16 December 2013

Humanity on the 14A

I don't ride the bus much, and when I do, I'm always a little surprised to see that there's a community of riders that take the same line at the same time every day.

Today, one rider helped another get her shopping cart on the bus, and then gave her a hand. 

A little later, a man got on who didn't speak any English, but wanted to know where to get off the bus.  He showed a piece of paper to another rider, who read it out loud, and a third rider identified the address of the agency -- but no one on the bus spoke his language.  So the driver said, "Hold on, I'll get someone."

At the next stop, the driver found a man who shared the language of the first one, and could tell him where to get off the bus and what direction to walk from there.

The helper chatted with the other guy for a while before he disappeared into the back of the bus. 

A couple of stops later, a person got on in a wheelchair.  This requires lifting some seats near the front of the bus and then helping the rider hook the chair into the designated spot with some straps.  I've seen the occasional bus driver look put out by this, and passengers sometimes respond in kind by grumbling about the extra time required.

Today's driver, though, did everything needed with efficiency and kindness.  No one on the bus dared grumble.

At the stop before the man needing directions was to get off, the bus driver found another rider who spoke his language to make sure he got off at the right stop and walked the right direction.  He waited to make sure that guy was going the right direction before he left the bus stop.

I was a few minutes late for my appointment.  But I was glad to get a ride with that driver.

05 December 2013

Letter to the President

My brother sent me a copy of a letter he wrote to the President back in September.  I asked him for permission to post it here, and he sent me a revision, and then I got busy and didn't get to it.  It's out of date now, but it's still a good letter -- so here you go.


Dear President Obama:

As a lifelong Democrat who voted for you twice, I have supported nearly all of your political policies.
As an environmentalist who recognizes the need for petroleum, I welcome your middle-of-the-road environmental positions. As a member of the middle-class who was laid off during the recession, I appreciate your laws mandating health insurance for every United States citizen. As a common-sense Democrat, I have supported the many political positions that are both yours and the Democratic Party’s. However, the issue of military engagement with Syria has propelled me to speak out against U.S. involvement.
When George W. Bush was president and engaged the U.S. in numerous military conflicts, Democrats were up in arms. With the exception of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — which most people supported — Democrats, rightfully so, spoke out against war, opposed the use of U.S. arms and personnel in foreign conflicts and derided the Republican propensity to start wars.
When you were elected president, you forged a new foreign policy. You pledged arbitration not arms, mediation not military action. I, along with most Democrats, have supported this ideology.
Today, as in the past few decades, the people most likely to support U.S. military involvement in foreign wars do not have sons or daughters in the military. (Personally I do not have military-age children). The question to ask those who ardently support U.S. military involvement in Syria or other countries is: “Is U.S. involvement so important that you are willing to sacrifice the life of one of your children?”
As you are well aware, the demographics of the U.S. military are overwhelmingly minority and low-income. This is the demographic who will lose their lives in any protracted military involvement — not the children of the white elite such as John Kerry, John Boehner or John McCain.
United States citizens are not only war-weary, but we are war-wary. Will Syria become another Egypt? Bouncing from one totalitarian regime to another? Or will it become another Iraq? Swallowing thousands of lives as well as trillions of dollars? Aside from the human death toll, what about the financial cost of war? With the U.S. still reeling from its depression, still mired in a prolonged recession, the country cannot afford to endlessly print greenbacks to pay for bombs.
For all of these reasons — ideological, financial and humanitarian — I am imploring you to retreat from your plan of U.S. military involvement in Syria. As a Democrat and a voter, I am asking you to implement your campaign promises of Peace not War.
Chris Estes

24 November 2013

So Many Things to be Thankful For

Today was a bit of a rough day.  But it wasn't a calamity, thanks to many kind people and many privileges I have as a middle-class American.

The Offspring awoke in the middle of the night and threw up, starting a trend that went on until mid-morning, when things started to look a little grim.  I was able to reach a doctor at the NYU urgent care center who recommended bringing him in.

I went to get the car, and found it nice and warm on this 20-something degree day because it was parked in the sun on the east side of the tall buildings, near the river.  I was thankful I didn't have to put The Offspring in a freezing cold car.  For that matter, I was thankful to own a car.

I was thankful to live in a city with great hospitals, and to have good health insurance, so I could go straight to one of the best.

NYU has a parking garage whose entrance is right by the entrance to the ER; I was glad I didn't have to sweat about paying the garage fee.

When we walked in, we were immediately greeted by a friendly volunteer with a big smile, and immediately I relaxed a little.  All the staff, every single one, every orderly and aide and nurse and doctor, went out of their way to be friendly to me and to The Offspring, who has seen more medical care than the average ten-year-old, not all of it compassionate, and gets a little jumpy.

In spite of all that, he was a trooper: cooperative, polite, not a single complaint.  And gleeful when he found out he could watch cartoons from his bed.

I was incredibly grateful that the ER at NYU has rooms, actual rooms, for the sick patients, rather than a huge bustling hall where behind one curtain someone is delirious for one reason or another, behind another someone cries out in pain while passing a gallstone, and behind a third, family drama.

Someone told me, many years ago, "Don't worry until you have to."  I've gotten pretty good at that, and while there was a possibility that The Offspring was in fact seriously ill and would need emergency surgery, I didn't waste much time contemplating it.  I'm thankful for the person who taught me that lesson.

When the Mate got appendicitis not long after we moved to New York.  Friends wanted to know why I wasn't freaking out.  My answer: appendicitis on a remote hiking trail or in a third-world country where I don't speak the language well -- that's a crisis.

Eventually, The Offspring's problem turned out to be "just" a virus, treatable with anti-nausea medication, and we went home.

The poor neglected dog had to be walked and fed, and having wolfed down his long-overdue breakfast, started retching.  I'm thankful he left it at that and didn't hurl all over the already much-abused floors.

The nearby pharmacy was still open, and we have a supermarket a block away, so filling a prescription and stocking up on seltzer and apple juice and white rice was, thankfully, an easy and quick errand.

And then I went into the kitchen, rather a wreck because in the two days before The Offspring got sick, I was down for the count with a bad cold, and The Mate has been out of town.  I turned on the faucet to soak some dirty dishes... and heard the unmistakable drip of leaking pipes.

Boy am I thankful that my building has plumbers on call on Sundays.

I'm thankful that I living in a building that, while without power for several days after Hurricane Sandy, was not structurally damaged, unlike the millions of people left homeless by Haiyan in the Philippines.

And finally, I'm thankful that I have a warm home with a bed to which I'll be retreating shortly, to sleep soundly.

27 October 2013

What Professors Do: Anguish

We're in the business, most of us, to educate.  We want to engage students with the things we're passionate about.  For me, that includes literature and ways of reading as well as the desire and the tools to write well.

When students fail or do poorly, we beat ourselves up, assuming we've failed to inspire, to engage, even to explain adequately.  At the moment, I'm anguished at a remove, watching a young woman who was once one of my best students suffer from her students' disengagement.

At The Offspring's school, one of the best public schools in New York City, there are parents who complain, year after year, about their kids' teachers.  My response: I'm an educator, but I don't know how to teach fifth grade math -- or, for that matter, fifth grade anything else.  I can still get a scale out of my old clarinet, but I can't explain to The Offspring how to make the right sounds; it takes a music teacher to do that.

But we live in a culture that second-guesses teachers all the time, a society in which it's assumed that politicians and business leaders with no educational experience should make pedagogical decisions that affect the nation's kids.  That ideology starts with preschool and goes all the way up through college and beyond.  And if some of the students who grow up in that system think a degree is a credential to be received after doing time, and see their teachers and professors as an annoyance along the way, no one should be very surprised.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched students struggle because of a completely different kind of bureaucratic failure.  I was teaching four courses a semester in English composition and conversation at a university in Shanghai. Three classes were full of Shanghainese students who had been chosen to attend because they had recieved the best scores in English.

The fourth class consisted of students from a remote Chinese province who had been brought to the city to be educated.  Rather than taking classes with the other students, though, these students were kept in one group, separate from the others, and the entire class assigned the same major.  There were students in that class who were excellent at English; others probably would have done very well in engineering or business or the sciences.  Yet it had been decided that in their year, they would study English, regardless of their aptitudes or interests.

I loved the job, and it convinced me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life teaching.  But I felt terrible about those students sent to the city to learn English, working so hard, yet struggling to succeed in a field where they couldn't do their best work.

Today, I face students who are perfectly capable of doing good work, but don't want to bother.  Or they're working their way through school, trying to take as many credits as possible each semester to keep tuition costs down while working 30 or 40 hours a week -- and there just aren't enough hours in the day and night.

One kind of student exemplifies our national bad attitude toward the teaching profession; the other our political failure to support higher education.  The mechanisms are a little different, but we're failing our students, much as the Chinese were, quarter of a century ago.

25 October 2013

Folding Scarves

It's been a long few weeks, and I spent some time this evening folding scarves and shawls.  I remembered where and who they came from over the past thirty years, and felt the different weights and textures.  It was meditative and soothing.

Sitting at my desk or in a meeting gets chilly, and covering my neck is a quick fix.  In the classroom I move a lot more: shedding a scarf as I warm up is much less of a production than taking off a sweater or a blazer.

Amidst the smoothing and folding, I had to admit that I have a whole collection of scarves.  This was a bit of a shock, as I generally prefer one or two functional, versatile, well-made items to a drawer or closet full of options.

A corollary: I have a hard time getting rid of things.  I try not to buy things if they're not going to get used often and last a long time, and so when I've gotten something into my home, I feel kind of committed to it.

(Possibly an aside: The alarm clock I bought when I started college just went to the recycling pile.  It finally got dropped one time too many.)

A couple of years ago I bought a sweater that felt fine in the fitting room, but when I wore it for the first time it turned out to be itchy.  I've felt compelled to wear it anyway, in a penitential kind of way, and then told myself I should keep it, since after all I sometimes use it.

But I'm trying to give myself permission to get rid of stuff like that.  And so I've finally put it in the donation bag in company with the shrunk and the ripped and the stained.

But not scarves.  Lovely lightweight wool that a friend brought back from Italy, fringed purple from an aunt in France, blue velvet I splurged on at the British Museum shop.  A circle of black, knit by my mother-in-law; greens and purples on cotton, left over from wardrobe after a film shoot.  Wispy teal from India by way of a shop on Second Avenue.

Deep blues and purples on silk, bought during a year teaching in Shanghai, so long ago it sometimes seems like a dream.  Yet deeper in the past: burgundy wool woven with gold threads from the family I lived with as an exchange student in Switzerland.

I enjoy the textures, the colors, the warmth.  I'm going to depart  from principle without apology and let these things give me pleasure.

23 October 2013

Gear List

In the summertime, and in late spring and early fall, I don't have to pay too much attention to the weather.  It's either hot or hotter; unless it's really pouring rain it's too warm for rain gear, so I just wear clothing that can get wet and will dry fast.  Bonus: many hours of daylight.

Today, though, it's both chilly and rainy, and I'll get home long after dark.  This is when gear becomes  vitally important.  The challenges: vision, visibility, and keeping the hands and feet and ears warm without letting the core overheat.  Over the years, I've developed a pretty good, though not perfect, system: herewith, an annotated list.

If there's rain in the forecast, I carry waterproof / breathable jacket and pants.  The rain pants have gotten a little leaky; though I usually try to keep and use things as long as possible, this is an area where I need the gear to function really well.  A new pair is in my near future.

A helmet cover rides in my bag almost year round: it keeps the rain out and the warm air in.  I also carry a headband designed to use with a helmet: cold ears get miserable fast.  Below freezing, a thin fleece hat.

A couple of years ago I bought waterproof boots, but the first time I wore them in the rain I discovered ankle-height doesn't cut it: as soon as my legs are spinning, the pants ride up and the rain runs right down them ... and into the top of the boots.  So, I got high boots.  For the coldest days, neoprene shoe covers.  Wool socks: self-explanatory, right?

If it's mild, I wear lightweight long-fingered gloves.  On days like today, windblock fleece, and in the coldest temperatures, a down-lined pair.  I bought them by accident, sort of: I didn't realize they were lined with down until after right after I paid for them.  But then I kept walking and didn't go back to the register for an exchange.  And boy am I happy to have them when the weather goes below freezing, though I regret the ducks that died to keep my fingers warm.  I often wear one pair and carry another, because a daytime ride, especially if it's sunny out, can be a lot warmer than a trip before dawn or after dark.

I have a seriously bright rechargeable headlight, bright enough to see the road on the suburban end of the commute and to get people's attention on the New York end.  Blinking rear lights on both seat post and helmet, though the helmet cover blocks the latter, and this winter I want to try to find something brighter and, frankly, more obnoxious for the back.  

That's a bit tough with the Brompton, as the seatpost needs to slip into the down tube every time I fold the bike (three times a day), and the back of the rear rack is too low to the ground for good visibility.  Let me know if you have any good ideas, okay?

Finally, I have both jacket and vest in lovely shades of neon with reflective strips.  Reflective ankle straps that I don't really use, because they keep slipping off the bottom of the pants legs and then getting hidden under them.  Studies show reflective moving parts are more visible to cars than static ones (e.g. reflectors on the torso which for a car approaching from front or back don't appear to move), so I need to work on that too.

It remains a work in progress.

16 October 2013

Some Appreciations

I decided some months ago, maybe already a year, to quit complaining all the time about all the ways the bike lanes get blocked.  Lately -- it's high tourist season in NYC -- it's been ... a challenge.  Instead, a few observations about things that go right.


I stopped at a Halal sidewalk truck this morning for some falafel for second breakfast (to make up for missing dinner yesterday).  The guy working the cart hadn't yet started deep-frying the first batch of falafel, but I had time, so I waited and watched while he got things up and running for the day.

It dawned on me that storing and organizing everything that's needed to serve all the various meals they serve is both an art and a science.


A few weeks ago, I had a wait in traffic at an intersection with construction on the cross street, bringing it down to one lane, plus turn lanes both directions for the street I was on.

From the front of the line of cars, I had a clear view of the police officer controlling traffic at the intersection. He ignored the traffic lights and worked his own rhythm to keep everyone moving as efficiently as possible.  I was tempted to roll down the car windows and applaud.


Every day, there are many car and truck drivers who give me plenty of space on the road, wait while I make a turn, and just generally *see* me, and act accordingly.


Conductors on the NJ Transit trains have to deal with a lot of hassles from passengers -- drunks, obstreperous loud youths, people hiding in the bathrooms or otherwise trying to avoid paying for the trip, and probably a whole lot of other stuff I don't have to see.  But they're polite and professional and many always have a smile and a friendly comment.


I fumbled while trying to replace the water in the office water cooler the other week, and dropped the five-gallon bottle on the floor.  It broke.

A colleague picked it up and drained it in the bathroom sink, and the student worker on duty called the facilities people, who came and cleaned up the mess with a wet vac -- all while I ran off to teach my class.


The Mate is busy making a movie, but he's been carrying the second shift at home as I go into crazy-busy work mode.  When I got home yesterday, the laundry was done, the bathrooms clean, and the vacuum cleaner out.  He makes me coffee almost every morning, too.


Can't forget the dog.  No matter how long I've been away, he races to the door on his little legs to greet me with entire body wagging.


This is a start: only a few of the ways I'm blessed every day.  It's done me good to recount them.

12 October 2013

Car Culture -- Some Definitions

Car culture is thinking a car is the best way to get people and things from place to place.
Car culture is designing communities so that a car becomes the only (safe, convenient, efficient) way to move people and things.
Car culture is assuming that all bikers are scofflaws because some bikers run red lights or ride against traffic on a one-way street.
Car culture is ignoring or discounting the frequency with which drivers break the law -- running red lights, making illegal turns, ignoring yield signs, exceeding the speed limit, double-parking (for instance, in bike lanes).
Car culture is assuming that a bike and a car should be treated equivalently in traffic, ignoring the car's 3000-pound and 180-horsepower advantages.
Car culture is demanding ubiquitous and convenient free parking, in sufficient excess as to make it available even in times of highest use.
Car culture is referring to collisions between vehicles, or between cars and pedestrians or cyclists, as "accidents."
Car culture is lining streets with parked cars, reducing visibility and aesthetics and space for other activities.
Car culture is believing that no other alternative is possible.

What else is car culture?  Tell me what I've missed.

24 September 2013

Keeping The Citi Running

Biking regularly comes with maintenance and repair, and I've been wondering how all those Citibikes manage to stay in working order.

Once I saw a couple of workers open up one of the stations that wasn't working: it turns out they contain several car batteries, charged by a solar panel.  And I've occasionally seen bikes being loaded on or off box trucks in the dark, presumably to move them where they need to be for the morning's riders.

But maintenance remained a mystery until I ran across Knowlege and Lauren.
They work (part-time, it must be said) pumping up tires, tightening nuts and bolts, and checking that everything is in good working order.  They have a very cool trailer for their pump and tools and stuff, too.
I know the system has its flaws, including lack of availability outside of downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.

But since its inauguration just a few months ago, I think Citibike is challenging the car-centric culture of New York.  I biked down Seventh Avenue this morning -- no bike lane, but except for one insane individual who swerved at me while blowing his horn, the drivers seemed to be in agreement that the bikes could have the left lane.

I'm curious to see if the new bikers keep riding as winter descends.

23 September 2013

Nerve Noise Nausea

A pretty good summary of what it's like to commute by car, right?  Snapped on Grand Street.
Yes, that guy's vest does indeed say "Pedestrian Safety."  The streets are designed for cars, so they need specially trained folks out there to keep the pedestrians from getting killed if they should wander into a crosswalk at the wrong moment.  At some intersections, they use chains to keep the pedestrians contained.

Bikers are relegated to narrow lanes on a few streets, yet car culture has us programmed to be grateful even for those. Car remains King: bike lanes are obstacle courses of parked delivery trucks, idling limos, drivers parking or turning or u-turning, and myriad other hazards.
Still, commuting by bike and train is vastly less stressful than driving.  Views of the East River, from the seat of the bike, and of the Raritan Bay, from a seat on the train, vary daily, with changing light and weather conditions, and every day it does me good to pay attention.

18 September 2013

Human Desires

In an essay I'm re-reading for a course this semester, SuEllen Campbell asks, "When human desires ... conflict with other environmental values, how does the author-narrator choose?"

Human desires -- not human needs.  So many of us in the developed world have so much beyond what we need, yet the culture of capitalism creates constant desire for more.  And "more" has come into stark conflict with other environmental values: clean air, clean water, the survival of animal species.

So there's the key to moving forward as a human species trying to mitigate the damage we've done to the planet.  What do we need?  What do we want?  How much more damage will we do before we learn to make the distiction?


*"Asking Ecocritical Questions," in Teaching North American Environmental Literature, ed. Laird Christensen, et al. (New York: MLA, 2008), p. 219.

02 September 2013

A Week of Meals

Someone asked me recently about going vegan, and someone else asked about going gluten free, and in both cases, my answer was: take it slow.  Figure out what you're going to eat, learn a few new recipes or modify some you already like, as you transition into a new way of eating.

Here's what could be a week of vegan, gluten-free meals at our house.

Breakfast: Grits, fruit, coffee/tea
Lunch: leftover pea soup
Snack: handful of almonds and an apple
Supper: pasta with tomato sauce, chick peas, broccoli

Breakfast: baked beans, fruit, coffee/tea
Lunch: almond butter sandwich on gluten-free bread, apple
Snack: rice cakes
Supper: avocado rolls, pan-fried tofu, sauteed green beans

Breakfast: cold cereal (gluten-free) with walnuts, raisins, flax meal; coffee/tea
Lunch: leftover pasta, salad
Snack: banana
Supper: Red lentil soup, salad, gluten-free toast

Breakfast: gluten free toast with almond butter, fruit, coffee/tea
Lunch: soy cream cheese sandwich on gluten-free bread, peach
Snack: corn chips and salsa
Supper: black bean and corn salad, gluten-free sesame noodles

Breakfast: gluten-free hot cereal with walnuts, raisins, flax seeds, coffee/tea
Lunch: leftover lentil soup, salad
Snack: a slice of gluten-free, vegan banana bread
Supper: vegetable and tofu stir fry with thai coconut curry, brown rice, fruit

Breakfast: tofu scramble with onions, garlic, spices, coffee/tea
Lunch: leftover black bean and corn salad, apple
Snack: blue corn chips, hummus
Supper: Green split pea soup with kale, fruit

Breakfast: gluten-free vegan pancakes, fruit, coffee/tea
Lunch: almond butter and sliced banana sandwich, fruit
Snack:  almonds, apple
Supper: chana masala, brown rice, salad

The Mate and I don't have much time to cook during the week, so on the weekends, we usually spend at least one afternoon/evening in the kitchen together cooking up big batches of soups and stews and hummus and baked beans and curries.  Some go into the fridge for lunches right away, others go in pint mason jars into the freezer for the weeks when we're completely swamped, or the summer nights when it's too hot to cook.

Initially, changing to a new way of eating requires a lot of planning and thinking, which is why I recommend a slow transition, trying one or two new recipes a week and learning how to modify existing favorites.  But with time, it becomes automatic.

And for nights when we're swamped and haven't planned ahead, there's Chinese take-out, or a black bean soup made from canned beans and frozen vegetables with some Italian herb mix and a sauteed onion.

28 August 2013


Twenty-five years ago, I think today, I landed in New York and started pounding the pavement in search of an apartment near NYU, where The Mate was starting film school while I was in search of a job.

I remember getting thoroughly lost in search of Perry Street, deep in the West Village, and feeling even more lost when I stumbled on the intersection of West 4th and West 10th, because if I knew anything about New York, it was The Grid north of Houston.

I stopped in a pizza place and ordered two slices and a lemonade for $2.50 and was completely baffled when the guy behind the counter asked, "T-steh-o-d-go?"
"T-STEH....  O-D-GO."
Oh, oh, for here.

We ended up on West 15th Street.  On Sundays I might jog down Washington Street toward the World Trade Center, or wander about the meat-packing district, where the only other soul might be a stray dog or a  lingering lady of the night.  Sometimes I went to the trash transfer station on the Hudson River and marveled at the amounts of garbage my fellow New Yorkers produced.

On Sunday mornings, we might bike to the Cloisters or to Coney Island, seeing the panorama of humanity from all over the world along the way.

We lived in Chelsea for two years, then moved to the East Village for fourteen, then spent five years in Washington Heights, and a few years ago landed in the Lower East Side.

One of my favorite things to do these days is to walk the dog along the East River in the evening and stop mid-way between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, just too far to hear the traffic on either, and watch as the subways snake their way across.  The surface of the water flickers with reflected light and joggers and bikers pass quietly behind me and I'm at peace.

Twenty-five years later, I'm still crazy in love with this city.

18 August 2013


After six weeks traveling through Germany, Switzerland and Italy by train, with the occasional bus or cab ride, I found myself in quick succession on several of the major highways in the Northeast Corridor.

People alone, or in pairs or tiny groups, in their individual metal boxes on wheels, hurtling in the same direction, other boxes inches away on either side and a few feet ahead and behind.

It suddenly struck me as completely insane.


The conventional wisdom is that the US doesn't have the population density to support an efficient public transit system.  But between, say, Baltimore and Boston at the very least, that's just ridiculous, and the fact that it doesn't exist represents a failure of political and public will, not of logistics.

Shortly after I arrived home and after taking numerous efficient train trips, I took New Jersey transit to work.  My route is 55 miles long and typically takes an hour and 40 minutes -- averaging a little better than 30 miles per hour.  That day, heavy rain caused power problems, so the actual average speed was closer to 15 miles an hour.

That also struck me as completely insane.

If New Jersey, and the entire northeast, had an efficient high-speed rail system, paid by federal, state and local governments to the same extent as (or better yet, more than) the existing highway network, if trains were clean and comfortable, then people would actually want to take the train.

And if more people took the train, there would be less pollution, fewer car accidents, lower operating costs for roads and bridges (because less wear and tear).   People could be healthier if they walked or biked between train stations and home and/or work rather than driving door to door.


Leaving your own culture for a while lets you see it more clearly when you return.  Our public transit funding is ridiculous.

11 August 2013

In My Pack...

... just in case you were wondering.

Shirts with buttons: two short-sleeved, one sleeveless, one very light-weight with long sleeves.  Stretch shirts: one long-sleeved, tank top purchased during the trip; fleece sweater.  One short-sleeved shirt would have sufficed.

Zip-off pants, skort, knee-length shorts, and long underwear.  Could have left skort or shorts behind; a longer skirt (for going into churches and the Vatican) would have been useful.

One necklace, one pair of earrings.

Rain pants, rain jacket, Polartec hat, neck gaiter, gloves, scarf.  Jacket used once during a quick rain shower at the top of a ridge, scarf used in the evenings at high altitude, the rest unused, because the weather was so warm and dry.  I'd carry them again, except for the scarf -- could have used the neck gaiter.

Sunscreen and sun hat, used extensively.  I'm going to be on the lookout for a hat with a wider brim.

Four pairs of socks, four pairs of underwear, two bras, two-piece swimsuit; hiking boots and sandals.  Three pairs of socks would have been enough; the swimsuit wasn't used enough to justify carrying.

First aid kit and space blanket.  Unused (this is good) except for Band-aids and the occasional Tylenol or Advil.  Rehydration powder packets added to first aid kit after The Offspring got heat stroke.

Sheet sleeping sack and quick-dry travel towel (for mountain huts).  Used less than expected: the huts, except the most remote ones, are getting more like hostels or even hotels.  Bandanna.

Soap and (bar) shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, disposable razor, panty liners, Diva Cup.  (Way less hassle than any other method of dealing with the red tide, especially while traveling.)

A roll of toilet paper.

Camera, very old Kindle, chargers for both, and plug adapter.  No phone or other wireless/web device: a bit tricky given that phone booths and internet cafes are vanishing.

Maps, sections of guide books, compass, head lamp, notebook and pencils, train tickets and room reservations, passports, wallet, copy of Offspring's birth certificate. Harmonica: unused.

Lightweight backpack, lightweight shopping bag.  Quart and gallon zip lock bags used to store and sort food; two-gallon bags intended to keep clothing dry unneeded given the weather.  Very small purse, used to carry essentials while not hiking.  The lightweight backpack turned out to be too fragile and of limited use; a larger shoulder bag and/or better day pack would have been helpful.

Two 40-ounce stainless steel water bottles and a four-liter water bag (the latter unused).  The stainless bottles are kind of heavy; I'm tempted to go back to plastic.

Food.  I wished I had dehydrated beans and/or hummus to reconstitute.  After four days of hiking, I broke down and ate the Speck: I couldn't get enough protein from potatoes and polenta, even with nuts to munch on, and I was feeling increasingly weak.  Few beans and no tofu to be had in the mountain huts.  Pocket knife and a plastic fork, spoon, and knife.

10 August 2013

Less is Less

Six weeks traveling in Europe out of a backpack, with no phone or internet, no email, no facebook, no twitter, no blogger, no news.  Connecting face to face with The Mate and the Offspring, with friends and family in Switzerland, with fellow travelers in the Dolomites and in Rome.  One ancient Kindle among the three of us.

The trip taught me something I've learned, and forgotten, before: I am happier with less.

Less stuff, an issue I've chronicled in this blog in the past.  But also less input.

Over the past few years, I've cancelled the catalogues, cut down on magazine subscriptions, unsubscribed from junk mail, eliminated telemarketing by getting rid of my land line.

But somehow I've signed on to a plethora of email subscriptions and Facebook groups resulting in a constant stream of messages about petitions to sign, political situations to be enraged about, foods to eat, exercises to avoid, and the reverse.  And then there's Twitter, Academia.edu, LinkedIn, and the news.  Always the news.

Cutting back is a project.  Going through six weeks of email and signing off all the subscription lists took hours.  Going through drawers and closets and cabinets full of stuff is an even bigger project, one I've been chipping away at for months.

But also: fewer commitments, fewer conferences, fewer projects tumbling simultaneously in the air.

The to-do list is long, there's a large pile of mail from the past six weeks, and preparation for the semester ahead is looming.  I don't know how long I can hold on to this thought.  But I'm going to try.

26 June 2013

Digital Medieval

Here's the start of a list of people and places doing medieval studies in digital contexts.  It's partly a resource for myself, so I have a place to keep track of what others are up to, but also intended as a resource for readers. I'm keeping a separate list of digital manuscript facsimiles.

This list is fragmentary at the moment and will be enlarged significantly.  Please let me know of additions.

Ælfric's Homilies on Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees
Anglo-Saxon Charters
Early English Laws
Medieval Bookbindings 
Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 - 1220
The Riddle Ages
Studying Judith

12 June 2013


Torches.  Double-ended, many-branched like candelabra, mounted on hula hoops.  Men and women dancing, and a single drum beating time.  Lithe bodies silhouetted by lights blinking off the East River; a subway snaking across the Williamsburg Bridge in the distance.

I half thought they'd vanish if I approached, but a man with a gentle voice and waxed moustaches told me they're the Empire Fire Collective, and they're working toward taping an audition to perform at Burning Man.

I was walking the dog, only a set of keys in my pocket: no camera.  But look here, and look here -- if they can be photographed, they must be real, and not just a midsummer night's dream?

11 June 2013

I Run Red Lights

Not in a car, I hasten to add: on my bike.  And I don't ride headlong into on-coming traffic, weaving precariously between buses and trucks and (potentially equally crazy) cab drivers.

I had a couple of conversations about this with a cousin a few weeks ago that got me thinking about why I feel completely justified in running red lights.  And I realized that it's frequently the safest way to get through an intersection.

Some of New York's bike lanes are protected from car lanes by a line of parked cars, but the turn lanes for the cars cut right across the bike lane:
Let's just say it gets hairy.  At a few of the major cross streets, the cars get a red arrow allowing bikes to go straight.  Traffic in the other intersections is menacing.

On cross streets, cyclists are supposed to wait for the green light ahead of the first stopped car so they can clear the intersection before the cars start moving:
Unfortunately, cars often pull forward into the spot designated for cyclists, and then take off as soon as the light changes.

When there's an obstacle in the bike lane in the block ahead, I'll run the red light so I can get around it ahead of the line of cars. 

Obstacles in the bike lanes, you ask?  Delivery trucks, taxis, ConEd trucks, lunch carts, dumpsters, NYPD vehicles, garbage trucks....  Ohhhh, and the pedestrians.  Pushing strollers, tapping away on their devices, grooving to whatever is coming out of their earphones, popping out from behind parked cars, jogging, or just plain being oblivious.  Plus the rollerbladers and the skateboarders, who frequently travel in the bike lane against traffic.

Casey Neistat got harassed with a ticket for the non-existent law of not riding in a bike lane, and made a video of himself crashing into obstacles in the bike lanes.  Ben Fractenberg surveyed bike lane blockages in Manhattan, from Washington Heights to Soho. The Village Voice compares biking in New York to playing a game of Frogger.

NYC law treats cyclists as vehicles, but despite building hundreds of miles of bike lanes, has not really made cycling safe.  And the difference between a bike and a car is about three thousand pounds, plus an engine that doesn't get tired.  In a collision between a car and a bike, it's the biker who will suffer.  So I'll go on running red lights whenever it's the safest option.

06 June 2013

Citi Bike: Where's the Downside?

I've been watching the roll-out of Citi Bike with interest.  I don't have an account myself (as my folding bike goes everywhere), but I've spoken to several people who are using the bikes, and I've been watching.

The bikes are heavy, I'm told, and the solar-powered docking stations can be a bit glitchy.  But in just ten days, 32,000 people have signed up for memberships, and local residents and visitors have ridden 270,000 miles during 100,000 trips using the bikes.  Casual observation bears that out -- every time I go out of my Lower East Side Apartment, I see several of them.  And in just ten days, the people using them seem to be getting more accustomed to the bikes, riding faster and with more confidence and better predictability.

I have to say I'm baffled by the naysayers.

Some owners of bike shops are worried about the effects of the program on rentals, though others say they've already seen an increase in bike-related sales, and research from other cities suggests a short-term dip for bike shops followed by long-term increase in business.  People who have tried to use Citi Bikes for all-day trips have discovered it doesn't really work -- so those who want to spend a day touring are still likely to rent bikes the conventional way.

Drivers are protesting because some of the Citi Bike stations take up parking spots, and because bike lanes occasionally replace driving lanes.  But in fact every time someone bikes to work instead of driving a car or taking a cab, drivers benefit: more parking spaces free up and there's one less car on the road in front of them.  The inveterate drivers should be happy every time someone else decides to give up on a trip in the car.

People are complaining the bikes and the docking stations are a visual blight on their neighborhoods.  Hmmm... because parked cars are so much better looking?

Despite the crazy amounts of publicity every time a biker collides with a pedestrian, in fact the presence of bikes and bike lanes on city streets calms traffic and makes the streets safer for people on foot.  A 2011 study found that around 500 pedestrians a year in NYC are treated in hospitals after collisions with bicyclists.  On the other hand, 15,000 pedestrians and cyclists were injured in collisions with cars last year, and more than 150 died as a result.

I can't find statistics on how many pedestrians are killed in collisions with bikes; all I can find is reference to one death in 2009. That's one death too many: I don't want to trivialize it. But it's a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people killed in collisions with cars.

Drivers, like everyone else, will breathe cleaner air, suffer fewer heart attacks and respiratory diseases, if there's a significant transition from driving to bicycling.  And since regular exercise also prevents and mitigates a myriad of health problems, health care spending will also go down.

03 June 2013

Letter to the Editor at Consumer Reports

I was very pleased to see your very positive review of the new Tesla Model S in the July issue.  I note that you've commented occasionally on the effects of climate change, and that you include information about energy efficiency in your appliance reviews. 

I wish you would go a couple of steps further and investigate additional environmental and social impacts of the products you're reviewing.  In a review of flooring materials, for instance, you include "Ecotimber" (and you give it a positive rating).  I would find it very helpful to have additional information about the relative environmental impacts of the various surface materials.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like information on where the appliances you review are manufactured, and what kinds of safety records the various manufacturers have in their supply chains. 

Finally, I don't know how much gas mileage is weighted in your automobile reviews, but if you don't already boost cars with better mileage, perhaps that would be a valuable shift in your metric.

I realize that providing this kind of information has not historically been part of your mission, but as a well-respected organization with a wide reach, you have great potential to educate consumers and encourage social change.

Thank you for your time.

Update: I got a reply from CR -- a step or two up from boilerplate:

Dear Ms. Estes,

Thank you for taking the time to contact Consumer Reports®. I want to express how much we value your choice of our products and services to help you make informed purchasing decisions.

We appreciate your writing to us regarding the environmental and social impacts of the products we test. Please be assured that our readers' feedback plays a strong role in the work that we do. Because of this I have taken the liberty of sharing your feedback with the appropriate members of our staff for their review and future consideration.

Consumer Reports is committed to making your experience positive and informative.


Patrick Burns
Customer Relations Department

22 May 2013

Garment Factory Safety

I just unsubscribed from Banana Republic's email list.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that this was hard to do.  A significant percentage of the clothing I wear comes from them, because their tall sizes fit me really well.  But I won't be shopping there again until they commit to improving conditions in the factories that supply them.

Most of the huge US retailers have refused to sign the agreement, though it has been signed by a number of European retailers.  In the US, Walmart is a predictable hold-out, along with JC Penney and Gap, Sears and LL Bean.

The exceptions are Abercrombie and Fitch, of "we don't want your business if you're fat" fame, along with Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

So where will I be shopping, in the future?  H&M, based in Sweden, has signed.  Patagonia and REI are committed to social justice and have created their own procedures to make sure factories are safe and don't employ children, but without oversight, you have to trust their internal mechanisms.  American Apparel manufactures all of their clothing in the USA.

Thrift shopping takes you a step away from the conditions in which the clothing was made.  Do people justify shopping for more clothing because they assuage their guilt by giving castoffs to Goodwill? I have no idea, but the "one in, one out" school of clutter control points in that direction.

I'm also always trying to commit to not shopping at all.  Do I really need another new item of clothing?  Probably not for a long time. Shoes, however, are another matter: with all the walking I do in NYC, I do go through them.

Next up: figuring out where to find responsibly manufactured running shoes.

20 May 2013

Ten of Tens: Fail

The plan for the year was to try on a new ecologically sound habit during each of ten months, giving myself a pass for November and December because they're so dark and dismal and it's difficult to do anything new.  I'm almost halfway through the ten months and I can't say I'm impressed with myself.

In January, I tried to eat more local food.  That's not such a major challenge in the summer, when we participate in Community-Supported Agriculture (pay up front, get a share of whatever grows) and the farmers' markets are full of fresh produce, and biking to them is a nice outing.  In January, when biking requires ten minutes to put on outerwear and the markets' offerings are thin anyway, it's not so easy.  So maybe that wasn't the best challenge for the month.  Fail.

I did, however, cut way back on take-out, avoiding all the single-use packaging.  In February, I tried again to go more local, again with the most limited of results, but I kept away from take-out food.

I also started doing yoga for a few minutes every day.  That habit has stuck -- I've missed only a handful of days in the past very busy month, and have paid for every one of them.  It's not specifically ecological in nature, but who knows where it might lead me.

In March, I set the bar really, really low and tried to take shorter showers and use less water while washing dishes.  I managed.  I continue to do a little better in that area.  Like I said... low bar.

The plan for April was to get serious about reducing clutter, going through all the closets in the apartment, pruning excess, recycling and donating to thrift shops.  I made one trip to the textile recycling booth at Tompkins Square; I gathered up some toys that The Offspring is finished with, but didn't manage to get to the Salvation Army to drop them off.

May?  I didn't even set an intention.  And I backslid wildly on not eating take-out, stopping at least weekly for Chinese take-out before getting the train home and even ordering in from the office.

I did, though, have the wild idea of starting a Facebook group for medievalists interested in ecocriticism.  It wasn't on the original list, but that list was intended as a way to try out a few environmentally sound habits in the hopes that some of them would stick, rather than as a rigid road-map. 

Eating at home, or packing meals, has been the only one with any traction, and despite the recent fall off the wagon, I'm energized to plan better and recommit to that.

So... I'm officially giving up on May. And for June?  I'm having minor surgery on May 30 so I'll plan to spend the recovery time reading Ecological Economics to educate myself better on both economics and ecology.

16 May 2013

Bike To Work Day

Tomorrow is Bike To Work Day, the middle of Bike Month, and I'm going to walk the walk, or roll the roll, and do it -- though it means leaving home at 6:15 a.m. to get to a 9:00 meeting by way of my crazy bike-train-bike commute.

It means I have to set the alarm for 5:30 a.m.

I'm not a morning person.

Setting an alarm for earlier than 6 a.m. makes me feel like it's barely worth going to bed in the first place.

However, by the time I'm out on wheels ahead of rush hour, I know I'll be happy.  And I'll be even happier when I'm on my way home via bike/train/bike and the roads into New York City are clogged with traffic.

How about you? Can you swing a bike ride to work tomorrow?

09 May 2013

Bike Question

No time for blogging, so just a quick question about how you keep your pant legs away from your bike chain:

stuff them in your socks?
roll them up?
use a strap or other doodad to corral them?

28 April 2013

Small Commitment

A couple of months ago I decided to start doing yoga every day.  I needed some way to address the anxieties surrounding a car accident last year, a persistent asthma episode, and a bunch of other issues having to do with family members -- not my stories.

I've kept it up, even if it's just ten minutes before I collapse into bed at the end of a long day.  (Are there any other kind?)

I started off with the goal of doing a couple of sun salutations every day, and mostly I've kept that up, and I've also found myself drawn to forward bends and pigeon pose.

Neither of these is a difficult post -- no fabulous one-armed balances requiring great strength. But they're difficult for me because I'm not very flexible. I have to accept myself in the poses as I can do them -- just be, just let go.  Let go of the ideal form of the pose, let go of tension, let go of anxiety in the various places it takes hold in my body.

Some things have improved, others haven't.  My shoulder is a little better after a cortisone shot, and I'm remembering to breathe more while driving, instead of turning myself into a string of little knots.  I haven't recovered fully from the last asthma episode, though I'm certainly a lot better.  The unbloggables haven't changed much.

But my level of anxiety is down.  Perhaps I've just gotten used to a whole new level of stress, with that curious adaptability that we humans have.  Perhaps the yoga is doing something good.

There are days I'm tempted to skip it.  But I keep at it, because if I miss one day, it is likely to turn into a string of days.  Who knows what another few weeks or months might bring?

26 April 2013

Plastic: Escape It If You Can

I was at the office yesterday when I heard that New York City is now accepting all hard plastic for recycling.  (Unfortunately, they're still not recycling plastic bags, or toothpaste tubes, shower curtains, and other non-rigid plastics.)

I got to thinking a lot about plastic a couple of years ago and started to make a real effort to cut back on buying things made out of plastic or packaged in plastic.  I switched from shampoo and soap in liquid to bar form and from toothpaste to tooth powder (still plastic packaging, but less of it), and cut back on take-out lunches to avoid all the packaging that comes with it.

It's a constant thought process, because plastic is so deeply entrenched in our lives these days.  (Look around you: can you see five things made fully or partly of plastic? Ten? Fifty?  Just on my desk right now: sunglasses, watch with plastic band, laptop computer, iPad in case, two CDs in cases, pen, mechanical pencil, car key, cell phone, inhaler, phone charger, mousepad, photo album with flowers I pressed back in 1982 (ring bound), folder.  Seventeen items.  Oh, and I'm typing this while sitting on an exercise ball.

I wondered yesterday if my family could eat for a week without eating anything packaged in plastic.  When I got home, I went in the kitchen and took a look.  Here's some of what I found:

In the fridge: bread, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, tofu, tahini, cream cheese, hummus, celery, carrots.  The mustard is Grey Poupon, and I remember getting that in a jar; has the company switched over?

In the cabinets: a couple of kinds of cereal (plastic bags inside cardboard boxes), taco shells (ditto), various flours and a bag and a half of sugar, two kinds of seaweed, three kinds of oil, peanut butter, several bags of dried beans and lentils, and most of the spices and vitamins.

In short, no.  No, we can't eat for a week without plastic.  Probably not even for a day.

Want to play? Post a list of plastic items on your desk, in your backpack/purse, or in your fridge *right now*.

19 April 2013

Just Questions

News media are saying that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is "of Chechen origin," though he was born in Kyrgysztan and lived ten or eleven of his nineteen years in the US. Wait, when Dzhokhar was a child, Kyrgysztan was a Soviet republic.

What makes identity, national or otherwise?

I guess I'm "of Prussian origin" since my mother was born there.  Hmmm, but Prussia is Poland now; it ceased to exist as a nation nearly two decades before I was born.  Also, I'm "an immigrant" as I was born in Germany.  I guess that makes me "German."  Maybe it makes me "of Nazi origin."

But I've lived in the US since I was six months old.  On my paternal grandmother's side, various ancestors came in various centuries from England, so many generations ago it's difficult to count.  (Hint: prior to the original Tea Party.)  Does that implicate me in the genocide of Penobscots and Wampanoags and Abenakis?

What shapes us, what shapes our views?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar's older brother, was born in Chechyna, but the family moved to Dagestan and then Kyrgysztan when he was a child.  He recently became a devout Muslim and gave up smoking and drinking. It's said he was a fan (if that's the right word) of an Australian-born imam who has encouraged "holy war."

I'm caucasian, and I speak English "without an accent," which is to say I sound like an east-coast American.  But, wait, I converted to Judaism twenty-odd years ago and gave up Christmas and Easter. I'm a "follower" of Arthur Waskow, a Jewish activist.

What influenced those two brothers?

Ruslan Tsarni, their uncle, has been widely quoted today: "I respect this country. I love this country. This country which gives chance to everybody else to be treated as a human being and to just to be human being. To feel yourself human being."

As a nation, the United States certainly has demons in its past and skeletons in its closet.  Native peoples,  slavery, anti-Jewish propaganda of the 1920s, Japanese internment camps, McCarthy.  And I bet you can come up with more.

What, then, of our origins as "Americans"? What do we attend to? What do we sweep under the rug?

I only have questions.  I have no answers.  Maybe I'll go with Lennon: "Imagine...."

18 April 2013

Virtual Realities

Offspring: There's not enough wood in Minecraft.
Treehugger Mom: Can't you plant some trees?
Offspring: They take too long to grow.
Mom: Well, plant them now and let them get started. Can't you fertilize them so they'll grow faster?
Offspring: I can put bone meal on them.
Mom: Where do you get bone meal? Do you have to grind up the bones?
Offspring: You just use the workbench.


I have Facebook friends that I've met on the walls of other friends.  Most of them are people I know about otherwise from the strange land of academic publishing, but a few are just ... Facebook friends.  I suppose this is the new normal, but I find it a bit unsettling.


When you "buy" something, you don't always actually own it.  This has been true for a while in the also strange land of Manhattan real estate, where you don't buy the apartment, but only the privilege of leasing it from the cooperative.

But it's expanding.  If you buy a cell phone on a service contract and the contract expires, you can keep the phone and switch to another provider ... right?  No, turns out phones are "locked" and it's illegal to lock them.  (Al Franken wants to change that law; you can sign his petition if you're so inclined.)

I've commented on this here before, but you also don't own books that you "buy" for your Kindle.  You just get a license to use them until your Amazon account is terminated ... or you are.

Amazon doesn't want you to think of it quite that way.  Here's how they phrase it:
There is no limit on the number of times Kindle content can be downloaded to a registered device, If any Kindle is registered to your account then you'll be able to access the content on any Kindle device. However, Kindle content cannot be transferred to another account. 

Then there are bitcoins, which are apparently a form of exchange less real than paper money, less real than checks, less real even than credit cards. I don't get it.


In non-virtual news, here's something to contemplate: David Rosnick suggests that if we start reducine the amount of time we spend at work, cutting back on the work week by half of one percent each year and taking longer vacations (kind of like the Europeans), we could significantly reduce carbon emissions.  Half of a percent of a forty-hour week is 12 minutes.

14 April 2013

Unexpected Consequences: News Break

Some time last year we started turning off the computers and iPads and video screens and similar devices on Friday evenings, not to be turned back on again until after sundown on Saturday.

An unforeseen side effect: a weekly break from the news.

I turned into an internet news junkie on 9/11.  Cell phones went down with the towers, and land lines went down because of overuse, but we didn't know until quite a bit later that was why, we only knew we couldn't reach friends and family.  Buses and subways were brought to a halt and air traffic grounded and cars banned from the streets and Manhattan below 14th Street was blockaded, patrolled by the National Guard, and the silence was palpable.

Meanwhile, The Mate was in Italy, and then in England, for the wedding of a friend.  I felt very, very alone.

Rumors flew freely: was the water next to go down? the electricity?  I didn't have TV, and had a radio only in my car, so when the phone lines finally came back on (this was in the days of dial-up internet access), I turned on my computer and started surfing the news, endlessly, sleeping only a few hours a night and obsessed with learning every detail about what was happening.

In subsequent years, I've continued reading the news on the internet, where the links are endless.  And, of course, a lot of what I'm viewing is only very loosely categorizable as "news."

It's only recently that it's dawned on me that by turning off the internet at sundown on Friday, I also turn off the news feed.  I take a break from constant awareness of ecological crises all over the globe, from the antics of news-hungry politicians, from the violence that seems to characterize the human condition.

It's easier to relax, not only because I'm not looking into a glowing screen, but also because I'm not taking in all the awful stuff that counts as "news."  Another, perhaps related, unexpected side effect: Saturday afternoon naps.

10 April 2013

100 Blessings

I learned yesterday that as Jews, we're supposed to say 100 blessings a day.

Yes, 100.

It blows my mind: the idea of acknowledging, 100 times every single day, the things for which we can be grateful.

There are prescribed blessings to be made on waking, at various times of day, with food.  But I'm drawn to the idea of just being thankful -- not for one thing a day, as many people do in November, but 100 times in a single day.  And the day after, and the day after that.  It would require some serious mindfulness, to remember all day to give thanks for things I'm so fortunate to have in abundance in my life.

The Offspring, the Mate, the Dog, the Reptile.  Other family members, connected and caring even though far away.  Friends, good colleagues, good students.  Food, water, shelter in abundance and comfort.

Books, ideas, music, art.  A job I love (most of the time).

Trees, ocean, hills.  Daffodils, forsythia, cherry trees exploding in bloom.  A pair of cardinals darting across the road as I biked to work this morning.

Eyes to see with, legs to pedal a bike, hair to keep my head warm.

Being mindful of all of these things I'm so fortunate to have in my life, of acknowledging them, of feeling blessed, day after day after day: what would it take?  100 blessings?  Can I find them once, remember to see them, day after day after day?

03 April 2013

Bike Commuting: Practicalities

I used to think in terms of biking weather and other kinds of weather, but when I took a sabbatical in Cambridge (UK) a few years ago and depended on my bike for transportation to the library, the supermarket, and anywhere else I needed to go, I learned to carry rain gear and just keep moving.

That said, commuting by bike year-round can feel like a bit of a project, especially when winter weather returns after one day of spring and you have to put all those layers on yet again.

In late spring, summer, and early fall, if it's not supposed to rain or snow, I just wear work clothes.  I keep some blazers at the office so as it gets warmer I can ride in shirt sleeves.  (I also keep extra deodorant and hair gel at the office.)  A skirt with boots, as long as the skirt is loose enough to pedal in, can be easier than long pants, which tend to get caught in the chain. There are various ankle accessories that are supposed to peg the pants, but I always find they come off as soon as I start pedaling.  If necessary, I stuff pant legs in socks.

In cold weather, the trick is keeping the extremities warm but not overheating the core. I use a medium weight wool coat with a reflective vest made of fabric that helps to block with wind.  If it's really cold I start the ride wearing a scarf or neck gaiter that I can take off as I warm up, but mostly I'll just live with being chilly for the first five or ten minutes.

Feet: In winter, I wear wool socks with shoes or boots that are loose enough to allow for some air to help keep my feet warm. If it's below about 20 degrees, my feet still get cold, and I have some neoprene overshoes from when I used to bike long distances in cold weather -- but for the amount of time I'm on the bike at any one time, I'll live with cold feet rather than hassling with one more thing to put on and take off (and repeat, three more times throughout the day).

Hands: Can get very, very cold if it's even chilly.  You can get winter bike gloves, but winter gloves designed for skiing also work fine. Main thing is they need palms and fingers with some traction.  It's also helpful if they're breathable.  I accidentally bought down-lined gloves a couple of winters ago in an end-of-season sale (I only noticed the fill after I'd paid), and I have to say they're wonderful.  Even when the temperature goes down into the teens (the coldest I've biked in) they keep my hands warm.  In temperatures around freezing, windblock fleece works; above 40 I use lightweight long-finger bike gloves.

Legs: if there's precipitation in the forecast, I have rain pants that go over whatever work clothes I'm wearing.  Getting overheated can be a real problem, so depending on the weather I might be best off with light-weight tights and a skirt that I can put on when I get to the office.  If it's quite cold, I might want wool pants.  Neither the rain nor the wind pants are specifically biking gear -- I originally bought both for hiking.

Ears: Like hands, can get very cold.  Two great accessories here, for which I paid retail, and which have been worth every penny: a Gore-Tex helmet cover to keep the wind and rain out of the vents and trap some warm air around my head, and a Pearl Izumi head-band, lightweight enough to use with the helmet but somehow incredibly warm on the ears.

Want to try it?  Start out on a day when you can dress down a little bit and the weather is nice, and build from there.

01 April 2013

Cat Suit. Or, Ignorance Is Bliss.

The town of Swansea, Massachusetts apparently has some issues with ADA compliance, including absence of ramps for wheelchair users and fences that block access.  As part of a fight to improve the town's accessibility, Patrick Higgins, a local resident, asked that the town library stop keeping a cat after others told him their children's allergies were severe enough that they couldn't use the facility.

A local vet posted the story to Facebook.  People responded by vilifying Higgins. Many called the guy names; a few assumed he had allergies himself, and suggested he's to blame.  Many said allergies aren't a  disability.  (They are, if severe enough.)  Others want him dead. 

Some of the comments:
Shoot the man. Idiot, cat bully, bad man, small minded. Get real, allergies are not a disability. Find another library, get lost, get a life, joker, jerk. The man [should be] required to get psychotherapy. Tell him to buy his books. Hater, dick, pathetic. He needs to go jump in a lake. Bitter old man, crotchety man. Take his library card away!  Have the man... put to sleep.  Attention seeking schmuck, selfish.  Get rid of the man.

Mean old SOB.  Bar those with cat allergies.  Dumb man.  Slap the guy so hard his teeth fell out.  Bitter, curmudgeon. He needs to be taught a lesson.  He's not taking care of himself.  Silly.  Kill the man.  Nut case, stupid human, old coot. It is not our responsibility to take care of these people.

Have a little talk with Jesus and leave the cat alone.  Ridiculous, frivolous, animal-hater, mean, grumpy black-hearted man, obnoxious.  He is trying to discriminate against the cat.  Creep, moron, a**hole, fool.  These people are crooks.  Perhaps if he lost weight he could breathe better.  Give that man a mask and a gag!

Old goat, ruins it for everyone.  Roll his fat a** off the nearest bridge.  Keep the cat get rid of the man.  Lonely hateful man, trouble maker, pill, hateful person, self centered, horrible, small minded.  Tell that guy to take a hike.  An affront on people with REAL disabilities."

Ignorant, whiner, crybaby, grouch, rotten, nonsense, chronic malcontent, miserable soul.  Have the guy put down.  Shame on him. Dumba$$.  Put the man to sleep.
Does that look like hate speech to you?

In the end, the cat got so much support from local residents that Higgins gave up.  The cat got her very own library card.  I suppose the kids can go read books in the next town.

31 March 2013

Ten of Tens: Retrenching

This month, I'm going to try to take on reducing clutter.  It's part of the "reduce" leg of the green triad.  Usually I interpret "reduce" to mean reducing purchases, thus making it arguably more important than "reuse" or "recycle" because it hits consumption at the knees rather than addressing its effects.

But "reduce" also means getting rid of stuff that's lying around unused, so as to simplify life and limit the need for storage space.  I generally resist getting rid of stuff that's perfectly useful because I fear I might need it some time.  My mother is a war refugee, my father a depression baby -- hanging on to anything that might come in handy some day is deeply ingrained.

But recently I've been taking another look.  On sabbatical in Cambridge a few years back I was invited to a May Ball, for which I bought a gown at a thrift shop and (oh my) schlepped it back to New York.  Really, I'm never going to wear it again.  T-shirts and turtlenecks with holes in them, that I keep around for pajamas and weekend wear have to go.  Why do have a package of weatherstripping, anyway?  Do I really need all those old towels, baby blankets, kid toys, books I'll never read again? The goal: to take every single thing off shelves and out of drawers and boxes and crates and see how much I can send to thrift shops or recycle bins.

De-cluttering wasn't on my list back in January, when I hatched grand plans for adopting new habits that would lead to greater environmental awareness and sustainability in my personal life.  I vowed to take on a new habit, task, or challenge -- albeit a small one -- for each of the next ten months.  So far, I've done better at things that weren't on the list.

In January, I attempted, and failed, to eat more local food.  On the other hand, though it wasn't the plan, I did a lot better at packing my lunch, and avoiding the vast amounts of waste (and the not-so-healthy meals) that go with take-out.  In February, I tried, and failed, again with the local food, but also went off-piste by returning to yoga as a daily habit, and that one is sticking, though it's not really an environmental commitment. In March, I aimed low at reducing water waste, with reasonable success.

So April's task will be to try to get beyond the fear that I might want [item x] some day, and spend some time each weekend unpacking the cabinets and closets to make them more useful by virtue of being less overstuffed.  I'm starting with the pantry, trying to eat my way through the food already stored there before buying more.

26 March 2013

How to Make a Difference

I used to cook regularly for a soup kitchen. When I was hugely pregnant with The Offspring, I got light-headed in the heat and had to stop. For years, I told myself I'd go back. But a full-time job plus child care turned out to be a more challenging combination than I ever dreamed, and while certain things about parenting have gotten easier, it still demands a whole heck of a lot of time. Okay, so I give up. I'm not at the soup kitchen any more.

Meanwhile, though, I've been blogging, an activity that can be done in much smaller chunks of time. I think about issues I want to blog about on the train, on the bike, in the kitchen, in the shower. I can grab a few minutes between work or family responsibilities to write a few paragraphs, even a few sentences. Sometimes it takes me days to finish a post, and that's okay.

Eventually, The Offspring will move out, and different kinds of time will be freed up again. And eventually again, I'll retire. At the points of transition, I'll have the opportunity to rethink what I spend time on. For now... I do what I can.

And now I'm talking to you, dear reader. Yes, you can make a difference. But how? You're just one person, with limited impact.... Margaret Mead has been quoted so often it's more or less doctrine: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Find your cause. You need a cause you're truly committed to, because sometimes it will feel like you're the only one. Your commitments may change over time; that's okay. The world changes, and as you learn more, you'll see different facets of it that will seem less or more important.

Find a group of people who share your views. Depending on your temperament, you may do well with a traditional face-to-face community, or you may prefer to interact with people on line.

Study your cause, and keep studying, keep learning more. There's always more to find out, more knowledge being created. Become the creator of knowledge.

Figure out what you have to give, now: time, money, a skill. Later, you may have more money, less time (or the other way around), different skills, and as you keep learning and re-evaluating, you may be in a position to help differently. But don't wait until you have [x]. Do what you can, NOW.

That said, if constraints on time or money limit your availability to help now, don't beat yourself up.

Do what you can. Don't give up.

I Need a Break from my Break

I didn't do so well on the spring break to-do list.  I got the first of the conference papers written, and went to the conference, and heard so many great papers and had so many heart-breaking conversations with students nearing the completion of their PhDs that my brain is full.

I got the car taken care of, important because the conference involved a road trip, and I knocked off some doctors' appointments.

Grading?  Yes, got some done.  Getting ahead on work for the rest of the semester?  Joke.  Which is why April is the cruelest month: because spring break is always too short and the lists of things to do too optimistic. Catching up on sleep? Yeah, right.

What day is it again? What am I teaching today?  Where's the coffee?

20 March 2013

Part-Time? Intermittent? Interruptive?

I'm looking for a new word, because "chronic" doesn't fit my own embodiment of dis-ease.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "chronic" thus: "Of diseases, etc.: Lasting a long time, long-continued, lingering, inveterate; opposed to acute."  Also: "continuous, constant."  The term fits the pain and stiffness in my shoulder, lingering from last year's incident when a runaway truck collided with my car.  The pain isn't particularly severe, and it's sometimes worse than other times, but it's always there, and fairly predictable: If I use the arm, the pain will be worse.  If I carry a backpack, or lift weights, or go swimming, it will aggravate it.  At the end of the day, when I try to get to sleep, I notice it.  It's always there.

The asthma, on the other hand, comes and goes, in intense and unexpected shifts and reversals.

Oh, the disease is always there, and I take medication twice a day to keep it under control, and there are things that will pretty predictably set off a reaction: inhaling smoke, eating mushrooms, drinking wine are all guaranteed troublemakers; getting a cold or flu sometimes sets off worse symptoms, but sometimes doesn't.

I decide what I eat and drink, though reading ingredient labels is a constant hassle and trying to eat in restaurants can be vexing.  Inadvertently breathing smoke from a fireplace, a cigarette, a can of sterno, a gas heater, or an idling truck is a lot more difficult to control.

Sometimes, one of these triggers -- or a combination -- will set off a mild reaction from which I recover in a few hours.  Other times, an attack might be so severe I'll find myself winded from loading the dishwasher or taking a shower; climbing stairs becomes a project.  It might take a week to recover, or six weeks, or three months.  That, too, is unpredictable.

The Oxford Thesaurus: American Edition suggests, among others, irregular, discontinuous, sporadic, spasmodic, random, fitful, and broken as synonyms for "intermittent."  What I want is a word that means both "random" and "spasmodic."  I also want some sense of the body being attacked rather than attacking itself: the triggers are environmental even though the bodily response is auto-immune.

What think you, sisters and brothers in the land of disorders that buck and hassle and kick on some days, and subside in meek docility in others?  How do we name our embodiment?

19 March 2013

Where to Shop

The old mantra, reduce, reuse, recycle, begins with "reduce."  As in, better to avoid shopping altogether.  Learn to live with less.  Buy things that will last, and then get them repaired rather than replacing them as they wear.  But we do need food, shelter, clothing.  We need tools to cook with, we need furnishings for our homes.

The place to start, then, is buying used.  Double bonus: you buy something without the environmental costs of new manufacture, and you keep an item out of the landfill.  Some places to start: Better World Books, Craig's List, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, your local thrift or consignment shop.

When used won't do, you can shop from a store with explicit commitments to environmentally friendly materials and good labor practices across the supply chain.  Some of the better options:

American Apparel
Seventh Generation
simple shoes
Sustainable NYC
Ten Thousand Villages
World of Good

Among manufacturers that sell clothing in the US, only H&M, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Abercrombie and Fitch have signed on to the  Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Green America recommends fabrics made out of bamboo, organic cotton, industrial hemp, recycled polyester, soy silk or cashmere, and wool.  They also publish The National Green Pages, a directory of green businesses, as well as a newsletter with information on fair trade practices across a variety of industries.

In the absence of transparency about labor rights, industrial methods, and green materials, we all need to keep reading about corporate practices and putting pressure on individual companies to improve their records.