Tuesday, January 17, 2012

study abroad

After yet another lunch with my co-workers started out with me exclaiming "I can't believe that in Arizona someone can get away with doing X!", one long-suffering office buddy noted that my time in Arizona is like a study abroad trip. In a few weeks I get to return to the coastal comfort of living in a generally politically progressive place and tell stories about the wild things folks do out in Arizona. Among the things that have been shocking me lately:
  • On Martin Luther King Day (yesterday), the Tucson school district banned a number of books dealing with themes of race, ethnicity and oppression, including works by several local authors, Paolo Freire, and The Tempest (I never knew Shakespeare did colonial critique, but I'm certainly curious now!)
  • This morning I went to a state senate committee hearing that advanced a bill to make participation in the National School Lunch Program (federally-funded free and reduced price meals for low-income kids) non-mandatory for public schools in Arizona... how can you turn down free federal money to feed poor children?
  • And then there are all the guns, and the fact that an establishment that doesn't want you to carry a weapon inside must clearly state that at the entrance (like this sign my roommate took a picture of outside of a Starbucks):
But mixed in with those "can you believe it?" stories will also be a lot of stories of folks being faithful here. Collecting signatures. Holding vigils outside the offices of officials who create these and many other policies. Hauling brass bands out into the desert to play for immigrants detained in the middle of nowhere. Coaxing real food out of desert soil with minimal water. Providing free healthcare for those being denied it. Leaving food and water in the desert for those who get lost or stranded crossing the border. Turning vacant lots into sunflower fields.

Monday, January 9, 2012

books of 2011

I have a bit of a memory problem where books are concerned. Two weeks after reading a novel, I'm lucky if I can remember the name of more than one major character. A month or two later, and I couldn't tell you a thing about the plot. A year out, and I'm lucky if I can even recall whether I liked it or not.

A couple months after I read Toni Morrison's Beloved towards the end of 2010, Mark, wanting to test my literary amnesia, asked me the name of the grandmother (a central character). I couldn't remember it. A few days later I received a triumphal text with the words "Baby Suggs" (the grandmother's name, of course). Only problem is, he had read the book ten years before.

While I couldn't make myself magically start retaining the details of what I read, I decided that keeping a list of the books I read was a place to start. Reviewing that list at the end of 2011, I also found it to be a good way of marking a year past.

Breathing Space reminds me of how Heidi Neumark's words opened up space for me to cry with the weight of the stories people told me as I prepared their taxes. The Time Travelers Wife, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian all came from a Brooklyn roommate, when lots of time on the subway meant I could go through a novel a week. The New Jim Crow was from a sermon recommendation at my NY church home, and changed the way I understand justice and law enforcement in the US. Young adult fiction in Spanish is for the anxious summer of wondering what moving to Arizona would be like and if I would, in fact, be capable of doing the job I was assigned. And there is more serious stuff too, Dreams in a Time of War, Strength in What Remains and Half a Yellow Sun, all accounts of war in Africa, were difficult to return to in the evenings after days of conversation about poverty, race and class.

Here's the list (just don't ask me too much about the books!):
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Breathing Space by Heidi Neumark
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiongo
A Shorty History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
En Busca de Milagros by Julia Alvarez (translated)
Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal by JK Rowling (translated)
Sweet Charity by Janet Poppendieck
All You Can Eat: How hungry is America? by Joel Berg
The Ground Beneath her Feet by Salman Rushdie
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoiz Adichie
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergese
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

growing vegan

In the last days of 2011 I did some journaling in response to the same set of reflection questions I answered at the end of 2010. Best books I'd read, what were my greatest challenges at work, who had been important in my life - no problem. But I got stumped halfway through: How had I grown physically in the past year?

I didn't run any races, take any classes, or reach any yoga goals in 2011. To be honest, I hardly did any exercise at all. But as I thought about it I realized I did start making one significant change - I began cutting animal products out of most of the meals I cook at home. I don't see myself ever going all the way, but am enjoying my new mostly-vegan-at-home routine. In my half of the fridge right now I have some eggs (for the occasional quick source of protein), a stick of butter that's been there for quite some time, a hunk of good Parmesan cheese that I use once or twice a month, and mayonnaise left over from a recipe I made back in September. I'm using more avocados, almond milk, dried beans and coconut milk, and none of the cow's milk, yogurt and cotija cheese that were my fridge staples seven or eight months ago. I still eat as I used to when not cooking for myself (dairy, eggs and sometimes fish), but the joys of a fellowship stipend don't allow too much of that.

Mark Bittman has some simple vegan recipe suggestions this week, and I made one of them tonight: Sweet Potato Stew (to which I added garbanzo beans).

All brown and out of focus...delicious!

Thursday, October 20, 2011


It appears my new co-workers have me figured out. Today, after examining my lunch, one of them commented, "you're kind of a throwback...a back to the earth kind of person".

Contents of the lunch? A farmers market orange. Homemade tomato-basil soup. Homemade vegan coleslaw. Slice of homemade bread.

Yep, guilty.

I can (and have) said a lot about the economic, political, environmental, and spiritual reasons why I want to be as involved as possible in what I eat. But beneath all of that, there's what it does for me emotionally. In my considerable moving around in the last four years, I've noticed my first instinct after a move or a long trip is to cook. Something about stirring a pot of soup or kneading a loaf of bread helps gather all the pieces of me scattered in transition.

I'm finding I need that gathering now more than ever - new place, new job, new roommate, to be followed in about four months by another new place, new job, new roommate. Even the very space I live in is in transition - an extended-stay housing complex with constant turnover.

This past Sunday afternoon, I got to spend part of an afternoon manually prepping beds (read: scraping in the dirt with a hoe) on a local organic farm. As the farmer was showing me how to break up the soil, she described it as a form of meditation. By the end of my two hours, I had the beginnings of my old farming calluses, sore shoulders, one blister, and a deep sense of contentment and happiness that I've been missing in Phoenix.

I also had a very generous bag of free produce:

Monday, August 15, 2011

just in time

Last Friday was a slow day at work, and under the pretext of getting ideas for updating my resume I started browsing LinkedIn profiles. There they were, peers and former classmates two or three years out of college, with stable jobs involving things like retirement benefits, dental and vision insurance, and vacation time and paying something more than just-enough-to-keep-you-out-of-official-poverty. There were published articles, graduate degrees, professional headshots and promising careers in big-name companies. I started sliding into the same nasty mess of envy and insecurity I used to get reading through my facebook feed and looking at pictures of other people's vacations, weddings, babies, home improvement projects etc.

What do I have to show two+ years post grad? Two (very soon to be three) one-year stipended positions. No new degrees. Nothing published. Not much.

And then, from a client I've written about before, I received the following email:
HI Sarah
It,s joe just dropping you a line to say hi thing,s going good still looking for a job and no luck still so bye for now .Drop me aline once in awhile to hear from you BYE BYE JOE
And I took it all back.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

clean and dirty

I think a lot about my food, where it comes from, and what the quality is like. So when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their most recent "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" (a list of produce with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues, respectively), I scribbled it down in the little green notebook I carry everywhere, between the grocery lists and subway directions. Make sure to buy organic when getting apples, celery and strawberries. Conventional is okay for onions, sweet corn and pineapples. Got it.

Except it's not quite that simple. Because often the produce with the least chemical residues (and therefore the least risk to the consumer) is the most dangerous for the farmworkers doing the planting, tending, and harvesting. Tom Philpott, who writes about food and agriculture issues for Grist and Mother Jones, explains that demand from consumers for less pesticides left on fruits and veggies when they get to the store has pushed growers to rely increasingly on fumigants. Prior to planting, the beds are covered with plastic and pumped full of poisons that kill everything (good and bad) living in the soil. Because fumigants are volatile and highly reactive, they break down quickly and don't show up on produce. But they are also very dangerous for the farmworkers who handle them, and have been linked to central nervous system disorders, lung and kidney problems, and birth defects. After all, what do you expect from pesticides originally designed as chemical weapons?

So is buying organics the answer?

Yes and no. Yes, because organic farmers are prohibited from using non-natural pesticides and herbicides, so no one has to handle these chemicals, and the soil and surrounding environment are able to maintain healthy biodiversity. I had the pleasure of witnessing this even on our little five acres in Oxnard. And no, because organic certification has nothing to do with the actual levels of pesticides found on produce. At the farm I worked on last year, a single lane dirt track was the only "buffer zone" separating our organic field from the neighboring conventional one. The Santa Ana winds would regularly blow dust for miles across the Oxnard plain, carrying with it everything that had been applied to other fields. Buying organics is a start, but it doesn't do much for farmworkers, most of whom have very little choice about where to work. They may be washing organic celery in the morning and picking conventional strawberries in the afternoon.

In the end? It may not solve everything, but I always feel better when I can talk to the person who grew it.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

what I'm learning

This past year has made me conversant in a number of new subjects. Social welfare programs in the US. Things tourists do that annoy New Yorkers. Taxes. Taxes in Spanish. The subway system.

One thing I got an education in that I wasn't expecting: criminal justice in the US.

A year ago, I couldn't have told you with certainty which was more serious, a felony or a misdemeanor. I didn't know the difference between jail and prison. I'd never seen a stop-and-frisk. I wouldn't have believed that a person's right to vote could be taken away for life if they were convicted of a crime. I couldn't have distinguished parole from probation. I wouldn't have understood the signficance of "felony-friendly" employers.

I've learned all this on the job, from men who launch into a speeches trying to minimize their felonies as soon as they sit down to be screened for our services. From calling clients to follow up on their benefits applications only to be told that they are federal inmates and can't receive personal communication. From mothers, wives, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends who can't include everyone in their household on their food stamps cases because felons and the families that take them in can be kicked out of public housing.

But I hadn't put the dots together until a sermon I heard a few months ago. The pastor used evidence from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to talk about the unjust laws, practices and attitudes that have brought us to the point where one in three black men in the US is under the control of the criminal justice system. Alexander argues that changes in the criminal justice system in the last thirty years, particularly the War on Drugs have created a caste system in the mold of slavery and Jim Crow. Black men are no more likely to break drug laws than their white counterparts, yet they are stopped, searched, charged, and convicted at exponentially higher rates and their sentences are usually much harsher.

She describes not only the criminal justice system, but also what happens to those released from prison with felonies. The can be denied housing, jobs, public benefits, and the right to vote (among other things). I'd estimate that more than half of my male clients check "yes" next to the question "Have you been convicted of a crime". This is fair game on any job application, and for many of them it makes finding employment nearly impossible. Indeed, some of the only "felony-friendly" employment options are also some of the most dangerous jobs available - work in construction, commercial driving (with a focus on transporting hazardous materials) and environmental clean-up (involving removal of toxic materials like asbestos). It's no coincidence that these careers are a focus for my organization. But all the job placement in the world doesn't touch the injustice of the system.

The pastor ended that sermon with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, and with the spiritual "Let My People Go".

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go!

Read the book if you can. If you can't, at least read the sermon.