Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Coming round, full circle

"On a short, dead-end street lined with low-income apartment complexes, a garden grows. Almost-ripe zucchini and tomatoes hang from tall plants. The compost heap looks tidy and fertile. Weeds are nowhere to be found, thanks to upkeep by a few dedicated gardeners who can finally breathe a sigh of relief. They get to continue sowing the soil for many more years."

I wrote those words more than 8 years ago for an article in the Columbia Missourian about the Community Garden Coalition. (It was so long ago that the article isn't in the online archives anymore.) I got kudos in the daily staff email from the Editor-in-Chief, who said that I had managed to made even a garden sound interesting. (Maybe because gardens are interesting!) I was so proud - little old me, getting a shout-out from the chief.

Well, it has happened again. I scrolled down Grist's front page to find this posting: Food and the Beloved Community by Grist's ag guru Tom Philpott. It's about community gardens and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., a speech given at the Duke Gardens during an MLK Day of Service event. It caught my eye because I read Philpott's column very often, but also because I had just signed up for the Rooting DC 2009 conference about community gardening, and had also talked with someone today about the civil rights and discrimination issues that the USDA is dealing with. So imagine my surprise when the very first line of the Grist piece, the note before the text, references the organization I helped start! Back in the day, Farmhand was just a bunch of stressed out students shoveling cow poop and cutting brush. The students who took over as Farmhand leaders have done some fantastic work this year, far better than I could ever hope to have done. I'm so proud that this little group has made such an impact that a Grist guru would participate in such an event and write about it in an internationally read and respected forum, no less! Another shout-out from the chief, free publicity for a deserving and accomplished group of students, and inspiration to keep working for change.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shakespeare in Prison

I just watched the 2005 Sundance documentary "Shakespeare Behind Bars," about a group of prisoners at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky who have formed a theater troupe and present Shakespeare's plays to fellow inmates and family members. This was after listening to "Act V," an episode of NPR's This American Life about a Shakespeare troupe in the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center that is part of the Prison Performing Arts program in Missouri. The two programs initially piqued my interest because I'm a big fan of Shakespeare's work. Of the many things I learned in junior high and high school, the classes that still stick out in my mind are the ones in which we read, nay, dissected A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth, sifting through the words to understand not just the letters and sounds, but also the context of the lines and the inner motivations of the complex and tragic characters who said so much beyond those words. Shakespeare knew human nature well, and he understood the very real, very complicated situations he put his protagonists in. Which is why it is very a propos for prison inmates to be reciting Hamlet and The Tempest.

It was so moving to listen to the inmates in both shows talk about their experiences, what their life was like before being locked up, what they wanted to do when they got out (if they were eligible for parole). A few in the Sundance documentary even talked about the crimes they had committed. These are people who are demonized in cop shows, and yet you forget that they're criminals when you hear them working with the program leaders on a particular line of the play that they're trying to crawl into. You root for the ones who have been in prison for many years and are up for parole hearings soon, and your heart falls when you learn that they have been denied parole, deferred for 5 or 6 years, even though they have played leadership roles in the troupe and in the data lab where many of the inmates work. Aside from the diversion that play practice gives them each day, the inmates participate because everything else about prison life is so dehumanizing (daily strip search, anyone?), but when they're performing, when they're interacting with each other and with Shakespearean scholars in a scene, everyone is on the same level. Everyone is a complex human, examining their own nature and comparing themselves to kings and queens, sons and daughters. So many people say that they fear public speaking more than they fear death, but perhaps to these inmates, many of whom have stared down death, facing their inner demons may be the scariest thing of all. When a person has led a life influenced by poverty, broken homes, and abuse, how terrifying it must feel to dig down deep, expose their vulnerabilities through words written 400 years ago that they can often relate to, and perform in front of their peers. To do such a thing and receive overwhelming praise must feel so empowering.

According to the Luther Luckett website, the annual cost per inmate is more than $16,000 of the taxpayers' money. That's a year of college tuition. It's just under the January 2008 poverty line for a family of three. At an average inmate population of 1,073, that adds up to a very large operating budget. We're spending this much money on people who will be locked up for 20 years or more, but what are we doing to keep them from coming back, spending another $16K on them for each year that they return to a life of crime? The Warden Tom Daily, at the beginning of the film, wishes that the inmates would just put the prison out of business by returning to the outside world and not giving the courts a reason to send them back to jail. How many wardens feel, as he does, that each day of an inmate's life should be spent preparing them to leave?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fast food guilt trip

I never thought I'd devote this much interweb space to fast food, but then I came across this great piece on Grist about the Whopper Virgins. I had only ever seen the tv commercials, but the actual website has a longer video about the international taste test. The writer makes a better point about food and the United States' role in world cuisine and nutrition. After you watch the videos on the Whopper Virgins website, check out this 20-minute piece from Mark Bittman. Then go get yourself a real meal, preferably home-cooked with fresh ingredients. Don't do it for the environment. Do it for your tastebuds.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Playing with food

Food combinations you may not have thought of that may change your life:

~Salad: mixed greens, diced cooked beets, crumbled goat cheese, sliced fennel bulb, artichoke hearts, balsamic vinegar, olive oil. Emphasis on the fennel. Add tuna or other fish and use honey mustard dressing for another variation.

~ Breakfast: one scoop Berries and Whey protein powder, 1/2 cup quick cook oats, 2 tbsp. toasted flax seeds, 1 cup water. Tastes like the strawberries and cream instant oatmeal packets, yet much better for you. Substitute sliced almonds or walnuts for flax seeds.

~Broccoli slaw: buy it prepackaged or make your own with shredded broccoli stems and carrots. Use liberally. Good with chopped cucumber, tomato, and cottage cheese.

~Trader Joe's Roasted Red Pepper and Artichoke Tapenade: Great on veggie burgers and in pasta.

~White Bean and Basil Hummus: almost as creamy as alfredo sauce when thinned out, but much better for you. Also incredibly addictive when used as a dip with chips.

~Almond butter: sorry, I still think peanut butter wins this one. But almond butter is a healthier option and can do anything peanut butter can do.

~Snack: Greek yogurt, toasted flax seeds, honey. Add fresh or thawed frozen fruit, jam, and/or granola. Substitute agave nectar for honey for a low glycemic index kick.

It's a fine thing we do here in this city

Working for the federal government has its perks, among them being the ability to do good for the nation and the world. But let us not forget the roles we play in our local ecological setting, for the extirpation of one can mean the loss of a whole lot more. As Sasha and Malia Obama prepare to start classes in their new D.C. private school tomorrow, may the Obama family not forget that although the international cameras may be trained on their every move, they are now residents of this fine city as well. And so, Battered D.C. Awaits Arrival of a Presidential 'Partner'.

A new year, another reinvention

On December 29th, 2001, during a pensive trip home from college for an abbreviated winter break, I made some pretty big decisions about my life that set me on the path that led me to where I am now. I have come to refer to it as That Fateful Day. Since then, I have considered that my personal new year, a chance to look back during a time when it's cold and dark and slow and everyone is readying their resolutions to proclaim two days later when the ball drops. Each year, I have found myself pining for variations on the same themes, but due to recent developments in my life, I find that I have reached the end of my list with most of my goals checked off. So what is there left to say? What can I pine for now? The usual things that other people ache for: money. love. lose 10 pounds. get a new hobby. buy a home. Time to start doing the things that people do when they stick their toes in the mud and let it ooze up over their feet. For many years, I spent this Fateful Day looking both backward and forward and I didn't stop to think about the very space I was in. So maybe that's my new goal: try to perfect the things I'm doing right here. Among those will be rediscovering my creativity, which surely means another change in direction of what I put on this page. I'll be learning how to use my camera to its fullest extent, seeing things differently through its lens. Like:

My dear kitty is, of course, a supermodel in her own right, and lots of digital space was filled on two photo shoots with a sunbeam. Not to brag or anything, but...

There will be more resolutions and new mottos for a better way of life, but those words may be couched in new promises and deeds, for we only do what we can with the things that each day gives us. Something to consider: if you don't precisely articulate your conscious desires, your unconscious patterns will come true instead. So cheers to living out our conscious desires, come what may.