Monday, August 18, 2014

The Answer I Have (#icebucketchallenge)

I was invited by my friend to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The deal is, once nominated, you either pour a bucket of ice water over your head within 24 hours or you make a donation to the ALS Association (http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ice-bucket-challenge.html) to help fund their research to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gherig's disease or ALS). If you didn't already know, ALS is a progressive and currently incurable neurologic disease that leaves its victims immobile and helpless before it kills them.

Early in the evening, while trying to catch up on my journal, I wrote this:

Terrible world events lately, A young man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police - he was unarmed and running away and still the police officer shot him to death. That makes 4 unarmed black men this month killed by police officers which is so sickening. Then the police turned on the protestors who were supporting Mr. Brown's family. Tear gas and rubber bullets and tanks in the streets; it's insane. Isn't this America? Lots of talk about racism which is so real still. I hope something good comes out of it, like maybe people recognizing that racism is actually still a problem right along with misogyny and homophobia and abuse. ISIS (Islamic State Iraq and Syria) is murdering people in Iraq, executing Christians and the Yazidi people - the news had stories about crucifixions and beheadings. The U.S. is bombing Iraq again. Israel and Hamas are bombing each other. Robin Williams, the actor who played the Genie in Aladdin and many other amazing roles including the teacher in Dead Poet Society which climaxed in a teen suicide, killed himself. The Ukraine is completely unstable with war going on between rebels probably backed by Russia and the Ukrainian government. A plane was shot down over the Ukraine that was carrying scientists and researchers to a conference on AIDS - I think that the target was random, an act of terrorism, but so much more bitter to have people killed whose life work was curing others. There is an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There are still thousands of immigrant children coming over the southern border of the US without parents because of danger and unrest in Central America. I don't even know what else. All the same old problems of poverty and hunger and climate change and violence and cruelty and disease. Lord, have mercy on us. Help us, please help us. 

Last week I had a conversation with a patient, which is a conversation that I've had with many people over the years. How do you stand the pain? When the world is so bad, when people suffer so much, how can you stand it? I don't really have a good answer to that question, just like I don't have good answers for all of the problems above. I wish I had a magic, perfect answer to that question. I wish I could take away all the pain, because, really, I think that is the subtext of that particular conversation. We all wish for the pain to be dealt with, for the world to be made perfect for all of us. And oh, how I long for that. But it is not what I can offer.

The answer I have is this. You can't make it not hurt. There is just no way to block out the pain, and when you try all that happens is you block out the good stuff like love and fun and joy and then you are lonely and stuck and you are in pain anyway. Trying to make things not hurt is a losing battle, a rigged game. So, I just let it hurt. I cry, I scream, I write, I yell at G-D and then I pray for help and mercy. I let the pain come and then I let it go. Not gone, more like waves that wash over me and recede. Pain is a fact of life, so another wave is always coming. Sometimes thick and fast in a storm and sometimes at long, slow intervals when all is peaceful, but every wave that comes will eventually go. And when the wave of pain has dropped back enough I get busy.

I work. I give. I write. I pray. I fight the battles that I can fight and I hope that each person I help and touch will be able to help a few more people who will then go on to help a few more people; a chain reaction of love and goodness. And then I rest. I'm on vacation this week with my family. We are spending a week together and it is wonderful. There is a part of me that spoke up as I wrote that sentence saying "you should feel bad, writing that, having fun when so much in the world is so broken and painful, when so many people are suffering. How dare you?" And then a wiser part of me spoke up and said "No. If you are sad and exhausted, how does that help lessen anyone else's suffering? Your misery won't alleviate the world's pain, but your joy might. Stay strong so you can stay on the front lines of your particular battles."

Which brings me back to my friend's invitation. I went ahead and donated to the ALS Association this evening, to help them fight the battle they have chosen. I'll keep on fighting on my part of the line too, giving and praying and working and writing as well as I can. And tomorrow I might see if I can scrounge up a bucket of ice water to dump on my head. I know the silliness of me soaking myself on purpose would delight my daughter and make my family laugh. A little joy in the name of a good cause seems like the right idea.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lopsided Bunny

I finished my daughter’s birthday present last night. She loves bunnies. Her two favorite stuffed animals are bunnies and she regularly pretends to be a bunny in a warren. Bunnies feature prominently in the various made up stories our family tells at bedtime. I wanted to give her a hand knit toy for her birthday, and so a bunny seemed like the natural choice. I found a pattern from my favorite toy designer and knitting hero Susan Anderson and got to work.

It’s definitely not perfect. I’ve seen Susan Anderson’s model bunny toy in person, when I’ve taken classes from her, and I’m not even close. To my knitter’s eye, the increases and decreases I used in shaping the toy are more visible than I would like. I didn’t have quite enough of the white yarn and so I had to modify the legs from the original pattern quite a bit, resulting in short stubby legs instead of the more elegant dangling legs in the design. The placement of the arms, legs and ears is a little more lopsided than I was hoping for and the head is quite wobbly. I embroidered the face about three different times before I finally got something I thought was okay, and I still feel like it’s missing something.

I could fix all of that. A friend once told me she took a knitting class and she didn’t like it, because they wouldn’t teach her how to fix mistakes. I thought that was strange because fixing mistakes in knitting is really easy. You just unravel all your work down to the point of the mistake and start over from there. Of course, it’s also pretty discouraging to undo all your hard work, especially if you didn’t notice the mistake until you had progressed quite a bit further in your knitting. My mother-in-law views it as bonus knitting; you knitted it twice and therefore obtained more knitting pleasure from the yarn. I like her attitude but I’m not planning to unravel and redo my daughter’s present.

First of all, I just don’t have time to undo and completely re-knit and re-sew all the components before her birthday. I’d rather have an imperfect toy to give her than no toy at all. Second of all, I would have to buy more yarn and since I bought this particular skein on a trip to Seattle last year I am not sure I could match it easily. Thirdly, I am trying really hard not to be a perfectionist. There are some knitting mistakes that I will rip back for because they make a big difference in the final project, but other mistakes are acceptable. The mistakes in this toy fall into the acceptable category. My daughter’s gift looks like a bunny, so she will love it. It’s sturdy enough to stand up to preschool handling and the little flaws give it character and personality. Fourth and finally, I am ready to move on to another project. It’s time to get started on holiday gifts and new patterns are calling me.

I love knitting. I love the feel and look of yarn; the color and the softness and the sensual, tactile delight of beautiful material. I love the process of making something new, of seeing it unfold stitch by stitch. I love feeling clever and creative and accomplished. Beyond my love of it though, I think knitting is good for me. It reminds me to lighten up, to accept imperfection, and to play.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Holy Ground

On 9:27 in the morning on a Saturday the Northern Virginia Warehouse of the Capital Area Food Bank became holy ground. In an echoing space with scuffed concrete floors, dented industrial metal shelving, and rippled metal sheet siding fifteen men and women with fifteen different shades of skin tone packed five hundred and eighty bags of food and loaded them into twenty-nine large boxes.

Old and young they worked together, quietly organizing themselves into a smoothly flowing assembly line. No one person seemed to be in charge but everyone knew what needed to be done and contributed according to their talents. The young woman with a gift for opening stubborn plastic bags started the process. Then two older women doubled the bags so the heavy food items would not break through and whispered quiet prayers for the recipients. A middle-aged man added a box of applesauce and a dose of humor, and then passed the bag to the men with the cereal bars. They added their contribution and then on down the line the bag went, gaining collard greens, baked beans, spaghetti, pasta sauce and raisins before being tied off at the end and placed gently into a box. Up and down the line people talked, joked, encouraged each other, asked for breaks and pauses and shared snippets of their lives. A teenage boy and an old man walked up and down the line, removing trash and breaking down emptied containers. In less than an hour the boxes were full and the group disbanded as simply and peacefully as it had come together, with handshakes and smiles all around.

The boxes waited in the warehouse to be picked up by agencies who would deliver the food to elderly people in need, people who don’t have quite enough money each month to keep from being hungry. Each bag is designed to feed a person for a weekend, enough food to get through until another check comes in. And perhaps those bags might also deliver a dose of kindness along with the knowledge that the recipient is not alone, that many people cared enough to give the food, pack the boxes and deliver the bags on a hot and humid August day.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Yes, Climate Change Is Bad

Summing up, what I’ve learned as I challenged myself to actually find evidence that would answer my questions about climate change (with inspiration from a trusted friend) is that yes, the climate is changing and yes, human activity is the cause of climate change. Which now leads to my final question; is this something I should be worried about? Is climate change definitely bad? I’ve actually spent time and effort and money already trying to combat climate change, so should I continue?

My information for this post comes from www.skepticalscience.com, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and from www.climate.nasa.gov and www.epa.gov. Most of what I cite below is from the EPA and from the IPCC, since they had the most detailed information. I liked the IPCC report (ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WG-2AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf) because it comments on levels of evidence and confidence in each bullet point of information.

Historically, the answer is yes, or at least yes, rapid climate change is definitely bad. Periods of time in the past characterized by rapid change (changes that were actually less rapid than what we are seeing today) were characterized by mass extinctions. And there are already observable changes, such as shrinking glaciers, oceans becoming more acid, and shifting animal ranges. I found references to several papers linking an increased frequency of extreme weather events (droughts, severe storms, and particularly heatwaves) to climate change.

Predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are that water resource availability will change (meaning, many people will have less access to clean water, which is already a problem in many places); that more agricultural crops will be harmed than helped, that water borne and insect borne diseases (like malaria) may become more widespread, that at some point we will be at high risk for sudden and irreversible extreme events, that people who are already marginalized and struggling will suffer disproportionately, and that violent conflict will harm everyone’s ability to adapt. All of their predictions are rated at medium confidence to very high confidence. According to the EPA, coastal cities will be more vulnerable to flooding, decreased air quality and heat waves will pose a hazard to human health, forest fires will be more frequent and intense and many other problems. There are pages and pages of information about the probable (and problematic) consequences of climate change on these websites. It doesn’t sound like a world I want for my daughter.

Since the answer to this last question is mostly predictions, it is the hardest to back up with evidence and the easiest to argue against. The people who make the predictions sound pretty sure, and their lines of reasoning make sense to me. I think what they are saying is probably, and so I’ll tell you, climate change sounds pretty bad to me. Most of the arguments I’ve read for not believing in or responding to climate change are economic; that it would be too expensive to change and that all the alarm is unnecessary anyway. I’m not sure the too expensive part is really true; I think it might be expensive to change but cheaper than coping with the consequences of not changing. As far as I can tell this article (by economist William Nordhaus of Yale) is saying that it would be economically better to take strong action to curb climate change now. Some people have even suggested that action on climate change may be economically beneficial, producing new knowledge and new technologies and new jobs. But even if that’s not true, even if it is more expensive to act now, I think we have a moral responsibility to act.


As a person of faith I believe that G-D created the earth, and loves it, and considers it good. I don’t think it’s okay for us to make a mess of it. I believe that G-D create all people, and loves them, and wants good for them. It’s not okay to continue on a pathway that is likely to harm large numbers of people, not even if changing our path is hard and expensive. So, to sum up, based on the data I can find, climate change is occurring, human activity is responsible for climate change, and climate change is bad. So, what are we going to do about it?

Yes, Human Activity Is Causing Climate Change

The evidence seems clear that the climate is changing, which makes the next question “what is the cause?” If you accept climate change as a reality, it doesn’t automatically follow that human activity is the cause. There should be evidence. Basically, that was the question my friend was asking yesterday morning, the question that I couldn’t answer for myself and went looking. The information below comes from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch) website, particularly their 2013 report, from www.climate.nasa.gov, and from the website www.skepticalscience.com. The Skeptical Science website in particular was very clear and helpful although the IPCC report is more detailed.

Answering the question about what is causing climate change means talking about how the earth hangs on to heat. The earth is much, much warmer than the moon, even though we are approximately the same distance from the sun. Why is this the case? The difference is in our atmosphere. Besides being handy for us breathing animals, the atmosphere acts as a blanket. It traps heat from the sun and holds it close to the earth’s surface. Not all of the components of the atmosphere do this; the major gases that do are ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, and, of course carbon dioxide. These are the gases that are commonly called greenhouse gases, because they function similarly to the glass roof of a greenhouse in holding heat.

The major greenhouse gas that people contribute to the atmosphere is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is produced chemically when carbon based fuels are consumed for energy. So, for example, when a human body breaks down glucose (sugar is carbon based energy, hence the name CARBOhydrate) on a cellular level to convert it to a usable form of energy oxygen is used up and carbon dioxide is produced, which is removed primarily through the lungs. When coal, oil and natural gas (also carbon based energy forms) are burned for energy carbon dioxide is also emitted.  

There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years; currently (2014 data) about 397 parts per million, which is about 33% higher than the highest historical concentration of 300 parts per million. How do we know how much carbon dioxide there was in the atmosphere at various points over the last 800,000 years? The measurements are obtained from air bubbles trapped in polar ice cores. The uptick in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time correlates pretty well with the production of carbon dioxide through burning fossil fuels over time.
Public Domain Image. Source: climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators

Image Source: skepticalscience.com. Their Caption: Atmospheric CO2 levels (Green is Law Dome ice core, Blue is Mauna Loa, Hawaii) and Cumulative CO2 emissions (CDIAC). While atmospheric CO2 levels are usually expressed in parts per million, here they are displayed as the amount of CO2 residing in theatmosphere in gigatonnes. CO2 emissions includes fossil fuel emissions, cement production and emissions from gas flaring.
Correlation does not imply causation, of course, but in this case it is concerning, and there is not another explanation for the increase. The oceans are the biggest reservoir of carbon dioxide on the planet but the amount of carbon dioxide in the oceans (as measured by acidity; because carbon dioxide dissolved in water produces acid) is increasing, so the carbon dioxide isn’t coming from the oceans. Humans produce about 100 times the amount of carbon dioxide than volcanoes, so that’s not a good explanation either. Oxygen in the atmosphere is decreasing at about the same rate that carbon dioxide is increasing, which makes sense if the carbon dioxide is coming from burning fossil fuels (remember, converting a carbon based fuel to usable energy uses up oxygen. That’s why you need to breathe.) Finally, when you look at the particular isotopes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the signature of carbon dioxide (ratio if different types of carbon atoms) in the atmosphere are consistent with fossil fuel sources.

So, it looks like humans are generating a lot of carbon dioxide. How does that link to human activity causing climate change? There are a couple of indicators that it is. First, carbon dioxide absorbs extra heat at a particular frequency of infrared radiation. When infrared radiation away from the earth is measured, it is depleted in this particular frequency and more so the past 30 years. What this means is that over a recent period of time carbon dioxide, specifically, is holding more heat close to the earth’s surface. Second, the pattern of warming that we are seeing right now is that the lower part of the atmosphere is warming and the upper part is cooling; that is consistent with carbon dioxide trapping heat near the earth’s surface and preventing it from reaching the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s not consistent with an increase in solar radiation which would warm the entire atmosphere. Third, natural cycles of climate change don’t explain our recent warming.
Source: skepticalscience.com. Their caption: Annual global temperature change (thin light red) with 11 year moving average of temperature (thick dark red). Temperature from NASA GISS. Annual Total Solar Irradiance(thin light blue) with 11 year moving average of TSI (thick dark blue). TSI from 1880 to 1978 from Krivova et al 2007 (data)TSI from 1979 to 2009 from PMOD (see the PMOD index page for data updates).
Satellite measurements of the sun’s energy output from 1978 until now show a drop of energy output over the last 30 years, which would typically lead to a decrease in overall global temperature. The rate of warming is too fast to be explained by the earth coming out of the last ice age, and in fact, we should actually be slowly heading into a new ice age based on Milkanovitch cycles, which predict climate change as a function of variation in the earth’s orbit and tilt. Finally, if a natural cycle is causing the overall warming trend we are seeing, there also needs to be an explanation for why the increase in carbon dioxide that we can measure isn’t causing the warming. Centuries of chemistry and physics tell us that it should, so any alternative explanation has to account for this as well as explaining what is causing the warming. 


So, again based on the data I can find, it seems to me that human activity is responsible for the changes in the climate that we are seeing today. Which now leads me to my third question. Is climate change something to worry about?

Yes, The Climate is Changing

I was chatting with some friends yesterday while our families were enjoying a Saturday morning at one of our local parks. The topic of climate change came up and one of my friends commented that she is concerned about the changes and she doesn't like the pollution humans are generating but she doesn't know if human activity is the primary cause of climate change. This is one of my friends who I deeply trust and respect, someone I really look up to, so her comment made me think. I would have said - yes, I believe human activity is the primary cause of climate change. But why do I think that? Well, I realized that I didn't have a good reason. The truth is I think it because other people have told me so. I don't know what the science is behind that statement. And while I am a person of faith, I don't think it's a good idea to approach scientific claims as a matter of faith. I should take a look at the data before I decide what I believe.

So I went looking for data on climate change. I started with a few key questions. The first question is "Is climate change a reality?" The second question is "If climate change is a reality, is human activity the primary cause?" The third question is "If climate change is a reality, and if human activity is a primary cause, is it something to be concerned about?"

The answer to the first question appears to be a pretty clear yes, based on information I found on the websites from climate.nasa.gov (from NASA), http://www.climate.gov (from NOAA - the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration) and from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf). If you want to look for yourself the NASA site is easier to read and has the best graphics, particularly on their key indicators page. The NOAA site offered some of the best articles and the IPCC report is the most detailed and their site also gives detailed information about the process they used to draw their conclusions. If you don't trust NASA, NOAA and the IPCC to report data accurately then this blog post won't mean much to you. We would need to have a different conversation altogether I suspect.

To sum up what I read, the climate is not only changing, it is changing rapidly. The last three decades have been the warmest on record over the past 1400 years.
Public Domain image. Source: climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators/
One of the counter-arguments that I read in several places is that global warming can't be true because the global temperature hasn't increased over the past ten years or so. This is true and the graph I posted shows it; over the past decade the global surface temperature has been stable. However, when I went looking for an explanation, there is a pretty simple one that is still consistent with climate change. This pause in the warming trend is attributed to both a decrease in solar output in the 2000's and due to the short term climate cycles of La NiƱa and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation over the past decade that have mixed surface ocean water into deeper ocean water. That sinks the heat deep in the ocean but the heat is still present, it's just not on the surface where it's being measured. Measurements of deep ocean temperature during this period show warming.

Public Domain image. Source: http://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/why-did-earth%E2%80%99s-surface-temperature-stop-rising-past-decade

During the same decade the polar ice has continued to melt. Arctic ice has decreased from over 6 million square kilometers in 2000 to under 4 million square kilometers in 2012. The Antarctic continent has lost 100 cubic kilometers of ice per year since 2002. This is just my thought, so it may be wrong or a bad analogy, but it seems to me that losing ice may be a better measure of warming than surface temperature. After all, if I set out a glass of ice water outside on a hot day the temperature of the water and the air immediately above it will remain steady until the ice melts. It's only after the ice melts that my drink becomes tepid.

Public Domain Image. Source: climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators/

Public Domain Image. Source: climate.nasa.goc/key_indicators/

So, looking at the data, my conclusion is that yes, the climate is changing. The earth is becoming warmer overall and it is happening rapidly. Which leads to my next question. Is human activity the primary cause of climate change today?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

S'mores, Interrupted

S'mores weren't exactly on our family summer list. Not the way blueberry picking and camping were; special activities that we needed to make an effort to accomplish before summer's end. S'mores are more something that usually just happens around our house without too much difficulty. We usually have chocolate and graham crackers around, particularly since our daughter's favorite snack is graham crackers and sharp white cheddar. Yeah, it doesn't appeal to me either, but I can't really criticize since I'm always telling her that it's okay for different people to like different things. Anyway, we usually have at least two thirds of the components for s'mores and so all we have to do is remember to pick up marshmallows at the grocery store and then the next time we cook on the grill we're in business. S'mores aren't even particularly seasonal, since in the mid-Atlantic you can use a grill in reasonable comfort for at least eight months of the year

Except this summer it hasn't been so simple. On our first s'mores attempt we realized after dinner that we didn't have marshmallows after all. My husband and I were both sure that we had them; we were so confident that at the grocery store we looked at them and said "naaah..." and walked away without them. I am not sure where our misplaced certainty came from but the s'mores did not come about that week. Our second s'mores attempt we had all the ingredients assembled on a plate. We had gone out for a walk earlier that evening to locate replacements for our marshmallow toasting sticks, since the old ones had been broken up by our daughter in some imaginary game. We were completely ready to go, and then the grill wouldn't light. Apparently we had run out of propane.

Finally, tonight, the third time was the charm. We had the marshmallows, we had the propane, we had our toasting sticks, our graham crackers and our dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is more traditional, I know, but everyone in our family prefers dark chocolate, including our almost four year old daughter. We had a lovely evening and we were able to toast and crunch to our heart's content. It was, at last, the sweet taste of success.