Tuesday, April 29, 2014

resolution 5.1

This year I made several New Years resolutions. I've been making these for years and some have worked out better than others. Despite some notable failures, I still think they're valuable exercises.
This one has been working out better than I expected.

From the list: 
Section 5, item 1 (don't you be laughing at my list! I may be more obsessive than others...)
No restaurant desserts

I'll repeat, No Restaurant Desserts.

I love to go out to eat. I love nice restaurants with interesting food. Desserts at restaurants are special treats, complicated confections that most people wouldn't even try to make at home. They are usually huge, with extra garnishes and swirly sauces. They are designed to elicit a decedent, indulgent feeling. Go ahead, you deserve this! 

Over the years, though, as I have tried to decreased the amount of sugar I consume, I've found that fancy desserts look better than they actually taste. I'll make one exception for the ice cream sundae with liberal amounts of Amaretto and Bailey's Irish Cream that I had in VA last summer. It didn't look like much and tasted like heaven.

Another issue with restaurant desserts is that by the time they arrive, I'm usually full. I'd love one or two bites, but that's harder to do than not ordering it at all. Also, those fancy desserts aren't exactly cheap. 

Weighing all those factors: cost, disillusionment, no room in the tummy, and the inevitable guilt over calories, I decided to make the choice ahead of time that 2014 would be a year of just saying "no". (disclaimer - this has nothing to do with my afternoon cookie break.)

How has it worked out? Better than I hoped. 
Why? Because the choice is already made. There's no thinking about it at the moment of ordering dessert, it's already decided. 

The one time I had some temptation was going to dinner with friends to the Cheesecake Factory. Seriously, one doesn't go there for the salads. I knew it might be trouble, so I used one of the tactics I've read about in habit creation. Openly share your challenge and ask your friends for help. On the way to the restaurant, I mentioned my resolution. I put it out there publicly, so I would have three other people watching my back. That really helped me ignore the huge case of cakes they make you walk past on the way to the table.

As you've guessed, it's not really about dessert. It's about mindfulness and simplicity. I finally recognized that stressing over whether or not to order dessert, and feeling full and guilty when I did order dessert were outweighing the joy of actually eating dessert. It's about recognizing that something that is supposed to make people happy, wasn't making me happy. Sitting down to write out "resolutions" is an attempt to give myself some guidelines to adhere to, to free myself from repetitive decision-making. 

By opting out of dessert, I find I'm enjoying my entree choices more. Since I only have to make one food decision, eating at a restaurant is more relaxing. I'm not stressing about dessert or no dessert. I don't feel overstuffed. The bill is lighter. I even have a fall back plan when the rest of the party is ordering dessert. I'll have a cup of herbal tea.

Maybe next year, I'll go back to ordering dessert occasionally, but for now, I'm just taking a break.

plain, humble, home-baked cookie

Monday, April 21, 2014

poverty and violence

book review - The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence
by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros

I like to think of myself as an optimist. I want to believe that people are generally good intentioned. If they do bad things, it might be in response to their environment or to some mental illness. But if truth be told, I'm really just a denier. I try to deny that evil exists. Maybe if I ignore it, evil will go away.

Reading this book has had the effect of dragging my head up from the sand by the hair and forcing me to confront possibly the greatest obstacle to human life second to environmental dangers. People can be bad, really bad. 

This book is an analysis of the impact of violence on poor people. In the 2000 Summit endorsing the UN Millennium Development Goals, violence against the poor is not mentioned. Yet the mounting evidence, including the 1999 study by the World Bank: Voices of the Poor, show that until violence against the poor is abated, all the food, medicine, and micro-loans is of no import. Violence can take all that away in moments.

"When we think of global poverty we readily think of hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy, dirty water, and a lack of education, but very few of us immediately think of the global poor's chronic vulnerability to violence -- the massive epidemic of sexual violence, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, assault, police abuse, and oppression that lies hidden underneath the more visible deprivations of the poor. " (from the introduction)

Ok, my head is already spinning after the introduction. 

Why isn't violence addressed? Um, because, usually the rich (or someone just a bit richer) is profiting by the violence. Rich countries will happily assist poorer countries to address counter-terrorism or anti-money-laundering efforts, but not common violence against the poor.

Why do we continue to pour aid funds into remedies for poverty that often wind up in the hands of corrupt groups? Because we want to feel like we're doing something good, and it feels better to fund schools and health efforts than it does to acknowledge greed and bullying.

Why don't the poor have access to good criminal justice systems? One of the causes in former colonies of European countries is that the justice systems that were set up to protect the ruling elite from the poor, still exist. And they are still using those outdated structures, like insisting that courts use only the English language when the poor do not speak English.

The authors start with stories of individuals from cases taken up by their organization, International Justice Mission. They analyze these cases to provide a basis for discussing some of the factors behind common violence, gender-based violence, land-grabbing, slavery, illegal detention, corruption and dysfunctional justice systems. 

I had to take a few breaks from reading this at first because it was so disheartening. But it was also a compelling read (and the other book I was reading in tandem is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, so taking a break wasn't really working to lift me up), so I kept at it, feeling that at some point, the authors were going to start giving readers a little of hope.

Fixing the multiple issues that allow violence against the poor is "costly, difficult, dangerous, and unlikely" (pg. 188), but the authors do start showing some examples of positive change. In some cases, the change comes from champions within the systems themselves, in some, due to the IJM model starting with Collaborative Casework, that follows and supports victims through their attempts for justice.

This is a game-changing book. It really enhanced my (minimal) understanding of what it means to be desperately poor. I will be reading more about this topic.

Some future reading inspired by this book:
Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Disposable People by Kevin Bales

Saturday, April 19, 2014


I watched a pilot for a new series last week, called Years of Living Dangerously, about climate change. It has an all-star cast and some excellent landscape photography. I found it slow-paced, but I think they are trying to concentrate on getting a message across and didn't want to make the commentary too busy. Harrison Ford sure got into a lot of air planes for a show on climate change, though. 

They presented three story lines: deforestation and carbon in the air, drought in America's heartland and the different reactions between Christians and scientists, and drought in Syria and the civil unrest that may have been caused by the shortage of water.

All of the stories were interesting, but the deforestation story really struck me because I just hadn't realized how much of the current deforestation taking place in Southeast Asia, primarily Indonesia, was to make room for palm plantations. Palm plantations? Someone decided it was more important to have palm oil than forests?

It was difficult to watch footage of old-growth peat forests burning down to make room to grow palm oil so we can make snack foods, candy and baked goods. When I was little, snack foods like chips and sweets like cupcakes were for parties, like your birthday party, you know, only once a year! Now these non-food items are part of the daily American diet. To be fair, the US is only the 12th largest consumer of palm oil, but we still consume 54.7 kg of palm oil annually, each one of us.

What if we were able to stop buying all that junk food made with palm oil? We certainly can't regenerate those old-growth forests, but could we slow down the devastation? Can we make an impact? It stands to reason that if human behavior and consumer choices have caused companies to burn down forests to grow palm trees, than maybe a change in behavior and consumer choices can at least slow down the burning. But how many people are going to think about deforestation when they are standing in the snack aisle at the grocery store?

It really is a question of impact. How much can we change human behavior to be more mindful of the health of the planet? And even if we made a radical change in our consumption habits, could we really heal even some of the damage we've done to the planet?

I hope the new TV series can open some eyes and help people think about how we use and abuse our planet.  Harrison Ford, a board member of Conservation International, says "Nature doesn't need people, people need nature."

The two stories on drought really bring that point home. I'm looking forward to seeing more episodes to see how climate change information is presented and how the producers deal with the question of how we can change our behavior to impact the planet in more positive ways.

This is probably copyrighted, but you know who it is.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

a tiny writing project

One cannot write without reading. I read daily. Usually I have two books going at once, but in between those, I love to read on the internet. Generally, I read articles from twitter feeds and posts from bloggers. Some of my favorite favorite blogs I have actually subscribed to receive emails. 

Emails can easily become clutter. If not read and deleted regularly, subscriptions can become overwhelming. So, I'm pretty careful to not subscribe to too many and to read them regularly. If they start to get boring, I unsubscribe quickly. I like to keep my inbox below 10 messages.

These are my current favorites:

All this is just preamble to the start of a new, tiny writing project I started about 3 weeks ago. 

I have a significant person in my life who lives far from me. I can't give this person a hug as often as I would like. This person has some struggles and sometimes feels overwhelmed and unhappy. I thought about how much joy I get from reading my uplifting email subscriptions and decided I would start sending a short, positive email every day to my significant person. 

Tool set:
The reminder app on my smart phone. I created a daily reminder to send the email first thing in the morning. 

The drafts folder in my email application. As I think of ideas to send, I create the email, bcc myself and save it in the drafts folder. I keep the general category in the subject line, until I'm ready to send it. Then it just gets a number. That way I can peruse the subjects and pick one that appeals to me for that day, or choose one that will help with a specific challenge that person is facing.

The World Wide Web. It's fun to find sources and pictures to send. I have a great excuse to read!

Topics: art -- philosophical quotes -- pictures of restful places, flowers, sunsets -- funny (ok, I'll admit it) cat videos -- music videos -- exercises and yoga poses -- organizational tips -- health and nutrition -- general random upbeat articles

It's a good writing practice for me and hopefully it will give that person a little smile, an encouragement, a restful breath, a virtual hug.

A stop on one of my walks. I've never seen anyone sitting there, but it's inviting all the same.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

family migration

Visiting my Dad this summer, he voiced the opinion that families shouldn't move so far away from each other. "Children should just stay in their home town and raise their families close by their grandparents". 

I'm sure he was just missing being near us. 

Not withstanding the greater picture of human migration that allowed us to escape from hostile environments, famine and pestilence, humans move for perceived better opportunities and the sheer thrill of adventure. Seriously, what would have happened if we actually had stayed where we were born?

Just going back to the generation before him, I'll look at the migration of his parents and my maternal grandparents to see where we've moved and then the impact of those moves on our family history. In this examination, there are five marriages (three generations), only one of which was possible without someone migrating.

Move 1. My paternal grandfather left his hometown in Canon GA to move to Asheville NC to find work. He was a printer in a family that had been printers for several generations in the same area. He was one of 7 brothers, all printers. Canon didn't have that much room for that many printers, so the brothers started moving out.

While in Asheville, he married a local woman whose family had been in Asheville for several generations. My great-grandfather was in the furniture business there. Here we have the first move, from GA to NC, that resulted in a marriage of two people who otherwise would not have known each other. 

My maternal grandparents actually both grew up in the same town they married in, Lock Haven PA. I doubt they would have met, however, if my maternal great-grandfather hadn't moved from a farm outside town to town to take a term as sheriff, living over the jailhouse, near where my other maternal great-grandfather was a merchant. Here is the only example in our recent family history of a marriage that might have taken place without migration.

Move 2. My paternal grandparents moved from NC to Long Island NY so my grandfather could find better opportunities in printing. My father was born there.

Move 3. My maternal grandparents moved from PA to Long Island NY so my grandfather could find better opportunities in banking. My mother was born in PA before they moved. My parents married while living in the same town, but only one of them had been born in the general area. My father's family had moved over a few towns as higher income allowed them to seek better schools and neighborhoods.

Move 4. My father and mother moved from Long Island to Guilderland NY, for a job my father took as an engineer with GE. My sister and I were born in Guilderland.

Move 5. My husband's parents moved from Binghamton NY to Guilderland NY after Army service in Fort Knox KY. My father-in-law had work in the State Education Department in Albany. My husband was born in Fort Knox. We married in Guilderland.

Move 6. My father then moved with his job to Nashville TN. My sister married a man whose family lived in Nashville, although I'm pretty sure he was not born there, as they had moved around with her father-in-law's job as a headmaster. My sister married in Nashville.

Moves 7 and 8 are completed, but have not resulted in any marriages of the next generation yet. Move 7 was my two children, one to Los Angeles CA and the other to Las Vegas NV, both for job opportunities in the film and hospitality industries. Move 8 was my sister's family to Fort Worth TX so my brother-in-law could partner with some college friends to start their own film production business. Their two children still reside in Fort Worth, while they complete secondary school.

So, wow, Dad! That's a lot of moves! And if not for the first one, you wouldn't have been born.

the family unit, 1969, Guilderland NY

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


One of the many benefits to giving up personal car ownership, is that I don't to have to deal with parking. Occasionally I'll rent a car or drive one belonging to a friend, but the great thing about feet is that you get to take them with you when you go from place to place. There's no "Now, where did I park my feet?"

I don't need a valet ticket. Feet don't get parking tickets. There isn't any walking about trying to find a free space that doesn't have alternate day parking, is too close to a fire hydrant, or in a loading zone. There is no painful discovery that your feet have been towed. My feet can usually park for free, or at least for the price of a cup of coffee.

My feet are also pretty light on the earth. While I'm happy to use roads and pathways, being a pedestrian doesn't require parking spaces. In fact, I find I have started to resent parking spaces. Not only do they take up valuable real estate that cannot be used for crops, housing or parks, they increase solar heating and wreck havoc on water drainage systems. Parking spaces along roads complicate the creation of bike lanes. And there are too many of them overall. One estimate is that in the US, there are 8 spaces built for every car (obviously not in the high-density cities, so what does that tell you about suburbia?).

Aside from these concrete environmental impacts of parking spaces, the reason I find them distasteful is gut level emotional. Parking lots are like dead zones. I do a lot of walking. A lot. Walking through or near a parking lot is depressing. It's like walking across a wasteland that keeps people away from each other and the places they want to visit. Contrast the experience of walking across a big parking lot with walking on a tree-lined sidewalk with people to talk to and things to look at.

Here's some good news:
Car ownership is down, especially among young people.

Real estate developers and governments are starting to redesign the parking requirements
for new residential and commercial buildings based on proximity to transit stations.

Car and bike sharing is increasing in US cities.

How to help reduce parking spaces:
Attend town or city meetings. Gather data on the benefits of better pedestrian design to support zoning and planning issues when they come up where you live. 

Stop driving so much. When business owners see their parking lots more empty than they planned on, that data is used to size future parking lots. Walk to do your errands when you can. Take public transportation when available. Maybe an unused parking lot could be turned into a park someday.

Read The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald C. Shoup. I was shocked to discover how much parking spaces add to the cost of housing, just one little piece of the the burden of the parking infrastructure.

I'm happy to take my feet out for a walk, skirting the parking spaces and seeking out the trees, sidewalks, and people. When I get where I'm going, I don't have to leave my feet in anyone's way.

Beauty is not in the eye of this beholder.