Thursday, September 30, 2010


While the onset of autumn signals a season of introspection for me, I haven’t sunk all the way into the deep reflection on life’s big issues quite yet, but hover, like the weather, so that tonight’s introspection falls on lighter fare.

Things I am Officially Over:
Cupcakes from boutique cupcake shops.  So not worth the price.  I can do better with a box of Betty Crocker mix and a tub of frosting. The only thing that makes these worth silly waits in line and money you could buy a good espresso drink with instead (yes, I do see the irony) is if you think of it as buying art.  With a very short lifespan.

Tapas.  Leave me feeling vaguely dissatisfied and definitely hungry.

PEPCO.  Hiss.  Boo.  Stop letting my power get knocked out every time a raindrop threatens to fall from the sky!

Tea parties.  The whole phrase has been ruined for me by the right.  Though I do still love clotted cream and jam on scones and those cute little cucumber sandwiches.

Things I am Officially Into:
Peruvian food.  Especially La Canela and Carbon, a fine dining spot and a casual place, respectively, located a block apart on Gibbs Street in Rockville Town Square, Rockville, Maryland, and cleverly owned by the same company.  Best steak ever (note to the Green Police--yes, I still eat red meat once in a while, get over it)—a pleasing heart attack on a plate when served with egg on top. 

Chicha Morada.  See Peruvian food, above.  My new favorite drink is one of Peru’s favorite drinks, made of purple corn juice and pineapple, spiced with cinnamon and cloves.  I enthused to my son about it, thinking that with his international inclinations he’d want to give it a try, and ran down the ingredients for him.  “So basically, sugar?” he cracked, in that wonderful wry way of his.  No you can’t spoil it for me, Sammy!  I looked it up and it apparently has one of the highest levels of antioxidants in the vegetable kingdom.  But I mostly drink it because it’s refreshing and delicious.

Alegria shoes.  Less than two years after I decided I had to give up Birkenstocks and wear more elegant—while still comfortable--footwear, since I was single (don’t ask for the logic that came between those two clauses), I have started wearing the most incredibly comfortable shoes that have a big funny- looking toe bed and a clunky rocker sole.  They come in a pleasing array of whimsical colors.  Of course I had to get the purple tortoise patent.

Sidewalk recycling.  I saw my first Big Belly Solar Compactors in Philadelphia earlier this year.  Meanwhile, in the DC area you still can’t find a plain old recycling bin at public event or in front of your local strip mall, so we dump tons of plastic and glass bottles, etc. into the landfill.

A new favorite—if perhaps less than PC--expression:  “a random” (used as a noun, not a verb).  I have not Googled to find the origin because I’m afraid I’ll find out it’s widespread slang, thus revealing my dinosaurhood);  I prefer to think it’s an original quirky catchphrase.  A colleague and I were out and about and a weird guy kept coming up to a vendor near where we were sitting.    I asked if she’d seen him before.  “Yeah,” she said, “a random.”  Later that day an oddball with a creepy edge walked by.  I looked at her. “Yeah,” she said, “another random.” 

Things I am Reserving Judgment On:
Twitter.  So far the main benefit I’ve found is information sharing.  And by information I mean things like links to interesting articles that have appeared in the media, or controversial comments from thought leaders.  Not what you had for breakfast.

Freecycle.  Love the idea.  Don’t love getting all the emails about junk people are willing to put out to the curb for me if I want to come get it, bringing clutter to my Inbox that I just spent months getting rid of.  Though I did get someone to come get an old mini CD player system off of my curb and take it away for me.  And my son just furnished his first place with a decent sofa and other living room furniture thus garnered. For now I sideline the digested email notices into a folder in my Inbox and check them occasionally when I am on hold on the phone (see below entry for Verizon).

FIOS.  Got it after I got fed up with my Comcast TV going out in storms even when the power was back on, and after much soul searching about changing from the devil I knew to…another devil I knew.  At least with Comcast I could get a live person on the phone in fairly short order.  As for Verizon, well, that’s when I read my Freecycle emails, while I search in vain for a live person to talk to while wildly pushing phone keys and angrily yelling at the phone like a crazy person—“Agent!”  “Agent!”

Glee.  The wildly popular Fox TV show used to be on the Things I’m Into list, as I’ve been a hard-core Gleek since the show started and just finished happily watching reruns of it all summer.  But this new season—are they bending over backwards trying to make all the characters unlikeable, and the likeably unlikeable Sue Sylvester just thoroughly unpleasant?  And the slutty numbers they performed this past episode two dedicated to the (imagine heavy air quotes) “music” of Britney Spears?  Gratuitous.  Please, Ryan Murphy, don’t get jaded so quickly and ruin Glee!

Now I’ve Heard Everything:
An old friend from North Carolina told me about a billboard in Charlotte that advertises a grocery store meat department and THE BILLBOARD EMITS THE SMELL OF GRILLING MEAT—adjusted remotely, turned up during rush hour traffic to tantalize people into wheeling off the highway for some good eats.  This also comes under the category of ideas stolen out of my head, as I have for years been saying the next big thing in computers would be the ability to transmit smell, so your screensaver could not only give you an eyeful of a Caribbean beach but the smell of suntan lotion and tropical flowers to complete the mood.

Now I’ve Seen Everything: 
As a taxi deposited a friend and me outside a very posh hotel in Philadelphia, a woman walked by with a Westie Terrier IN A STROLLER.  I snapped my head back for a second look, delighted, laughed aloud and told my friend, “I can die now, I’ve seen everything!” 

What are you Into, Over or All Agog About these days?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reason for Hope

I reviewed Jane Goodall’s wonderful book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey years ago in my monthly book column in Washington Woman magazine, but only recently watched the tie-in 1999 public TV special.  Just as with the book, I was moved deeply by this extraordinary woman’s intellect and heart and how she applies both to serve the world.

The world’s leading primatologist is best known for her work with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Her six-month stint in Africa beginning at age 26 turned into about four decades; she started there with no degree as secretary to Louis Leakey but soon earned a doctoral degree from Cambridge University.  She had and has an unparalleled, deep relationship with the natural world and from the twin branches of science and spirituality advocates for the environment.

Part of the absorbing film looks back at Jane’s childhood, which she commented on from her childhood home.  She grew up in a family of strong women, in a house in England that has been their home for three generations. I was struck by how many aspects of her childhood set her path in adulthood, or perhaps more accurately by what an early age she began demonstrating the traits that shaped the personality and achievements of her adulthood. 

Her teacher about animals having feelings, she said, was her dog.  (This little girl would later shake the scientific community with her radical belief that study subject chimps should be named, not numbered.)  Her favorite friend was Jubilee, a monkey stuffed animal her father gave her when she was one year old to commemorate the birth of a chimp in the London Zoo.  She loved Dr. Doolittle.  She was an avid reader of Tarzan books, though she was jealous of Jane, who she thought was a wimp.

Walking around her childhood yard, in her 60s, she introduces viewers to Birch, the tree she climbed when she was upset, the tree she climbed to do homework, to view the world.  She tells of putting her hands on trees and how she would “get a sense of sap rising and the life of the tree,” and sometimes would say hello to them.

Goodall was deeply impacted by pictures of the Holocaust coming out when she was a child and she became fascinated, she says, with the nature of evil.  She used to think that chimps were less violent than humans, though later when warfare broke out for years among the chimps she followed she was painfully disabused of that notion.

The documentary, like the book, reveals the very spiritual side of a noted scientist, and her exploration of the big questions of life.   Her message: Each of us can make a difference.  She believes that we are moving away from times of cruelty to a more compassionate time, but we must push and push to reach that destiny.  

Goodall speaks of the blur between the lives of humans and non-humans.  We watch her watch the chimps performing special swaying and swinging displays when they come across gorgeous waterfalls, which she interprets as awe.  She rejects some scientists’ ideas that one day we’ll know all there is to know, for she doesn’t want to lose awe and mystery.  Bless her for that never-ending sense of wonder she holds side by side with her scientific training.

The time alone in Gombe she calls the most “perfect” of her life, and she continues to experience there a fierce sense of belonging. Much of the documentary she talks from that same jungle. Of course the Africa on all sides of that original spot where she sat for hours watching chimps is filled with civil wars and genocides, and she does not gloss over that. 

In 1986, Goodall was, she says, “galvanized” at a conference where she and other scientists learned how the chimpanzee habitat was being destroyed by the clear-cutting timber industry, chimps were being eaten as bush meat and chimps were being used in scientific experimentation. Since then, she hasn’t stayed more than three weeks in one place, traveling the world lecturing on a grueling schedule.  In what she calls her “crusade,” Goodall works to change the minds of the African people to become stewards of animal life, when once they regarded animals as enemies, and to introduce socioeconomic development so families don’t have to cut down all their trees for fuel.  In part, her role now is spreading the good word: “I hear what others are doing and offer inspiration.”

Goodall’s work soon expanded to giving hope to the next generation. A great part of her mission is assuring young people that there will still be some chimpanzees swinging in the jungles of Africa and birds singing for their grandchildren.  As one young woman after hearing her speak puts it, “I get so tired of hearing the horror stories of the world, and she was actually giving us hope.”

In 1991, Goodall started an organization for children and youth called Roots and Shoots, which by 2010 is active in 100 countries, teaching kids that they can help animals, the environment and the world.  The film shows the absolute joy and pride of a group of high school kids who’ve reclaimed a stream in one California town, a scene that plays out over and over around the globe thanks to this one amazing woman’s vision.
Powerfully and poignantly, Goodall collects what she calls “symbols of hope.”  A leaf from a sapling that survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, where the green came back much more quickly than expected.  A little piece of the Berlin Wall. A chunk of limestone from Robben Island prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela labored for 17 of the 22 years he was incarcerated.  And her mascot is a stuffed animal called Mr. H., given her by a friend who lost his sight in his 20s, who’s overcome great odds and has a great spirit.  At the time of the documentary she said Mr. H. had been touched by maybe 150,000 people.  By 2010 that number has risen to 2.5 million people in 60 countries, but of course what that number really represents is the number of people whose lives have been “touched” by Goodall herself.

Now 76, she hasn’t given up her punishing schedule--she travels about 300 days of the year, dresses simply, barely sleeps and eats and is not rooted in material possessions--and she loves her life. “When I speak it’s like taking some of this great spirit of God and sharing it, tossing it out, and the energy comes back from the people when I know that they’ve heard the message and understood it and most important been moved by it.”

Goodall returns to her beloved chimps at Gombe for several weeks a year, and to the “quiet and agelessness” of the forest.  She is as excited by the birth of rare twin chimps while she’s there filming this documentary as if they were her own grandchildren, and she happily ponders names for them (they become Golden and Glitter, or affectionately, Goldi and Glitta). The rest of the year, says Goodall, she carries the peace of the forest as her inner peace.  

At the film’s end she emphasizes our responsibility as stewards of the planet, and says, “I just hope we have time.”   As activists and “ordinary people” around the world work to make ensure that is the case and show that one by one we can make a difference, Jane Goodall, herself, is reason for hope.