Lead and Fate

There’s an interesting article in Mother Jones, or more accurately a meta-article, which discusses the research that’s been done linking the decline in childhood lead exposure in the 1970’s and onwards to the decline in crime rates in the 1990’s, when those kids would have hit adulthood. It’s sobering reading.

I was born in Europe, which banned lead paint far before America, and I was past the whole eating-paint-chips phase of life by the time I moved here. So, by an accident of birth, I got to spend my most vulnerable brain development years safe from lead paint, while my age cohort peers in the US did not. This is especially true for kids in my age range who lived in substandard housing.

I was a smart kid. All the adults praised me and complimented me for being smart, as if it was an accomplishment, rather than an accident of birth. But now I see that, in addition to winning the genetic lottery for math ability, I also won a “right time and place” lottery for avoidance of lead. All these things I had literally nothing to do with, helped me to excel in school and get whatever success I’ve had in life.

America is a country with a strong mythos. It’s a fairy tale made by corporate backers, and then spun into the fabric of our society until its origins are obscured in the mists of time. The fairy tale says, You are more than just your circumstances, You can accomplish anything you set your mind to, Random misfortune is not going to defeat You, You can overcome anything with Pure Grit.

We’re fed these stories ad infinitum.

But if the quintessentially American truth – or should I say “truth” – is  about excelling in spite of adversity and not being defined by circumstance, the quintessential truth  keep coming back to is the opposite: how much of one’s life is circumscribed by random chance. How things that happened decades ago, in childhood, over which we had no control, can still limit our lives right now, today.

The can-do Americanism holds within it a darkness, which is the seed of judgement and rejection. If anyone can overcome anything, then your failure to overcome must be a character flaw. And if you’re just making bad decisions, then I don’t have any responsibilities to help you, as a fellow human being.

But being aware that random circumstances can have profound after effects creates the opposite feeling. There but for the grace of God go I. And with that feeling comes the responsibility to help our fellow humans, in whatever circumstance.






Suspected Children’s Detention Centers

Click on a site to see more information, including link to source used.

RED = site or foster care facility with a known street address

ORANGE = site is known or suspected in a city. Street address unknown.

GREEN = proposed sites

<!> = sites where abuse has been alleged,


Please leave a comment on this page if you have changes or updates. I moderate comments so they won’t show up right away. Please indicate whether you want me to publish your comment or just use the information and keep your comment confidential.


Voting in Idaho…

…looks like this:


voting in idaho


This has inspired me to run for Governor in the next Idaho election. I am choosing between the following legal name changes:

– Arwen “Title IX” Skywalker
– Women’s Suffrage Smith
– Vote ERA Jones
– Down with Student Debt Echegaray

An Open Letter to Facebook and Apple

(This letter is in response to a recent article in the Guardian: Apple and Facebook to Pay for Female Employees to Freeze Their Eggs)

Dear Apple and Facebook,  

Let’s say you have a wonderful programmer, but he has a prosthetic leg, and the elevator is broken in your building. It’s no big deal – he just comes to work half an hour early every day to slowly make his way up the stairs. Oh, and he always packs a lunch so he doesn’t have to leave during the day. Also, even though he would love a promotion, he avoids talking to management because they’re three extra floors up. He makes these sacrifices, he works around what’s missing, and he does a killer job.

Then one day you make an announcement: You are going to invest in robotics! In 15 years, your employee might be able to get his very own bionic leg!

That’s great. But you know what would help today?            

Fixing the damn elevator.

So, you’re going to pay for women employees to freeze their eggs. That’s great, really, but you know what would help today? If you announced 6 months of paid maternity leave, and gave all workers the option to work part time with a prorated salary. If you made these adjustments, women would go through hell and high water just to work for you.

Which is easier: asking women to completely upend their biological clocks to stay in line with the current work culture? Or adjusting the work culture – just a little bit – and the institutional expectations – just a little bit – so that women don’t have to make these kinds of sacrifices in the first place?

Ultimately, this problem is not technological, but cultural and institutional. Relying on a technological fix so that women can put off childbearing until their 40’s is a crude, stopgap workaround for a culture that requires successful women to be as much like men as possible. You will only truly succeed in attracting women to your field when you accept that being as good as a man is not mutually exclusive with being a woman and a mother.


Sofia Echegaray, Software Tester

“I” Think…

There was an interesting story on NPR this morning on how sentence structure reveals a lot of about relationships.  A psychologist named James Pennebaker used computers to scan conversations between people, and one of the things he discovered is that you can tell who is high-status and who is low-status in a conversation just by looking at their use of the word “I.”

For example, if you are the lowly underling and you’re emailing your boss, you use the word “I” a lot:

“I was looking at the reports and I think we might drop the Smith account. I’d like to talk to you about them on Monday.”

But when the boss replies, she rarely if ever uses the word “I”:

“That’s fine, but Monday’s no good. Tuesday works.”

Pennebaker’s explanation is that low-status people feel insecure and self-conscious, and their inward focus makes them use the word “I” more.

Respectfully, I think there’s another reason for this. It’s not about being self-conscious. It’s about being extremely conscious — of power.

When I was at Andover and Harvard, men still outnumbered the women students by a slight majority, and the female students rarely had the same “to the manor born” self-assurance that I saw in some of the men. Some male students clearly perceived themselves as high-status, or at least high-status-in-waiting.

Often I engaged in friendly lunchtime debates with these guys, but it was an uphill battle. I was constantly interrupted and contradicted:

Me: “Women are still not equal in society…”

Some Dude: “That’s not true! I happen to know a woman who’s a CEO and who’s very successful! Where’s your data to back up your argument?”

I got shouted down all the time. Even when we discussed innocuous topics, like music and art, I got a lot of flak. Simple comments like “She’s a great actress” or “That was an excellent movie” got contradicted, interrupted, or minimized.

Subconsciously, I started to defend myself against the constant onslaught by couching all of my opinions in extremely personal language. So, instead of saying, “She’s such a brilliant actress,” I started saying, “I really like that actress.” After all, you can’t really contradict someone else’s opinion.

It took me years to realize what was happening at a conscious level. These guys weren’t jumping down my throat because they disagreed with my opinions per se. They were jumping down my throat because I was daring to express my opinions as declarative statements.

In other words, if you say, “This situation is appalling!” it translates to “I am a free and equal member of this society, and my opinion carries just as much weight as anyone else’s.”

However, if you say, “I am really upset by this situation” it also has a translation: “I am a supplicant in this community, and I am presenting my case to those with power in the hopes that they will hear me.”

Anyone who makes an opinion into a declarative statement is stating that they have the right to define the universe according to their own point of view. And that is an incredible declaration of power.

Subconsciously, most of us know this, and so we vary our own choice to use declarative statements based on our perception of the power dynamic. So, this way of speaking is not an irrational reaction to our own insecurities, but rather an extremely rational response to a given situation.

So one way of perceiving who has the power is, Who gets to make the declarative statements?

Which members of the team get to say “This will never work,” and which have to say, “I don’t think we can do it in that time frame?”

Who gets to say, “This interface is clunky” and who has to say “The home page doesn’t feel right to me?”

It’s all about power.

This Concern I Have (Brooklyn, February 2002)

Lately I’ve been having this experience. Maybe you’ve been having it too.

I read about firefighters at Ground Zero who are now on sick leave, with asthma, emphysema, lung irritation. I read about illegal immigrants who worked cleaning up the dust, and who now report nosebleeds, breathing problems, and menstrual irregularities. I hear stories about ordinary people simply working in office buildings in the financial district, or living in Brooklyn Height, who have chronic upper respiratory infections and sinusitis.

And I wonder why more is not being said. I wonder how safe I am. How safe any of us are. We all smelled the smoke, not for days or weeks, but for months. Who knows what was in it? Who knows what the long-term repercussions will be?

And my friends look at me, and nod, and say, “Uh-huh.” As if to say, “Why are you so concerned?”

Concerned? You might say that.

You might say that Rachel Carson was concerned about the environment. And you might say Ralph Nader was concerned about the Ford Pinto, or Karen Silkwood was concerned about nuclear power plants.

So yes I am concerned. I am concerned that when all is said and done, the destruction of the World Trade Center will be remembered not just as a day which will live in infamy, but as one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. I am concerned that in its efforts to minimize disruption and inconvenience and economic loss, our government is grossly understating the dangers which we now face. And I am concerned that our anger at terrorism will eventually become overshadowed by anger at our own government which, in the face of overwhelming scientific data, and fully aware of the consequences of its actions, sat back and did nothing.

Already the signs have been coming in; health problems from workers at Ground Zero. Health problems from workers who cleaned up the dust which accumulated near Ground Zero. You know the story as well as I do — you’ve seen it often enough, in movies and television. It begins with a problem in town — a fuel processing plant has a fire, or a nuclear plant has a leak, or a factory is leaking hexavalent chromium into the water.

See if you can finish the story with me now. First, the officials hold press conferences to assure us that everything is fine, and we are perfectly safe. As people start developing strange, lingering coughs, we are told that our symptoms are normal, temporary, and nothing to worry about.

Next the strange things begin. Irregular periods; unexplained pain; chronic fatigue. Again, we are told, nothing to worry about. Certainly not related to anything in particular.

New symptoms start. Miscarriages, birth defects. In a few years, childhood cancers, breast cancers, cancers of the liver. Eventally, enough people start dying. Eventually, the ones who are left become angry. Eventually, they start asking questions.

Ah, you say, but you are overreacting. Just because firefighters and those working in close proximity to Ground Zero are having symptoms, does not mean that all of us will.

Here is my question: do you know of an environmental disaster with devastating short-term side-effects which did not also have devastating long-term side effects? Are the people in Bhopal, India fine now? Or the ones who lived in Love Canal? Or the Vietnamese who were sprayed with Agent Orange? Point me to a story where something happened — where residents were sick for weeks, or for months — in which they were not later sick with cancer 5 or 10 years down the road, and I will relax. Point me to a short-term chemical catastrophe without devastating long-term consequences, and I will let down my guard. Show me even one situation like this, and you will make me a happy woman. But in the meantime, I will remain what I am — concerned.

And since I am concerned, I want to start asking questions now. Questions like, Why is it, that when the Hudson river and its environment are full of PCB’s, the area is a Superfund site, but when the World Trade Center and its environment are full of PCB’s, and mercury and lead and benzine and asbestos and God knows what else, we are told to go downtown and shop?

Why is it that the environmental focus, such as there is, is solely on Ground Zero, when smoke was in the air as far south as Bay Ridge; as far East as Long Island; and as far north as Inwood? Do we believe cancer-causing chemicals are polite enough to stop at 14th street?

Why is it, that the government assures us it is safe to live and work and breathe here, and will only change that statement in the face of unequivocal proof? Should it not, for the health and safety of our citizenry, be the reverse?

Unfortunately, I have the answers to all these questions. Or rather, the answer, one word. And that word is: money.

If the government declared New York a Superfund site, it would be a disaster. An economic disaster of the highest order.

Right now, we none of us should be living here. We should be moving to places which don’t leave an acrid aftertaste in the mouth. We should be moving to places where news reports don’t regularly frighten us. We should be moving to places where we don’t have to scrub the ash off our own windows with nothing but ammonia and elbow grease.

But we don’t. We don’t because we believe, if it really were dangerous, if it really were unsafe to continue living and breathing here, someone would let us know. The government would let us know. Our government would let us know. The same government that exposed soldiers to nuclear weapons tests; the same government that allowed black men to die of syphilis in Tuskeegee; the same government that used Agent Orange — our government would incite untold upheaval and economic brouhaha by declaring the entire island of Manhattan a toxic hot spot, and they would order a general evacuation. This is what our government would do, if it were in our best interest.

Well, I don’t believe it either. But I tell it to myself at night, and it comforts me as a shield against my fears, which loom so large and feel so unyielding that I feel completely helpless most of the time. I waver every day between hysterical alarmism or self-inflicted myopia, unsure whether to move or to stay, to call to arms or hope for the best, to make plans to go before it is too late or to tell myself that the worst is over. It is so hard, in a city of 8 million people who continue to live here seemingly unconcerned, to convince myself that everyone else is wrong, and only I am right.

It would be less hard, however, if all these ideas about health threats — as grounded on past evidence as they are — were not solely conjecture. If I could point to studies on the levels of PCBs in the air. If I could use research on the combinations of substances to determine the final toxicity of this petrochemical soup in which we are all now swimming. But on these matters, as on so many others, the government, state and local officials, and the EPA have been strangely silent.

Recently, Senator Clinton called for environmental hearings. This is a beginning. Let it be a beginning of full disclosure. Let us bang down the doors and demand answers. Let us seek out the knowledge to make decisions in our own best interest, so that it may not be said, in ten years or twenty, that the toll of September 11th numbered not in the thousands, but in the tens, or the hundreds, of thousands. Let us demand answers now, before it is too late. And let us show the world what can be accomplished by a citizenry which is mobilized, and active, and very, very concerned.