Monday, April 11, 2011
Lately I've been pondering the question of collaboration. I've been thinking about how it may be possible to reach compromises with people who think and believe very differently. The question arises in many spheres, private and public, professional and political.
My last post was written in a moment of great passion, frustration, anger and disappointment about the lack of compromise, the lack of collaboration between the Republicans and the Democrats of the Wisconsin State Assembly. I am still frustrated with politics. But the local, state, and national politics obviously have been and continue to be constantly fraught with this challenge.
What can be done when people feel very differently, and simultaneously feel very strongly about an issue? How can satisfactory agreement or compromise be reached? More recently, I've been pondering this question not with the question of state or national politics, but with collaborations with colleagues in my professional life.
In collaboration with colleagues towards common goals, such as the development of IAWAWSA as an organization, I find myself sometimes in fairly stark disagreements about how things should be done. I am not surprised that we have differences of opinion, as we are bound to think and feel differently. Sometimes these differences are obviously due to cultural differences, myself as an American, and some of my collaborators who are Indian. Sometimes the differences are simply linguistic and semantic, differences in the way in which we interpret words. But language and culture can't be used as scapegoats for all the differences of opinion and thought. Some of the disagreements are with my fellow American collaborators.
In case you couldn't tell from having read my blog in the past, I'm a person with strong convictions about my beliefs and values. I don't think I'm special or unique in this way. Rather it poses some serious challenges. In particular, though I believe in the importance of compromise, I'm not always very good at it. It's something I struggle with, something that I consciously work to improve in my life.
Because I feel quite strongly about most things, I find it difficult to pick my battles, so to speak. When it comes time to negotiate a compromise, I know that I should prioritize the aspects of the issue that are most important to me, and be willing to let go of the things that I feel are less important. But this principle is harder to apply in practice than it sounds.
When the differences are obviously cultural, it's both easier and harder. On the one hand, it's easier to accept that perhaps I should respect those perspectives with which I disagree. On the other hand, it sometimes means we are so far apart in not just what we think, but how we arrive at those conclusions, it makes it more difficult to find the point of compromise in the middle.
As my readers can tell, I'm writing in a lot of vague generalities, rather than specifics. I don't want to offend anyone, and I don't intend this as a complaint. We are bound to disagree, and it's my responsibility, and everyone's responsibility to find a way to reach a compromise. I work on it every day. But the bigger the goal, the harder it is, and working on these kinds of projects has given me a newfound respect for anyone whose job consists of this sort of compromise every day. As an academic, and being in a field which is not always collaborative, or which often creates hierarchies to decision-making, instead of equal collaborations, I have not needed to confront the challenge of negotiation and compromise most of the time. Maybe what I really need is practice.
I suppose these thoughts tend towards stating the obvious, but I find it useful to think "out loud" about such things. I know that there is no "answer" to these questions. Rather, I am, and I hope we all are, just doing the best we can to get along.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Sunday, February 06, 2011
So I've adjusted. Now what?
One night not too long ago I was riding the bus home late from the university, observing the other passengers. I couldn't help but see the way in which they organize themselves in the space of the bus so differently from the alternative reality of Indian buses. I experienced a strange double vision of an ordinary, late night, Indian bus, filled with passengers, superimposed on this bus of Americans. Though they are going about the same essential activity, riding a bus to go home, or to visit someone, or go to work, I can't help but marvel at the difference in the ways in which they, those physically present Americans, and imagined Indians, accomplish that task.
No one else around me was aware of the ghostly Indian bus, taking the same route, with ethereal other-worldly passengers, saris and shawls wrapped over heads, bending forwards in their seats, instead of leaning back, babies sleeping on laps, instead of in strollers, young children stretched across a row of three or four people. The small zippered duffle bags containing clothing and other essentials for entire families, jostling quietly on the floor. Women sitting only with other women, and men with men, unless they happen to be husband and wife, and even then, still sometimes separated. The chilly night wind blows through the Indian bus, even if chilly means its 70 degrees fahrenheit, everyone feels cold. It is only the body heat of the number of people packed closely together, 3 or 4 or 5 to a bench seat, that keeps the bus warm.
On the American bus, men in women, girls and boys sit together, and perhaps because there are so many fewer people, they all seem to spread out, legs spread wide, slumped down and leaning back, there are several people dozing or sleeping, or listening to music on headphones. Backpacks and purses and bags spread out over the adjacent seats, creating the buffer of ever-so-important personal space. Hot air blasts out of vents, and some people are talking loudly, trying to talk over the sound of the roaring heat.
I don't know why I sometimes experience double vision. Perhaps it's a trick of my tired, near-dreaming state, when I imagine what it would be like if I were still in India now. Sometimes I feel like I live simultaneously in a double-world.
Now that I'm home, and adjusted, more or less. I find myself missing India more and more. Certainly I don't miss everything. But I sometimes dream about the food, the dosas, idlis and chutneys of Thevar's Cafe near my old apartment. I miss how friendly everyone was, in a way that sometimes seemed more genuine than even the classic midwestern friendliness. Here the woman checking out my groceries at the store might smile, or make polite small talk, but she doesn't know me at all. Though there were things I hated about the small town life of Thanjavur, I miss the shopkeepers of the shop across the street from my house, who knew me, and always greeted me with genuine care. I miss the potter and his family who I used to visit, just to watch them work. I miss lots of things, maybe too many to name each person, place or thing.
It occurred to me once again though, (I've come full circle), I miss the challenge of daily life. I miss the lack of convenience, the effort it took to accomplish so many ordinary daily tasks, and I miss the joy and sense of great satisfaction at having succeeded in such basic things.
America, as I have felt for a long time now, is too easy. Everything is too convenient. I manage to make it somewhat less convenient through my own choices - for instance, currently not owning a car. Sometimes it's hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, or why too much convenience bothers me. I suspect it's that I'm not getting the same sense of accomplishment and satisfaction out the basic tasks of daily life.
So, I've adjusted. Now what? இப்பொழுது என்ன? I suppose I will go on as I have before, always missing one or more of the places that I have called home. Happy to be where I am, happy to be alive, but with twinges of longing for my alternative realities.
Saying goodbye to my friend Ramu, in Kadebakele village last March (2010).
As an aside, I wanted to post a link to this wonderful column reflecting on India, "Modern India's Dance of Creation and Destruction", by Akash Kapur for the International Herald Tribune (and NY Times). It has not much to do with the above post, except in that it also points to the constancy of change, the fact that since I can't live in two places at once, the next time I go back to India, it will no longer be the same place it was when I left. There is a kind of bitter-sweetness in that, one that I savor and let linger in my heart.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
It's not easy to radically shift in time zones, climates, cultures, people, foods and everything. Even though this is my "native" culture.
For one thing, things have changed in America since I left. When I left for India last November, there was no "Tea Party," at least not a recent one. Russ Feingold was my Senator, and people as far as I knew, expected he still would be. Some of my friends who were single, are now married. Some who weren't even pregnant when I left now have infants. Friends have moved states, whole lives have been transformed by the loss of jobs, and new jobs, etc.
There is an inclination, when you leave a place, even for a year, to expect it to be the same when you get back. But that is never the case. Time does not stand still for the people you leave behind.
I know that after a year spent in India doing research for my PhD, I should feel a sense of accomplishment. I should feel like I've really done something. Maybe it just hasn't hit me yet. Right now I feel like I'm standing still, and the trees, everything in the world around me is flying by at a million miles an hour. It's a strange sort of relativity.
In my imagination the world in America stood still while I was gone, and now that I've come back to it, all the changes that actually took place over the course of that year seem to be taking place at light speed.
I have changed too, though that's harder for me to recognize. I fell in love again for the first time since I was 18. I fell hard and fast, and stupidly, gleefully floated on a cloud of oxytocin-induced bliss. I felt I had never been so happy. It was long-distance love, and inevitably the oxytocin wore off and I fell again, this time into anguish, tears and insomnia. Then I started to pick up the pieces of my heart. I think I got all of them. I might have left one in India.
I turned 30. I started brushing my teeth more regularly. I became more or less vegetarian, with the exception of eggs, and some fish. I remembered how much I love origami. I decided I want to get a dog, even though everyone tells me how hard it will be, how unstable my life is, and how I have no concept of the responsibilities involved.
I worked on accepting the fact that my life is unstable and unpredictable, that I don't have a true home, and I may not have one for a very long time. I spent a lot of this past year daydreaming about stability, about how nice it would be to lead a predictable life, with a home, with a dog, with god-willing someday, a family. I spent a long time feeling home-sick for a home I do not have. Then I spent the rest of my time disparaging that boring life, which I do not lead, and trying to convince myself that I really do love the adventure and unpredictability.
I spent a lot of time pondering a lot of things, and even though I can't put a finger to each and everything thing, I know I've changed, I've grown. And so has everyone else.
Nothing is the same. Not really. Not even the things that seem to be the same. They've changed, because everything around them has changed, and that changes everything. Some people might not have changed, but I have changed, and therefore my perception of and relationship to them.
I come back to find (or be reminded) that there are many elements of American culture I dislike. I am overwhelmed by the consumer culture. I can't believe how much time and money people spend buying things they don't need, and might not even want. I can't believe the abundance of bad and greasy fast food. I can't believe the limits of obesity that can stretch the human body to a larger circumference around the middle than a persons height.
There are things I love to come home to. Recycling. Peace and quiet. Natural spaces (nearly) empty of other people. People driving in a more-or-less orderly manner. Avocados. Sushi. Black bean burritos with lots of guacamole. Raspberries.
There are also things I already miss. I miss the cows, goats, dogs, cats, monkeys and (occasional) elephants that wandered the streets. I miss idlis and tengai chutney and takaali chutney, and sambar, and podi. I miss the amazing varieties of bananas and mangoes, the fresh coconut, the jack fruit. I miss the bright colors. Some part of me even misses the cacophony of the roads and streets.
I miss the chaos of it all.
That's the thing, I guess. When I'm in India I miss America. I miss the ordered roads, and garbage collection. I miss the peace and quiet. I miss efficiency. I miss decent chocolate chip cookies, and I miss the people that I love over here.
But when I'm in America, I miss India. I miss the chaos and the noise of the streets. I miss the the dogs that used to live at the end of my block. I miss the rice meals, the tiffin, the chutneys, the smell of frying onions, mustard seed, and curry leaf wafting through my window. And I miss the people I love over there.
Now that I am "home," I will adjust. Adjust-pannevain. But it will be a struggle, the same way it was a struggle when I landed in India last November. I will adjust because I have to. But it's by no means easy.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Now that I have my snarky remark out of the way, I want to point out that the authors of this study are right. Especially in America, we waste an incredible amount of energy in wasting food. To quote them:
Analysis of wasted food and the energy needed to ready it for consumption concluded that the U.S. wasted about 2030 trillion BTU of energy in 2007, or the equivalent of about 350 million barrels of oil. That represents about 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S.The basic point is good. And maybe kind of obvious. To make it more useful, and help individuals and corporations develop ways to avoid the problem, I think someone needs to do a more detailed, system-wide, analysis of food production, consumption, and efficiency. I would argue that loss is both in the production of food which is then wasted - when someone's ham sandwich sits out of the refrigerator for too long, and gets thrown out. But also in product packaging. Product packaging is a huge investment of energy to produce, and a huge problem in landfills. While we frequently complain about the amount of waste produced in packaging, it's also the packaging that frequently keeps food from spoiling and getting wasted. We need better packaging, more efficient packaging, and less packing waste.
Health nuts and environmentalists shop at places like Whole Foods, where they buy dry goods in bulk, which they keep in their own re-usable, and often highly effective containers. This kind of conscientious use of food, packaging, and storage is great for those who have the time, money, and willingness to invest. But the people who do that are clearly a small portion of the population over all. I make this effort, but sometimes it turns out to be too expensive. Though I don't see a reason why it should be. I'm fairly certain it's just the fact that Whole Foods (and other stores like it) have especially high mark-up.
Ineffective or inefficient packaging is actually one of the food industries ways of trying to ensure that you will purchase their product more often. Whether the food and packaging gets wasted is really not their problem. Cereals could easily change their packaging to add a zip-loc type of closure to the cereal bag inside the box. This would ensure your corn flakes would last longer without getting stale. It might also mean you'd be slower to consume them, or less likely to throw out stale corn flakes, and buy a new box. It goes against what the manufacturers want you to do, which is consume more, no matter how much gets wasted. Corn flakes are just one obvious example, but the problem is pervasive. Either in excessive packaging - in "serving size" containers, or poor packaging which lets the product spoil more quickly, the food and packaging industries need a kick in the pants. I'm not sure if the answer is regulation, or changing consumer demand. I suspect both would help.
The problem of food storage and food spoilage is a problem as old as humanity, though it became more of of a problem with settled village life. Being an archaeologist, I can't help but think about this question, and how it's been solved over the millennia. These days it's hard to imagine a life without plastics. What would you do without your tupperware, your zip-loc bags and containers? What would you do without a refrigerator?
- Pottery. Ceramic vessels appear pretty much everywhere around the world, especially once people started to settle down in villages and farm. Ceramics are not very efficient for nomadic life, but they work great if you stay in one place. They can be used to store liquids and dry goods. They can keep out pests - at least rodents, if not always insects. They can be made to various sizes and shape specifications, and compared with older technologies of containers - they can be more durable. Prior to pottery, it appears people used organic materials, such as baskets, possibly cloth and leather bags, and gourds. These materials have another set of benefits, as well as drawbacks.A large storage vessel excavated at the Danish Fort of Tranquebar.
- Storage pits. These features of archaeological sites are also ubiquitous, and sometimes mystifying. It's hard to imagine digging a hole in the dirt, and wanting to keep your food in a hole in the ground. But storage pits often provided a natural source of cooling, as well as potentially saving space compared with above-ground storage of goods. Storage pits also frequently were inside dwellings. Archaeologists often interpret this to mean that people wanted to protect their private ownership over the food which they had produced, making it difficult for other people to get to.
- Storage bins, granaries and public storage. In contrast with the private storage pit inside a home, archaeologists have uncovered large buildings they interpret as granaries or public storage for grain. They have variously been interpreted as state controlled centers which would function by taxation paid in grain, and as grain savings banks. A public depository, which you could come and withdraw from later. In Mesopotamia the temples often took grain as part of donations, gifts or offerings, and then used that grain to support the labor of various other kinds of producers who lived in and were attached to the temples. The collection of surplus grain which supports other kinds of non-food production and activities is the basis of a specialized economy. It allows for monumental constructions, works of art, and military conquest.
- Livestock. Live animals are a great form of storage. As long as the animal is alive, it is its own machine of creating and storing food energy. To the extent that an animal ages, and will someday die naturally, it "spoils" very slowly. Keeping the goat alive until you want to eat mutton is a great way to prevent the meat from going bad. You can also feed animals with surplus grain, agricultural bi-products like hay, and benefit from their secondary products like milk, or wool. Keeping livestock - and keeping it alive, has always been an effective and efficient way of keeping food from spoiling.
- Pickles. I've never been a huge fan of pickles myself, but they are an age-old solution to the problem of vegetables and meat spoiling. What to do with all that extra cabbage? Sauerkraut. What to do with an abundance of cucumbers? Dill pickles, sweet pickles, any sort of pickles. One thing you'll need: lots of salt. And also, you'll need vinegar - which comes as a byproduct of number 7, below.
- Drying. Drying only works really well in certain kinds of climates, but it can be made to work even in the tropics. You can dry fruit (who doesn't love a fruit roll-up), or fish, or meat. Jerky, which is sold today in silly plastic packaging near the checkout counter at the 7-11 is actually an ancient technological solution. Even before or without agriculture, people all across the world have dried the excess meat from animals - especially hunting migratory animals that you can only hunt and kill in one season. Buffalo jerky on the high plains, caribou jerky in the arctic and sub-arctic, mammoth jerky in Ice Age Europe. Dried foods lose their water weight, are easier to transport, and don't spoil nearly as quickly. Fruits and nuts have also been important items of trade in the ancient world. Dates, apricots, pistachios, cashews, all were products of different regions of the Mediterranean and Near East. They were shipped all over the world.
- Fermentation. Grain, fruit, milk, almost any food product, given enough time will start to ferment or break down. The process is usually catalyzed by various agents, some of which are naturally present in the food itself. Food, especially the plant food we eat, is actually meant to be food for the plant itself. It's a way for the plant to store energy, usually to feed its offspring in the form of seeds. A peach is tasty to a person, but the fruit sugars and flesh are actually meant to nourish the seed, the pit in the middle which may become another peach tree. Built into the fruit are enzymes which naturally cause the fruit to ripen, a process which breaks down the sugars, and ultimately becomes rotting. Add to that various bacteria, yeasts, and fungi, and you have a million ways in which food will naturally break down. Instead of letting fruits and grains break down in the way that they would if left to themselves, humans learned to control the processes of fermentation to make beer, liquor, wine, and cheese. Controlled fermentation is a great way to take something that's going to spoil anyway, and cause it to ferment in a way that produces a product which itself will keep longer, store useful calories, and be mighty tasty in the process.
- Host big parties. What archaeologists call feasts, (or more high-falutin' term "salient consumption") is a great solution to having a lot of surplus. If you happen to have a lot of extra food, you can always throw a big party, (preferably utilizing some of the above-mentioned wine or beer), and distribute that surplus, making sure it gets eaten and consumed before it goes to waste. The principle is one of "pay-it-forward" altruism. It pays to throw big parties, and invite the whole community. This year you might be the one with surplus, and you might help someone else who's crops didn't do so well. Next year, when your yields are not as great, (or in the modern world, you're unemployed) your neighbor can throw a party, where you can come and stuff your face. Everyone benefits, and less food gets wasted overall.(I considered posting a picture of some friends at a party, but decided it might be too embarrassing/incriminating... so just make a mental picture, ok, people?)
- Get fat. This is actually the evolutionary solution to times of excess and times of scarcity. When humans (and other animals) lived without as much control over their environment, and without the ability to produce surplus, we evolved to store the excess when it was available, and keep it for later, when resources were scarce. You can probably be assured that our hominid ancestors never got truly obese. But they did utilize fat storage as a way to make it through lean seasons. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you see it) in the modern and developed world, most people never experience the scarcity. They only ever experience surplus, and the system is no longer really adaptive for modern conditions and habits. (Disclaimer: I'm not in any way endorsing getting fat. I'm simply pointing out that is one of the ways in which humans have dealt with surplus food in the past.)
- Don't produce as much surplus. This also may fall under the category of "the sky is blue", but it's worth mentioning. If you can't keep surplus without it going to waste, and you can't dry it, pickle it, ferment it, feed it to livestock, or share it with your neighbors, maybe you shouldn't produce that much excess. As the authors of this contemporary study pointed out, energy is wasted in making more than you can or will actually use. So whether that energy is your own sweat, out in the fields, tilling more land, and producing more zucchini than you can possibly ever use, or distribute, or whether that energy is in the electricity and petroleum products used by factories to make cornflakes which will go stale and wind up in the garbage, we should work on calibrating our production to our actual consumption needs.
After my top ten list of ways humans have dealt with surplus, and found ways to avoid waste, I want to add two points. One is that, given all the resources we have now, and the number of people in the world who still go hungry, I see no reason why we can't practice some of that pay-it-forward altruism, and give away the surplus. I don't see any reason why there should be any waste at all. India recently went through a scandal, in which grain was rotting in government store houses, and poor people were starving on the streets. With enough public outcry, the government was forced to distribute some of that grain. Clearly, hunger in the world today isn't a problem of actual shortage or scarcity. It's a problem of distribution.
My second point is more of a musing. In thinking about all the foods which are fermented, I realized that some of my favorite foods in the world are fermented products. Good beer and wine are wonderful things. So is cheese. Oh, I miss cheese so much. It's also interesting that fermentation is a process which some kinds of primates also appreciate. Remember the youtube video of monkeys getting drunk on the beach? There are also monkeys that wait for fruit to ferment on the tree before eating it. They delay gratification and wait long enough for the fruit to become fruit liquor. They don't control the process, per se, but it's interesting to think that fermented foods might be evolutionarily older than the human species.
If we can't figure out a way to send surplus grain to starving people around the world, maybe we can ship them some beer instead? Ok, I hope everyone gets that that was sarcasm. But seriously, lets figure out a way to solve the problems of waste, surplus, and starvation, all together.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
- John Lennon