Everything breaks

Revisited– originally posted 5/8/2009

"Chernobyl Legacy”

 The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident of 1986 was caused by a power output glitch during a systems test. The current Japan nuclear power plant crisis was presumably caused by a failure of the cooling systems and a subsequent explosion of Reactor 1, a potential meltdown of Reactor 2, and the spewing of radioactive material from Reactor 4. The full effect on human lives is still unclear.

Some are equating the current radiation crisis in Japan to the Chernobyl disaster. However, experts claim the Japanese power plant could not produce an explosion comparable to that of the Chernobyl plant. Even so, Japanese officials announced that the current level of leached radiation poses a threat to human health and advised people within the areas of highest exposure levels to stay inside, make their homes airtight and hang laundry indoors.

So, what is the health risk exactly? The answer isn’t clear-cut. The health effects of exposure to radiation can be stochastic, meaning they depend on the level and length of exposure time. Cancer is the most common result from chronic exposure to low levels of radiation.

The effects can also be non-stochastic, which are caused by acute exposure to high levels of radiation. Non-stochastic health effects include burns and radiation sickness. Symptoms of radiation sickness or “poisoning” can include hair loss, nausea, weakness, burns and loss of organ function. If the dose of radiation is fatal, death can result within two months.

The media keep mentioning “Chernobyl” and comparing it to the current situation in Japan. But what exactly happened in Chernobyl and why are people so worried that this could be another event of its kind? What happened at Chernobyl is the worst strain of nightmare—the kind you can’t wake up from. The damage to human health from Chernobyl included more cases of non-stochastic effects. I can almost guarantee that after you watch the above photo essay, you will gain a more grave understanding of what exactly the “Chernobyl” reference means.

After watching footage from the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the radiation crisis in Japan, I began comparing the structure of human life to the structure of an egg. First, I imagine the egg is whole; the shell is intact. But then, in just one sudden action, the shell can be broken, shattered, and the contents spill out. And we are left with a mess.

“Everything breaks,” says photographer Paul Fusco during his incredibly moving photo essay of the devastating effects of Chernobyl. The workers of Chernobyl didn’t intend for the disaster to happen. But it did. The system broke. The workers of the Fukushima plant didn’t intend for this crisis to happen. But it’s happening. Japanese officials boast that Japan is one of the most prepared countries in the world to withstand the effects of an earthquake. And yet, the country is a disaster zone. Even as more information pours in about the frightening radiation levels leaking from the Japanese power plant, U.S. energy officials are assuring the American public that our nuclear power plants are strong enough to withstand any emergency or systems glitch. Who will remind them that, at some point—no matter how well we plan—everything breaks?

As footage of the devastation in Japan continues to stream in, it’s hard not to send our prayers to the victims and their families. The damage done is truly a testament to the fact that everything breaks. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose that degree of stability and infrastructure in the world around me. But as devastating as losing my possessions would be, if my life starts falling apart, I would count myself lucky if the things that collapse, crash, rupture or break are my house, car, plumbing, and dishes rather than the people who I care most about.

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Book Review: War and Peace

Originally published 7/14/2010 in The Sheet

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”

-Woody Allen

It took me five months and four days to read War and Peace. In my defense, though, I have a life—one that involves more than just devouring epic Russian novels. In fact, this was my first Russian novel, which I consumed in manageable bites of no more than 20 pages per day, gulping down 13 other books between lapses of interest.

Perhaps also in my defense, I never wanted to read War and Peace in the first place (no offense, Tolstoy). In fact, I have no better reason for completing it than that I picked it up one day, began reading it, and decided, “Well, maybe I should finish what I started.”

When my dad received the most recent translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf) for Christmas a couple years ago, I picked up the hefty hunk of literature with marked apprehension. It looked so inaccessible, insufferable, and just plain intimidating.

At the start of January this year, I discovered a hardcover copy of the same translation in my boyfriend’s possession. I asked him, in more of a mocking tone than I intended, “Who’s reading this?” He told me he was (although he hadn’t started it yet), because a friend in town had initiated a War and Peace book group. I laughed and said, “Good luck with that,” not envying him or his fellow book group victims. The next day, out of curiosity, I read the introduction, which taunted me like a challenge: “Read me because it would be so cool and intellectual to say that you’ve read me!”

Now that I’ve read it, I can’t say I feel any more cool or intellectual. Because, really, how cool is someone who sits in the corner during house parties reading her Russian novel because she has to catch up with her book group? And, as for my intellect, this was the first question I asked at the final book group meeting: “Was Pierre still fat by the end of the book?”

What I can say now, which is more than a lot of people can say, is that I’ve read it, from start to finish. (Disclaimer: neither my dad nor my boyfriend has read it yet). At least three of the original book groupers had still not finished it by the final meeting. In a column by Chicago Tribune culture critic Julia Keller about books readers couldn’t finish, War and Peace was at the top of the list. Carol Saller of Chicago said, “About 30 years ago I stopped reading War and Peace about 15 pages from the end. I could tell the story was over, and at that point Tolstoy was just yammering on about his philosophy of history, so I quit. I’ve never regretted it—actually, it’s more fun to brag about quitting 15 pages from the end.”

Now having successfully completed Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’ve decided to impart my honest review. As someone who had no idea what she was getting herself into when she decided to forge through Tolstoy’s 1217 page journey, I think it’s worthwhile for potential readers to know what they’re getting into, and what they may get out of it.  So here is a review, from a person without a scholarly background in literature, sans CliffsNotes or any in-depth historical knowledge of pre-revolution Russia.

Woody Allen was halfway there when he explained that War and Peace “involves Russia.” A more accurate description might be that it involves Russia, but is about everything. Tolstoy narrates, in laborious detail, the events preceding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its impact on Russian society, reflected in the lives of the story’s aristocratic protagonists.

But, in addition to an almost soap opera-like plot, Tolstoy tackles an impressive scope of universal topics, including, but not limited to war, religion, freedom, marriage, history, death, and happiness. When the reader sees how leisurely Tolstoy examines these institutions, it’s no wonder why the book is so long. Yet his philosophical wanderings are seamless and the characters extremely memorable. Richard Pevear, one of the translators of the newest version, opens the introduction with:

War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.

In other words, the book is tedious as hell, but if you get through it, you’ll have a lot to think about. At first, you’ll stumble over the names of characters, since each protagonist has about five different names. For example, Count Nikolai Ilyích goes by Rostov, Nikólushka, Nikólenka, Nikoláshka, Kólya, Nicolas, or Coco. Some patient adjustment is also required while reading passages where characters spontaneously switch to speaking French, which is not translated to English in the text, but rather footnoted at the bottom of the page. Other footnotes lead the reader to the back of the book for brief explanations of historical references, none of which are adequate enough to fill the gaps for someone with no prior knowledge of those people, places and events.

But, after meeting the characters, you begin to develop a particular fondness for their quirks, faults, strengths and signature physical features. Natasha Rostov, for example, with her boundless beauty and helpless happiness for life, matures from her sweet, childlike naivety in the beginning of the book to calm attentiveness by the epilogue.

Pierre Bezúkhov is the fat, bumbling, unassuming hero of the book. His righteous resolve to personally assassinate Napoleon is so nearsighted and idiotic it’s almost endearing. Yet he becomes one of the most sensible characters by the end, after facing the possibility of his own assassination and enduring his subsequent imprisonment by the French.

War and Peace is more of an experience than it is a book, where the reader gets wrapped up in the lives of interesting characters, unique prose, history, and philosophy. Tolstoy himself couldn’t even define it, saying it is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” But Tolstoy uses this freedom from form to craft something truly unrivaled in its revelatory nature.

Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book were written by Tolstoy in first person, where he carefully postulates, and sometimes relentlessly rants, about the laws of history. He explores the ideas of “chance” and “genius,” “freedom” and “necessity,” and “power.” He surmises that “Kings are the slaves of history. History, that is, the unconscious swarmlike life of mankind, uses every moment of a king’s life as an instrument for its purposes.” The conclusions he draws about the “purpose” of individuals, events, rulers, and history itself are, at times, so well developed in their arguments that the reader can only think, “Well, of course!” For example, this passage from the epilogue challenges why history unfolds as it does:

If the purpose of the European wars at the beginning of the present century was the greatness of Russia, that purpose could have been achieved without any of the preceding wars and without the invasion. If the purpose was the greatness of France, it could have been achieved without the revolution and without the empire. If the purpose was the spreading of ideas, printing would have carried it out far better than soldiers. If the purpose was the progress of civilization, it is quite easy to suppose that, besides the destruction of people and their wealth, there are other more expedient ways to spread civilization.

If nothing else, reading War and Peace will give you legitimate bragging rights for the rest of your life. I’ve been told that just saying you’ve read it makes you sound smart. Be forewarned though, that finishing it is anticlimactic. Upon reading “The End,” I was almost expecting a parade to be thrown in my honor. I at least thought that when I told people my grand news, they would shake my hand emphatically, slap me on the back, and say “Congratulations!”

Instead, most people just say, “Well that took a long time didn’t it?  Was it worth it?” Oddly, after five months perhaps you too will muster a wise look in your eyes, gaze into the distance and reply solemnly, “Yes. Yes it was.”

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Dear Utah: A love story

Indian Creek, Utah

Originally published 4/18/2010

April 10

Dear Utah,

I can already tell that our week-long tryst will seem much too short, curtailed by the irritating realities of time and money. For now, though, I feel as if I’ve slipped into a breathtaking dream, where liquid bronze rivers meet emblazoned red rocks, and the scent of sage hangs in the air like velvet.

Juniper berries are scattered across the earth like a broken pearl necklace. It seems almost obvious that the women of ancient tribes would use these juniper beads, hardened by the sun, to craft jewelry. 

I trace my fingers over a petroglyph resembling a person performing a handstand. I’m glad to see the ancient peoples of this area had some fun. It’s amusing that anthropologists think ancient people devoted their time almost exclusively to hunting and gathering, without squeezing in some time for yoga.


April 12

Dear Utah,

An alarming thing happened to me on the way to the copy center today. Whilst walking down the main street in Moab, a car full of shirtless young men (or shall I call them boys?) hollered and laughed at me while driving past. I didn’t hear what they said, and naturally, felt a bit self-conscious following the incident. I looked down at my attire. Was my skirt tucked into my underwear? Did I have bird poop smeared down my hair? Was I trailing a streamer of toilet paper behind me? No, all clear.

I continued walking. Down the street, their car turned around. As they approached me, they started shouting something unintelligible again. But this time, announced with unmistakable enunciation, was the distinct expletive: “SLUT!”

With nothing but my shoulders and toes bare, I wondered what they could mean. I thought I looked tasteful and bookish when I dressed this morning. Shall I even go so far as to say stylish? (eh, probably not) Even so, would the person who shouted that have had the same level of gall if he weren’t armored by his car and his comrades? What could I have done in response besides ignoring them? Given them the finger? Fired some ball-shrinking hex at their nether regions? Intellectually disarmed them with a witty-sounding Shakespearean insult?

“Chauvinistic pigs,” was all I muttered under my breath as they careened around the corner and out of sight. 

I decided I would start Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World at the soonest possible moment.


April 13

Dear Utah,

About 200 pages after diving into Williams’ work, she presents this question:

“What moments in our personal histories determine contempt or communion; cruelty or care?”

What moments in my personal history are different from those of the boys who defiled my dignity as a person and as a woman yesterday?

Today I realized why such a small incident has me so unhinged. I’m angry not because it happened, but because it has happened more than once, many times–too many times to me, and too many times to too many women.

My anger is not just mine. It belongs to every single woman who has felt victimized. Sadly, I believe I can say it belongs to every single woman.


April 14

Dear Utah,

I have been practicing the art of thinking.

That sounds silly. You wonder, how did I survive college?

Allow me to re-state: I have been practicing the art of passively thinking– letting thoughts come as they come and go as they go. Yes, and now I just sound like a meditative hermit who has been too long isolated from human contact.

What I mean is, rather than thinking those thoughts that bounce around everyone’s’ brains every spare moment we have– like “When is that deadline I was supposed to meet?”…”What do I need to accomplish tomorrow?”… “What do I need to buy at the grocery store?”… “I need to remember to call so-and-so tomorrow”…– I have been practicing letting my mind wander away from all that. It’s more difficult than I remember it being when I was a child.

“Much of our world now is a fabrication, a fiction, a manufactured and manipulated time-lapsed piece of filmmaking where a rose no longer unfolds but bursts. Speed is the buzz, the blur, the drug. Life out of focus becomes our way of seeing. We no longer expect clarity. The lenses of perception and perspective have been replaced by speed, motion. We don’t know how to stop. The information we value is retrieved, rarely internalized.”

-Terry Tempest Williams

Utah, your wild silence and stillness have allowed me to think clearly for the first time in a long time.


April 15

Dear Utah,

Today was a day for exploring. I covered as much ground as possible, hiking through your canyons, wandering along your mesas and dry riverbeds. In my week here, you have given me the emotional bedrock to confront my drive and my passion for the environment again. Your land is truly sacred. Lucky for you, you have allowed many skilled writers to grace your wild lands. Without them, would you still be here? Without you, what would they have written about?

The world is just so damn interconnected, isn’t it? It’s both a beautiful and frightening thing.

Goodbye, Utah.

‘Til we meet again,


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Democracy now? How?

Originally posted 1/25/2010

Have you ever heard someone say that your dollar vote is worth more than your ballot vote? Never before has this concept been more apropos in the United States. Democracy is now officially (and legally) mired in corporate corruption. This is not to say that U.S. politics were not already vulnerable to the pressure of corporate interests. But now big business can indulge in unlimited and undemocratic debauchery indefinitely.

On Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn a 63-year-old law originally written to prevent corporations and unions from providing unregulated financial campaign support to candidates for presidency and Congress. In other words, corporate spending on political campaigns is now virtually unlimited.

The Supreme Court majority justified its decision by citing a basic principle supported by the First Amendment– that government cannot constitutionally prevent free political speech. This loose interpretation of free speech rights essentially classifies corporations as “individuals,” or as entities that are entitled to the same rights as human beings.

President Obama described the ruling as a “major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

The court’s decision is distressing because as history shows, the more well-funded campaigns are often the most successful at collecting votes. This threatens future rigged elections. It also may influence elected officials to appease the interests of those who financially support their campaign– yielding to the will of special corporate interests, and not necessarily to the collective will of the people.

One of the four dissenters, Justice Paul Stevens, said, “The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor also opposed the decision.

In response to the ruling, the Obama administration has started to organize for a “forceful, bipartisan” reaction. In President Obama’s weekly address, he stated, “We have begun that work, and it will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done.”

But how long will it take to repair the damage? Given how impervious the judicial system is to the average U.S. citizen, how can we realistically affect any sort of change? The answer may lie in our wallets. Although significant law-altering change can only come from higher up on the political pyramid, we as citizens and consumers have purchasing power to vote with the money we spend.

Where we decide to allocate our money, may, in the end, be a more effective way to enact change than waiting for our politicians to do it for us. Time and time again, grassroots movements have found ways to transform ideas into action. The “Buy Local” campaign, for example, is trying to shift consumer habit away from supporting franchises, eating at food chains, and investing in national banks. By supporting our local businesses and banks, our money and our interests can remain in our communities, rather than endowing big businesses with more millions of dollars, and therefore, more political power.

Rather than waiting for the Obama administration to help us out of yet another hole dug by the Bush administration, perhaps we should figure out how to climb out ourselves.

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Musings on MLK Day

Originally posted 1/18/2010


Seven years ago I was sitting in a gym during a high school assembly in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Rather than inspiring me, the theme of the assembly was offensive enough—to my values of the time—that it’s taken me seven years and counting to evaluate its full meaning.

The theme was “Tolerance.” The specifics of the assembly evade my memory, but the basic message directed at the student body was to “practice tolerance, even towards people who are ‘different.’”

Whether intended or not, I wondered about the implications of delivering this message to my peers. I imagined a white person walking up to a black person and saying, “I don’t like you, but I’ll tolerate you.”

Perhaps the notion of this concept was upsetting to me given my interpretation of the word “tolerance.” I thought the word “respect” resonated more positively with the teachings of Dr. King. My distress, however, stemmed less from the word choice of the school board and more from the realization that tolerance might be the best we can ask of some people. I know my great grandmother, for example, did not ‘respect” Japanese people. After her son died during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she could not forget or forgive. Even eating in a Japanese restaurant was something she could not tolerate.

This past August I was sitting in another gym, witness to a different kind of assembly. Dressed in black from neck to ankles, I sat amidst my college peers, waiting patiently for the faculty speaker to finish his speech so I could receive my diploma and take off my high heels. The gist of his message was to carry what we’d learned from our classical Western liberal arts education with us into our future endeavors. Throughout his speech, he quoted many notable contributors to the Western advancement of literature, science, and art. As he was ending his speech, I realized he had never once quoted or mentioned a person of color, or a woman. Then and there I lost my respect for him, and was glad I didn’t have to tolerate his exclusive worldview any longer.


We think we’ve come so far. We read from our history textbooks about the era in which our forefathers endorsed slavery, and think we have overcome that practice. We wince at the thought of whipping a slave’s back until deep red laceration marks scar the skin. We can’t even fathom keeping human beings locked up in unsanitary and unsafe conditions on our own property, forcing them to work long hours with little or no pay.

Why then, do we continue to endorse the slavery and near-slavery that supports our way of living? Let’s face it. Most of the clothes, electronics, food, flowers, jewelry and other commodities we buy are tainted by a foreign worker’s pain, illness and poverty. Is it because these people aren’t working on our own private property that it’s okay to exploit them with our purchasing power? I understand that there are those in our own society who can’t afford to invest in humane products. But what is the excuse for those who can?

Slavery has not been eradicated. But the more upsetting truth is that we are still supporting it, even when some of us can choose not to.


In recent years, I’ve adopted a reductionist view of journalists. I see two types of journalists: those who separate themselves from the news, and those who embrace the idea that, in the reporting of news, they become a part of the news. Walter Cronkite is an example of the latter batch of reporters. When John F. Kennedy was shot, Cronkite could not maintain his composure and choked up on the air while delivering this news to the masses. I often wonder how our contemporary news broadcasters can detach themselves from the news like they do, bouncing back and forth between sad and happy stories like a ping pong tournament, all the while remaining as stoic as robots.

While listening and watching news coverage of the situation in Haiti, I found that the two aforementioned classes of journalists were both reporting from the wreckage. Some reporters, photographers and videographers stood separate from the commotion, relaying the situation in an objective, official manner. Others hopped back and forth between reporting and providing humanitarian relief to those suffering from injuries and grief. While the latter group gets my applause, the former group perplexes the hell out of me.

When did reporting and being human become mutually exclusive? If being a professional journalist means losing my humanity while reporting a crisis, then I’ll hand over my badge now. I didn’t sign up for that.


The other day, a friend who I both admire and respect went to the doctor to get a tube inserted into her mouth, steered down her esophagus and into her intestines. The end of the tube served as both a camera and a scraping tool to acquire a sample from her intestinal wall in order to diagnose the source of pain in her throat.

This same friend once told me that she lives every day with the goal of making valuable connections with people and living every day as if it was her last. While I understood her basic concept when she was telling me this, I did not fully understand how far she would go to ensure that she practiced this daily dogma each and every day, without exception.

While most people are sedated before undergoing the video tube procedure, my friend wouldn’t have it. She rejected the idea of enduring the lingering effects the sedatives would cause, fogging over the remainder of her day. She told the nurse and doctor that she would prefer to remain awake and fully conscious throughout the time the tube was winding its way through her body. The nurse told her she would be the first patient in that office to experience the routine drug-free.

Although she gagged, choked and dry-heaved her way through the procedure, to my friend, a day free from the sloth-inducing shackles of Western medicine was worth the mental torture of a tube probing her insides. Aside from her medical courage, I have met few people who live quite like she does– taking advantage of her freedom to live the way she wants to live each and every day.

For how much we, in Western society, tout the virtues of freedom, how many of us inadvertently find ways to restrict as many forms of personal freedoms as we can? Whether with our jobs, relationships, quality of living, health, personal biases, or attitudes, it’s amazing to reflect on how much we limit ourselves, even when we know better.

While the process of embracing freedom might be scary and uncomfortable, as my friend can attest to, it’s a hell of a lot better than stumbling through the fog, powerless.

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350: More than a number

Originally posted 10/26/2009

Before you read this, take the time to watch this six minute speech delivered by Severn Suzuki, daughter of environmental activist David Suzuki, at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development:

The girl who silenced the world for five minutes

That was 17 years ago. Since then, over one million people have heard this girl’s speech, but how many have actually listened?

I’ll admit I feel jaded. With media buzzwords like “climate change” whizzing through my brain on a daily basis, it’s easy to begin ignoring them. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it a thousand times… we’re polluting our ozone, poisoning our water, deforesting the Amazon, killing the coral reefs, endangering who knows how many species, and the list goes on…

When phenomena like global climate change and the war in Iraq continue, undeterred, for so long, media coverage of these issues begins to seem almost petty. Is it because we feel powerless in the face of these monster problems? They roar in our ears until we become deaf.

Finally, there has been a wakeup call, and people have heard it, and responded. On Saturday, October 24, 2009, people from 181 countries united in over 5200 events around the globe to bring attention to the number 350. Participants formed human numbers to provide striking aerial shots of the number 350. Signs were held high in group photos, all displaying the number 350. The media are calling it the “most widespread day of political action in history.”

What is it, exactly? Essentially, it’s a reminder to everyone that we have not forgotten, and cannot ignore, the need for drastic change in the way our world currently operates. It’s a global plea to international political leaders to draft more than just a spurious agreement to mitigate climate change when they come together for the climate conference in Copenhagen in December.

350 represents the number of parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere that scientists say is a safe upper limit for the planet. Currently, the atmosphere is concentrated with 387 parts per million. To avoid climatic catastrophe, 350 ppm is the ideal target for CO2 levels.

What our leaders must understand—what citizens of the world tried to tell them on Saturday— is that we the people are ready for those drastic changes. So make those changes already. The 350 October 24 event was a reminder to international decision makers that our lives, our children’s lives, are in their hands.

Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen. It’s something that’s definitely happening. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives is one of the few political leaders taking radical steps to confront the threat of climate change. He is acutely aware of the effects rising sea levels will have on the archipelago. President Nasheed has said even a minute rise in sea levels would submerge a large portion of the island nation. Nasheed has created a “sovereign wealth fund” from revenue generated by tourism, which will be used to purchase land in Sri Lanka and India in the event that a mass relocation of Maldives residents becomes necessary.

The implications of climate change are, indeed, frightening. Scientists are now predicting the Arctic will be ice-free between the years 2011-2015, which is 80 years prior to what scientists estimated several years ago.

The scariest part of all this: we don’t yet know the full implications of climate change. Or maybe the scarier part is that given what we can predict, our actions to curb humanity’s contributions to the problem have been minimal.

Perhaps the way we have framed the problem is too daunting. “Combating climate change,” sounds more like a colossal, impossible feat than a slogan for international action. Maybe if we whittled down our goal to something more manageable—sliced and diced the problem into the hundreds of contributing issues—then perhaps the mission would not only seem less intimidating, but also achievable.

For example, rather than “combating climate change,” we should frame the struggle as reducing CO2 emissions in Los Angeles, promoting sustainable forestry in Western Washington, limiting pesticide use on banana plantations in Colombia, returning to small-scale ranching operations in Brazil to minimize damage to the Amazon, and the list goes on.

I believe the solution to climate change is twofold. Umbrella regulations are needed on an international level to hold countries accountable for their actions. However, smaller, grassroots movements are also necessary to avert disaster. Macro and micromanagement of the problem will facilitate positive change. While fighting global climate change might seem an impossible task for an individual person, volunteering for an ecological restoration organization of interest is a more manageable, and less intimidating, goal.

If international leaders can do their part, people’s passions for the hundreds of different movements will do the rest. The call to action has sounded, and judging by the unprecedented global response on Saturday, people have listened.

I highly recommend perusing through inspirational photos posted from the 350 event at:

350 Photos and More Information

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Pennies and papers

Originally posted 10/19/2009

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services 2009 Poverty Guidelines, I am officially poor. The cutoff is an annual individual salary of $10,830. As a freelance writer, painter, and photographer, I am definitely below that margin.

I am a fledgling journalist, having just graduated from college, attempting to compete with skilled reporters who have years of experience under their belts. Due to journalism industry layoffs, the freelance market is more competitive than ever, with more people fighting for those rare stories that newspapers and magazines are willing to give to an outsider. In writing, my query letters to publications probably look like finger paintings compared to the masterpieces pumped out by real professionals. Now that I’m aiming toward the big leagues, I feel quite small and invisible.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a freelance writer. They usually say quizzically “Now, that’s interesting,” thinking ‘freelance’ is just code for ‘unemployed.’ They give me a pitying look, and then quickly change the subject.

In addition to working sans employer, I am also without a house. My boyfriend and I are indeed homeless. We have been looking for a place to pay rent for two months, but unfortunately, no one would like to rent to an unmarried couple who are both below the poverty line and identify as “barista” and “freelance writer.” I suppose “coffee artist” and “journalist” wouldn’t sound a whole lot better.

We are also both looking for second jobs, but on paper, perhaps we look unqualified for the positions we’ve applied for. I may have worked in food service for two years, but I have never waited a table. I may have been writing all my life, but I don’t have “five years minimum experience” in professional journalism

In an attempt to save the little money I have, I applied for food stamps. But, on paper, it appears I am too rich to qualify.

All too often, people make decisions based on what they see on paper. Although my boyfriend and I may be a responsible young couple, in writing we look like two paupers who can’t pay rent—even though, when you do the math, we can.

As far as I can tell, papers often don’t relay the most important information. Officials sit around in board meetings deciding whether or not to protect an ecosystem based on what the Environmental Impact Assessment states. But how many of them walk around the land, discovering its beauty and its worth for themselves? Other officials sit around in other board meetings and try to draft up peace treaties and resolutions for war torn countries based on government documents and statistics. Yet how many of them walk through the battle-worn streets, see the devastation and the starving children for themselves?

And here is the irony of it all.

If on paper, I am poor, homeless, and unemployed, then why do I feel so wealthy? Society tells me that if I am those three things, I should feel sad, dejected and worthless. Instead, I feel so lucky, because, when it comes down to it, pennies and papers are not nearly as valuable as the people in my life.

Although my boyfriend and I are technically homeless, we have not yet had to live on the streets, in our tent, or out of his car. We have been living on the generosity of others. Although right now we are on the edge of financial security, our friends have taken us in, let us stay in their houses, given us food from their gardens. Their generosity toward us is unconditional. Helping friends is just what friends do. They know we’re trying to get on our feet, and until we’re standing on our own, they won’t let us fall.

The kindness people have shown us brings everything into perspective. We never applied for anybody’s friendship. People judged us based on our personalities, not our papers. Although we’re barely making ends meet, we have access to the most important gifts in life: friends, family, our health, nature, music, art and knowledge. We spend our spare time with friends, call family members when we can, enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us, spend what little money we have on healthy food, play and listen to music, create and appreciate art, and read, read, read.

Today I was sitting outside a storefront reading The Sun Magazine (an amazing publication). The sun was bright and the temperature perfect. But, I felt discouraged because I had just looked at two more houses for rent that seemed out of reach after meeting the owners.

However, despite my negative feelings, in a span of about five minutes, three people passed by me and said cheerily, “What a great day to sit out in the sun!” It wasn’t until the third person had made this point that I thought, “Yes. It is a great day to be out in the sun!” Thank goodness I don’t have a job to go to right now! Thank goodness someone had the passion and motivation to publish this brilliant magazine that I have time to read! Hooray for the kindness of strangers and friends! Hooray for the sun! Hooray for the people who appreciate it! Thank goodness we don’t need papers or money to access its warmth and beauty.

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Reaching through recession

Originally posted 10/15/2009

When recession headlines began nearly monopolizing news ink last year, I decided the time was right to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which had been collecting dust on my bookshelf since high school. The economic storm gripping the globe made the story of a family’s struggles during the Great Depression seem extremely timely.

The book was also relevant to an investigative story I was working on with another student. We were making trips to rural Whatcom County, Washington, to interview farmers and migrant workers about farm worker housing conditions. Our finished piece focused on one undocumented Mexican migrant family’s situation.

The first time we visited the family’s small cabin, we noticed a clothesline weighed down by drenched children’s shirts and socks. In the rainy Northwest, the clothes stood little chance of drying anytime soon. The father said they hadn’t known of Washington’s rainy reputation when they moved from Fresno, California, to find work. The father’s job provided all the financial support for the family of five. The mother stayed at home to care for the baby boy while the two girls attended school, learning English at a faster rate than their parents.

Inside their cramped living quarters, lit by a single overhead light bulb, the mother described the host of problems caused by their poverty, the language barrier, and their illegal status. The cabin was too cold. They couldn’t afford enough food. The girls struggled in school. The baby suffered from a persistent ear infection, and they didn’t know how to access community resources such as health care.

During our interviews, we battled objectivity. We weren’t sure how to walk the fine line between being human and being professional. When you have plenty of food, what do you say to a mother who can’t provide sufficient food for her children? Her baby’s ears were oozing from the infection, but she didn’t understand the pharmacy clerk’s recommendation for appropriate medication. What do you say to a mother who asks you to accompany her and the baby to the hospital to translate a doctor’s instructions? Since I knew about the family’s situation, was I morally obligated to help them or just report their story so someone else might? At what point does a favor become a conflict of interest?

News on the economy didn’t provide answers. Little ink was devoted to the financial hardships faced by foreign migrant workers. The few articles that did surface usually indirectly blamed immigrants for stealing scarce jobs away from hard-working “legal” citizens. However, statistics showed an increasing unemployment rate for undocumented workers, generating a mass exodus back to their countries of origin. In addition, undocumented family programs were usually the first cut from hospital budgets, leaving few options for health care for those who remained in the U.S.

When money is scarce, stress is abundant and fierce. Charity tends to give way to selfishness. Providing for oneself, for one’s family, becomes primary. However, when hard-earned savings slip away, and finding a job seems an absurd notion, it becomes paramount to remember what remains: family, friends and community. In The Grapes of Wrath, after the Joad family loses everything, the final scene is a testament to the strength of human goodness: even in the darkest hour of despair, a person’s kindness and generosity can be the light illuminating hope.

My friend and I decided to help the family in a small way. We tapped into resources not easily-accessible to them: English, a phone book, the Internet. During our last couple visits, we gave them information on their rights, the local food bank, and a health clinic specifically founded to serve undocumented families. I also made a personal commitment to continue to shed light on under-covered issues and groups by learning their stories and writing about them.

With no clear end in sight to this economic foul weather, it’s worth remembering we are all stumbling through it together. Whether someone is undocumented or legal, a journalist or a neighbor, we are all human. We should remember to help those who have dipped below the radar of recession coverage.

When money is an issue, recall the other small ways to show support. Instead of donating dollars, volunteer time to a food bank, a homeless shelter, or a non-profit organization. Give used clothes, appliances, and furniture to those who can’t afford their own. Write a letter to the editor about an issue that needs more public attention.

Provide the lantern to lead someone out of the storm.

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Book Review: Olive Kitteridge

Originally posted 10/3/2009

Publisher: Random House

At the beginning of the summer, the elderly owner of an independent bookstore in Washington handed me a book from her display table and said, “Read it. You’ll love it.”

I looked at this old woman standing before me and wondered why she was so sure of herself. I didn’t know her. Sure, she seemed well-read—she was the owner of a bookstore, after all. But how could she pass such a judgment, recommending a book to someone she had only just met?

I glanced down at the book’s cover—Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout— and noticed the seal, “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” in the top right corner. I guessed the novel had won the prize for something. I decided to buy the book.

After finishing Olive Kitteridge, I now understand the store owner’s confidence. She could recommend it to any customer in her bookstore and, chances are, they would love it too. It’s the kind of novel you can’t put down, one that you feel a part of, with a story that sticks with you for months, perhaps years, after reading the final page.

Elizabeth Strout’s novel is essentially a book of short stories, and the thread sewing them together is the character, Olive Kitteridge. The story weaves through the lives of those residing in a small town on the coast of Maine. As the characters’ narratives unfold, truths about the human condition come to light, revealing a complete portrait of a complicated woman.

Olive is the neighbor you never want to live next to, the friend who may just be more of an unfortunate acquaintance, the wife who never appreciates you, and the mother who makes your life a living hell. She is a retired school teacher and a force to be reckoned with—overweight and spitfire, with a prickly personality that leaves a sour aftertaste.

As one elderly woman in the town says, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.”

As a reader, you dislike her, and yet find her life absorbing. The complexities in her personality are frustrating, appalling, endearing, captivating, and always so… real. She is a reflection of us in moments when life seems unfair, bewildering, beautiful, and forgiving. Yet, the novel is not just about Olive. With each chapter, new characters are introduced, spanning all ages and dispositions. One story features a talented, dreadfully shy pianist who is aggressively confronted by an old lover. Another paints a touching picture of an elderly couple facing their final years together. One man returns to the town to contemplate his mother’s suicide and his own lonely place in the world.

Many of the book’s messages seem to say: “Life is hard, wear a helmet.” But in their darkest moments, the characters often exhibit an admirable amount of courage and compassion.

“The characters live lives of quiet, and no so quiet, desperation,” said Walt Hoffman, at a Spellbinder’s Book Club meeting for the novel in Bishop, CA.

In one chapter, Olive encounters an anorexic young woman and begins to cry. “I don’t know who you are,” Olive confesses, “but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.” “I’m starving, too,” Olive tells her. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” “You’re not starving,” the girl replies, looking at this large woman, with her thick wrists and hands. “Sure I am,” Olive says. “We all are.”

The novel’s characters are not immune to loneliness and regret. At times they seem vulnerable and weak, but certain experiences bring them empowerment and clarity. Life can be a dark struggle, yet, like in real life, they persist.

“They were so human, all the characters,” said Joan Popp, a member of the Spellbinder book club. “These people were just so amazingly real to me.”

The five attendees of the book club, me included, all fell in love with the book. Although our ages differed by decades, the novel had reminded each of us of important life lessons we often forget.

“A lot of people don’t really live in the moment,” said Lynne Almeida, co-owner of Spellbinder Books. “They don’t realize what they have until it’s gone.”

The novel is a testament to the dynamic aspect of all relationships—the growth, pain, and love that come with human connections. Olive Kitteridge leads us into the complex lives of people dealing with both the harsh and tender realities of the world.

Yes, Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason, perhaps several. It reminds us what it means to be human and to value the gifts life gives us. It’s the kind of book that makes you slow down for the last ten pages because you don’t want the story to end.

“This was such a meticulously and carefully crafted book,” said Kathy Morey, a book club member. “The style of writing made you slow down to match the pace of the town. It was just marvelous!”

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Junk’n the clunk

Originally posted 8/6/2009

Living truck on Lopez Island, WA

Some climate experts are skeptics of “Cash for Clunkers” as an effective solution for reducing CO2 pollution contributing to climate change. In an article by Seth Borenstein, AP science writer, he wrote that, “….shutting down the entire country—every automobile, every factory, every power plant—for an hour per year” would have the same effect as “Cash for Clunkers.” To climate experts, this is an incredibly insignificant decrease in CO2 emissions.

Borenstein wrote: “Environmental experts say the program—conceived primarily to stimulate the economy and jump-start the auto industry—is not an effective way to attack climate change.”

It’s also debatable how much the rebate program is actually stimulating the economy. Some economists are saying the program has not increased auto sales in the long-term, but rather has only shifted sales from the future to the present. Buyers who were already planning on purchasing cars just bought them sooner rather than later. Skeptics also argue that the clunker program is just prolonging our dependency on car transportation and foreign oil.

The demand for clunkers by car salvage businesses is also low. According to an article in the Miami Herald, engines make up 40 percent of the salvage value of a car, but the program has made it so that the engines from clunkers cannot be resold, making it unprofitable for businesses to make bids on clunkers to salvage the rest of the parts. Although some junkyard operators are taking advantage of the program, for many, the paperwork and the time it takes to take apart the cars is not worth the small profit.

In a Society of Environmental Journalists email, environmental reporter Muriel Strand said that perhaps a more environmentally focused program would give people money to afford the bike of their choice or public transit tickets.

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