Why My Characters’ Zip Code Matters

Teenager_Boy_clip_art_mediumEnrique, a youth living in Tucson’s poorest neighborhood, begins his life with “the cards” stacked against realization of his dreams. Caught in a web of drug traffickers who recruit disadvantaged youth in his barrio, he navigates each day as one in a war zone with the goal to survive between sun up and sun down. Yet like each of us, he has innate potential that, under supporting circumstances, can change his life.

On the back stoop in the alleyway, he lit a cigarette, drawing deeply, breathing out a cloud, letting the afternoon sun warm his chest and arms. His thoughts turned to friends who had joined Bloods Southwest. He decided to talk to Pepe tomorrow at school. Then he went back inside to do his math homework. At least he could work numbers with no problem. He liked that math was governed by rules that never changed, and when he sought answers, he could always work them out.                                                ~ Threshold (2016), Fireship Press, Tucson, AZ

Research shows that a person’s zip code predicts how healthy they will be, how long they may live, what degree they may earn in school, and the size of their pay check. Your zip code can predict your chance of being obese, asthmatic, a drug addict or alcoholic, whether your baby is likely to be born prematurely or with a disability — and even how likely it is that you will live past age 5.

Where you live is a powerful determinant of your life outcomes. What’s more, your zip code may determine how resilient you can be as climate change advances.

How can we end this terrible injustice? Read Threshold to learn how characters find solutions.

 

The Fate of Jaguars: Juma and Duma

Jaguar SilhouetteThe  Olympic Games in Brazil may be remembered most for the list of woes it has accumulated as Rio 2016 approaches the August games. Now the death of a jaguar has cast a longer shadow over the event.

Images of a jaguar in a heavy metal collar and chains as the Olympic flame was passed from one runner to the next were quickly followed by news of the animal’s death. Juma, a 17-year old jaguar born into captivity at a zoo on a military base, was apparently brought out to provide a dramatic image at the Olympic ceremony. When he escaped and approached a soldier, he was shot and killed. As the public learned of Juma’s death. it caused worldwide outrage.

In my novel, Threshold, Duma is a jaguar born in the Sky Islands–mountain ranges that span the U.S. – Mexico border. He wanders into an area near Nogales, Arizona where surrounding cattle and sheep ranches lure him closer to human settlements. Duma is sighted and captured. Readers follow him from one facility to another while his fate is determined.

The role of zoos and aquariums is being reconsidered as the public is less comfortable with animals on exhibit. Is there a new role for zoos in the 21st century?

Research with dolphins, grey parrots, chimpanzees, and elephants, among others, show these fellow earthlings share similar life’s experiences as humans do. The movie Blackfish which revealed the stresses on killer whales in captivity, and the recent killing of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, are just two recent examples that have furthered discussions about our responsibilities to the animals we love to see at zoos and enjoy knowing may still inhabit natural areas.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, an AZA accredited institution, is one of several settings in Threshold. As the story unfolds, readers learn that climate change is causing stress on animals and keepers alike. The Desert Museum is a leader in care and exhibition of animals for public education.                                     Explore ASDM’s website and publications to learn more.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT THE ROLE OF ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS. POST YOUR COMMENTS ON THIS POST.

Update: Here is the latest in a discussion at the Center for Humans and Nature:

Zoos as Gateways

Excessive Heat: Have We Passed a Threshold?

Threshold book coverAll across southern California and the Colorado River Lower Basin in Arizona as far south as northern Mexico, an excessive heat warning has been declared by the National Weather Service for the next 4-5 days.

Phoenix is expected to reach temps as high as 120 degrees — well above the norm for this time of year.

In my soon-to-be-released novel, Threshold, heat and evaporating water supply are two threatening conditions that impinge on characters. While the book is set in the “very near future”, the plot is contemporary and presupposes what might happen in a metropolitan city like Tucson, Arizona.

The impacts of climate change will be felt differently across a city or region depending on a person’s personal resources, both financial and social. I wrote the story in Threshold to explore what might happen, and allowed characters to tell me what they would do.

Enrique dabbed his grandmother’s face with cold water, but her breathing grew shallow. He ran to fill the tub with water. But when he turned on the faucet, no water came out. In a panic now, he returned to his grandmother. . . It took him a few seconds to comprehend what had happened.

WILL A “NEW NORMAL” SPUR INNOVATION?

The Citizen’s Guide for Resilience to Climate Extremes is a planning guide for neighborhoods to increase their resiliency and to institute climate solutions such as planting trees for shade and making walk-able, bike-able neighborhoods. It is a community-based model any city will find useful to mobilize citizen’s for climate change.

Check back to read Guest Bloggers from Tucson and the Southwestern region. 

 

Right of Passage in a Monsoon Storm

moth-daturacroppedWhen I fist moved to Tucson, Arizona, I was new to the high desert. Biologists refer to its flora and fauna as “lush”–a term that up until then I would not have chosen for a desert.

Through colleagues at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I learned about a poetry reading at University of Arizona by Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, 

Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.

The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read.  I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.

She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.

After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself.  I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.

 

Beverly and Jennifer Acierno Special Education Scholarship

Please help us build this fund. The first scholarship was awarded to Brittany Piper who is studying for an MA in Exceptional Student Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Therapy.

Online Home of Susan Feathers

Veterans' Day 2013 062In 2010 my sister Beverly Acierno passed away unexpectedly. She had recently retired from the Escambia County Public School District where she served as a Learning Disabilities teacher (the county’s first) and later helped develop and manage the program. For so many years we heard about her students, about her advocacy for students and their families in court, and the trips and presentations she made on behalf of the ECPSD. My family and I met many colleagues at her funeral and listened as they remembered Beverly’s passion for kids. One said, “It’s an end of an era; they just don’t make them that way anymore.”

My Niece, Jennifer Acierno Theisen, spent many of her schools days in the same school building as her mother. They were a pair. Jenny was an excellent student, eventually graduating from Washington High School. She earned a scholarship to Florida State University to study performance art, and later transferred…

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Have we traded for something of lesser value?

Little handsIs an education replete of nature literacy of lesser value than an education which incorporates values and skills that enable a person to live responsibly within nature?

Reflecting on meeting a woman who held a doctoral degree, but who admitted that she was unaware of the annual migration of cranes in her own state, Aldo Leopold questioned whether modern education has “traded for something of lesser value”. He said this in the context of being aware, of paying attention to the goings and comings of wildlife and seasons, and by that, knowing fundamentally where you live and how to live there without destroying it.

David Orr goes further by asking What is Education For?

This is not an argument for ignorance but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival-the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.

Orr points out in this essay that its educated people who are most destructive to the Earth and ecosystems. What went wrong?

What do you think? Should education ensure that all American students will graduate knowing their place within the natural world, and understanding the responsibilities therein? Would you consider that kind of education basic literacy? Higher education? Why or why not?

Other Interesting Reading Along These Lines:

Richard Louv: The Nature Principle

What 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us

Pinterest: Nature Journals

E.F. Schumacher – Why We Need Him Now

E. F. Schmacher, British Economist best known to the U.S. public in the 1970’s with publication of Small is Beautiful and Small is Possible, developed economic models based on scale. His basic idea: past a particular size, true profit declines and true costs rise – thus the title “Small is Beautiful.”

He also clarified that shared ownership of the means of production is key to equitable distribution of wealth and development of healthy communities.

The New Economic Institute (previously the E.F. Schumacher Society) includes several excellent videos and articles by new economics thinkers and teachers. Go to the link and take time to listen or read. These visionaries describe likely scenarios about where our cultures and global community are moving with economic collapse around the world and with climate changes continuing to play havoc with community resiliency.

Profitability as the sole goal of corporate behavior is addressed by Neva Goodwin, Tufts University.  She discusses Walmart’s discovery that being ecologically responsible is profitable. However, her discussion is realistic about the kind of deep change that is necessary and how the likelihood of many people being harmed again by corporate excesses is predictable.  She offers a way to use corporate charters to shape corporate behavior. Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is a group she cites that is using a new community led strategy that creates municipal ordinances.  These ban corporate control of land, water, and other natural resources that are critical to life and health.  How can we make money and profits flow to the most responsible companies that protect human and ecological well being? Many examples of new economic structures are described using real companies that ARE making a profit while doing good in society.

Small Victories: Sea Turtles Released

GSML_Kemp's Ridleys Release 025People arrive haphazardly in twos and threes and ones. By the gazebo, under its shade with six folding chairs lined up empty, and a standing mike on the other side, people gather. The sea grasses along the wet sand beach move with a gentle current, soft breeze, and welcome cool.

“Today you get to see an endangered animal, a sea turtle, that is one of the rarest in the world, Jimmy,” his mother whispered near me. Jimmy appears to be about four years old. His eyes are wide dark orbs taking in the great round world.

We wade into the water up to the yellow tape that creates a watery avenue the turtles will navigate to open bay. The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab releases sea turtles after they are rehabilitated from injuries, most at human hands. Today six Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles will be released into Dickerson Bay at Shell Point Beach, Florida.

At Shell Point Beach, FL
At Shell Point Beach, FL

A short, tan man with a shock of white thick hair wades out into the water in clogs, and a light blue suit, white shirt, and tie. He is the charismatic founder of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, Jack Rudloe. This blue suit is the signal that another turtle release is about to happen.

Charlotte comes first, held by a university biology student, her flaxen pony tail swinging with energy. I can tell she is as thrilled as each of us watching. After telling the audience about the turtle’s rescue and recovery, she places Charlotte in the water to navigate the red carpet to the Gulf.

The turtles released today were helped by the Pier Initiative managed by the Loggerhead Marine Center in Jupiter Beach. GSML is a partner. Signs with information for fishermen and boaters, and a special net, help turtle recovery without further injury.

Five more Kemp’s Ridley’s turtles make their farewell, one after the other. People applaud. Six biological treasures go their way, hopefully to multiply and enjoy life on Earth. Everyone chats, feeling good about a wrong righted.

The sun is soft behind the clouds over the Gulf of Mexico. We depart in twos, threes, and ones. The work goes on.

The Heart of Our Democracy

FreedomEducation is the focus of my professional life. My ideas about education – what it is and what is should be – have evolved.  Formal education, as in public schools, colleges, and graduate schools, is under constant revision in our democracy. Ideas change as the society-wide discussion continues.

Our country knows that an education is at the heart of a democracy.  Without informed citizens, a democracy cannot out last tyrannical and opportunistic forces. Education develops our best nature while ignorance breeds the opposite.

In its simplest form, education is a framework for learning. Children learn to attend. From the self-directed learning of childhood, the classroom and teacher focus their attention to particular facts and phenomena.  Children are taught to use tools for discovery, primarily mathematics and reading.

In the early days of education we were satisfied that kids would grow into adults who could read well enough to understand voting instructions and could sign their name in cursive. Later, we became more ambitious. Courses of study made it possible for average citizens to attain higher levels of performance for career tracks that moved them from blue collar to white collar work, or to scholarly levels of study.

Education became a means of social and economic equality in America.

Education in our public schools today is still very goal oriented but may have lost track of the original idea: that educated adults help preserve a democratic society. With the advent of the Internet, increasingly finer discernment is required of students in complex learning environments, and a complex, interconnected global community.

Social media offers students sophisticated tools for communication – perhaps beyond their intellectual and emotional development. Technology is driving society—proven to be an upside down relationship.

The role of the teacher has returned to guide and the classroom to a framework for learning. Students explore their own interests using online tools that transform learning. Teachers and curriculum need transforming, too, to meet students in the new learning reality. How will technology aid or hamper our democracy?

What do you think?

Resources for Exploring This Topic

Alive Enough? Reflecting on Our Technology – an interview with Dr. Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Science of Science and Technology at M.I.T.

How Technology Is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus – Psychology Today Online, article by Dr. Jim Taylor, December, 2012.

The Science of Attention – interview with Dr. Adele Diamond, Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

NEA Policy Statement on Digital Learningdiscusses the recognition of the new learning environment and changing role of teachers but cautions that education leaders need direct the uses of the technology as opposed to private owners of new technologies.

Silence: Near Extinction?

Last Day in the Woods 049Gordon Hempton tracks silence. Far from a vacuum of sound, Gordon explains that silence is the “absence of noise.” During a 2012 recorded interview by Krista Tibbett, Hempton said that silence is on the verge of extinction, and that silence is now measured by intervals where there is no noise. There are only 12 places in the U.S. where there is silence for 15 minute intervals (without the interruption of noise). None of them are protected according to Hempton.

Click here for the 2012 interview with Tibbett on OnBeing.org. Very thoughtful exploration of the role of natural sound in our quality of life, ability to be present, and about human impact on the earth.

Click here for Gordon Hempton’s Website with a video of his 30-year tracking of silence around the world, and tracks of the sounds of silence.