Friday, July 18, 2014

Of Antiques and Aggression

Sometimes the strangest stories get stuck in my head, back somewhere half-buried in the sand with just a glint of shimmer peeking out to catch my eye (thoughts) a few times a day.

Sometimes when I am listening to a friend talk, I feel a deeper sense of knowing, or at least the potential to find a deeper understanding, and that feeling echoes throughout my days and nights until I'm ready to haul it out from the sand and give it a once-over.

Yesterday I sat and had a fully impromptu cup of coffee with a dear, lovely friend and we caught up a little bit, talking of things important and not so important.  She told me a funny story that sat with me until this morning when I finally realized why it was resonating.

Over the past few weeks, J has been cleaning out her attic, purging boxes and old documents and hauling things to the thrift store that she no longer needs.  Among other things, one item she decided to get rid of was an old stool of her daughter's. It was a mushroom-style stool that her mother had given to her daughter to use with her vanity table - a table that has long since been sold or given away, but the stool remained.  It was unique and presumably in good condition and probably had some sentimental value, but J took it to the thrift store in town along with a load of other things.

A few days or a week later, J got an email from her mother with a link to a listing for a stool just like that one on Craigslist.  Vintage, 1960s mushroom stool for sale. $45

"See?" her mother wrote, "You could sell that stool! Here's one just like it."

J laughed out loud.  That WAS her daughter's stool. The same one she had dropped off at the thrift store. She examined the photo on the listing and determined that someone must have bought the stool cheaply, recognized it for what it was, and decided to make a little cash off of it.

As she told me that story, I thought of my dad for some reason, and how furious he would be at the missed opportunity to make some money off of an item. How angry he would have been that someone else was selling something that had been his, that he could have had that $45.  I marveled at J's easy laughter, at her complete lack of frustration, even as I knew I would have felt the same as her. Imagining the time spent photographing the stool, creating the listing, entertaining emails and phone calls from interested buyers, and waiting at home for someone to come pick it up, I tried to gauge what my time was worth and where the tipping point would have been. $50? $100? In the end, I gave a mental nod to the cleverness of the person who saw the stool in the thrift store and recognized it as something special and made some money off of it.

I have always resisted writing or speaking about my thoughts on the conflict in the Middle East, mostly because I don't feel as though I have any right to do so, given my lack of knowledge.  I have read articles and some history on the Palestine-Israel, Gaza Strip issues and have a rudimentary grasp of the players and their beliefs, but I don't feel as though I truly have a grasp of the deepest issues and the raw wounds and I am loathe to offend anyone with what will most likely be a superficial assessment of the continuously erupting wars in that part of the world.

That said, there is a part of me that feels as though the most superficial (perhaps basic is a better word) treatment is the most accurate.  These are human beings, killing each other and each other's children, afflicted with a sense of scarcity and fear that causes them to continue killing in some effort to gain more.  More of what is, in my mind, beside the point. In any war or armed conflict, there is a basic underlying assumption that someone else has what I want, or what I believe is rightfully mine. There is a belief that I deserve or own something and that the only way to get it is to prove my physical (or military) superiority.  Grief is not a big enough word for what I feel when I read about the loss of life on a daily basis in Gaza and the Ukraine and parts of Africa.  We are killing each other for things. We have become seduced by the notion that we can not only have more, but we deserve more, and that it is perfectly okay to go in and take more by whatever means necessary.  We have succumbed to the notion that what we have is not enough, or that even if it is enough, that we are entitled to something more. We are teaching our children that power and property are more important than love and life and community and cooperation.  We dehumanize each other by putting each other into groups based on skin color or ethnicity or religion or gender so that we can more easily justify going after what we are so afraid to not have, as if it will give us peace and happiness.

J could have been bitter and angry that she "lost out" on the money she could have made by selling that stool, but she didn't fall prey to the myth of scarcity.  She recognized that what she has is enough and was pleased to simply be lighter thanks to having given the stool away.  I recognize that the stool is not the same as the Gaza Strip or the Ukraine, that there are much more complicated issues and beliefs associated with these conflicts and I do not mean to demean them in any way. My heart is heavy when I think about what it will take to stop the bloodshed, even for a little while, and heavier still when I imagine the scars this round of killing has inflicted on the families of the dead.  I absolutely believe that our best shot at stemming the tide of violence is to ask ourselves who we are willing to kill or maim in order to get a strip of land, to see the faces of those individuals being bombed and shot, see them with their families and friends, hear their voices, acknowledge their humanity alongside our own family and friends, and assess what we already have to see whether it is enough. To ask ourselves whether it is worth taking the life of another person to get a little bit more, or for the purpose of making some point or other, asserting our "rights." Can we instead make do with what we have?


Monday, July 14, 2014

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Oh, where to begin? Before I left for Europe three weeks ago, I had every intention of writing a blog post or two and staying (mostly) current on reading blogs, but that, it turns out, was wishful thinking.

Instead, here I sit at 1:30 in the afternoon the day after we returned home, having been awake since 5:00am (and continually looking at the clock in amazement that it isn't MUCH LATER in the day yet), utterly overwhelmed as to what to say or whether to read every blog post I've missed in the last three weeks.

Eve is on the couch in the family room, iPad perched on her lap as she downloads apps she'll need for school this fall, her eyes opening and closing slowly, slowly, slowly.

Lola is banging around in her room, rearranging things and listening to music and I suspect it's only a matter of time before both of them slide into oblivion, given that it is nearly bedtime in Spain right now.

Bubba got up at 7:00 this morning and headed off to work and I have no idea how he is faring right about now, but I do know that after dinner tonight, we will have to go for a long walk in order to stay awake until a reasonable hour to go to sleep.

As for me, I feel better than I ought to (although I am currently sipping a triple-shot Americano, so there is that) except for the finger I'm fairly certain I broke tripping up the stairs in the 100-year old farmhouse we rented in the South of France.  I did it the first night and, while I was able to move it fairly well and the swelling was minimal, the knuckles turned nasty shades of green and purple and I had to break into the first aid kit to tape it to it's neighbor for a few days.  Two weeks later, it still aches from time to time, radiating up my arm to the elbow and I felt like it was healing okay until I came home and tried to use it to type.

The trip itself was lovely and exhausting and eye-opening.  We spent four days in Paris at a hotel and had great fun navigating the Metro and re-learning lessons such as don't ride the Metro during rush hour or you'll be smashed up against a lot of hot, smelly people - some of whom are determined to pick your pocket or grab your ass. My rudimentary French held up quite well, and I was especially pleased when I could use it to threaten a young man who was harassing Eve quite aggressively along the Seine. My Mama Bear emerged and my French was apparently convincing as he moved away quickly, eyes open wide, head shaking. Eve was mortified, but I was very proud of myself for several minutes afterward.

The South of France was amazing and having a house made things so much simpler. Not being able to eat gluten in France is a little tricky, given not only the obvious (croissants, baguettes) but because nearly every French sauce is based on flour and butter. Having our own kitchen meant that we could hit the farmer's markets and buy amazing, fresh food and prepare it ourselves.  It also meant that we weren't held to the whims of the restaurants that don't even open for dinner until 7:30. We were in a small village near Montpellier and most of the places that serve food only do so until about 2pm and then open again at 7:30 for dinner, which makes it a little tricky if you're hungry.

Our last week was spent in a tiny beach town in Spain, about an hour from Valencia. Here, we had a house, too, but the kitchen wasn't nearly as easy to use, so we ended up eating out a lot more.  We spent a lot of time at the beach, remembering that European beaches are much, much different than the ones we're used to. Tops are optional, by noon it is wall-to-wall umbrellas as far as the eye can see, and everyone smokes everywhere.  The sand is one giant ashtray and if you're sensitive to cigarette smoke, you're out of luck.  The weather and the view was absolutely gorgeous and the food was good for the most part, although one can get a little tired of paella after a few days.  The one morning we went out for breakfast, we were surprised to see the locals drinking beer and wine at 9am. The wine they cut with fizzy water, but the traditional breakfast fare seemed to be beer, a plate of peanuts in the shell followed by a plate of what looked like tomato slices, lettuce, olives and pickled onions and a baguette filled with either prosciutto or fried pork rinds.  Never have I ever been so glad to be gluten-intolerant - it was the perfect excuse to avoid that mess!

One day we drove about an hour down the coast to a town called Denia where we stumbled upon an arena bounded on one side by the marina. There were four rows of rudimentary bleachers on the other three sides and the arena itself was simply dirt. Inside were perhaps 150 locals, mostly young men 30 and under, although notably, there were some young women and one woman who looked to be around 50. One at a time, an angry bull was loosed into the mass of people whose goal was to entice the bull to chase them and fall into the water.  It sounded perfectly awful, but I confess it was a bit like watching a horrible car accident and I took pleasure in cheering the bull on as it herded entire swaths of idiotic young men into the water and stopped short itself.

As adventurous and fun as the trip was, we were all ready to come home and thrilled to be back in our own beds, cuddling with our pets, and eating our own food.  Over the next few days, we'll settle in to the right time zone, clean clothes, and giving each other a little more space. I'm looking forward to wrapping my head around the writing projects I have to get done and writing a more substantial blog post. My attention is caught by the violence in the Gaza Strip and the recent Supreme Court decisions, but I don't have the mojo to delve in quite yet.

For now, it's just good to be home.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Occam's Razor and the Lure of Technology

I learned about Occam's razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major - biology and chemistry - and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam's razor is
"a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better."

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates' life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don't know what his managerial style is, but I can't imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 

Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene - the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas - and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn't require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can't patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn't mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can't be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you're interested in serving.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Trick of Time

The past couple of weeks (and the next week or so, as well) can only be characterized as volcanic. Most of the time, my life moves along at the same pace, even with minor changes in routine, and while I know that time is marching on and things are changing incrementally, imperceptibly, I have accepted that one day I will look back and be astonished at how far we've come from one place or another.

And then there are times when it feels as though I am lost in an unmanned capsule hurtling through space at the speed of light en route to a destination I knew about but somehow didn't realize was so close.

Eve graduated from 8th grade last night. After four incredible years at my favorite middle school on the planet, she is done.  We watched her play basketball for four seasons, learn to tap into her own unique talents and tendencies to develop into a strong leader, forge friendships with a diverse group of girls who make her laugh and cry, and I knew this day was coming, but like these things do, it happened slowly and then instantly. She is so ready to move on to the next chapter, and I am so glad I have the next two and a half months to get more mentally and emotionally prepared for it. She likes to torture me by saying things like, "You know, Mom, I can get my driver's permit in less than a year if I want." For my part, I continue to remind her that we live in the city and there's a bus stop half a block away if she wants...

She was home yesterday when a friend came to have lunch with me and we invited her to join us.  At first I was afraid she might be bored with our conversation, but I needn't have worried.  Somewhere along the way she has grown into her aspirations of confidence and independence and she was a lively and appropriate part of our visit.

Tomorrow, Lola turns 12. When she got dressed for last night's graduation ceremony and appeared in the kitchen ready to go, I noticed how long her legs are getting and how the roundness of her cheeks has melted away as she heads inevitably toward teenagerdom.  She still loves watching SpongeBob Squarepants and snuggling with me on the mornings that I wake her up for school, but she is following her sister's example of spending more time in her room alone and asserting her ability to make more decisions.  The great debate this year revolved around which movie she and her friends would see this weekend, given that some parents are uncomfortable with the PG-13 content of the ones on their short list. It is such a challenge to watch these girls straddle goofy girlhood and the desire to be grown up, although I suspect it is more of a challenge to be living that dichotomy.

As for me, I am struggling to find some clear perspective on what my role is at this juncture.  I don't want to hold on too tightly, clenching my fists around the golden threads that tether them to me, but I'm not ready to completely let go, either.  As I watched Eve and her friends glide across that stage last night to get their diplomas, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the hours of sleepovers and carpool driving I was lucky enough to be part of, privy to some inside jokes and candid conversations and the march toward young adulthood they each took in their own time.  I was moved to tears when I heard one of them acknowledge the strength of the foundation they have all given each other, a platform from which they can all leap confidently.  I am looking forward to two more years of that with Lola, starting with next week when I'll chaperone their final trip of the year - a three day bike and camping excursion on a local island a few hours away.  I am excited to watch them challenge themselves physically and emotionally (and I've already told them they are responsible for pitching my tent since I've never done that in my life) and come together as a class to problem solve. I fully anticipate that there will be tears of joy and frustration and at least one girl will likely get shoved into the water, whereupon the rest will follow in solidarity.

In the abstract, I know what is to come for Eve as she heads off to high school, and I also know that these next four years will march by slowly and surely until there is another seismic shift forward that lands us squarely in the lap of high school graduation, amazed that it came so quickly.

I am a little sad, and very nostalgic, but more than anything, I am overcome with love for my girls and my fabulous husband and an intense feeling of gratitude that I am lucky enough to witness and be part of their lives each and every day as we move toward these momentous events in all our lives.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Bubble Effect (or Why I Choose the Women's Funding Alliance)

Photo copied from Patty Murray's Facebook page
I just got back from having lunch with Washington State Senator Patty Murray and Massachusetts State Senator Elizabeth Warren.  And about 2,000 other people.  Murray, known around these parts as the "mom in tennis shoes" thanks to a slight she got from one lawmaker when she dared challenge funding cuts in a local preschool program, fully embraced the classification and went on to successfully run for her school board, state representative, and is now a four-time Washington State Senator. As part of her acceptance and celebration of that title, she now holds an annual event that honors other people in our state who have taken it upon themselves to make changes that benefit others, going so far as to give them a golden tennis shoe.

This year, I was invited by the folks at the Women's Funding Alliance to join them at their table and I was thrilled to accept, given that Elizabeth Warren would be speaking.

The honorees were truly fantastic - an immigrant who lived in a housing project in Seattle, got a degree from the University of Washington in business, and headed right back to that housing project to help raise other residents up and offer them the benefit of his wisdom and experience; a young woman whose mother was killed by her boyfriend after years of emotional abuse who went on to start a campaign to teach middle and high school students how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and step in to stop it; and a woman who took her passion and talent for training dogs and turned it into a project that pairs wounded veterans and disabled children with service dogs as well as utilizing prison inmates to help train the dogs, giving them the benefit of working with the dogs and a useful skill they can parlay into a job when they are released.  It was even more fantastic to hear Senator Murray say that the number of individuals who were nominated for these awards was overwhelming and it was difficult to choose from all of the people in our state who are working so hard for the greater good.

After the awards were given and all of the awardees spoke, Senator Warren came to the podium to thunderous applause.  She was passionate, eloquent, articulate, and spoke clearly about her three biggest priorities: equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage, and revamping the student loan system.  She has clearly done her research and staggered us with some of the statistics she shared, and she encouraged us to continue to support candidates who are committed to making changes that will help families pull themselves out of debt and poverty.

Honestly? I felt a little deflated.  Even though the final speaker, a local representative who was funny, concise, and had a compelling story came up to make the "ask" for donations was using the right combination of humor and prompting, I couldn't do it.  It's not that I don't support Senator Murray or Senator Warren. It isn't that I don't thank my lucky stars that I have someone like Patty Murray representing me in the Senate.  It's that I'm in a bubble.  And it is hard to imagine my dollars making the slightest bit of difference unless they transcend that bubble.

All of my federal representatives are Democrats and, for the most part, they all stand for the things I stand for.  My state's governor? Democrat. My city's mayor? Democrat. My city council person? Democrat. Even if one day one of those folks decides not to run again, because of where I live it is highly likely that a different Democrat will be elected.  That doesn't make me complacent, it just means that I doubt that my dollars make much of a dent. They're preaching to the choir. Elizabeth Warren was preaching to the choir - heck, just today the Seattle City Council was voting on a $15/hour minimum wage proposal. I'm pretty sure she's barking up the right tree, but unless I'm living in a Tea Party infested district, I have a hard time understanding how my words or actions or dollars have an impact if I give them at a luncheon like that.  Sometimes I wonder how frustrating, and yet energizing, it might be if I did live in a place where there was an entrenched, misogynistic representative and a strong Democratic candidate stepped up to challenge that person. Would I jump in with both feet to campaign and carry signs and donate? Would it feel like I was really part of some change? Would it be awesome?

As I walked away, grateful for the opportunity to have heard people talk about the good work they're doing, the shared humanity they believe in, the values I hold dear as well, I became even more committed to narrowing my focus.  If I can't make any substantive change in the way things are done at the macro level (besides what I already do, which is rant on Facebook and write OpEds for places like The Feminist Wire), then I can at least make an effort to fully support those folks who are working hard to make change more locally.  Ultimately, today's luncheon solidified my decision to continue working with the Women's Funding Alliance whose focus is on raising up girls and women in the state of Washington in a wide variety of ways, knowing that they are the key to turning lives around.  There, I know my dollar makes a difference.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Inspired to Create

Every so often, I am weighed down by my passions, or at least the things I choose to pay attention to more closely. And while I dearly love reading and listening to the radio, seeking out current information on topics that stoke that passion for me (food, reproductive rights, women's civil liberties, education, healthcare, etc.), from time to time I become weary of the complexities.

Last night our book club had a fascinating discussion prompted by the book Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. We touched on race issues, assimilation, education, and affirmative action, among other things, and it was a lively, respectful exchange of ideas that I welcomed.  In addition to some other discussions I've attended this week (not the least of which was the one prompted by my Op-Ed in The Feminist Wire), I was reminded just how complicated so many of these issues are and what it will take to begin to unravel them.  My mind is filled with Seattle's $15/hour minimum wage increase that is being hotly debated by the City Council and, it seems, every citizen and small business owner in the city and it seems that everywhere I look there are other, very complicated problems whose solutions will undoubtedly have unintended consequences.

Fortunately, I was reminded by two different things I read this week, that I can retreat in to simple beauty.  My friend Holly Goodman wrote a beautiful essay that appeared in Nailed Magazine this week that served to bring me back to my center.  Often, when I read glorious writing, it has the effect of reminding me that I am made more whole when I attempt to create, that my soul is served, no, soothed, by the simple act of creating something real and honest.

I just finished reading Peter Heller's latest work, "The Painter," which sparked similar feelings. The way he uses words, describes the natural world in exquisite terms, speaks in the honest heart-voice of his character, makes me want to write.  I remember that life is not all problems and solutions, that in order for it to be rich and immersive, we must create new, beautiful things.

What inspires you to create?

Monday, May 19, 2014

On The Feminist Wire Today

My piece wondering why, in this country, colleges and universities get to investigate sexual assaults on their own without involving the local police.

And while one of the first comments on it is by someone accusing me of wanting to strip extra layers of protection for college victims, I am most certainly not looking for that. I know our system of justice is woefully inadequate when it comes to rape, but I think it's a good start to hold all perpetrators (and those accused) of sexual assault to the same standard, regardless of where they live or go to school.  Check it out if you're interested.

And have a terrific Monday!
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