About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

#96: Survival Mom

Survival Mom: The Modern Family's Guide 
to Any Apocalypse, by Lisa Bedford
(New York: HarperOne, 2012)
"Undaunted by the prospect of TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It), Lisa Bedford tackles every what-if and worst-case scenario head-on, offering practical advice on how to prepare your family for whatever might come your way. From a few days without electricity to an unexpected job loss or total chaos after the destruction of a tornado, Survival Mom provides everything you need to become self-reliant and establish plans for your family, including:
  • preparing the home for a natural disaster
  • alternative sources of energy in a power's-out situation
  • everything you need to know about food storage
  • personal protection (do I really need to learn how to shoot a gun?)
"Deep inside every mom is a Survival Mom whose passion for her family drives her to make the best of the present and prepare for the future. So tap into your Mama Grizzly instincts and channel your worries into action. Whether you're a full-fledged 'prepper' or just getting started, with real-life stories and customizable forms and checklists along with Lisa's 'you can do it' attitude, Survival Mom replaces paranoia and panic with the peace of knowing YOU have the power to keep your loved ones safe and secure."

Table of Contents:
  • Quiz: What Kind of Survival Mom Are You?
  • From Suburban Mom to Survival Mom, an Introduction
  • 1. Prepare More, Panic Less
  • 2. Survival Begins with Water
  • 3. Keeping It Clean: The Ins and Outs of Sanitation
  • 4. The First Steps of Food Storage
  • 5. Increase Your Food Storage Savvy
  • 6. Your Home Base
  • 7. The Unplugged Home: Learning to Live Without Electricity
  • 8. The Essentials for Safety and Security
  • 9. Survival Finances
  • 10. It Takes a Compound
  • 11. Preparedness on the Go: Evacuation Basics
  • 12. Survival Mom to Survival Mom
My Take:
I've heard that life imitates art, and stumbled into enough eerie parallels between what's going on around me and what's on my bookshelf to agree. Sometimes, it's just a weird but minor coincidence that makes me smile to myself. Other times, I'd much rather my reading material have remained irrelevant. If you've been in or even aware of the northeastern US last week, you know this is one of those other times. I read this book last week, when I was still adjusting to my 90-minute commute and too brain-dead in the evenings to tackle anything other than a very concrete, lots-of-bulleted-lists self-help manual. Bedford's tone here really isn't particularly alarmist, and I'm too fond of my coffee and libraries to seriously contemplate going off-the-grid, but hearing the news reports and office chit-chat about Hurricane Sandy's approach and then falling asleep envisioning some of the scenarios for which Survival Mom recommends preparing had me sufficiently shaken that I sent Filbert out to stock up on batteries and flashlights and packed a change of clothes and an extra granola bar in my satchel when I set out for work on Monday, just in case.

Here in my neck of the woods, we were lucky. It rained steadily for a few days, and the wind gusts buffeting my little Matrix Monday evening were a bit unsettling, but that was all. The power never even flickered, and with no school for Twig or I and no real weather of consequence, Tuesday felt almost like a holiday, complete with a drizzly stroll downtown and a decadent soda-fountain float for dessert. My hometown, though, where my parents and siblings still live, was another story. It could have been worse, of course; they aren't in Breezy Point, where some 50 homes burned to the ground during the storm, or in any of the coastal Jersey communities of which aerial photos show only rooftops above the flood waters. Three-quarters of the Thyme family never left their homes, and got their power back on Thursday night. The glorious, seemingly immortal pin oak still towers over the house we grew up in, though Dad's started to make noises about how it's not looking so great after two years of hurricane damage and maybe he should take it down himself before another storm beats him to it. Most importantly, everyone is safe and healthy, including my newborn niece (who's fated to spend her every birthday hearing the grown-ups retell Hurricane Sandy stories that grow taller even as she does). Still, I see loved ones with flooded homes (some for the second time in two years), beaches and other beloved landmarks devastated, news of fights breaking out in gas station lines that make me wonder if some of Lisa Bedford's more apocalyptic what-ifs are really as far-fetched as I'd initially thought.

I don't want to co-opt this disaster into Hurricane Hazelthyme, grasping at whatever tenuous connection to tragedy I can so as to make myself the center of attention. But along with the obvious sadness and loss, I feel guilty, regret that I let my own busyness and awkwardness keep me from staying closer to these friends and relatives all along so I could offer help or at least sympathy now without being perceived as a tourist or a vulture. As the only one of four siblings who settled more than 15 miles from the aforementioned pin oak, I'm accustomed to feeling cut off from my family and my home town. I last lived there at 18, when few people are yet fully comfortable in their own skin, and as I now live 5 hours away, there will always be parties I can't attend and "in" jokes I Just Don't Get. Usually, though, what I'm missing are happy things: a Father's Day cookout, a shared beach house, my nephew's birthday party, a spontaneous dinner with my oldest friend, a chance meeting and drink with a former high school classmate in a neighborhood bar. I could walk into one of these events any time, and while I'd be a recurring guest star rather than a featured-in-the-title-sequence main character, I'd nonetheless be welcome; as Robert Frost said "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Strange to say, though, I find myself wishing I'd gone out of my way to accept more party invitations, haunt more local watering holes, and make more phone calls and Facebook posts while I was there, so that I'd have earned the right to help haul ruined furniture out of some flooded basements now.

So much for not making it all about me. At any rate, this started because I'd read Survival Mom, which offers a solid, well-organized guide to increasing your family's self-sufficiency and disaster preparedness, provided you don't mind or can overlook some of the more catastrophic scenarios the author imagines. In Sandy's wake, few would argue with the logic of storing enough food and water for at least a week, even if the 2 to 3 months' supply Bedford recommends is more than your storage space or organizational skills can handle. Likewise, it suddenly seems prudent to have not just a backup plan, but a backup backup plan, for any major what-if; the generator you've been storing won't do you much good if you can't get more gas when you need it. And we've all known at least since 2008, if not earlier, that maintaining enough savings to cover several months of living expenses (Bedford recommends at least 6) is a smart idea, while buying a home you won't be able to afford if the slightest thing goes wrong (you lose your job, your spouse takes a pay cut, someone in your family becomes seriously ill, interest rates go up) is not.

Side tangent, though: Suggesting that a stay-at-home parent represents some sort of asset in case of emergency, because "[i]f Dad should lose his job, the family's income will take a big hit, but [they] have some interesting options. ... If things got really tight, Mom could become a math tutor or get a job as an accountant or bookkeeper" didn't make sense when Elizabeth Warren did in in The Two Income Trap, and certainly isn't any more plausible here. If the job market is such that Dad, who's been in the workforce all along, has a hard time finding a new job, how is a Mom who hasn't done any paid work in years going to suddenly find work that pays enough to provide significant support for her family? Unless Mom really has some rare skill set that's a) in high demand where she lives, and b) not sufficiently valued by her having been out of the workforce for some period, a better recommendation is for a family to avoid spending all their income as soon as they earn it, whether it's 1 or 2 adults doing the earning ... and to keep your skills sharp and your mind open, so that if whatever your family's current division of paid and domestic labor stops working for whatever reason, everyone's willing to change what they're doing either temporarily or long-term, whether that means picking up a second or part-time job, switching careers, or putting more time into cooking, canning, gardening, and home maintenance to offset the lack of cash you now have for such things.

Anyway, my original point from, oh, about 2 paragraphs back, is that while some of the information Bedford offers is practical, clear, and accessible even for those fairly new to the whole preparedness/ survival genre. Where she loses me, though, is where she drifts from preparing for the sorts of (oxymoron alert!) ordinary disasters that will at least touch most of us at some point -- hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms, floods, wildfires, job loss -- to apocalyptic scenarios that sound more like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel:
  • "Nuclear events -- including, but not limited to, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), suitcase bombs, and actual mushroom clouds;
  • "Terrorist attacks -- these could happen anywhere, anytime, although I have to admit that terrorists seem to favor New York City;
  • "Social unrest -- riots, strikes, large-scale and violent protests;
  • "Increased crime rate -- home invasions, car-jackings, burglaries;
  • "Economic collapse -- the devaluation of the dollar, bank closures, hyperinflation, a significant stock market crash;
  • "Biological catastrophes -- epidemics or pandemics, biological warfare;
  • "Utter and complete collapse of civilization -- it's happened before, and it can happen again."
 Maybe I'm just naive or in grave denial, but I have a hard time seriously contemplating any of the above -- or at least attempting to prepare for their remote possibility. To be fair, Bedford does note that not all conceivable disasters are equally likely, and that "it's important to assess which emergency situations are most likely to happen in you area and in your specific set of circumstances."
"In a way, making plans for emergencies is a bit like gambling. You start with the event that has the highest odds first and work your way down from there. Really, should your very first concern be a nuclear attack? Probably not. The odds are much better for a severe weather event, increased crime, or a natural disaster common to your area. Even better odds favor a deep decline in family income and the inability to pay rent or mortgage payments."
Under the circumstances, I'm willing to ignore some of her more extreme recommendations about preparing for economic collapse and building a safe room in her house, not to mention the whole firearms chapter, and just conclude that perhaps she's read a few too many of the male-targeted survivalist books and magazines she claims inspired Survival Mom and ended up with a somewhat skewed perspective on what's dangerous as a result. Perhaps I just took one too many economics classes and have too much innate pessimism, but I tend to think the danger of complete economic or societal collapse or ending up in a terrorist's cross-hairs is sufficiently remote, and the chance of our anticipating or successfully shielding ourselves from harm if one of these events does come to pass, make for an insufficient return on the time and money we'd need to invest in the attempt. (Had I been in the South Tower on 9/11, no personal firearm or inventory of home-canned peaches would have made a difference. Just saying.)

#95: Victory

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, by Linda Hirshman
(New York: Harper, 2012)
"A Supreme Court lawyer and political pundit details the enthralling and groundbreaking story of the gay rights movement, revealing how a dedicated and resourceful minority changed America forever.

"When the modern struggle for gay rights erupted—most notably at a bar called Stonewall in Greenwich Village—in the summer of 1969, most religious traditions condemned homosexuality; psychiatric experts labeled people who were attracted to others of the same sex 'crazy;' and forty-nine states outlawed sex between people of the same gender. Four decades later, in June 2011, New York legalized gay marriage—the most populous state in the country to do so thus far. The armed services stopped enforcing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, ending a law that had long discriminated against gay and lesbian members of the military. Successful social movements are always extraordinary, but these advances were something of a miracle.

"Political columnist Linda Hirshman recounts the long roads that led to these victories, viewing the gay rights movement within the tradition of American freedom as the third great modern social-justice movement, alongside the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement. Drawing on an abundance of published and archival material, and hundreds of in-depth interviews, Hirshman shows, in this astute political analysis, how the fight for gay rights has changed the American landscape for all citizens—blurring rigid gender lines, altering the shared culture, and broadening our definitions of family.

"From the Communist cross-dresser Harry Hay in 1948 to New York's visionary senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010, the story includes dozens of brilliant, idiosyncratic characters. Written in vivid prose, at once emotional and erudite, Victory is an utterly vibrant work of reportage and eyewitness accounts, revealing how, in a matter of decades, while facing every social adversary—church, state, and medical establishment—a focused group of activists forged a classic campaign for cultural change that will serve as a model for all future political movements."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: How an Army of Good Gays Won the West
  • 1. Gays and the Cities: Community First, Politics Later
  • 2. Red in Bed: It Takes a Communist to Recognize Gay Oppression
  • 3. It Was the Sixties That Did It: Gays Get Radical, Radicals Get Gay
  • 4. Stonewall Uprising:  Gays Finally Get Some Respect
  • 5. The Good Gays Fight the Four Horsemen: Crazy, Sinful, Criminal, and Subversive
  • 6. Dying for the Movement: The Terrible Political Payoff of AIDS
  • 7. ACT UP: Five Years That Shook the World
  • 8. Failed Marriages and Losing Battles: The Premature Campaign for Marriage and Military Service
  • 9. Founding Fathers: Winning Modern Rights Before Fighting Ancient Battles
  • 10. Massing the Troops for the Last Battle: The New-Media Gay Revolution
  • 11. With Liberal Friends: Who Needs Enemies?
  • 12. Victory: The Civil Rights March of Our Generation
  • Epilogue
My Take:
I've gotten backlogged in my blogging again (backblogged?) and don't recall either any especially profound reactions to the text or vivid pictures of what else was going on while I read it, but this was a thorough, informative, and engaging history of the U.S.'s final (as of right now) civil rights frontier. Victory should be required reading not just for the LGBT community (many of whom won't require a mandate anyway) but for their mostly straight allies (even if they/ we're afraid of what someone will think if they see them/ us carrying it at work) and for anyone interested in contemporary politics, culture, and social movements.

#94: The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
(North Kingstown, RI: BBC Audiobooks America, 2007)
"In this deliciously funny novella that celebrates the pleasure of reading, the Uncommon Reader is none other than Her Majesty the Queen, who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library parked at Buckingham Palace. She reads widely (J.R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, Ivy Compton Burnett, and the classics) and intelligently. Her reading naturally changes her world view and her relationship with people such as the oleaginous prime minister and his repellent advisers. She comes to question the prescribed order of the world, and loses patience with much that she has to do. In short, her reading is subversive. The consequence is, of course, surprising, mildly shocking and very funny. With the poignant and mischievous wit of The History Boys, England's best loved author revels in the power of literature to change even the most uncommon reader's life."

Opening Line:
"At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber."

My Take: 
Very funny, likeable little book perfect for a long, tedious drive. I started an assignment in north central Neighboring State last week, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it's lovely to have dinner with my family and sleep in my own bed every night, especially as the town in question is no Boston. The non-commuting consultants on site don't even have the relief and picturesque walking trails of a comfortable hotel to retreat to after hours, as I did at my last assignment; they're bunking in college dorms. I know there's no conveniently-located kitchen, though I suppose there may be mini-fridges in their rooms; I couldn't bear to ask about the bathroom facilities. Given all that, being home in the evenings with a cat at my feet and show tunes from my daughter's Pandora channels filling my ears isn't hard to take. Coming home, though, is another matter. No matter which route I take, it's a 90 minute drive, far enough that I leave home before anyone else is up in the morning and go more than halfway there in the dark. Not urban dark, where the storefronts and streetlamps and incessant traffic still provide enough light to read by, or even suburban dark, where you've at least got the unflattering purplish yellow sodium streetlight glare if you need to check a map. Nope, this 3 or 4 small, roll-the-sidewalks-up-at-9-pm small towns, separated by miles of pitch black, bottle-of-ink rural darkness. More often than not, the predawn mornings are blanketed with what weather forecasters call "patchy fog," which means no visual cues to tell you if you're just driving over a hill or about to plunge off the edge of the world.

While there's no way around the length of the commute -- my skyrocketing gas bill; the bleak, sleepy loneliness of the drive in; the speed with which bedtime comes if you get home after 6 and eat supper after 7 -- I've developed a routine to alleviate its tedium. Before work, I listen to Morning Edition for about 45 minutes and 3 different radio stations, stop for coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts that's just about at the halfway point, and then put some news and current events podcast or other on for the remainder of the drive there. On the way home, though, I pick something lighter and more strictly entertaining; making me laugh out loud is a plus, though mostly it just needs to be engaging and fast-paced enough to keep me from getting drowsy at a point in the day when my energy's already pretty low.  

An Uncommon Reader was perfect for the job. It's funny and well-worded, compelling enough to hold my attention without being so action-packed that if a noisy truck or complicated merge makes you miss a few lines, you're hopelessly lost. At several points, I found myself smiling fondly at Bennett's clever phrasings as one would over coffee with an old friend. (Certain excerpts reminded me of conversations with a particular friend I haven't seen in months, and chuckling even more at the knowledge that as someone even more stubbornly proud of her Irish heritage than I am, she'll be appalled that it's a story about a British monarch that prompts me to drop her a line.) And as a voracious reader myself, it felt like a vindication of sorts to enjoy a book all about the pleasures of reading and how what one reads can change you, with a main character who often has that familiar experience of having some dreary obligation to attend to when you'd really just rather be curled up at home with your cats (or in Her Majesty's case, corgis) and a good novel.

The only down sides I saw here were ones that probably can't be avoided in a novella. Call me nosy, but I kept wanting to know more: what was it, for example, about the experience of reading or the particular books she'd read that prompted the Queen's unexpected and unprecedented feelings of tender sympathy for the doddering Sir Claude? And what, exactly, were the dilemmas or alternatives she considered that lead to her climactic announcement at the book's end?