Unity and Diversity

A diverse crowd of chanting protesters gathered in front of the Chicago Board of Trade building Saturday evening to express anger towards the wealthy “1 percent” of America and the banking system.

Mothers with babies, elderly men and college students stood on either side of West Jackson Boulevard, leaning up against walls, waving signs and banners, and beating on bottoms of blue pails. A 300-person crowd chanted back, “Occupy Chicago!” to the amplified shout of “People over profits!” coming from a large speaker across from the building. Cars, buses and police cars honked their horns and drivers waved their hands when passing the street in support of the protesters.

Albert Cipriani, 58, said he was protesting because “this is the first time in my life that there’s been a movement that expresses the profound pissed-off-ness of me at a fundamental level. It’s not just the Republicans against the Democrats – it’s not all that peripheral crap which the bankers love you to focus on. It’s grassroots, and it’s going after the central problem – the Central Bank,” he said.

Lisa Junco, 50, said she was also angry with the banks. “I’m basically here because I’m tired of all of the corporate greed,” she said. “The banks are not lending to small and medium sized businesses which could help stimulate the economy. They are also foreclosing on homes – sometimes illegally – and are not making much of an effort to work out payment plans to help keep people in their homes. They’re not helping out people or the economy at all. It’s just reckless greed. It won’t stop until more people have their voices heard,” she said. This was the third time she came to an Occupy Chicago event, she said. “This was kind of an awakening for me. I think I’m going to be more involved now,” Junco said.

Saturday was the first Occupy Chicago experience for Alison Victor, 30, and Sonia Brown, 24. Both Victor and Brown said that they were worried about their college tuition debt. “It’s a lot of money and it’s scary,” Brown said. Victor agreed and said, “I’m hoping that when I’m done with school it’ll be better. I have hope – I’m remaining optimistic.”

Money was also an issue for William Koehl, 60. He used to be a printer but “what happened to the newspaper business happened to the printing business 10 years earlier,” he said, so he is currently unemployed and has no health insurance.

Cipriani also said he lost his job as a technical writer in California. “They’re bulldozing homes in Riverside, California. And they’re boarded up and emptied. I was unemployed for three friggin’ years. I’d worked 20 some years as a hot-shot writer, okay, and it’s all dried up. That’s why I’m here in Chicago – that’s how bad it is,” he said.

Some protesters described their own solution to the economic problem. “We take control of our money supply, which is getting rid of the Federal Reserve, that’s how we do it,” Cipriani said. Koehl said we need a “rational transition” from Japanese to German trade policy, and therefore more regulation.

As the night grew darker, the crowd grew to about 1000 people, making maneuvering through the dense crowds difficult. Later, at about 7 p.m., the protesters began to march toward The Horse, according to occupychi.org.

Until then, protesters continued to rally, including 13-year-old Kyle Johnson. “I feel really fired up because,” Johnson paused, bursting into excited laughter, “it’s like this huge thing. Everyone’s really making noise and holding up signs. I’m definitely glad I came,” he said.

**written October 25th, 2011**

“I’m Just Like You”

On the medal stand of the 1968 Summer Olympics, John Carlos raised his fist in the air with Tommie Smith to express a need for change. He spoke with an award-winning  Nation magazine sports journalist Dave Zirin in Harris Hall Wednesday to tell about how dangerous activism can be, but why anyone can – and everyone should – stand up for their beliefs.

About 80 people sat transfixed during the speech, which was followed by a book signing for the recently published “The John Carlos Story”, a memoir ghost written by Zirin.

Zirin spoke first and gave background of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, or the movement that Carlos and Smith were involved with as Black Power activist athletes, and what happened at the podium. “Here they are going to the medal stand, right, and one of the main thoughts that they had as they were walking up there is the idea that they can climb on that medal stand, do their thing, and be shot dead – right there on the spot,” said Zirin. Though 1968 was a year marked by assassinations, Carlos raised his fist anyway, he said. “What makes John so remarkable is that he’ll go out to Occupy Wall Street and say that he does not regret what he did for one solitary second,” said Zirin.

But Carlos refused to say that he was special because of this courageous action. When Zirin sat down from his speech, Carlos stayed put in his seat, body relaxed and said in a calm, low voice, “Let me start by sayin’, I’m no different from anyone sitting in this audience. I’m just like you.” He described his childhood growing up in Harlem, New York, and how his father satisfied his curious nature by always answering his many questions  to the best of his ability. He told many stories of racial tension and hardships before and after his public salute and said, “No matter how old you are or how young you are, you are always in the position to teach someone. I lost my first wife because the government did so much to us and she couldn’t take it no more, and took her life. But do you think that could stop me for what I had to do?”

Audience members included activists and were cheered on by Carlos’ speech. Carlos Enriquez, 21, said, John Carlos “gives me hope that no matter what happens to me, you know, I can help the country to change and it’s all going to be worth it in the end.”

Kamau Taylor, 10, connected to Carlos’ struggle. “When I was little I used to get bullied and I know how it feels,” he said.

After a question and answer session, participants formed a long line in order to get their books signed.

But before everyone left, Carlos said God gave him a job “to communicate to no more than one person, and no more than one thing. The message that you give, you can put so much love and so much sunshine in one individual’s heart that can radiate throughout the world. So remember, when you leave here, the question is: are you the one person that I reached today?”

**Written October 24th, 2011**

The Monster of our Generation

In Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, a doctor unknowingly creates a monster by piecing together dead body parts. When his creation starts killing off his loved ones, he discovers that science can create a danger to society.

Genetically modified (GM) foods are the hidden monsters of our generation and American consumers deserve to know what foods they eat are genetically modified.

In order to produce plants that are genetically resistant to pests – in a quicker, simpler way than natural breeding – plant geneticists discovered a way to isolate a specific gene and insert it into another strand of DNA, creating genetically modified foods, according to Deborah Whitman, senior editor of CSA Life Sciences. The process sounds innocent, but studies have shown that GM foods pose great health and environmental risks.

For example, a 2011 review by Environmental Sciences Europe found that liver and kidney problems resulted from genetically modified corn and soybean diets in several studies on mammals. In 2005, research by the Russian Academy of Sciences found that “more than half of the rats that were fed GM soy died within the first three weeks of life, six times as many as those born to mothers fed on non-modified soy,” according to projectcensored.org. Furthermore, since the introduction of GM soy in the United Kingdom, there has been a fifty percent rise in soy allergies in people, according to globalresearch.ca.

Genetically modified foods also pose a risk to the environment, including unintended harm to other organisms, according to Whitman. The genetically modified plants can also cross breed, creating potentially harmful combinations of genes which could not occur naturally.

Yet GM foods are prevalent in Americans’ diet – they are in roughly 80 percent of the processed foods sold in the United States and Canada, in the form of corn, soy, cottonseed or canola, according to the Mother Nature Network. Therefore, most Americans have eaten genetically modified foods, but are not aware of it, since the FDA does not require genetically modified foods sold in the United States to be labeled.

Genetically modified food advocates claim that the disease and pest resistant plants would help end world poverty by creating a more stable and efficient food source. But just as pests developed resistance to DDT, insects might resist genetically modified crops as well, according to Whitman.

The European Union has already begun to enforce regulation on genetically modified foods, so the United States should follow suit. The FDA should enforce stricter regulation on GM foods, and should not put them on the market if studies point to health and environmental risks. There is no reason why American consumers should let companies trick them into unknowingly consuming genetically foods that are potentially harmful to them. Citizens should ask more questions and spread the word about GM foods; as consumers we have a right to know what it is in the food that we buy.

In Frankenstein, when the monster sees that its actions have led his creator to a depressing death, it realizes its mistakes and commits suicide. But this genetically modified food monster unfortunately does not have a heart or a soul – all the more dangerous to you and our earth.

The Loneliness of Death

The line of drooping sunflower plants silhouettes the looming, lonely library beyond. From tall, sickly stalks hang brown, wilted leaves that shake uncontrollably in the whip-like wind, like an old woman’s hands.

These sunflowers have already lost their seeds. They bow exhaustedly, their heads too heavy to hold up, in the 500-square-foot sustainable garden managed by Northwestern undergraduates. The garden is located on the right side of the South Lawn of Norris University Center. It is easy to miss without the grand sign at the far end that boldly reads: Wild Roots.

In front of the sign is a forgotten red wheelbarrow. In it, overgrown dill plants wave in the wind like willow trees.

In the center of the garden is a cement platform that houses most of the surviving flower plants in colorfully painted pots on three levels. About 45 medium-sized rectangular plots cover the rest of the garden. They are squared off by orange-colored wood that reeks of plywood, and nothing grows inside but tiny weeds.

The ground of the entire garden is black – almost too black – and unnatural to the eye. In the blackness there are specks of white perlite that sparkle, like the shimmers of snow on a cold winter’s night.

The sunflowers grow in a long plot that is not squared off, to the right side of the garden. Below them are chaotic, deteriorating vines of cucumbers, an alien-like two-headed zucchini plant, thriving collard plants, baby red lettuce, flowering chives and purple-blue flowers. All are carefully labeled.

The air smells of steaming Chinese food when a young man cuts across the lawn to enter Norris, without looking once at the lonely garden. The sunflowers look on like hooded Harry Potter Dementors – dead, yet still alive. Rain drips slowly from their sagging heads, like tears.

Rain and Dogs

Two black dogs chased each other around on the Evanston Dog Beach Sunday, kicking up sand and splashing lake water about. The light blue lake water lapped gently on the shore and sparkled in the bright sunlight.

This perfect-for-dog-walking fall weather will not continue forever, unfortunately. According to weather.com, this week in Evanston will be cloudy and rainy, with lows in the upper 30s. Most of the dog owners interviewed Friday and Sunday said the rain and cold will play an important role in how much their dog will be walked during the coming days and months.

“We don’t like the rain,” said Susan Avril, 40. She often walks with her 4-year-old daughter, Lydia, and 6-year-old Samoyed, Beertje, to do errands. “I guess it’s us – we more take the car when it rains,” she said. Still, Avril said when it is raining, she takes Lydia to school and back, since it is only a few blocks.

Patricia Seifer, 61, agreed. “If it’s raw – if it’s 30 degrees and cold and rainy – I’m not as thrilled to walk as much,” she said about walking her mixed-breed dog, Ophelia. But, “I still walk her because someone has to,” she said.

The dog owners themselves do not like taking walks in bad weather, but some said that their dogs do not either. “If it’s raining, she doesn’t want to go out,” said Patricia’s friend, Joan Zurakov, 58, about her Border Collie mix, Bella.

Similarly, Charlie Madigan, 62, said about his Black Face Cur, Rip Van Winkle, “He doesn’t like the rain – it gets in his ears and he’ll shake it out. But he’ll still get out and he’ll let you know he’s sick of this, you know, and turn around and want to go back home.”

Madigan said, “We walk him in the neighborhood – we live down in South Evanston, by St. Francis Hospital. First thing in the morning he has to go out. After I get home from school and my wife gets back from school, at about four o’clock we walk him again.”

“He gets walked two times a day, no matter what the weather is or what time of year,” said Madigan. But, he continued, “He hates it in the summer because he gets very tired and he has to sit.”

The Illinois hot and humid summer is an obstacle for Susan Avril’s white, fluffy dog, as well. Since his breed originally was used to herd reindeer in cold climates, Beertje is not well equipped to survive the summer, she said.  “In the real heat, in the humidity, he doesn’t walk. He’d rather be inside and we do, too,” she said.

Avril also said that when Beertje is not walked, “it makes me anxious. I think it makes him more depressed,” she said. “Sometimes he’ll grab his toy and try to get you to play with him. Sometimes he just lays and looks unhappy.”

Madigan’s dog behaved similarly, he said. “If you’re late taking him out for a walk he’ll come and look at you. He stares at you and makes some noise like it’s time to go, and you have to pay attention because he will go to the bathroom someplace.”

Though bad weather makes dog walking less enjoyable for the dog and the owner, Joan Zurakov said that it is important to keep it up. “You walk them as much in the winter as you do in the fall because their need to exercise and go pee doesn’t change with the weather,” she said. “A dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do.”

To Capture Hidden Histories

Her large, silver hoop earrings catch the light of the projected PowerPoint slide to shine while her dark eyes sparkle with excitement. The great movement of her arms lures students in and a heated discussion naturally fills the classroom. When the whirlwind, conversational class is over, students’ mouths are brimming with words and thoughts. They linger after class to converse with the professor.

“Teaching is a performance,” said Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Assistant Professor of African-American and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. It takes up a lot of her energy, but Sharma does not let it control her life.

Her students appreciate her effort. Yoonie Yang, 21, is a student that appreciates Sharma’s interactive teaching style so much that she came back for more. Yang said she thought Sharma is a “dynamic teacher.”

Sharma grew up in Manoa Valley, Hawaii, where both of her parents were professors at the University of Hawaii at Manoa – her Jewish mother teaches anthropology, and her Indian father taught Asian History for 40 years before passing away last year. A bodyboarding, self-described “mediocre” high school student, she fit right into the multicultural community there. When attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, though, she was looked at as a “woman of color” for the first time.

Though she had her own struggles with racial identity – in India, she said, she is viewed as a “rich” American, even though she is biracial, or “hapa” – now her racial concerns are centered around her 15-month-old daughter, Maya. Sharma’s husband, a professional drummer of black and Hungarian descent, is also biracial, which makes Maya’s growing up in the “black and white” environment of Chicago challenging.

Sharma’s colleague and friend, Jinah Kim, said it was amazing how Sharma “balances her life and work.” Not only does she teach beautifully, using multimedia and discussion, but she also published a book called “Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness” recently. On top of that, Sharma still manages to be the “most amazing colleague and mentor,” to Kim and is a working mother who “tries to figure out ways to incorporate her baby into her life,” Kim said. Sharma brings Maya everywhere, said Kim, to outdoor concerts and to places like Hawaii, Paris and Hungary.

Sharma wants to keep being a scholar and teacher, as well as write more books. “I want to change the way people think about the world,” she said, by making people see how the operations of power work in terms of race and exploitation.

Race is a difficult topic to teach, but Sharma said racism is not about pointing out differences in skin color. It is about creating stereotypes of a specific race in order to have an excuse to exploit them. Many do not think to wonder why racism is so prevalent in this country. But Sharma was and is curious.

“For me, there is always a why behind it,” she said.

Ode to a Beaver

I spotted you from the back of the truck, as Daddy
Backed it up over brambles and poison ivy
As we came closer and closer to the irrigation pump by Walnut Creek
My eyes were wide and unwavering as I watched
The slow movement of you
Wading away in the water
A short branch with glossy emerald leaves
Hanging deftly from your mouth.
I became entranced by the sight of your flat, long tail
Making a straight trail in the water as
You drifted by effortlessly and soundlessly
Like you had all the time in the world…
You were disappearing behind trees when
Finally, the truck halted and I jumped
Out the back and straight towards the overhang
I searched for you frantically but
You had disappeared like a dream.
As we moved the pump and got it running I kept
Thinking of you creating your dam
Wading back and forth, again and again – and
I wanted to ask you then,
How you held time so gracefully
While I was letting it all slip away
I waited for you to appear once more but
You were long gone, and I knew that you
Were my first “Goodbye”

A Shared Smile

Bleary-eyed to the point of sleepwalking – I make my way down the long bed, pausing from time to time to reassure myself that the drip tape is landing perfectly on top of the middle row. I know Daddy is at the pump, unclogging the filter and refilling the gasoline, but he is impossible to make out in the still-dark bottomland.

The night before, Daddy had asked me to join him in moving the tapes at 10pm, but later he came to my room, coughing painfully. I stared worriedly at the dark circles around his weary eyes as he told me that we would move the tapes early the next morning instead.

Irrigating had stolen both my father’s mental and physical energy – sprinting time and time again each day down beds with a tape in hand was hard on his legs and lungs, and deciding just how to arrange the pump and various hoses so that every plant or seed that needed water was granted their share was emotionally draining.

As I lay the drip tape, I wonder how many more times we will have to move the tapes and hoses to irrigate. Daddy had told me that until the rains came, there was no choice but to keep on watering, and though we longed for the sky to open and pour down rain, almost a month had gone by without a single drop. “Forty percent chance” might as well mean “zero percent chance,” since the rainstorms kept missing us, instead dumping rain just north of our farm.

But as the sun drifts up and Daddy and I, joined by the farm hands, begin the Tuesday CSA harvest, black rain clouds start to gather in the corners of the sky. We all doubt that rain will fall, though – too let down by the latest weather to gather hope in our hearts. Even as the skies darken, clouds smolder, wind picks up, and Koko starts to whimper, I am afraid to believe that a rainstorm will actually hit us.

As Val and I pick heirloom tomatoes in the field, I hear a sudden crack of thunder and hope strikes inside of me. Daddy feels it, too, and even though we are not yet done picking the row, he rushes us to the truck and up to the shed.

We all hold our breaths as we see the first sprinkles of water splatter on the ground outside the shed, and suddenly, like a great sigh of relief, the sky breaks open. The sound of smacking water against the metal roof of the shed is so loud that our shouts of joy are muffled.

I smile to myself as I help Grandma sort the ripe and unripe, good and bad tomatoes onto trays. I listen, in awe and thanks, to the continuous drumroll of rain on the roof as I gently place blushing red tomatoes on straw-covered trays.

When the rain finally lets up, Grandma looks around and asks me, “Do you think that’s the end?” But Mother Nature answers before I can open my mouth. Suddenly, the rain goes from peaceful dripping to full out dumping and the bombardment of water on the roof reminds me of waves crashing in the sea. Stunned and surprised, the farm hands rush to the opening of the shed to watch the sheets of rain come down.

But I am more mesmerized by the sight near the trays of tomatoes before me – Grandpa and Grandma are standing close together, looking out away from me. Grandpa is leaning down towards Grandma, who is pointing excitedly at the phenomenon outside. Both are grinning, lost in the moment.

I wish then, to remember those smiles forever.

Goodbyes of Summer

We used to scamper down to the fields
Our giggles the sound of the burbles of the little stream
Where we searched for tiny minnows and crawdads and
Watched insects walk across the rippling waters…
When we explored the “big and dangerous” Walnut Creek
Grandma, with her worried brown eyes, always warned us
Of blood-sucking creatures lurking on the bottom
Who would latch on to our toes to feed…
I believed her, but –
The thrill of adventure beat the terror and
So we would roll up our pants
And wade far…
I miss playing hide and seek in the grass –
Tall enough to get lost in – and when
We lost ourselves in Gabby’s imagination
We were aliens, vampires, or ten years older and
Living in a twine hammock together…
I miss how much I was content
With that emerald field of beauty always
Surrounding me, like it was the whole world…
I wish we could have all stayed
Young – children – together
Always close by – living, laughing, playing
Yet here we are, ten years later and
We are not living in a twine hammock together, we are
Going to college, graduating college,
Working, learning, leaving home –
Trying to make a difference
In a world much larger than the Bottomfield…
It breaks my heart to watch you depart because
I feel the strings that hold us all together
Starting to untwist – pull apart –
So that you can have your adventures
And I can, too…
Maybe someday we will watch
Our own children frolic
Catch minnows in homemade Twist-tie baskets and
Giggle – burble – up at us.

Mysterious Tree Fallings

“Is that thunder?” I wondered. 
I was dazedly mulching underneath the clear blue sky and penetrating sun when a sudden ripping and crashing sound pounded out from the direction of the gravel hill up to the house. Val and I looked up, and so did everyone else – from their hand-weeding, mulching and push-hoeing – to stare, all together, at the wooded hillside where the great sound had come from.  
I did not spot the tree then, but later, driving up, sitting in the bed of the truck, the wind in my face, I saw the aged, giant tree, lying at rest in the woods.
Grandpa, puzzled, said, “I just don’t understand the physics of it – a great tree always seems to fall not during a wind storm, but when the air is hardly moving.”
I thought perhaps after surviving tremulous wind and havoc and holding tight to life, that tree had chosen a peaceful, beautiful afternoon to finally let go and fall to the ground – to decompose and join the Earth once again.