Monday, December 29, 2008

As if fast food chains haven't done enough damage already

Have you seen the Burger King commercial in which some BK representatives go to remote areas of the world (where people eat things like whale and seal because that's all there is, which means they have probably never heard of BK or MickeyD's or any of that other poison) and have the natives eat a Whopper and a Big Mac? According to the commercial, these natives prefer the Whopper over the competitor's similar, yet not flame-broiled, greasy lump of gray processed meat and soy filler product. Although, the taste tester then says that, of course, neither option compares to the seal steak waiting for them at home.

Has Burger King not been made aware of the fact that a huge reason for the obesity and diabetes epidemics in Latinos, American Indians, and other populations is that their traditional diets based on things that they have grown in the ground for thousands of years have been replaced by processed food-like products that contain mostly fillers, salt, and sugar? (Just because soy and corn grow in the ground doesn't mean they're healthy as hydrogenated oils and shelf-stable materials, by the way.) Has no one told BK executives that introducing their flame-broiled taste to people in the arctic is probably not the most responsible thing for a company to be doing?

Maybe I'm over-thinking it. But it's one thing to tempt slovenly Americans with such fare. It's another to imply that greasy burgers on processed-flour buns could even compare to traditional diets that keep communities together.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Weapons of mass construction

I've been reading this book called "Three Cups of Tea," by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. I first learned about the book through an article about Mortenson in an Outside magazine article, and Mortenson is the perfect Outside hero: grew up climbing mountains with missionary parents in Africa, played football in Minnesota, became an Army nurse and general tough guy with a good soul. His failed attempt at climbing K2 in Pakistan led him to a remote village with children dedicated to learning despite the lack of a school or a full-time teacher. Mortenson was so struck by the kindness of the people in the village that he vowed to raise enough money to come back and build the village a school.

I'm at the part now where he finally made it back with the materials for the school, only to learn that before he could build it, he would have to build a bridge to transport the wood, concrete, and other materials across the river. From the Outside article, I know that he succeeded and has made it his life's work to build schools for other villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially for girls. It's hard work, and he's truly a hero. Educating people in remote areas of the world is one of the best ways to ensure that they don't become ensnared in the political and financial grips of extremism like we have seen so much of recently. Mortenson's hard work makes me feel really guilty for whiling away the hours in front of a computer, pretending like the work I do will one day help someone. There's something more I can be doing. I just wish I could figure out what that is. I don't think I'm nearly crazy enough to attempt anything of this magnitude.

In any case, go read the book. It's a true story but reads like good fiction. You know that feeling when you get really wrapped up in a story and your stomach tightens when the protagonist is dealing with some kind of conflict? It's like that, only in fiction, you realize it's not true, whereas in this book, the realization that this really happened makes your stomach tie a double knot. Don't worry, it's worth it. At least, so far.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

New food advice

I just found a new source of information on timely and practical cooking advice, as well as some new recipes: Washington Post food blogger Kim O'Donnel. In the past week, I have made her pumpkin pancake and onion tart recipes, much to my delight. Spicy sweet potato soup is up next. Meatless Mondays are especially fantastic. My discovery happily coincides with my dedication to cooking more. Yum.

By the way, I tried, I really did, to adapt to soaking, cooking, and reheating dried beans, but all it did was force me into boring and less-healthy eating patterns. Using dried beans takes a fair amount of time and forethought, and the beans I do cook just end up going bad in the fridge before I can finish them. So I'm going back to canned. Sorry, environment. Sorry, wallet. Actually, maybe not. How much does it cost to fire up three gas range burners for an hour? Perhaps cans really are the better choice...

Did you catch it?

Last week, Jon Stewart told Daily Show guest Bill Kristol that he would have voted for McCain if he had been the Republican nominee in 2000. He didn't elaborate on why. I just find that interesting, that he would have preferred McCain over Gore. Maybe that's why Jon Stewart seems to be especially frustrated with this race. He was really excited and hopeful when McCain had just won the nomination and Obama and Clinton were still duking it out, but obviously McCain has let him down. I don't blame him. McCain was actually really funny on Saturday Night Live last night (so was Ben Affleck - many thanks to him for making fun of Keith Olbermann, who is just as obnoxious and rabid as Bill O'Reilly), and he gave us a glimpse of the charismatic and respectable politician he used to be. I would never vote for McCain, but I value so dearly the back-and-forth of a true policy debate that I'm saddened by the low tactics that McCain and a number of other Republicans have used this year.

Speaking of which, I happened to be up at 2am and heard an interview on the BBC with Oliver Stone, who directed "W". Stone is a hardcore Democrat, but it's so interesting to hear him talk about President Bush as a human being and a pathetic but lovable protagonist in this tragic Shakespearean-esque run of a presidency. I haven't yet seen the movie, but I'm looking forward to it, not because I want to see the man ridiculed on the big screen, but because I want to get to know him beyond his role as the leader of the free world. So many people attack Bush on a personal level, equating his failed policies and skewed world vision with his worth as a person. He's doing what he truly thinks is right, and his failings as a president come from tragic personal flaws, which we all have and which we all fight with every day. It was wrong for the Republican party to put up for election such an unqualified candidate, and it was wrong for the American people to fall for the ruse. I still maintain that if Bush were just some guy who still owned a baseball team and paraded around as the President's son, we'd love him the way we love our favorite team mascot. The same goes for Sarah Palin, really. I hope that after January 20th, 2009, both the Bush family and the Palin family go back home, take care of their families, and learn the value of community organizing. Their time on the national stage is drawing nigh.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A music endorsement and some DC randomness

Last Friday I went to Solly's on 11th and U St to check out Read Underwater, a one-man band who also happens to be my friend Andy. I've seen him play before, but Solly's is a much more intimate space than previous places he has played. Either he played some new songs or the old ones sounded new. In any case, go to Solly's for some cool local talent, and check out Read Underwater's music as well. The music is kind of like Radiohead, and Andy does some amazing things with all the pedals and knobs that somehow record and play back loops over each other. Andy also has great stage presence, so he really feels like everyone's friend while he's performing.

Regarding other DC randomness, tonight I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the annual High Heel Race. It's basically a bunch of drag queens in high heels and costumes parading up and down 17th Street, then racing two blocks in those high heels. In 45-degree weather. Fantastic. It always happens the Tuesday before Halloween, so mark your calendars for next year. It's no Halloween parade in Boys Town in Chicago, but still a good time. DC feels a little bit more like home.

Oh yeah. I also saw Donald Rumsfeld walking down the street last week. It was definitely him. I looked around to see if anyone else noticed it was him, but none of the rush-hour faces showed any sign of recognition. I felt like I was in LA, getting star-struck at the sight of some actor brunching at a local cafe. My first political sighting. Now I'm definitely a DC resident now.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

In defense of this city

I have loved Washington DC since I came here during a class trip when I was 16 years old. It was my first taste of big-city living in 2001, and I appreciate it even more now after living in Chicago for 3 years. People think DC is just politicians, but if you don't work in politics, it doesn't feel any different than any other city. Except that Congress must approve any changes in District laws and the WaPost covers national politics and national issues much more visibly than local stories. I'm finding it hard to generalize the DC population, which is a good thing. In any case, amid the calls from politicians to "change Washington", what they really mean is "change the national government" because DC, as a city, is doing a pretty good job these days. Read this article by the former Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Post. When I moved here, I gave myself 5 years before deciding where to go next. I've only been here 3 months, but I'm starting to think it might become a much longer gig.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Another bar review

Bourbon on 18th Street has $3 draft (we're talking Bells, Abita, Allagash, and others) and supposedly some good bourbon happy hour specials, they play Portishead in the bar, and they have homemade veggie, ostrich, bison, or crab cake burgers with smoked gouda and bourbon BBQ sauce, waffle, curly, or shoestring fries, bourbon baked beans or sweet potato chips, all at very reasonable prices. Yum. (Although the veggie burger could use some rice, barley, or beans to give it some more structure.) A neighborhood bar for foodies.

They have another location in Glover Park as well. Go, eat, drink and be merry.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


According to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty on Meet the Press this morning, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin thinks that the theory of intelligent design carries the same weight as the theory of evolution and that schools should teach both theories side-by-side. If schools were required to include the theory of intelligent design as part of their curriculum, does this mean that churches would be required to teach the theory of evolution as well? What are the chances of that happening?

For the record, Pawlenty says that he too feels that the theory of intelligent design (to which he ascribes) carries the same weight as the theory of evolution, but that it's a local decision regarding whether schools should teach both.

Down with the pundits, up with the locals

I used to be fascinated by politics. I used to have things to say about running mates and speeches and taking sides on issues. Politics used to be interesting. Now, the national races are all a show and the local races don't get much air or print time. There's nothing I could say that hasn't already been said to death. The pundits killed my will to pontificate. Nothing is a mystery in national politics anymore. New goal: learn more about the local politics, which is where public service matters most. That will take some digging. As a newspaper with national prominence, the Washington Post features mostly national and world news on its main web page. But the shadow senate race is interesting, and I just got my brochure on the local primaries happening September 9th, so there's much to learn. So the Local button on the WaPo website will be getting more of a workout, and there are surely plenty of locally focused websites out there, catching the news the mainstream media miss. In a town where people mostly pay attention to only the Capitol Hill gang, where DC residents pay taxes but have no real national representation (even our license plates proclaim that conundrum), local politics couldn't be more important. The pundits have yet to beat that dead horse.

Here's what I have learned so far: in local races, some younger people, inspired mostly by the Obama campaign, have started to run for seats in the D.C. Democratic State Committee. But they're being hampered by old school pols who don't want to let new faces in. They complain that the newcomers don't even know which ward represents them (oops, I don't know that either...). After that story was published, D.C. Democratic Party spokesperson David Meadows responded with this letter to the editor. It will be interesting to follow this story and other local races, both Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton appears occasionally on the Colbert Report, and she's pushing hard for D.C. voting rights, but the D.C. Democratic party's push on the national party platform is at odds with the D.C. Green party's push for statehood. So that will be an interesting fight as well. Stay tuned for more.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Because you can

Think about a time when you were really sick. Not just the sniffles, but a time when you just didn't think you could get out of bed. Now imagine having to get in your car or on the bus or train and go somewhere, feeling so sick. Cancer patients often feel like that, and they often have to drive or take public transportation to the doctor for chemotherapy. How much does that suck?

If you have a car or access to a car (zip cars, perhaps?), volunteer your time and drive a cancer patient to his or her doctor's appointment. There are lots of other ways to help. Learn about how to volunteer to help cancer patients here . Someday you or someone you know may have cancer, and you'd want a kind stranger to be there for you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Insect Appreciation Day

One of the fun little discoveries of our new apartment was that ants paraded across the hardwood floor in the living room, carrying stray pieces of cat litter and depositing them under the rug. Not sure from where the ants were coming into the building, but they seemed to find the corner of the window to be an adequate escape route. We didn't use bug spray on the ants, choosing instead to be more vigilant about cleaning up the cat litter or smooshing them with our fingers.

I noticed lately that the ants were mostly gone. I also realized that small, nearly invisible spider webs started to collect in the corner of the window and in the bathroom door jamb. Inside the webs are piles of balled-up ant carcasses. A little gross, but also pretty cool to know that the daddy long-legs chilling in the corner is taking care of business. It's always been my policy to not kill spiders unless they're giant and hairy and about to climb on my head (which, thankfully, has yet to happen), but now I'm even more appreciative of these eight-legged predators. Which just goes to show you that letting nature do its thing is far better than creating an artificially sterile home.

Oh yeah, note to self: don't look up info about spiders before going to bed, especially if the web site has photos. Yeesh.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Random thoughts about city living

Seven years ago, the last time I lived in DC, I bought a book of bike ride routes in and around the DC area. I tried a few of them out at the time, which made for some excellent sight-seeing, and better yet, a free workout. Last Sunday, I took my bike out to Occoquan, Virginia, to try out another ride. This attempt was not such a success. They should really mention when the first three miles are intensely uphill, and when the route goes along a windy country road. I gave up after a few miles, rode along the river in the regional park, then came back and walked around Historic Occoquan. Regardless, it filled my need to get out of the city and have a small adventure. Next time, I will drive the bike route before riding it, just to be sure.

I was in an icky mood coming home from the gym last night, til I stepped off the bus and heard a random blues band playing in the park for National Night Out. Lots of people came out to enjoy the muggy evening, kids drew on the sidewalk with chalk and blew bubbles, couples danced, people talked and hung out until late. Even the cops were having a good time. Lots of different kinds of people, all enjoying the same neighborhood perks. That's why I love the city.

Marx Cafe puts nutmeg in their smooth, creamy hummus. It changed my life. Seriously. Apparently someone who works at the Marx Cafe is petitioning to run as a Libertarian for the shadow senate seat for DC. His platform includes actually going onto the floor of the senate, which apparently the shadow senators cannot do because they're not actually recognized by the U.S. Senate. If elected, he will also hug the President of the United States. I find it wholly ironic that he is both a Marx Cafe employee (Marx being the symbol of Communism - the cafe's full name includes the words "revolutionary cuisine") and a Libertarian, which is maybe rather opposite to Communism, but hey, whatever. I support anyone who wants to run for public office. Plus I really love it that he would hug the President.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lost interest

Funny how you can be so fascinated by and enamored of something until it becomes a part of your life, and then you just lose interest. Before I moved to DC, I watched SO much West Wing that I started to think (er, wish?) it was my life. Not that I ever expected my life to be like that once I moved to DC, but the subject matter made me drool with excitement. Now, politics is everywhere, the presidential race is in full force, and I'm SO over it. Politics is not the fast-moving, complicated stuff of television shows. It's ridiculous and overly calculated and mostly just a media blitz. Once in a while, someone nasty gets his or her comeuppance and we all cheer, but then the tides turn back to ridiculousness. Everyone has something to say, or nothing to say (but they say it anyway) and it all gets overdone, like the amazing potato chips you can't get enough of until suddenly you've eaten one chip too many and you just feel salty and greasy and fat. Maybe watching The West Wing taught me too much about politics, and now I'm just suspicious of everyones' intentions. That doesn't mean I think they're up to no good, I just think it's all a show, aiming to the lowest common denominator who might take interest or hear one word and swing the other direction. I'm over it.

Maybe the Olympics will take center stage for a while and people will forget about the ridiculousness of the race, the it's-about-time-we-caught-him Ted Stevens scandal, the appalling conclusion of the attorney general's office investigation, all which perhaps signal the end of an era in which ridiculousness reigned supreme. Let's stand agog at the fantastic feats of strength and endurance of worldwide top-notch athleticism, which we hope won't be ruined by pollution or the ridiculousness of another country's attempts to control the free exchange of information and culture. Maybe August will be like a weird dream, which we eventually awaken from, relieved to find that life is somewhat more manageable than the awful circumstances our psyches feared would take over.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Quo vadis?

Something happened up there on the mountain. I'm pretty sure that's when it happened. I looked down over the valley and realized that the goal that was riding top rung for the last 10 years of my life could finally be scratched off. Which then begged the question: what now? Quo Vadis? That's when I realized that I could start filling my life with all the things I had always wanted to do, but before couldn't somehow gather the mental energy for. My new motto: do what makes the better story.

It helped that I had 18 other friends to share the experience with. I tried to recreate the feeling of the experience again this weekend. I wore all the same clothes, took a much smaller pack perfect for day trips, put on the same game face, and readied the engines. But of course it was different. The mountain was different, much smaller, with no pines or rhododendrons. The people were all strangers, at different places in life, with different goals for the climb. The climb was still challenging, much farther than I had ever gone in one day, and it was lovely to get outside, learn some new bird calls and plant IDs. But there's definitely nothing like spending three rustic days with close friends, people who were all experiencing the same things at the same time. It was bonding like no other.

That hike was almost three months ago, and I'm still in post-party let-down phase from it. Luckily, there are still a number of us in this new city, all sharing different sides of the same adventure. Perhaps each year we will come back together for a recap, to compare notes and recenter. I never valued friendship so much when I was growing up, content to mostly do my own thing and tag along with others when I could. But something on that mountain made me yearn for the constant company of others. Not just strangers on a path along a wooded ridge line, but people who feel like a part of you, whose presence fills your world and whose absence pains you dearly. It's not enough to simply be content with your own life, if you have no one else to share it with.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cynicism and the city

Today, I saw Al Gore deliver his speech about climate change and energy and really so much more. I sat very very close to the podium, so I could see Gore clearly as he spoke. He's such a seasoned presenter that he didn't even appear to be using the teleprompter, probably a skill honed during his Inconvenient Truth days. Hip hop star sat beside the podium, wearing his coat, hat, and sunglasses indoors, even though it was about 93 degrees outside. He hardly clapped or smiled or even looked awake the whole time. Gore was inspiring, and at the end of his speech, "Beautiful Day" by U2 played in the hall and everyone clapped and glowed and gushed about this exciting time.

Yeah, it was pretty cool. Except NPR mentioned three times during my morning commute that Gore would be issuing this challenge to the country, so the surprise was already spoiled for me. And aside from that, Gore didn't really say anything new to this auditorium full of people who already know the issues and already agree with him. He didn't outline his plan of action for how to accomplish this incredibly difficult feat of switching all of the U.S.-produced electricity to carbon-free, clean, renewable sources in 10 years. He didn't vow to take any specific actions, and didn't tell people what to do, except go to his website. It was all just a big publicity stunt, a chance to grab some headlines and some airtime to promote his cause, to excite people about the possibilities of a new world with new energy sources, to inspire people to donate or otherwise get involved. Four weeks in Washington, and I'm already cynical.

Which is not to say that disagree with Gore's intentions. Knowing what little I do about energy and the electrical grid in this country, I don't think it's feasible to expect such a switch in 10 years. But, I've been living my life with the motto that if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten, and so I shall think the same for the country. After reading "Earth: The Sequel" by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, I know the technology and the scientific will are out there, and all we need are political will and lots of dollars to make these things happen. I don't think Al Gore is a fool, I think he's a dreamer with the power to make things happen. Today may have just been a press conference and pep rally, but perhaps it's the beginning, not the end, of things we hope for.

Monday, July 14, 2008

It's like he said my name

I was listening to This American Life on NPR a while ago, and Ira Glass was talking about the time he was watching The O.C. and they mentioned This American Life. Apparently, a guy was sitting in his dorm room, talking to his girlfriend on the phone (oh yeah, sorry, I don't know names because I have never watched even one minute of The O.C.), and the girlfriend overheard through the phone another female talking in the dorm room. The guy told her he was listening to This American Life. The girlfriend said, "This American Life? Isn't that the show where yuppie hipsters talk about how amazing ordinary people are?" Or something to that effect. Ira Glass played the clip, after which he exclaimed, It's like they said my name! It's like a fictional character on television said my name!

I had my own such moment the other day. In case you didn't know, I'm a bit of a Joel Achenbach fan (see the link to his blog on the right side of the page). The bus stop I use for work is one block away from the Washington Post. Now that I live and work in D.C., I dream of running into him on the street. Yes, I'm a huge nerd because I idolize a science journalist who has written columns for National Geographic and blogs about science and politics (among other things) on the WaPo website. I'm sure he has no idea who I am, but if he were to put my blog on his blog roll, I think my head would explode. He's also a rather amusing and insightful writer, so if he were closer to my age and not married with kids, I think I'd be in love. Anyway, the other day, he blogged this post: A Planet of Corn, in which he admits that his one journalistic obsession is Ag Policy. The post coincided with his article in the Post about the USDA's decision to allow farmers participating in the Conservation Reserve Program in parts of the recently flooded Midwest to start grazing their cattle on land previously set aside for conservation. My work these days is Ag Policy and land conservation and corn for carbon sequestration and ethanol, and so I had a "He said my name" kind of moment. Not that I had anything at all to do with anything in that article, it's just cool when someone you admire uses some of your personal key words.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Tour de France 2008

Today was the start of Tour de France 2008. The sport has been plagued by doping scandals for years, and people have been losing interest in the race because it seems to be business as usual. But this year, Team Garmin/Chipotle H3O is changing things. Originally called Team Slipstream/Chipotle, this team is operating on a transparent level, vowing to win the race without any performance-enhancing substances. The riders are all tested many times a week year-round, and guests like a writer from Outside magazine are invited into the hotel rooms, testing rooms, meetings, and the like. And so far, so good. Rider David Millar is in 11th place after the first stage, with nine team members in the top 100. The team as a whole is in 4th place, and Trent Lowe is fourth in the list of best riders under age 25.

So perhaps this year will be different. I'm going to follow the race this year, cheering on Team Garmin/Chipotle the whole time. Perhaps the Tour de France can regain its standing as an honorable sport, free of the performance-enhancing substances that athletes have come to accept as fair play. Sports are best when everyone starts from the same level playing field because it encourages inspirational feats of strength and endurance.

Go Team Garmin/Chipotle!!

Issues from a new home base

I'm now in the nation's capital, taking on a new role as Environmental Professional. News of the court's overturn of the DC handgun ban broke during my first week here, but achieving Internet connectedness at home was elusive. So although I itched to throw in my two cents while the story was fresh, alas, it's now old news. But here's my thought anyway: I'm torn on the "right to bear arms" because so many people not fit to own guns purchase them anyway, often with bad outcomes. But the same is true of car ownership, home ownership, and even of parenting. As many have said, make gun ownership on par with car driving privileges. Require training classes, licenses and insurance for each state, and registration, all renewable for law abiders and revocable for law breakers. True, guns are used for one purpose only, and a very negative one at that, but once people are given the right to use them, it's hard to take that away.

Instead of worrying about the guns, we should be worrying about the people using them. After all, guns don't kill people. People kill people. Put more police on the street to enforce gun laws and prevent crimes. Put more qualified teachers in schools, arm them with learning tools and technology, and give them ample support to do their jobs. Put more social workers in communities, pay them better, and give them resources to help those in need. Offer more scholarships and job training so that kids know that they have more opportunities to survive, and indeed thrive, as a productive member of society, rather than turning to the gangs they think will protect them. We talk about all these things in the rebuilding of communities around the world, and yet we still ignore our communities in this country. If we have fewer people turning to crime and more people being sent to schools and jobs, the gun law quandary becomes moot. Empower people with words and ideas, technology and tools.

Speaking of which, I'm reading "Earth: The Sequel" by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn. It's about the technologies that are going to bring about a new way of powering our world. Although it's a little too wonky at times (sorry, I just can't picture how a coal gasification system works, no matter how clearly you explain it) it's fascinating and inspiring to read about the amazing mind- and man-power that is developing ways to make solar, wind, tidal and wave energy, methane from animal waste, and biofuels made from sugar cane, perennial grasses, and even algae, economically competitive with petroleum, natural gas, and coal. All they need is the capital to make it happen. It makes me wish I was in a place financially to start a venture capital company to fund these projects.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The newest green-collar job

Farming is hard work, but it's one of the most important sectors in the world. No farms = no food. Period. Food production is in great danger these days, as climate change affects traditionally understood farming conditions and the increasing demand for biofuels has led to less spinach and melons to make room for fields of corn and soybeans. The current push to reduce the illegal immigrant population has left many fields full of fresh soil or produce and no one to actually do the planting and harvesting. Good thing Grist is on top of things, with some really interesting solutions for the farm worker shortage. Check them out here and here. I really like the Farm for America idea. There are a number of smaller opportunities for people to spend time working on farms, but a strongly funded program with metrics for success and avenues for professional development could really draw young people back to the land and perhaps even provide immigrants with the opportunity to get better or more consistent wages, formalized training, and possibly American citizenship, if they commit to such a program.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Classic Memorial Day

This summer is starting out to be quite an adventure. Yesterday began with a +3-mile hike and picnic along the Eno River, where we saw various sizes of turtles sunning themselves on logs and rocks, lizards scampering up trees, and water snakes slithering through the river grasses. The snakes swam up to the water's edge, mouth open, checking us out as much as we were checking them out. Then, we went swimming in the quarry, where we stepped barefooted, gingerly over the red clay and dry pine needle-covered slopes to jump into the cool green water. The first jump in smelled like silty freshwater lake and uncertainty of what lay below the surface, and the longer we stayed in the water, the longer it smelled of the thrill of kids jumping off the ledge through the trees and of warm summer days when you don't have to be anywhere at any time. Hiking back to the car in our wet swimsuits and shorts (which gradually looked more and more like we had incontinence issues) sealed the summer in. The grand finale was a BBQ, the last hurrah at one of the party houses we came to know and love. Many of us are moving on to different parts of the same big city, and others are going to places further afield, and the reality of this split is starting to sink in. We've spent two years together, laughing and complaining over familiar beers and randomized music play lists. So the national Memorial Day may be about honoring fallen soldiers, but for us, yesterday was about honoring our journey together thus far.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Still on the mountain

I have that feeling these days, a lingering wish to be back on the mountain. It happens often - anytime I've spent more than a day living the rustic lifestyle. A few weeks ago, some friends and I hiked 5 miles up Mount LeConte in eastern Tennessee. We left on a Monday morning, backpack straps buckled and tightened, water bottles and hydration packs filled, coffee and toast warming our bellies. The trail we took was the steepest one up the mountain, a daunting task, but with the help of trail mix, energy bars, and a number of pit stops and photo opportunities, we all arrived at the lodge in just over 3 hours. One of the Mount LeConte lodge staffers showed us to our cabins, which had real beds and bunk beds with pillows, sheets and wool blankets, heaters in each room, and a big porch with rocking chairs. Restrooms were either flush toilets accessible only with the keys hanging in each cabin or pit toilets, which were always unlocked. Two pumps delivered cold filtered water and a hot water tap by the lodge filled our buckets for washing up. Thin, smoky coffee and hot cocoa were being served all day. Breakfast and dinner were served hot in the dining hall, family style, and lunch was sandwiches, trail mix, and cookies, served in a paper bag. During the day on Tuesday, we hiked, napped, played games, read, anything to fill the time and take in the fresh air.

We rose early to watch the sun rise from one peak, then hiked after dinner to watch it set from another peak, dipping below the mountaintops in spectacular color and drama. Of course, we applauded, another feat of nature successfully completed.

Camping out always makes me feel like this, because it's simple living at its best. Each summer for 6 years, I spent two weeks at Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin, where we slept on cots in platform tents. The summer before my senior year of high school, some friends and I spent a week on Manitou Island in Michigan, where we slept in tents, cooked meals in our dutch oven, and bathed in the lake. During my sophomore year in college, I backpacked for a weekend in the Ozarks, a trek made more difficult by hay fever and a lack of proper hiking footwear. No matter the length of the trip or challenge of survival, it's still the same feeling. The only time you have to worry about is breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time, and swim time. Your clothing options consist only of what's clean or dry, but usually not both, and by the end, usually neither. And nothing matches, so don't even try. The food is hearty, full of starches and sugars, often a little burnt, but always the best you've ever tasted. Your body is tired in that I'm-really-living kind of way, your hair smells like campfire smoke and lake (or well) water, and there's a constant layer of sunscreen and dirt on your skin. By the end of the trip, you're a little sunburned, the mosquitoes and flies have eaten you up, and you've scraped your shin or shoulder on a rock or branch. But you don't have to worry about bringing your wallet, cell phone, and keys with you everywhere. The constant drone of TVs and radios, road noise, and echoes from loud neighbors is gone. None of the trappings of civilized society even exist out there. It's just you and the wind, baby.

And when you come home, life is just too comfortable. Too easy. You can get in your car and drive anywhere, instead of hiking two miles down the ridgeline. Your bed is too soft, your coffee too gourmet, your home too secure and sheltered from the elements. No one is there to serve you grits, eggs, pancakes, juice, family-style. You're not sharing a space with 5 other people. Nothing on TV is nearly as interesting as the landscape over the valley you stared at for an hour. Life is too easy and too lonely after you come down from the mountain. It's much better when you're sipping from flasks, wrapped in fleece and flannel, playing card games and joking about who in the group you'd eat first if stranded without food. It's an intimate experience where you're allowed to be pensive and philosophical, and you can't help but throw your arms around your friends at any given moment because personal space means nothing when you're all equally dirty and tired and completely satisfied with life in that very moment.

So yeah, even though I'm facing an exciting move to a new city and a meaningful new job, most days, I'd rather still be on the mountain. Maybe it's the early human in me, longing for a more communal life that's closer to nature. In the meantime, day hikes and longer camping trips will have to suffice.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Not-so-divergent pathways

My brother and I have the same birthday, but we're not twins. In fact, growing up, we were quite different. I was the serious kid who spent a lot of time in my room, reading books and listening to the radio. My brother spent more time getting and keeping my parents' attention by flexing his creative muscle with hands-on projects. We often played together when we were younger, saving our stuffed animals from tragedy and molding homemade play-dough. As we got older, we seemed to be on very different career paths. My brother, an extremely talented trombone and tuba player, looked forward to a promising career in music education, while I hoped to apply my love of science and writing to a career in environmental journalism.

A lot has happened since high school. Our budding talents are still being put to use, but now we're in the same industry. My brother always loved to work with his hands, creating public artwork strung between the kitchen table and counter tops and mixing his own pretzel dips. Now, he's the head pastry chef at a popular Chicago brunch spot. As a teenager, I dreamed of owning a farm with horses, and I marveled at the fact that we ate cherry tomatoes and broccoli from our little suburban garden plot. Now, I'll be researching economic issues related to agriculture and environmentally sensitive farming practices.

So yes, my brother and I are now employed in the food sector. But really, what makes people happier than good food enjoyed with family and friends and contributing to community development? Guess we're not so different after all.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Grad school makes you a huge nerd

Never have I laughed so much at a bunch of bars and pie charts. Who knew graphs were so hilarious?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Evolution of the Unwinding

I'm sitting in the airport on my way home from Las Vegas. Yes, Vegas, home of everything ridiculous and unnecessary. Here, it is just too flashy and noisy and expensive, and the people are all drunk and annoying and badly dressed. The streets would feel huge except for the fact that the buildings are even huger. I was here for a conference, though I didn't go to many sessions because I've been in the process of unwinding. On Monday, I finished and submitted the very last paper of my graduate school career, and then I promptly sat by the pool and drank an overpriced beer from a plastic bottle and foolishly minorly sunburned my skin. Yesterday I hiked through Sloan Canyon, which was fantastic until the tour guide tried to blame climate change solely on the sun. It took a while to let that one slide. This was definitely a different world, which made me laugh and groan at the same time.

Before this Vegas trip, I was in Washington DC with the black-suited graduate student cohorts who are all applying for the same jobs with the federal government. I ate Thai food with some new people, relearned the Metro system, and daydreamed about my new professional endeavors.

So among all this jet-setting, it still hasn't hit me that I'm done with school. Maybe some time in the woods will help me get it all into perspective. That's next week. My cat will surely be sore at me for leaving her all alone for days at a time, except for the very kind folks who agreed to look after her. Fear not, dear kitty. In a couple of weeks, all we will do is sit on the couch and watch The West Wing reruns and try to put some space between what was and what will be.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

It's over already?

Suddenly, the end of grad school is nigh. Last weekend, we celebrated the completion of our masters project presentations, the one thing many of us had been dreading for two years. When I watched those presentations from my admitted-student seat two years ago, I found it hard to believe that I would ever know enough about anything to stand up and talk for 15 minutes about it. And now I've done it and it's over - I knew enough to pick a project that was challenging but still within my capabilities. I may never read it again, knowing that it could have been so much more, but that's the beauty of it. Seeing what things could be is much better than knowing you've done absolutely everything possible.

So we've been celebrating for a week now, while still working toward the final draft due date and wrapping up group projects and starting 15-page papers that are due in two weeks. The thing about grad school is that if you can't wildly procrastinate, then pull something of quality together quickly, you'll never make it. If you can't complain for hours on end about how much work you have to do, then stay out way too late on a Saturday night to be productive the next morning, you're not really living the grad student life.

It took me a while, but now that I'm ready to graduate, I think I've fully gotten the hang of this grad student life. Friday afternoon kegs, with 3 or 5 or 8 dogs darting between legs. Walking into the computer lab at any hour of the day and seeing the same friendly faces frowning at maps or 20-page PDFs for class. Parties that feel alternately like prom and freshman year frat parties. Bluegrass music, caber tossing, tug-of-war, and the pig that's been roasting in the ground since the night before. Bocce ball and barbecue in the apartment complex yard. And now it's almost over. In the real world, you don't often have Halloween parties in the forest, beer at your computer on a Friday afternoon, or hour-long breaks in the courtyard at 3pm. In the real world, there aren't many opportunities to spend a day on the farm, unless you own that farm.

Grad school isn't all parties, although that's what we'll remember. We'll probably all soon forget the econ problem set that we just couldn't figure out without conferring with classmates. We'll forget the policy memos and statistical models based on our professor's made-up data. The reading reviews will be out of our minds the moment we submit them through Blackboard. That stuff is all practice for the real world. But one thing is for sure - no matter now silly we see each other act on the weekends, no matter how studious our cohorts may be on a Wednesday before a big project is due, there is no doubt in my mind that this group of people will go out and change the world. We've joked that we'll just blow off the real world and live in a commune together, but the truth is that we'd all be miserable with that life. We're not here to while away the hours at some cubicle in some office building, filing TPS reports. Our goals are much bigger, our hopes are endless. We see the myriad social, environmental, and economic challenges that are just beginning to impact our lives. On New Years Eve, a friend gave a short but inspiring toast: here's to a really great year, not just for us, but for the world. Coming into a presidential election with a chance for real change, the spring green to the past eight years of frigid winter, there couldn't be a better time to unleash this flock of great minds and greater energy on the world.

I feel so lucky to be here among them. I made the right choice to come here, to take on big debt in exchange for the chance to take on something much bigger and better than what I could have imagined. I learned from some amazing people, professors and friends alike, and I wouldn't have done anything different. Now, many of us will descend on Washington, DC, or Boston, or San Francisco, or even somewhere in North Carolina. I hope that even with our families and jobs and new opportunities, we'll still keep our little community alive - our nation-wide commune full of organic gardens, musical compositions, and the variety of talents we'll have time to pursue again.

For the first time in my life, I'm not ready to leave this all behind. I'm not tired of the people, disenchanted with my work, or bored with my setting. I'm happy here with my crew and my task. Indeed, seeing what things could be is much better than knowing you've done absolutely everything possible. I know I'm going forth into something new that draws on what I've had here, and that is really much better.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Not that I have the power to sway anyone's vote, but because this is an important election year, I should state for the record that I am a strong Barack Obama supporter. I have been since he was elected a U.S. Senator, and since he spoke at my friend's graduation in June 2006, and since he started appearing on every talk show and answering questions in just the right way. For a while, I hoped he would lose the nomination to Hillary and come back to run again in 4 or 8 years, but since Hill and Bill have been pulling some tom-foolery with the media, I want Obama to whoop some Clinton booty. I was too young to really know much about politics when Bill Clinton was in office, but if the Clintons pulled the same kind of shenanigans back then, well, maybe what their enemies say about them is warranted.

On New Years Eve, my friend led a toast with an uplifting and hopeful wish for a truly great year, not just for us, but for the world. It was inspiring, and we needed it. Obama can bring it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Vote. No matter who you vote for, please use the voice that this country has given you the opportunity to use. Give your input about your future. In the past 8 years, our country has fallen apart, partly due to apathy. Be part of the effort to bring it back together.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ah, Spring

Today is a Sonic Sunday. In college, on days like this when the sun was warm and the air was spring-like, we would pile into the car, go to Sonic and get cherry limeades, cherry vanilla cokes, and the likes, and drive around with the windows down, listening to music and trying to forget about winter. Alas, there's no Sonic around here and too much work to do, but I did listen to my Spanish-language Ricky Martin CD on my way over to Target to pick up a few things, and I bought a Vitamin Water instead.

In the Midwest, days like this so early in the year are flukes. Another snowstorm is just around the corner. But down South, spring is surely on its way. The grass is still brown and the trees are mostly bare, but the perennials are starting to poke their leaves up and some of the trees already have fuzzy buds. So there's hope.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

So wrong

Last night, my friends served Krispy Kreme bread pudding. It's like regular bread pudding, except made with Krispy Kreme donuts and chocolate chips. When it's warm, it's fantastic in small quantities. And I don't even like Krispy Kreme donuts. I've never done crack, but I would imagine that if crack gave you heartburn, it would be the exact equivalent of this dish. It's even better when you wash it down with a gulp of Coors Light from a keg.

I have now hit rock bottom. If I hadn't worked out the past 4 days, I would be SO ashamed. Never again will I sink to such lows. It was fun while it lasted. And now, the gym in T minus 8 hours.