. With ingredients like potassium phosphate, adipic acid, and carrageenan. And 290 mg of sodium per slice, so if I eat four or five slices as part of my lunch that's, well, a whole lotta salt.

I checked the fridge. The vegan "buttery spread" probably ought to go, and I'm going to think harder about some of the condiments taking up space in the doors. And though the cheese is a huge convenience, I'm going to cut back.

So the project had its utility: It got me thinking. And today, I opened up two pumpkins, roasted the seeds, cooked the flesh, and baked a pie. And there's plenty of pumpkin left over for another couple of pies.

28 October 2010

Late-Night Ride

I didn't think I was going to get in a train trip this week. Wednesday is usually my train day, but I needed to get back from campus faster than the train could accomplish to attend a lecture on the Old English Life of Malchus by Peter Dendle.

I drove in Tuesday with the idea of taking the train home that night, and back in on Wednesday, but it was threatening rain by the end of the day. And I was tired, and I needed time on line to catch up on email.

But the steroids made me manic, and I've had about seven hours of sleep since Tuesday, and I decided that behind the wheel was not where I should be after my late class today, so I did a round trip on the train.

I hadn't done Thursday on the train yet this term, because I have to wait 45 minutes after the end of class for the next train and then I don't get home until after 10:00 at night. And I've assumed that riding the bike while tired would be too unpleasant. The week I did three train/bike trips in a row, I was worn out by the end of the week by the extra amount of biking.

But it turns out that biking while tired, when it's not tiredness brought on by unusual amounts of physical activity, is really not unpleasant. There's no danger of falling asleep at the handlebars, and it's not nearly as stressful as driving while tired and having to do all that crazy stuff to stay alert.

So I got my mass-transit commute in this week after all. (That's week nine, counting from the week before the semester started. Seven weeks left to go.)

25 October 2010

Considering Carbon Costs

Mike Berners-Lee calculates the carbon cost of riding a mile on a bicycle to be 65 grams, if you power yourself with a banana; 260 grams if you use cheeseburgers for fuel. (For the metrically impaired, that's about 2.2 ounces for the banana, or 9 oz. for the burger.)

He includes in that figure the cost of manufacture of the bicycle, but he doesn't deduct the amount of energy you would have burned in food if you were just sitting around on the couch, or, say, driving your car.

More information is in his book, How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, which you can't buy yet in the United States. Probably because they're busy converting all the metric units into ones Americans can understand.

By way of comparison, the average passenger car emits almost a pound of carbon for every mile you drive. That apparently does not include the carbon released during manufacture of the vehicle. Public transit averages around half a pound of carbon emissions per passenger mile.

While straphanging or reading a book on the train, though, you're also burning up the calories you ate for breakfast: not quite at the rate you would be if you were biking the distance, but that far off: unless we're ultra-marathoners or ironman triathletes, most of the calories we burn are expended in basal metabolism, and not in exercise.

So... get out of the car, get on the bike, or just hoof it.

24 October 2010

Turns Out ... Hiking Is Not Walking on Pavement

Hiking in Harriman Park today, we came across four college-aged or maybe twenty-something guys out backpacking. Their second day out, and they were tired. They weren't really sure where they left their car, except they knew they took an exit off the Palisades Interstate Parkway that said Seven Lakes Drive. And they had no map.

Zeke was a little frustrated at the delay while we showed them our map, helped them figure out where they left their car, and told them what trails they could take to a point where a girlfriend could pick them up.

An important lesson: If we're out in the woods and there are other hikers in trouble, we always stop to help. Even if their trouble amounts to going out unprepared.

Harriman Park is so close to New York City and its suburbs that it gets a lot of hikers who park their car and then wander into the woods without thinking about it. In the past, we've given other hikers water and food, band-aids and antibiotic ointment, and information about the trails.

Another lesson, implied, but (unfortunately) subject to fairly frequent repetition: if you're going to go hiking, you really ought to bring along food and water and waterproofs and maps, along with a first aid kit and the ability to read the map and find your way back out.

Also: I've seen people talking on their cell phones while stopped along hiking trails, but today, for the first time ever, I saw someone walking along and texting on an iPhone. An expensive piece of equipment to smash on a rock if she trips while not paying attention.

Which brings me to my final point. Going into the woods with a cell phone does not equal going into the woods with proper equipment and some skills to go along with it.

23 October 2010

Hudson River Train Tunnel

Supposedly, NJ Governor Chris Christie is reconsidering his decision to kill the new Hudson River train tunnel, on which construction had already begun and which would have increased capacity on New Jersey Transit trains in and out of New York -- and in turn reducing road congestion and pollution.

The folks at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign have been, well, campaigning for recommitment to the project. The other day, Zoe Baldwin and two friends were in Penn Station in Newark getting signatures on a postcard to be sent to the governor:

Yep, I'm afraid it's a pretty sad picture. Still getting to know the new camera phone; I should have taken a few extra shots. But you get the idea.

And if you support public transit, please contact your local elected officials and/or Gov. Christie's office and tell them that. And remind them that you vote. Thank you.

20 October 2010


The number of cigarette butts I counted on my way off the platform at the Long Branch train station the other day. By no means did I make any attempt to get a comprehensive count; those were just the ones I saw between exiting the train and walking off the end of the platform.

According to the train and station crews, it's up to the local police to enforce the non-smoking laws at NJ Transit train stations. (So why aren't station agents calling the police about violators?)

I called the Long Branch police department, where a very nice-sounding dispatcher said she'd check, but she thought it was Transit police, and not local police, who were responsible for this.

(I've never seen a transit police officer anywhere outside NYC or Newark. Have you?)

And then, on the platform last night, I pointed out the no-smoking sign to a smoker standing under it.

"I'm just checking the schedule," he said. "And anyway, it's not going to hurt you if I smoke here."

"I'm just breathing," I said. "And I'm asthmatic."

A lot of things about this bother me. Here's one: Why do I feel compelled to identify myself as ill (disabled? invalid?) by way of excusing my protests about someone else's smoking? Why not just leave it at, "I'm breathing"?

(Week eight, by the way, of taking public transit to campus at least once a week. This week: three round trips. I always think the evening bike ride home is going to be tiring, but it always turns out to be a lovely quiet spin along the river with lights on the bridges and in Brooklyn reflecting off the water.)

17 October 2010

An Unexpected Trip to the North

Unexpected sorrow, unexpected grief. But also un-looked for joys:

green tomatoes, the rest of the summer's harvest, so late in the season they won't ripen

Tom's Wicked Fresh toothpaste

shelled beans

slowing the car to watch a whole flock of wild turkeys cross the road

wintergreen, growing wild in the woods

Walt Mayshark

and foliage: brilliant red maples, electric yellow beeches, golden orange poplars, punctuated with soft brown oaks and stands of evergreens

And back home safe again.

14 October 2010

Solar-Powered Car, Anyone?

I took one of those carbon footprint quizzes the other day.

I live in an apartment where gas and heat are included. Electric is billed, but the building (not the apartment) is metered by the city, so I don't get a detailed bill.

I tried to remember the amounts of gas and electric I used to use when I lived in places where I got individualized bills; I left blank the part about heating oil.

And then I calculated the number of miles I drive every month. Not pretty, with a one-way commute of 55 miles. And for the first time it dawned on me that, yes, it takes gasoline when I spend an hour in the car each way every weekend so I can go hiking. Even at the 38 mpg I get in my Honda Fit.

Not surprisingly, the output of this quiz was that the vast majority of my carbon footprint comes from transportation.

And there's so little I can do about it. I can take the train to work more often. I could give up hiking, but I'm not willing to do that. Next car, I think, will have to be a hybrid.

(By the way, it's week seven, and I made one trip to work on the train again this week.)

11 October 2010

Vote. Against Intolerance.

Today is National Coming Out Day.

I've been trying to donate my Facebook status through the Human Rights Campaign, but their site seems to be overloaded with other people trying to do the same thing, so I haven't been able to get through. This is heartening.

Not so heartening: the Republican candidate for governor of New York says children shouldn't be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option" to marriage.

In honor of National Coming Out Day, plan to vote Cuomo if you live in New York State; if you live elsewhere, get out and vote for candidates who support human rights, not bigotry and intolerance. And talk to your friends and family members about why this is important.

08 October 2010

Ten Things That Make Me Happy

Sun shining in the window
A class that goes well
A hug from The Offspring
An email message or phone call from a friend
Coffee; hot or iced depending on the season
Hiking, in the woods, on a ridge, away from it all
Pet #1 in my lap
My Brompton folding bike
Time to play the piano
Random art

I wrote that list, and then I realized that only two of the items on it are actual "things" (one, if you don't count coffee).

What makes you happy?

06 October 2010

Week Six

There's a distinct difference between my bike/train/bike and my car/car/car commutes. And it has to do with interaction with other people.

On the bike, I can talk to people. There are the regular interactions with ticket takers on the train, folks who work in the stations, and traffic officers at the intersections. Plus, most days, someone sees the bike fold or unfold and asks about it, and I get to show it off.

While I'm driving, I can't talk to the other drivers; usually, I can't even make eye contact. I'm limited to what I can communicate with a 2500-pound hunk of metal, plastic, and glass. With a horn. No wonder people succumb to road rage.

(This week: one train trip, one car trip, so far. We'll see about the rest of the week.)

04 October 2010

Blame Mass Transit

I overheard a woman on the train the other day lamenting the increase in fares.

She told the conductor that she and her husband were cutting back on their trips to Rangers games, and implied that the fare hike was to blame.

The conductor asked how much it cost to see a Rangers game. $2000 for the season, she admitted, which entitled her to see twelve games. Oh, and another $2000 for her husband to go to the games, too.

So, between them, they're paying $333 and change every time they see a game.

Oh, plus the cost of mass transit. The round-trip train fare for the two of them from Middletown (where she got on) to Penn Station in New York is $57. Add on two round-trip fares on the subway, and that gets you up to $66, still less than a fifth of the cost of the hockey tickets.

I wonder what they're paying for hot dogs and beer?

And how much cheaper is the train ride than gas, tolls, and parking (not to mention the cost of the car plus insurance)?

30 September 2010

How Many More Must Die?

If hypocrites didn't preach damnation of gays while engaging in same-sex relationships...

... would two students have thought it appropriate to broadcast videos of their classmate kissing another boy?

If Congress wouldn't keep stalling on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"...

... would a college student think there was shame in being seen kissing another boy?

If gays could marry...

... would a young man have been so upset by the broadcast as to jump off a bridge?

If gays and lesbians had full legal rights, acceptance would follow, slowly in some quarters, never in others, but inexorably across the nation. A generation or two hence, we might even elect our first gay or lesbian president.

In the words of Melissa Etheridge,
If not now, when?
If not today, then...
What about tomorrow?
What about tomorrow?
Meanwhile, my heart is broken for the family of that young man.

29 September 2010

Week Five: NOW

(That means, by the way, that it's week four of the semester. How has it gone so fast?)

This week: two round-trips by train. All the time sitting in traffic last week got to me. Plus, the time riding the bike along the East River bike path at one end, and along quiet NJ streets at the other, and getting work done in between, makes taking the train as often as possible a no-brainer.

How long can it go on? Who knows? It's not just last winter's mystery illness; the chronic asthma means that when I come down with a cold, I'm almost always in for a few weeks of bronchitis, which brings activity to a grinding halt.

Still trying not to think about that part. Trying not to think about the classes I can't teach and the meetings I can't attend when that happens, trying not to think about all the slack my colleagues and The Mate end up picking up while I'm lying around catching my breath.

Trying to focus on NOW. NOW, I can ride, I can walk, I can do my work, I can walk The Pet at the end of the day, I can teach my classes, I can run out to the bodega for bananas, I can walk The Offspring to school.

When -- If -- I have to make adjustments to what I can do, I'll cope with that THEN. And I'll try to do so without the guilt.

27 September 2010

Facing Down Fear

As the fall semester gets underway, I'm living with an undercurrent of fear.

It's not necessarily a reasonable fear: if I do get sick again this winter, I'll know about a lot of things that it isn't, and I'll certainly try antibiotics right away even if it doesn't look like other people's bronchitis or pneumonia.

A good life does not require good health; I've known that for a long time.

Having a chronic illness, especially one that's reasonably well controlled through medical care available by way of good health insurance, may limit certain activities. The Mate's medication means he has to avoid alcohol. The Offspring's food allergies make life interesting. My own asthma, often triggered by allergies, means I can't go places with cigarette smoke, cats, or a fireplace.

Fortunately, these are relatively minor restrictions.

I'm trying to stay focused on this: right now, I'm in good health. If I get sick, then it will be time to work on getting better again. For now, fear is doing me no good.

23 September 2010

Week Four

It was dicey this week. Wednesday is usually my train day because I have lots of meetings but no classes, and I can usually make the day a little shorter.

But yesterday my first meeting started at 10 a.m., and my last one didn't end until 7 p.m. If I were going to take the train to work, that meant getting up at six so I could get out the door at 7 -- just as The Offspring is waking up -- and then not getting home again until 10:30 p.m., long after the boy's bedtime.

So I drove. It took me more than two hours. Which was only a little longer than it took the previous day. So in two days, I spent well over an extra hour trapped behind the steering wheel. And I had stuff to read for classes today, and I just couldn't face getting in the car again.

So after my last meeting yesterday, I walked the two miles to the train station in New Jersey. I got on the train and looked out the window: STORM! Impressive lightning and lots of rain. I looked at my dry-clean-only clothing and wondered about the likelihood of actually getting a cab at the World Trade Center, at the other end of the commute.

(No: no umbrella, no rain gear. I hadn't thought that far ahead.)

But when I got off the train in Manhattan, it was just drizzling. So I carefully folded up my blazer and tucked it into my backpack and started walking toward the subway stop. It stopped raining altogether within five minutes, so I just went ahead and walked the two miles home.

Oh, and I got most of the reading done on the way home, and finished on the train on the way back to school this morning. All of that left me feeling much better than I feel after a drive. And the timing of the rain storm left me feeling a little charmed.

19 September 2010

September Hike

Seen on Dunderberg Mountain today:

turkey vultures, drifting overhead on the breezes
blue-tailed skink
black rat snake
various dragonflies
one big hornet's nest
a tree suspended in mid-air where it fell between three others
small turtle
two unused rail tunnels, one unfinished
New York City in the hazy distance

No pictures to show for it. Just a great day out with The Offspring.

16 September 2010

Picture .... 1000 Words....

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine created this graphic a couple of years ago:

Don't like that use of your tax dollars? Write to your representative. Get your friends to write to their representatives. It's the only thing that will have any impact against the food lobby.

15 September 2010

Week Three

For all of the obvious reasons, I'm trying to limit driving. But I've got this pesky commute of 55 miles, one way.

For the last several years I've spent a night, sometimes two, in a hotel near the office each week as a way to eliminate one of the round-trip drives, but that has the drawbacks that I don't get to go home, and there's the environmental impact involved with washing sheets and towels and cleaning a room, all for one night's use.

Enter this:
... which folds up into this:
It was, as I like to tell anyone who will listen, a Mother's Day gift from The Mate.

This semester, I've made a commitment to myself to take the train to work round-trip at least once a week. What that means?

I leave home at 8 a.m., ride the little bike to the World Trade Center Path Station, fold it up for a trip on the Path (excuse me... the PATH) to Newark where I switch to New Jersey Transit to get to Long Branch, and then unfold the little machine again to ride to my office, arriving around 10:40.

Yep. It's a long sentence. And it's an even longer trip. And at the end of the day, I turn around and do it backwards. But I do get to read, nap, or just stare out the window, rather than having to drive my car.

This week, I made the trip for the third time this semester, if I get to count the department meeting before the start of the term. I'll post updates occasionally about my success, or failure, at keeping this up in the weeks to follow.

11 September 2010

How Many Times...

In the early twentieth century, Americans demonized eastern European Jewish immigrants. In the 1940s, Japanese citizens and legal residents were interned in camps. In the 1950s, it was anti-Communist fervor.

Today, Muslims.

I'm finding it painful to be an American, to hear the current discourse at various levels of American society that equates Islam with terrorism and claims Muslims don't value human life.

I feel as though I'm complicit with that discourse at any time that I'm not actively countering it.

Will we ever learn from our own history?

07 August 2010

Out and About in the Heat

The Offspring, cooling off in Washington Square Park. I had a bike and a laptop with me, or I'd have been in there with him.
Playing traditional Chinese music on his saxophone.
Unfortunately, I was on foot that day. Sign outside Chari & Co. on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side.
Wow. She did stop texting when the light changed, at least.
It was the combination of those heels and the yoga mat that caught my attention. And I liked the hat.

29 July 2010

Still Supersizing the Nation

Drove to Maine again this weekend, and stopped at a rest area for a bathroom and gas. And while The Guys were in the building, looked at the advertising for McDonald's iced drinks, and started to wonder. A little research yields this:

8 oz brewed coffee, black, no sugar, poured over a big glass of ice: 2
Same, plus a tablespoon of whole milk: 11
Add two cubes of sugar: 27

McDonald's large McCafe Frappe Mocha: 680

Yeah, that's calories.

How they do it: Whole Milk, Espresso, Chocolate Syrup, Whipped Cream, Chocolate Drizzle.

The milk contains milk and the espresso contains espresso. But if you think to scroll down, you can find out the whole scary list of what goes into the other components:
Chocolate Drizzle:
Corn syrup, water, hydrogenated coconut oil, high fructose corn syrup, glycerin, nonfat milk, cocoa powder, cocoa (processed with alkali), food starch-modified, disodium phosphate, potassium sorbate (preservative), xanthan gum, artificial flavor (vanillin), salt, soy lecithin.

Chocolate Syrup:
Sugar, water, natural (plant source) and artificial flavors, chocolate liquor, caramel color (with sulfites), high fructose corn syrup, vanilla extract, salt, potassium sorbate (preservative), citric acid, red 40.

Whipped Cream:
Cream, nonfat milk, water, corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, mono- and diglycerides, carrageenan, polysorbate 80, beta carotene (color), natural (dairy and vegetable source) and artificial flavor, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) to protect flavor. Whipping Propellant (nitrous oxide).
Red #40, as in banned in most European countries because, basically, it's toxic to humans. Corn syrup derived from corn grown under US government subsidies to keep it nice and cheap. Dairy products, ditto. Maybe McD's didn't get the message that hydrogenated fats are bad for you?

Want to know more about what's in McDonald's foods? You can find nutrition "facts" here and ingredient lists here. Then write to your state Department of Transportation and ask them to allow farmer's markets and folks who sell real food, not chemical concoctions, to sell food in rest areas along the highways you're buying with your tax dollars.

23 July 2010

Spanx: No, It's Not Okay

Is it because the wearer feels like she's getting spanked? Or wearing them might encourage someone to want to spank her?

I saw them for sale last time I strayed into Filene's, and I've heard people talk about them, and I think they're approximately the same thing as what my mother's generation called a girdle.

My first reaction, and the one that sticks: I can't sign on for a line of clothing that suggests physical violence, when I live in a society in which violence against women is so pervasive.

But hey, I checked out the website, and there's a category of "Spanx for Men." Does that somehow make it okay?

13 July 2010

Stupid Human Tricks

Nice cool morning, and I was enjoying the breeze in my kitchen window.

Then, the air conditioner belonging to the residents of the apartment next door shuddered into life. Why not open the windows? We're at an inside corner of the building, so their A/C is effectively right outside our window, and that meant the breeze coming in the window was heated by the neighbors' superfluous air conditioning unit.

Plus I had to listen to the racket. I retreated to the living room.

28 June 2010

450 Faces

The Mate and The Boy caught a glimpse of Felix Morelo chalking his faces around Union Square. He said he was going to ring the whole park, but we caught up to the end of the line an hour or so later, and he was gone, the project unfinished.

Still compelling, even though he only got halfway there.

Legislating "Educationally Sound" Choices?

The Pennsylvania legislature is considering a bill requiring faculty to order "the least expensive, educationally sound textbooks" for courses they are teaching.

Well, guess what? I already do that, and I'm pretty sure most of my colleagues do, too.

I went to college on a generous scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania, and I worked during the school year and in the summers to pay expenses, and I bought my books week by week rather than all at once at the beginning of the term because they were just so expensive. And then I worked my way through the Ph.D. program at NYU.

I remember coming home in grad school once and telling The Mate I needed to buy two books for a paper I was writing. He looked at me funny. "Why are you telling me this? Just buy the books." I told him the prices of the books, one around $85, the other around $130. "Oh." I did buy them.

Anyway, back to Pennsylvania and its pending legislation. The problem is in the phrase "educationally sound."

Let's consider Beowulf, which has been translated many, many times, and which I'll be teaching in a survey course next year. The cheapest option in an actual book is probably the Dover Books edition of R. K. Gordon's translation from 1923, which retails for $2.50 at Barnes & Noble.

Or I could send students on-line to download the translation by Francis Gummere (1910) for free! (Someone has to pay for all that paper, though, if I want them to have a copy in front of them for class discussion.)

But translation is a tricky thing, and a lot has been written about the difficulties. Go for "literal" accuracy, representing the text word for word just as in the original language? Aim to reproduce the feel of the original, maintaining poetic structures like alliteration and meter? Attempt to create a new classic in a new language, recognizing that it's always going to be an adaptation and never the original?

I'm assigning Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, which retails for $13.95.

Here's Gummere's opening sentence:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
And Heaney's:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
The Old English, in case you're wondering (you can find the rest here)
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
The students in the survey course I'm teaching aren't English majors. I get just one semester to persuade them that it's worth their time to read, to read literature and not just Cosmo or Sports Illustrated. My choices about what texts to assign are based on what versions I think will engage them, interest them, keep them thinking beyond the end of the course.

I think I've made my case that Gummere's version is not just as "educationally sound" a choice as Heaney's. But I'm glad I don't teach in the Penn State system, because I'd hate to have to make that case for every text I was teaching.

26 June 2010

Top 100 Books

Spynotes posted the list below of "the top 100 books of all time," as published by The Guardian here. As Spynotes notes, there's plenty to argue about, in terms of books included as well as books left off, but she lists the books, with those read (at least in significant part) printed in bold.

Here, then, is what I've read. I think my list is pretty wimpy! I posted last week about plans to read through the NEA "Big Read" list this summer, and i'm working on Alvarez' In the Time of the Butterflies at the moment, so I'm not going to start in on this list right away. But it gives ideas.

Copy and repost if you want to play.

1. Chinua Achebe, Nigeria, (b. 1930), Things Fall Apart
2. Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark, (1805-1875), Fairy Tales and Stories
3. Jane Austen, England, (1775-1817), Pride and Prejudice
4. Honore de Balzac, France, (1799-1850), Old Goriot
5. Samuel Beckett, Ireland, (1906-1989), Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
6. Giovanni Boccaccio, Italy, (1313-1375), Decameron
7. Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina, (1899-1986), Collected Fictions
8. Emily Bronte, England, (1818-1848), Wuthering Heights
9. Albert Camus, France, (1913-1960), The Stranger
10. Paul Celan, Romania/France, (1920-1970), Poems.
11. Louis-Ferdinand Celine, France, (1894-1961), Journey to the End of the Night
12. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Spain, (1547-1616), Don Quixote
13. Geoffrey Chaucer, England, (1340-1400), Canterbury Tales
14. Anton P Chekhov, Russia, (1860-1904), Selected Stories
15. Joseph Conrad, England,(1857-1924), Nostromo
16. Dante Alighieri, Italy, (1265-1321), The Divine Comedy
17. Charles Dickens, England, (1812-1870), Great Expectations
18. Denis Diderot, France, (1713-1784), Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
19. Alfred Doblin, Germany, (1878-1957), Berlin Alexanderplatz
20-23. Fyodor M Dostoyevsky, Russia, (1821-1881), Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Possessed; The Brothers Karamazov
24. George Eliot, England, (1819-1880), Middlemarch
25. Ralph Ellison, United States, (1914-1994), Invisible Man
26.Euripides, Greece, (c 480-406 BC), Medea
27-28. William Faulkner, United States, (1897-1962), Absalom, Absalom; The Sound and the Fury
29-30. Gustave Flaubert, France, (1821-1880), Madame Bovary; A Sentimental Education
31. Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain, (1898-1936), Gypsy Ballads
32-33. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colombia, (b. 1928), One Hundred Years of Solitude; Love in the Time of Cholera
34. Gilgamesh, Mesopotamia (c 1800 BC).
35. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany, (1749-1832), Faust
36. Nikolai Gogol, Russia, (1809-1852), Dead Souls
37. Gunter Grass, Germany, (b.1927), The Tin Drum
38. Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Brazil, (1880-1967), The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
39. Knut Hamsun, Norway, (1859-1952), Hunger.
40. Ernest Hemingway, United States, (1899-1961), The Old Man and the Sea
41-42. Homer, Greece, (c 700 BC), The Iliad and The Odyssey
43. Henrik Ibsen, Norway (1828-1906), A Doll’s House
44. The Book of Job, Israel. (600-400 BC).
45. James Joyce, Ireland, (1882-1941), Ulysses
46-48. Franz Kafka, Bohemia, (1883-1924), The Complete Stories; The Trial; The Castle Bohemia
49. Kalidasa, India, (c. 400), The Recognition of Sakuntala
50. Yasunari Kawabata, Japan, (1899-1972), The Sound of the Mountain
51. Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece, (1883-1957), Zorba the Greek
52. DH Lawrence, England, (1885-1930), Sons and Lovers
53. Halldor K Laxness, Iceland, (1902-1998), Independent People
54. Giacomo Leopardi, Italy, (1798-1837), Complete Poems
55. Doris Lessing, England, (b.1919), The Golden Notebook
56. Astrid Lindgren, Sweden, (1907-2002), Pippi Longstocking
57. Lu Xun, China, (1881-1936), Diary of a Madman and Other Stories
58. Mahabharata, India, (c 500 BC).
59. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt, (b. 1911), Children of Gebelawi
60-61. Thomas Mann, Germany, (1875-1955), Buddenbrook; The Magic Mountain
62. Herman Melville, United States, (1819-1891), Moby Dick
63. Michel de Montaigne, France, (1533-1592), Essays.
64. Elsa Morante, Italy, (1918-1985), History
65. Toni Morrison, United States, (b. 1931), Beloved
66. Shikibu Murasaki, Japan, (N/A), The Tale of Genji Genji
67. Robert Musil, Austria, (1880-1942), The Man Without Qualities
68. Vladimir Nabokov, Russia/United States, (1899-1977), Lolita
69. Njaals Saga, Iceland, (c 1300).
70. George Orwell, England, (1903-1950), 1984
71. Ovid, Italy, (c 43 BC), Metamorphoses
72. Fernando Pessoa, Portugal, (1888-1935), The Book of Disquiet
73. Edgar Allan Poe, United States, (1809-1849), The Complete Tales
74. Marcel Proust, France, (1871-1922), Remembrance of Things Past
75. Francois Rabelais, France, (1495-1553), Gargantua and Pantagruel
76. Juan Rulfo, Mexico, (1918-1986), Pedro Paramo
77. Jalal ad-din Rumi, Afghanistan, (1207-1273), Mathnawi
78. Salman Rushdie, India/Britain, (b. 1947), Midnight’s Children
79. Sheikh Musharrif ud-din Sadi, Iran, (c 1200-1292), The Orchard
80. Tayeb Salih, Sudan, (b. 1929), Season of Migration to the North
81. Jose Saramago, Portugal, (b. 1922), Blindness
82-84. William Shakespeare, England, (1564-1616), Hamlet; King Lear; Othello
85. Sophocles, Greece, (496-406 BC), Oedipus the King
86. Stendhal, France, (1783-1842), The Red and the Black
87. Laurence Sterne, Ireland, (1713-1768), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
88. Italo Svevo, Italy, (1861-1928), Confessions of Zeno
89. Jonathan Swift, Ireland, (1667-1745), Gulliver’s Travels
90-92. Leo Tolstoy, Russia, (1828-1910), War and Peace; Anna Karenina; The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
93. Thousand and One Nights, India/Iran/Iraq/Egypt, (700-1500).
94. Mark Twain, United States, (1835-1910), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
95. Valmiki, India, (c 300 BC), Ramayana
96. Virgil, Italy, (70-19 BC), The Aeneid
97. Walt Whitman, United States, (1819-1892), Leaves of Grass
98-99. Virginia Woolf, England, (1882-1941), Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse
100. Marguerite Yourcenar, France, (1903-1987), Memoirs of Hadrian

23 June 2010

The New Cyclist

I have such mixed feelings about the numbers of people newly out riding their bicycles now that there are so many nice bike lanes in the city, and now that it's warm and dry outside and the sun stays out nice and late.

It can be wonderful to be part of a flock, or perhaps better, a school of little fish swimming among the bigger vehicles on the roads.

But oh, the disregard for the laws of nature.

I'm not going to claim that the messengers, the fast-food delivery guys, or the lycra-clad fleets of the past always followed all the rules of the road. But at least they paid attention while they were ignoring them, and usually gave the impression of making the effort to save their own skins and avoid harming those around them.

(Yes, I have cycled in lycra. Yes, I have also in this city been a pedestrian and a driver, not to mention the pusher of a stroller. And I am convinced that all of the groups of people who use the streets and the sidewalks can do so in harmony, if everyone pays a little attention.)

Yesterday, I encountered in a bike lane on Ninth Street a woman with no helmet, riding the wrong way down a one-way street, and texting.

Along with all those wonderful new bike lanes, maybe it would be a good idea for the mayor to run an ad campaign recommending helmets, and common sense, to the people using them.

17 June 2010

Food Chain

Seen at Whole Foods.

15 June 2010

Illness as Sin

Yesterday, The Times published an article about a program that pays people to take their medicine and, presumably, stay healthier so that they end up costing insurers less money later on. It's also been reported that insurers are giving people breaks on their insurance if the exercise and quit smoking.

Today, there's a debate about getting people to adopt healthy lifestyles. By "healthy lifestyle," they mean keep your weight down and don't smoke, eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day and have a glass or two of wine, and exercise.

These articles send me in two different directions. One has to do with the advertising from Dunkin' Donuts and McDonalds that claims that you can get a healthy breakfast in either establishment.

The other has to do with the fact that I take this stuff personally. Apparently, I don't drink enough, but I do all the other stuff right. But I still have a chronic illness, and it wasn't brought on by bad habits, and getting rid of all the bad habits is never going to make it go away.

Diabetes and heart disease? Yes, clearly affected by diet and exercise. Asthma and cancer, stroke and arthritis? To some extent. Epilepsy and hay fever (one of the five most common chronic conditions, according to this report)? Probably not at all, unless you figure going out and exercising is going to make you sneeze more than staying on the sofa.

(The other items in the top five: sinusitis, arthritis, orthopedic impairments, and hypertension. Stay off the football field, folks.)

The last contributor to the Times' debate, Arthur Caplan, makes me feel a little better. He's a professor of bioethics at UPenn (my alma mater, which also makes me feel a little better), and he writes:
We are in the midst of a cost care explosion in health care and the new zealots of virtue know why — sin. Or more specifically, your sin — be it eating too much, drinking to excess, unprotected sex or smoking. The cure is not the same as that used in the 17th century. You won’t be flogged for dining again and again at the local burger joint.
He adds:
On my drive home I pass by at least 10 fast food franchises. They devote billions in advertising to lure me in to sample their fatty, salty and otherwise unhealthful wares.
The insurance companies want to lower premiums, and this might have as a side effect that some of the insured do, in fact, end up with healthier habits. But chronic disease isn't just a problem of individual perfidy. It's also a problem of social structure.

Food producers want to make more money, and they can do this best by selling lots of cheap food, and cheap food isn't healthy. That they're allowed to use the word "healthy" on the same billboard with a picture of a concoction of fat, refined carbohydrates, and salt or sugar, makes me nuts.

Meanwhile, most of our towns and cities are laid out in ways that discourage walking or cycling, perhaps along with public transit, to get to work, get kids to school, or run errands. So people walk 15 feet out their front door to a parked car, drive to and park at one destination after another, and then drive home.

Don't even get me started on pollution, and the high incidence of asthma among people living in the most polluted places.

So yeah, it's a good idea to encourage people to eat better and exercise more. If those folks could get La Palin to stop glorifying Joe Sixpack and the implied drinking binges, that probably wouldn't do any harm, either.

But at the same time, if people shouldn't be eating junk food, there probably should be laws that prevent the makers of pop tarts from using the word "healthy" on the label. And Congress should divert a major proportion of highway funding toward public transit, sidewalks, and bike paths.

And vilifying the ill as complicit in their illness, failures in some moral way? It's been going on for a long time, as detailed by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors. And it's not doing anyone any good.

14 June 2010

The Big Read

The National Endowment for the Arts is promoting its "Big Read" at the moment, and The Mate and I have decided to work our way through their reading list this summer. We plan to re-read those we've already read, somewhere back in high school or college or grad school, and just work our way through the list alphabetically.

First item: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.

Updates here, occasionally. Let me know if you want to join us.

11 June 2010

More Bike Lanes for NYC

That's a big blow torch the guy in the orange vest is aiming at the sidewalk; he's heating it up in preparation for the other guy to place the other wheel on the bicycle. After that, orange vest man blow-torched the wheel itself, and it all melted into place on the new bike lane.

All of that pleases the generalist geek in me. The eco-geek was very surprised when one of the guys then said that New York is now the most bike-friendly city in the world. I demurred, and he qualified: New York now has more miles of bike lanes than any other city in the world.

To the eco-geek, this is very exciting news indeed, though I haven't been able to verify it in a news report anywhere. Does that mean I have the scoop? Or he was mistaken?

In any case, the profusion of bike lanes in the city is very welcome. The cycling landscape is certainly improving, and perhaps most importantly, the drivers can now see cyclists, which wasn't the case a few years ago.

But one more thing. Please don't ride without a helmet. I've gone over the handlebars--on my honeymoon--in Scotland!--and, fortunately, I was wearing a helmet. Plenty of bumps and bruises, but my head was fine, or at least as fine as it was before the incident.

09 June 2010

Boycott Oil!

Green America sent me a newsletter recently (electronic, I should note) with various suggestions about what we can do about the Gulf oil spill. The most important item in the list: Boycott oil. Not just BP (most of the other big oil producers are just as dirty), but oil altogether.

The folks at Green American are organizing a climate ride in northern California in September. A great idea to raise awareness for the cause, but it's "fully supported" which means riders will be followed by vehicles carrying their stuff. And what can I say? I hope not too many cyclists will be driving or, worse, flying to northern California to join in the ride.

Instead, stay home and boycott oil. Not just the oil that goes into your car, but all the oil that goes into all the products in your home. Did you know that conventional dish and laundry soaps are made of petroleum? Switch to Seventh Generation or a similar non-toxic product.

Re-use containers for lunch rather than buying take-out and throwing away all the attendant garbage, day after day. But are your lunch containers made of plastic? Doesn't make any sense to toss them if you already have them, but when they wear out, buy stainless steel containers instead. The big groceries in Chinatown carry inexpensive versions, the camping stores, higher-end ones.

Big decisions can change your life. If it's feasible, think about getting rid of a car. But little decisions, made over and over again, day in and day out, also add up to big change.

Every time you're about to make a purchase, think. Can you live without that item? If not, is there a way to obtain it with less impact?

Me? I'm going to take the train to work this summer instead of driving the car. By car, it's a three-hour round trip; by train, six. But I get in a bike ride at both ends of the train journey, and I don't have to drive. In the summer, I only go to the office once a week; the rest of the time, I work at home or hole up in a library.

If I can make it a habit in the summer, though, maybe I can get it to carry over into the regular semester.

08 May 2010

Not My Most Prized Possession

"Why would you keep your most prized possession on the street?" The guy at the bike shop wanted to know, when The Mate asked if he had a security camera in his store that might have gotten some video of the guy who smashed the window on our car.

"It's not my most prized possession," The Mate tried to tell him, but he was already lost in his rant. Fair enough; I'm not thrilled about the configurations of work, family, and health that make it almost impossible for me to live without a car, given the sorry state of public transit in this part of the world.

But then I got to thinking about the idea of "prized possessions" -- because ordinarily, I wouldn't use the two words in the same sentence.

Sure, I have stuff; and sure, I like much of my stuff: I'm particularly fond of the desk I'm typing this on, because it belonged to my Great Aunt Helen, who was a smart and independent woman in a time when it wasn't easy to be all those things at once.

Plus, she was a librarian, and if I prize anything, I guess it's my books, in the aggregate. I love getting lost in a narrative or following an argument; I love re-visiting a favorite book and savoring the language and the flow of ideas or images.

But really, I prize the intangibles.

The Mate and the Offspring. Family, and extended family, who are smart, creative, funny, and committed to making the world a better place.

My job, which allows me to spend my time reading, and thinking and talking about books, with good students and valued colleagues.

Living in New York, where there are a gazillion more smart, creative, independent people (who do things like this, and this). And of course I can't forget The Pet.

05 May 2010

Beyond Palatable

I've been buying gasoline from BP for the past couple of years, because I bought into the "Beyond Petroleum" slogan, let myself be convinced that they were invested in alternative energy.

But as the entire planet knows by now, British Petroleum is the owner of the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that is spewing petroleum into the water.

Consequences are disastrous. The spill is killing marine life. But the folks in charge at BP are going around telling anyone who will listen about what they're doing to keep the oil from reaching shore, and trying to get everyone to forget the fish, shrimp, turtles and other creatures already dying in the water.

And worse, it appears that BP avoided putting in various safety features--required in the North Sea and elsewhere--could have stopped the spill from happening, or mitigated its severity. BP executives acknowledge they don't use such safety features, but they claim it's because they're not necessary.

It really, really makes me wish I could get rid of my car. In any case, I'll stop buying gasoline from BP, though I really have to wonder what difference it will make.

03 May 2010


These have been on my radar for some time now, but I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the idea and didn't feel comfortable buying them on-line. Then they turned up on the shelf at Whole Foods, so I bought one and brought it home.

And I can't believe I waited that long. That's all.

30 April 2010

Bicycle Built for Two...

... if the two are Mary Poppins and Bert.

27 April 2010

Ends and Beginnings (Commencement)

My institution's Commencement has been in the news lately, and it's gotten me thinking about my own commencements, or graduations as they're more commonly known among the graduates.

One word signifies an end, the completion of whatever one set out to do in the educational institution--or whatever one accomplished in spite of or in addition to goals set on arrival.

Entering college, I was going to be a doctor, or maybe a lawyer, or failing either of those, a philosophy professor. Three semesters of calculus and four years later, I applied to one graduate philosophy program, zero medical institutions, and one program for English teachers in China. Bingo: I got the position as an English teacher, and one thing led to another, and 20-odd years later, here I am professing English.

Entering grad school, I was going to be an ESL teacher, or maybe teach high school English. One half of one course in medieval literature later, with the late great Robert Raymo, and I was hooked. Nearly 20 years later, I'm professing medieval English literature.

And at that Commencement, I cried. Leaving high school, I was jubilant, profoundly relieved to be able to get out of rural New Hampshire. Leaving college, I was jubilant again. Leaving grad school, where I finally felt at home, I sat in Carnegie Hall and wept, and wept, and wept, as various speakers gave various kinds of good advice, of which I recall very little.

And then we walked across the stage to receive our degrees, and Professor Raymo placed the doctoral hood over my shoulders, and my father met me at the other end of the stage with possibly the biggest hug he ever gave me, and it was all over.

But also: a beginning. And this year I'll get to watch another batch of graduates commencing, going into a world that's uncertain, yet still beginning lives as people hopefully transformed by their years of education.

25 April 2010

Uncivil Law

Jan Brewer, governor of Arizona, has just signed into law a bill requiring residents to carry documentation proving they are in the country legally. If police find that there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is an illegal immigrant, they can detain that person and demand proof of legal residency.

President Obama opposes the law, as do many people in Arizona and the rest of the US, who fear the law will be used to harass citizens and other legal residents. Brewer claims it won't be used in that way.

But how on earth does she imagine police are going to decide whether someone is worth stopping and asking for documents? What would provoke "reasonable suspicion"? Looking Hispanic? Speaking Spanish? Speaking English with a Spanish accent? Somehow, it's hard to imagine the police stopping an English-speaking Caucasian and demanding documents.

I'm tempted to go to Nogales and stand around speaking German, just to see what happens. Maybe I'll have my German birth certificate, but not my US passport, in my pocket.

24 April 2010

Consuming Earth Day

How many feet can that thing get to a gallon?

Earth Day is feeling sort of inconsequential. It seems to have morphed, this year, into both Earth Hour and Earth Month.

I guess people feel good about turning off lights for an hour, participating in a big movement, doing something green. My problem with it is that it's so minimal in its impact. If "Earth Hour" were about figuring out one way to use less energy on an on-going basis for the rest of one's life, and each year's Earth Hour involved another commitment, it would seem more meaningful.

And Earth Month seems to be a big advertising bonanza, used by marketers for all kinds of greenwashed opportunities for the populace to engage in yet more buying bonanzas.

What we need is a complete re-thinking of the ways in which we interact with stuff. A one child per family policy for the entire world, until populations reach roughly 1900 levels. A thorough-going commitment on the part of individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations, governments, and pan-governmental organizations -- yes, ALL of them -- to limit further production and consumption.

For the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I'm feeling discouraged.

20 April 2010

More Geese?

There are two geese nesting and incubating what I assume to be at least one egg on Route 36 in West Long Branch, between a hotel parking lot and a car dealership.

On the one hand, I want to cheer on the triumph of nature in the midst of all of this evidence of human over-consumption. I want to celebrate the arrival of spring and the birth of new life.

On the other hand... more geese? more goose droppings?

18 April 2010

Being Zeke's Mom

If you'd told me before The Offspring was born that I'd get called "Zeke's Mom," I think I would probably have been put off, even offended. I'd have thought that getting identified via my reproductive capacity was an insult.

Nope. As it turns out, when the little friends call me that, I find it completely charming.

And when the staff at the the emergency room call me "Mum," that doesn't bother me either -- I know it's just that they're trying to do their jobs, and stopping to find out the names of the mothers of all the children that come through in the course of a busy night doesn't come in under "efficiency."

Being a parent is harder than anything I've ever done, consuming in a very literal kind of way. And also the most wonderful, the most wondrous, the most awe-some.

Being "Zeke's Mom" turns out to feel like an honorific -- a title I'm proud to wear.

15 April 2010

Random Acts of Art

On Stanton Street, Lower East Side, this morning.

10 April 2010

Spring on Governor's Island

Cobblestones, bricks, old concrete, lone daffodil.

09 April 2010

Remembering Philip

I got to go to Governor's Island today to location-scout for The Mate's next film (I'm not allowed to tell more). Mike, the Parks Service guy who gave us the tour, was incredibly knowledgeable about the military history of the island, which has housed fortifications of one sort or another since right after the Revolutionary War.

It got me to remembering my cousin Philip, who loved military history and loved to take anyone who would listen to one island fort or another in the waters off the Maine coast in his little outboard-motor boat. Philip was a few years older than I was, and I loved being able to tag along on outings I wouldn't have been able to do on my own.

The Maine forts Philip took me to were either unfinished or abandoned or both (even before 9/11 you couldn't just walk right up to an active military installation), and there was one occasion where a board laid across a two-story-high opening gave way, and Philip had a bad fall.

The coast guard had to take him off that island, and we got a long ride across Casco Bay, all the way to Maine Medical Center in Portland, and afterward he was convinced I had saved his life. But later on cancer took him, far too soon.

Today, listening to Mike talk about Fort Jay and Castle Williams, on Governor's Island, and pointing across the water to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island and Castle Clinton on Manhattan and Fort Wood on Liberty Island, and rattling off information about those and other harbor structures, it was like old days.

Philip, I miss you.

06 April 2010

Some of the Addresses

This seems to be the Week of Lists.

243 Washington Street
3940 Sansom Street
6 Charles Babbage Road
1 Maple Street
158 First Avenue
Termerweg 48

Match the streets to the cities and towns, anyone?

Driving While Distracted

Another study. This one finds that, in fact, two percent of people CAN perform effectively in a driving simulator at the same time as they memorize things and do math problems. (How exactly that simulates a phone conversation is a little opaque to me, but whatever.)

The new word for people who can do this? "Supertaskers." The rest of us, apparently, only fool ourselves that we're actually multitasking.

The first person to comment on the article summarized the problem fairly neatly: "This won't help. You'll have 98% of drivers claiming they belong to the 2% group."

I don't claim I belong to the two percent, but I will say that if I'm fatigued or sleepy, I'm kept more alert by chatting on the phone than by listening to music or opening the windows and slapping myself on the face. And it's a lot more comfortable than the latter.

While I'm not by any means suggesting that everyone should go out and text while driving, I do have to admit that studies of cell-phone use while driving get me thinking about all the other distracting things I've done behind the wheel.

A partial list (Mate, Mom, Dad: please don't read this):
  • peel and eat a banana (I've gotten in trouble and hit the windshield with that one)
  • study Greek from tape/CD (gets me driving too fast if I'm not careful)
  • attempt to read the tiny print on the cover of a CD, or on the CD itself
  • contemplate the beast with two backs
  • eat sushi, applying wasabi to each piece and dipping in soy sauce
  • disentangle the earphone wires and plug them into the phone
  • calculate mileage, after buying gas
So I have to say I don't think the technologies of today are the first things to have enabled driving while distracted, though they've probably brought it to new heights.

05 April 2010

Constance and the Prom

I keep hoping it's going to turn out to be unsubstantiated rumor, but it seems to be the truth that Constance McMillen didn't really get to take her girlfriend to the prom, after all.

The Advocate reports that Constance and her girlfriend showed up at the announced location to discover some faculty chaperones ... and five other students, among them two with learning disabilities.

Constance's reaction, as reported by The Advocate:
"They had the time of their lives," McMillen says. "That's the one good thing that came out of this, [these kids] didn't have to worry about people making fun of them [at their prom]."
She has a lot more compassion than all the parents and school officials who apparently tricked her into attending this event while all the other kids in her school were at a "secret prom" elsewhere.

The parents? Teaching intolerance. The saddest thing? They're not doing it out of ignorance, but completely deliberately. And the kids, 17 and 18 years old? Some of them will eventually realize how small-minded it all was, and will live with the shame for the rest of their lives.

The parents, on the other hand, should be very ashamed of themselves, and any school officials involved should be fired.

Update: Here, supposedly, is the other prom. Tux on a woman, no go; blue jeans, apparently fine.

Where I've Lived

Where I've lived

Butzbach, Germany
Providence, Rhode Island
Dover, New Hampshire
Plymouth, New Hampshire
Brig, Switzerland
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (four different places)
Pottstown, Pennsylvania
Shanghai, China
Chelsea, New York
East Village, New York (three different apartments)
West Long Branch, New Jersey
Red Bank, New Jersey
Back to the East Village
Washington Heights, New York
Cambridge, England
Back to Washington Heights
Lower East Side, New York

That's 22 different places, if I've counted right. We're moving again in a few weeks, assuming all goes well, and I'm hoping that's it for a long, long time.

How about you? Where have you lived?

04 April 2010

Pride and Punishment?

David Brooks wrote in a much-emailed column last week about the alleged trade, for Sandra Bullock, between fame and fidelity.

It's been bothering me all week. If a man won an Oscar and then his wife cheated on him, I can't imagine any commentator suggesting that he could have either the award or a good woman. Brooks didn't actually write that it was winning the Academy Award that led to Bullock's husband cheating on her, but the suggestion lingered all around it.

In certain medieval narratives, a man has to choice between a wife who is hideous, but will be faithful to him, or one who is beautiful, but will run around on him.

Here, though, the choice is more mundane. If a woman stays within her prescribed sphere, whatever that may be, her man will stay by her side. But if she flies too high, let her beware.

02 April 2010

The New Me

The "itis" has changed me in ways that are gradually emerging. I'm more interested in people and less paralytically shy, so I've been talking to people, hanging out, opening up windows to make friends at a rate that, for me, is kinda astonishing.

Another change, one that I saw even before The Cure, is a re-commitment to writing, not only scholarly writing but writing right here on this blog.

An old friend suggested since I was sick for five months, it will take five months to recover strength and energy. First I found that frustrating, but then freeing, because it gives me more patience day to day: I don't feel as though I ought to have recovered already, but I realize it will be a long process.

And it will be interesting to see what else emerges in the coming months as my psyche re-adjusts to life and health.

01 April 2010

April is Austerity Month

We went on what we call "austerity measures" back at the beginning of the year. If we can't eat it, or don't desperately need it to wear, we don't buy it. Dinners out? Few to none. Gas for the car, shampoo for the hair, tickets for the train -- yes, there are a few other items that are game.

We're too disorganized to budget, so this helps keep spending under control, and it's also helps in an ecological way because it forces us to figure out how to work with what we have, at which point we often realize we really don't need that thing we thought we needed, whatever that might be.

But then The Mate really needed new sneakers, and there were end-of-season sales, and the purchase of books (from Better World Books) for The Offspring's prizes for good behavior started expanding into purchases of books for The Mom. And so it goes with slippage.

So as of today, we're recommitting ourselves. Probably until after The Move, which might possibly happen in May, but June is more likely.