Conference on The Inkwell, Ellen Sandbeck's Green Barbarians

February 04, 2010
I am being interviewed in an online conference on The Inkwell from February 3rd through the 14th. Five panelists have read "Green Barbarians" and will be asking me questions. The public is also invited join in.

A Buddha A Day

January 04, 2010
My friend Ed Newman, who is a very diligent and enthusiastic blogger, interviewed me about the very large art project I have submerged myself in. Here is the interview: 1. Where did you get the idea for a Buddha a day? When I was in Santa Cruz visiting my sister Annie, in fall of 2008, my sister’s boyfriend, Michael, took us to the beautiful Tibetan-Buddhist center in the midst of a redwood forest where he volunteers. We hiked for miles on the center’s trails, turned the giant prayer wheels, and admired the temple, the shrines, the gardens, the gift shop, and the hospice. Then Michael told us that when he volunteers, his job is to cut Buddhas out of newspapers and magazines. I have been doing papercuts for years, and I immediately thought “Wow! That is so cool! I could do that! I want to do that!” My eyes must have been bugging out of my head, or my tongue must have been hanging out or something, because Michael then went on to explain that local Buddhists bring their old newspapers and magazines in to the center so that any photographic images of the Buddha that are in these publications can be cut out and saved so the paper can be recycled without destroying any images of the Buddha. The cut-out images are then stored in small shrines. I was somewhat disappointed to hear this, but the idea of cutting out images of the Buddha stuck with me and wouldn’t go away. Several months later, after I had finished all the writing, rewriting, illustrating, and editing changes on my newest book, “Green Barbarians,” I began my project “A Buddha A Day.” I have been producing a papercut of the image every day since mid-June 2009, and plan to continue for a full year. I am putting the images on my Facebook page, “A Buddha A Day,” and I am inviting people to choose an image they like and enter a writing contest (excellent writing on any topic, a page or less long). If I like a submission, the writer will win the Buddha image of his or her choice. 2. What do you enjoy most about this project? I really enjoy having a good reason to stare for hours at beautiful images of the Buddha from cultures all over the world. The variety is amazing, and the effect of contemplating the Buddha for between 2 and 6 hours per day has been interesting. 3. Do you ever wonder why you committed to it? How often do you want to quit? No, I don’t wonder why I committed to it. It was an overwhelming urge, and I haven’t wanted to quit yet. My husband has, I think, wondered why I committed to it, however! I’ve been much spacier than usual while doing this project, which is a good trick! 4. Are there days when you have to do two or three because you’re camping or doing some kind of event? Yes. Though if I know that I’m going to be away from home, I try to work ahead. It took me about 4 months to build up an extra dozen images before we visited relatives on the East Coast for 10 days this past fall. 5. You’re also a writer and your newest book Green Barbarians just came out. What’s it about? Green Barbarians is an attempt to encourage people to toughen up and refuse to allow Big Business and the advertising industry to scare them into buying expensive, dangerous crap. 6. Which is harder, writing books or making a Buddha a day? Writing books! 7. What’s the strangest or funniest incident you have experienced while doing this project? I guess I think it’s funny that people have liked the images so well. Actually doing the images is extremely peaceful and uneventful.

Green Barbarians, Outtakes and Snarks

August 24, 2009
Into every manuscript the editing knife must fall. Here are some tasty morsels that landed on the editing room floor, but I couldn't bear to throw out: OUTTAKE #! A History of Unsavory Foods There also has never been such a thing as a purely free, unregulated market that did not pose a real danger to its customers, and there is no reason to assume that there ever will be. In staid, respectable Victorian England, poisonous chemicals were commonly added to commercially prepared foodstuffs. For example, Victorian consumers could purchase beer that had been enhanced with strychnine; pickles, canned fruit and preserves and wine that were preserved with copper sulphate; mustard and snuff that were flavored with lead chromate; and candies and chocolates that contained lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, or Venetian lead. These chemical additives were not listed on the product labels, perhaps they were considered “proprietary information.” Victorian food products were also none-too-clean; the list of organic contaminants discovered in ice cream included bacteria; cotton fibers; straw; human hair; cat and dog hair; lice; bed bugs; insect legs, and fleas. When compared to Victorian food-manufacturing practices, the modern Chinese practice of augmenting the apparent protein content of foodstuffs by adding melamine appears almost restrained.

OUTTAKE #2 Rampant Consumerism

August 24, 2009
In September of 2004, three people were crushed to death, and sixteen were injured in a stampede at an Ikea furniture store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A mob of more than 8,000 people had gathered outside the IKEA. They were waiting to pick up $150 vouchers, and some of them had camped outside the store overnight. When the store's doors were opened, security guards were unable to cope. One member of the crowd told a reporter that he'd never seen anything like it in Saudi Arabia before. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ In February of 2005, at 12:01 a.m., the doors of a new IKEA store in Edmonton, north London, opened; at 12:41 a.m., they closed again after 6,000 impatient shoppers who were lusting after leather sofas for only £45, and other succulent bargains, stampeded. In the ensuing chaos, six people were injured and taken to the hospital, including one young man who had been stabbed. The store had advertised that special bargains would be available only between midnight and 3 am. Many people were in such a rush to get their bargains that they had abandoned their cars on the roadside. IKEA's UK deputy manager, John Olie told a reporter: "We planned everything according to what we expected-we just couldn't predict what happened. If we had known this would happen, we would have had other measures in place... we were totally shocked and overwhelmed by what happened. We could not have predicted it. We are really, really sorry. We are really, really sorry." Apparently, after having caused two dangerous stampedes, the company finally learned something. IKEA's manager announced that "We've taken all the offers off sale. We won't be having any more offers at all." Here is a tale of woe from Chuck, one of my husband’s co-workers: He and his wife got in line at the local Target store at a quarter to six with the other avid shoppers on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving. At six a.m. the doors opened, and the shoppers all piled in. Chuck was carried along by the throng to the sale area, but before he could even get his bearings, a shopping cart hit him from behind, buckling his knees. He had just regained his footing, when a lady who had just sped past him, spun her cart around 180 degrees and blindsided him with enough force to send him sprawling. Then, like the first cart-driver, she sped off without a word. At that point the victim picked himself up and shouted to his wife, "I'll be by the door!" and made his escape. His wife managed to purchase a wagon for their grandson by herself.

OUTTAKE #3 Sick With Fear

August 24, 2009
EXHIBIT A) The True Blue Politician In these post 9/11 days of fluctuating "terror alert levels," flexible definitions of inalienable human rights, and general global meltdown, the anticipatory panic that preceded the advent of the new century now seems quaint and amusing. In 1999, many people were terrified that the first stroke of the year 2000 would initiate a total breakdown of all computer-based technological systems that would result in total anarchy. Consequently, sales of gasoline-powered electrical generators soared, and antibiotics and canned goods were stockpiled. The fear was so common that it was given a nickname: "Y2K." Amidst all this pre-millennial anxiety, one man stood out: Stan Jones, a businessman from Montana who began taking colloidal silver (which was touted as an antibacterial agent and immune-system strengthener) in 1999 because he was afraid that Y2K disruptions would cause a shortage of antibiotics. In 2002, Mr. Jones ran as the Libertarian candidate against Montana Senator Max Baucus. Once illuminated by the bright lights of the media, it became obvious that Candidate Jones was a true blue citizen, perhaps one of the bluest that ever lived. Drinking all that silver had turned his skin blue. Permanently. Unfortunately for Mr. Jones, his skin was not an aesthetically pleasing sky-, robin's egg-, or Krishna-blue, it was rather a drowning-victim blue. Senator Baucus won the election handily. Apparently Montanans were not ready for a blue senator.

OUTTAKE #4 Connoisseurs

August 24, 2009
Frédéric Brochet, a researcher in the enology department at the University of Bordeaux, invited fifty-four wine-lovers to participate in a series of two wine tasting experiments. The subjects were asked to describe a red wine and a white wine that were served in clear wine glasses. A few days later, the tasters were invited back, and each subject was again served a glass of white wine and a glass of red wine. The samples in both glasses were actually the same white wine; the “red wine” had been turned red with an odorless and flavorless food dye. The real red wine of the first tasting had been described by all the subjects with classical red wine terms such as “dark,” “intense,” “complex,” or “blackcurrent;” the real white wine of the first tasting had been described using classical white wine terms such as “floral,” “fresh,” “pale,” or “crisp.” During the second tasting, the subjects all used white wine terms to describe the white wine, while the white-wine-pretending-to-be-red was generally described using classic red wine terms. Brochet told an interviewer: “About two or three per cent of people detect the white wine flavour, but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the color of the wine."

OUTTAKE #6, Other People's Hands...

August 24, 2009
Now that our hands are sparkling clean, what about everyone else’s germy mitts? How do we keep our food from being contaminated by germs deposited in public places by the great hordes of the unwashed? There are elevator buttons, ATM machine buttons, door handles, and faucet handles out there, and all of them have been touched by people who have germs on their hands! Perhaps most terrifying of all, there are shopping cart handles out there! Fortunately for the lucky citizens of Arkansas, Fred Allen, freshman legislator from Little Rock, is on the job. While he was campaigning, he heard from so many elderly women who “...mentioned that they didn’t want to go shopping because the shopping carts were nasty,” that he campaigned on a platform that included encouraging grocery stores to offer antimicrobial wipes to customers who use shopping carts. Mr. Allen won election and introduced a bill called the Arkansas Health-Conscious Shopper Program, which was passed into law in 2007. The text of the law states that it is intended to “increase awareness of Arkansas shoppers, infants and young children about potential contamination from contact with a shopping cart handle.” One cannot help wondering how all these elderly ladies got to be elderly in the first place if shopping cart handles are so extremely dangerous. A spokesman at the Centers for Disease Control told a reporter: "We don't link scores of infections to environmental surfaces like shopping carts. Shopping cart germs are not a major problem.” There have always been microbes on our planet, and there always will be. Very few microbes are capable of surviving, much less multiplying, on hard, dry surfaces, and even fewer are capable of jumping out at you from these surfaces. So when you choose a shopping cart, make sure it’s a dry one. If you are worried about the cleanliness of your unfamiliar surroundings, keep your fingers out of your nose, eyes, and mouth, and pick your nose and your teeth in the comfort of your own home. We are fortunate that the everyday germs we encounter as we go about our daily business are not as dangerous as the superbugs that are being created in hospitals. If enough of us keep our wits about us and avoid using antimicrobials, maybe those ordinary microbes will remain ordinary. Despite the panicky reports from the mass media, actual illness is also unlikely to result from contact with a menu from a restaurant chain, even if the menu has-- as was discovered by a television news anchor in South Carolina, who conducted an “undercover operation”--one hundred units of Bacillus cereus on it. The reporter then breathlessly reported that Bacillus cereus, could, if ingested, “...make you sick with diarrhea and vomiting.” Not to be outdone, an action reporter in North Carolina attended the movies, where he and his crew swabbed down some seatbacks and had the samples tested. The report came back positive for bacillus cereus. This is not surprising. Bacillus cereus is ubiquitous on our planet. According to the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, “Food poisoning caused by Bacillus cereus may occur when foods are prepared and held without adequate refrigeration for several hours before serving. B. cereus is an aerobic spore forming bacterium that is commonly found in soil, on vegetables, and in many raw and processed foods.” Consumption of foods that contain >106 B. cereus/g (translation: foods that contain more than one million B. cereus bacteria per gram, which is approximately one-fifth of a teaspoon) may result in food poisoning.” Those 100 units of Bacillus cereus--along with 4,999, 901 of their friends and relatives--in a teaspoon of your cooked food, might indeed make you ill. So try to refrain from stirring your oatmeal with your menu if you are planning to wait four hours before eating your breakfast. If you are worried about the cleanliness of your unfamiliar surroundings, keep your fingers out of your nose, eyes, and mouth, and pick your nose and your teeth in the comfort of your own home. We are fortunate that the everyday germs we encounter as we go about our daily business are not as dangerous as the superbugs that are being created in hospitals. If enough of us keep our wits about us and avoid using antimicrobials, maybe those ordinary microbes will remain ordinary.

OUTTAKE #7, MIndful Food

August 24, 2009
In 1936 The New Yorker published Janet Flanner’s three-part profile of a prominent European. Her subject was a celibate, vegetarian, teetotalling nonsmoker, and a very moderate eater who liked vegetables, greens, salads, and apples, was fond of oatmeal, milk, and onion soup, eschewed meat, never touched fish, and renounced macaroni because it was too fattening. He was very modest in his habits, never wore jewelry, and no one ever saw him before he was fully dressed. He was extremely neat, clean, and tidy. In his younger days, before he came to prominence, he shared his modest living quarters with some mice, whose company he enjoyed and whom he used to feed. He was not acquisitive and his two favorite possessions were a couple of police dogs, which he adored. Who was this paragon of moderate habits? His name was Adolph Hitler. According to Flanner her subject “...accepts violence as a detail of state...mercy is not his affair with men, yet he is kind to dumb animals.” In its June 1, 1998 issue, The New Yorker published an article about the Dalai Lama, which was written by Lynda Liu. His Holiness was in New York to lead a teaching for about a hundred Buddhist monks, and Ms. Liu was interested in His Eating Habits. A very upscale vegetarian restaurant had been engaged to cater three luncheons during the Dalai Lama’s visit, and Ms. Liu reported that the restaurant’s staff was very excited about the opportunity. Unfortunately, whoever made the decisions about the type of food to order for the meals neglected to find out what kind of food His Holiness actually eats. During a lunch break, Ms. Liu interviewed two of the Tibetan monks who live at the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamsala, India. Tenzin Thokme told her: “We are not vegetarian. We are flexible.” Fellow monk Salden Kunga was resigned as he contemplated his rice fettucini and brown rice lunch: “If somebody offers you food with good faith, and you don’t take it, how will he feel?” Tenzin said, “This food tastes very good, but I would prefer a little more salt.” Selden then added:”It’s not to my taste, but since somebody offered it to me with honor, I try to like it. I make myself enjoy it. I use my mind to enjoy the food.” The attitude of these monks mirrored the attitude of the Buddha, who begged for his food and ate what was offered to him. Though a vegetarian diet is common in the East Asian Buddhist tradition, vegetarianism never caught on in Tibet where the mountains are very steep and easily eroded, the frigid climate is not conducive to growing much of anything, and there is an almost total shortage of supermarkets and grocery stores. Consequently, most Tibetans live on a diet of barley, the meat and milk from yaks, and a few hardy vegetables. Apparently the Dalai Lama attempted to live on a vegetarian diet for several years, but his health began to suffer and his doctor insisted that he return to eating meat. The Dalai Lama did not eat his box lunch. When he returned to his room at the Waldorf Towers, he ordered a steak, well-done, from room service.

OUTTAKE #8, Cleaning for Show

August 24, 2009
A short while ago I taped an organic housekeeping segment for a television show in Winnipeg. The producer/star of the show had given me only a sketchy idea of what I was expected to do, and I have an extremely deficient memory, so it is quite easy to trip me up. I was quite disconcerted when just before taping began, I was informed that when the crew was setting up the klieg lights for the taping, and turned them on for the first time, they had discovered a previously invisible light brown stain on the beige couch. (The show was being taped in the host's home.) No one knew what the stain was or how long it had been there, and I was supposed to remove the stain during the show. I had hoped to be able to demonstrate the amazing efficacy of a domestic steam-cleaner, but unfortunately, one was not to be had that day in Winnipeg. Not surprisingly, I failed to remove the stain. Here are my feelings about cleaning: 1) If you can't see a stain unless you throw a thousand-watt spotlight on it, turn off the spotlight. (This philosophy also applies to skin blemishes and wrinkles. Almost everyone over the age of ten would be happier if all the lightbulbs above mirrors were lower wattage.) 2) If it's not bothering you, leave it alone. 3) If it's not dirty, don't clean it. 4) If there's still shiny wax on it, don't rewax it. Too much wax is not a good thing. 5) Don't ever take a swipe at a cleaning chore that you don't want to completely finish. I learned this from a young woman who told me that she had recently bought a home steam-cleaner. She was showing it off to her husband, and took a random swipe at their living room wall. The steam cleaner worked so well that it made a stripe that was significantly lighter than the surrounding wall. The owner of the new appliance said, "%?*%@!!! Now I have to clean the whole wall!” Embrace the dust bunny and live a longer, healthier, happier life.

OUTTAKE #9, Make a Little Something Out of Nothing

August 24, 2009
The Buffalo/Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau informs us that Buffalo Chicken Wings were invented on Saturday, March 4, 1964, by Teressa Bellisimo, at The Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention: a horde of hungry teenagers had accompanied her son to the family establishment, and there were a lot of chicken wings hanging around waiting to be discarded. Before this momentous date at The Anchor Bar, chicken wings had been considered a waste product. Ms. Bellisimo deep-fried the chicken wings, smothered them in a spicy sauce, and served them with celery and blue cheese. And a culinary star was born. The Anchor Bar has become world famous and still sells more than a thousand pounds of chicken wings each day. The National Buffalo Wing Festival was started in 2002 in order to celebrate the contributions of the Buffalo Chicken Wing to culinary history. More than 329,000 people flocked to Buffalo during the first seven festivals, where they consumed more than 110 tons of chicken wings (approximately 2 million wings) more than $105,000 was raised for charity.

OUTTAKE #12, A Charming Little Story

August 24, 2009
A friend shared this charming little story with me after she read the “Toilet Rats” section of Organic Housekeeping: One cold winter day, a woman who lived in Superior, Wisconsin surprised a rat in her toilet bowl. The startled rat climbed out of the toilet, whereupon the homeowners chased the dripping rat around and around the house. The creature finally dashed out the door and climbed the nearest tall object, which was a metal clothes pole. The wet rat froze to the metal pole. Sewer rats follow plumes of food waste back to their origins. If you would rather not find a rodent swimming in your toilet bowl, don’t dispose of food in the garbage disposal, and never flush food down the toilet. All the wastewater exits a home in the same sewer pipe.

OUTTAKE #10, Make a Lot of Something Out of Nothing

August 24, 2009
Jeno Paulucci was born in Aurora, Minnesota in 1918, to Ettore and Michelin Paulucci, who had emigrated from Italy six years earlier. His family was very poor even before the onset of the Great Depression, which hit when he was eleven. When he was still very young, Jeno began contributing to the family by pulling a homemade wagon down to the railroad tracks where he could gather stray lumps of coal that could be used to heat the house. By the age of ten he was hawking fruits and vegetables at a local market, and at age sixteen he became a barker on Duluth’s produce row. In one legendary incident, Paulucci was able to sell eighteen crates of very brown bananas by shouting: “Get your Argentine bananas. You’ll never see bananas like this again.” The young man was such a loud and enthusiastic barker that the city of Duluth passed an ordinance banning barkers at fruit stands. While serving in the military during World War II, Jeno noticed that his fellow soldiers loved Chinese food. When he returned home after the war, he found that the only canned Chinese food that was available was extremely bland. He also discovered that some local Japanese-Americans were growing bean sprouts, which were a major component of Chinese food. In 1947, noting that “You could buy mung beans at five cents a pound and turn it into eight pounds of sprouts," Paulucci decided to enter the canned Chinese food business. But he asked his Italian mother to help him spice up his product in order to enhance its flavor. He was unable to secure a bank loan to start up his business, so he borrowed $2,500 from a friend and started Chun King. Paulucci’s philosophy of business consisted of the following two sentences: “Cut out the middleman,” and “Take advantage of waste.” In keeping with this philosophy, Paulucci traveled to Florida to visit farms, where he discovered that the celery was trimmed evenly in order to fit into crates for shipping. He contracted with celery growers to buy their celery-trimmings for a large discount. (These trimmings probably greatly enhanced the flavor of his chow mein, because the leaves at the top of the stalk are far more flavorful than the stalks themselves.) Celery is another one of the main components of chow mein, so armed with this substantial reduction in costs, Paulucci was able to undercut the prices of all his competitors. Paulucci’s company grew its own mushrooms locally, and when he realized out that though the mushroom compost was good for only one mushroom crop, the spent compost was still very good for growing other plants, Paulucci began selling the spent mushroom compost for potting soil, and made a big profit. By the 1960s, Chun King was the leading brand of Chinese food in the United States, but the company was expanding so rapidly that quality control began to suffer. Eventually Chun King’s largest customer, a grocery chain called Food Fair, threatened to discontinue carrying the Chun King brand. Paulucci flew out to Philadelphia to meet with Food Fair’s head buyer. But when Paulucci opened a can to demonstrate Chun King’s high quality, he looked into the can and stared deeply into the bulging eyes of a large canned grasshopper. Before the client could see it, Paulucci reached into the can, removed the grasshopper, popped it into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and smiled. Food Fair didn’t cancel the contract, Chun King kept growing, and in 1966 Paulucci sold Chun King to R.J. Reynolds for $63 million in cash. Moral of the story: If you can figure out what to do with a material that everyone else throws away, you may become wealthy.

OUTAKE #11, Dangerously Exotic

August 24, 2009
Trade has been an integral component of human culture ever since the Stone Age, when people began trading their surplus goods, food, or raw materials for items that they could not produce themselves. It still makes perfect sense to import foods that are so exotic or specialized that they are not produced domestically, for example: French cheeses, Belgian lambic beer, papayas, or bananas; or if the imported foods are superior in quality to their domestic counterparts. Beware of products that are unbelievably cheap, they may not be what they seem. When there is intense pressure at the production end to cut costs, and regulation is lax at the receiving end, tragedies may occur. In 2006, diethylene glycol, a sweet, poisonous substance that is used in antifreeze, was mixed into 260,000 bottles of cold syrup in Panama. The forty-six barrels of diethylene glycol had originated in China. Enterprising Chinese enterprising counterfeiters often substitute the poisonous diethylene glycol for the nontoxic and much more expensive pharmaceutical-grade glycerine that it closely resembles. The barrels had changed hands, companies, and countries many times during their voyage, the shipping records had been altered each time, and no one had bothered to test the contents of the barrels, which were labeled “glycerine.” The reported death toll from the poisoned cough syrup was 365. Toxic cough syrup has also caused mass poisonings in Haiti, Bangladesh, Argentina, Nigeria, and India. One weekend in May 2007, Eduardo Arias, a mid-level government worker who reviewed environmental reports, went to a discount store in Panama City that was reputed to have such low prices that the street vendors bought their wares there. As Mr. Arias stepped into the store, a large display of toothpaste caught his eye and stopped him dead in his tracks. He said, “Without touching the tube, the letters were big enough for me to read: diethylene glycol. It was inconceivable to me that a known toxic substance that killed all these people could be openly on sale and that people would go on about their business calmly, selling and buying this stuff,” Mr. Arias bought a tube, then used up one of his vacation days the next day in order to walk the tube to the nearest Health Ministry office where he was directed to a second health center where he filled out a form and left his tube of toxic toothpaste. Three days later, Panama’s top health official announced that toothpaste containing diethylene glycol had been found by an unidentified shopper in Panama City. The label on the toothpaste did not list its country of origin, though markings suggested that it originated in Germany. Shipping records revealed that the toothpaste had actually been made in China, and that 5,000 to 6,000 tubes of the poisonous toothpaste had been slipped into Panama hidden in a shipment of animal products. Many more tubes had been shipped to other countries throughout the Americas. On June 1, the United States announced that tubes of toxic toothpaste had been found within its borders. Eventually investigators discovered that some tubes of tainted toothpaste did not list diethylene glycol on their labels, and some counterfeited tubes of Colgate and Sensodyne were discovered that contained the poison. When Glaxo Smith Kline, the manufacturer of Sensodyne, traced the counterfeit toothpaste to a factory in Zhejiang Province, the Chinese government shut it down. The Chinese chemical company that produced the diethylene glycol that had poisoned the cough syrup in Panama was also shut down by the Chinese authorities.

OUTTAKE #13, Beware of HOAs

August 24, 2009
In September of 2005, residents of the Majestic Oaks subdivision in Ocala, Florida, were informed by their homeowners association that their deed restrictions prohibited them from welcoming Hurricane Katrina evacuees into their homes. A minister in the community had traveled to New Orleans in order to bring back three families who had lost their homes; when board members learned of the minister’s intent, they immediately sent out a warning flyer to each of homes in the subdivision. Apparently refugees are bad for property values. An article in the Tampa Tribune in June 2008, told the sad tale of the Green family, who lived in a subdivision in Texas until 2005, when Mr. Green’s health deteriorated, and he was forced to quit his job and go on disability. The family’s finances suffered, and they fell behind on their dues to their homeowner’s association. The HOA board placed a lien on the house for $264 in November 2006, and their debt eventually grew to $580 in back dues. The HOA board and its president refused to negotiate with the Greens, and insisted on being paid a lump sum. In April 2007, the HOA filed a foreclosure lawsuit against the Greens. The court set a foreclosure sale for September 26, and the HOA purchased the Green’s home for $100. The Greens moved to a rental house four miles away. “These are neighbors,” said Mr. Green, “Neighbors are supposed to be compassionate.” The HOA tried to sell the property, but was unsuccessful. The Association then decided against making the mortgage payments, and the lender repossessed the home. The Green’s house is now sitting empty. According to lawyers who represent hundreds of homeowners and HOAs, instances of HOAs seizing homes in order to recoup a few hundred dollars in fines or dues, have increased tenfold in Florida in the past four years.

OUTTAKE #14, Stick Together at the Office

August 24, 2009
One of the best things you can do for your own occupational health is to stop suffering quietly. If you have been having splitting headaches only while at work, rather than just quietly swallowing your pain and your aspirins, talk to your co-workers. Find out whether anyone else is having similar symptoms. Keep a journal of your workdays so you can track when the symptons began—for example, did you begin to feel ill after you were moved to the cubicle next to the copy machine? Pay attention to whether your symptoms disappear when you are not at work. (Bear in mind that stress can cause symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches.) Then, if you still suspect that conditions in your workplace are making you ill, go to an Occupational Medicine physician or clinic. Do not go to a general practitioner. Occupational Medicine specialists are trained to do detailed evaluations of a patient’s occupational history, and general practitioners are not. Better yet, go to the Occupational Health Clinic along with co-workers who are having similar health problems, and compare notes. The more documentation you can build up, the better your chances of making changes in your workplace. To find your nearest Occupational Health Clinic, go to the website for the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, If you are a union member, your union can help make sure the necessary changes are made in your workplace, and you will be protected from being fired or otherwise punished for complaining. If you are not a union member, Sick Building Syndrome will be much more difficult to deal with, and you will definitely need the help of your co-workers. Non-unionized workers have very few legal rights in this area, because most of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) air quality standards deal with acute health effects, (meaning toxins that will make people keel over dead right on the factory floor) not with less toxic contaminants that cause chronic discomfort or illness. All workers have the legal right to contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and request a Health Hazard Evaluation. This evaluation is conducted free of charge and may be requested by employers, employees, and their representatives. Health Hazards that the inspectors search for include unsafe noise levels, chemical and biological toxins, dangerous equipment, and inadequate ventilation systems. Unfortunately, though you have the legal right to request an evaluation, if you do not belong to a union, there are no federal laws to prevent your employer from firing you for it. Talk to your co-workers. You need to stick together. If you are an employer, talk to your workers--healthy workers are more productive.

OUTTAKE #15, Tiny Co-workers

August 24, 2009
If you are extremely worried about the bacteria on your office telephone or computer, stop and think hard about where those bacteria came from. If you are the only one who uses this equipment, and you wash your hands at reasonable intervals, the bacteria are your very own and are quite unlikely to do you harm. If you are worried about acquiring hitchhiking microbes, you might want to invest in a copper bracelet that you can roll between your hands in order to calm yourself(copper kills bacteria). But if your office equipment is visibly soiled, you can use a clean microfiber cloth just barely dampened with water to wipe down most hard plastic surfaces.

OUTTAKE #16, The Barbarian At Work

August 24, 2009
"If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" -- Albert Einstein In his book, “The Private World of Pablo Picasso,” David Douglas Duncan wrote: "There was but one Great Law in that house: DO NOT MOVE ANYTHING! Everything had its place and even its own dust pattern. To move anything out of its place, or pattern, might easily destroy a composition, unseen by anyone else, which Picasso had been watching, thinking about, and turning over into other forms in his mind.” The artist’s studio was famous for its menagerie of dogs, goats, pigeons, and chickens. Picasso produced more than 20,000 drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures and photographs during his very long career, so he obviously knew a thing or two about how to keep his creative juices flowing. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the Japanese artist who created “The Great Wave,” produced more than 30,000 woodblock prints and fifteen volumes of manga (random sketches) that contained more than forty-thousand individual sketches. He also illustrated five hundred books and painted innumerable ink paintings. Hokusai led a lively life: married twice, fathered a son and two daughters, and changed his name twenty times, each time to commemorate a change in his artistic style. He also packed up and moved to a different house ninety-three times, each time because his old residence had gotten so dirty and messy that he could not function. Apparently housekeeping and art were not compatible. Many scientific discoveries have been made by accident, and those accidents depended upon a bit of messy serendipity: In 1882, Dr. Sydney Ringer of University College Hospital, London, was attempting to keep frogs’ hearts alive in a solution of pure sodium chloride in pure water. The hearts kept beating for only a short time, though Ringer had very carefully formulated the solution so that it had the same concentration of sodium chloride as frogs’ blood. Then one day a disembodied frog’s heart kept beating for several hours in the solution. Ringer was puzzled until the laboratory boy made a confession: he had used tap water rather than distilled water to make the solution. The tap water happened to add just the right proportions of calcium and potassium to make a reasonable facsimile for frog plasma. Ringer’s solution is still used in medical and biological research. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a young bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, returned from a month-long vacation, and discovered that the petri dishes of staphylococcus cultures in his laboratory sink had been invaded by mold, and the mold was killing the bacteria. A neater, more methodical investigator than Fleming might have cleaned up his laboratory before going on vacation. The penicillin mold would not have invaded his petri dishes, and he would not have been the first to discover antibiotics. Physicist-turned-biologist Max Delbrück coined the phrase “the Principle of Limited Sloppiness,” and recommended that researchers should be “sloppy enough so that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that we can’t find out that it did.” If your work depends upon absolute accuracy and order, a disorderly workplace is probably not a good idea, but if your work demands creativity, a touch of Limited Sloppiness may behelpful.