On why applying for a marriage license could have been the best part of my day…but wasn’t.

Just cleaning up my web presence and didn’t want to lose some of the content on my other short-lived blog. Post coming soon about identities on the web…and how to be kind to future archivists.

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Link Love

Just cleaning up my web presence and didn’t want to lose some of the content on my other short-lived blog. Post coming soon about identities on the web…and how to be kind to future archivists.

A New Space

I’ve started a new blog as a space for working out some more substantive thoughts about feminism, academia, faith, and recent events. “Show Off” just didn’t seem like an appropriate title for that sort of writing. I’ll keep this space open for indulgent projects and Singaporean feasts and creativity more generally and I’ll blog over at In/Between about some of my ideas in process. So, since the first post is up in that space, I would welcome you as a reader, commentor, and conversation partner.

Redefining Able/Disabled Bodies

Just a quick post to express some thoughts on a particular Olympic body: that of South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius.

According to an NBC report earlier this evening, Pistorius was born misformed legs and, at eleven months, underwent a double amputation that left his legs ending just above the knee. His parents chose not to emphasize his apparent disability and sent him to schools where he was allowed to participate in rugby, wrestling, and eventually competitive sprinting. Pistorius now holds 18 Paralympic and a silver medal for the 4 x 400 relay from the 2011 (able-bodied) World Championships in Daegu.

Pistorius made an attempt at qualifying for Beijing in 2008, but the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) discouraged South African coaches from including the athlete on the team. They claimed Pistorius’s prosthetics, which consist of a springy steel, posed a danger to himself and competitors on the track. In the end, Pistorius’s time simply was not fast enough for him to qualify. (One must wonder what the IAAF and South African officials might have done if he had run fast enough to qualify…)

London is a somewhat happier story. This evening, with a personal best of 45.44, Pistorius became the first amputee to compete in the Olympic games as he ran the 400 m sprint. Pistorius, alas, did not advance through his the semi-final, but his run this evening remains a triumph.

It’s tempting to end this post with the resounding “Hurrah!” that Pistorius deserves for his talent and persistance. But I have a query instead: What does Pistorius’s career mean for our definitions of “able-bodied” and “disabled?” The NBC report was very clear tonight: Pistorius’s true uniqueness lay in his ability to compete against able-bodied runners as a man with a disabled body. And yet, if Pistorius’s training, times, stride, coaching, and focus on the track matchs his opponents, what precisely is it that makes him so different? Are the steel prosthetics so distinctive? Why is there such a line between running in metal-spiked shoes (a necessity for the world’s fastest men and women) and running with metal bars on ones feet? The latter are not bionic. They are, as an expert pointed out this evening, as “dumb” as sneakers.

So, again, what is it that makes Pistorius “disabled”? What is it that makes anyone who can run or jump or cook or clean or write or type or play their favorite games “disabled” simply because they weren’t born with certain parts of their body?

Can Pistorius set the standard of “normalcy” for everyone labeled “disabled?” I think not. Diversity requires an understanding of different men and women’s needs. But Pistorius’s story should – does – blur the line between “able” and “disabled” bodies. His talent invites  us to reconsider our boxes, reconsider our bodies. Because I cannot run 400 m in 45.44 seconds on my completely biological legs. And Pistorius can on his blades of steel.

For more detailed information on Pistorius’s life and career, see http://www.oscarpistorius.com and http://www.nbcolympics.com (search ‘Oscar Pistorius’).

Made in China

An ABC affiliate recently ran this story about the origins of the vegetables, peanut butter, canned and boxed goods contained in the 365 Organic brand, the generic label offered by the big-organic supermarket Whole Foods. The revelation that many of the chain’s food products are grown or processed in China is unsurprising. And the media’s glee in denouncing the supposedly environmental-ethical aims of Whole Foods is expected. Everyone loves to play the David to the corporate Goliath.

But I want to unpack some more disturbing aspects of this story, because the fact that a lot of our food would come from China, and that a major supermarket – even a ‘green’ one – isn’t the most shocking part. This is not a defense of Whole Foods, which I readily acknowledge has its shortcomings, but rather a reflection on why this report should be seen as more shocking than the revelation it purports to provide.

First, it’s discouraging to see China too-easily made a scapegoat by this report. Do you know how many countries Whole Foods imports food from? I don’t have an exact figure, but last time I wandered through the store I noticed bold yellow signs advertising food from France, Italy, Greece, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Australia, Colombia, Japan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam… Why don’t these countries come under fire? Why isn’t it a problem that some 365 Organic products carry the label “Made in Thailand?” Or that the store imports produce from so many places, period? My hunch is that the “Made in China” label offends the reporters and the customers not so much because they feel deceived, as that they have been taught to disdain the inroads China has made into our increasingly globalized economy. It is not the product itself that offends, so much as the competition for profit.

Tied closely to this is the exclusion from the report of any discussion of the economy surrounding the production of 365 Organic products in China. How many jobs is this providing? What are the conditions for workers there? What are their wages? What would happen to the men and women in those positions if this industry ceased to exist. The lives of consumers are not the only ones impacted by the label “Made in China.”

Second, I am offended by the assumption that consumers have somehow been deceived by a major corporation. I am a literate and capable adult possessing a free will; the same could most likely be said of most of the relatively affluent people who shop in Whole Foods. So I’m a little offended by ABC’s assumption that, had they not shown the label to consumers, we never would have guessed it. I have the distinct feeling they’re insulting my intelligence.

The problem, as I see it, is not that Whole Foods is a deceptive corporation; they truthfully stated that the frozen California Blend, for instance, was a product of China, even if it was in smaller print on the back of the package. The real difficulty lies in our grocery-shopping habits. We’ve been inculcated to trust what is in bold print and not what is in fine print; we do not question the content of our food. But ultimately, we as consumers are responsible for what we put in our bodies and what we encourage others (children, family members, friends, unexpected guests) to put in their bodies. Is Whole Foods guilty of deception? Perhaps, in part. But ultimately we need to assume responsibility for our food habits and cease allowing others to think for us in this area.

Finally, the report refuses to grapple with the implications of our geographical location on the food we eat. They offer farmers’ markets as the fast and easy solution to the problem. While I applaud their promotion of local options, and I try to be a vocal advocate of local foods and local grocery stores myself, it isn’t so simple. I can be as convinced as I like that the relationship building and economic ties created at farmers’ markets is are of great value, but access to these sources is sometimes impossible, or at least improbable. Purchasing fresh produce in the Northeast between October and April is not an option; if we ‘go local’ and seasonal we’re confined to storable root vegetables and to frozen meat products. In addition, the nearest winter farmers’ market is 45 minutes away from me and requires me to choose between supporting local farmers and expending valuable fossil fuel. A dilemma, for sure.

So sometimes I opt for the grocery stores nearest to me–one of which is a large chain that does not seem to care a great deal for the environment or for supporting local producers, the other is Whole Foods, which at least claims to be deeply concerned with the environment and global welfare and does in fact offer a wider variety of local options than the other store. So I choose the latter, the lesser of two evils perhaps, knowing full well that the option is far from perfect.

Ultimately, this report highlights the need for greater thoughtfulness on the part of consumers and the media when it comes to choosing how best to spend our money. This requires serious time and energy and a willingness to prioritize values.

It also requires us to ask the same difficult, conflicting, and even unanswerable, questions over and over again: What is the impact of this product on the environment? On other people? On workers in other countries? On consumers? Where does the money from this store go when I hand it over? What does that label really mean? How does this company treat their employees? What will consuming this food do to my body? How much water did it take to produce this? How much fossil fuel? How much labor? Is it reusable? Is it recyclable? Is it enjoyable? What food cultures is it tapping into? Does this food allow me to express my food culture or to participate in the food cultures of others? Is this food accessible to people of all income levels and transportation options? Is it available to people of all ages? Does this food product represent any kind of discrimination or marginalization? How did this food get to this place from where it began to grow?

On and on and on. Yes, “Made in China” should provoke questions and reform and transformation, but should not shock in the way so recently suggested by ABC’s report. For more provocation, I’d recommend having a look at Whole Foods’ response to the report and the thoughtful reflections of Kimberly Brown on responsible consumption.

They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the night hunting for a new topic for my research paper for a course in modern British cultural history this semester and stumbled on a plethora of public information films produced between 1945 and 2006. These proto-PSAs, covering everything from the institution of the National Health Service to the dangers of taking more than a five-pound note overseas, are some of the most entertaining pieces of cultural documentation I’ve seen. So, for your own viewing pleasure:

And…

The National Archives also provides access to dozens of public information films, a number of which were animated and produced by Halas and Batchelor, the same duo responsible for Animal Farm. My personal favorites though are the bizarre and darkly humorous pieces featuring Richard Massingham, such as “Coughs and Sneezes.” Contemporary PSAs seems so deadly serious next to these cultural artifacts, but perhaps that is a matter of retrospect.