Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nuclear War and Reactors in Film--Look to the Skies!

I'm working on a new chapter for my book. As always, a new chapter opens up new problems, new ideas, new things that must be considered. In this case, I've opened up Pandora's Box. This chapter might as well be a book unto itself. New material and new films are flying at me from all directions like wild saucers in a 1950s sci-fi film. If things keep going like this, I'll never finish my book!

In 1961 my mother and her friends Phyllis and Thalia were deeply involved in the Women Strike for Peace movement; they fought to end the testing of nuclear bombs in the U.S. and the building of a nuclear arsenal. They spoke as concerned "mothers" in a time when women were supposed to remain in the home and refrain from speaking up about political issues (especially war). This history is the launching pad for my chapter on mothers and environmentalism in film. Only two of the films I initially intended to discuss looked at the dangers of nuclear radiation (Silkwood and China Syndrome)....

Oh boy, (or should I say, oy vey). I soon realized that I had to read up more on the history of the Atom Bomb, the cold war, nuclear fission, the Cuban Missile Crisis, bomb testing, nuclear radiation and contamination, nuclear waste, and much more. I'm not nearly done. The topic is enormous. And, guess what? I quickly discovered that the topic of nukes in film is expansive: I've found about 40 films (mostly in the 1950s through mid 60s, as well as in the 1980s). These two periods seem to be obsessively concerned with the problem of nuclear disaster (especially the former period). Also, guess what? These films are really brilliant.

Yesterday, Nicole and I watched Five (1951)-a fascinating film about "The Day After" the world has been detonated with atom bombs. Only five people survived the detonation. This is their story. The film is rife with Biblical references to sin and rebirth. Today I watched The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), with Harry Belafonte as the protagonist. This film examines what happens to the three remaining people on earth after a nuclear disaster. Belafonte's character is black, while the other two characters include a white woman and a white man. The tension in the story centers on an anguished interracial and triangulated love. It is quite powerful--but the problem of radiation and nuclear disaster functions merely as a backdrop to the love story and a critique of racism. A few days before, I watched the nineteen-eighties film, The Day After. This one is not so interesting artistically, but it sure paints a frightening picture of what our would look and be like if the nuclear bombs go off.

Here are a few titles of the films I have watched and/or will watch: Invasion USA (1952), The Day the World Ended (1956), The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Panic in the Year Zero (1961) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), The Year 2889 (1966), The Atomic Cafe (1951, and 1982), Atomic War Bride (1960), Watch the Skies! (1950).

This is only a start!

For the later period there is Twilight's Last Gleaming (1970), Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1972) (just a few in the early seventies); then, China Syndrome (1979), Testament (1983)--a truly extraordinary film, The Atomic Cafe (1982), The Day After (1983), Stryker (1983), Wargames (1983), Endgame (1983), Silkwood (1983),, Rush (1984), The Quiet Earth (1985), The Nuclear Conspiracy (1986), Desert Bloom (1986), Manhattan Project (1986), Radioactive Dreams (1986), When the Wind Blows (1986), The Abyss (1989). The nineties and 21st century don't have much to speak of --The Hunt for Red October (1990), Secret Weapon (1990), Until the End of the World (1991), Deterrence (2000), The Widowmaker (2002), The Sum of All Fears (2002).

I'm not watching Godzilla (the original or the remake), nor am I watching The Planet of the Ape series or Road Warrior. I've got enough on my plate with the pseudo- "realistic" films.

It is good that the weather is conducive to movie watching. Today is beautiful, but the wind blows and the temperature is bitter cold.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Green Moms Carnival

Green Moms Carnival

Take a look at this great post from Enviroblog

This excellent piece describes how toxins invade the womb. The blogsite also contains other important information about toxics, our bodies, and our health.

News From a Cancer Survivor

I was recently diagnosed with basel cell carcinoma.

This is considered a low key cancer, one that is not life threatening.

I'm a fair white girl who grew up worshipping the sun in an era before sunscreen. I swam all day as a toddler in Miami at our home pool, spent long summers in Israel at the beach and pool, spent summer days at the UC Berkeley Strawberry Canyon pool, crashed the Claremont Hotel pool in Berkeley (in my teens while working at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as an actress), and swam at the Stark pool in Danville in high school, among many other places. Sunbathing was our entertainment and a tan meant we were beautiful. We slathered ourselves in baby oil.

Then, the dark news: my Dad was diagnosed with Melanoma when I was in my early twenties. He told me to stay out of the sun. I didn't listen. I continued to sunbathe on the roof of my soho loft building in Manhattan, sunbathed on vacations, and I rarely used sunscreen.

Dad died eight years later from the melanoma (he developed a brain tumor which is the typical evolution of the disease when it has matistisized). I (sort of) paid attention after his death and spent less time in the sun--no longer sunbathing flat on my back, but continuing to do activities outside--often without a hat or sunscreen... pretty much until now. Okay sometimes I used sunscreen, but not not carefully or religiously.

I gave birth to a redheaded girl and have tried to keep her out of the sun. We've been a bit more relaxed in the last few years, so she's developed a face full of freckles. Still, I think she's had only one mild sunburn. I've been careful to keep her out of the strong mid-day sun, to make her wear a hat and keep her body covered as much as possible. But we're not perfect.

Two weeks ago I went to see my dermatologist for what is supposed to be my annual visit-- but I have not been in several years-- to check for melanoma. As the child of a parent with melanoma, I really should go every six months. Yet because I have so many doctor visits to make for cancer checks for various potential outbreaks every six months--more than you'd want to know--sometimes I just tune it all out and try to forget, and skip scheduling appointments. It is my way of blocking cancer from dominating my life.

The first thing the dermatologist noticed was the tiny little patch (the size of a small freckle) of what looked to me to be dry skin--maybe eczema-- on my cheek. He said, "that looks like basel cell carcinoma," and took a biopsy and explained that if it is cancerous, they would do the surgery right in his office. I ask if there would be a few stitches. He said, "Well, probably more than that." He didn't say more, and I assumed it was a minor thing.

It was not a minor thing. At least not to me. A huge circle of skin was removed from my face. But no one, not any of the doctors who worked on my face explained much to me in advance about the final result and how I will look once they are finished. The surgeon who removed the cancerous skin tissue (the MOHS surgeon) said they would do it in stages, checking with each stage if they have removed all of the cancerous cells. He looked very sad as he explained this to me, but he never said, "You need to be prepared, this may end up as a very large circle, smack in the center of your face, and sewing it up after is a little complicated and will change the shape of your cheek. There will be scarring." Instead, he told me I looked like this very glamorous actress from Gossip Girls (I had no idea who she was --I've never seen the show). He took out his iphone and showed me her picture. I was so flattered--she's young and lovely. What a nice distraction. (I'm kidding, of course.)

Then he cut into right side of my face. He cut in three stages.

After the MOHS surgeon was done, the plastic surgeon walked in. I had no idea how much had been removed-my face was numb. I assumed it was small. The plastic surgeon asked, "Have you seen your face?" I said "No." He said, "You need to see it in order for me to help you understand what I have to do." So he held up a mirror and I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to cry. There was a very large red circle in the center of my face. I knew one day I would look back and think this was a very minor thing. My life was not threatened. I will have a scar on my face for a while--but the scar will fade. He proceeded to cut and snip and sew the big open circle into one long straight line. When the surgeon was done, he asked me if I wanted to look in the mirror. I said, "No." He covered the wound with a long bandage. I told him I would wear the bandage forever.

In that moment, in that first week, I felt as if the world had come apart.

Why? My body has been through so much worse: chemo, hair loss, physical pain, serious surgery, life threatening cancer, the loss of so many loved ones to cancer and heart disease. Why did this minor surgery for a minor cancer upset me so? It is nothing. I have/had my legs and arms and heart and mind. The things that matter remain/ed in place.

So, why was I so upset? Was it vanity? Was it something more?

This question plagued me.

Perhaps it is because--my face is me. It is what I physically identify with as my "self". It is what the world sees. It is what I see in the mirror.

Perhaps it was because the results of my surgery were completely unclear--they were not explained to me in advance.

Still, this was not the end of the world. I will be fine.

At night, as I lay under the covers, feeling the grief, I came to an understanding.
My body is on high alert. The doctors are on constant watch for the many parts of my body that are "high risk." Every six months my body is forced to go through a huge battery of tests in various areas to probe and look for potential life-threatening cancers.

Most obviously, and more importantly, my father died from melanoma--the deadly skin cancer. Now the largest organ on my body threatened to self-destruct at any moment. Now I have joined him. Now I must keep close watch on my skin. Now I must fear every freckle, every discoloration, every bump.

Now, once again, I am terribly afraid.

As a mother, I am faced with more fear. For my daughter, I want to smile and be brave. It is harder than one would think to do. For my daughter, I grieve. She does not deserve to live under the weight of knowing mom's visit here on this planet is so tenuous. I try to promise her I will be here for a very long time, but how can I promise that, especially given my history and my family history?

* * * * * *

Two weeks later--after I first wrote the above--the bandage has come off.

I touch the scar. It is hard in some places. There are small bumps. It does not hurt. Sometimes it looks prominent and upsets me, and in a different light it looks like a long cat scratch.

In the end, I know I cannot ward off these cancers. I would like to be free of this fear, and free of the chemicals that threaten to make me sick--they are in and around me. I would like to think that I can protect myself from early death, and most of all I'd like to protect my daughter from the loss of a parent, and from getting sick from cancer herself. Yet all of this is out of my control.

All that I can do is write, sign petitions, join the environmental movement, and hope others will join me. I hope and dream that the Climate Change action will take place, and that the chemical, nuclear, and other destructive industries stop abusing, exploiting and poisoning the earth. For those of us who have gone through rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries, radiation, and other painful procedures, as well those of us who have lost loved ones to the horror of cancer--I hope and dream of a better environmental future, a healthier home for us to live in.

The earth's body is our body. Her scars are our scars.

In some moments, I actually like my scar. It is a reminder of all of these things I love and care about on this earth. My scarred cheek is a river or mountainside worn down and altered throughout time--still beautiful, though ever changing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ruminations...eco-villages, toxics, and more

I just learned of two great sites to share with you that list safe cosmetics and how/where to find them. Take a look:

FACT: In the US, there are few or no laws to protect us from the use of hazardous materials in body and cosmetic products. You might be surprised to learn that you are putting anti-freeze (among other toxics) on your skin if you are using commercial skin care products. You might want to consider the alternatives....

The European Union is working on legislation for the prevention and use of toxics. It is time the US takes up this same sort of legislation. How can we make this happen?

For those of you who are interested in the idea of living eco-lifestyles--check into the "Eco Village" in Ithaca, NY, and "Findhorn" in Scotland....These are just a few examples of "real" places where people are living in ecologically balanced ways.... For those of you who think we can only dream, these places actually exist!

In England there is a movement to create "transition town villages," which are sustainable communities. "How" we live is a choice. Death, disability, and illness by toxins is not inevitable. It is a choice. Global warming is not inevitably going to destroy us. It is a choice.

News from The Mothering and Environment Conference

Here I am in Toronto. It is grey outside and the physical plant of York University is a bit dismal and reminds me of Stony Brook. I keep getting lost in the very many long and winding hallways. Yesterday I gave my keynote lecture on the 'polluted mother-nature body' in literature and film. The content of this talk is a large part of my book topic. So, my book is well underway.

Sandra Steingraber gave an amazing lecture in which she explored her writing of Living Downstream, Having Faith, and her new work on children's development (ex-utero) in a toxic world. Sandra never ceases to move me... She balances a brilliant discussion of the science of how our bodies work in "concert" with the chemicals and toxins we come in contact with, with her own personal experiences. She became an ecologist and began her work on cancer and the environment because of her cancer story. For cancer survivors like me, her work is a gift.

She also spoke about the connections between the onset of early puberty (which is increasing rapidly) and breast cancer. Girls are beginning puberty at younger and younger ages. Possible reasons for this are lack of exercise, diet, and toxic exposure. Here are the things I love about Steingraber: she makes science poetry--in discussing biology, ecology, and even chemistry, she uses metaphors and symbols that bring it to life for a literature person like me. She also brings her own cancer and mothering stories into the study and presentation of ecological science.

As a human being, Steingraber is very accessible. When I met her after the lecture, she spoke of her children in such tender terms and she asked me about my daughter and my cancer. I also found out that she is a poet. Poet and ecologist! Often, when she speaks, tears come to my eyes. But my brain fires off as well--her description of the brain and how it develops in utero--the strings, and webs, and networks. I am rapt when she gives her science lesson. Her detailed biological description of the birds and the bees (how babies are made) was just fascinating.

Steingraber's Living Downstream is being updated and a new version will be available soon. Living Downstream has been made into a movie and it will be out soon. I can't wait to use it in my classrooms.

I'm learning about pre-agriculture, pollution, goddesses, Findhorn, sustainable communities, wildness, conservation, climate change, and so many other things. More to come......

Monday, October 19, 2009

Superfund sites close to home! Be your own Erin Brockavitch for the day!

For those of you looking for fun activities with the kids this weekend, how about a fun trip to your local superfund site(s)?

This handy website will allow you to plug in your zip code, and voila, you'll have a list of your heaviest neighboring polluters. Addresses and maps are provided. It couldn't be easier! http://www.scorecard.org/index.tcl

My scorecard comes up with a whopping 6 superfund sites in my very own county. My, that is welcome news. Names for chemical pollutants are listed for each site and they ring familiar bells from Hollywood movies like A Civil Action and Erin Brockavitch.

Why don't you go to http://www.scorecard.org/index.tcl and find out what your lucky number is? Learn about all the chemical spills near you!

If you are up for it, sign this petition: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/761256353?z00m=65884

Saturday, October 17, 2009

This morning...

I woke up and my backyard was full of hundreds of birds. I don't know what kind. I'm not Terry Tempest Williams--not a birder--they descended and ascended in unison, like a wave of fabric, a woman shaking out her sheets. Down and up, down and up. I was not wearing glasses or contacts and the world was still fuzzy.

Sometimes I find myself consumed with this environmental thing. Carbon paper. I just found a link that discussed the dangers of carbon paper. I'd forgotten this. You know the little receipt slips you get in the grocery store for credit card or cash purchases? Those innocent looking pieces of paper are toxic. Wash your hands carefully after touching them. Patti Wood told my ecofeminism class about this last spring and I forgot all about it. So yesterday, every time a clerk would hand me the receipt slip, I pulled away quickly in horror--refusing to touch it--as if the person had a disease. "Would you like your receipt?" "No!!!" What is worse? Someone getting hold of your receipt and using it to steal from your credit card account, or touching some lethal toxic matter? I'll leave the receipt, thanks. But what about the poor clerk? He/she has to work for a living and they have no choice! Gloves, I guess. Weird, weird, world.

Back to birds: I was reading Alice Walker's "Mother's Day 2004" entry. In it, she describes the abuse of chickens in the meat industry. Her writing is really powerful. I'm feeling guilty even eating eggs or cheese. Poor animals. Why does she title her work, "Mother's Day"? Does she see this as a day for "all" mothers to tend to all animals and living beings? Is mother's day a day to nurture our fellow creatures?

Climate Change.... take action: www.blogactionday.org

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mothering and Environment Conference in Toronto, 2009

In late October, I'm flying to Toronto to the ARM conference. I will be one of several keynote speakers. One of my very favorite ecologists will be there-Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream and Having Faith. I'm looking forward to meeting her again and listening to her lecture. She has taught me so much and I am very grateful to her for doing the work she does.

My talk will be on ecofeminism and mothering in contemporary literature and film. I'm going to outline a definition of ecofeminism, explore its ties to mothering, and then connect these concepts to a number of novels (and some poetry and nonfiction) as well as to some films.
This talk is a kind of snapshot of the book I'm working on entitled, Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, Literature and Film.

Giving this sort of talk helps me frame my book topic--there are so many things I want to cover in my book--at times it feels daunting. Should I narrow down my focus? Should it be more academic? In other words, should I refer to numerous critics and use many footnotes? If I do so, however, this will alienate non-academic readers. I want to open up my discussion to the general public, and I want to be inclusive of all kinds of readers, not just scholarly ones. I'm writing. I'm discovering. I know how to write a traditional scholarly book, but writing this kind of work is new to me--there is no clear formula to follow. Working outside of a box is thrilling, but also confusing. How do I know if it is working? Will I have an audience? Who is my audience?

My first chapter is autobiographical and it tells the story of my cancer experience and how it collided with my desire to be a mother.... Chemotherapy can kill a woman's eggs and when my cancer was diagnosed, I was childless. While I saw other cancer patients cry about losing their hair--I was crying because I knew I might never give birth and might never live to experience being a parent. There is more to this story, too. I lost my mother to heart disease a year before my own cancer diagnosis, and she also had cancer at her death. She had lymphoma and emphysema. My father died from melanoma. I came from a history of cancer. Would I pass this on to my own daughter--later, when I finally became pregnant?

So many people have cancer now. Is my story unique? No. My neighbor across the street has lung cancer and he only smoked for a short time many years ago. My cousin died at 34 from lung cancer and never smoked. Three women on my block have had breast cancer recently. A child we know well just got over two years of brutal chemo and bone marrow treatment for Leukemia. A friend's brother-in-law is dying from lung cancer and he never smoked. Four of my daughter's grandparents had cancer in their fifties; three are dead. These stories are endless. We all have them.

So why do I write and teach what I do? I suppose I feel that the more people who "know", the more people will finally stand up and say "enough." Young people (at least until very recently) who take my classes are shocked by this information about environmental degradation. They are blown away--"no one told us," they say. I feel they deserve to know, and they deserve the chance to make a difference. I teach my students about about incredible environmental activists--some of whom are quite young--who are making changes in the world. Greater change is needed from all of us. We wear breast cancer pins, but then we spray our lawns with pesticides, drive huge cars, bathe our bodies in chemicals, buy and eat poisoned food, drink from poisonous plastic bottles, and support companies that pollute heedlessly. I'm completely convinced from everything I read that our bodies are filled with toxic chemicals....For an incredible first-person story about the pollution in our bodies, see this great article in National Geographic,"The Pollution Within," by David Ewing Duncan:

Our bodies are filled with toxic chemicals. Our earth is filled with toxic chemicals.

These chemicals are causing cancer and possibly many other illnesses. Since the 1950s, with the advent of the use of pesticides and other industrial and chemical pollutants, cancer rates have risen exponentially. Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of pesticides in her book, Silent Spring. Sandra Steingraber has taken Carson's mission and applied it to what has happened to our planet since the 1950s. The polluting must stop.

I remember walking in strawberry fields when I was three and four--picking strawberries and eating them off the vine. The strawberry fields bordered our neighborhood: my house fronted the fields and I would cross the street to pick them. My yellow house was part of a new middle-class community built in the farm country of South Miami. Strawberries were sprayed routinely with DDT and other pesticides. Miami was sprayed routinely with chemicals to kill mosquitoes and other pests. My house was sprayed routinely to kill insects and, particularly, the dreaded cockroach, which we all feared. We swam in heavily chlorinated pools. There is a picture of my family and neighbors parading on fourth of July for freedom---children on bicycles, my sister as the statue of liberty, me on my tricycle carrying an American flag-- all of us so proud to be part of the middle-class dream in the early sixties. We couldn't see the chemical clouds around us, and we didn't know how we were being poisoned.

Did my cancer come from those chemicals? Did my parents' cancers come from these chemicals? Or from thousands of other chemicals I/we were exposed to throughout our lives?

What is the cost? My parents are both dead; cousins, friends, and aunt are dead. I almost died, and who knows how long I will live? Each year, twice a year, I am tested. MRIs, Catscans, sonograms, blood tests.

I am not alone. There are too many of us. It is easy to feel silenced and hopeless. Who am I to fight the chemical, tobacco, agricultural, industrial, and pharmaceutical industries? But we must act. We must learn. We must find alternatives to create the things we need and use--alternatives that are less toxic, less dangerous than those industries are now contaminating our planet with. Climate change activism is very important, and part of this re-energizing of the environmental cause includes finding clean sources of energy production. We must find clean sources of all industrial production. We must stop producing dangerous toxic chemicals. We once (not long ago) lived in a world without them. We need to go back to that time and relearn.

There is a book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. Davis shows us how chemical and other polluting industries have worked hard to cover up the "real" reasons for the cancer epidemic--toxic chemical pollution. Early in the twentieth century scientists understood the relationship between pollution and disease. How and why was this information buried and ignored? And what is the price for this blatant lie?