Sunday, August 25, 2013

Our Survival: Beyond Fukushima

My mother told me that when I was ten years old I went knocking door-to-door in our quiet suburban neighborhood to warn everyone about Acid Rain that would fall over the Great Lakes in years to come as a result of our contamination of the environment. I don’t remember this. I suspect the neighbors patted me on the head and chuckled indulgently. That Amy, cute little geek. I doubt they were still chuckling years later, after I had grown up and left home, when Acid Rain did fall over the Great Lakes, causing serious damage.

In high school I belonged to a club called Protect Your Environment (PYE). We had about four members. The year was 1969. People had other concerns. There was a war to worry about in those days for those awake to political issues. Environmental issues were low on everyone’s list. It took a long time for environmental protection, global warming, and climate change to appear on everyone’s radar. We humans were busy making other dire mistakes in the 1970s that gained attention. As it turns out, the destruction of our environment is the most dire mistake.

When I was in my 20s I joined a couple of politically active pacifist groups working to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to raise an alarm about the potential dangers of nuclear energy. I am not sure that I am theoretically opposed to nuclear energy, but I definitely believe it is unsafe because I have little faith in the capacity of humans to handle it unerringly. In my opinion, that is what would be required for nuclear energy to be viable:  100% unerring management of all nuclear power plants (difficult to achieve when tsunamis happen). I protested, published, and went to jail to oppose nuclear weapons. I was also opposed to nuclear energy. I imagine there are people who thought “That Amy, cute little geek, totally over-reacting.” Then Three-Mile Island happened and Chernobyl happened and, in 2011, the worst of all, Fukushima Daiichi happened. Fukushima terrifies me. Fukushima changed my life.

There is a great deal of misinformation out there about Fukushima, including some cover-up from leaders and the nuclear industry in Japan. Reports range from apocalyptic to don’t worry be happy. There are two key facts that all reports appear to agree on:  1) over 300 tons of radioactive water is leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day and 2) no viable long-term solution has yet been developed. Everything that has been done so far is a temporary fix. On August 16, 2013, Greenpeace reported:  TEPCO has been fighting an ongoing battle with contaminated water at the plant, and recently admitted that approximately 300 tons of radioactive water have been pouring into the ocean daily. Experts believe it has been doing so for almost two and a half years. Because the problems at Fukushima are unprecedented, and because experts are still trying to figure out what to do, it is imperative that world leaders and top nuclear engineers and scientists from around the world work together to stabilize the situation. I have hope that solutions can be found, but only if Fukushima receives way more attention, far more dedication of resources, infinitely higher priority. It must be recognized as a life-threatening, red-alert, global problem.

It’s hard for a lay person like myself to sift through and recognize fact from fiction about Fukushima. At the end of this blog post appear links to a few articles I have collected on this topic. I found the long Wikipedia article particularly helpful, even though I didn’t understand most of the technical information. According to some reports, children in California will begin suffering from thyroid cancer in large numbers by early 2014 and all agricultural products originating in California already carry such high levels of radiation that they are unfit for consumption. True or false? I don’t know. I have seen data indicating an alarming rise in cancer rates in the Western states in the past year. I have seen articles that suggest that people should not eat any agricultural products produced in California (ostensibly because our groundwater is now irradiated at unsafe levels). California supplies more agricultural products to the country than any other state (i.e., nuts, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, meat). Almost everything I eat comes from California, including my backyard garden, grown from California water of course.

Call me Chicken Little. Fine. I have gone beyond concern over appearing foolish. I would obviously be overjoyed if the entire apocalyptic scenario I fear is averted and everyone says, “Wow, Amy sure over-reacted.” Unfortunately, I doubt this will play out that way. I fear that everyone I know and everyone I love here on the West Coast will prematurely sicken and die; that I will never enjoy grandchildren; that my children will have no future; that the Pacific Ocean will be destroyed. I also doubt that I can make any difference in what happens. But I have started a little petition to send to Obama to beg him to take action on this issue. Here is the link. Please sign and send this to everyone you know.

Fukushima has changed my life. I have rededicated myself to enjoying the good things I have, the good times, the good friends, the magnificent children. I have made a commitment to love more, dance more, savor more, forgive more, visit the ocean more. I have made a commitment to stress less, complain less, criticize less. I will appreciate peaches and search the horizon for dolphins and hold my husband and children close. I do not plan to move away from the Pacific Ocean, which I adore. My children live on the edge of the Pacific. My friends live here in Cali. We are all here together. We all go together. The radiation emanating from Fukushima, if not contained, will gradually spread across the continent and the planet so there is nowhere else to go. I am grieving. I am living with a greater intensity. I intend to enjoy all the miraculous moments of my life right down to the very last precious whisper.

Pacific Ocean that I love. (Mendocino Coast.)

For more information:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tales of Horror from the World of Grant Writing

No one knows the trouble I’ve seen. As a freelance grant writer, working at home alone, I have few opportunities to discuss the true-life horror stories of my professional existence. Sometimes I talk to other contractual grant writers and we swap our tales from the crypt. Usually I have no one to talk to about my trials and tribulations. Ron lends a sympathetic ear, but he doesn’t know the trade well enough to fully comprehend what I go through.

Last week I wrapped up a job writing the narrative for a proposed $22,000,000 project. At least I thought I had wrapped it up until it reappeared to bite me in the ass this week. The lovely doctor I had worked with to write the narrative describing the project flew to Europe last week. Immediately after his departure, I turned in a carefully honed, polished narrative we had developed together over the course of five weeks. Having completed my job, I billed the company that had hired me to write the narrative for the grant for their client and called it quits. Everything ship-shape and tied up with a bow, right? Not.

On Tuesday the project manager (from the company that subcontracted to me) emailed to tell me that a new team had stepped in to take over the project upon the departure of the lovely doctor (deadline was close of biz on Thursday), and the new team had rewritten the narrative over the weekend, thus the project manager wondered if I would read the new version to make sure it was still compliant with the guidance and regulations for the grant proposal. Even though I had completed the project and billed for my time, I dropped everything and read the new narrative.

I soon discovered that a terrifying creature from the technology lagoon had hijacked the project within hours of the doctor boarding his plane. What a mess. She sliced out large sections of material so that she could make room to insert pages of technology jargon-speak about data warehousing and other technology infrastructure for the project. She took an attractive humanistic client-centered project design and reframed it as a high-tech data collection research project. Some of the material she wrote is incomprehensible to the lay reader. What on earth is “outlier detection”? Sounds sci-fi. What exactly is “metadata”? “Iterative design process”? Grammar, punctuation, and capitalization errors abound; inconsistencies throughout; and typos everywhere. The narrative is now screamingly sloppy.

I am so traumatized by the co-opting of my beautiful work that I am writing this blog about it. I wonder what the kindly doctor, who worked so painstakingly on this project with me, will think when he sees the mishmash-surprise that was submitted yesterday to the funding agency. I guess I shouldn’t care. I did my job. I got paid. I provided an excellent product (even if it was subsequently mangled). But I do care. So much money was spent by the organization to pay for the development of this grant by me and my colleagues at the company for whom I subcontracted. And the funding at stake ($22 million for goodness sake) is huge. Not to mention the benefits the organization’s clients/consumers (an underserved extremely needy demographic) would realize if the project were funded.

This is just the latest incident and the one that is disturbing me right now. I have a treasure trove of shocking, wild, hilarious, horrifying, and unbelievable stories from my thirteen years as a grant writer. Here is a for-instance. There was a time, back in the day, when original signatures were required on hard copy grant applications sent FedEx to the funder (now everything is electronic submission). I would FedEx the signature pages to the client with post-it arrows that said “sign here” on them in all the spots that needed a signature. The client signed, FedExed the pages back to me, I went to the copy shop, made all the copies of the proposal, and shipped it FedEx to the funder in DC. So one time I received the signature pages back and the client had signed his name ON THE POST-IT ARROWS. When I peeled the post-its off, the signatures came with them. Argh. I had to get permission to sign all the pages on his behalf because we didn’t have time to redo. What a bimbo. Or there was the time that I was working with a Native Tribe on a grant and they fired the tribal fiscal officer three days before the grant was due (escorted her off the Rez and wouldn’t allow her back on). I drove two hours to the tribal office and hacked into the woman’s computer with the help of the IT guy to get the budget out so we could submit the grant. Sheesh.

I should write a book entitled “Adventures in Grant Writing.” It would come as a surprise to many people to learn that grant writing is a nail-biting, cliff-hanger, seat-of-your pants, landing-a-burning-plane-on-a-melting-iceberg kind of profession. I want a purple heart, an honorary doctorate degree, a congressional medal of honor, and a case of Lake Champlain dark chocolate with almonds, and I want them now.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

We, Flawed Humans

What brutal disillusionment to discover that someone whose writing I admire does not walk the talk. Last week I mentioned Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card on my blog about cross-cultural understanding; and the very next day, when the trailer for the film of his book Ender’s Game came out, I learned that Card is a rabid homophobe who has used his millions to bankroll the NOM (National Organization for Marriage) campaign to kill pro-gay-marriage legislation. I still struggle to believe that the same man who wrote the final pages of Speaker for the Dead has such a narrow view when it comes to gay rights, i.e., human rights. It serves as a reminder for me that we humans are extremely flawed creatures; full of contradictions, disappointingly limited, and still evolving in so many ways.

I always feel blindsided when I learn that an athlete or performer I admire has done or said some boneheaded foolish thing. For instance, I was shocked and saddened when Michael Vick was busted for dogfighting. And I have been, over the years, so torn when I learned that a writer who writes beautifully and intelligently has backward-thinking or destructive socio-political views. Like Card. I feel bad when I discover that someone who acts wise and true in their public role is a bad parent, a hurtful spouse, a person who treats others badly in their personal life. I once discovered that a man who owned a visionary progressive business acted like a nasty corporate moneygrubber when it came to his dreadful labor practices. How can these things be? And yet it happens every day.

I remember a story told to me by a college friend in the 1970s. A few years earlier she was working at a job in New York when she and one of her co-workers took a couple of hours off to go see that horrifying documentary about the Holocaust called Night and Fog. After watching the film, she and her co-worker returned to work in tears. A motherly older woman worked with them. She baked them cookies and gave lots of hugs and provided a sympathetic ear for the disturbances of their young lives. They adored her. When they came back to the workplace weeping, she wrapped them in her arms. My friend explained to her that they had just viewed a film about the concentration camps and the annihilation of the Jews during the war. “Yes,” the woman responded sweetly as she patted their hands and offered them chocolate, “so terrible. It’s such a shame they didn’t manage to kill all of those dirty Jews.” The kindly older woman was a German immigrant, a former Nazi. My friend quit her job on the spot and never returned.

When I think of some of the things I have said and done, particularly in my youth, I cringe. My failures. My mistakes. I have always been so self-critical that I find it hard to forgive myself for these things. Even decades later. But we are all flawed. Those I love have hurt me, both purposefully and by accident. And I have hurt them. Some people in my life for whom I care deeply I have held at arm’s length because of my difficulty coping with their flaws and failures, their human frailty. And my inability to cope is another flaw of mine. I try to be compassionate and forgiving. I try to cut people some slack. I have my own limitations to manage, and how much I can handle from people I find difficult is part of that. So here we are together, trying to make a go of it. It’s important to remember that we are, all of us, flawed creatures. We have much capacity for good, much capacity for bad, and much capacity for something in between. Tread softly.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What We Think We Know about Others

Last week I read Orson Scott Card’s 1986 sci-fi Speaker for the Dead (one of the sequels in the Ender series). The climax of the book hinges on an extraordinary dialogue (visionary writing) in which two different sentient species (one of them humans) negotiate a treaty to live together respectfully and peacefully on one planet. One of my favorite things about the treaty negotiation is the place of mutual respect created by these two species. Both species are shocked to learn that things they thought they had understood about the other were completely wrong. Their struggle toward truth in their conversation is an exceptional model for cross-cultural communication. A wise and ancient being guides the exchange. As I read, I found myself thinking about the invasion of North America by Europeans and imagining how things might have gone if this wise and ancient being in the sci-fi novel had facilitated encounters between indigenous peoples and colonials. What a colossal missed opportunity for human evolution.

I remember the metaphor from Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish from Drowning, about a group of Western tourists who become lost in Burma and spend several weeks living with a remote, secretive mountain tribe. This book was also about bridging cultural divides and learning from one another; about looking again at what we think we see and seeing differently. On the spectrum of prejudice, there is full-blown blatant racism on one end and the innocent (yet often harmful/hurtful) assumptions made in oblivious ignorance on the other. In Saving Fish from Drowning, Tan relates a tale about a group of people from the long-ago who had never seen fish. When they saw fish for the first time, they were dazzled. But they felt sorry for the fish, who they thought were dying (because they were under water). So they “rescued” them by removing them from the water so they could “breathe” and of course the fish died. The tale is an allegory for cross-cultural misunderstandings that lead to dire consequences. The people were assuming that the fish breathed air like them. Understanding that different people have widely diverse perceptions about life and that others do not necessarily think or feel as we do is fundamental to diversity awareness.

How many times have I heard people say, “We are really all the same so we should live together in peace” (or something to that effect). I take exception to this simplistic view. I think we must realize that we are not all the same and that’s the whole point. We should learn from one another and quit making these assumptions that others think or feel like we do. Some things about us are the same and some are different.

Many years ago I participated in a diversity training called Barnga, and subsequently I became a Barnga trainer. Barnga is a simulation game that invokes an “aha” moment in players as they experience insights into cultural difference during the course of participation. It’s a complex game, but the short explanation of how it works goes something like this. (I’m going to spoil it for you. After you read this, you will never be able to play it.) Players are divided into groups of 10. Each group sits at a table. There are perhaps 6-10 different tables. Players are instructed not to speak. At their table they find instructions for a simple card game. They read the instructions, the instructions are then collected and removed, and then they play. After a few minutes of play, a bell rings, and two or three people from each table are tapped to move over to the table to their left. The bell rings again. They resume play. After a few minutes there is again a player rotation. What the players don’t know is that the instructions for the card game were slightly different  in the beginning at each table. For instance, one group of players read instructions that said that higher numbers take lower numbers, while another group of players read instructions that said lower numbers take higher numbers. Thus players are playing by several different sets of rules. I remember when I first played Barnga, before I knew the trick. Another player took my king with a three. Gosh, everyone knows a king is more powerful than a three in cards. I was shocked. But I didn’t say anything. I thought, “Oh well, I’ll let it go. I guess she doesn’t know how to play cards.”

Think about everything inherent in my assumption. I know how to play cards. She doesn’t. I’m right. I’m being generous by just letting her take my king. I’m being patronizing and superior. I’m assuming that I am right and she is wrong, that I’m smarter than she is. Even though I’m not making an issue about it, I am thinking that I know better than her. When in truth, she is playing by different rules. She could be thinking all the same things about me. When translated into real life cross-cultural dialogue, this experience demonstrates that we must never assume that we know the right way, the true way. We know our perception. That is all. And there are infinite pathways to truth, infinite pathways to enlightenment, infinite pathways in our perceptions about the world.

As a Jew, I have always had a particular aversion to proselytizing. It has caused the slaughter and persecution of my people for centuries. Jews pretty much don’t proselytize. We want to be left alone to believe and worship in peace. Ultra-orthodox Jews likely think everyone else is wrong in their beliefs, much the same as Christian fundamentalists and Islamist extremists. The difference, as I see it, is that extremist Jews don’t try to convince everyone else to have the same beliefs as themselves. They just want to be left to have their beliefs without persecution. Whereas Christian extremists seem obsessed with convincing everyone else to believe what they believe. Islamist extremists seem convinced that anyone who does not believe what they believe is evil and should be eliminated. Seriously, the Taliban, the Westboro Baptist Church, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis who aggressively settle on Palestinian lands are all operating from the same us-and-other brand of extremism.

And am I so different? I would like to think I am. But in truth, didn’t I think to myself that the woman who took my king with a three didn’t know how to play cards? Opening the doors of our perception to the perceptions of others is work and requires conscious effort and continued vigilance. We must keep questioning our assumptions and keep communicating with others. We must remain open to the possibility that others will change who we are, what we think, and what we believe. We have so much to teach one another and so much to learn from one another. Tough work. Astounding rewards. What lies ahead is unimaginably magnificent.