Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thanks, Wangari Maathai!

Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer on Sunday, September 25.  She was 71 years old.  A senior government official said she may be accorded a State funeral although this was not confirmed. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 her native Kenya whereby she engaged thousands of women to plant trees as a means of saving the eroding environment. 

Here is a report from that announced her death and listed some of her accomplishments:
Prof Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP's Billion Tree Campaign, which was launched in 2006. She became a patron of the campaign, inspiring thousands of people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities. To date, more than 11 billion trees have been planted as part of the campaign.
She was born near Nyeri in Kenya's Central Highlands in 1940 and received her education in Kenya and the USA, from where she earned a Bachelors degree from Mount St. Scholastica College and a Masters degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, obtaining it from the University of Nairobi in 1971.
In December 2002, Professor Maathai was elected to Kenya's parliament and appointed assistant minister for Environment and natural resources. The celebrated laureate has won more than 40 major awards in her life, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and authored four books. She is survived by her three children: Waweru, Wanjira and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.
I heard her speak when she came to Kalamazoo a few years ago as a participant in PeaceJam.  Unfortunately, I did not write a story about her but found a fine tribute from Sharon Astyk, blogger of Casaubon's Book.
Dr. Wangari Maathai died on Sunday at 71, of ovarian cancer. It is interesting to me that so many of the obituaries get her work wrong - consider what the New York Times says:
Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats -- environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.
It is a small error, but an important one. Maathai did not wear many hats - it was all one hat. Her role empowering and educating women, repairing and protecting her beloved nation, mitigating climate change and improving the lives of the poorest people around her by enabling their subsistence, calling for justice at every turn - it was and is all one work. Maathai's great gift was her ability to see the intersection between environmental, economic, political and gender justice - and that it is not possible to repair just one piece of the world at a time.
I think it is easier to imagine that being a feminist and an environmentalist are two different things, easier to imagine that caring about human rights and deforestation are two kinds of caring. In fact, Maathai saw a whole where we are falsely inclined to see pieces. It was her vision that was right.
 Here is a video of her approach to development and job creation:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cover Story on Urban Gardens in U.S. Catholic Magazine

Last spring, U.S. Catholic magazine decided to investigate the urban gardens movement from the standpoint of Catholic spirituality and contacted me to write a story.  I talked with several urban gardens program directors from across the country and wrote the following article:  Urban planting: Turning blight into bounty in the inner city--which turned out to the be cover story for the October 2011 issue of the magazine!

Also included is a sidebar on Parish resources for growing a community garden and one on Resources for urban agriculture.

Another story in this same issue features Chef Kevin Gillespie that was done by U.S. Catholic staff called "Eating is Believing." Gillespie is a gourmet chef and known for his appearance on the Bravo reality TV show Top Chef.  He says that what you put on your plate says something about the kind of person you are.

The prominence given to these stories is significant for the urban gardens movement, which are now being recognized as a mainstream grassroots effort in transforming our cities and our broken national food system.  It is also significant for me since it was my first cover story in a magazine.  I am grateful to U.S. Catholic for the opportunity to write for them!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jean Gump Freed from Prison

On September 12, Jean Gump was released from any further prison time after her July 5, 2010 arrest at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oakridge, Tenn., home of the atom bomb.

She and the 12 other protesters could have each been fined $100,000 with one year in prison for trespassing an off-limits federal area.  As predicted, the magistrate ruled “time served” and Jean will be able to go home and carry on with her life. 

Jean was initially sent to jail in Marysville, Tenn. and then moved 400 miles to a federally financed private jail in Ocilla, Ga.  After one month, she decided to serve whatever prison time she would receive after sentencing.

Federal Magistrate Bruce Guyton ruled that she is off probation and must pay a $500 fine in order to get her passport returned.

See the background story on Jean Gump and the 12 other protesters who were arrested on July 5, 2010 in a demonstration at the Y-12 plant.

Also see a profile on Jean and Joe Gump and their lifetime history of working for social justice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Big Labor Day Weekend of Fun

It all began today with a Tiger baseball game at Commerica Park.

Anna at Tim Horton's
Anna and I met my Uncle Louie to watch the Tigers play the Kansas City Royals--and were we psyched to go to the game!  My plan was to have lunch at the Avalon Bakery in Midtown and then go to the game.  Anna has never been there and I wanted to introduce her to another special place Detroit has to offer.  (A couple years ago we went to the Agriculture Expo that featured the famous urban gardens of the city.  Avalon Bakery is part of that same grassroots movement that is re-building the city block by block.) However, we were behind schedule and had lunch at Tim Horton's near Belleville.  Not a bad choice, really.  Good food, good service and no waiting in line.

We arrived at the stadium on time and found a great parking space about three blocks away for only $10.  It was near Clifford and Woodward, site of the old Wright-Kay Jewelers.  I worked there one Christmas in fashion jewelry.  Just another stroll down memory lane, I told Anna.  I also marched in my high school band on several Thanksgiving Day parades down Woodward Avenue, too.  Such a great experience!

Uncle Louie
Thank God for cell phones!  We were to meet my uncle (who had the tickets) at the big Tiger Cat entrance but I couldn't find him--until our cell phones brought us together.  We just missed the opening of the game and part of the first inning by the time we took our seats.  The seats, by the way were in the upper deck along first baseline.  Great seats for only $24.  As much as I miss Tiger Stadium for its history, Commerica Park is by far a better park for watching a game.  Hardly any obstructions and sitting along the baseline allows for a certain intimacy with the field and players--even for people who are a bit near-sighted.

We saw Jason Turner, a new pitcher up from the minor leagues, as well as Maglio Ordonez execute a three-hit, three RBI game.  Another interesting thing that is happening is the Tigers' habit of rallying after two outs.  This pattern makes for some very exciting baseball.  The Tigers came from behind two times during the game, but when they needed to do it a third time, the team seemed to be all worn out and the Royals beat them 11 to 8.  The seventh inning was the killer for the Tigers after the Royals pounded out four runs and then another one in the eighth inning.  Oh well.

Here are some shots of the game from our seats just to prove I'm not lying:

It was a very hot day and my uncle wisely found seats that had the sun at our backs so we weren't looking into it for the 3 1/2-hour game.  He paid for the tickets, too, God bless him!

I thought we might try Avalon Bakery after the game but not only were the city's downtown streets crowded but many other people had the same idea and there was no parking available once we got to the bakery.  So we pressed on to go past my old school, Wayne State University, and entered I-94 at Trumbull.  My grandmother used to live in this area in the late 50s and I used to take the Trumbull ramp while a student at WSU in the early 70s during rush hour traffic.  I still had the touch for getting on the freeway, too.

Instead of going to Wiley's farm to help with harvesting vegetables on Friday, my usual day, I went today and picked cherry tomatoes, daylong strawberries, plum tomatoes and round tomatoes.  Jose, one of two Mexican harvesters, taught me how to select the best tomatoes:  firm not soft, no cracks or blemishes, no stems (because they puncture the other tomatoes in the bucket).  It's been hot in the past two weeks but not too bad today.  I wore my boots since I start work at 8 a.m. and am tired of getting wet from the dew. 

Stoop labor is not easy, especially since I'm so out of shape with those muscles.  So after spending four hours there, I gathered my weekly stash of vegetables and made my way to the Root Beer Stand for a soothing and delicious ice cream float.  When I returned home, I lay down for about two hours to recover from my muscle aches and tiredness.  There was a party to go to tonight at 6 and I had to regenerate some energy.

My neighborhood gets together to celebrate various holidays:  Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.  We also meet for Superbowl in February and sometimes have Goddess Parties for women only.  It was threatening rain and the temp was 90 degrees, so we had the party indoors with air conditioning and outdoors in a circle of chairs.  We had hot dogs, salads, watermelon, corn on the cob, cole slaw.  I made a red bean salad that I invented this summer (red beans, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, boiled eggs, avocado in lemon juice) and people seemed to like it.

I was still tired from the day and needed some alone time.  (Kurt calls this inspirational for the book I'm writing on growing up in Detroit.)  I left the party after an hour and went home to read The Guardian (UK newspaper weekly) in silence and didn't even turn on the TV.  While I enjoyed my time, I unfortunately missed the conclusion of the Tiger baseball game where they came back from 7 runs behind in the ninth inning to beat the Kansas City Royals. 


On Sunday we went to my sisters' house in Detroit.  We met them about 1 p.m. on Sunday for a picnic of barbecued chicken breast, my World's Greatest Potato Salad, corn on the cob, salad and Pepperidge Farms orange cake.  Delicious! 
John grilling up those chicken breasts

delicious grub for the picnic

Denise checks the temperature for the BBQ chicken

When Kurt and I returned home, I settled down to relax and came upon the film, The Miracle Worker.  It features Patty Duke who portrays Helen Keller in her first year with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, played by Ann Bancroft.  This is yet another teacher movie that TBS has been playing over the past week.  I also saw The Corn Is Green (a young lad from a Cornish mining town is mentored by a teacher to go to Oxford) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (a young, stiff, uncompromising Latin teacher learns how to be with his students at a British boarding school through his wife, who dies in childbirth at a young age).  These movies made a deep impression on me in my teen years and influenced the kind of teacher I wanted to be.  Today, there are a lot of people--politicians and citizens--who forget what teaching is about and concentrate instead on testing, which is connected to government funding.  Teaching is about mentoring the young and preparing them for life and work.  (The Atlanta, Georgia school district was recently cited for cheating on test results.)

Afterward, I watched the Tiger game at 8 p.m. and saw them whoop the Chicago White Sox 18 to 2, who were demoralized by last night's game and completely shut down tonight.  The Sox managed to score 2 runs in the ninth to the boos of Tiger fans who wanted a shutout.  The Tigers are on a roll and I hope they keep it up through September in preparation for the playoffs to the World Series in October.  I have been obsessed with the Tigers over the last couple weeks and now have pennant fever.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they maintain this hot streak!  (I hope to see another game before the end of the month.  Just can't get enough of them Tigers.)


Today we had a picnic with my farm buddies, Donna, Mac, Anna, Ron and Soo at the farm.  I made another potato salad, this time with red potatoes from Wiley's farm.  (For yesterday's picnic, I used Yukon Gold.  I think the red potatoes were better.)  Donna brought brats and salad and Kurt made the most colorful and delicious peach pie that we all ate up in one sitting.  

New gates that cross the entrance roadway at the farm

Before dinner, Ron took me on a pasture walk to show me all the new fencing that was done recently--about 1.5 miles worth.  He can now rotate the animals to graze on several pastures.  It was amazing to see.  Electrical switches are set up for each pasture.  

The Soo is looking for a logo for their farm cheese.  She has been studying possibilities and then had me go out to the pasture and try out a few shots.  She wants to feature the water buffalo.  Here are a few samples of the possibilities of these noble beasts.  

We had a delicious and lively dinner, however, about 6:15 it was time to milk the goats.  I wanted to stay and help Soo so Kurt rode back to Kalamazoo with Donna, Mac and Anna.  It has been about a month since I worked at the farm and it felt good to see and work with the animals.  Of course, they tried to take advantage of me by storming the gate but I held my own pretty well.  I haven't forgotten everything I learned.

Soo and I finished milking at dusk and I went home to relax from my knee aches.  Another good day at the farm and a totally unexpected pleasure of working with the animals.

Ron and Soo have been working day and night to set up their new dairy and in one year they are now producing cheese, which puts them two years ahead of where they thought they'd be.  Before dinner we all had a taste of the cambere cheese made from buffalo milk and it was absolutely amazing. 

Tuesday, it's back to my writing and exercise program.  I gained about 6 pounds over the past week and have a long way to go to be ready for the Olympics in 2012.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: Losing Alicia--A Father's Journey After 9/11

Of all the tragic deaths, there can be none more excruciating than a parent's loss of a child. 

In Losing Alicia, readers not only witness a father's struggle over the murder of his young, vibrant and beautiful daughter, but they walk with him through his agonizing grief after one of the most horrific tragedies in history, September 11, 2001.

Alicia was a flight attendant aboard United Airlines Flight #175, which was the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.

Titus was on his way to work when the first plane struck the North Tower. He saw the second plane on television in real time.

This heart-felt book is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

As our nation observes the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Titus offers a side of the tragedy too often missed or forgotten after the rush to war, patriotism and national security consumed the country, as this excerpt from his book shows.

As Bev and I sat down on the precipice in solemn meditation, I prayed that God would come into our hearts. I prayed for understanding and love. I prayed for Alicia’s soul and the souls of the others who had died with her earlier in the day. I prayed for our world.”

Americans as a whole have not dealt with 9/11 let alone made sense of it. However, John Titus has.

A counselor by training, Titus pursues an alternative course rather than join the noisy gongs of war, hatred, fear, vengeance and conspiracy. He dares to address and articulate his strong and conflicting emotions and later, to share them with others in this book. This is an act of courage, faith and love that comes from the conviction that the evils foisted on America and the world on 9/11 not be repeated.

The only way to deal with grief is to go through its very heart to feel the painful feelings; to cry the tears of sadness; to relive those precious moments of bygone days, now mired in pain; to strive to understand the confusing and often irrational thoughts that abound.”

However, his book is not aimed only at psychological transformation. It also traces Titus' inner journey of working through his anguish and, like Job in the Old Testament, confronting the great spiritual question that arises whenever disaster strikes: what sort of God allows suffering to happen to innocent people and how does one respond?
I don't believe for a second that God mapped out a grand plan that included the murder of my daughter. By the grace of God, we are given free will, and in that free will, evil (in other words, self-love) is allowed to manifest alongside divine love and wisdom. But through the temptations presented by evil, love and truth will ultimately prevail, because that is God's will for us.”

John Titus -- photo by
I had the opportunity to hear John Titus speak in 2004 and I met with him and Bev in spring 2011 as he was preparing the final drafts of this book. They are authentic people with deep souls and caring hearts. They know how to love and how to express it.

Americans can learn from Titus, especially since most of us have shut off our feelings about 9/11 long ago and allowed ourselves and our country to react impulsively and violently against the perpetrators.

John Titus did not write this book expecting or wanting sympathy or pity for the loss of Alicia. Instead, his words evoke love and compassion in the reader's heart which, he exclaims, is what life is all about.

Then again, readers will see how Alicia's murder prompted Titus to action. He pours over all the materials he can find on 9/11 and, through legal action, he insists on government accountability regarding its knowledge of terrorist activities and plans. Here we see a responsible father deeply motivated to protect his family.

He is also an empathetic man who literally reaches out to families in Afghanistan whose fallen loved ones have inadvertently gotten themselves in the way of American retaliatory justice.

He has been a spokesman for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization comprised of 9/11 families who have turned their grief into action for peace; held forums on peace at his place of employment, Schoolcraft College (Detroit); and set up the Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Fund at his alma mater, Urbana University (Ohio).

He even ran the San Francisco marathon, something Alicia had planned to do, because he believed the discipline of training could help his own healing and honor his daughter.

Titus did all of these things with Bev's love, support and participation. Instead of drifting apart, which happens in so many marriages after the death of a child, their relationship with each other and with their entire family grew stronger. He also did it through the spiritual presence and encouragement of Alicia, whom he believes was the essence of love and compassion.

Clearly, Titus and his family, are God's chosen ones called to address the unsavory violence lodged against innocent civilians, so characteristic of our current era. They are there for the rest of us to witness and emulate. This is a tremendous burden for one family but they have willingly taken it on even though they never sought it.

Titus provides a vivid, honest and often poetic presentation that is so compelling readers will not be able to put it down before they finish it. Ideally, people will read the book with family, friends and neighbors in order to reflect on 9/11 from a new perspective—and to help influence this nation's movement away from endless war and retaliation.

What we need most, now, is peace within ourselves and among others in the world and John Titus shows us how to do it.

This book is available through Friesen Press and will soon be available through Google Books, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.