Civil Rights, Now

Only recently did I learn about the film Freeheld and the story of Laurel Hester, a NJ police officer with a terminal sickness, fighting so that her wife and partner could receive her pension, just like heterosexual partners do. Somehow I hadn’t heard all the details of the struggle in Ocean County, where I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few visits to the US, as the elected officials of that country refused to recognize a gay couple as having the same rights as heterosexual couples.

I’ve watched the trailer several times, not to mention the interview recorded with Laurel before she died in 2006. I’m moved and speechless as I watch her health deteriorate and I listen to the itensity of the demonstrators standing before the county officials demanding justice. It is beautiful and outrageous at the same time. Surreal that such a thing happens, and awe-inspiring that people with such strength exist.

Further research informs me that indeed, before her death, Ocean County finally granted her partner full benefits, just as any other couple would get. And beyond that, in December of 2006 (an event I do remember) NJ Governor John Corzine signed the bill recognizing all domestic partners as civil unions, with rights that indeed include pensions/benefits for partners. A critical eye reveals that this bill still doesn’t give 100% equality to gay couples, so despite some good steps forward, my state of birth still has some ways to go. After hearing this story, seeing the images, and without having yet seen the film, it is once again frustrating to see that it was only a couple of years ago that a state as diverse as NJ was still in the dark ages… and indeed, still today – not yet fully enlightened.

(trailer is highly recommended)

Nalgenes Pose a Threat

It is a reoccurring topic on this blog, toxic chemicals in objects that we use for our daily lives, and on this sunday, I’d like to bring forth another.

The difference between this blog and a mainstream news source is that I’m not hear to scare you into paying attention. I don’t believe in trying to scare the crap out of people to get them to listen, I believe more that once people hear the facts that have a direct impact, negative or positive, on their lives – they will want to take action and want to know more.

So if you’re the outdoors type, or the travelling type, or maybe you play ultimate frisbee like myself and my good friends here in Amsterdam, you surely know all about the Nalgene bottle.  I know I received mine as a gift from a special friend long ago.  Millions of people around the world are into using Nalgene bottles for carrying water throughout their day.  They have great faith in these bottles for being reliable and durable. Unfortunately this is more of an assumption based on general experience and the recommendations of others, we don’t sit around thinking, hmm what is this made of and is it ok to carry my drinking water?

However, up in Canada, this is exactly what they’ve been working on.  The Federal Health Department has been doing research into the material that Nalgene’s are made from, which includes something called bisphenol-A.  More and more research indicates that, especially as a bottle gets older, dangerous chemicals from this plastic start to break down and get into the water.  This also true under increased temperatures. Im summarizing the problem somewhat, but the basic idea is one that is unfortunately too common in this day and age.  An item that is very popular and seemingly very useful, turns out to also be potentially dangerous yet the issue is hardly noticed on the mainstream radar, unless its used as a scare tactic.

Im sure this issue will come back, as more tests are being done all the time. But for now, many shops in Canada are pulling various kinds of Nalgenes off the shelves, and here in my Amsterdam apartment, Im retiring my dear bottle; Ill find some other purpose for it, hopefully one that has little impact on humans and the environment.

For now consider this a public service announcement. If you’ve got a nalgene and you want to resist any suggestions to stop using it, I strongly recommend you research this issue and then consider your decision. You don’t HAVE to use THAT bottle, there are alternatives that pose less of a risk. This article points out some of them.

Homeless America

On my way down the street in one of Washington DC’s hippest neighborhoods, I look at all the houses and the people, in search of what I can say about this place at this point in history.  I ride the metro here and there, out to the lovely suburbs, and I wonder if this region represents the United States in a small scale.  Some friends and I walk into a local liquor store to buy a bottle of wine, and we have a brief exchange with various homeless people out front, and step over the passed out man on the floor of the shop before paying the cashier through a bullet proof glass window.  Yet we walk down the street and see beautiful homes, people walk their dogs and say hi to you sometimes.  Behind the cast-iron bars on the windows and doors, there are families, college kids, artists, and people of all walks of life.

Does DC teach us something about what the United States is all about? Or is it an anomaly of a city that doesn’t even have a state?

One thing deserving of more attention, in this city and beyond, is the amount of people living on the streets.  The Los Angeles Homeless Coalition says that 3.5 million Americans will be homeless in a given year.  3.5 million.  On the streets. In a shelter only in the rarest of cases.  They also say 1 in every 5 suffer from a severe mental illness, no where is that more apparent then in our nations capital. Much like the shelters that are nonexistent or inadequate, so too are the public mental health institutions, places where people can go to get treatment and off the streets.  People in DC tell me about them. They have names for them “stabby dancer” for the guy who would dance around and occasionally stab people with a pen knife.  “Blanket guy” for the man wrapped in a blanket who you see on your way down the street each morning.  They notice them, yet in many ways, these people are not at all noticed.  Ignored and deemed invisible by their community and by their government… both of which seem to hope they’ll simply disappear.

Mislead Over and Over

Greetings from Philadelphia, where I’m spending a few days with good friends.

Upon my arrival in the US this month, I did notice a reasonable amount of buzz in the media and the occasional conversation about toys that had been discovered to have dangerously high levels of lead. Manufactured in China, these toys made the news and toy companies carried out what is called a re-call; requesting that people who have purchased them please return them as they could be dangerous.

My favorite shop on earth for buying food is Trader Joe’s, it is the first place I go when I arrive in the US.  The thing I most like is that I can look at the ingredients of anything, and read the short list.  Normally the ingredients are words that I know and never is there artificial colors or preservatives of any kind.  The thing that is strange, is that Trader Joe’s is considered “Alternative” in many ways.  Normal supermarkets have the big commercial products that have a long list of ingedients many of which start with the prefix poly or mono.  That is considered standard, and many people use those products all their lives.

Whether it is toys, food, or other products that we use regularly in our lives, it seems to me one of the mostparadoxical realities of this society we’ve created in much of the world; we sell each other goods made from materials that can ultimately poison someone, often times while tasting good or smelling good or bringing some short term joy.

Not that I’m against the joy of a nice cookie or a children’s toy. But it seems perposterous that in regular mainstream thought, you buy the cookies or the toys made by the big manufacturer that has uses some really questionable, incomprehensible ingredients to produce them.

How did the world get this way? Why didn’t the masses cry foul and take these producers to court or simply demand they clean up their act? Why is it that even in 2007, with all the experience and time that has passed that humans exist on this earth, that asking for a product made from healthy and simple ingredients is considered somehow alternative or “different”.

Just to add one more thought to all my semi-rhetorical questions today, many people will point to the new kinds of supermarkets and alternative companies that are emerging like the body shop that do things in a sustainable and healthy way. I would agree this is a positive development and a sign of some sort. But what still baffles me is that these companies are so small in terms of the big picture.. so once again.. too little and for many people suffering from the health problems this type of consuming has brought, too late.

Inspiring versus Annoying

First of all welcome to all the new people who have probably met me at this conference here in Paris. Many of you probably aren’t into the world of blogs and podcasts, so the fact that you clicked over to my website is a major milestone… maybe.

It was day two of the transport strikes, and officially day 1 of the TBLI conference. I did my best not to go around handing people cards to explain who I am, I also avoided explaining myself too often. I’ve worked too dam hard and have too many issues on my mind to take the constant trouble of explaining what I do to strangers at conferences.

At one point I ran into some very laid back new friends who work in the world of press releases. They liked my flickr cards, the ones that I made purposely almost too small to read, with photos of my adventures on the back. In their case, I described what I do on this site, and the topic came up of what would I say if I were having a drink with one of the big corporate representatives at this conference. The thought was fairly disturbing.. to have a drink with the likes of Suez, Shell, Coca-Cola (ha!).. they’re all here.

As much as I might want to challenge them with questions about their human rights records and the human suffering their actions have caused in the world, I must admit I don’t think – in the moment – I would have the nerve. I bet they would even be polite, or charming in some way, so that I’d almost forget who they worked for. Thats the worst part, potentially, of attending too many of these events… you rub elbows with individuals working for some of the most notoriously inhumane companies in the world, and you might find – as if probably often the case- they are actually nice people. But then what happens to everything you know about their companies actions? You put it to the side maybe.. separate the person from the corporation, perhaps.

For my part I’ve steered clear of them. Instead I’ve enjoyed the company of people who work for organizations dedicated to making real change in the world, respecting the rights and health of humans everywhere. And let me tell you, there are some very inspiring individuals here.  In the coming days I will feature some of these stories in both text and podcasts, so stay tuned.