20 March 2009

Food Safety Monsantoization Act of 2009

Oooh, I think we need to do it: Take back our food.

My mind is racing with the possibilities. If this Garden to Table group at my daughter's school could get six beautiful planting beds built and filled with new plants just like that, more people could do sooooo much more. Just today I thought, why not turn another corner of our yard into a neighborhood kids' garden? I have pent-up energy here, along the urge to dig into spring soil, too.

Happy turning of the seasons, and welcome back spring and warm earth and big snows!

But really, back to this gardening thing. We need to grow more of our food supply. There's a bill lurking in a House committee right now, HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. Sounds all right, and has the sound of sweeping legislation, which we need, right? It says it's all about creating a new Food Safety Administration from some of the existing FDA infrastructure.

But wait. There's more.

It doesn't just spin off a new agency from the Food and Drug Administration, an idea that doesn't sound half bad. Instead, it's more like 1984, with food as the focus. I am not kidding. Read it. Or visit this site, which has a great analysis.

The first section my eyes darted to was the list of prohibitions.

Now, as an intellectual exercise and a favor to me, before you are further biased by anything I've said so far (whoops!), ask yourselves who would want such sweeping legislation, legislation that would criminalize farmers who refuse to toe Big Ag's lines?

The answer: Monsanto, among others. Gee, what an anticlimactic answer, I know. But there it is.

So here's where to register your outrage: https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

I can't just leave you with that, though. Here's something cool and inspiring one of the Garden to Table folks sent me, as an antidote: http://www.youtube.com/user/dervaes?ob=1


Edit: Just saw a link to a blog post by Jill Richardson about what Monsanto really is lobbying for. Good information from the La Vida Locavore blog, which I just learned is a forum for anyone interested in food and food politics.

16 March 2009

That great dinner party in the sky

Just thinking about how odd a question that is: "If you could have some famous person over for dinner, who would it be?"

As if we're all going to get this one magical opportunity to bring someone back to life (or bring someone alive to where we are), and we're going to sit down over a three- or four-hour meal and figure out how to change the world or hear about what it's like to be Miley Cyrus if that's your pick.

I liked the idea someone on Twitter had: "Who would you have over for dinner this week?" It takes the pressure off. You can have Gandhi over this week, and Mother Teresa over next week.

13 March 2009

How fresh was it?

I posted this on Twitter a while ago, but tweets are so fleeting and I love this so much I have to spread it around, share the laughter:

From a Yelp review of a restaurant near me:

Everything tasted really fresh, like a Grand-Master Flash mixtape.

12 March 2009

An incredible life

Some randomly recollected sayings about food, inspired by Michael Pollan's project:

Finish your plate; there are children starving in China/Ethiopia.

If it smells bad, it is bad.

Stepgrandma: If it tastes good, put soap on it.

And an influential song lyric: "Only two things money can't buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes!" -Guy Clark

Another memory: "Let go, let God."

We saw it on bumperstickers (the ones with iridescent-under-black "Easy Does It"), and we heard people say it. To my father, however, it was a complete abdication of all responsibility for one's own thoughts and decisions. To him it was Christians admitting what was wrong with their religion right up front.

It's only now that I can even perceive the alternative, which would be like resting your head on your own pillow at the end of the day: something you know you can relax and rely upon to hold you, to comfort you, to give you respite or renewal. It is only now that I can conceive of being able to rest one's concerns about whether there's a God, or a good, or an Allah or an other, much less exactly what they might be responsible. But Everything?! my mind protests. I don't understand!

Which I think is the point to which I always return. I don't understand. I can't. I'm too small, too imperfect. I can perfect myself/be perfected, which is why I keep getting up every day to see what I can get done today.

But there's still this reckoning I'm doing -- I find I'm having trouble getting on with it, wrapping up and letting go of the past. Have I come to use it as a crutch? The college friend I just found is a lawyer in Los Angeles, and the last place I saw her was in her incredibly old house she lived in with her housemates. I made the faux pas of wiping a floor spill with the kitchen sponge, which called attention to how impregnated with the wear of years that floor was. She had a complicated backstory too, but was on the Erin Brockovich track, uncovering the appallingly public health hazards of living in California's Central Valley (now common knowledge http://www.cababstractsplus.org/abstracts/Abstract.aspx?AcNo=19900500664 but she was one of those covering that story early on). Clearly she wouldn't be where she is if she'd leaned on a crutch, made her refrain, "Oh, how I've been wronged." She must have gone out and said, "I'm going to prove it to those idiots who didn't believe in me every day. I'm going to have an incredible life."

My kid has a great grasp of the existential already. About Webkinz, the popular stuffed animals that have online counterparts the kids can manipulate on the web, my daughter asked, "So if Webkinz are our pets, are we Webkinz' pets?"

09 March 2009

Why would you want to publish your writing on the internet?

I wrote this in preparation for leading my writing group's workshop today. We met this morning and I spoke about these points. I gave a little Twitter demonstration.

Do you feel there are differences between writing for print and writing online? If so, why? If not, why not? Let's discuss. (We did and agreed that length is a key consideration, because of the limited time and attention people have online; and that one has very little time to attract the interest of an online reader.)

A software developer friend of ours, a fully-grown Bart Simpson-type who has worked at various software-company startups around Boulder, was working on a social media application a couple of years ago. I pooh-poohed it when I first heard about it, although back in 2000, I had been intrigued by the promise of mobile networking software that would -- gasp -- allow you to see which people in your social network were in your vicinity and even where they were.

"Why would you want that?" I demanded. I was still resisting owning a cell phone then.

"Well, there are lots of reasons..." he started, but I had lost interest.

For me, it took seeing Twitter to understand the potential of this idea.

As soon as I tried it out, I was intrigued by the way you could start following anyone. It was the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game in a social networking application, and it was proving my theory that really we are probably no more than two or three degrees of separation from most people we would be interested in meeting personally or interacting with professionally.

I found that just being myself and posting updates on the things that stood out at random moments, I had a couple of hundred followers in a fairly short time. And I wasn't aggressively trying to court new followers by following lots and lots of people; it was just a steady progression. I'd follow a few new people every day, choosing a couple of new people to follow here, and a couple more there. Some would follow me in response; others didn’t; others didn’t immediately but started following me a while later.

Today, it takes just a few minutes to start a new account on Twitter, or start a blog on Blogger, LiveJournal, or WordPress. You can apply interesting styles and templates to make your home page look playful or clean or unique; just select your favorite color scheme, or something pleasing that reflects a side of you you're itching to put out there. Any piece of writing has a place online today.

When I sit down to write, I feel like I am mining. I look for the vein. What can I tell that no one has already pulled out of this? What burden must I offload today? What am I most nervous about writing about, what scares the living hell right out of me, or what could make my mother/husband/best friend/a stranger cry?

When I clear enough space in my life -- an hour here, twenty minutes there, or a minute, I invite something in: Okay, I'm ready, I say, sitting down at my keyboard. My intentions fall somewhere along the spectrum from wanting to share a good tip, spin a good yarn, or give myself a little free therapy for my wounded heart. One way I can do this is by writing about those charged moments, the ones that can be the clearest harbingers of what needs to be done next. But sometimes it's just as satisfying to write a haiku about cats or the wild winds.

Twitter has shown me it's a good time in history to start our own channels, to become the pillars of our own media empires, to speak our own truths to power, and to cheer on the big and little things that make our day different from the last. What I see when I look around at the wild world of publishing online is that every kind of writing has a place.

In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See writes:
"Here are a few things you might write about: Travel, anything from an around -the-world jaunt to the one-hundred-mile trip to see your wife's parents. Camping. Life in RVs. Sexual function. Sexual dysfunction. Good kids. Bad kids. Your weird childhood. Your happy childhood. Whales. Fishing. Hunting. Cooking. Tequila. Keeping a neat house. Keeping a sloppy house. Sleeping pills. Hamburgers. "Profiles" of anybody you happen to know. Alternative medicine. How you got cancer and got better, or didn't. Whatever you're interested in now. "

She's not exaggerating; there are blogs and tweets galore about all of those things and many more.

On Twitter, I'm interested in reaching out to people, but the social scientist in me would also like to see if I can grow a following who will be willing to take risks by investing in each others' work. Like microloans, if everyone gives just a little, everyone weaves a tighter social net, the kind that can even help catch you if you fall. The other night, a friend sent out a message on Twitter that a fellow who had published a children's book just needed a few more people to buy his book and his bank would give him a loan. I saw another person raise more than $25,000 to build new wells in Africa; I was one of the many people who contributed a small amount toward making someone's dream a reality.

So I write my tweets and blog posts with the hope that advancing my own ideas can benefit all of us in some small way. I hope to build connections this way, much in the way that holding a baby or petting an animal stimulates the production of oxytocin and builds trust between people and animals. You know how we tell kids, "There's no such thing as a stupid question, because chances are if you are wondering about it, there is at least one more person wondering about the same thing." Well, I write with the same hope: that if these things are on my mind, someone, somewhere might find it useful to see me attempt to verbally sort them out. And I write hoping to reduce the degrees of separation between us.

Big changes are underfoot in the information revolution. The print media are crumbling, and publishing may mean something completely different five years ago from what it means today. One day, information-gathering "bots" will roam the internets, grouping writings by not only genre or author or titles, but by subjects, themes, settings, or even regional dialects, as easily as we can look up old friends and flames on Google today. So what's most important now is to gather our stories, our thoughts, and our ideas in one place.

Just as we can't find others we're interested in if they don't write and share what they're working on, the same goes for us. We have to not only write down our most pressing ideas but we must also allow others to see what we do. I believe we owe it to each other, to the world, to use our time here to make our mark, whether the exercise has at its center the preservation of family beliefs, values, and rituals; the personal catharsis of storytelling; or a desire to inflict the emotional earthquakes of shock and fear that remind us we are lucky to be alive. The internet has made this easier than ever.

A couple of links to get you started with online publishing:



My new media idea of the week

I've been thinking about new applications that would let you "see" breaking news, facilitated by Twitter. I am interested in developing an application that lets you choose your location and see a live visualization of a text cloud formed of everyone's real-time tweets and text messages in the area. As with a map, you could zoom in or out on these aggregated tweet clouds to see them at various magnifications. People could see tweet frequency for a specified location displayed in various visualizations, e.g. stock market performance charts. Users could set thresholds (as one enters a preferred price on a web site that offers airfare-watching) so that when those norms are exceeded by a certain amount, the software notifies them automatically (by sending an email/text message/call).

I suppose if you could filter by location you could just as easily filter the messages by content and search on key words, as this blogger suggests here: http://bolindigital.com/time-location-emotion

But would people really allow this use of their content and see it as an invasion of their privacy? Or would there be a way to make it cool to opt in to add your own reporting to the mix? People could opt in to include their updates in the meta-tweet cloud -- Call it The Instant Reporter or something snappy, make everyone a contributor.

06 March 2009

Fun with followers

I try not to get caught up in Twitter numbers because they are meaningless. But I can't help admitting to a little thrill when I've approached a round number -- first 100 followers, then 200, and now nearly 300 people may read my tweets. Thing is, I've been hovering around 285 for a while and my follower numbers will go up by a couple, then down by a couple. I think what is happening is that there are people out there (and you know who you are) who try to build followings by following everyone they can find, and some of those folks presume you will automatically decide to follow them back, based on the assumption that everyone wants to broadcast as widely as possible, to be found on as many nodes as possible, to build a following as fast as one possibly can. I, however, don't automatically follow someone who looks to be advertising their business rather than offering a unique perspective or service in their tweets. And I think what happens is if I don't follow them back immediately, they drop me. If you're on Twitter, do you find this pretty typical?

But I am having fun with the same kind of thing I enjoyed when starting and continuing to write here in these blogs. It's nice to have a place for things. Despite my chaotic heaps of objects, I still believe everything has a place, and like my blog, Twitter has given me a kind of new drawer in my desk for items of a certain size and shape that had been piling up or getting lost in the shuffle of life. Only it's like the wardrobe in the Narnia books: it's a drawer that leads to a new universe. Put something in it and 285 others can see it if they want to. All I know is I care about it enough to write it down.

I do know someone who would utterly despise Twitter for its signal-to-noise ratio. He couldn't abide the cheerleading about brands and bands and stuff. But he's a professor who needs a certain space in his life and doesn't have interest in going around telling others about every new book he reads or the food he eats or the last brand of shoes he bought. He's pared down his goals: family life, teaching, writing books. He doesn't have time.

For others, however, people like me who are acutely interested in all sorts of details of everyday life, Twitter is a boon (and a lot of other things, too, of course, not all of them good). I find it fascinating to see what other people tuck away in their magic universe drawers. But not necessarily all other people.

05 March 2009

The distillation phase

Well, life is unfolding, enfolding in its own funny way.

When I'm not writing and working on projects, I'm thinking of my friend. This is the week after my dear mother flew back to her home in the west, with her two fluffy cats and housemate and the third cat (who used to be her cat but now belongs to her housemate--the immediate change following the transaction was quite astonishing to all). This week I have been catching up on some work I've promised others. But this week also has been a lesson in trusting that things would unfold as they needed to for my friend. And indeed, her life is looking different every day, not simply declining in quality as might be expected.

It took my mother saying during her visit that my friend was dying for me to really get it, that she just wasn't expected to live much longer. Then she had a stroke, on the last day of the film fest (her son had been working the event), the day after my mom had gone over to visit and give her a massage. We are both grateful that my mother got to be with her friend before and after the stroke. Over the next few days, we had urgent conversations with family and the professionals in her midst, and those conversations raised about a million questions that we quickly realized we were in no position to address. Many of those conversations are still continuing today.

But like I said, things aren't all bad. Yesterday I felt privileged to be a fly on the wall (there were a couple of us, actually) when the hospice people came. Apparently some folks had come when my friend was still in the hospital, affiliated with a different hospice organization, and they hadn't been so wonderful. These people, however, had gone out of their way to facilitate my friend's admission into Medicare and were helping her sort out her income issues immediately so she could qualify for services instead of draining family members' bank accounts (although one of them is paying for the hospice and is making sure her mortgage is paid up and her utilities paid). And the paperwork expert could be forgiven for saying the name of the form a few too many times in front of my exhausted friend, for whom numbers and letters are still challenging, because she explained how they take all their direction from the family and from her doctor. "We enfold you. We aren't here to tell you what to do or how to do it. If your needs change, we change with you."

It was a beautiful thing to see these people in a position to give help giving the help that mattered the most right when it was needed the most. It was like being at a birth; it also felt like witnessing a phase of death. The stroke might have been part of that process, and the hospice phase began yesterday. Just writing that makes me weepy again.

When my friend tired of the talk whizzing past she retired to her bed again. I came in after a while with a jar of my mother's lotion that she started making for my daughter's beautiful brown skin to keep it from being ashy. I gave her the jar and scooped a little out, melting it in my hands. I massaged her feet, because she seems very isolated and detached touch-wise right now, and her feet are clearly not getting the attention they deserve. I don't know that she's had many foot massages in her life. She was able to tell me how she is enjoying how her hands are finally softening after years of manual labor.

So I show her pictures on my camera of the crocuses she is too exhausted to walk out and see very often, remembering how she cried when she first learned she might not see this spring. I'll go back shortly and cook and massage and just be there for her and her family for a couple of hours so her people can go do their work and live their lives. And the hospice people are coming and the therapists are coming and she can still ride in the car now and again for a short trip (but gets tired easily, and mixed up about where she is).

This is a process; up close, death doesn't seem so final at all (except for that last moment when "the soul flies out" that I felt when our kitty Sophie died). A death keeps unfolding, yet the person -- perhaps the soul -- keeps going. On and on, on and on. And as my friend goes on into her good night her life may be shrinking, her world winnowed down to its barest essentials: food, love, pets, places to rest. Yet her life is also intensifying, as her disease distills her into some pure essence of love and light and life that is as fresh and new and rich as oil pressed from olives only a moment ago.

03 March 2009

Extremely self-referential post

Just in case you're not following me over on twitter, this is my favorite "tweet" I have posted this week:

There is still something weird about getting news from Twitter. It's like the game of Telephone only the message doesn't get garbled.

The only sensation I can liken it to is that of looking at a Camera Obscura and noticing how it is projects reality, what is really happening now, in real time, no deconstructing and reconstructing the image, just a reseeing of it. Perhaps you can begin to see why I've worked the Camera Obscura into my fiction. Now I guess I'll have to make Twitter figure in it.

Which reminds me of this silly tidbit: Earlier today, reading a Berenstain Bears book to my little one, I was mentally editing it, replacing "tape players" with "music players," and having the kids text each other on cell phones, among other updates that would allow contemporary kids to read them without a second thought. They got to keep their "boom box," though.