Through June 9, 2013May 23rd, 2013
Close encounters with Hans Richter
Through September 2, 2013
By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ and CHARLES DUHIGG
NY Times Published: May 20, 2013
WASHINGTON — Even as Apple became the nation’s most profitable technology company, it avoided billions in taxes in the United States and around the world through a web of subsidiaries so complex it spanned continents and went beyond anything most experts had ever seen, Congressional investigators disclosed on
Congressional investigators found that some of Apple’s subsidiaries had no employees and were largely run by top officials from the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. But by officially locating them in places like Ireland, Apple was able to, in effect, make them stateless — exempt from taxes, record-keeping laws and the need for the subsidiaries to even file tax returns anywhere in the world.
“Apple wasn’t satisfied with shifting its profits to a low-tax offshore tax haven,” said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that is holding the public hearing Tuesday into Apple’s use of tax havens. “Apple successfully sought the holy grail of tax avoidance. It has created offshore entities holding tens of billions of dollars while claiming to be tax resident nowhere.”
Thanks to what lawmakers called “gimmicks” and “schemes,” Apple was able to largely sidestep taxes on tens of billions of dollars it earned outside the United States in recent years. Last year, international operations accounted for 61 percent of Apple’s total revenue.
Investigators have not accused Apple of breaking any laws and the company is hardly the only American multinational to face scrutiny for using complex corporate structures and tax havens to sidestep taxes. In recent months, revelations from European authorities about the tax avoidance strategies used by Google, Starbucks and Amazon have all stirred public anger and spurred several European governments, as well as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research organization for the world’s richest countries, to discuss measures to close the loopholes.
Still, the findings about Apple were remarkable both for the enormous amount of money involved and the audaciousness of the company’s assertion that its subsidiaries are beyond the reach of any taxing authority.
“There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this,” said Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and a former staff director at the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. “Unbelievable chutzpah.”
While Apple’s strategy is unusual in its scope and effectiveness, it underscores how riddled with loopholes the American corporate tax code has become, critics say. At the same time, it shows how difficult it will be for Washington to overhaul the tax system.
Over all, Apple’s tax avoidance efforts shifted at least $74 billion from the reach of the Internal Revenue Service between 2009 and 2012, the investigators said. That cash remains offshore, but Apple, which paid more than $6 billion in taxes in the United States last year on its American operations, could still have to pay federal taxes on it if the company were to return the money to its coffers in the United States.
John McCain of Arizona, who is the panel’s senior Republican, said: “Apple claims to be the largest U.S. corporate taxpayer, but by sheer size and scale, it is also among America’s largest tax avoiders.”
In prepared testimony expected to be delivered to the Senate committee by Mr. Cook and other Apple executives on Tuesday, the company said it “welcomes an objective examination of the U.S. corporate tax system, which has not kept pace with the advent of the digital age and the rapidly changing global economy.”
The executives plan to tell the lawmakers that Apple does not use tax gimmicks, according to the prepared testimony.
Mr. Cook is also expected to argue that some of Apple’s largest subsidiaries do not reduce Apple’s tax liability, and to press for a sweeping overhaul of the United States corporate tax code — in particular, by lowering rates on companies moving foreign overseas earnings back to the United States. Apple currently assigns more than $100 billion to offshore subsidiaries.
Atop Apple’s offshore network is a subsidiary named Apple Operations International, which is incorporated in Ireland — where Apple had negotiated a special corporate tax rate of 2 percent or less in recent years — but keeps its bank accounts and records in the United States and holds board meetings in California.
Because the United States bases residency on where companies are incorporated, while Ireland focuses on where they are managed and controlled, Apple Operations International was able to fall neatly between the cracks of the two countries’ jurisdictions.
Apple Operations International has not filed a tax return in Ireland, the United States or any other country over the last five years. It had income of $30 billion between 2009 and 2012. By shuttling revenue between international subsidiaries, Apple was able largely to sidestep paying taxes, Congressional investigators said.
In the prepared testimony, Apple executives disputed the characterization of Apple Operations International. “A.O.I. performs important business functions that facilitate and enhance Apple’s success in international markets,” the testimony states. “It is not a shell company.”
The Senate investigators also found evidence that the company turned over substantially less money to the government than its public filings indicated.
While the company cited an effective rate of 24 to 32 percent in its disclosures, its effective tax rate was 20.1 percent, based on the committee’s findings. And for a company of Apple’s size, the resulting difference was substantial — more than $8 billion in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Because of these strategies, tax experts say, Washington is forced to rely more and heavily on payroll taxes and individual income taxes to finance the government’s operations. For example, in 2011, individual income taxes contributed $1.1 trillion to federal coffers, while corporate taxes added up to $181 billion.
As companies’ earnings have accumulated offshore, many executives have been pushing more aggressively for a tax holiday that would allow them to bring back funds at lower tax rates. Apple has recently announced that it will return $100 billion to shareholders over three years through a combination of dividends and purchases of its own shares. Though Apple has enough cash on hand to pay for those initiatives, the company recently announced it would take on $17 billion in debt, rather than bring overseas money back to the United States to avoid paying repatriation taxes on those returning funds.
“If Apple had used its overseas cash to fund this return of capital, the funds would have been diminished by the very high corporate U.S. tax rate of 35 percent,” Mr. Cook is planning to testify, according to the prepared text. Apple “believes the current system, which applies industrial era concepts to a digital economy, actually undermines U.S. competitiveness.”
Critics, however, say these so-called repatriation holidays, which bring back funds at lower tax rates, do virtually nothing to stimulate the economy and benefit only corporations, their executives and shareholders. Congress enacted a repatriation holiday in 2004, allowing corporations to bring back about $300 billion from overseas and pay just 5.25 percent rather than the regular 35 percent corporate rate.
But a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 92 percent of the repatriated cash was used to pay for dividends, share buybacks or executive bonuses.
“Repatriations did not lead to an increase in domestic investment, employment or R.&D., even for the firms that lobbied for the tax holiday stating these intentions,” concluded the study, which was conducted by a team of three economists that included a former Bush administration official. Tuesday’s hearing on Capitol Hill, along with the disclosures about Apple’s tax policies, are likely to make lowering repatriation taxes a more difficult proposition for lawmakers to stomach, Congressional staff members said.
On Capitol Hill Monday, legislators made plain their fury over what they called Apple’s “egregious” and “outrageous” conduct.
While other companies have taken advantage of loopholes, Mr. Levin said, “I’ve never seen anything like this and we don’t know anybody who’s seen anything like this.”May 21st, 2013
The percentage of registered voters who cast a ballot in L.A.’s mayoral elections peaked in the late 1960s and has declined to historic lows, according to a Times analysis of 100 years of city election results. Maybe this year we will hit 25% ???
By Steve Lopez
The LA Times Published May 18, 2013
No, wait, don’t turn the page.
Yes, I’ll admit it. This is yet another column on Tuesday’s election in Los Angeles, the race half the city doesn’t care about and the other half hasn’t heard about, but DO NOT turn the page.
OK, I’ll give you $5 to read this. All right, make it $10.
Would you stay with me for $20 if I promise Randy Newman’s going to make a cameo?
Sure, you’ve got your reasons for tuning out. Some of you think Wendy Garcetti and Eric Greuel are the same person, so it doesn’t matter which of them is the next mayor.
Wait, did I get the names wrong?
If so, how many readers would even know? Did you see our story last week that said Los Angeles has 2 million registered voters and 1.6 million of them probably won’t vote?
Shameful, but it’s not their fault we didn’t have the sense to put the polling places at car washes, coffee shops and 24-hour fitness centers.
All right, I get it. L.A.’s too cool to vote. And to be fair, I checked the rest of the country, and we’re not alone when it comes to political apathy. The turnout for local elections has been declining across the United States for several decades.
Why? Lots of reasons, from changing demographics to affluent indifference to a cynical conviction that they’re all crooks anyway so why bother?
To be honest, I’m turned off myself, and insulted too.
For all the hundreds of solid stories sizing up the candidates, their records and their promises, a good chunk of people know nothing beyond what they get from mailers, TV and radio ads. And this kind of stuff is based on the notion that we’re all idiots who’d believe anything we’re told.
Add up all the millions of dollars spent on advertising — much of it from Super PACs — in the campaigns for mayor, city attorney, City Council and city controller, and you’ll understand why a stink hangs over the city from Pacoima to Pedro.
Last week, a Greuel backer spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on a TV ad trying to convince us that Eric Garcetti is lying about being Latino. Meanwhile, Garcetti backers would have you believe that Greuel all but co-wrote Proposition 187 with former Gov. Pete Wilson, when in fact she voted against Wilson and 187.
Exaggeration, distortion, manipulation. Those have been the daily specials week after week and month after month, so, yes, I understand why the turnout was under 21% in the primary and might not be any better in the runoff.
But here’s the deal: The city’s many problems exist in part because City Hall is controlled by a few powerful special interests, and when fewer and fewer of us vote or pay attention to the way business is conducted at 1st and Main, those interests become even more powerful.
Last week, City Hall reporter David Zahniser had a story that beautifully explained how things work here in Chinatown, Jake.
The story explained that an advertising company that sued the city two months ago for the right to install new digital billboards in Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake, Glassell Park and the Fairfax district, among other places, has “financed scores of billboards for candidates in the May 21 election — 100 for mayoral hopeful Wendy Greuel, 100 for city controller candidate Dennis Zine and 20 apiece for City Council candidates Curren Price, Nury Martinez and Gil Cedillo.”
And I’m not singling out those candidates, because it’s not like everyone else is pure. But if at some point you’re jolted awake in the middle of the night because a Dos Equis ad blasts a billion-watt beam through your window and into your bedroom, now you’ll have a clue as to what happened.
And that, friends, is how just about everything works in this town. The big players at City Hall are major corporations, developers and public employee unions. And it’s a never-ending picnic for lobbyists, whose jobs are made all the easier because the last time you voted it was for homecoming queen.
But I’m holding out hope.
The weather’s going to be nice on Tuesday, because what else would it be? So roll out of bed, start humming Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” to yourself, and I think there’s a chance we could hit 25% turnout.May 19th, 2013
Skeletons on a Bender
May 22 – June 23, 2013
Opening reception: Wednesday, May 22 / 6-8pm
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
NY Times Published: May 18, 2013
The news that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most important global warming gas, have hit 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years increases the pressure on President Obama to deliver on his pledges to limit this country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
America cannot solve a global problem by itself. But as Mr. Obama rightly observed in his inaugural address, the United States, as both major polluter and world leader, has a deep obligation to help shield the international community from rising sea levels, floods, droughts and other devastating consequences of a warming planet. In his State of the Union speech, he promised to take executive action if Congress failed to pass climate legislation.
Which is just what he will have to do. The prospects for broad-based Congressional action putting a price on carbon emissions are nil. The House is run by people who care little for environmental issues generally, and Senate Republicans who once favored a pricing strategy, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have long since slunk away. Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have spent the last two weeks trying to derail Mr. Obama’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency — a moderate named Gina McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy has served two Republican governors (Mitt Romney was one) but is considered suspect by the right wing because she wants to control carbon pollution, which is driving global temperatures upward.
Hence the need for executive action. Yet we are now four months into Mr. Obama’s second term, and there is no visible sign of a coherent strategy. One plausible reason is that Mr. Obama has been preoccupied with other issues and that his key players on climate have not been in place. But that excuse disappears if Ms. McCarthy can survive a threatened Senate filibuster; even if she does not, Mr. Obama has sufficient talent in the E.P.A. and the Energy Department and among his science advisers to get started.
As this page has noted, it is possible to adopt a robust climate strategy based largely on executive actions. The most important of these is to invoke the E.P.A.’s authority under the Clean Air Act to limit pollution from stationary industrial sources, chiefly the power plants that account for almost 40 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. The agency is reworking a proposed rule to limit emissions from new power plants. A more complex but no less necessary task is to devise rules for existing power plants, which cannot be quickly shuttered without endangering the country’s power supply, but which can be made more efficient or phased out over time.
Mr. Obama can also order the E.P.A. to curb the enormous leakage of methane, a potent global warming agent, from gas wells and the pipes that bring natural gas to consumers. This is critical if America’s bountiful supplies of cheap natural gas are to become a cleaner bridge from coal to alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.
He can hasten the development of less-polluting alternatives to older-generation refrigerants and other chemicals. He can order the Energy Department to embark on a major program to improve the efficiency of appliances and commercial and residential buildings, which consume a huge chunk of the country’s energy supply. And he can ramp up investment in basic research.
All of this will take time, which is why it is important to get started. The most important of Mr. Obama’s first-term environmental initiatives — the historic fuel economy standards that will double the efficiency of America’s cars and light trucks — took more than three years to complete between the time they were proposed and when they were finalized last August. New power plant standards can be expected to take at least as long.
Mr. Obama has a firm grasp of the climate issue, and no one doubts that he cares about it. But as is often the case with this president, the question is whether he will exhibit a sense of urgency to match his intellectual understanding.May 19th, 2013
May 25th – June 29th, 2013
Opening Reception Saturday, May 25th, 6 to 8 pm
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
NY Times Published: May 18, 2013
IN my New York City apartment, the kitchen drawers, the coat closet, even the wine rack are overflowing with a type of waste that is rapidly disappearing elsewhere — the used plastic shopping bag.
Many countries and a handful of American cities have more or less done away with this supposed convenience item, by discouraging its use through plastic-bag taxes at checkout counters or outright bans. Walk down the streets of Dublin or Seattle or San Francisco and there is barely a bag in sight. Life continues.
“It didn’t take people very long to accommodate at all,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention in Seattle, where a plastic-bag ban took effect last summer. “Basically overnight those grocery and drugstore bags were gone.”
But in much of America we seem more addicted than ever. On a recent shopping trip to Target in Chicago for some dorm supplies while visiting my son, I emerged with what seemed to be more bags than socks or rolls of toilet paper (only a slight exaggeration). At my local supermarket, plastic bags are applied layer upon layer around purchases, like Russian nesting dolls.
“Plastic shopping bags are an enormous problem for New York City,” said Ron Gonen, the deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction, noting that the city pays $10 million annually to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags that are tossed in the general trash to landfills in South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. That, he points out, “is amazing to think of, because a plastic bag doesn’t weigh much at all.”
All across the country, plastic bags are the bane of recycling programs. When carelessly placed into recycling bins for general plastic — which they often are — the bags jam and damage expensive sorting machines, which cost huge amounts to repair.
“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” Mr. Gonen said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”
“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”
So far New York has used carrots, to little effect. (More about that later.) Unfortunately, most experts believe it will take a stiff stick to break a habit as ingrained as this one is in the United States. (In many European countries, like France and Italy, the plastic bag thing never fully caught on.)
In my case, I know I should bring a cloth bag along for shopping trips. And I do — when I remember. But experience shows that even environmentally conscious people need prodding and incentives to change their behavior permanently.
Where they exist, bans and charges or taxes (when set high enough) have been extremely successful and often raise revenue for other environmental projects. Unfortunately, these tactics are deeply unpopular in most of the nation.
After Austin, Tex., passed a bag ban earlier this year and with Dallas considering one, State Representative Drew Springer, a Republican, introduced the Shopping Bag Freedom Act in the Legislature. That act essentially bans bag bans, protecting the right of merchants to provide bags of any material to customers.
Businesses often fight hard against plastic-bag laws. When in 2007, Seattle first tried to impose a fee of 20 cents for each plastic bag, the American Chemical Council financed a popular referendum that voted down the “bag tax,” before it even took effect, Mr. Lilly said.
It took several more years for the city to regroup and impose its current ban. Plastic shopping bags are forbidden in stores, and though paper bags may be used, each one costs the shopper 5 cents. (There are exemptions, however: restaurants managed to secure one for takeout food, for example.)
A number of states are considering some form of statewide bans or taxes. And last month, Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia, introduced a bill to create a national 5-cent tax on all disposable plastic or paper bags provided by stores to customers. Some of the revenue would be used to create a Disposable Carryout Bag Trust Fund and to maintain national parks.
Actually, the idea of a bag tax may not seem so foreign to federal lawmakers: for the past three years, Washington has had its own 5-cent tax. Although bag use there dropped sharply, many experts feel that the charge should be even higher. In Ireland, for example, the bag tax is about 30 cents per bag.
By any measure, New Yorkers are laggards on the issue. In 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tried unsuccessfully to pass a bag tax of 6 cents. More recently, New York State has preferred to attack the problem with soft diplomacy. Since 2009, large stores throughout the state providing plastic bags have been required to take them back for recycling. But there is not much enforcement, Mr. Gonen said, and the program “hasn’t put a dent” in the numbers.
While the chain pharmacies and supermarkets in my neighborhood initially put out recycling bins for the bags, they have largely disappeared. Some stores will begrudgingly take back plastic at the sales counter — though I’ve seen the bags subsequently tossed in the trash. (Though plastic bags can be recycled, they must be separated from other forms of plastic.) The Bloomberg administration is also considering partnering with supermarkets to create incentive programs with shopping points awarded to those who bring reusable bags.
Frank Convery, an economist at University College, Dublin, who has studied the effects of Ireland’s 10-year-old bag tax — the first in the world — is skeptical: “As regards the plastic bag issue, whatever is done has to be mandatory,” he said. “The New York model is designed to fail.”
Mr. Gonen said cities got a lot of complaints about plastic bags. So why wouldn’t that inspire more of them to take action? It is another paradox of environmental politics — just as when New Yorkers show strong support for a bike-sharing plan but protest when bike-sharing racks appear on their sidewalk.
In a city where dog owners are forced to pick up their pets’ waste and are precluded from smoking in parks, why is it so hard to get people to employ reusable bags for shopping?May 18th, 2013
24th May – 30th June
June 6 – July 13, 2013
Opening reception: Thursday, June 6, 6-8 pm
By SUSANA MARTINEZ-CONDE
NY Times Published: May 17, 2013
YOUR eyes are the sharks of the human body: they never stop moving.
In the past minute alone, your eyes made as many as 240 quick movements called “saccades” (French for “jolts”). In your waking hours today, you will very likely make some 200,000 of them, give or take a few thousand. When you sleep, your eyes keep moving — though in different ways and at varying speeds, depending on the stage of sleep.
A portion of our eye movements we do consciously and are at least aware of on some level: when we follow a moving bird or plane across the sky with our gaze, for instance. But most of these tiny back-and-forths and ups-and-downs — split-second moves that would make the Flying Karamazov Brothers weep with jealousy — are unconscious and nearly imperceptible to us. Our brain suppresses the feeling of our eye jumps, to avoid the sensation that the world is constantly quaking.
Even when we think our gazes are petrified, in fact, we are still making eye motions, including tiny saccades called “microsaccades” — between 60 and 120 of them per minute. Just as we don’t notice most of our breathing, we are almost wholly unaware of this frenetic, nonstop ocular activity.
Without it, though, we couldn’t see a thing.
Humans are hardly unique in this way. Every known visual system depends on movement: we see things either because they move or because our eyes do.
Some of the earliest clues to this came more than two centuries ago. Erasmus Darwin, a grandfather of Charles Darwin, observed in 1794 that staring at a small piece of scarlet silk on white paper for a long time — thereby minimizing (though not stopping) his eye movements — made it grow fainter in color, until it seemed to vanish.
In the early 1950s researchers used technology to counteract eye movements by mounting a tiny slide projector onto a contact lens affixed to the observer’s eye with a suction device. This retinal stabilization technique forces the image to remain still with respect to the eye, even when the eye continues to move. The images, in these experiments, fade away perceptually, because of the lack of neural stimulation.
Some two decades later, the neuroscientist John K. Stevens, at the University of Pennsylvania, underwent the injection of a paralytic drug that obliterated nearly all of his bodily motion, including that of his eyes (he was artificially ventilated during the experiment). An arterial tourniquet prevented blood flow to, and therefore paralysis of, one of his arms, allowing him to communicate with his colleagues by flexing his hand. He found that without eye movements, “image fading became a real problem.”
We see the same result with certain rare diseases that lead to complete ocular paralysis. One woman afflicted with extraocular muscular fibrosis has never made eye movements. She can read and even perform some complex daily activities (like making herself a cup of tea) — but only because she has learned to make saccade-like motions with her head. The head movements provide her brain with the jerky motion it needs to gather information from the environment.
What may be most surprising is that large eye motions and miniature eye jolts help us see the world in similar ways — largely at the same time.
Scientists had long believed that we used two types of oculomotor behavior to sample the visual world, alternating between big saccades to scan our surroundings and tiny ones to fix our gaze on a location of interest. Explore, fixate, repeat, all day, every day.
It seemed to make intuitive sense that we would have one brain system for exploring the environment and another for focusing on specific objects. But it turns out that exploration and gaze-fixation are not all that different processes in the brain.
Three colleagues and I recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which volunteers were asked to view images of all sizes, from the massive to the minute, while we measured their eye movements. We found that people’s eyes scanned the scenes with the same general strategy in all cases, whether the images were huge or tiny, or even when they were fixing their gaze.
The findings suggest that exploration and fixation are not fundamentally different behaviors after all, but rather two ends of the same visual scanning continuum. They also imply that the same brain systems control our eye movements when we explore and when we fixate — an insight that may ultimately offer clues to understanding oculomotor dysfunction in neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s, that affect eye movements.
On a more personal level, I’ve often found a bit of inspiration from the biological fact that vision is all about change. If the world stands still, we must manufacture our own motion to perceive it — which would mean that the well-cited spiritual advice, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” often misattributed to Mohandas K. Gandhi, has a sound scientific basis as well.May 17th, 2013
Through June 15, 2013May 17th, 2013
By KAREN ROSENBERG
NY Times Published: May 16, 2013
“Jack Goldstein x 10,000,” the first American museum retrospective of this brilliant but elusive artist, is both a celebration and a cautionary tale. It revels in Goldstein’s posthumous influence as it reveals the tragic disconnect of his life and his art, the desire to disappear complicated by an intense careerist drive. For his master’s thesis exhibition, he had himself buried in a wooden box fitted with a breathing tube; above ground, a blinking red light reassured the audience that he was still alive.
Working in both Los Angeles and New York, in film and in painting, Goldstein connected some disparate corners of the art world — not just movements, like Pop and Minimalism, but competing models of artistic success. Trained at the California Institute of the Arts under John Baldessari in the 1970s, he moved from an anti-materialistic campus scene of performance and body art to the market- and media-savvy hothouse of 1980s New York.
There, Goldstein became part of the Pictures movement, centered on Artists Space, alongside Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who went on to become art stars, while his career foundered. They have had their museum retrospectives, splashy affairs at MoMA and the Guggenheim; Goldstein’s almost didn’t happen at all.
The show was originally scheduled for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles but was canceled in 2010 by its new director, Jeffrey Deitch. The Orange County Museum of Art came to the rescue and has now passed on a smaller, essentialized version of the exhibition, at the urging of the Jewish Museum’s director, Claudia Gould. New York is lucky to have it.
The curator Philipp Kaiser, working with the Jewish Museum’s assistant curator Joanna Montoya, neatly navigates some tricky passages in Goldstein’s career; at the time of his suicide in 2003, at the age of 57, he was just starting to re-emerge after a decade-long, drug-addled absence, during which he lived in a trailer in East Los Angeles and produced no art, aside from cryptic concrete poems and an “autobiography” consisting entirely of quotations from philosophy books.
That period followed an abrupt turn from film to painting, one that’s smoothed over here by a portrait of the artist as director and producer. (He had assistants execute his photo-based paintings with airbrushes, just as he had engaged Hollywood specialists in the making of his films.)
As expected, the films overshadow the work in other mediums (paintings, writings, sound recordings and the odd sculpture). Some of the later films have appeared in recent New York gallery shows, but this exhibition offers a rare look at the early, performance-based ones: works like “Milk,” in which the persistent banging of a fist on a table finally topples a glass, or “Spotlight,” in which a beam chases Goldstein around an empty room.
Yoking Romantic ideas about disappearance and inevitability to the more programmatic actions of Conceptualism, these works have much in common with the films of Ger Van Elk and Bas Jan Ader (Dutch transplants who were active in Goldstein’s California circle).
By the mid-’70s, Goldstein had stopped appearing in his films and performances. Hiring actors, stuntmen and light and sound technicians from the film industry, he staged events that were meant to be “felt ambiguously both as ‘real’ and as a ‘cinematic’ illusion,” as he wrote of a set piece called “Burning Window.”
That same uncertainty haunts the masterly concise color films he made later in that decade, which have been a huge and often unacknowledged source of inspiration for young artists working today. (The photographer and filmmaker Elad Lassry, for instance, owes much to Goldstein’s vintage-Hollywood aesthetic and uncanny use of props.)
Nine of these films are shown, with a total running time of just 23 minutes. They include the well-known “Metro-Goldwyn Mayer,” a loop of the film studio’s roaring lion mascot, and “Shane,” named for the trained German Shepherd that barks in response to inaudible commands from someone behind the camera.
Here, too, are little imagist poems, in which colored lights flicker across a knife or the foot of a ballet dancer on point slowly descends to the floor. They are just as memorable as the animal works and are also, in a way, about memory and discipline.
Moving from the films to the paintings feels jarring, perhaps appropriately so. Goldstein himself was quite candid about the shift; in an interview in 2001, he recalled 1979 as a pivotal year.
“The alternative spaces were over, and galleries were coming in,” he said. “I had to make paintings quick, ’cause the writing was on the wall.” His paintings are most valuable as an object lesson for young artists: Don’t change course because of the market.
These large-scale depictions of meteor showers, bombing raids and lightning strikes feel more cynical than their sinister, shock-and-awe subject matter would suggest; they seem to be trying to produce a sort of conditioned response from the viewer, like the bark of the German Shepherd. At best, they have a sort of kooky, sci-fi appeal; at worst, they remind you of recent paintings by Damien Hirst.
And installing them in clean white galleries does them no favors; a recent show at the gallery Venus Over Manhattan, by contrast, played up the staginess of Goldstein’s paintings with low lights and a Patsy Cline soundtrack — ultimately steering the conversation back to film.
By the time we reach the gallery devoted to Goldstein’s text-based art, his muddled and impenetrable adventures in word processing, we are a long way from those brilliant films. All 17 volumes of the “Selected Writings,” which consist entirely of cut-and-pasted quotations from philosophy books, are displayed without much commentary; that’s been relegated to the catalog, where an incisive and sad essay by John Kelsey describes these texts as “the autobiography of a disappearing artist and the final means by which he controls and completes this act.”
The show has an alternate ending, a more uplifting one: Goldstein’s last film, “Underwater Sea Fantasy,” a compilation of science-film footage showing aquatic life and exploding volcanoes. It plays alongside photographs of Goldstein and his work space by James Welling, taken in the 1970s when those two artists shared a studio building.
Taking the full measure of Goldstein’s career, however, means eventually coming face to face with the dark, druggie, viciously competitive side of 1980s art stardom — something we’re more accustomed to seeing in the stories of expressive painters like Basquiat. The cool, cerebral, hands-off stance of the Pictures movement, it turns out, could cover up a world of pain.
“Jack Goldstein x 10,000” runs through Sept. 29 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street; (212) 423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.May 16th, 2013
By MICHAEL POLLAN
NY Times Published: May 15, 2013
I can tell you the exact date that I began to think of myself in the first-person plural — as a superorganism, that is, rather than a plain old individual human being. It happened on March 7. That’s when I opened my e-mail to find a huge, processor-choking file of charts and raw data from a laboratory located at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As part of a new citizen-science initiative called the American Gut project, the lab sequenced my microbiome — that is, the genes not of “me,” exactly, but of the several hundred microbial species with whom I share this body. These bacteria, which number around 100 trillion, are living (and dying) right now on the surface of my skin, on my tongue and deep in the coils of my intestines, where the largest contingent of them will be found, a pound or two of microbes together forming a vast, largely uncharted interior wilderness that scientists are just beginning to map.
I clicked open a file called Taxa Tables, and a colorful bar chart popped up on my screen. Each bar represented a sample taken (with a swab) from my skin, mouth and feces. For purposes of comparison, these were juxtaposed with bars representing the microbiomes of about 100 “average” Americans previously sequenced.
Here were the names of the hundreds of bacterial species that call me home. In sheer numbers, these microbes and their genes dwarf us. It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes — including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this “second genome,” as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome.
Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford, suggests that we would do well to begin regarding the human body as “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.” This humbling new way of thinking about the self has large implications for human and microbial health, which turn out to be inextricably linked. Disorders in our internal ecosystem — a loss of diversity, say, or a proliferation of the “wrong” kind of microbes — may predispose us to obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases, as well as some infections. “Fecal transplants,” which involve installing a healthy person’s microbiota into a sick person’s gut, have been shown to effectively treat an antibiotic-resistant intestinal pathogen named C. difficile, which kills 14,000 Americans each year. (Researchers use the word “microbiota” to refer to all the microbes in a community and “microbiome” to refer to their collective genes.) We’ve known for a few years that obese mice transplanted with the intestinal community of lean mice lose weight and vice versa. (We don’t know why.) A similar experiment was performed recently on humans by researchers in the Netherlands: when the contents of a lean donor’s microbiota were transferred to the guts of male patients with metabolic syndrome, the researchers found striking improvements in the recipients’ sensitivity to insulin, an important marker for metabolic health. Somehow, the gut microbes were influencing the patients’ metabolisms.
Our resident microbes also appear to play a critical role in training and modulating our immune system, helping it to accurately distinguish between friend and foe and not go nuts on, well, nuts and all sorts of other potential allergens. Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their “old friends” — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved.
These claims sound extravagant, and in fact many microbiome researchers are careful not to make the mistake that scientists working on the human genome did a decade or so ago, when they promised they were on the trail of cures to many diseases. We’re still waiting. Yet whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome, the implications of what has already been learned — for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate. Human health should now “be thought of as a collective property of the human-associated microbiota,” as one group of researchers recently concluded in a landmark review article on microbial ecology — that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.
Such a paradigm shift comes not a moment too soon, because as a civilization, we’ve just spent the better part of a century doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota with a multifronted war on bacteria and a diet notably detrimental to its well-being. Researchers now speak of an impoverished “Westernized microbiome” and ask whether the time has come to embark on a project of “restoration ecology” — not in the rain forest or on the prairie but right here at home, in the human gut.
In March I traveled to Boulder to see the Illumina HiSeq 2000 sequencing machine that had shed its powerful light on my own microbiome and to meet the scientists and computer programmers who were making sense of my data. The lab is headed by Rob Knight, a rangy, crew-cut 36-year-old biologist who first came to the United States from his native New Zealand to study invasive species, a serious problem in his home country. Knight earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton when he was 24 and then drifted from the study of visible species and communities to invisible ones. Along the way he discovered he had a knack for computational biology. Knight is regarded as a brilliant analyst of sequencing data, skilled at finding patterns in the flood of information produced by the machines that “batch sequence” all the DNA in a sample and then tease out the unique genetic signatures of each microbe. This talent explains why so many of the scientists exploring the microbiome today send their samples to be sequenced and analyzed by his lab; it is also why you will find Knight’s name on most of the important papers in the field.
Over the course of two days in Boulder, I enjoyed several meals with Knight and his colleagues, postdocs and graduate students, though I must say I was a little taken aback by the table talk. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much discussion of human feces at dinner, but then one thing these scientists are up to is a radical revaluation of the contents of the human colon. I learned about Knight’s 16-month-old daughter, who has had most of the diapers to which she has contributed sampled and sequenced. Knight said at dinner that he sampled himself every day; his wife, Amanda Birmingham, who joined us one night, told me that she was happy to be down to once a week. “Of course I keep a couple of swabs in my bag at all times,” she said, rolling her eyes, “because you never know.”
A result of the family’s extensive self-study has been a series of papers examining family microbial dynamics. The data helped demonstrate that the microbial communities of couples sharing a house are similar, suggesting the importance of the environment in shaping an individual’s microbiome. Knight also found that the presence of a family dog tended to blend everyone’s skin communities, probably via licking and petting. One paper, titled “Moving Pictures of the Human Microbiome,” tracked the day-to-day shifts in the microbial composition of each body site. Knight produced animations showing how each community — gut, skin and mouth — hosted a fundamentally different cast of microbial characters that varied within a fairly narrow range over time.
Knight’s daily sampling of his daughter’s diapers (along with those of a colleague’s child) also traced the remarkable process by which a baby’s gut community, which in utero is sterile and more or less a blank slate, is colonized. This process begins shortly after birth, when a distinctive infant community of microbes assembles in the gut. Then, with the introduction of solid food and then weaning, the types of microbes gradually shift until, by age 3, the baby’s gut comes to resemble an adult community much like that of its parents.
The study of babies and their specialized diet has yielded key insights into how the colonization of the gut unfolds and why it matters so much to our health. One of the earliest clues to the complexity of the microbiome came from an unexpected corner: the effort to solve a mystery about milk. For years, nutrition scientists were confounded by the presence in human breast milk of certain complex carbohydrates, called oligosaccharides, which the human infant lacks the enzymes necessary to digest. Evolutionary theory argues that every component of mother’s milk should have some value to the developing baby or natural selection would have long ago discarded it as a waste of the mother’s precious resources.
It turns out the oligosaccharides are there to nourish not the baby but one particular gut bacterium called Bifidobacterium infantis, which is uniquely well-suited to break down and make use of the specific oligosaccharides present in mother’s milk. When all goes well, the bifidobacteria proliferate and dominate, helping to keep the infant healthy by crowding out less savory microbial characters before they can become established and, perhaps most important, by nurturing the integrity of the epithelium — the lining of the intestines, which plays a critical role in protecting us from infection and inflammation.
“Mother’s milk, being the only mammalian food shaped by natural selection, is the Rosetta stone for all food,” says Bruce German, a food scientist at the University of California, Davis, who researches milk. “And what it’s telling us is that when natural selection creates a food, it is concerned not just with feeding the child but the child’s gut bugs too.”
Where do these all-important bifidobacteria come from and what does it mean if, like me, you were never breast-fed? Mother’s milk is not, as once was thought, sterile: it is both a “prebiotic” — a food for microbes — and a “probiotic,” a population of beneficial microbes introduced into the body. Some of them may find their way from the mother’s colon to her milk ducts and from there into the baby’s gut with its first feeding. Because designers of infant formula did not, at least until recently, take account of these findings, including neither prebiotic oligosaccharides or probiotic bacteria in their formula, the guts of bottle-fed babies are not optimally colonized.
Most of the microbes that make up a baby’s gut community are acquired during birth — a microbially rich and messy process that exposes the baby to a whole suite of maternal microbes. Babies born by Caesarean, however, a comparatively sterile procedure, do not acquire their mother’s vaginal and intestinal microbes at birth. Their initial gut communities more closely resemble that of their mother’s (and father’s) skin, which is less than ideal and may account for higher rates of allergy, asthma and autoimmune problems in C-section babies: not having been seeded with the optimal assortment of microbes at birth, their immune systems may fail to develop properly.
At dinner, Knight told me that he was sufficiently concerned about such an eventuality that, when his daughter was born by emergency C-section, he and his wife took matters into their own hands: using a sterile cotton swab, they inoculated the newborn infant’s skin with the mother’s vaginal secretions to insure a proper colonization. A formal trial of such a procedure is under way in Puerto Rico.
While I was in Boulder, I sat down with Catherine A. Lozupone, a microbiologist who had just left Knight’s lab to set up her own at the University of Colorado, Denver, and who spent some time looking at my microbiome and comparing it with others, including her own. Lozupone was the lead author on an important 2012 paper in Nature, “Diversity, Stability and Resilience of the Human Gut Microbiota,” which sought to approach the gut community as an ecologist might, trying to determine the “normal” state of the ecosystem and then examining the various factors that disturb it over time. How does diet affect it? Antibiotics? Pathogens? What about cultural traditions? So far, the best way to begin answering such questions may be by comparing the gut communities of various far-flung populations, and researchers have been busy collecting samples around the world and shipping them to sequencing centers for analysis. The American Gut project, which hopes to eventually sequence the communities of tens of thousands of Americans, represents the most ambitious such effort to date; it will help researchers uncover patterns of correlation between people’s lifestyle, diet, health status and the makeup of their microbial community.
It is still early days in this research, as Lozupone (and everyone else I interviewed) underscored; scientists can’t even yet say with confidence exactly what a “healthy” microbiome should look like. But some broad, intriguing patterns are emerging. More diversity is probably better than less, because a diverse ecosystem is generally more resilient — and diversity in the Western gut is significantly lower than in other, less-industrialized populations. The gut microbiota of people in the West looks very different from that of a variety of other geographically dispersed peoples. So, for example, the gut community of rural people in West Africa more closely resembles that of Amerindians in Venezuela than it does an American’s or a European’s.
These rural populations not only harbor a greater diversity of microbes but also a different cast of lead characters. American and European guts contain relatively high levels of bacteroides and firmicutes and low levels of the prevotella that dominate the guts of rural Africans and Amerindians. (It is not clear whether high or low levels of any of these is good or bad.) Why are the microbes different? It could be the diet, which in both rural populations features a considerable amount of whole grains (which prevotella appear to like), plant fiber and very little meat. (Many firmicutes like amino acids, so they proliferate when the diet contains lots of protein; bacteroides metabolize carbohydrates.) As for the lower biodiversity in the West, this could be a result of our profligate use of antibiotics (in health care as well as the food system), our diet of processed food (which has generally been cleansed of all bacteria, the good and the bad), environmental toxins and generally less “microbial pressure” — i.e., exposure to bacteria — in everyday life. All of this may help explain why, though these rural populations tend to have greater exposures to infectious diseases and lower life expectancies than those in the West, they also have lower rates of chronic disorders like allergies, asthma, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“Rural people spend a lot more time outside and have much more contact with plants and with soil,” Lozupone says. Another researcher, who has gathered samples in Malawi, told me, “In some of these cultures, children are raised communally, passed from one set of hands to another, so they’re routinely exposed to a greater diversity of microbes.” The nuclear family may not be conducive to the health of the microbiome.
As it happens, Lozupone and I had something in common, microbially speaking: we share unusually high levels of prevotella for Americans. Our gut communities look more like those of rural Africans or Amerindians than like those of our neighbors. Lozupone suspects that the reasons for this might have to do with a plant-based diet; we each eat lots of whole grains and vegetables and relatively little meat. (Though neither of us is a vegetarian.) Like me, she was proud of her prevotella, regarding it as a sign of a healthy non-Western diet, at least until she began doing research on the microbiota of H.I.V. patients. It seems that they, too, have lots of prevotella. Further confusing the story, a recent study linking certain gut microbes common in meat eaters to high levels of a blood marker for heart disease suggested that prevotella was one such microbe. Early days, indeed.
Two other features of my microbiome attracted the attention of the researchers who examined it. First, the overall biodiversity of my gut community was significantly higher than that of the typical Westerner, which I decided to take as a compliment, though the extravagantly diverse community of microbes on my skin raised some eyebrows. “Where have your hands been, man?” Jeff Leach of the American Gut project asked after looking over my results. My skin harbors bacteria associated with plants, soil and a somewhat alarming variety of animal guts. I put this down to gardening, composting (I keep worms too) and also the fact that I was fermenting kimchi and making raw-milk cheese, “live-culture” foods teeming with microbes.
Compared to a rain forest or a prairie, the interior ecosystem is not well understood, but the core principles of ecology — which along with powerful new sequencing machines have opened this invisible frontier to science — are beginning to yield some preliminary answers and a great many more intriguing hypotheses. Your microbial community seems to stabilize by age 3, by which time most of the various niches in the gut ecosystem are occupied. That doesn’t mean it can’t change after that; it can, but not as readily. A change of diet or a course of antibiotics, for example, may bring shifts in the relative population of the various resident species, helping some kinds of bacteria to thrive and others to languish. Can new species be introduced? Yes, but probably only when a niche is opened after a significant disturbance, like an antibiotic storm. Just like any other mature ecosystem, the one in our gut tends to resist invasion by newcomers.
You acquire most of the initial microbes in your gut community from your parents, but others are picked up from the environment. “The world is covered in a fine patina of feces,” as the Stanford microbiologist Stanley Falkow tells students. The new sequencing tools have confirmed his hunch: Did you know that house dust can contain significant amounts of fecal particles? Or that, whenever a toilet is flushed, some of its contents are aerosolized? Knight’s lab has sequenced the bacteria on toothbrushes. This news came during breakfast, so I didn’t ask for details, but got them anyway: “You want to keep your toothbrush a minimum of six feet away from a toilet,” one of Knight’s colleagues told me.
Some scientists in the field borrow the term “ecosystem services” from ecology to catalog all the things that the microbial community does for us as its host or habitat, and the services rendered are remarkably varied and impressive. “Invasion resistance” is one. Our resident microbes work to keep pathogens from gaining a toehold by occupying potential niches or otherwise rendering the environment inhospitable to foreigners. The robustness of an individual’s gut community might explain why some people fall victim to food poisoning while others can blithely eat the same meal with no ill effects.
Our gut bacteria also play a role in the manufacture of substances like neurotransmitters (including serotonin); enzymes and vitamins (notably Bs and K) and other essential nutrients (including important amino acid and short-chain fatty acids); and a suite of other signaling molecules that talk to, and influence, the immune and the metabolic systems. Some of these compounds may play a role in regulating our stress levels and even temperament: when gut microbes from easygoing, adventurous mice are transplanted into the guts of anxious and timid mice, they become more adventurous. The expression “thinking with your gut” may contain a larger kernel of truth than we thought.
The gut microbes are looking after their own interests, chief among them getting enough to eat and regulating the passage of food through their environment. The bacteria themselves appear to help manage these functions by producing signaling chemicals that regulate our appetite, satiety and digestion. Much of what we’re learning about the microbiome’s role in human metabolism has come from studying “gnotobiotic mice” — mice raised in labs like Jeffrey I. Gordon’s at Washington University, in St. Louis, to be microbially sterile, or germ-free. Recently, Gordon’s lab transplanted the gut microbes of Malawian children with kwashiorkor — an acute form of malnutrition — into germ-free mice. The lab found those mice with kwashiorkor who were fed the children’s typical diet could not readily metabolize nutrients, indicating that it may take more than calories to remedy malnutrition. Repairing a patient’s disordered metabolism may require reshaping the community of species in his or her gut.
Keeping the immune system productively engaged with microbes — exposed to lots of them in our bodies, our diet and our environment — is another important ecosystem service and one that might turn out to be critical to our health. “We used to think the immune system had this fairly straightforward job,” Michael Fischbach, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, says. “All bacteria were clearly ‘nonself’ so simply had to be recognized and dealt with. But the job of the immune system now appears to be far more nuanced and complex. It has to learn to consider our mutualists” — e.g., resident bacteria — “as self too. In the future we won’t even call it the immune system, but the microbial interaction system.” The absence of constructive engagement between microbes and immune system (particularly during certain windows of development) could be behind the increase in autoimmune conditions in the West.
So why haven’t we evolved our own systems to perform these most critical functions of life? Why have we outsourced all this work to a bunch of microbes? One theory is that, because microbes evolve so much faster than we do (in some cases a new generation every 20 minutes), they can respond to changes in the environment — to threats as well as opportunities — with much greater speed and agility than “we” can. Exquisitely reactive and adaptive, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves. This versatility is especially handy when a new toxin or food source appears in the environment. The microbiota can swiftly come up with precisely the right gene needed to fight it — or eat it. In one recent study, researchers found that a common gut microbe in Japanese people has acquired a gene from a marine bacterium that allows the Japanese to digest seaweed, something the rest of us can’t do as well.
This plasticity serves to extend our comparatively rigid genome, giving us access to a tremendous bag of biochemical tricks we did not need to evolve ourselves. “The bacteria in your gut are continually reading the environment and responding,” says Joel Kimmons, a nutrition scientist and epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “They’re a microbial mirror of the changing world. And because they can evolve so quickly, they help our bodies respond to changes in our environment.”
A handful of microbiologists have begun sounding the alarm about our civilization’s unwitting destruction of the human microbiome and its consequences. Important microbial species may have already gone extinct, before we have had a chance to learn who they are or what they do. What we think of as an interior wilderness may in fact be nothing of the kind, having long ago been reshaped by unconscious human actions. Taking the ecological metaphor further, the “Westernized microbiome” most of us now carry around is in fact an artifact of civilization, no more a wilderness today than, say, the New Jersey Meadowlands.
To obtain a clearer sense of what has been lost, María Gloria Dominguez-Bello, a Venezuelan-born microbiologist at New York University, has been traveling to remote corners of the Amazon to collect samples from hunter-gatherers who have had little previous contact with Westerners or Western medicine. “We want to see how the human microbiota looks before antibiotics, before processed food, before modern birth,” she told me. “These samples are really gold.”
Preliminary results indicate that a pristine microbiome — of people who have had little or no contact with Westerners — features much greater biodiversity, including a number of species never before sequenced, and, as mentioned, much higher levels of prevotella than is typically found in the Western gut. Dominguez-Bello says these vibrant, diverse and antibiotic-naïve microbiomes may play a role in Amerindians’ markedly lower rates of allergies, asthma, atopic disease and chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
One bacterium commonly found in the non-Western microbiome but nearly extinct in ours is a corkscrew-shaped inhabitant of the stomach by the name of Helicobacter pylori. Dominguez-Bello’s husband, Martin Blaser, a physician and microbiologist at N.Y.U., has been studying H. pylori since the mid-1980s and is convinced that it is an endangered species, the extinction of which we may someday rue. According to the “missing microbiota hypothesis,” we depend on microbes like H. pylori to regulate various metabolic and immune functions, and their disappearance is disordering those systems. The loss is cumulative: “Each generation is passing on fewer of these microbes,” Blaser told me, with the result that the Western microbiome is being progressively impoverished.
He calls H. pylori the “poster child” for the missing microbes and says medicine has actually been trying to exterminate it since 1983, when Australian scientists proposed that the microbe was responsible for peptic ulcers; it has since been implicated in stomach cancer as well. But H. pylori is a most complicated character, the entire spectrum of microbial good and evil rolled into one bug. Scientists learned that H. pylori also plays a role in regulating acid in the stomach. Presumably it does this to render its preferred habitat inhospitable to competitors, but the effect on its host can be salutary. People without H. pylori may not get peptic ulcers, but they frequently do suffer from acid reflux. Untreated, this can lead to Barrett’s esophagus and, eventually, a certain type of esophageal cancer, rates of which have soared in the West as H. pylori has gone missing.
When after a recent bout of acid reflux, my doctor ordered an endoscopy, I discovered that, like most Americans today, my stomach has no H. pylori. My gastroenterologist was pleased, but after talking to Blaser, the news seemed more equivocal, because H. pylori also does us a lot of good. The microbe engages with the immune system, quieting the inflammatory response in ways that serve its own interests — to be left in peace — as well as our own. This calming effect on the immune system may explain why populations that still harbor H. pylori are less prone to allergy and asthma. Blaser’s lab has also found evidence that H. pylori plays an important role in human metabolism by regulating levels of the appetite hormone ghrelin. “When the stomach is empty, it produces a lot of ghrelin, the chemical signal to the brain to eat,” Blaser says. “Then, when it has had enough, the stomach shuts down ghrelin production, and the host feels satiated.” He says the disappearance of H. pylori may be contributing to obesity by muting these signals.
But what about the diseases H. pylori is blamed for? Blaser says these tend to occur only late in life, and he makes the rather breathtaking suggestion that this microbe’s evolutionary role might be to help shuffle us off life’s stage once our childbearing years have passed. So important does Blaser regard this strange, paradoxical symbiont that he has proposed not one but two unconventional therapeutic interventions: inoculate children with H. pylori to give them the benefit of its services early in life, and then exterminate it with antibiotics at age 40, when it is liable to begin causing trouble.
These days Blaser is most concerned about the damage that antibiotics, even in tiny doses, are doing to the microbiome — and particularly to our immune system and weight. “Farmers have been performing a great experiment for more than 60 years,” Blaser says, “by giving subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to their animals to make them gain weight.” Scientists aren’t sure exactly why this practice works, but the drugs may favor bacteria that are more efficient at harvesting energy from the diet. “Are we doing the same thing to our kids?” he asks. Children in the West receive, on average, between 10 and 20 courses of antibiotics before they turn 18. And those prescribed drugs aren’t the only antimicrobials finding their way to the microbiota; scientists have found antibiotic residues in meat, milk and surface water as well. Blaser is also concerned about the use of antimicrobial compounds in our diet and everyday lives — everything from chlorine washes for lettuce to hand sanitizers. “We’re using these chemicals precisely because they’re antimicrobial,” Blaser says. “And of course they do us some good. But we need to ask, what are they doing to our microbiota?” No one is questioning the value of antibiotics to civilization — they have helped us to conquer a great many infectious diseases and increased our life expectancy. But, as in any war, the war on bacteria appears to have had some unintended consequences.
One of the more striking results from the sequencing of my microbiome was the impact of a single course of antibiotics on my gut community. My dentist had put me on a course of Amoxicillin as a precaution before oral surgery. (Without prophylactic antibiotics, of course, surgery would be considerably more dangerous.) Within a week, my impressively non-Western “alpha diversity” — a measure of the microbial diversity in my gut — had plummeted and come to look very much like the American average. My (possibly) healthy levels of prevotella had also disappeared, to be replaced by a spike in bacteroides (much more common in the West) and an alarming bloom of proteobacteria, a phylum that includes a great many weedy and pathogenic characters, including E. coli and salmonella. What had appeared to be a pretty healthy, diversified gut was now raising expressions of concern among the microbiologists who looked at my data.
“Your E. coli bloom is creepy,” Ruth Ley, a Cornell University microbiologist who studies the microbiome’s role in obesity, told me. “If we put that sample in germ-free mice, I bet they’d get inflamed.” Great. Just when I was beginning to think of myself as a promising donor for a fecal transplant, now I had a gut that would make mice sick. I was relieved to learn that my gut community would eventually bounce back to something resembling its former state. Yet one recent study found that when subjects were given a second course of antibiotics, the recovery of their interior ecosystem was less complete than after the first.
Few of the scientists I interviewed had much doubt that the Western diet was altering our gut microbiome in troubling ways. Some, like Blaser, are concerned about the antimicrobials we’re ingesting with our meals; others with the sterility of processed food. Most agreed that the lack of fiber in the Western diet was deleterious to the microbiome, and still others voiced concerns about the additives in processed foods, few of which have ever been studied for their specific effects on the microbiota. According to a recent article in Nature by the Stanford microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg, “Consumption of hyperhygienic, mass-produced, highly processed and calorie-dense foods is testing how rapidly the microbiota of individuals in industrialized countries can adapt.” As our microbiome evolves to cope with the Western diet, Sonnenburg says he worries that various genes are becoming harder to find as the microbiome’s inherent biodiversity declines along with our everyday exposure to bacteria.
Catherine Lozupone in Boulder and Andrew Gewirtz, an immunologist at Georgia State University, directed my attention to the emulsifiers commonly used in many processed foods — ingredients with names like lecithin, Datem, CMC and polysorbate 80. Gewirtz’s lab has done studies in mice indicating that some of these detergentlike compounds may damage the mucosa — the protective lining of the gut wall — potentially leading to leakage and inflammation.
A growing number of medical researchers are coming around to the idea that the common denominator of many, if not most, of the chronic diseases from which we suffer today may be inflammation — a heightened and persistent immune response by the body to a real or perceived threat. Various markers for inflammation are common in people with metabolic syndrome, the complex of abnormalities that predisposes people to illnesses like cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and perhaps cancer. While health organizations differ on the exact definition of metabolic syndrome, a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 34 percent of American adults are afflicted with the condition. But is inflammation yet another symptom of metabolic syndrome, or is it perhaps the cause of it? And if it is the cause, what is its origin?
One theory is that the problem begins in the gut, with a disorder of the microbiota, specifically of the all-important epithelium that lines our digestive tract. This internal skin — the surface area of which is large enough to cover a tennis court — mediates our relationship to the world outside our bodies; more than 50 tons of food pass through it in a lifetime. The microbiota play a critical role in maintaining the health of the epithelium: some bacteria, like the bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus plantarum (common in fermented vegetables), seem to directly enhance its function. These and other gut bacteria also contribute to its welfare by feeding it. Unlike most tissues, which take their nourishment from the bloodstream, epithelial cells in the colon obtain much of theirs from the short-chain fatty acids that gut bacteria produce as a byproduct of their fermentation of plant fiber in the large intestine.
But if the epithelial barrier isn’t properly nourished, it can become more permeable, allowing it to be breached. Bacteria, endotoxins — which are the toxic byproducts of certain bacteria — and proteins can slip into the blood stream, thereby causing the body’s immune system to mount a response. This resulting low-grade inflammation, which affects the entire body, may lead over time to metabolic syndrome and a number of the chronic diseases that have been linked to it.
Evidence in support of this theory is beginning to accumulate, some of the most intriguing coming from the lab of Patrice Cani at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Brussels. When Cani fed a high-fat, “junk food” diet to mice, the community of microbes in their guts changed much as it does in humans on a fast-food diet. But Cani also found the junk-food diet made the animals’ gut barriers notably more permeable, allowing endotoxins to leak into the bloodstream. This produced a low-grade inflammation that eventually led to metabolic syndrome. Cani concludes that, at least in mice, “gut bacteria can initiate the inflammatory processes associated with obesity and insulin resistance” by increasing gut permeability.
These and other experiments suggest that inflammation in the gut may be the cause of metabolic syndrome, not its result, and that changes in the microbial community and lining of the gut wall may produce this inflammation. If Cani is correct — and there is now some evidence indicating that the same mechanism is at work in humans — then medical science may be on the trail of a Grand Unified Theory of Chronic Disease, at the very heart of which we will find the gut microbiome.
My first reaction to learning all this was to want to do something about it immediately, something to nurture the health of my microbiome. But most of the scientists I interviewed were reluctant to make practical recommendations; it’s too soon, they told me, we don’t know enough yet. Some of this hesitance reflects an understandable abundance of caution. The microbiome researchers don’t want to make the mistake of overpromising, as the genome researchers did. They are also concerned about feeding a gigantic bloom of prebiotic and probiotic quackery and rightly so: probiotics are already being hyped as the new panacea, even though it isn’t at all clear what these supposedly beneficial bacteria do for us or how they do what they do. There is some research suggesting that some probiotics may be effective in a number of ways: modulating the immune system; reducing allergic response; shortening the length and severity of colds in children; relieving diarrhea and irritable bowel symptoms; and improving the function of the epithelium. The problem is that, because the probiotic marketplace is largely unregulated, it’s impossible to know what, if anything, you’re getting when you buy a “probiotic” product. One study tested 14 commercial probiotics and found that only one contained the exact species stated on the label.
But some of the scientists’ reluctance to make recommendations surely flows from the institutional bias of science and medicine: that the future of microbiome management should remain firmly in the hands of science and medicine. Down this path — which holds real promise — lie improved probiotics and prebiotics, fecal transplants (with better names) and related therapies. Jeffrey Gordon, one of those scientists who peers far over the horizon, looks forward to a time when disorders of the microbiome will be treated with “synbiotics” — suites of targeted, next-generation probiotic microbes administered along with the appropriate prebiotic nutrients to nourish them. The fecal transplant will give way to something far more targeted: a purified and cultured assemblage of a dozen or so microbial species that, along with new therapeutic foods, will be introduced to the gut community to repair “lesions” — important missing species or functions. Yet, assuming it all works as advertised, such an approach will also allow Big Pharma and Big Food to stake out and colonize the human microbiome for profit.
When I asked Gordon about do-it-yourself microbiome management, he said he looked forward to a day “when people can cultivate this wonderful garden that is so influential in our health and well-being” — but that day awaits a lot more science. So he declined to offer any gardening tips or dietary advice. “We have to manage expectations,” he said.
Alas, I am impatient. So I gave up asking scientists for recommendations and began asking them instead how, in light of what they’ve learned about the microbiome, they have changed their own diets and lifestyles. Most of them have made changes. They were slower to take, or give their children, antibiotics. (I should emphasize that in no way is this an argument for the rejection of antibiotics when they are medically called for.) Some spoke of relaxing the sanitary regime in their homes, encouraging their children to play outside in the dirt and with animals — deliberately increasing their exposure to the great patina. Many researchers told me they had eliminated or cut back on processed foods, either because of its lack of fiber or out of concern about additives. In general they seemed to place less faith in probiotics (which few of them used) than in prebiotics — foods likely to encourage the growth of “good bacteria” already present. Several, including Justin Sonnenburg, said they had added fermented foods to their diet: yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut. These foods can contain large numbers of probiotic bacteria, like L. plantarum and bifidobacteria, and while most probiotic bacteria don’t appear to take up permanent residence in the gut, there is evidence that they might leave their mark on the community, sometimes by changing the gene expression of the permanent residents — in effect turning on or off metabolic pathways within the cell — and sometimes by stimulating or calming the immune response.
What about increasing our exposure to bacteria? “There’s a case for dirtying up your diet,” Sonnenburg told me. Yet advising people not to thoroughly wash their produce is probably unwise in a world of pesticide residues. “I view it as a cost-benefit analysis,” Sonnenburg wrote in an e-mail. “Increased exposure to environmental microbes likely decreases chance of many Western diseases, but increases pathogen exposure. Certainly the costs go up as scary antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more prevalent.” So wash your hands in situations when pathogens or toxic chemicals are likely present, but maybe not after petting your dog. “In terms of food, I think eating fermented foods is the answer — as opposed to not washing food, unless it is from your garden,” he said.
With his wife, Erica, also a microbiologist, Sonnenburg tends a colony of gnotobiotic mice at Stanford, examining (among other things) the effects of the Western diet on their microbiota. (Removing fiber drives down diversity, but the effect is reversible.) He’s an amateur baker, and when I visited his lab, we talked about the benefits of baking with whole grains.
“Fiber is not a single nutrient,” Sonnenburg said, which is why fiber supplements are no magic bullet. “There are hundreds of different polysaccharides” — complex carbohydrates, including fiber — “in plants, and different microbes like to chomp on different ones.” To boost fiber, the food industry added lots of a polysaccharide called inulin to hundreds of products, but that’s just one kind (often derived from the chicory-plant root) and so may only favor a limited number of microbes. I was hearing instead an argument for a variety of whole grains and a diverse diet of plants and vegetables as well as fruits. “The safest way to increase your microbial biodiversity is to eat a variety of polysaccharides,” he said.
His comment chimed with something a gastroenterologist at the University of Pittsburgh told me. “The big problem with the Western diet,” Stephen O’Keefe said, “is that it doesn’t feed the gut, only the upper G I. All the food has been processed to be readily absorbed, leaving nothing for the lower G I. But it turns out that one of the keys to health is fermentation in the large intestine.” And the key to feeding the fermentation in the large intestine is giving it lots of plants with their various types of fiber, including resistant starch (found in bananas, oats, beans); soluble fiber (in onions and other root vegetables, nuts); and insoluble fiber (in whole grains, especially bran, and avocados).
With our diet of swiftly absorbed sugars and fats, we’re eating for one and depriving the trillion of the food they like best: complex carbohydrates and fermentable plant fibers. The byproduct of fermentation is the short-chain fatty acids that nourish the gut barrier and help prevent inflammation. And there are studies suggesting that simply adding plants to a fast-food diet will mitigate its inflammatory effect.
The outlines of a diet for the new superorganism were coming clear, and it didn’t require the ministrations of the food scientists at Nestlé or General Mills to design it. Big Food and Big Pharma probably do have a role to play, as will Jeffrey Gordon’s next-generation synbiotics, in repairing the microbiota of people who can’t or don’t care to simply change their diets. This is going to be big business. Yet the components of a microbiota-friendly diet are already on the supermarket shelves and in farmers’ markets.
Viewed from this perspective, the foods in the markets appear in a new light, and I began to see how you might begin to shop and cook with the microbiome in mind, the better to feed the fermentation in our guts. The less a food is processed, the more of it that gets safely through the gastrointestinal tract and into the eager clutches of the microbiota. Al dente pasta, for example, feeds the bugs better than soft pasta does; steel-cut oats better than rolled; raw or lightly cooked vegetables offer the bugs more to chomp on than overcooked, etc. This is at once a very old and a very new way of thinking about food: it suggests that all calories are not created equal and that the structure of a food and how it is prepared may matter as much as its nutrient composition.
It is a striking idea that one of the keys to good health may turn out to involve managing our internal fermentation. Having recently learned to manage several external fermentations — of bread and kimchi and beer — I know a little about the vagaries of that process. You depend on the microbes, and you do your best to align their interests with yours, mainly by feeding them the kinds of things they like to eat — good “substrate.” But absolute control of the process is too much to hope for. It’s a lot more like gardening than governing.
The successful gardener has always known you don’t need to master the science of the soil, which is yet another hotbed of microbial fermentation, in order to nourish and nurture it. You just need to know what it likes to eat — basically, organic matter — and how, in a general way, to align your interests with the interests of the microbes and the plants. The gardener also discovers that, when pathogens or pests appear, chemical interventions “work,” that is, solve the immediate problem, but at a cost to the long-term health of the soil and the whole garden. The drive for absolute control leads to unanticipated forms of disorder.
This, it seems to me, is pretty much where we stand today with respect to our microbiomes — our teeming, quasi-wilderness. We don’t know a lot, but we probably know enough to begin taking better care of it. We have a pretty good idea of what it likes to eat, and what strong chemicals do to it. We know all we need to know, in other words, to begin, with modesty, to tend the unruly garden within.
Michael Pollan is the Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”May 15th, 2013
Works on Paper 1976-1977
Through June 29, 2013
By JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ
NY Times Published: May 12, 2013
A certain drama has become familiar in the United States (and some other advanced industrialized countries): Bankers encourage people to borrow beyond their means, preying especially on those who are financially unsophisticated. They use their political influence to get favorable treatment of one form or another. Debts mount. Journalists record the human toll. Then comes bewilderment: How could we let this happen again? Officials promise to fix things. Something is done about the most egregious abuses. People move on, reassured that the crisis has abated, but suspecting that it will recur soon.
The crisis that is about to break out involves student debt and how we finance higher education. Like the housing crisis that preceded it, this crisis is intimately connected to America’s soaring inequality, and how, as Americans on the bottom rungs of the ladder strive to climb up, they are inevitably pulled down — some to a point even lower than where they began.
This new crisis is emerging even before the last one has been resolved, and the two are becoming intertwined. In the decades after World War II, homeownership and higher education became signs of success in America.
Before the housing bubble burst in 2007, banks persuaded low- and moderate-income homeowners that they could turn their houses and apartments into piggy banks. They seduced them into taking out home-equity loans — and in the end, millions lost their homes. In other cases, the banks, mortgage brokers and real-estate agents pushed aspiring homeowners to borrow beyond their means. The wizards of finance, who prided themselves on risk management, sold toxic mortgages that were designed to explode. They bundled the dubious loans into complex financial instruments and sold them to unsuspecting investors.
Everyone recognizes that education is the only way up, but as a college degree becomes increasingly essential to making one’s way in a 21st-century economy, education for those not to the manner born is increasingly unaffordable. Student debt for seniors graduating with loans now exceeds $26,000, about a 40 percent increase (not adjusted for inflation) in just seven years. But an “average” like this masks huge variations.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost 13 percent of student-loan borrowers of all ages owe more than $50,000, and nearly 4 percent owe more than $100,000. These debts are beyond students’ ability to repay, (especially in our nearly jobless recovery); this is demonstrated by the fact that delinquency and default rates are soaring. Some 17 percent of student-loan borrowers were 90 days or more behind in payments at the end of 2012. When only those in repayment were counted — in other words, not including borrowers who were in loan deferment or forbearance — more than 30 percent were 90 days or more behind. For federal loans taken out in the 2009 fiscal year, three-year default rates exceeded 13 percent.
America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities. Average tuition, and room and board, at four-year colleges is just short of $22,000 a year, up from under $9,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1980-81.
Compare this more-than-doubling in tuition with the stagnation in median family income, which is now about $50,000, compared to $46,000 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation).
Like much else, the problem of student debt worsened during the Great Recession: tuition costs at public universities increased by 27 percent in the past five years — partly because of cutbacks — while median income shrank. In California, inflation-adjusted tuition more than doubled in public two-year community colleges (which for poorer Americans are often the key to upward mobility), and by more than 70 percent in four-year public schools, from 2007-8 to 2012-13.
With costs soaring, incomes stagnating and little help from government, it was not surprising that total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year. Responsible Americans have learned how to curb their credit-card debt — many have forsaken them for debit cards, or educated themselves about usurious interest rates, fees and penalties charged by card issuers — but the challenge of controlling student debt is even more unsettling.
Curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries. No matter what happens with currency wars and trade balances, the United States is not going to return to making textiles. Unemployment rates among college graduates are much lower than among those with only a high school diploma.
America — home of the land-grant university, the G.I. Bill and world-class public universities from California to Michigan to Texas — has fallen from the top in terms of university education. With strangling student debt, we are likely to fall further. What economists call “human capital” — investing in people — is a key to long-term growth. To be competitive in the 21st century is to have a highly educated labor force, one with college and advanced degrees. Instead, we are foreclosing on our future as a nation.
Student debt also is a drag on the slow recovery that began in 2009. By dampening consumption, it hinders economic growth. It is also holding back recovery in real estate, the sector where the Great Recession started.
It’s true that housing prices seem to be on the upswing, but home construction is far from the levels reached in the years before the bubble burst of 2007.
Those with huge debts are likely to be cautious before undertaking the additional burdens of a family. But even when they do, they will find it more difficult to get a mortgage. And if they do, it will be smaller, and the real estate recovery will consequently be weaker. (One study of recent Rutgers University graduates showed that 40 percent had delayed making a major home purchase, and for a quarter, the high level of debt had an effect on household formation or getting further education. Another recent study showed that homeownership among 30-year-olds with a history of student debt fell by more than 10 percentage points during the Great Recession and in its aftermath.)
It’s a vicious cycle: lack of demand for housing contributes to a lack of jobs, which contributes to weak household formation, which contributes to a lack of demand for housing.
As bad as things are, they may get worse. With budgetary pressures mounting — along with demands for cutbacks in “discretionary domestic programs” (read: K-12 education subsidies, Pell Grants for poor kids to attend college, research money) — students and families are left to fend for themselves. College costs will continue to rise far faster than incomes. As has been repeatedly observed, all of the economic gains since the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent.
Consider another dubious distinction: student debt is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy proceedings.
We’re a long way from the debtors’ prisons Dickens described. We don’t send debtors to penal colonies or put them in bonded labor. Although personal bankruptcy laws have been tightened, the principle that bankrupt individuals should be allowed a fresh start, and a chance to discharge excessive debt, is an established principle. This helps debt markets work better, and also provides incentives for creditors to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers.
Yet education loans are almost impossible to write off in bankruptcy court — even when for-profit schools didn’t deliver what they promised and didn’t provide an education that would let the borrower get a job that paid enough to pay back the loan.
We should cut off federal support for these for-profit schools when they fail to graduate students, who don’t get jobs and then default on their loans.
To its credit, the Obama administration tried to make it tougher for these predatory schools to lure students with false promises. Under the new rules, schools had to meet one of three tests, or lose their eligibility for federal student aid: at least 35 percent of graduates had to be repaying their loans; the typical graduate’s estimated annual loan payments could not exceed 12 percent of earnings; or the payments could not exceed 30 percent of discretionary income. But in 2012, a federal judge struck down the rules as arbitrary; the rules remain in legal limbo.
The combination of predatory for-profit schools and predatory lenders is a leech on America’s poor. These schools have even gone after young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are heart-rending stories of parents who co-signed student loans — only to see their child killed in an accident or die of cancer or another disease — and, like students, can’t easily discharge these debts.
Interest rates on federal Stafford loans were set to double in July, to 6.8 percent. Good news came on Friday: it appears that there is a temporary reprieve, as Republicans have come around. But the stay would be temporary and would not address a more fundamental issue: if the Federal Reserve is willing to lend to the banks that caused the crisis at just 0.75 percent, shouldn’t it be willing to lend to students, who will be crucial to our long-term recovery, at an appropriately low rate? The government shouldn’t be profiting from our poorest while subsidizing our richest. A proposal by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, for lower student-loan interest rates is a step in the right direction.
Along with tougher regulation of for-profit schools and the banks they connive with, and more humane bankruptcy laws, we must give more support to middle-class families struggling to send their children to college, to ensure that they have a standard of living at least equal to that of their parents.
But a real long-term solution requires rethinking how we finance higher education. Australia has designed a system of publicly provided income-contingent loans that all students must take out. Repayments vary according to individual income after graduation. This aligns the incentives of the providers of education and the receivers. Both have an incentive to see that students do well. It means that if an unfortunate event happens, like an illness or an accident, the loan obligation is automatically reduced. It means that the burden of the debt is always commensurate with an individual’s ability to repay. The repayments are collected through the tax system, minimizing the administrative costs.
Some wonder how the American ideal of equality of opportunity has eroded so much. The way we finance higher education provides part of the answer. Student debt has become an integral part of the story of American inequality. Robust higher education, with healthy public support, was once the linchpin in a system that promised opportunity for dedicated students of any means. We now have a pay-to-play, winner-take-all game where the wealthiest are assured a spot, and the rest are compelled to take a gamble on huge debts, with no guarantee of a payoff.
Even if compassion isn’t a factor — even if we focus just on recovery now and growth and innovation tomorrow — we must do something about student debt. Those concerned about the damage America’s growing divide is doing to our ideals and our moral character should put student debt at the top of any reform agenda.May 13th, 2013
By DAVID SEGAL
NY Times Published: May 10, 2013
RENO, Nev. — Soon after moving into Liberace’s gaudy Las Vegas mansion in 1977, Scott Thorson, then a teenage hunk in the foster care system, learned that the jewel-smitten showman could love just as extravagantly as he decorated. Touring the premises before their relationship began, Liberace pointed out some decorative highlights, which included 17 pianos, a casino, a quarry’s worth of marble and a canopied bed with an ermine spread. On the ceiling was a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel with Liberace’s face painted among the cherubs.
“We were at a hotel in Florida and Liberace had the manager give us another suite, with windows that faced the beach,” said Mr. Thorson, now 54. “He knew I’d be near the water and he wanted to be able to look at me.”
Liberace even wanted Mr. Thorson nearby when he worked. So for years, Mr. Thorson would don a chauffeur’s costume covered in rhinestones and drive “Mr. Showmanship” on stage in a bejeweled Rolls-Royce. Mr. Thorson would put the car in park, then open the door for Liberace, who would emerge in a fur coat with a 16-foot train.
If you missed this routine, which ran for years at the Vegas Hilton, you can catch a re-enactment in an upcoming HBO movie, “Behind the Candelabra,” which is based on Mr. Thorson’s autobiography of the same name and stars Matt Damon as Mr. Thorson and Michael Douglas as Liberace.
One person who may miss the movie’s debut, on May 26, is Scott Thorson. He currently is an inmate at the Washoe County jail here, and while the place has its share of amenities — including television — HBO isn’t one of them.
Mr. Thorson has been held here since February, when he was charged with burglary and identity theft, after buying about $1,300 worth of computer and cellphone merchandise using a credit card and license that weren’t his. He was arrested at the Ponderosa Hotel, where he and a man he had just met rented a room for $33.90 a night.
“We get a lot of the dregs of Reno, a lot of prostitutes, drug dealers,” said Eric Pyzel, a clerk at the Ponderosa who works next to a bumper sticker that reads “Welcome to Our Country. Just Do It Legally.” “The cops are by pretty often. So when they got here it was kind of like, O.K., what is it this time?”
On a recent Friday morning at the jail, Mr. Thorson was sitting in a small room of white cinder blocks, empty but for a sink and a wall-mounted dispenser of disinfectants. Two officers hovered. Not for the first time in his troubled life, he vowed to clean up.
“This experience has scared me straight,” he said, in a slightly nasal tone that sounds vaguely like Liberace. “There comes a time when you’ve got to take responsibility. You’ve got to stop lying and face your mistakes.”
It’s hard to connect this worn and anxious man in a blue prison shirt to the beefcake grinning in photographs in the late 1970s. Time, an on-and-off meth addiction, several stints in prison and what he describes as Stage 3 colon cancer have taken their toll.
Another reason he looks different: the chin implant is gone. Mr. Thorson had it removed in an attempt to reverse one of the creepier episodes in the history of plastic surgery. Early in their relationship, Liberace plucked an oil painting of himself from a room in his Las Vegas mansion and asked a visiting doctor to reshape Mr. Thorson’s face to look like Liberace’s as a young man.
Liberace wanted a boy toy and a son. With sex and fatherhood disturbingly twined, Mr. Thorson wound up with a new chin, a nose job and enhanced cheekbones.
“I was 17 years old,” he said, explaining why he went along with a plan that sounds so lunatic. “Liberace had taken me out of a situation with a father who was very abusive, a mother who was mentally ill. I did everything I possibly could to please this man.”
The two went on shopping sprees, traveled first class and spent a lot of quality time with Liberace’s Shar-Peis. Mr. Thorson was showered with gifts, including mink coats, an assortment of baubles and a Camaro. They entertained celebrities like Debbie Reynolds and Michael Jackson.
But it all ended abruptly in 1982. That year, Liberace had members of his retinue forcibly eject Mr. Thorson from his penthouse in Los Angeles. It was a breakup caused, in part, by Mr. Thorson’s drug habit, which he says he developed trying to slim down, at Liberace’s urging, on what was called the “Hollywood diet,” a cocktail of doctor-prescribed drugs that included pharmaceutical cocaine.
Mr. Thorson later sued for $113 million in palimony, ultimately losing a highly public battle fought both in court and in the tabloids. He settled in 1986 for $95,000, according to reports at the time.
There was a deathbed reconciliation before Liberace died of a disease caused by AIDS in 1987. And that is where the book version of “Behind the Candelabra” ends. But Mr. Thorson’s life went on, and as he explained in a series of interviews, both in person and via a jail-monitored version of Skype, many of the events that followed are as strange as the ones that came before.
The trick is separating the strange from the unbelievable.
“His approach to communicating with people is always to play it in a manner that reflects best on him,” said Oliver Mading, the man Mr. Thorson calls his adoptive father as well as his manager. On a recent evening, Mr. Mading was sitting in the living room of his home a few miles from Reno’s downtown. Sitting nearby was his stepson, Tony Pelicone, who met Mr. Thorson through a mutual friend a decade ago in Palm Springs, Calif.
At best, these men sounded deeply ambivalent about being enmeshed in Mr. Thorson’s life.
“He’s not a bad person,” said Mr. Pelicone, who has a swirl of brown-blond hair and a cigarette habit. “He’s just twisted and kind of cutthroat.”
Mr. Mading: “He’d sell his mother — ”
“Then he gives you that smile,” said Mr. Pelicone, interrupting
The two admit that much of what they know about Mr. Thorson’s biography they learned from Mr. Thorson and that, at the very least, he has an aversion to telling his life story as a coherent, easy-to-follow chronology. During interviews at the Washoe County jail, Mr. Thorson was often evasive and moody, deflecting questions about his past to rage against the people who have declined to put up the $15,000 in bail he says he needs to get out of jail.
“All these people are getting rich from my story,” he fumed, “and here I sit.”
On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty, and asked to enter a rehabilitation program. He could face as little as probation with a suspended prison sentence to 2 to 30 years and combined fines of up to $110,000.
What’s indisputable is that Scott Thorson is no longer named Scott Thorson. He is now known as Jess Marlow, a change Mr. Thorson says occurred when he entered the federal witness protection program as the star witness in the 1989 prosecution of an infamous Los Angeles character named Eddie Nash.
Mr. Nash shows up in the book and movie as Mr. Y., described as a drug dealer with ties to organized crime who made headlines for allegedly ordering the so-called Wonderland murders, a grisly quadruple homicide that took place two days after Mr. Nash’s home was robbed of money and drugs in 1981. (The crime is named for 8763 Wonderland Avenue, where the killings took place.)
Mr. Nash purportedly learned who had committed the robbery after his underlings beat up the porn star John Holmes, an acquaintance of Mr. Nash’s who later admitted to helping the robbers enter Mr. Nash’s home.
A fictionalized version of these events turns up in “Boogie Nights,” with a Nash-inspired figure played by a Speedo-and robe-wearing Alfred Molina.
Mr. Thorson says that Mr. Nash became a drug source for him in the early ’80s, and that he later became a partner in Mr. Nash’s club business. At some point, the two fell out and by 1988, Mr. Thorson was reportedly in a Los Angeles jail for an assortment of charges. There, he says, he was offered leniency by the district attorney’s office in exchange for testifying that he happened to be at Mr. Nash’s home when thugs pummeled John Holmes — which, if true, would make Mr. Thorson a kind of Zelig of the Awful. Eleven members of the jury voted to convict. One held out. Mr. Nash later admitted to bribing that lone juror, and in 2001, he struck a plea bargain in which he was sentenced to 37 months in prison for racketeering. Now, in his early 80s, Mr. Nash is a free man. And he would like to make it clear that he and Mr. Thorson were never partners.
“No, no, he worked for me,” Mr. Nash said on the telephone. “When Liberace dumped him, he had nothing. He was on the streets. So I took him in and he worked at the house. He was good for cleaning. Because I lived with eight girls at the time. Beautiful girls. College girls. It was safe to have Mr. Thorson around, because he is gay. I had a gay cook, too.”
Mr. Thorson claims that after the trial, marshals in the federal witness protection program moved him to Florida and gave him a new name. “They had to keep me safe because there was a contract placed on my life by Eddie Nash,” he said during one interview.
“It started with the marshals taking me to different locations around the country for seven to 10 days, to make sure no one was following,” he said. “Texas, Alaska, Seattle.”
It’s an intriguing narrative plot point — man forced to get a new face is later forced to take on a new identity. But the story sounds highly improbable to Bill Keefer, a former federal marshal in the witness protection program. He has doubts because of where Mr. Thorson eventually landed: at a Christian-based homeless shelter in Tallahassee, Fla., called the Haven of Rest.
“How much protection could the marshals provide a guy at a homeless shelter?” Mr. Keefer asked.
At the Haven of Rest, Mr. Thorson found religion. And instead of striving for invisibility, he shared his life story in front of church congregations. He says that he became a popular evangelizer, even appearing on a Pat Robertson TV show.
“He would share his testimony about his life with Liberace,” said Danny Heaberlin, who ran Haven of Rest at the time. “We had pictures of him with Liberace, because the story was so out there, nobody would believe it otherwise.”
Mr. Thorson says an East Coast mafia don gave him assurances that he needn’t worry about Mr. Nash. True or not, Mr. Thorson was unable to stay on the side of the angels for long. After three years at the Haven of Rest, he says, he started using drugs again, and in 1991, was shot three times in a room at a Howard Johnson’s hotel in Jacksonville. Local reports described the crime as a robbery committed by a crack dealer.
“They thought he was going to die,” Mr. Heaberlin said, “but he kept living and living.”
While he was recovering, a life-changing event occurred: a woman from Maine named Georgianna Morrill came to visit. Mr. Thorson would later claim she had seen him on TV, spreading the gospel, but that is not how Ms. Morrill remembers it.
“I read ‘Behind the Candelabra,’ and I saw the photo on the back of the book and I heard the Lord tell me to pray for this guy,” she said, speaking from her apartment in South Portland, Me. “I thought, I don’t even know this man. But I’m a Christian and when God tells you to pray for someone, you do.”
She found Mr. Thorson through a Pentecostal friend and soon after the two met, she invited him to live with her in a tiny two-story red house in Falmouth, Me.
Mr. Thorson accepted. He stayed for the next 12 years.
It was the second time that he found refuge in someone else’s life, but Falmouth was a long way from Vegas and Ms. Morrill was no Liberace. There were periods of domestic calm, with Mr. Thorson cleaning up around the house and collecting disability checks that he was eligible for after the shooting. But Ms. Morrill wanted to get married, despite all evidence that the match was a terrible idea. The couple had sex once, she recalls.
“That was enough,” she said with a giggle.
Mr. Thorson’s homosexuality wasn’t the only impediment. He drank a lot and when he did he would sometimes “get stupid,” in Ms. Morrill’s words, prompting her to call the police. Still, she held out hope that one day he would propose. And one day, he did, but with a ring with a pearl on top that she somehow knew he had purchased with a stolen credit card.
“I said to him, ‘I’m looking for a diamond ring and one that you paid for yourself,’ ” she said, laughing. “He got pretty mad that I didn’t want it.”
She speaks with a note of nostalgia about those strife-ridden years. It’s a note you won’t hear when you discuss the subject with Mr. Thorson.
“Horrible!” he said of his Maine phase. “It was so boring. I hated the weather. Five feet of snow. It was too quiet. I had to get the hell out of there.”
Mr. Thorson moved to Palm Springs, where he would be arrested a handful of times for stealing groceries and drug possession, among many other charges. Early in this era, he met Tony Pelicone.
“I recently learned that he came by our house to meet someone I was dating,” Mr. Pelicone said. “Later his house burned and nobody was there to pick him up. So I did, thinking he’d stay for a few days. That turned into 10 years.”
Initially, Mr. Pelicone was thrilled to meet Liberace’s ex, and he introduced Mr. Thorson to his mother and stepfather, Oliver Mading. Mr. Mading, a businessman with a background in packaged foods, says he negotiated the “Behind the Candelabra” movie deal with the producer Jerry Weintraub, while Mr. Thorson was in prison on drug charges. After his release, Mr. Thorson spent his cut of the movie earnings — just under $100,000 — in about two months, mostly on cars and jewelry.
“We always knew Jess without money,” Mr. Mading said. “Not that $100,000 is King Midas’ trove, but Jess burned through it like a complete idiot.”
Mr. Thorson says he’s now penniless because of outlays for cancer treatment. The truth is almost beside the point. An assortment of siblings and half-siblings want nothing to do with him, Mr. Mading says. His only real assets today are the intangibles that Liberace bequeathed him, most notably, a peculiar place in showbiz history as the kid that Liberace once adored and tried to remake in his image.
“There’s always been a love-hate relationship,” Mr. Thorson said when asked to describe his feelings about Liberace today. “At that time, I was so honored to be in his presence. And I didn’t want to go back to my lifestyle in the foster homes, which was pure hell.”
Their years together scarred him, he says, and partially explain the troubles that followed. But those years were also the happiest of his life. So though he removed the chin implant, he also had a tribute to Liberace tattooed on his forearm. He rolls up the sleeve of a gray thermal undershirt to reveal an inky cluster of curlicued letters and symbols. In the middle is Liberace’s name, surrounded by floating musical notes, plus the years that Liberace lived and a yellow rose.
“His favorite flower,” Mr. Thorson said matter-of-factly, rolling his sleeve back down.May 12th, 2013
Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times
Austin Young, one of three artists who make up Fallen Fruit, tending to young trees at the Del Aire park. The project was started by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
NY Times Published: May 11, 2013
DEL AIRE, Calif. — Fruit looms large in the California psyche. Since the 1800s, dewy images of oranges, lemons and other fruits have been a lure for seekers of the state’s postcard essence, symbols of fertile land, felicitous climate and the possibilities of pleasure.
Now a cheeky trio of artists have turned fruit trees into cultural symbols as well. The group, known as Fallen Fruit, recently planted what is being billed as the state’s first public fruit park in an unincorporated community with neatly clipped lawns outside Los Angeles.
The park is part of a growing “fruit activist” movement, a variation on a theme of urban agriculture. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission initiated the project to “fulfill a civic purpose,” said Laura Zucker, the commission’s executive director, addressing the public-health advantage for communities that are so-called food deserts, with few stores and healthy restaurants.
“They give endlessly and don’t ask for anything in return,” Austin Young, one of Fallen Fruit’s members, said of the fruit trees that make up the group’s latest “art piece” — a fledgling orchard of Tropic Snow white peaches, Mariposa plums and other trees installed alongside swing sets and basketball hoops here in Del Aire Park.
Fallen Fruit, which also comprises Matias Viegener and David Allen Burns, has become well known among art and culinary cognoscenti here and across social media. One of the group’s first activities was mapping publicly accessible fruit trees in Silver Lake and other Los Angeles neighborhoods, including private trees with succulent fruit tantalizingly draped over public rights of way.
To kick off the opening of the fruit park here, which consists of 27 trees planted on the site and 60 more distributed to residents, the group held one of their ritual public “fruit jams,” in which participants gather around a portable stove to make never-before-seen concoctions from whatever surplus fruit is available.
Del Aire, population 10,000 and one of about 140 unincorporated communities scattered throughout Los Angeles County, is a somewhat isolated area bordered on the north and east by the 405 and 105 freeways that feels light-years away from the Frank Gehry world of contemporary Los Angeles art. With its modest postwar ranch houses built for aerospace workers, “Del Aire is not to be confused with Bel Air,” said John Koppelman, a heavy-truck operator and the president of the neighborhood association.
The decision to go with “edible art” as part of a larger park renovation, rather than a standard mural, was seen as a way to foster residents’ participation, said Karly Katona, a deputy to Mark Ridley-Thomas, the local county supervisor. Traditionally, public works officials have opposed fruit trees because of maintenance concerns, she said, like sidewalks stained or made slippery by fallen rotted fruit.
“There is an understanding that the community will be involved in upkeep” of the park, she said. “It’s an experiment,” she added. “It might not work.”
The heady philosophical question of whether fruit trees are art does not seem to preoccupy residents like Virgie Shields, 89, who recalled that the neighborhood was “a mud puddle with polliwogs” before 1950, the year she moved onto the choice corner lot that now boasts a persimmon tree.
“There’s a sense of shared anticipation,” said Dee Williams, an adjunct photography professor at Chapman University, who can admire her new Beauty plum tree from her kitchen window. “It speaks to the future, because everyone wants to see the trees do well.”
For the members of Fallen Fruit, who once videotaped lingonberries, salmonberries and blueberries in the Norwegian Arctic for a project titled “The Loneliest Fruit in the World,” the process of planting and harvesting fruit is a community bonding experience — an act of “social art” in which public space is reimagined. The fruit from Del Aire’s trees is to be divvied up among “host families,” as the artists call the residents, with a fruit map posted on the Web. “Fruit is nonpolarizing,” Mr. Burns said. “When you walk through a place that has fruit trees, it’s typically a place that feels optimistic and abundant, rather than desperate or ignored.”
Though Fallen Fruit is rooted in Los Angeles, the group is also part of a growing fruit-activist movement, midwifed by pioneers like TreePeople in Los Angeles, which has given away some 200,000 trees, including thousands of fruit trees, since 1983. Newer arrivals include “urban space hackers” like the Guerrilla Grafters in San Francisco, who surreptitiously graft fruit tree branches onto purely ornamental trees. Another is the San Francisco Garden Registry, which tracks urban farmers online and, like a fruit dating service, helps them meet and share their surplus harvests.
Margaret Crawford, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, said that Fallen Fruit and other activists were tapping into urban agriculture as a growing force in which creative noncommercial possibilities for public spaces are being explored beyond community gardening.
“There is a new political philosophy emerging in which literally anybody can be an agent of transformation,” she said. “It’s bringing attention to the cumbersome and always-expanding regulatory apparatus of the city.”
New orchards are springing up in other cities, too, including Chicago, where the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project seeks to preserve forgotten fruit like the pawpaw, and Seattle, where Seattle City Fruit volunteers are liberating orchards long concealed by vines. Another Seattle project is the Beacon Food Forest, growing things like figs, quinces and hazelnuts on public land.
Back in Del Aire, the arrival of fruit trees in a California public park resurrects a bit of history, said Douglas Cazaux Sackman, a professor at the University of Puget Sound and the author of “Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden” (University of California Press, 2005). The citrus groves that once defined Los Angeles and environs largely disappeared in a welter of real estate development.
Though minuscule by agribusiness standards, the new fruit park is a cause for celebration, he said. “It brings that golden wonder of California back for people to enjoy and be nourished by.”May 12th, 2013
The average carbon dioxide reading surpassed 400 parts per million at the research facility atop the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii for the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. on Thursday. Chris Stewart/Associated Press
By JUSTIN GILLIS
NY Times Published: May 10, 2013
The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.
Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.
The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.
“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.
Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.
Virtually every automobile ride, every plane trip and, in most places, every flip of a light switch adds carbon dioxide to the air, and relatively little money is being spent to find and deploy alternative technologies.
China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.
The new measurement came from analyzers atop Mauna Loa, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii that has long been ground zero for monitoring the worldwide trend on carbon dioxide, or CO2. Devices there sample clean, crisp air that has blown thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, producing a record of rising carbon dioxide levels that has been closely tracked for half a century.
Carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million was first seen in the Arctic last year, and had also spiked above that level in hourly readings at Mauna Loa.
But the average reading for an entire day surpassed that level at Mauna Loa for the first time in the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday. The two monitoring programs use slightly different protocols; NOAA reported an average for the period of 400.03 parts per million, while Scripps reported 400.08.
Carbon dioxide rises and falls on a seasonal cycle, and the level will dip below 400 this summer as leaf growth in the Northern Hemisphere pulls about 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air. But experts say that will be a brief reprieve — the moment is approaching when no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.
“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.
From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between. The evidence shows that global temperatures and CO2 levels are tightly linked.
For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near that upper bound. But the burning of fossil fuels has caused a 41 percent increase in the heat-trapping gas since the Industrial Revolution, a mere geological instant, and scientists say the climate is beginning to react, though they expect far larger changes in the future.
Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.
Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.
“It takes a long time to melt ice, but we’re doing it,” Dr. Keeling said. “It’s scary.”
Dr. Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, began carbon dioxide measurements on Mauna Loa and at other locations in the late 1950s. The elder Dr. Keeling found a level in the air then of about 315 parts per million — meaning that if a person had filled a million quart jars with air, about 315 quart jars of carbon dioxide would have been mixed in.
His analysis revealed a relentless, long-term increase superimposed on the seasonal cycle, a trend that was dubbed the Keeling Curve.
Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” Ralph Keeling said.
Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets. Scientists say that unless far greater efforts are made soon, the goal of limiting the warming will become impossible without severe economic disruption.
“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”
Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.
But climate scientists reject that argument, saying it is like claiming that a tiny bit of arsenic or cobra venom cannot have much effect. Research shows that even at such low levels, carbon dioxide is potent at trapping heat near the surface of the earth.
“If you’re looking to stave off climate perturbations that I don’t believe our culture is ready to adapt to, then significant reductions in CO2 emissions have to occur right away,” said Mark Pagani, a Yale geochemist who studies climates of the past. “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”May 11th, 2013
Through June 9 2013May 11th, 2013
By KRISTIN WARTMAN
NY Times Published: May 10, 2013
THE home-cooked family meal is often lauded as the solution for problems ranging from obesity to deteriorating health to a decline in civility and morals. Using whole foods to prepare meals without additives and chemicals is the holy grail for today’s advocates of better eating.
But how do we get there? For many of us, whether we are full-time workers or full-time parents, this home-cooked meal is a fantasy removed from the reality of everyday life. And so Americans continue to rely on highly processed and refined foods that are harmful to their health.
Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans. It makes it easier for the industry to sell its products as real American food, with real American sensibilities — namely, affordability and convenience.
I believe the solution to getting people into the kitchen exists in a long-forgotten proposal. In the 1960s and ’70s, when American feminists were fighting to get women out of the house and into the workplace, there was another feminist arguing for something else. Selma James, a labor organizer from Brooklyn, pushed the idea of wages for housework. Ms. James, who worked in a factory as a young woman and later became a housewife and a mother, argued that household work was essential to the American economy and wondered why women weren’t being paid for it. As Ms. James and a colleague wrote in 1972, “Where women are concerned their labor appears to be a personal service outside of capital.”
She argued that it was a mistake to define feminism simply as equal pay in the work force. Instead, she wanted to formally acknowledge the work women were already doing. She knew that women wouldn’t stop doing housework once they joined the work force — rather they would return home each evening for the notorious “second shift.”
Many feminists at the time ignored the Wages for Housework campaign, while some were blatantly antagonistic toward it. Even today, with all the talk of the importance of home cooking — a huge part of housework — no one ever seems to mention Ms. James or Wages for Housework.
But ignoring this idea once again devalues housework and places a premium on working outside of the home. Since women first began to enter the work force, families have increasingly relied on processed foods and inexpensive restaurant meals. Those foods tend to have more calories and less nutritional value than fresh vegetables, fruits and meats, so it’s easy to see how the change in meal patterns led to a surge in obesity.
In 1970, Americans spent 26 percent of their food budget on eating out; by 2010, that number had risen to 41 percent. Over that period, rates of obesity in the United States more than doubled. Diabetes diagnoses have also soared, to 25.8 million in 2011 from roughly three million in 1968.
It’s nearly impossible for a single parent or even two parents working full time to cook every meal from scratch, planning it beforehand and cleaning it up afterward. This is why many working parents of means employ housekeepers. But if we put this work on women of lower socioeconomic status (as is almost always the case), what about their children? Who cooks and cleans up for them?
In the Wages for Housework campaign, Ms. James argued for a shorter workweek for all, in part so men could help raise the children. This is not a pipe dream. Several Northern European nations have instituted social programs that reflect the importance of this work. The Netherlands promotes a “1.5 jobs model,” which allows men and women to work 75 percent of their regular hours when they have young children. In Sweden, parents can choose to work three-quarters of their normal hours until children turn 8.
To get Americans cooking, we need to make it possible. Stay-at-home parents should qualify for a new government program while they are raising young children — one that provides money for good food, as well as education on cooking, meal planning and shopping — so that one parent in a two-parent household, or a single parent, can afford to be home with the children and provide wholesome, healthy meals. These payments could be financed by taxing harmful foods, like sugary beverages, highly caloric, processed snack foods and nutritionally poor options at fast food and other restaurants. Directly linking a tax on harmful food products to a program that benefits health would provide a clear rebuttal to critics of these taxes. Business owners who argue that such taxes will hurt their bottom lines would, in fact, benefit from new demand for healthy food options and from customers with money to spend on such foods.
If we truly value domestic work, we should also enact workplace policies that incentivize health, like “health days” that employees could use for health-promoting activities: shopping for food, cooking, or tending a community garden.
We can’t democratize good food without placing tangible value on the work done in the home. So while proponents of healthier eating are right to emphasize the importance of home-cooking and communal meals, we will never create an actual movement without placing a cultural and monetary premium on the hard work of cooking and the time and skills needed to do it.May 11th, 2013
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
NY Times Published: May 7, 2013
A mayoral forum on animal rights, held at the Union Theological Seminary on Monday, offered the strange sight of New York politicians trying to outdo one another in gentleness and compassion. Five candidates sat beneath organ pipes, professing their love of four-legged creatures and easily eliciting cheers, claps, woos and hoots from an audience that seemed neither to know nor care how expertly it was being played.
The main topic was the carriage horses that work in Central Park and Midtown and, through the advocacy of a real-estate executive, Steve Nislick, have plodded into the middle of the mayor’s race. But it was also about dogs, cats, pet stores, vegetarian diets and the animal-control system. There was a brief discussion of Canada geese.
Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker, wasn’t there, but she was openly disdained. Her support of the carriage-horse industry has made her a prime enemy of Mr. Nislick’s anti-carriage organization, the forum’s host. The audience was first given a moment to call Ms. Quinn and chew her out. Then the four Democrats present — William Thompson Jr., Bill de Blasio, John Liu, Sal Albanese — and a Republican — John Catsimatidis — fielded questions. Together they gave a master class in showing a single-issue audience how sincerely it is loved.
Mr. de Blasio said the city should ban the carriages now and instead drive tourists around in electric cars. Like the others, he favored allowing older residents to keep pets in their apartments, reforming the city’s animal-control agency and adding animal shelters. Mr. Liu vigorously defended mixed-breed shelter pets and said “we’ve got to do much, much more” for animal rights.
Mr. Albanese tried gamely to bring up his real priorities — jobs and the middle class — but agreed that being humane to animals is what a good city does, and he told how a Chihuahua named Joey had kept his mother-in-law alive. Mr. Thompson reminded everyone that when he was the city’s comptroller he had exposed carriage-horse abuse. Mr. Catsimatidis spoke of the time his daughter’s cockatiel flew the coop and was rescued by firefighters. “You have to tell those birds you love ’em every day,” he said.
The forum offered a vision of a city where the two-legged and four-legged live in peace, though no one spoke for the pigeons and rats. It was a far cry from the days of Rudy Giuliani, whose sneering assault on a pet owner is legend (“This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness,” he told a man who called his radio program to complain about the city’s ban on ferrets).
Mr. Catsimatidis offered a compromise on carriage horses: keeping them, for the “ambience,” but only in Central Park. The horses would have to keep working — “There’s no free ride,” he said — but could retire to the zoo. His idea brought a barrage of catcalls, but the sometimes combative Mr. Catsimatidis did not fire back.
“Only a suggestion,” he said.May 8th, 2013
By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD
NY Times Published: May 8, 2013
With fair-trade coffee and organic fruit now standard on grocery shelves, consumers concerned with working conditions, environmental issues and outsourcing are increasingly demanding similar accountability for their T-shirts. The issue has been brought to the forefront by the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 800 people.
And some retailers are doing what was once unthinkable, handing over information about exactly how, and where, their products were made.
Everlane, an online boutique, last week added paragraphs to its Web site describing the factories where its products are made.
Nordstrom says it is considering adding information about clothes produced in humane working conditions.
An online boutique breaks down the number of workers involved in making each item and the cost of every component, while a textiles company intends to trumpet the fair-trade origins of its robes when Bed Bath & Beyond starts selling them this month.
And a group of major retailers and apparel companies, including some — like Nike and Walmart — with a history of controversial manufacturing practices overseas, says it is developing an index that will include labor, social and environmental measures.
New research indicates a growing consumer demand for information about how and where goods are produced. A study last year by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard showed that some consumers — even those who were focused on discount prices — were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices.
“There’s real demand for sweat-free products,” said Ian Robinson, a lecturer and research scientist at the University of Michigan who studies labor issues. Consumers “don’t have the information they need, and they do care.”
The garment factory collapse that killed more than 800 workers in Bangladesh last month has added urgency to the movement, as retailers have seen queries stream in from worried customers.
“In the clothing industry, everybody wears it every day, but we have no idea where it comes from,” said Michael Preysman, Everlane’s chief executive and founder. “People are starting to slowly clue in to this notion of where products are made.”
Major retailers have long balked at disclosing the full trail, saying that sourcing is inherently complex — a sweater made in Italy may have thread, wool and dye from elsewhere. Another reason: Workplace protections are expensive, and cheap clothes, no matter where or how they are manufactured, still sell, as H&M, Zara and Joe Fresh show through their rapid expansion.
But labor advocates note that consumers’ appetite for more information may put competitive pressure on retailers who are less than forthcoming. In recent weeks, government officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and labor and consumer advocates have cited the Bangladesh collapse in calling for the adoption of fair-trade standards or labeling. In direct response to what happened in Bangladesh, Everlane added information to its Web site about the factories where its clothing is made. “This factory is located 10 minutes from our L.A. office,” one description for a T-shirt reads . “Mr. Kim, the owner, has been in the L.A. garment business for over 30 years.”
Everlane says it will soon add cost breakdowns for all of its clothing, along with photographs of factories where that clothing is made and information about the production.
Mr. Preysman says Everlane has long received questions from customers “around where the products are sourced from and how we can tell that the labor is good.” It is an inexact science, he said. But he added that he looks for factories certified by independent outside organizations and has executives spend time with a factory’s owner to see if he or she “is a decent human being.”
Honest By, a high-fashion site introduced last year, includes even more specific information about its products. Take a cotton shirt that costs about $320: it took 33 minutes to cut, 145 minutes to assemble and 10 minutes to iron at a Belgian factory, then the trim took an additional 10 minutes at a Slovenian plant. The safety pin cost 4 cents, and transportation about $10.50.
Bruno Pieters, the site’s founder, said by e-mail that “as long as we keep paying companies to be unsustainable and unethical, they will be.” But, he said, that may be changing. He cited a spike in sales that he asserted was in response to issues raised by recent overseas sourcing disasters.
Lush Cosmetics, a company based in Britain, has added video from its factories and photographs from buying trips to places like Kenya and Ghana to its Facebook page. Simon Constantine, head perfumer and ethical buyer, said he would like to add links to the factories Lush buys from, to encourage other cosmetics companies to support them.
Nordstrom said it had provided factory information in response to shoppers’ calls, and was considering going a step further, said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman. The Nordstrom Web site specifies eco-friendly products, “so how can we do the same with people-friendly?” Ms. Darrow asked. “Hearing from customers and knowing they care definitely compels us to want to do more.”
A variety of groups are working on new apparel industry labor standards.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes big names like Nike, Walmart, Gap, J. C. Penney and Target, has been testing an index called the Higg Index. It started last year with environmental goals, but the new version due this fall will include social and labor measurements.
The coalition was formed in 2011 to create one industry standard for sustainability and labor practices, rather than a patchwork approach. Some of the companies supporting this index have had sourcing problems — Walmart subcontractors were using the Tazreen factory, the Bangladesh plant where a fire killed 112 workers last November. Gap, Target and Penney produced clothing at another Bangladesh factory, where a fire killed about 30 workers in 2010. Nike, which faced a global boycott over sweatshop conditions in its overseas factories, was among the first major apparel companies pressured to disclose the factories it uses.
For now, the index is just for companies’ internal use. But Jason Kibbey, executive director of the coalition, said the goal was to give the information to shoppers, too, through a label or via the Web or apps. Labor advocates like Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, however, say that self-regulation may be ineffective.
Another certification, Fair Trade USA, began in coffee and only recently moved into apparel. PrAna, a yoga company that is among the first American apparel firms to be fair-trade certified, said the process included tours of its cut-and-sew plant in Liberia and other factories, a review of factory books and systems, and an assessment of workers’ pay relative to local salaries. PrAna sold one fair-trade T-shirt in 2011, and now sells nine such products.
Those products are priced 10 percent more than a comparable item, said its chief executive, Scott Kerslake, and they have been selling well, but PrAna has to be careful not to “completely chase away consumers on it” given the more expensive process. Now, it is trying to do more to alert consumers to the certification: the logo is only on PrAna’s tags, but it plans to put the certification logo on garments.
For some shoppers, the fair-trade pitch goes only so far. Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy, which is introducing a fair-trade certified bathrobe at Bed Bath & Beyond this month, said it could be hard to convey the message, and “that’s why we sell on style, quality and price.”
Neeru Paharia, an assistant professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown, recently completed a study on consumers’ attitudes toward sweatshop labor. She found that the complex supply chain in retailing made it easier for consumers to justify poor labor practices.
“Most people probably would not hire a child, lock them in their basement, and have them make their clothes,” she said, “but this system is so abstracted.”
She also found that consumers were concerned with labor practices — as long as they were not that interested in buying a product like shoes. But “if the shoes are cute — if they like the shoes — they actually think sweatshop labor is less wrong,” she said.
The collapse in Bangladesh may be changing that. One look at the Facebook site of Joe Fresh, which produced clothing at that factory, suggests that customers are upset, and Joe Fresh’s parent, Loblaw Companies, has vowed to audit factories more aggressively and compensate the victims’ families. Shoppers like Lauri Langton, 62, of Seattle, plan to push retailers for more information. “You should be able to tell, right away, where the product is produced, so that you can walk away from the product and not buy it if you do not believe it was produced in a humane way,” she said. “That’s where we have power as consumers.”May 8th, 2013
Objects and Paintings
May 18 – July 6, 2013
Opening reception: Saturday, May 18, 6:00–9:00pmMay 7th, 2013
By MARIA RUSSO
NY Times Published: May 6, 2013
LOS ANGELES — On a recent morning the novelist Rachel Kushner stood in the parking garage of the Petersen Automotive Museum, where the Green Monster, a lean, turbo-jet-powered vehicle used to set land speed records, was displayed in a roped-off corner. In her new, rapturously reviewed novel, “The Flamethrowers,” set in the 1970s, the narrator finds herself driving just such a vehicle on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where those records are set.
How outlandish is it to put a ’70s female character in a speed machine designed to go 500 miles an hour? “I based that scene on something that actually happened in 1965,” Ms. Kushner said. She went on to describe how the racer Craig Breedlove talked his wife, Lee, into taking a vehicle out on the salt flats to make the terrain unavailable to one of his competitors, who was hoping to ride that day. “Lee Breedlove went 308.506 miles per hour,” she said. “That made her the fastest woman in the world.”
It’s the same speed and the same record achieved by Ms. Kushner’s narrator, Reno. But Reno’s fascination with speed is part of an even more treacherous project: moving to New York City to become an artist at a time when the downtown scene is both male-dominated and plugged into a revolutionary impulse, with protest shading into violence.
Painting is dead, Minimalism is on the decline, and artists are ransacking their own bodies and lives for ideas and gestures that might make an impact. At 23, Reno, trying to capture “the experience of speed” by photographing her motorcycle’s tracks on the salt flats, becomes the girlfriend of an older Italian Minimalist, the scion of a tire and motorcycle company called Moto Valera. With him, she can attend chic events like a dinner party where she realizes that despite her hostess’s “feminist claims and enlightened look,” women are expected to help in the kitchen.
“Reno is a persuasive and moving narrator because Ms. Kushner allows her the vulnerability and fuzzy-mindedness of youth while rarely allowing her to think or say a commonplace thing,” Dwight Garner wrote in The Times, adding that the novelist’s prose “puts you in mind of weary-souled visionaries like Robert Stone and Joan Didion.”
Ms. Kushner, 44, has the relaxed intensity of a ballet dancer — an Eastside Los Angeles thrift-shop-clad Suzanne Farrell, if Ms. Farrell could handle the clutch on a Moto Guzzi. Over lunch at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, across the street from the Petersen, she reflected on the situation of women in the art world of the 1970s.
While “The Flamethrowers” is peopled by an invented cast of artists, dealers and hangers-on, “I was really inspired by these larger-than-life female artists like Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse and Yvonne Rainier and the incredible Lynda Benglis,” she said. “There were many women who were really driven and became successful, who were part of essential paradigm shifts, despite the fact that the art world was still dominated by men.”
Ms. Kushner was born in Eugene, Ore., to bohemian parents who were completing doctorates in biology and spent long hours in their labs. For a time the family, which included an older brother, lived in a Merry-Pranksters-like bus. “Our parents had Ph.D.’s, but we were dirty ragamuffin children,” she recalled. “I spent a huge amount of time by myself. I daydreamed and learned how to be alone and not be lonely.”
Her father, whose Jewish New York family was in the Communist Party, collected beatnik poetry and rode a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. Her mother, who Ms. Kushner said once slept in Central Park for a summer, is from a family of St. Louis Unitarians who lived for a time in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Ms. Kushner’s grandfather worked for a nickel-mining company there, the inspiration for her first novel, “Telex From Cuba,” nominated for a National Book Award in 2008.
At 16, Ms. Kushner enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in political economy, raced on the ski team and managed to get good grades while feeling unprepared, she said, academically and socially. To help with the bills, she worked as a waitress in a blues bar where she was frequently the only white person.
“I’m drawn in some strangely natural way to immersing myself in a milieu whose rules I don’t understand, where there are things you can’t access simply by being intelligent or doing well in school,” she said. After college, she worked for a concert promoter and took up motorcycle riding, living in a converted warehouse arrayed with vintage bikes. She depended on her roommates to help her maintain her own Moto Guzzi. “I have enormous respect for people who are gifted mechanics,” she said.
These experiences helped her sketch the predicament Reno faces as she tries, and often fails, to decipher the social codes of 1970s SoHo, as well as the haute-bourgeois Northern Italy of her boyfriend’s family and the underground protest scene in Rome. “If a writer is always trying to keep a narrator emitting a tone of complete knowingness, it can become false,” Ms. Kushner said.
In 1997 she headed for New York City and Columbia University’s master of fine arts program, where at 29 she was older than most of her classmates. Jonathan Franzen was among her teachers. “I had the sense that she came from a place where nobody had told young women what they could and couldn’t be,” he said. “She was strikingly curious and well informed about the mechanics of the real world, and was neither afraid of intellectual content, nor in any way pretentious about it.”
Ms. Kushner shares a two-story American Craftsman house in the Angelino Heights section of Los Angeles with her husband, Jason Smith, who teaches philosophy in the graduate art program at Art Center College of Design, and their 5-year-old son, Remy. It is austerely decorated with vintage furniture and an eclectic mix of art, including a painting of a self-possessed woman in an evening dress by the Social Realist artist Isaac Soyer that once hung in her grandparents’ Long Island home.
Behind the back alley sits her ’64 Ford Galaxie 500, currently not running. As for motorcycles, she said, the only riding she does now is an occasional turn on her father’s Vincent. Mostly she gets around by car, in a Honda Accord.
She has chosen to be risky in another way. “All these things I was interested in — motorcycles, art, revolution and radical politics — don’t seem connected, yet I thought they could become so, in the space of a novel,” she said. Just as Reno could easily have wiped out on the Bonneville Flats, she added, “there had to be the real possibility that the novel could be a disaster.”
Books of The Times: ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner (April 17, 2013)May 6th, 2013
May 18 through July 28, 2013May 6th, 2013
By DAVID HOCHMAN
NY Times Published: May 3, 2013
Ron Finley was home by the pool recently when his thoughts once again turned to dirt. “People need to realize how powerful the transformation of soil can be,” he said, with a hint of evangelism. “We’ve gotten so far away from our food source. It’s been hijacked from us. But if you get soil, plant something in it and water it, you can feed yourself. It’s that simple.”
Mr. Finley’s two-story house in South Los Angeles used to be headquarters for a swimming school but the pool was drained long ago to make way for greener dreams. Potted cactuses, bags of organic fertilizer and gardening equipment cluttered the shallow end. Graffiti emblazoned its once-white walls. Old shopping carts planted with succulents lined the pool’s edge.
“We’re going to do a parade with a hundred of these to show you can repurpose the carts instead of just junking them,” he said.
It was early afternoon and Mr. Finley, who is tall, extroverted and disinclined to give his age (he has two sons in their 20s), had been up since dawn dealing with e-mails, invitations and other byproducts of what he called “the TED effect.” Last winter at TED, the annual ideas confab in Long Beach, his rousing 10-minute talk about guerrilla gardening in low-income neighborhoods was the hug-your-neighbor presentation of the week, and Mr. Finley was suddenly the man to meet.
“I should have brought a stripper pole and had people throw money at me,” said Mr. Finley, who juggles jobs as a fitness trainer and fashion designer to support his passion for gardening. He does not receive a salary for his work at L.A. Green Grounds, the volunteer organization he helped found three years ago to install vegetable gardens in vacant lots and sidewalk medians in blighted areas.
TED was a world apart. “Sergey Brin from Google was standing there clapping,” he said, “Benedikt Taschen was inviting me to his Hollywood parties and Goldie Hawn wanted to say hi and kiss me. I kept thinking, what am I doing here?”
Since then, Mr. Finley has been thrust into the unlikely role of pavement-pounding Johnny Appleseed. His talk has received almost 900,000 views on TED’s Web site and his message that edible gardens are the antidote to inner-city health issues, poverty and gang violence (“if you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta,” he told the crowd) has gone supernova.
The talk show host Carson Daly, the actress Rashida Jones and the celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi were among hundreds of new admirers issuing shout-outs on Twitter.
Alice Waters stopped by Mr. Finley’s house, Russell Brand put him on his late-night talk show, and corporations like Reebok, Disney, Stihl and Toms Shoes had collaboration ideas. A graduate student asked to write a dissertation about Mr. Finley, who, to his credit, has kept an eyebrow arched over his newfound fame.
“All the attention in the world won’t do my dishes,” he said.
“Ron is compelling, funny and completely authentic in his quest to redefine what’s possible in areas where there’s no nature to be seen,” said Chris Anderson, the TED curator who helped select Mr. Finley as one of 34 speakers discovered during a worldwide talent search that drew thousands of applicants last year. “He takes on the depressing narrative that our inner cities are irretrievably decaying. Watching him fight back rewires your worldview.”
Mr. Finley, who grew up with seven siblings near the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, where the 1992 Los Angeles riots began, aligns more with graffiti artists like Risk and Retna, both friends of Mr. Finley’s, than with English horticulturalists of yore. Neat rows of zucchini are for grandmas. His gardens have spirals, color, fragrance and curves, and, to him, soil is sensuous. “How much more sexy can it get than you eating food that you grew?” Mr. Finley asked.
In a city where an elite few fuss over $13 plates of escarole wedges, too many others eat at 98-cent stores and drive-throughs or go hungry altogether. Mr. Finley estimates that the City of Los Angeles owns 26 square miles of vacant lots, an area equivalent to 20 Central Parks, with enough space for 724,838,400 tomato plants.
His radical fix is to take back that land and plant it, even if it’s the skinny strip between concrete and curb.
It was the barren 150-by-10-foot median outside Mr. Finley’s house that inspired his first act of crab grass defiance. In 2010, he planted a sidewalk garden to reduce grocery expenses and to avoid the 45-minute round-trip to Whole Foods.
“I wanted a carrot without toxic ingredients I didn’t know how to spell,” he said.
A few months later, neighbors were gawking in delight at the sight of pumpkins, peppers, sunflowers, kale and corn in an area better known for hubcap shops. Late one night, Mr. Finley, who is a single father, noticed a mother and daughter sneaking food from his garden. He conceived L.A. Green Grounds as a way to share the abundance with people like them.
The city was less magnanimous. As do other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles owns the “parkways” that run alongside the curb, and the Bureau of Street Services cited Mr. Finley for gardening on his median without the required $400 permit.
Outraged, he and a band of green-thumbed activists petitioned a member of the City Council, who convinced the city to back off.
“People in my neighborhood are so disconnected from the fresh food supply that kids don’t know an eggplant from a sweet potato,” Mr. Finley said. “We have to show them how to get grounded in the truest sense of the word.”
That missionary zeal got Mr. Finley noticed by Jesse Dylan, a filmmaker whose company made a short video about the gardener’s City Hall battle. It helped that Mr. Finley is a magnetic character. He motors around town in a three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder roadster, often dressed in the couture garments he designs for his clothing company, the Dropdead Collexion. His storehouse of African-American entertainment memorabilia is considered one of the country’s most impressive, at least by Mr. Finley.
“Ron’s got a deep and feisty spirit,” Mr. Dylan said. “He’s a modern Walt Whitman with attitude.”
On a sparkling Saturday morning in March, Mr. Finley was overseeing a “dig-in” in Baldwin Hills with around 20 volunteers from L.A. Green Grounds. “We’re usually begging people, but this time we had 300 requests,” he said.
After a few hours of working with donated shovels, mulch and seedlings, the team transformed a backyard tangle of weeds and pale grass into an outdoor salad bar offering Japanese eggplant, black tomatoes, Swiss chard, red kale, dragon kale and plum trees. It was organic proof of Mr. Finley’s second most indelible line from TED, that “growing your own food is like printing your own money.” (His most memorable line is not suitable for printing here.)
Mr. Finley now faces the challenge of living up to the hype. “The world is behind Ron, and it’s wonderful that his efforts and instincts intersect with latent support,” said Ben Goldhirsh, a co-founder and chief executive of GOOD, a publishing and marketing business that promotes social causes, and whose Goldhirsh Foundation plans to give Mr. Finley a grant. “The question is how to convert that energy into outcomes. Ron’s got a lot of energy and ability. It’s up to him whether he can harness that for the long slog.”
With a shovel in one hand and a cellphone full of new messages in the other, Mr. Finley appeared to have as many plans as there are seeds in the new garden.
“I want to plant entire blocks of vegetable beds,” he said, back in preacher mode. “I want to turn shipping containers into healthy cafes where customers can pick their salad and juice off the trees. I want our inner-city churches to become ministries of health instead of places that serve up fried, fattening foods. I want to clean up my yard, my street and my ’hood.”
The neighbors are certainly responding. In April, a local dialysis clinic pictured in his PowerPoint slide show at TED wrote to say it had more than 200 volunteers ready to serve Mr. Finley’s cause. “It’s definitely a start,” he said. “Although the kind of support this community needs might eventually put them out of business.”
If nothing else, Mr. Finley hopes to use his moment in the spotlight to give the next generation an alternative. “I wish,” he said, “somebody had told me, ‘don’t go down that street,’ or ‘find yourself a mentor,’ so that’s a role I’m trying to play.”
The future he envisions is full of shovels, not guns, and mint and marjoram instead of drugs.
“I saw a kid walking down the street listening to music when he came face to face with one of my giant Russian Mammoth sunflowers,” Mr. Finley said. “He said, ‘Yo, is that real?’ ”
“He thought it was a prop or something. That’s what I want on my streets. Flowers so big and magnificent, they’ll blow a kid’s mind.”May 5th, 2013