Thursday, June 25, 2009

Profession and Identity by Marta Szuba

Who you are and what you do are not mutually exclusive. As a kid my parents told me to choose what you do carefully, it will be your calling card.

It’s taken me a little longer than most to finally figure out what I wanted to do with my life. There have been two marriages, four children, two grandchildren, numerous cats and two dogs. But if you were to ask me to define myself, I don’t believe I’d start with any of those things. I see them as givens, what most people do. They are not what makes me who I am.

If you asked me to define myself, I think I would start with my twenty years as a volunteer and employee in the nonprofit sector. I think of myself as a community educator, someone who seeks to give other people information they can use to make our community a better place to live. Working for non-profits is an iffy sector at best. I expect my salary to be small, but I get great satisfaction from the work. Positions come and go, dependent on the good will of the community and government grants. My jobs have never lasted more than two or three years. There have been lay-offs and pregnancies. My last position ended over a year ago when the funding for my position at the Community Alliance for Drug Resistance Education came to an end. I have not been employed full time in my chosen vocation since then.

It has been difficult loosing that job. Of course there are money issues and thankfully they have not been devastating. Much more complicated and deeply felt has been a sense of personal worthlessness that is difficult to explain. It’s as though my identity as a community educator, an activist--someone who works to improve the place they live— has been somehow damaged by the loss of that position. I don’t easily find words to explain my feelings of loss, self doubt, and hopelessness. But they are pervasive—they creep into my day to day activities. At times, I believe I will never again have a job that allows me to believe I make a difference. It is as though I am a victim of identity theft, but there is no one to whom I can report, and or from whom I can get back what I have lost.

This is not to say that I don’t still carry on working in my community. I continue to volunteer. I have two part time jobs that are somewhat related to what I’ve always done, but there is still something missing to my identity. In the past, I have been in charge shaping the focus of what and where an organization is going. Now that’s over, and I feel adrift, waiting for the wind to blow me in the next direction.

The truth as I have come to see it is that I essentially define myself by what I do and who I associate with. It is a concept that my parents taught me well—maybe too well. I crave that moment when I can once again say what I do. Until then I wait for opportunities and hope that who I am will not slip away. Identity is a precious thing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Raising City Chickens by Brian Martin Burkholder

We chose to live in the city of Harrisonburg to be close to work, for the ethnic diversity and the quality of the schools. But our hearts were in the country. We dreamed of a small place with a few goats, some chickens, a dog or two— maybe, someday, a horse. We also wanted to grow as much of our own food as possible.

On our city lot, we have a small vegetable garden, a few fruit trees and enough yard space for an active dog, but the dream of having egg laying hens would not go away. It suited our desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle. The portable chicken tractor was the key to keeping a few hens in our backyard without causing concern for our neighbors. Soon it was occupied by our new pet hens – Buzz, Woody and Rosie.

Before long, we heard that others who had chickens in the city were receiving letters telling them that they must remove their birds within 30 days or be fined. It surprised all of us. We had searched the city ordinances on-line and had not seen any clear code directly addressing chickens. City officials said it was against zoning regulations to start agricultural practices within city limits. Does this mean we also need to get rid of our garden and fruit trees?

So many people received chicken eviction letters that a group, the Harrisonburg Backyard Chicken Project, formed to convince the city to change the code to allow us to keep small flocks of egg laying hens in portable coops or chicken tractors that can be easily moved about in our yards. We’ve heard concerns about smell, noise, public health related to bird flu, and the fear of property values falling if chickens are in the neighborhood. Most of these concerns are blown out of proportion. Maybe some education based on practice will help?

Those of us who have raised chickens in portable chicken tractors have found that smell is not a problem mainly because we move the coop every day. The droppings dry quickly and help to fertilize the lawn or the garden. Likewise, noise is not of great concern with hens. They don’t not crow like roosters, and they only cackle when joyfully announcing “Look what I did!” after laying their daily egg.

As for public health concerns. Proponents of a pro-chicken ordinance, like me, are concerned about controlling their personal food sources and opponents are concerned about the possibility of a rampant outbreak of bird flu. But because of the way bird flu is transmitted, hens in backyard flocks would have to invite other hens over for birthday parties and sleepovers in order to pass on any virus. They simply are not in close contact with other birds if a chicken tractor is their home.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about property values but I don’t think chickens are more offensive than a loud barking dog next door. During the months we had backyard chickens, three of the houses with lots joining our backyard sold at or higher than market value.

I say, let’s give the chickens a chance. They just might make great neighbors!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Pros and Cons of Air-Conditioning by Theresa Curry

Every year I ponder this question: should I turn on the air conditioning?
It’s easy to do without it at first, when the smell of lilacs and the sound of mockingbirds drift in through open windows. It’s harder later, when writing paper sticks to sweaty hands and mold blossoms in the seams of the shower curtains.
In the city where I grew up, the burning pavement kept the long nights hot. After dinner, my mother headed the five of us towards cold water: the neighborhood pool, a sprinkler, or the lopsided pool in the backyard. On the worst nights, we went to bed still wet, with towels beneath us and noisy fans aimed right at us. My mother spent her early summers in Vermont and she thought heat was more dangerous than a summer cold.
In our large family, with cousins and grandparents often in residence, my 80-year-old grandfather had a rickety window unit because of his age. His closed room seemed clammy to me, smelling of Vicks cough drops and bourbon.
Before my youngest sister left home, my parents installed central air. On visits, I missed the slamming screen door, the nights watching fireflies, the sweaty badminton games. Once there’s cool dry air inside, it seems nobody goes outside.
As a young wife in Southside Virginia, I watched daytime temperatures hit highs that would have alarmed my mother. But at night, the country air always cooled, and I put my own babies to bed much as she had – an evening dip in a wading pool or a tepid bath, and fresh, cool sheets for the cribs. During the day, I adjusted a system of fans and open windows as the sun moved in the sky.
It wasn’t all good, of course. Flies buzzed in through the screens and settled in milk dripped from the children’s cereal. Dogs dragged smelly bits of long-dead animals under the house, desperate for cool dirt. When I hugged my toddlers, I breathed in a smell like vinegar from their sweaty hair.
By the time my children were in school, we moved to a bluff in Virginia’s piedmont, where summer nights cooled off quickly . But there were always a nights when we’d sit in the shallow pool at Rock Mills and let the icy water run over us.
Do the nightingales and the nights in the river balance the flies and the moldy shower curtains? I can’t answer that question. The best answer is: sometimes, sometimes not.
I’m older now, fitful and restless and unduly affected by days that are too cold or too hot. I don’t believe discomfort always has a point, but I do remember the nights when my children were teenagers, and I didn’t sleep well, and what I learned from that.

As I waited for them to come home, dodging deer on twisting mountain roads, I felt smothered by the muggy Virginia night. I was sweaty and anxious, but there was always an end, at least to the heat: midnight, 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM, even 5. Because I woke often, I learned to recognize the wonderful moment every night when the air completely changes, and the breeze blowing across your wet skin is fresh and cool, and as hopeful as the sunrise that follows.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Neither Interrogation, Nor Enhanced: A Media Failure" by Larry Yates

NPR – and all other media – have a responsibility to stop using the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe waterboarding, slamming prisoners into walls, and the like.

Did we accept the term “patriotic defense against spies” for Stalin’s show trials? Should we have adopted “defending states’ rights” as the standard term to describe resistance to integration of schools and public facilities? By allowing one side to define the terms of these historic controversies to their benefit, we would have ceded the debate before the debate began.

Waterboarding is not the enhanced version of interrogation, the “bad cop” end of the spectrum of interrogation. It’s not an interrogation technique at all. It has been rejected as such not only in international law, but by the United States Armed Forces. The U.S. military’s rejection of waterboarding was not due to tender feelings. This is a body that’s prepared to use nuclear weapons, after all. The U.S. military simply determined waterboarding did not accomplish the purpose of military interrogation - gaining information that can be reliably used to guide military actions.

Torture’s historic practitioners, mostly the kings and priests of despotic regimes, used it to demonstrate their power over their subjects. They were seeking submission –not just from those they actually tortured, but from the many more that knew they could be tortured. free societies reject such a goal

Of course, some uninformed people may actually believe they will gain valuable information from torture. This may well have been the case with some officials under the previous administration, who had neither military nor law enforcement experience. That administration was, after 9/11, in a national security situation far beyond its competence, as indicated by their apparent belief that starting an unrelated war was a good move. Turning to a military survival school and using worst-case enemy practices as a model does seem to be a sign that decision-makers were both desperate and clueless.

The sincerity of the torturers, however, is not the issue. Many of those who conducted the Stalinist show trials were sincere Soviet patriots. Many white southerners genuinely believed that Western Civilization was at risk if the local McDonalds was integrated. In neither case were journalists, or the rest of us, required to accept their versions of the facts, or to adopt their self-justifying language.

What could replace the easy phrase, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” for journalists? The most honest approach would be simply to name the methods, such as waterboarding and beating prisoners. When the precise activities are not known, they could simply be described as “previously forbidden practices.” Or we could simply bite the bullet and call torture, torture. That’s what the United States did when it hanged Japanese soldiers who practiced waterboarding on U.S. prisoners of war.

Our press is doing us no good, nor is it practicing fairness, by persisting in using the factually incorrect phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Instead, reporters and editors are adopting the rhetoric of one of the parties in a vital national debate. If, in the future, torture becomes the new global standard, increasingly used against U.S. troops and U.S. citizens, as well as more overtly and commonly by our own forces, it will be in part because our media helped to cheat us of the honest and fact-based debate we badly need to have today.


About Me

I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .