Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The seeds of an idea...

 Writers will tell you that one of the questions we get asked the most often is some variation of: "Where do you get your ideas?" My inspirations tend to be character, place and an issue or two that I find particularly compelling. Here's a little of what went into the second of my Ellie McEnroe novels, set in today's China. 

Scenic Yangshuo. How could I not be inspired?
Yangshuo hostel. Like I said, scenic

I was sitting in my hotel room in a converted farmhouse in beautiful Yangshuo, China, web-surfing, when I came across the story that would inspire my third novel, Hour Of The Rat. An American suspected of “eco-terrorism” had been arrested in Dali, in southwest China, for having some thirty pounds of marijuana buried in the back yard of the house he was renting. I found this strange and compelling on many levels. You’re a fugitive wanted by the FBI, you flee to China, of all places, and you get involved with massive quantities of pot?

 Dali, a favored hangout of Chinese and foreign hipsters

Dali is also very scenic! 

At the same time, I wanted to deal with environmental issues in China. It’s no exaggeration to say that China’s natural environment is in crisis, devastated by decades of exploitation and neglect, the recent siege of off-the-chart air pollution in Beijing being just one small example. These problems are so severe that they threaten to undermine both the health of Chinese citizens and China’s “economic miracle”—the astounding 30 years of growth that have propelled China from poverty to the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, they are a source of social unrest. From poor farmers demonstrating against polluting factories that have contaminated their cropland to middle and upper class urban professionals who would like to have breathable air in their cities, Chinese people have protested about environmental problems, on the streets and on social media. The government has taken a somewhat more relaxed view of such protests than it has of others that are more overtly political, but that tolerance only goes so far because environmental issues provoke an increasingly large percentage of China’s “mass incidents,” and they have the potential to bring disparate groups of China’s citizens together.
Protesting a chemical factory

It’s easy to dismiss China’s problems as things that don’t have much affect on us in the US, or at least to keep them at a distance because they aren’t connected to us. But there are consequences and connections if you look.

In plotting this book, I needed that American connection, and I thought that a fugitive “eco-terrorist” might do the trick. But what was he protesting?

I decided to use GMOs – genetically modified organisms. These products, pioneered by American companies like Monsanto and DuPont, are created by a process where unrelated genetic material is inserted into a plant or even an animal to create something with desirable properties that you’d never find in nature. Most commonly they’re designed to resist herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, or engineered to produce their own pesticide, such as Bt corn.  More than 90% of the soybeans grown in the US are GM, as is 88% of corn and 90% of sugarbeets. As a result, GMOs are in nearly all the processed food we eat—if it doesn’t say “organic,” odds are it’s GM.

Many of the claims made for GMOs– that they produce higher yields, and that they reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, for example – have been called into question and even refuted. A recent United Nations study pointed to sustainable agriculture as a better way to feed the hungry, promote economic growth and protect the environment. In the case of pesticides and herbicides, their use has created pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant “Superweeds” – leading to more pesticides and herbicides and plants designed to resist ever more lethal doses of them.

More to the point for writers of conspiracy-minded thrillers, the largest producer of GMOs, Monsanto, has a public reputation only slightly better than Al Qaeda. The company is routinely accused of bullying farmers, suing them unjustly in the States and driving them to suicide in India, and if you Google “Monsanto” and “revolving door,” you’ll find pages dedicated to proving that Monsanto exercises undue influence over the federal regulatory process due to former employees moving over to government positions.

It’s a fact that past Monsanto employees working for the FDA have made positive decisions involving Monsanto products, which in one case prompted calls by members of Congress for a federal investigation. It’s a fact as well that because these products are considered “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts by the FDA, they are allowed on the market with a minimum of review, and there has never been a study of their affect on humans.

Even the State Department pushes GM food, lobbying to promote the products, writing trade laws in their favor and preventing labeling laws in other countries. GMOs are not labeled in the US—and corporate agriculture spent millions of dollars to defeat a proposed labeling law in California in November 2012.

Chinese industry is rushing headlong into developing GMO products, both in collaboration with Western companies and on its own, and the Chinese adoption of these products is seen by some biotech champions as a “tipping point” —as China goes, so does the rest of the world. As it stands, China is the world’s largest grower of GMO cotton, and because it imports such a large percentage of its soybeans from the US, where some 90% of soybeans are GMO, these products have already penetrated the Chinese market. Yet the Chinese government has not yet approved of the mass cultivation of GMO food crops, and there is considerable suspicion on the part of Chinese consumers about GMOs – especially when it comes to that Chinese staple, rice.

Rice is so central to Chinese culture that when you ask someone if they’ve eaten yet, “Chi fanle meiyou?” you’re literally asking if they’ve eaten some form of rice. This is also a common way to say, “how are you?” because food is a really big deal in China.

Leftist nationalists in China are suspicious of GMOs in part because of their perceived “foreignness,” and in the case of rice, you are messing with China’s cultural patrimony. But the development of domestic varieties hasn’t calmed consumers’ fears.

When it comes to environmental and food safety, China may have regulations on the books, but the regulatory system itself is underfunded, and regulations are under-enforced and all too frequently ignored. The scandals in China’s food supply are legion. Hardly a day passes without a story about the use of illegal pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, “sewer oil,” adulterated baby milk powder, glow-in-the-dark pigs, rat meat masquerading as mutton, chickens fed minerals to increase their weight, fake eggs and walnuts,  tofu mixed with detergent, not to mention the recent sixteen thousand dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River and into Shanghai’s drinking water supply. With those kinds of systemic problems, mistrust of new, unfamiliar and potentially under-tested genetically modified staples is more than understandable – it’s sensible.

None of which stopped me from eating fish on a  stick in Dali

Which makes what I found with a bit of Googling not all that surprising, but still pretty alarming.

Since about 2005 and again in 2010, unapproved varieties of GM rice have made their way into the food chain, in China. Greenpeace China found GM rice in Hunan, Hubei, Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, on farmlands and in stores. Farmers were offered the seeds at a discount, and in some cases, for free.

 Guizhou Province countryside. Guizhou also is a setting in HotR

A lot of the farming in Guizhou is still done like this

What’s not clear is where, precisely, this rice came from. According to an investigation by the Chinese journal, Economic Observer, the university that had official approval to produce GM rice denied the rice was theirs, yet it held a thirty percent share in one of the three companies found to be selling the seeds – and of those three companies, one of them didn’t even officially exist—it was not registered with the necessary provincial authorities. The rush to move these seeds illegally into the food chain, the journal speculated, had to do with the university’s “safety” permit from the government to produce them—it expires in 2014. It’s the old, “better to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission” approach.
Guizhou village

Further complicating the picture is that genetic material associated with foreign products was found in some of this rice. It seems to be a case of patent infringement, which is not uncommon in China—yet it’s also in foreign companies’ best interest that these products are defacto accepted in the market—all the easier for them to make the argument for their own. And there are also cases where foreign entities are involved with Chinese counterparts, and one side or the other evades regulation and accountability.

For example, in 2012, Tufts University, the USDA and a Chinese university were implicated in an unapproved study involving Chinese children fed “golden rice”— genetically modified rice that is enriched with beta carotene. While the idea behind this rice – preventing Vitamin A deficiency – may be a good one, conducting an experiment on Hunan village kids without their parents’ full informed consent, was not. The lines of responsibility are difficult to determine in this case. So far, three Chinese officials have been sacked, and Tufts is conducting an internal review.

So, in China you have GMO research taking place in an environment with a poor food safety record and an opaque decision-making structure that makes review and accountability difficult. In the US, you have a GMO industry dominated by several large players who have poured millions of dollars into the political system to have the regulatory system written in their favor.

Industry spokespeople tell us that any worries about the safety of these products are unwarranted, even “anti-science.” It is true that there is not a lot of data, precisely because they were released onto the marketplace without any rigorous studies of their effects on humans. But let’s put aside the evidence we do have, that GMOs may not be as nutritious as their natural counterparts, that they may cause allergic reactions in some people, that they may promote tumors and kidney and liver damage in rats. Let’s also put aside any concerns we have about a GM salmon that grows more rapidly and is extremely aggressive getting loose into the wild population, or questions about how an unapproved, experimental GM wheat showed up in farmers’ fields in Oregon. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that GMOs may be as safe and nutritious as their natural counterparts.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of monoculture in food supplies, the Irish potato famine being just one example of a catastrophic crop failure due in part to a lack of genetic diversity. What does it say about our food system that three large companies, two of which are American, control half of the world’s proprietary seed market, and that one of those alone, Monsanto, over one quarter of it? That five huge biotech companies have bought up more than two hundred other seed companies, greatly reducing the number of seeds offered, making commercial access to a greater diversity of crops more difficult for farmers? That the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has risen 325% in less than ten years? Do we really want that kind of “monoculture” controlling what we eat?

By the way, my original inspiration, that American eco-terrorist busted in Dali. What I knew about him from the article I’d read in Yangshuo was that he’d been accused of acts of arson in the Pacific Northwest, including one that destroyed a horticultural center at the University of Washington. There were no details about the motives behind the attacks. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished writing the first draft of HOUR OF THE RAT that I looked deeper into the case and found out what those were.

He and his group were protesting GMOs.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paris lunch with flics

 Bonjour from Paris I'm hoping this post comes through. Here's my second day in Paris and lunch with Guy a flic! Cara Tuesday

Monday, April 28, 2014

Tenzing Norgay: Conqueror of Everest

When I was in elementary school, the news circled the globe:  Edmund Hillary was the first man to climb Mount Everest.   Hillary was feted world wide, made headlines in all the newspapers, later was knighted by the Queen.  Climbing with the ultra famous Hillary, was a man whose name did not become well-known until years later.  In the reports at the time of the ascent, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s name was misspelled, if not completely misreported.  He was never mentioned in the headlines, and usually only acknowledged as a “guide” or a “porter.”

At some point during my high school years, when the subject of Everest came up, it occurred to me to ask about that porter whose name the newspapers couldn’t get straight.   My youthful heart became enraged that Tenzing Norgay received so little recognition when it seemed so obvious that Sir Edmund—brave and determined though he was—would never have made it to the top alone.  Tenzing was essential to the success of the expedition.  After I learned about him, I made it a sanctimonious point to remind anyone who spoke of Hillary that Sir Edmund did not travel solo.  I am sure my listeners though me obnoxious.

Last week, when sixteen of Norgay’s brother Sherpa mountaineers died in an avalanche, all that rage against injustice came back and inspired me to write this remembrance of a man who eventually received recognition, but never the flood of adulation that was heaped on the white man who was his partner in that great adventure.

On the 29th of May 1953, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand adventurer and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer, together reached the summit of the tallest mountain on earth.    Neither one of them ever revealed which of the two actually put the first boot on the peak.   Hillary got most of the credit.  But we can’t blame him for hogging the limelight.  He honored Tenzing and cited his enormous contribution.  Hillary had very good reason to do so, as you will soon learn.  The western world at large, however, looked upon the triumph over Everest as the accomplishment of man of Northern European descent.  Hillary was their hero.  They pictured his shorter, browner fellow traveler as not much more than a servant.

Let’s focus on that “porter” for a few minutes.

Tenzing Norgay was a Nepalese Sherpa born and brought up in the northeastern town of Tengboche, Khumbu.  His actually birthdate went unrecorded, but he knew he was born in the Tibetan Calendar’s Year of the Rabbit, which would have been 1914.  He also knew he was born in late May—so he took the date of May 29th—the day he and Hillary reached the summit—as his birthday.  He was the 11th of 13 children and one of few to survive.

His first opportunity to attempt Everest came in 1935.  Chosen for his attractive smile, he joined an expedition led by an Englishman, Eric Shipton.  During the 1930’s, he went up the mountain’s northern, Tibetan face with three ensuing British teams.  None succeeded.

During World War II, Tenzing worked in India as a batman for a Major Chapman.  There, his wife died and he eventually returned to Darjeeling with his two little daughters, escaping during the 1947 Indian partition by donning one of the Major’s old uniforms and crossing the continent by train without a ticket.

Once back in the mountains, he joined another unsuccessful attempt with a Canadian and another Sherpa.  A strong storm stopped them at 22,000 feet (6700 meters).  Tenzing continued to hone his mountaineering skills, with many achievements, including a daring rescue of a fellow member of a Swiss expedition and the first successful ascent of the Kedarnath peak in the western Himalayas.

In 1952, on another Swiss attempt, he and another climber reached 28,200 (8600 meters) on the south face of Everest.

Early the following year, he met Edmund Hillary on an expedition led by John Hunt.  Hillary nearly fell into a crevasse, but the quick-thinking Tenzing saved him by securing the rope to his ice ax.  After that Tenzing became Hillary’s partner of choice.

On the 28th of May, Hunt directed Hillary and Norgay to try for the summit.   They made it up to 27,900 feet that day, spent the night in a tent, and went for the top the next morning.  Carrying 30 pounds of gear on their backs, wedging themselves up between the rock wall and the ice, their final step was to go straight up for 40 feet.   At 11:30 AM, they reached the peak of the highest place on earth: 29,028 feet (8848 meters).

Afterwards, while Tenzing was greeted with adulation in India and Nepal, the West’s honors went largely to Hillary.  He and also Hunt, who didn’t even make it to the top, were knighted by the Queen.  Tenzing Norgay had to settle for the George Medal.

He went on to become the first Director of Field Training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

Eventually Tenzing Norgay’s name even made a few appearances in popular culture: a mention in a song in Mel Brooks’ The Producers is one of a couple of instances.  If you have not known it before, I ask you to remember it now.

Just yesterday morning, National Geographic published an article about Sherpa mountaineers, called “The Invisible Men of Everest.  You can find it here:

The magazine must have been working on that piece long before last week’s tragedy, when the sixteen Sherpas died en masse and brought attention to their work, their courage, and their plight.

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, April 27, 2014

With All Undue Respect

Zoë Sharp
“You treat people with a respect you somehow do not expect to receive yourself.”

This was said to me last year by someone I’ve known for a long time, if not closely. I had no idea he’d observed me well enough to form such an opinion one way or another.

My first instinct was denial. Or not quite denial but certainly qualification. Respect is not something that can be expected—not in the present world.

It has to be worked for, earned.

And once you have it, you can’t simply hang it above the fireplace like a dusty stag’s head trophy and expect admiration from all comers. It has to be carefully maintained or the moths will turn it into little more than a memory.

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking of me … All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”―Jackie Robinson

Respect is a living entity, always shifting, always in motion—much like the stag before someone shot and stuffed it.

One false move, and it’s gone.

I respect someone who has a no-nonsense competence without allowing their ego to enter the equation. It should be possible to be good at what you do without making yourself thoroughly unpleasant in the process.
But it seems to me that modern society will break down not because of some great catastrophe, but because of a series of tiny personal injustices. How many times recently have you experienced the following?

~Watched someone pick up a piece of litter they did not drop?

~Been let out into traffic by someone who had to inconvenience themselves to do so, rather than because they had to stop anyway?

~Been thanked by someone you’ve let out into traffic when you had to inconvenience yourself to do so, rather than because you had to stop anyway?

~Had a door held open?

~Had a car slow down to pass you walking along a wet road so you weren’t splashed?

~Been invited to go ahead by the person before you at the supermarket checkout because they’re shopping for a siege and you have only a few items?

These may seem like trivial examples—and indeed they are—but they are also the niceties of civilisation that make us human.

So, what petty injustices have you witnessed recently, or what random small acts of kindness?

Instead of a Word of the Week, this time round I have a selection of quotations on the subject of respect—or lack of it.

“You should respect each other and refrain from disputes; you should not, like water and oil, repel each other, but should, like milk and water, mingle together.”―Buddha

“They cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.”―Mohandas K. Gandhi

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.”―Richard Bach

“Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”―Malcom X

“If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”―Winston Churchill

“I get no respect. The way my luck is running, if I was a politician I would be honest.”―Rodney Dangerfield

“Men are so willing to respect anything that bores them.”―Marilyn Monroe

“When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”―Lao Tzu

“I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect.”―Edward Gibbon

“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”―Voltaire

“In order to acquire a growing and lasting respect in society, it is a good thing, if you possess great talent, to give, early in your youth, a very hard kick to the right shin of the society that you love. After that, be a snob.”―Salvador Dali

“I do respect people's faith, but I don't respect their manipulation of that faith in order to create fear and control.”―Javier Bardem

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.”―Laurence Sterne

“I don't have a lot of respect for talent. Talent is genetic. It's what you do with it that counts.”―Martin Ritt

“I respect my limitations, but I don't use them as an excuse.”―Stephen R. Donaldson

“If you are killed because you are a writer, that's the maximum expression of respect, you know.”―Mario Vargas Llosa

‘“With the greatest respect,” I said. Always a nice phrase to use when you intend to speak without any.’―Charlie Fox

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Prayerful Elections Are Upon Us.

Easter has past and we’re now into Greek election season.  It, too, is a time for prayer, for these elections more so than any in recent memory risk a special form of Calvary for the Greek electorate.  They are not national elections, but local, called to coincide with elections for Greece’s representatives to the European Parliament.  But they stand to measure the grass roots faith of the Greek people in the fragile progress of their nation’s journey through its financial crisis.

This vote will gauge whether selfish interests outweigh the common cause, old corrupt ways still trump free and open opportunity, and the hate monger has increased its influence among the disenchanted and apathetic.

I’m not going to name parties, the Greeks know who they are and non-Greeks won’t likely remember.  Nor am I going to mention candidates. My best friend is running for mayor of Mykonos and I obviously support him, but beyond that what is there to say? Once again the Mykonians know the truth, it’s up to them to decide their own fate.

The top floor office in that terra cotta roof building is what it's all about.

I plan to be in the middle of it, watching it all unfold, perhaps gathering fodder for a new book among the inevitable intrigues, heart-crossed promises, and double-crossed hearts of bare knuckle local politics in all it’s gory glory.  It’s a drama playing out across all of Greece.

But it’s not a game.

There is a lot at stake here: The future of a country I deeply care about.

The national ruling coalition claims that current financial news shows real economic progress. The opposition disputes that.  On Sunday, May 18, voters have their first electoral chance in two years to express what they believe to be the truth. That’s the date of the first round of local elections.  If a run-off election is required in any race, that second vote will take place on May 25, when Greeks get to elect their delegates to the European Parliament. 

National elections need not be held before 2016, but depending on how those May elections turn out, all that could change.

We shall see.

And pray.