31 December 2005

Roberto Clemente: A Howitzer for an Arm, An Ocean for a Heart

In an earlier post on John Lennon, I said that he was one of three people who taught me about caring. The other two were my Aunt Gladys and Roberto Clemente. It seems appropriate to write about him on this, the 33rd Anniversary of Clemente's tragic death, when he and four others crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while flying relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. "Some right fielders have rifles for arms," said Tim McCarver. Clemente "had a howitzer." He also had an ocean for a heart.

Roberto Clemente was born on 18 August 1934, in Barrio San Anton in Carolina, Puerto Rico. He played baseball in the major leagues from 1955 until 1972, the year of his death, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The first Latino Hall of Famer, Clemente finished his career with a .317 batting average, 440 doubles, 166 triples, 240 home runs, and 1,305 RBI in 2,433 games. He hit exactly 3,000 hits, knocking a double in his very last at-bat. I have a framed photograph of this hit in my house.

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and grew up between there and Boston, along the Route 1 Corridor, 45 minutes from anywhere. I am a lifelong Red Sox fan, followed them religiously throughout my life, which encompassed three World Series losses before the 2004 season. So how did I become a fan of Roberto Clemente, who played his entire career in the National League on a team in a city nearly 600 miles from my hometown?

I'm not sure what it was that first attracted me to number 21. I started reading about him in the peak of his career, maybe it was the writers' adjectives. Late at night, I could pick up a Pittsburgh station on the radio and listen to his feats in the "green fields of the mind." The old television series "This Week in Baseball," showed me Clemente's "howitzer arm." He easily threw runners out as they tried to stretch a double into a triple, which was always a mistake against Roberto. Curt Gowdy on NBC brought me the All-Star Game and the 1971 World Series against Earl Weaver's Orioles. Clemente batted .414 in that World Series.

However, something else drew me to Clemente. I am part Portuguese on my mother's side, and in southern New England at the time, probably still, this came with a certain sense of insecurity. "Pork'n'cheese," my Scotch-Irish father used to joke; I had the dark olive skin, black hair and dark eyes of a "Portagee" kid. The ribbing and insults caused me to be ashamed of my Portuguese heritage for a long time. Yet the more I learned about Roberto Clemente's difficulties on and off the field dealing with prejudices against Hispanics and African Americans, the more I felt a kinship with the right fielder.

For one entire summer, I wore only a t-shirt someone (an Aunt or Uncle?) had given me from a trip to Puerto Rico. It bore one of those economic maps displaying what products came from which area, where the big hotels were, and baseball fields. I knew Clemente had played for the Santurce Crabbers, so I circled the city with a pen. My mother finally had to throw out the t-shirt I had worn it out. I stormed off to my room and wouldn't speak to her for days.

On New Year's Eve 1972, Roberto Clemente boarded a small DC-7 to deliver food, clothing and medicine to victims of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente, who led the Puerto Rican relief effort, and four others died when the four-engine plane, with a questionable past and an overload of cargo, crashed into the Atlantic. This was a major league baseball player, mind you, putting his life on the line to help others. He cared.

I wanted to name my second son Roberto, after my boyhood hero. His mother didn't think "Roberto Anderson" worked too well, so we went with her suggestion, Walker, after the Walkers Percy and Evans. One day, after our son Walker was born, I showed him the framed photograph of Roberto's 3,000th hit, which is mounted with two Clemente baseball cards from my childhood and a postcard of his plaque from the Hall. "I wanted to name you after this guy, one of my heroes," I told him. It was then I looked at the plaque saw that my hero's mother's maiden name was Walker. An astounding coincidence? My Walker and his twin sister were born on 18 August 2003, which would have been Roberto's 69th birthday.

Roberto Clemente Walker was 38 when he launched his ill-advised relief mission in that DC-7. No one could persuade him not to go. He cared that much.

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23 December 2005

The Green Skeptic's Best Books of 2005

Friends and acquaintances are always asking me to recommend books, so I thought now would be a good time to make a list of the best books I've read this year and post it here. While not all of these titles were published this year, I read them in 2005 and recommend to you.


The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, Thomas Friedman. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times and this book was a revelation for him. It is an enthusiast's take on globalization, a bit starry eyed at times, but recommended for his assessment of the effects of globalization on everyday life and how we can adapt to such change. If you only read one book from this list: this is the one to read.

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Jeffrey D. Sachs. Economist Sacks has been on the front lines of major economic change in many developing countries, from Bolivia to the former Soviet Union. Here he offers a prescription for how we can and why we must attack extreme poverty in the 21st Century. He postulates that this is the central issue facing our generation.

Boundaries, Maya Lin. A chronicle of how one artist thinks about her work that will change the way you think about her work. I've been a big fan of hers ever since the early days and have gone out of my way to see her work wherever I can. In this book, designed by the author, Lin proves she is a thoughtful and engaging a writer as she is an artist.

Red Sky in the Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, James Gustave Speth. Speth is dean of the Yale School of Forestry and co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council. His analysis of the current environmental situation is dead-on, as is his thinking about where to go from here. Read this as a companion piece to "The Death of Environmentalism," which is still available through The Breakthrough Institute.

Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade, Pietra Rivoli. If you've ever wondered after the origins of your clothing, this book is for you. If you harbor any doubt that the global economy is a fact of life or that we're all irrevocably connected to one another, read this lively, short book to disabuse you of these notions.

The Spice Islands Voyage, Tim Severin. I read this while on a trip through eastern Indonesia and found Severin's grasp of the natural world exactly as I found it. The book is intriguing and engaging. It's the tale of his re-creation of Alfred Lord Wallace's adventure, including the building of a boat similar to Wallace's, and what he found there, both changed and unchanged in over 100 years. Wallace, some of you will recall, simultaneously developed an evolutionary theory that prompted Darwin to complete his work.

Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival, Carl Safina. Safina, a MacArthur and Pew Fellow who runs the Blue Ocean Institute, follows the remarkable flight of the Albatross as it struggles to survive under extreme conditions. Along the way, Safina makes a compelling case for why our oceans need the attention of global conservationists -- and he tells a great story.

The Millennium Development Goals and Conservation: Managing Nature's Wealth for Society's Health, edited by Dilys Rose. This report makes clear, in simple and direct language, the connections between conservation, development, and poverty. A must read for anyone with delusions of siloed grandeur.

The David Suzuki Reader, David Suzuki. A lifetime of writings from this important activist and thinker, whose perspective on global issues, science, and ethics are informed by his deep concern for the world, as well as his training and background as a geneticist.

Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, George Lakoff. Wanna understand why the right and left can't get along? Or why the Red States and Blue States are as polarized as they are? Lakoff provides some answers to these and other nagging questions, as well as a perspective on what can be done about it.

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows. The controversial book updated to include revised scenarios for unchecked growth on our finite planet. Regardless of your position on natural resource use, it's hard to ignore this book's warnings on climate, water quality and scarcity, oil and forestry -- unless you're an ostrich.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, Daniel Yergin. This book is still, over a decade later, the seminal history of the oil business. And a remarkable story it is. Worth reading (or reading again) if you want to understand why this is the most powerful and influential industry on earth.

Nature's Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How The Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World, Bill Birchard. Business writer Birchard looks into TNC's inner workings and history through the stories of some of its remarkable individuals. This is a frank look at how one of the big conservation organization operates, innovates, and manages change. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years.)


Genius Loci, Alison Hawthorne Deming. The third book of poetry by one of our best -- who happens to be a friend and mentor of mine. The title poem is as engaged with the world as contemporary poetry gets. Why this book has slipped off the critical radar is beyond me. A brilliant book by a poet in top form.

Riverfall, Simmons Buntin. First book of poetry by my editor at Terrain, the online Journal of the Natural and Built Environments. Published in the UK, but available through Amazon and others, this is a clear-eyed work of approachable, lyrical poetry. Check out especially his poem written as Darwin writing to his sister.

Various Modes of Departure, by Deborah Fries. A first book of strong, discursive and authoritative poetry ranging in the intersection between lives lived, remembered and forgotten. She writes with an elegant intelligence and grace.

Pyx, Corrine Lee. A first book and National Poetry Series selection discovered by Pattiann Rogers. Lee balances the sacred and profane, and finds the poetic in the everyday without once getting either sentimental or solipsistic. Her inventive music and use of language belies a readability that is encouraging in a world of poetry written for academe.


Snow, Orhan Pamuk. This novel is perhaps the Turkish writer's most accessible in translation. It follows a poet as he faces the challenges of being an exile returning to a country and a culture that is caught been Europe and a hard place. A timely read with Pamuk's recent trials for "defaming Turkey" by speaking out against the atrocities inflicted by the Turks on the Armenians during WWI. He's likely to win the Nobel for Literature one day, hopefully before he's assassinated by a zealot.

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel. I can't remember whether I read this in 2005 or earlier, but I'll recommend it anyway as one of the handful of excellent novels I've read in the past decade or more. Martel explores the interstices of story, truth and faith in a most fascinating way. You won't forget this story, regardless of which version you believe in the end.

The Fifth Book of Peace, Maxine Hong Kingston. A sequel to her delightful novel of 20 years ago, Tripmaster Monkey, which follows the earlier book's main character Wittman Ah Sing on his adventures in the counter-culture world of late-sixties Hawaii. This is the book Kingston was writing at the time of the Berkeley Hills fires that destroyed all of her possessions, including all copies of the novel. She recreates it here and mingles it with a narrative exploration of personal loss, disaster, perseverance and a call for peace in the world.

This list is not all the books I read in 2005, but it's the best. Please feel free to offer suggestions for books I may have missed. (There's a few still on my "to read" list, including Collapse by Jared Diamond and Europe Central by my old pal William Vollmann.) Happy reading!

21 December 2005

The Human Cost of AIDS

My friend and fellow blogger Jeff Leschensky (Shenky's Log) pointed me to a PSA by Médecins Sans Frontières about the Human Cost of AIDS. It's an animated look at the "snowball effect" of doing nothing to attack the root causes of AIDS: better prevention, universal access to treatment, more research, education, and poverty.

You can view the PSA here.

This type of animation, computerized projections of possible scenarios, is starting to be a trend. Take a look at Greenpeace's "Global Warming: It's the Real Thing" spoof on Coca-Cola commercials to make a point about the climate crisis and its impact on polar bear habitat. (I'll have more to say on that subject later tonight.) I haven't told my son about the polar bears drowning in the arctic waters of Alaska; he's still smarting from last night's news that Johnny Damon has gone over to the evil empire. This would just put him over the edge.

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18 December 2005

End Farm Subsidies by 2013, Says WTO

HONG KONG -- In a move that may have saved this latest round of WTO talks from failure, 149 countries agreed to an end-date for agriculture subsidies, but not until three years after the date that was sought. The EU got it's way on this one and may "owe one" to developing countries as a result, according to some participants.

Perhaps the biggest immediate impact is the elimination of export subsidies on cotton next year, which will help African cotton-growing nations. (It may also cause Pietra Rivoli to revise her fascinating book, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which details the history of such subsides.)

For the complete story, see CNN Money

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17 December 2005

WTO Talks Erupt in Violence Yet Again

HONG KONG-According to the Bangkok Post, hundreds of anti-globalization "protestors were arrested early today as police reclaimed the streets of Hong Kong following a night of violent clashes."

The violence today was the first since the early clashes between police and South Korean protestors on the opening days of deliberations. Of major concern is that, after "two days of relatively peaceful protests, police said they had been expecting thousands of demonstrators at the last two days of the meeting, attended by 6,000 delegates from 149 member states."

The meeting was meant to produce a plan to lower trade barriers for increased global trade, but the sticking point has been agricultural subsidies provided by developed countries.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "time is fast running out for a deal, as negotiators remain deadlocked over the thorniest issues," especially putting an end to farm export subsidies centered in rich countries and bolstering exports from poorer nations.

RFE/RL reports that, "with just one day left, U.S. Deputy Trade Representative Peter Allgeier put a brave face on the faltering talks.

'We have within our grasp in the next 24 hours the possibility of a very significant package of measures, decisions I should say, that would move us forward in meeting our objectives of unleashing the power of trade for development in the form of a successful Doha agreement at the end of next year, so the potential is there, as I said, it is just beyond our fingertips,' Allgeier said.

The draft of the final declaration has agreed that rich countries must scrap their export subsidies for cotton next year, a move aimed at helping poor African producers.

Critics, however, say the talks have failed to reach their main aim -- setting a date for ending rich countries' farm export subsidies.

The draft suggested farm subsidies be eliminated in 2010, or within a period of five years, but both suggestions were inside brackets, meaning neither may be adopted in the end.

The United States and other countries wanted subsidies to end by 2010. But the EU objected. It says the United States and other rich countries must agree to reform their farm-export systems first. And it wants poorer countries to free up their markets for manufactured goods and services.

And there's also no progress on a plan to give greater access to exports for the world's least-developed countries."

For more information, see links above or the World Trade Organization web site.

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13 December 2005

The Montreal Verdict: More Hot Air

I was in Seattle last week for a very productive meeting to set goals for global marine habitat protection by 2015. It was one of those meetings that started out frustrating and looked hopeless, but was rescued by some very smart people making very tough decisions and sticking to them. By the end of the meeting, we felt like we had really accomplished something and actually succeeded in our goal.

Of course, we scheduled another meeting, but that wasn't the only outcome. From what I gather, a similarly productive time was not had in Montreal. To learn that the biggest outcome of the Climate Conference is another series of meetings to "engage in talks aimed at producing a new set of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions that would take effect beginning in 2012," as The Washington Post reported Sunday, is pretty depressing.

Admittedly, I was unable to pay much attention to the conference after the first week -- and now I'm on jury duty, so I have limited time to assess the full range of outcomes -- but what I saw via the web casts that first week was a lot of men in dark suits spouting a lot of hot air.

One encouraging bit of news is the growing sentiment, expressed by Britain's environment secretary and also reported in the Post that "the debate is changing on the costs and benefits of climate change...There is growing recognition of the costs of not taking action and of the opportunities that come with taking action itself."

In other encouraging news, China and India have pledged to pursue voluntary emissions reductions, according to the "non-binding agreement" reached late Saturday. But Kyoto is dead, I suspect, and we should just let it go. It's now become such an emotional flint that I fear it will always get in the way of constructive dialogue. Am I wrong in this assumption?

Montreal may be a tipping point, as some attendees suggest, but what concerns me is tipping toward what? Are we just tilting at windmills that are catching more hot air?


02 December 2005

IMAGINE: The Man Who Cared

It was 25 years ago next week that John Lennon was shot to death outside his home on West 72nd Street and Central Park West in New York.

I was hundreds of miles away and heard about it from Howard Cosell, while watching the New England Patriots play on Monday Night Football and reading John's "comeback" interview in Playboy, which had just come out.

My stepmother Sandi called me as soon as she heard the news and we both cried into the phone. His death struck home for a couple of reasons.

One, because John Lennon was a boyhood idol of mine and another because I was supposed to be there, in the apartment I shared on 72nd Street, a half a block west towards Columbus Avenue. I missed my ride back to New York that Saturday night. It was probably a gig or a concert that kept me away. No matter.

Had I been there, I might have been taking my usual night walk around the block at the precise moment John and Yoko were returning from the recording studio to meet their fate. Could I have prevented it somehow if I had been there? The thought haunts me to this day.

You always met a number of the faithful fans gathered outside the Dakota to catch a glimpse of John. They were nice folks and I always chatted up whoever was there, knew many of the regulars on a first name basis, would bring them coffee from the Argos Restaurant up on the Columbus Avenue corner.

I remember one guy, a photographer named Michel from Montreal, whose pictures later showed up in one of the posthumous collections of images that appeared after Lennon’s death. He was a regular, whenever he was down from Canada, and had even managed to get some of his photographs in to John via the doorman; he showed me some of the images, mostly candid snapshots of the family taking a stroll.

John and Yoko liked to stroll around and in the Park – "It's John Lennon, I can’t believe it," he would say if he caught you recognizing him. Michel was a real fan, not like the evil-doer-who-shall-not-be-named who took John down.

John and Yoko frequented Café La Fortuna on 71st, where I used to hang out writing poems and drawing. You could see the back patio from my building. Across the hall from me was Benny Fine and his roommate Max, a doorman who used to play in The Circle (they had a hit in the Sixties with "Red Rubber Ball"). Benny used to point out the café from their window, mostly to complain about the smell of coffee waste in the garbage cans out back.

That night could have been different; John could have lingered in the neighborhood, gone around for a late night espresso. It was an opera hangout, full of old opera buffs and dancers drinking coffee and smoking Nat Sherman's who didn't care much for Lennon's music.

Nobody bothered John there, it was an unspoken rule, but sprinkled among the photographs and album covers of famous opera singers on the walls, was a fair number of signed pictures and LPs from the famous couple.

But they didn't get a coffee that night; they went straight home, John still clutching the last recordings he made.

That was "the day the music died," as the old song goes, but it was more than that for those of us to whom John was more than his music. His was an example of what one could do with art, music, and fame beyond the art: he cared. And he taught me to care.

To a boy growing up in the shadow of the Nixon, John was like a beacon of hope. He stood for things. He wasn't afraid to play the fool. He spoke out – whether you liked what he said or not – and spoke up.

In the entire hullabaloo around Bono's promotion to end poverty and AIDS, has anyone noticed that "One" is a derivative of John's "Bag One"; his efforts of the late sixties-early seventies?

John climbed in bed for peace and was ridiculed, but brought attention to his cause. He zipped himself and his bride into a bag for peace, returned his MBE for peace, planted acorns for peace, and other silly acts of caring.

Even the white of the wristbands and t-shirts used to promote the One Campaign is reminiscent of the white clothes, balloons, and "WAR IS OVER" billboards John used for his cause.

I can trace my caring to three people. Three people who shaped my ethos of caring and helped make me who I am today, who led me to do the work I do, and write what I write here on this web log and in my poetry: John Lennon, Roberto Clemente, and Gladys Taylor. (More on the other two later.)

John was an icon. He was also a fragile, insecure man – could even be an asshole, according to many reports and biographies. Nevertheless, he wasn't afraid to care. And caring is what it's all about.


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01 December 2005

Green Laptop May Help Poor Bridge Digital Divide

According to CNN.com, a green laptop weighing only a kilogram and not reliant on electricity was the center of attention at The World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunisia. Its inventor, Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims the $100 machine will help eradicate poverty. Negroponte's non-profit group called "One Laptop Per Child," will sell the machines directly to governments in the developing world.

Read more at: $100 Laptop or at One Laptop Per Child

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Goldman Sachs Embraces Its Inner Environmentalist

In a move some say will spur other companies to examine their triple-bottom line ways, Goldman Sachs announced last week that they have adopted a comprehensive environmental policy.

The policy statement begins, "Goldman Sachs believes that a healthy environment is necessary for the well-being of society, our people and our business, and is the foundation for a sustainable and strong economy."

Get the skinny at CNN Money or download the full policy at Goldman.

According to the New York Times, Hank Paulson, chairman of the investment banking firm, also announced the creation of a Center for Environmental Markets to develop and study free-market solutions to environmental problems.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I work for an organization that is associated with Mr. Paulson.)

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