Because there will always be division errors

So I was researching the New York State Regents exams this week to find out whether my protagonist, forced from his home state, could take them from afar. The answer is, no: even when strange and magical happenings force you away forever, you have to return to New York if you want to take the exams and get a regents diploma. Now we know! (Also, the New York State Board of Regents is awesome for answering my novel research question without blinking and in less than two hours.

While doing this, I got to thinking about my own regents exams, taken as a high school student in New York, and specifically about how on the second of my three math exams (geometry), I made a basic division error that knocked two points off my score and kept me from managing a perfect 100 across all three math tests. I even remember the details of the error, because seriously, I know 90 divided by 5 is not 12. (Not in base 10 and, actually, not in any other base the number 90 exists in either.)

Anyway, today I realized something. I’ve been telling the story of that basic minor math error, of trying and–just–failing to be perfect, for years. When if I’d managed the perfect score I wanted instead, I’d have stopped talking about it years ago.

In other words: Reaching for something and falling short is more interesting than simply being perfect. It’s a way better story.

Since it’s far too easy to get tied up in knots over being perfect, even now, even while knowing perfect is just not even possible, this seems worth remembering.

“And you’ll keep staring at the ground / you always do / when they get their time with you”

Junkfood Science on how we came to believe overeating causes obesity.

Worth reading for its recap of a 40s study of the effects of starvation on humans. Two important points:

– Starvation had both physical and psychologically detrimental effects.
– Starvation was defined as 1600 calories a day.

1600 calories is too little to live a healthy life on. In the 1940s we knew this.

Yet in the 2010s, 1600 calories a day is considered a mild diet, nothing more. Sometimes it’s not even considered a diet. Serious dieters regularly restrict themselves to far fewer calories than the amount that was considered severely stressful during this study.

Think about that.

And think about this:

As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish — with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Dr. Keys. The men’s resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry; having trouble concentrating; of impaired judgment and comprehension; dizzy spells; visual disturbances; ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities; stomach aches, body aches and headaches; trouble sleeping; hair thinning; and their skin growing dry and thin …

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were the most profound and unexpected. So much so that Dr. Keys called it “semistarvation neurosis.” The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly …

Now, these are men, and smaller framed women especially do have lower caloric needs. But how much lower? Dieters routinely live not on 1600 calories, but on a lot less. 1500 and 1200 calorie diets are considered normal and routine, and there are various fasts and other dieting programs that go lower than that.

We’re living in a society where, even though food is relatively affordable, at any given time many of us are starving. And we consider this normal.

I see it in the way people look at food, talk about food, deny themselves food, consume food. Significant numbers of people are significantly hungry significant amounts of the time. We’re a society of people yearning for food, obsessing over food, desperately waiting for the next time that we’re “allowed” to eat. We’re a society that considers it normal to look longingly not only at sweets but at ordinary things like slices of bread and cheese and fruit, then pull sorrowfully back, because we’re hungry and so badly want and need food and yet are told at every turn that we can’t have food and so believe it.

There are other interesting things in the article too, about set point weights and where we wind up if we don’t restrict caloric intake (gaining weight for a time, but not, generally, forever). But for me, the biggest takeaway is this:

We need to stop talking about starvation-level eating like it’s normal.

Thoughts while working on a story arc

So maybe there’s the one who walks away from Omelas. And maybe that doesn’t seem to matter much, at the time. Maybe it even seems an easy way out

Only then there are also the three or five or three dozen people who watch that one walk away and think: okay, we’re not willing (can’t) (choose not to) do that. But maybe it’s about time we worked on fixing this thing from where we are.

Both these people: the ones who walk away, and the ones who witness the walking away and are changed by it are needed, and of equal importance, and intimately interconnected.

And the time that passes between these two responses matters too. It’s time during which, somewhere beneath the surface, receptiveness to change can shift in subtle ways.

Inauguration Day 2013 (or the nearest weekday to same)

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

“That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values — of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — real for every American.”

–President Barack Obama

“Once more, we’ll all remember where we were.”

Two years ago today, my sister called me from two thousand miles away, asking if I was okay, because she heard there’d been a shooting in a Tucson grocery store. I laughed. “Tucson’s a big city,” I said. “We have lots of grocery stores.” I assured her that whatever had happened, it had nothing to do with me.

Ten minutes later I was scanning news sources and twitter feeds, trying to figure out whether or not my congresswoman was alive.

Gabrielle Giffords survived, but six others didn’t. In Tucson we remember their names–Christina-Taylor Green, Gabe Zimmerman, Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, and Dorwan Stoddard–and this morning we rang bells in their memory.

Neither the survivors nor the victims’ families pressed for the death penalty, and because of this our community was spared a lengthy trial that would have changed nothing. In doing so, they gave a gift to all of us, and I’m grateful for that.

Meanwhile, today, while a couple hours north of us another county’s sheriff is sending armed volunteer posses to patrol schools, former Tucson congresswoman Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly are launching an initiative to find more responsible solutions to gun violence.

I can’t think of a better place for this to begin, or of better people to begin it.

Quote of the day

“When I say ‘hero’ do not picture someone with the strength to fight and conquer evil–because evil is not something that can ever be conquered or defeated. Evil is natural–it is innate in all humans. But while it can’t be defeated … it can be controlled. In order to control it, and live the life of a true hero, you must learn to see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.” –Hayao Miyazaki

Today’s holiday (and non-holiday) shopping thought

“Buy local” is a far more positive message than “Don’t buy from [insert country of choice].”

I get uneasy when I see buying locally phrased in terms of who we’re not buying from instead of who we are, when I see it presented as taking a stand against rather than for, when I see it twisted into a subtle (or not-so-subtle) way of turning those who live outside our borders into something other and inferior and apart. Buying within our own communities doesn’t change the fact that those in other communities, near and far, are living lives just as real and important and valid as our own, and have the same rights and needs that we do, including the right to earn a living. I don’t like to see buying locally presented in ways that deny these things.

I prefer to see buying within my community as a statement that all communities matter. And also as a reminder that beyond my own neighborhood and city there’s a larger global community, and that ultimately I’m connected to and a part of that, too.

On neighborhood schools and school closures

I was stunned yesterday to discover that my local school, Sewell Elementary, is on the TUSD (Tucson Unified School District) closure list. Stunned partly because no one wants to see their community school close–I watch kids and families walk to this school every day, and so I know just how strong a part of the surrounding community Sewell is–and also stunned because this is one of the district’s more successful schools, and so choosing it for closure just doesn’t make any sense, and does the entire district a disservice.

Sewell is also in a part of the city where, within a five mile radius, several other neighborhood elementary schools have closed already.

If you’re a Tucsonan who cares about this and would like to see Sewell (or any of the schools on the closure list) stay open, TUSD has a form for comments here. (I also sent copies of my comments to my state legislators, because the budget problems that put closing Sewell on the table began at the state level.)

No matter where you live, if you’re up for doing something more concrete, there’s also a campaign to raise $50,000 to secure permanent portables and so increase the school’s capacity. This won’t guarantee Sewell stays open (and funds will go to a local literacy charity if it doesn’t), but it will improve the school’s chances.

Thanks for listening. For now, I’m remaining hopeful that if enough people speak up, the district will reconsider.

The least we can do is try, for the sake of our community and our city.

Buy Nothing Day 2012

I debated a little about observing Buy Nothing Day this Friday (November 23), mostly because there have been some compelling campaigns lately encouraging consumers to buy locally on Friday. I’m particularly fond of the way independent businesses have suggested celebrating “plaid Friday” by buying locally as an alternative to the more chain-based “black Friday.”

But in the end, the focus on … well, owning stuff that has come to overshadow both Thanksgiving and Christmas — and our lives the rest of the year, too — makes me deeply uncomfortable, and it still feels right to consciously step back from it and to refuse to take part in it on this day that celebrates buying and owning as much as we can simply because … well, simply because we can.

I’m aware that I’m coming from a position of privilege when I say “it’s only stuff.” (This could be the subject of a post of its own.) I’m also aware that if I’m not conscious of limiting consumption the rest of the year, taking a day to step back is pretty meaningless. But stepping back mindfully can be meaningful, and can shade actions beyond the day when one does it.

It also feels important to say, to myself as much as to anyone else, that I reject the idea of acquiring things mindlessly or owning them just because I can, and that I prefer to be more measured and thoughtful about the physical objects in my life.

And it feels important to reaffirm that doing and being and creating are all far more valuable than buying and owning.

So I think shopping locally (more plaidly) and focusing on small businesses even beyond one’s community remain valuable, and I’ll continue to look for ways to do so the rest of the year even as I continue also being more mindful about what I buy in the first place–because an economy based on excess is ultimately a flawed economy.

But Friday, I’ll be doing other things instead.

Wikipedia summary of Buy Nothing Day
AdBusters’ Buy Nothing Day Campaign
CNN interview with the editor-in-chief of AdBusters
The Story of Stuff
Stephen Colbert interview with the author of The Story of Stuff
Buy Nothing Do Something supports Walmart workers striking this Friday

“You tried to create for all of us a world as dark
 and evil as your own.

 But know this, and remember it always: You failed.”

Today Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced to seven life terms plus 140 years in prison for killing six Tucsonans, attempting to assassinate a congressional representative, and injuring and endangering numerous others.

There could have been a painful and protracted death penalty trial–painful especially for those of us whom Giffords once represented–and that there wasn’t is in large part because of this: the victims’ families made clear that wasn’t what they wanted. So instead, a guilty plea agreement that assures Loughner will spend the rest of his days in prison was reached.

It’s enough. And now it’s done.

I feel as if in seeking justice instead of vengeance, these families have given all of us in Southern Arizona a tremendous and healing gift, and I’m grateful for it.

Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords were among those who addressed Loughner at the sentencing today. You can read Kelly’s comments here.