Friday, February 29, 2008

But you've gotta love perspective.

So, remember that little incident with the newspaper I was griping about yesterday?

Well, it hardly makes an impact after you go to work and an elderly gentleman looks you in the face with blank eyes and convulses slightly before he collapses at table 14.

He woke up slightly to tell me to not trouble him and that he'd be fine; in those intermittent seconds I managed to fire off enough questions to know he wasn't. And even though he didn't want trouble or an ambulance, he got one anyway. It only was after a paramedic pointed to me and said, "thank you," rather forcefully as I began to bus the table that I felt okay and the shakes I had acquired subsided.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

So I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. That is, until I saw the paper this morning.

I am not a person of great embarrassment.

I flush if a professor puts me on the spot, and might become flustered in that "ahh shit" moment when I stumble around my mouth for an answer. But things like falling? Hardly. After a backward tumble down the stairs on Christmas in a pencil skirt with my camera in hand, I popped up unscathed while the rest of my family reeled in panic. They claim I fell on my neck, but I interpret the event as a backward, downhill summersault after I made the choice to fall. And because of a pair of brown, suede boots, I spilled across the West Bank a couple of weeks ago. I had finally used the gift card I'd gotten for DSW last Christmas; I love them. But I might have reconsidered my decision had I known the heels were going to cause me to careen, avoiding the splits every time I walked from point A to B. Yet I wear them nearly every day. This time, I was carrying my computer. Controlled falling, though, is one of great those skills I've acquired as a dance major. That, and frequently lying on the floor.

But today, too, I scarcely looked like an imbecile when the last three paragraphs of the column I wrote two weeks ago was tagged on the end of today's paper. Of course the Exxon oil spill of 1989 caused the rise in soldier suicides in the last year. Somehow I guess the copy desk wasn't among the 50,000 readers of the paper.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Of Soldiers and Suicide.

The second occasion on which Harper's saved my life this week was in writing my column. Until I opened to the Index of the month, I had begun to research a topic entirely unbeguiling: U.S. Customs and the recent rise in the confiscation of laptops at the borders.

Of Soldiers and Suicide
Published by the Minnesota Daily
14 February 2008

I was thumbing through this month’s Harper’s and on my way to the David Foster Wallace piece on page 17 when I detoured through the “Index,” and spotted a few noteworthy statistics among the usual collage. (e.g. 79 percent of 152,000 Greenpeace votes wished to name a humpback whale in the South Pacific, “Mr. Splashy Pants.” Or perhaps more appropriately for the holiday the, “Number of states where a court has held that women must return engagement rings if the wedding doesn’t happen: 18.”)

Juxtaposing these was the, “Chance that an Iraq war veteran who has served two or more tours now has post-traumatic stress disorder: 1 in 4.” And lines beneath this read: “Number of confirmed suicides in the U.S. Army in 2006: 102.” Let’s just say I haven’t made it to David Foster Wallace yet.

Harper’s Index goes on to cite that since accurate record keeping began in 1981, the numbers have never been as high.

And the numbers are rising.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press exclusively published government data on the suicide rates of the National Guard and Reserve troops who have left the army. From 2001-2005, these troops comprised 53 percent of the suicides in that time period. Because the leaders of the military have leaned so heavily on the Guard and Reserves in these last years, many individuals have done several tours away from home – removing them from their families and careers for often 18 months at a time.

But when troops do come home, they are expected to carry on with their lives as if they have never left and the war does not exist. Let’s face it, for much of the general population, while we may oppose Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an event that occurs outside of our world. Like poverty and deficits in education in Africa or the Americas, it’s that thing that’s happening somewhere else. Unless we are witnesses, we remain unmoved. Unless our relationships are personally invested, we often let an event run its course. But if you’ve ever spent that semester abroad or that summer in the wilderness you may have only begun to understand a soldier’s dissociation to the rest of our nation upon his or her return to the States. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans for America notes that soldiers are, “literally in Baghdad one week and in Brooklyn the next,” and that, “a more long term, comprehensive approach is needed, especially in the first six months a soldier is home.”

In November, President Bush signed the Suicide Prevention Act that directed the V.A. to improve the mental health training of its staff and to heighten levels of screening and the treatment illnesses like PTSD and Depression. As part of the Act the V.A. created its first suicide hotline last year, and according to the article from the Associated Press, one in five veterans have visited a V.A. facility. The trouble is getting suicidal veterans to utilize the line.

But the government’s study fails to involve suicide that happens in war zones, or those who remained in the military after returning home. What, then, of those who remain deployed? Those numbers are also rising.

Chris Scheuerman, a retired master sergeant, spoke of his son Jason’s suicide on National Public Radio last month. The event happened while Jason was deployed in Iraq, and eventually Chris was told his son had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But the army was unwilling to provide details of the incident and Chris was forced to file requests for the Freedom of Information Act for two years before requesting help from his local congressman.

Through the documents he finally received, he discovered that his son had been feeling suicidal. Months before his death, Jason had seen both a chaplain and a military psychologist; both had rule Jason unhealthy. The Army chaplain had noted he was obsessed with suicide, but the psychologist ruled that he was capable of “feigning illness in order to manipulate his command.” Less than six months later, he had used his firearm to kill himself.

Jason Scheurman was 19. And according to a publication on January 31st on most of the suicides that happen are among the youngest of the deployed: 18-24 year olds. The army rates reflect those of the Guard and Reserves with a 17.3% increase per 100,000 troops last year.

Ironically, the election buzz seems to be focusing away from the war. In December, the Iraq war wasn’t even on the agenda for the final Democratic and Republican debates sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Maybe, because the American public has something new on which to focus in the election, this new focus is usurping trends of war discussion in these last years. But we cannot forget the individuals whose absences are remembered by their families.

Stressed relationships and access to loaded firearms are two of the largest factors in successful suicides. Our troops are tired; we cannot simply bring them home, change their oil and expect them to run as if they are a brand new vehicle. But as they remain in Iraq, they must know our support regardless of our political standings. We must not allow these individuals to merely exist in another part of the world while we continue our lives here. It was not their decision to begin the war in 2001, nor is it their choice to end it.

Of this, Chris Scheurman said, “It is horrible that we lost the soldiers we have to. It is a tragedy when we lose a soldier that we shouldn’t have.”

In praise of the Harper's gods.

This month's edition of Harper's has now saved my life twice in the last twenty four hours. Please note my Mass Comm 1001 assignment below. (As you may have read a few weeks ago, my loathing for the class remains. James Frey and A Million Little Pieces was cited for the zillionth time in a classroom as unethical. However, this time a bright student raised his hand and said, "It was so popular because it was so graphic, and helped so many people, and Oprah loved him, and then it was like, what the hell?" But in redeeming light of this, I got to defend the status of the published word in society this week. Admittedly, it's rather melodramatic.)

As an English major considering the decline of physical books, my instincts are to cringe and quell the concept entirely. Call me a fan of the old fashioned; I prefer a pen and paper to digital media and I don’t even own a television. However, as a technical savvy individual, my older brother keeps his e-books on his iphone and praises its capability and accessibility. “Staying Awake, Notes on the alleged decline of reading,” was published in Harper’s this month and speaks directly to the subject. In her first paragraphs, Ursula K. LeGuin writes, “In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts survey revealed that 43 percent of Americans polled hadn’t read a book all year, and last November, in its report, ‘To Read or Not to Read,’ the NEA lamented the decline of reading, warning that non-readers do less well in the job market and are less useful citizens in general.” She continues her discourse to discuss the social qualities of literature. While she criticizes the written quality of published books, citing Harry Potter as an anomaly to the situation, she notes the “social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of best-sellers.” Though we are reading less on a whole, books are not obsolete. It is the publishers who are getting away with “making baloney-mill novels” popular. So, physical books remain a commodity, even if by publishing standards a “good book” is merely something that will sell instead of a creation of prose with substance.

But concerning the e-book. Companies like Google that have recently placed scanned versions of rare books online are properly taking advantage of what digital media can offer a reader. It aids research and yields access to works that would otherwise be left unutilized by the ordinary person in society. Having used Google’s collection of books myself, I can attest that I would not have found a copy of Rhetoric and Wonder in English Travel Writing, 1560-1613 by Jonathan Sell in any other library. This volume selects the exact time period that John Donne was composing much of his literature, and specifically a poem titled: “Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward.” Donne’s wonder of God as a traveler was exactly the premise of the essay I was writing. It was like I had struck gold.

We gaze at LCD screens and the glow of our computers and Blackberrys for hours on end to check e-mail and read articles, and in my case, write them. The radio is even streaming online. I’d prefer give my eyes a rest and read several hundred pages of text in a chair and in physical form. There is something to be said about holding a physical copy of a book in one’s hands; I believe physical books to be a large element of Intellectual Property. Because the Internet remains so accessible, and books like Jonathan Sell’s are not only available but copyrighted, pirated materials are ubiquitous. As a writer, there is something to be said about having a physical copy of your work in your hands. While publishing online makes one’s work accessible, it also give the author a less tangible sense of accomplishment.

The nation still flocks to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to gaze at the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. While we can look at a replica or photograph of this document’s brittle page over the Internet, it will not suffice for the actual document itself. We are not creating icons like the Declaration with the use of the Internet, as what is published only online does not manifest physically. If we continue to rely upon an abyss of invisible networks we will lose a tangible sense of creation within society.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Best Part of Waking Up... Or is it?

Two weeks ago, in the town of Santa Avelina in the mountains of Quiche (Key-che), Guatemala I met Josefa, as she turned her coffee beans in the sun. I was in the country translating with a medical team, and as the others were eating their lunch, I walked up the hill behind the school and struck a conversation. The beans were laid on tarps to dry in the sun; there was roughly a quarter of a football field in small, beige pellets. She explained to me the process of coffee trade as she ran her rastrillo, or rake, over the beans and lifted handfuls in various stages for my examination. “It takes roughly four days to dehydrate coffee,” she said in Spanish. “See, these have been out for two, and these have been out for three. Look at the difference in the skin.” Her family picks coffee cherries from the plants on their land, and their neighbors combined their crops in a joint drying effort. Several families in the area had procured the quarter football field on which I was gazing, and these families would have to peel the shells from the beans before selling them. The coffee is purchased from the grower by the pound. “Do you get a good price for your coffee?” I asked. Though puzzled by my inquiry, she replied, “Yes, seven Quetzales per bag.” In Guatemala, seven Quetzales is the equivalent of 90 cents. The latest Guatemalan coffee from Starbucks, called Casi Cielo, translates to “Close to Heaven” and costs $12.95 per pound. It comes from farms near Antigua, a beautifully ancient, colonial city. Though I am bias, most Starbucks employees couldn’t name the town nor explain where Guatemala is on a map.

The worst part is that Josefa is right when she says she gets a good price for her coffee. “Black Gold,” a documentary directed by Marc and Nick Francis from the United Kingdom, reports coffee growers in Ethiopia receive, at best, 23 cents per kilo or 12 cents per pound. Last month, the film was made one of Guardian’s top 10 Non-fiction films of 2007 in the UK and has been successful in generating conversation about Ethiopia and the coffee market as a whole. Ethiopia, the birthplace of the coffee bean, is the largest producer of coffee in Africa and represents nearly 67% of the country’s export revenue. In other words, more than fifteen million people in Ethiopia depend on coffee farms for income, but 50 cents per pound on a good day is hardly dependable. It is not to be overlooked that these numbers are only representative of Ethiopia and fail to mention the rest of the coffee growing world.

Tadesse Meskela, managers a union of farmers in Ethiopia and was featured in the film. In an interview with NPR he spoke of his farmers and a particular conversation they’d had. “Ethiopia grows the best coffee in the world, but farmers need to live a decent life,” he said; his farmers couldn’t guess the cost of a cup of coffee in the Western world. “Eighty cups of coffee are made from one kilogram of coffee. One cup of coffee costs roughly 25 birr ($2.90).” Therefore, a retailer makes $230 per kilo. Converting this to pounds, 160 cups of espresso in a coffee shop is more than $500. The farmers are paid a fraction of one percent of this revenue. But the farmers have no leverage to their sales. A trader will come to them and say, “I’ll buy your coffee for this much today,” and if they don’t sell their produce they earn nothing. The trader will not increase his price if the farmer decides not to sell his coffee because the trader is also invested in his own salary.

The trader’s price is based on the market price of beans. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world and the national value of trade is roughly 140 billion dollars. Before its collapse in 1989, the International Coffee Agreement was a relative regulator of the world market. Since then, according PBS’s Frontline World, retails sales of coffee have risen 30-80 billion dollars per year since 1990. Because the prices are based on trade, the international price of coffee is established in New York and London, places that are driven toward profit. The retailers that buy coffee want ensure the earning of a certain profit after distribution and sales. Therefore they set the price of coffee according to their financial budget, and mostly ignore the budget of those who procure their product. This is where the largest problem lies. It does not matter whether Folgers or Caribou wakes you in the morning when price is concerned.

But what of fair trade coffee? The concept here is to cut out the middleman so the coffee passes through fewer hands before reaching the roaster and retailer. If growers follow fair trade regulations, they are guaranteed $1.26 for every pound of coffee procured. This helps, but farmers are still making less on one pound of coffee than 12 ounces of drip coffee costs a consumer. Additionally, fair trade coffee falls into the genre of a market of “specialty” coffee like Starbuck’s Casi Cielo and, according to PBS, only comprises two percent of this market.

So, if we stop drinking coffee altogether and boycott the major chains our problem would be solved, right? Hardly. In addition to unpleasant people everywhere, we would be adding more coffee to the world’s surplus. But it’s still a double bind. Though Starbucks and Caribou are the reasons these farmers have jobs, the coffee industry is also what keeps people like Josefa and her family in poverty in Guatemala, and leaves the growers in Etiopia struggling to send their children to school.