Friday, January 16, 2009

Everyone can make a difference

I'm trying to make good use of my unemployment time. Before the holidays I was out for drinks with some artist friends, a politician and his wife. Everyone was excited for 2009, and a new era. The wife works for KACEE which promotes good environmental practices in schools. I told her about a school in Topeka I'd reported on, and found out she didn't know who was behind their impressive recycling program. So today, I nominated the woman behind the scenes who had a mission that has been making the world a much better place for over ten years. Here is what I wrote:

As a journalist I’ve attended many award ceremonies and reported on “important and impressive,” people. Doctors, Lawyers, professors and politicians. But in 11 years of reporting, there’s a woman who with a job most wouldn’t consider a profession, and a salary none would envy, has managed to shoulder an environmental movement that would make anyone proud.
In May of 2008 I was working as an anchor and reporter at KTKA in Topeka. The station had awarded the Washburn Rural High school for their “going green” practices. I was sent to do the story. Once I got there I found out it wasn’t their first award. For over ten years, the school recycles everything. Boxes, plastic, cans and paper. In fact, I think their recycling may outweigh their trash. I was escorted around the school by a teacher who had implemented the program. That was only part of the story. The rest was that the program was started by a cook. Her name is Mary Zaitz and I’d like to nominate her for the Strickler award.
Mary started working as a cook in March of 1986.
“I used to just bring the stuff home to recycle it, because the school wouldn’t let me recycle. Then I found out the city wouldn’t recycle the plastic jugs. It just killed me to throw away all those plastic jugs.”
Mary continued her personal mission to recycle at the school but the principal wouldn’t let them set up a system for fear of attracting vermin or creating other health hazards. The school nutritionist tried to approach the principal with Mary’s vision, but again the idea was struck down. Eventually another school teacher came up with a system the principal accepted. In the past, when the stories air about the school’s magnificent program, we hear about this man and not the woman behind the idea. While this bothers me a lot, it doesn’t bother Mary, she’s too busy checking up on the kids.
“Oh I’ve seen her catch the kids putting their plastic bottles in the trash, and she’ll fish them out.” I was talking to Mary’s boss Donna Bateman and getting some more insight into Mary’s mission. Later I asked Mary why this is so important to her.
“I just can’t stand to think of wasting anything. I think about how what we recycle could be turned into a bench or carpet. One day I was watching TV and saw the barges of trash from New York and it just made me sad. I’m glad we are putting out less trash into the landfill.”
In over ten years, it is tons of recycling.
Mary Zaitz doesn’t need a degree to do her job. She doesn’t wear pinstripes to work or sit in a corner office. She wears a hairnet. But she does need passion and determination to actualize her mission for the environment. You can’t learn that in school and it’s not something you can buy in a bottle. But if it was, I assure you, she’d recycle it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Be a lifesaver

I've been pretty honest about my relationship with my mom, and I feel like a mention I made before needs some embellishment.
"My mom has saved lives."
My mom was born in Chicago, Il in 1944. Later my grandfather, Orville M. Running moved the family to Decorah, Iowa. My mom, Marjorie, grew up there in a very sheltered Lutheran environment.
When she wasn't married at the ripe old age of 21, (ancient I tell you) my grandfather let her know there were other options in life.
"Margie, there's one thing worse than not being married. That's being married to the wrong person."
She moved to New Orleans to pursue a master's degree in French, met my father, and was married a year later.
New Orleans was a different environment for my mom. I grew up in Decorah too. Things had changed by the time I was a teenager.. a lot. There were 2 black people in our school. One was the daughter of the local radiologist, the other was adopted. There may have been some others who floated in and out, but weren't there from elementary to high school.
My mom refers to Decorah as "Lake Woe-Decorah." It's a reference to Garrison Keillor's "Lake Woebegone," a fictitious town where all the "women are strong, the men are good looking and all the children are above average." Decorah is also the home of Luther College, where all the students smile and say hello, are smart and blonde and attractive. The Viking strength is mirrored in the the town of 10 thousand and people who live and work there.
"Mom, we can't finish the dishes, Philip and I just don't know where everything goes."
My brother and I were warring over a sink full of suds and arguments about who was suffering the most. Both of us wanted to give up and go watch the Sci-Fi channel.
"Just think about where it would be if you needed it. You're both above average... you can figure it out."
Great. My mom gets her parenting advice from a local radio show. Yes, in 1982 Garrison Keillor was a local act on Minnesota Public Radio.
I distinctly remember walking into the kitchen another day. (The dishes mercifully, had been completed.) My mom was wiping tears from her eyes.
"Oh Garrison.. he's so funny."
I think it was the one about how the tomatoes take over your life in August.
The melifluous voice over the speakers..
"Remember how you would have killed for a tomato in June, now they are everywhere and you want to kill them." Too much of anything (except love) is a bad thing.
Before moving back to the land of milk and honey, Decorah Iowa we lived in suburb of New Orleans.
My mom had finished up her degree in French and she and my dad started a family. We were too young then to do dishes, but it wouldn't have mattered. We had a maid.
"Everyone had them. I feel awful. It was just so cheap." My dad still feels bad about it. Interesting, because he grew up in the deep south and this was just a part of life as he knew it.
Our maid was efficient. Thorough. Beautiful. Poor. Our maid was black.
She cleaned all the houses of the upper crust, Junior League of Mettairie Lousiana. The year was 1974. My mom was 30 and had a conversation one day with the maid.
"You know you don't have to do this for a living."
"What else can I do?"
This was what the maid saw as her plot in life. She wasn't bitter, just in an environment where cleaning other people's homes was all poor black women could do to support themselves.
My mom made a few phone calls and got her a job in an office as a secretary. A new path. A new life. Respect.
My mom seriously pissed off the junior league of Mettairie Louisiana. But perhaps left them with something to think about while doing their dishes.
I told this story to Emily Horn, aka Mud Doc on our run on Sunday. It was part of a larger conversation about how some pairings of people are more than just the sum of their parts. One plus one equals 7.
"Or one plus zero equals 3."
Emily was making an observation.
"I don't want to call someone a zero."
"Sophia, that's just you plus yourself."
I will write more on this equation later, but for now suffice it to say that that day My mom was a 3. Seeing potential in others and turning it into meaning.
As a medical doctor, Emily saves lives all the time. She also challenges herself physically and emotionally, taking care of her own life. My challenge to everyone is to search within and outward. Look around. Is there a life you should be saving? Are you taking care of your own?
My mom spent 19 years pursuing a doctorate in music. Pretty impressive. It's not a medical degree, but it saved her life. And at age 30 with nothing more than a master's in French, two small children and a heart that couldn't stand seeing a gifts wasted, she saved a life.
I love you mom and I'm so proud of you for this.