Microwave Oven: Good or Bad?

This past Spring term I took a Technology, History and Global power class and the only assignment was to write a paper on a single technology. I choose to write on something majority of Americans have in their home: the microwave oven. I hope you find this paper interesting and you learn a bit about this technology.

Microwave Ovens: Good or Bad?

It’s 9:30 pm, Monday June 3rd, 2013. College student John’s history class has just been dismissed and he’s walking to his dorm room; his is stomach grumbling with hunger. He should have eaten before class but he didn’t have time in between getting from work to campus. There are two options: he can walk a bit further to the nearest fast food establishment where he can have a nutritionally empty and grease laden burger and fries and diet coke or he can go home and pop a frozen meal in the microwave oven. He chooses the frozen meal. If the year was 1944, there would have been a different ending to this story. Assuming that John was still in college and living in a dorm, he would have likely gone to the campus cafeteria and eaten a meal cooked in the campus kitchens, or he might have gone to get the burger. Now let’s take this scenario to the family home. Before the year 1946, when physicist Percy Le Baron Spencer invented microwave ovens and even before the first microwave ovens went on sale in 1947, majority of meals were cooked by the many wives and mothers that stayed at home while the men were off at work. With the advent of the new technology of microwave ovens, the face of the family meal, nutrition and women’s role in society changed, for better or for worse.

In 1971, only 5% of American homes had microwave ovens. Fast forward to the year 2011, only 5% of American homes do not have microwave ovens (Abram, “Stephen’s Lighthouse”). Like many new technologies the microwave oven makes every day activities, such as cooking and heating food to eat, faster and easier, but how do they work? First, it’s important to understand that microwave ovens are quite safe to use. Many people fret over the fact that a microwave is a form of radiation. Professor Robert L. Wolfe in his book What Einstein Told His Cook points out that televisions also have radiation “that brings us vapid sitcoms”, yet we don’t necessarily think that they are out to radiate us (pg. 52). The main fear with the microwave oven is that the radiation will “leak” out of the it while it is in use; this fear has caused many to either completely boycott the technology or use extreme measures (like stepping far away from the machine as its operating) to protect themselves against the radiation. The truth is that as soon as the microwave door is opened the magnetron which produces the microwaves shuts off and the microwaves instantly vanish. There is no need to worry that the microwaves will make it through the glass door either. The glass is protected by a metal mesh which doesn’t allow the microwaves to get through. The holes in the mesh are simply too small for the microwaves to fit through (Wolfe, 260).

Secondly, we need to understand the difference between how conventional ovens, stovetops and microwave ovens work. Conventional cooking methods heat the foods by making the atoms in the food pass thermal energy until there is heat throughout. This can be a slow process because there is a reliance on external source of energy. Microwaves, on the other hand, enter the food and cause the water molecules inside the food to excite, creating heat which spreads through all the food (Parker, 7). Due to the quickness of microwave cooking and heating, microwave ovens have become a household fixture and necessity.

Thirdly, food cooked in the microwave oven is safe to eat; the food does not become radiated or a potential health hazard. Yes, the molecular structure of the food changes when cooked by microwaves, as it does when cooked by steam, in the oven or on a stove top. Cooking food by any method will change its molecular structure. The nutrition of a food also undergoes changes as it does when cooked any other way. Minerals in the food are not destroyed but a portion of the vitamins may be compromised (Wolfe, 265)”. This doesn’t make it any less safe to eat and it does not put a person at risk of becoming malnourished. Say what you’d like, but the microwave oven is very safe to use despite all the naysayers out there out to make the microwave the kitchen “bad guy”.  In fact, the rise of microwave ovens in homes has had profound effects for the family dynamic, especially as it concerns women.

The women of the past lived a completely different lifestyle than what modern women do. 1950s era women were typically married off after high school and were expected to have children shortly thereafter. The role they were to fulfill was one that has been perpetuated throughout history: women were the ones meant to keep the house clean, cook and raise the children. The typical housewife would cook breakfast, “the breakfast however was far from the cereal and milk often enjoyed today. This was feast that consisted of towers of pancakes, piles of eggs, and platefuls of bacon and patties, all topped with a pound of syrup” (“A Woman’s Role in the 1950s”). She would make sure the children got ready for school and kiss her husband goodbye before he left for a day of work. She would have the rest of the day to make sure the house was tidy, the laundry: clean, folded and put away, do the household errands and make sure dinner was ready to serve to her husband when he came back home from work.

How could the nuclear family, which was portrayed as perfect and the key to happiness, remain intact if the women went off to work? Would it survive? During the Depression era, 26 states had laws in place which prohibited employers from hiring women. They were discouraged from going to college and were living in a patriarchal society that was pressuring them to remain subservient to men. While many women might have been content with this way of life, many were not. Women in masses entering the work force was encouraged during WWII as a way to instill a sense of patriotism, as well as a necessity if the country was going to continue functioning. The fictional character of Rosie the Riveter was created and placed on advertisements to spread the message, although 80% of the women that were working during the work had already been working in lower wage jobs. The only jobs that had been available to women were clerical, teaching, and health-related jobs. The war had given them the opportunity to finally enter the higher wage work force. When the war ended women were expected to give up their jobs and give way to the men returning from serving in the military, back to cooking and cleaning. Women were either forced to go back to lower paying jobs or, as 4 million women experienced, they were laid off (“Women and Work”). Working women had gotten the taste of independence, pride, confidence and earning their own income and all it was being revoked. Could the microwave help loosen the constraint of household cooking duties for women and allow them to once again enter the workforce?

The microwave oven would allow for the family to still eat at home as a family, without women having to give up working outside the home and without having to spend hours in the kitchen. Women were gradually becoming a major population in the work force, although majority of the managing and supervising jobs were still restricted to men. In fact, in order to be able to attain the “American dream” and live comfortably, both the male and female heads of the household had to work. New technologies were becoming available that would change how Americans lived; the microwave oven helped women manage work life and home life,  which in turn allowed for a household to live off two incomes, making it possible to purchase many new luxuries. Although, there were still many hurdles in the workplace such as discrimination, harassment, inequality and disrespect, the microwave oven at least gave women the opportunity to earn a living  by becoming a useful household technology that would allow them to feed their families at home in a quick and easy manner.

Quick and easy, that seems to be the American way. We work hard all day or go to school, perhaps both, and when we grab a bite to eat its likely going to be on the go or something we can zap in the microwave for a few seconds. Soon, we are scarfing down forkfuls of food without even taking the time to taste what are eating. There is something wrong with this scenario. Food should be savored, bite by bite. A hectic lifestyle is no excuse to take actions that can have negative health impacts. One of the questions that arise with the dependence of the microwave to cook and heat our food is the kinds of foods that are sold for the on-the-go lifestyle. While microwave ovens can and are used to heat up home-cooked leftovers, majority of the time foods that have been frozen and packaged in a manufacturing plant, shipped to a grocery store and purchased at a reasonably cheap price is what we end up reaching for.

Take a stroll down the middle section of nearly any big-box grocery store and you’ll find rows and rows of frozen, packaged foods that are ready –to-eat after a quick spin in the microwave oven. From pizza to pancakes to apple pie, there is an endless amount of options for those that don’t have time to cook themselves. Frozen foods have been around since 1923, when Clarence Birdseye developed a system of packing and flash freezing foods. Albert and Meyer Bernstein were selling frozen dinners on compartmentalized aluminum trays in the Pittsburgh area in 1949. The real rise and boom of frozen food meals came in 1954 when Swanson launched a massive advertising campaign for their products; they are generally credited from coining the term “TV dinner”. How the TV dinner started is an interesting story: they were developed as a solution to the massive amounts of Thanksgiving products “leftovers” after the holiday. Swanson TV dinner was basically a turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, peas and sweet potatoes. Their debut year the meals were a hit, selling more than 25 million at 98 cents per package. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, presently the average American eats 72 frozen meals a year, making frozen foods a $22 billion industry (Trimachi, “History of TV dinners”). Not only have the microwaves made it easier for women to separate themselves from their traditional kitchen duties, but they have also allowed for the rise and boom of a new frozen food industry. The question now is: are the frozen foods we are buying on sale and in large quantities really healthy alternatives for homemade meals?

I was asked once if the microwave oven itself somehow causes people to choose to eat unhealthy frozen food. In truth, no. There is nothing that prevents us from cooking meals for the whole week on a Saturday or Sunday, freeze them in individual containers and then reheat them when we want to eat. Professor Robert Sitton shared with our class that he eats a bran muffins every morning. A clever way of allowing him to enjoy a healthy muffin each morning is baking a batch and freezing them then all that he needs to do is pop one in the microwave when it comes time to eat one. Only one problem with that: it’s not exactly convenient and it takes planning and time to cook or bake and then freeze. Unless we are reheating leftovers, most people will buy foods specifically sold to cook or heat in the microwave. While more and more frozen food companies are making meals specifically targeted to the “healthy eater” or the “dieter”, do these foods really offer a nutritious meal? As with most processed foods, it’s important to check the levels of sodium and fat in frozen meals, they are notorious for having a high amount of both. Consuming a large percentage of fat or sodium in the diet can have serious health effects, especially for those that are suffering from being overweight or obesity. Frozen meals also have a very meager amount of vegetables and very often contain no fruits. If a person’s diet consists mainly of frozen meals, they would need to make sure to supplement their meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. A large variety of frozen meals now boast their low calorie counts on the front of their packaging, but low calories isn’t necessarily a good thing. Registered dietician Karen Collins states that “products that flaunt content “less than 300 calories” may actually be too low in calories for many people.” This can lead to a decreased metabolic rate, making weight loss difficult, causing negative feeling about self and ultimately making it easier for dieters to resort to previous used unhealthy eating habits. On the other hand, a positive aspect about healthy frozen meals is their portions. We are living in a culture in which bigger is better and restaurant serving sizes are double, triple or even quadruple the recommended amounts. Frozen meals help dieters get used to smaller, portion controlled meals. The key to success when eating healthy frozen meals is to think of them as base to add in fresh veggies, eat with a side of fruit and perhaps even adding in some healthy whole grains (O’Boyle, “Frozen Foods: They’re Convenient, but Are They Healthy”).

I was speaking to a co-worker about writing this paper and she brought up a point that I had not even considered. In our workplace there is a wall of microwaves, 6 in total. Sometimes, all the microwaves are in use and people have to wait to use them. There are frozen burritos being heated, frozen Lean Cuisine meals, Hot Pockets, canned soups and leftovers. I use the microwaves at work every workday as well, usually to eat up leftovers that I’m going to eat for lunch from the night prior. Lunch at work is made convenient for workers who want to enjoy a hot, cheap and quick lunch with help from the microwave oven. In the days when my grandfather was still working in Ecuador, he would actually be able to go home during his lunch break and eat with my grandmother and then head back to work. That option isn’t available to many of us today. Others may choose to go out to eat frequently, if not every day. Eating out every day can be expensive and quickly adds up. I once was told by a friend that a co-worker of ours ate at the same restaurant every day and had done so for a year. One day, they gave a gift certificate and she was puzzled. Why were they giving her money to spend at their restaurant? It turns out she had spent $1000 by eating there for the past years’ worth of work days. The microwave oven allows workers to choose to eat healthy foods they prepare themselves at home and eat at work or to purchase healthy frozen meals, which don’t have restaurant prices. In the long run using the microwave will save workers money, especially if they are using leftovers and not letting them go to waste.

Another obvious benefit of the microwave oven is that it is a major time saver. From defrosting to reheating, the microwave oven helps fit the necessity of eating into our daily lives. Apart from being convenient in heating precooked food items, many people are learning to utilize the microwave to actually cook food. You can cook bacon and eggs for a quick breakfast. You can cook a potato for a faux “baked” potato. You can even “bake” a cake. It is also convenient for kids to cook themselves a snack after school when the parents are away at work, instead of having them reach for sugary candy or unhealthy processed snacks like potato chips.  There is a whole new culinary world being explored when it comes to what you can cook from start to finish using the microwave.

Although the microwave oven may not be entirely understood by all, there is no doubting that it has become a major convenience factor in the lives of many Americans. While there are those that shun the microwave for fear of it contaminating our food and radiating those that stand close enough to it, experts in technology have not traced negative health effects directly to the microwaves themselves. In fact, the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to this technology. The microwaves helped women who were already fighting for independence and needing to financially support their families by facilitating the everyday duty of feeding the family. It is true that the convenience of microwavable frozen meals and foods tend to be unhealthy, there are many companies that are improving the nutritional quality of their products to meet the demand of highly nutritious and healthy meals. Those meals can be enjoyed by many workers during their lunch breaks, saving them time, money and gas. Microwaves at work also allow for the reheating of leftover food, cutting down further on the cost of food, as well as preventing the waste of food left in refrigerators at home uneaten. Even if time is short and stovetop cooking is not a possibility, many things can be cooked or “baked” in standard microwave ovens, making it easier for people of all ages to eat food that are perhaps healthier than sugary or highly processed snacks. Cooking on the stovetop, or by grilling or by baking in a conventional oven is still considered more traditional methods of cooking, but the times are changing along with our fast paced daily lives. The microwaves has become a more prominent fixture in home and in commercial kitchens, in student and teacher lounges and at the work place to allow us to eat foods that prior to the invention of the microwave we would not be able to heat up without having more complex and bulky cooking appliances. Perhaps in the future the microwave will be able to do more wondrous things, like cook on demand with the push of a button. Until then, we can choose to use this safe kitchen technology to cook, reheat and defrost as we please.

Works Cited

Abram, Stephen. Stephen’s Lighthouse. 27 Feb 2011. Web. 12 June 2013.

O’Boyle, Kelly. “Frozen Foods: They’re Convenient, but Are They Healthy?” Outside. Mariah Media

Network. 26 Apr. 2006. Web. 12 June 2013.

Parker, Janice. Science Q & A: Machines. New York: Weigle Company, 2009. Print.

Trimarchi, Maria. “History of TV Dinners”. TLC. Discovery Communications. 20 July 2009. Web. 12 June


Wolke, Robert L. What Einstein Told His Cook. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Print.

“Women and Work”. University of West Georgia. n.d. Web. 12 June 2013.

“A Woman’s Role in the 1950s”. University of Colorado. 17 Nov 2007. Web 12 June 2013.


Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks (2012) Poster

“Any writer can attest: in the luckiest, happiest state, the words are not coming from you, but through you.”

This past weekend I saw the movie Ruby Sparks directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, starring Paul Dano and Zoe Karan (who also wrote this movie). It had languished unwatched on my DVR for weeks; this viewing was long overdue. A super quick synopsis: main character Calvin is a writer struggling to write new material when…bam! He starts writing about fictional character Ruby and she magically comes to life. I enjoyed this movie very much because I could relate to Calvin. There is a scene where Calvin sits down in front of his typewriter, determined to whip out some pages, and all he does is stare at the pristine sheet of white paper. I’ve been there (several times) and it’s terrifying. What if you don’t come up with any good ideas? As soon as you think of something the nasty self-editor in you shoots it down. You’ve got nothing. Luckily, there are many different ways to get around this and get the creative juices flowing again (go for a walk, people watch, eavesdrop… er, I was just kidding about the last one!). The key is not to give up or beat yourself up too much over your writing, or lack thereof.

The concept of the movie is very intriguing as well. Calvin’s character comes to life! It’s like “what the heck?” And he’s basically in control of her existence because whatever he writes about her becomes reality. Although none of the characters I’ve written have come to life, when I’m writing a story the characters in it live with me and follow me around all day. They are with me as I eat, shower, sleep, and read… you get the picture.

One of the reasons the relationship between Calvin and Ruby doesn’t work is because as soon as Ruby starts to do as she wants and explores her desire and interest, Calvin writes a change in her, manipulating her to remain attached to him. This is a no-no in real life (no manipulating, people) and in writing. As the writer, your role is to give your characters a voice, paint a picture of their world with your words and allow them to live and grow organically. You’d be surprised but characters really do have a life of their own. If you try too hard to manipulate them to do exactly what you want regardless of what the character wants, the writing becomes stressed and can seem forced.

At the end of the movie, Calvin finally comes to realize he needs to give Ruby her freedom. And he does. At a reading for his newest novel, he says the quote at the beginning of this post. When I heard him say this I (internally) yelled “Yes! Exactly!” Sometimes it seems like an idea rocket just explodes on your head and you’ve got this story and you need to write it down right now… “the words are not coming from you but through you”. This is why you should have a writing utensil and paper or if you are all techie, an electronic device, to jot down those completely unexpected ideas. You never know if you’ve hit a gold mine and your own Ruby Sparks comes to life…

I hope I haven’t ruined the movie for those of you that haven’t seen it yet. Watch it, think about it, and maybe share what you thought about it here!

The United States of America: The Land of the Rich and the Hungry

The United States of America – the home of the free and the brave, the land the opportunity – statements like these are what draw the 38,517,234 foreigners that make up the US immigrant population. Many people leave their home countries in search of a better life for themselves and for their families and make the life changing decision to move to a place that speaks a language they might not even understand. People leave behind loved ones and prized possessions, all in the quest for the American Dream. Beneath the shiny façade and old fashioned values of America, there lies a not so pretty truth. America has its own bunch of problems. America also has poor people; America also has hunger people and homeless people and people who feel they have no future. How can it be possible that in world’s richest country there are people scrounging for food in garbage cans? Evidence would suggest that hunger thrives even in America due to the major economic recession, lack of government funding for food programs and the rising number of illegal immigrants in the country.

Beginning in late 2007, there was no doubt that the United States was falling head first into a recession.  There was turmoil simmering in the housing, credit and financial markets. Unemployment reached 10.6 million. “Personal bankruptcies filed in the federal courts totaled 934,009 from June 2007 to June 2008, up more than 28 percent from the 727,167 petitions filed in the same period a year earlier, according to the latest figures from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts,” (Dickler, “Personal bankruptcies on the rise”) . Foreclosures on homes were past the 3 million mark, a startling and dire statistic. In 2008, banks had repossessed more than 850,000 properties. That same year Sally Erickson, Portland’s homeless manager stated that the requests from families for emergency shelter had doubled compared to 2007. Living off of a minimum wage and having to support a family, a poor person would have a difficult time buying food if they are having to pay expensive housing, having to pay for healthcare out of pocket, having to pay for childcare and on top of that all the bills and utilities that are the responsibilities of a good citizen. Things were not looking good for America. Yet, people were still flocking to America and going straight into the lower class of society, into poverty. In the midst of all this chaos where was the government? Why was it not responding to the hungry people of its country? Where was President George W. Bush, who said “I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks,” when talking about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and US food donations on CNN in 2003? Sure, the government was not starving its people, like the President implies Kim Jong was, but were we doing any better? The question that remains to be answered is why hasn’t the government done anything to help its people thrive and live outside of the pits of hunger?

The federal government, in the not too distant past, had played a much bigger role in helping feed the hungry. Programs like WIC, which helps feed pregnant women and young children, school breakfasts and lunches, were supported by politicians in the 1970’s. Then came along people like Ronald Reagan and people that were in The Heritage Foundation.  In 1981, the Heritage Foundation laid out a plan “to restrain the food programs”. Some of their proposals passed, resulting in less outreach and advocacy for the hungry people. Reagan focused on the food stamp program and attacked it. He had put a picture in the mind of many Americans: the picture of a person abusing the food programs and abusing the good intentions of good Samaritans. The people accepted this image of the free-loading American and food programs numbers dwindled. Douglas Besharov, the director of Projects on Social and Individual responsibility at the American Enterprise Institute stated that WIC was playing a role in contributing to childhood obesity. The doubt over WIC was increasing, drawing the politicians into making it harder to become eligible. Similarly, the Agriculture Department hopes to make it more difficult to qualify for free and reduced-price school meals because it has found that some of the children in the program are coming from families that aren’t eligible. While making it harder to qualify might weed out the people that shouldn’t be a part of the program, it also alienates those that do qualify. Inevitably it will cause a reduction in participation among eligible children. For many of those children a hot school lunch is the only source of food. The negative image placed on food programs and people enrolled in those programs ultimately led to a drastic drop in federal funding.

Out of the entire federal budget in 2002, less than 2% was spent on food programs. One of the programs that have been hit hard is those that deliver food to the elderly in their homes. These elderly people are confined to their homes by illnesses and old age, with no one to assist them. 20 years ago in New York, a food delivery service was 80% funded by Washington, but now the federal government pays less than 20%. This has led to people to become malnourished. This population in particular uses many medications for a variety of ailments. Medication taken on an empty stomach can cause adverse effects because medication is meant to be taken with food. Sadly, some of the elderly die waiting for home delivered meals that never come or arrive too late.

Another major food program that has been getting more and more difficult for people to use is food stamps. After Reagan planted the seed of doubt into the minds of the Americans, the food stamp program, which dates back to 1939, became increasingly difficult. Never in its history has food stamps been used by all of the people that are eligible. Why could that be? Eligible people are not encouraged to enroll in food stamps because of the excessive verification required, more and more frequent case worker visits, the requirement of reapplying in person and even going so far as taking fingerprints. Even when the unemployment rates were increasing between the years of 2001 – 2003, the enrollment in the food stamp program decreased in New York.

Even if a person is on food stamps, it’s simply not enough to get through the month. Poor families spend anywhere from 50% to 80% on just housing, meaning they have little to nothing to contribute towards buying food. What these people are forced to do, is march to one of the 50,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country. So many people are forced to get emergency food boxes, 30% of those people use food stamps, directly pointing to the fact that the food stamps aren’t enough to live on. The food that is in the food boxes are usually damaged products that didn’t sell or too much of it was made or it is past the expiration date. The people don’t get to choose what food they get and most of the food is processed, not fresh. The fact that there is hardly any fresh produce at food banks could possibly be contributing to diet related health problems among the poor. Sadly, even if a food bank were to get fresh produce, often times there isn’t adequate refrigeration for storage. Also a problem is that majority of the volunteers at food banks are older people that can’t carry a substantial load of fresh produce. Essentially what that means is that, even if a person has just finished a meal made from products in a food box and they no longer feel hungry, their body is still starving for proper nutrients. Hunger still remains an issue.

The United States is a capitalist nation and it comes as no surprise that hunger has been turned into a way to get profit. Food banks have become viewed as a business because it creates jobs for people. Among the food bank leaders there are two opposing sides: one which supports and demands that the government find solutions not only for hunger but also poverty and the other side which demands more donations. Ultimately, hunger is just a symptom of a much larger issue which is inadequate income. People of African and Hispanic/Latino heritage make up majority of the poor population. Many of the Hispanic or Latino people that live in poverty are in the United States as illegal immigrants. “The vast majority of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico and Latin America: 60.0 percent (6.7 million) from Mexico, 12.0 percent (1.3 million) from Central America, 5.0 percent (575,000) from South America, and 3.0 percent (350,000) from the Caribbean,” (Batalova, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States”). These large populations are not able to get job that pay above minimum wage and must accept any job that comes their way. Typically the jobs they take are field labor jobs, which only hire during select seasons in the year. With a job that pays very little, or with no job at all, it is impossible for a person to pay for food for themselves and for the family. They must get what they can at a food bank. Unfortunately, an illegal immigrant has no voice in America. An illegal immigrant cannot stand up and fight for a higher paying job and fight for health care and equal rights. This would only lead to deportation, and no illegal immigrant wants that shame upon their heads. An illegal immigrant must live quietly with hunger as a constant companion.

As I’m warm in my home, sheltered from the cold and having eaten three meals today I can only imagine the gnawing pain of hunger many people are dealing with right now. I think about the 1 in 3 children living in Washington D.C that are malnourished. The one thing that I have found to be certain is that hunger must be stopped. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the Work says that with 6 billion dollars set aside to tackle hunger in America, we could stamp out half of the problem in just 2 years. Not only must more donations, in the form of money or food, be available for immediate assistance, but income must be taken into consideration as well. Increasing the minimum wages in order for living expenses to be covered without leaving people scraping enough money for food is the only solution in moving towards self-sufficiency. The United State is slowly but surely crawling out of the recession. It’s the people’s responsibility, as well as the government’s, to make sure that no one is left behind and that we all move towards a place of financial security. Once that is achieved then America can become what it is meant to be: the land of the free and brave and the land of opportunity.


Everyone is scared of something, even that person you know that claims nothing causes their heart to beat faster, palms to become sweaty and make them either freeze in terror or run in the other direction for their mommy. Unfortunately, sometimes the things we are afraid of are unavoidable. It would be so much more convenient to be scared of kangaroos than cats.

Usually our fears and phobias stem from traumatic experiences we’ve had. One of my fears is commonly shared by many: the fear of being the center of unwanted attention due to something humiliating I’ve done. I’ve probably had too many experiences with this because I can’t bring any specific memory to the surface. Actually…I can, but I’d rather not relive humiliating experiences if I don’t have to.

I can remember when I became scared of escalators. I was just a little girl and I was in a department store with my mom. It was important for me to always wear matching clothes, my mom and grandma wouldn’t have it otherwise. Clad in a white, crisp t-shirt, denim shorts and white Keds, we found sanctuary from the oppressive California summer heat in that air-conditioned oasis. I still didn’t know how to tie my shoes. It amazes me how children always seem to have their shoelaces caressing dirty floors, instead of nicely looped into bunny ears. For some reason or another, my mom and I were going to go on the escalator to go up to the next level of the store. My white shoelace managed to get caught in between two of the steps of the terrible, whirring escalator. Of course, neither of us had realized this until I tried to step off and fell, it seemed to me that the escalator was trying to eat my foot. People came over to help my mom and the hysterical mess of a girl I’d become. Eventually, some brilliant soul thought of pulling my foot free of the shoe. It was a beautiful marriage of humiliation and horror.

Since then I’ve had thousands, possibly millions, of encounters with escalators. We live in a country that goes out of its way to make sure that convenience is always available. Getting to the next level at the mall by taking the stairs? How prehistoric! Heaven forbid I should break a sweat! Going up escalators is easy for me, it’s going down that remains a problem. I usually have to pause, take a breath and get on fast enough so that my feet are on the same step. I’d managed to remain incident free, until the summer of 2008.

Freshly liberated from high school, I went to Ecuador with my dad and got to visit my paternal grandparents. My grandmother is a social butterfly and loves shopping; it came as no surprise that she wanted to take us on a tour of the three malls in Guayaquil. The most extravagant of them all was four stories high with expensive boutiques and department stores, reviling the mall back home. After spending a few hours in there it was easy to forget the little kids out on the streets trying to make a living selling gum and flowers.

My grandmother has battled many ailments in her life, causing her body to age beyond its years. She almost always walks around with her bony arm linked to someone else’s. While I was there, I became the official arm support.

As we glided up the escalators I couldn’t help thinking about having to come down the same way that we’d gone up. What goes up must come down, right? My heart pounded rhythmically in my ears as I calculated the perfect timing necessary so that both of us could get on fast enough. It would have been impossible for me to detach myself from my grandmother’s strong grip on me in order to hold on to the railing, white knuckled. Relief slowly trickled in as I planted my feet firmly on the third floor; it was easier than I had thought.  Overly confident that I had those escalators under my control, I took my first step on the one that led to the second floor. It didn’t even occur to me to make sure my grandmother was also ready to get on. Unfortunately, to my terror, she wasn’t. I looked up at her, still holding on to my arm and my one foot on the third floor and one descending on the escalator. My legs stretched and I panicked about what would happen when I was stretched to the max. I am not Miss Elastic Girl. My cheeks burned with embarrassment, panic and lack of oxygen. It’s unclear how it happened but she finally let go of my arm and I collapsed on the steps, shaking. Sure enough, a crowd gathered at the base of the escalators, gawking at me.

I felt angry at my grandmother; I wanted to quit being her support post. If she had just let me go, my second nightmare encounter with an escalator wouldn’t have happened. When she stepped off the escalator that day and joined me on the second floor, she just said “What were you thinking? I wasn’t ready!” And that was that.

My grandmother, I concluded, who lived thousands and thousands of miles away from me, didn’t care about me. I realize how silly that is now. If I had simply made sure she was ready or had suggested the elevator, I could have prevented the scene altogether. What it really highlights for me now, looking back at the incident, is that I don’t really know my paternal grandma and how this makes me sad. I would like to sit down with her and get to know her. I would like to hear her story from her lips, not my dad’s. What I would like to say to all those that don’t appreciate the family members that are near to them is that they should! You never know what amazing stories the people related to you have to say or how they really want to get to know you too. With all the scary things happening in the world today, I’d like to say that if something were to happen to me I would have no regrets and that all those that I love would know so. But I don’t think I can say that with certainty, and I know that I can’t say that I have said and done all that I want to in life. So my advice to you and to me is to live life now. Say I love you to those you do love, read a good book, enjoy a quiet moment, dance to your favorite song and laugh with your whole body. Most importantly, don’t let fears bring you down. Escalators are a part of life that I encounter and have to face. It’s such a trivial fear and can easily be replaced by many other fears that I have but that I have to overcome if I want to be my idea of a successful and happy person. Don’t let the terror in the world stop you. Don’t let fear win.

E-books: The Demise of Print Books and Bookstores?

Paper or plastic? Coffee or tea? Take the stairs or take the elevator? Every day we make decisions to use, to consume or to do one thing over another, sometimes without even giving it a second thought. The decisions we make are usually based on personal preference, what we know and are most comfortable with. Emerging technologies have created questions for Americans in the past, such as: write a letter or send an email? A major question that has arisen, concerning technology, is whether to use print books or e-books? E-books, which are electronic books, are growing in popularity and demand. American consumers are faced with the question of using print books or e-books more often than ever before, and the decision that the consumer makes is having a major impact on the publishing world and bookstore survival.

E-books have grown in popularity and sales in recent years, and although they may seem like a brand new technology, they have been around for quite some time. E-text #1 is the name of the first e-book ever, which became available in July 1971 on Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971 by a young University of Illinois freshman, Michael Hart. The project is a digital library available to anyone with computer and internet access, at no cost. Project Gutenberg’s mission is this: “to put at everyone’s disposal, in electronic versions, as many literary works from public domain as possible for free”. Currently, the project offers over 38,000 free e-books, in over 25 languages. The vision of Michael Hart still lives, despite his death in 2011 (Lebert).  Project Gutenberg initiated major changes in the publishing world. This opened up a new world of possibilities for readers everywhere. In cases where a library is not nearby or if a person didn’t feel like going out to get a book to read, there is now the opportunity to read from a computer.

As with any technology, e-book technology needed to evolve and so it did. Along came a wave of early dedicated reading devices, such as the Rocket eBook, which was introduced in 1998 and sold by retailers like Powell’s Books (Sennett). A person no longer had to stay in one place to read an e-book, but now had the portability of a print book. E-books were also available on other devices not specifically dedicated for reading, such as the Palm phone. Although the Rocket eBook allowed for portability, it did not gain a strong following. The latest of the e-readers: the Kindle, the nook and other devices such as the iPad have had much more commercial success.

It has been over 40 years since the unveiling of E-text #1, the first e-book, yet it seems that in the majority of the consumer’s minds, e-books are a new and exciting prospect. As with most new trends or “fads” in consumerism, there has been a sort of boom with e-books and e-readers. Where once I would see people on their daily public transportation commute reading paperback or hardcover books, I now more frequently see people with sleek and thin e-readers with who knows how many e-books downloaded. What has caused this shift towards e-readers? The obvious reason is that it is perfect for reading when away from home. For example, a person away from home on vacation or a business trip can read one book plus many more, without ever having to lug around several books and all that weight. Portability is one factor many of the people I interviewed mentioned. Canon Crawford, instructor at Marylhurst University stated he can have a dozen or more e-books available to him on his e-reader and can choose to read for as long as the device has battery life.

In the days before e-books had reached great popularity, college students would have to carry heavy textbooks with them the majority of time. Now, with e-books, a student can have a laptop, smart phone or dedicated e-book reader and have all, or a majority, of their textbooks downloaded to it. Schools, such as Marylhurst University, have online courses designed for students that are not able to go on campus or find it easier to take classes via an online forum-style classroom. In one of my own online classes, all the texts required for the class are available online. For example, if I begin reading one text on my laptop, I can finish reading it on my smart phone later on. I can appreciate the convenience of the e-books for this class because of the ease it gives me in being able to read anywhere without having to carry several books, as well as being able to choose what electronic device I can use.

Americans are living in a technologically advanced world where many people have smart phones and laptops. Every day there is work being done towards more advancement in the field of technology. When e-readers first came onto the market they did not have a strong welcome, but they eventually gained traction. It may have seemed like an extra expense to purchase a device dedicated just for reading, but soon it was discovered that buying e-books is actually cheaper. “The first people to jump to the Kindle were the most avid readers… if you’re reading 10 books a month, it made great financial sense right away to get a Kindle [or other e-reader],” states Darrin Sennett, the director of strategic projects at Powell’s Books. The “great financial sense” that Sennett mentions is a major factor in our current times, especially when prices of everyday items seems to be escalating; the e-book appeals to the bargain book shopper.

In fact, the publishers of e-books had to step in to regulate pricings that were being set by Amazon, explains Sennett. The online store was selling e-books for $9.99, which is less than what they pay the publishers. When a company like Amazon purchases products at wholesale, they are entitled to turn around and sell the product at any price they’d like, even if that means taking losses; this is known as the wholesale model. The publishers (Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin, and Hachette), realized this and had to act fast. If Amazon were to continue pricing all their e-books at $9.99 or less, they would create an environment in which consumers would assume and expect that all e-books would be that cheap. That could eventually lead to a demand for even lower costing e-books. “So… one by one the [publishers] moved from the ‘wholesale model’ to the ‘agency model,’ in which the publisher sets the price, and no stores are allowed to sell it for less,” such as with Apple products (Sennett). Most e-books are now priced between $12.99 and $14.99, which is still less than a hard-cover book.

Having established that affordability and portability of e-books are most important in consumers’ minds, the next question to answer is: what is considered negative about e-books? One thing to keep in mind when weighing the pros and cons of e-books is that people have had longer relationships with print books than e-books. Imagine your favorite book in your hands; imagine the weight of it, the feel of the cover and the smell of those well-known, worn and smooth pages. It can bring back nostalgic feelings of childhood or bring memories of reading by

the fireplace on a rainy winter day to mind. Print books are comfort, they are familiar and they have been in our lives much longer. Tiffany Perala, instructor at Marylhurst University, said “I love my print books, and I prefer writing, annotating, and folding pages. That said, the e-books I’ve purchased have the option to highlight, bookmark, and jump ahead and back with a simple flick.” E-books give the reader alternative options for things that one could normally do with a print book, such as highlighting. One classmate of mine once told me that e-books can do all that print books can, if only they could emit a “real” book smell!

It seems to me that there are three main divisions among readers: those that love using e-books, those that only want to use print books and those that don’t really know what side to be on. There are also those that can’t afford e-readers or books, at all. American people are asked to choose between printed books and e-books, but sometimes the real question is if a person has money to purchase books or not. The country faced an economic crisis and many of the people who could afford to purchase a book or two for pleasure reading might not be able to dispose of their income as freely. It is not the American consumers in general that are having an impact on the publishing world and bookstore; it is the Americans of the middle to upper class that are exercising their power as consumers. The publishing market is being dominated by that select group of people that have the disposable income to purchase books and have the luxury of choosing between e-books and print books. As the prices of both print books, e-books and e-readers become more feasible for the consumer and as the economic situation of the lower income consumers improves, the possibility to purchase those items is more probable. As more people begin purchasing books again, hopefully the decision between e-book and print book will be faced by more American consumers and not just those of the middle to upper class.

Regardless of what side a person is on or whether or not books can be afforded, the print book market has taken a negative impact because of e-books, but also because of the major economic recession that hit the United States in 2008. The mass-market paperback in particular has suffered the most, revealed the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, with sales that have fallen 14% since 2008. Readers, who in the past could pick up a cheap novel at the drugstore or at an airport, are now saving those few bucks because of the tough financial situations many of us are facing today. Instead of mass-market paperbacks, store shelves are now being used for hardcovers and trade paperbacks. “For decades, the mass-market paperback has stubbornly held on, despite the predictions of its death since the 1980s,” wrote Julie Bosman for a New York Times article on the subject. It has had to compete with trade paperbacks, which used to be released one-year after the release of the hardcover, and are now being released sooner. In the race for the reader’s interest and money, the mass-market paperback just can’t win.

With the rise of e-book sales, the mass-market paperback is in serious danger of going extinct. Readers that would buy discounted paperbacks can now purchase the e-book version at a low price on the first day of publication.  If e-books are available at a cheap price without the reader having to wait, then e-books would seem like the most logical choice for the avid reader. Liate Stehlik, a publisher from William Morrow, Avon and Voyager poses the question:  “…. Do you still want to wait for the book [discount]?” From the economic downturn of mass-market paperback, it would seem that the answer is a resounding “no”. “The people who used to wait to buy the mass-market paperback because of the price aren’t going to wait anymore,” (Stehlik). The e-book is the future mass-market paperback.

The convenience and price of e-books are appealing to the reader; another factor that also comes into play is their environmental friendliness. We are in an era in which we can no longer ignore the consequences of our actions and the effects we have on the Earth’s environment. People are recycling more, reusing more and reducing their waste. A question for the “green” reader to consider would be: does getting an e-book help the environment? A report by The Cleantech Group suggests that using an e-book can reduce a person’s carbon footprint. The group found that a book uses up “approximately 7.46 kilograms of CO2 over its lifetime and that the Kindle produces roughly 168 kg during its lifecycle,” (“The Ecological Case for E-books”). Most people own more than one book and have purchased many books in their lifetimes, meaning that their carbon footprint could potentially be way over the 168 kg produced by the Kindle.

Another clear advantage for using e-books concerns textbooks. Besides the obvious discomfort of having to carry around a heavy textbook around and their typically outrageously high prices, textbooks are updated every couple of years, making the previous version obsolete. Instead of purchasing the print version of a textbook, one could simply get the e-book version which typically costs less and has less of an impact on the environment. Books have been in existence for hundreds of years and their impact on the environment may be unclear to a majority of readers. Here’s a look at why books aren’t environmentally friendly: the wood that is used to make books takes a lot of energy to process into paper and more energy to transport. Once the wood is made into the finished book product, which takes energy in creating and transporting to the bookstore, the reader must then drive to the bookstore in order to purchase it. All of the transportation that takes place uses gas and the cars on the road contribute to air pollution. Although it still takes energy in to make an e-book and an e-reader, over their lifetime their impact on the environment can be considerably less than a beloved print book.

The environment may thank you for using e-books, but what device is being used has to be considered as well. When all processing and transporting is done for a print book, it does not continue to create issues concerning carbon emissions. The same cannot be said for some devices being used for e-book reading. Journalist Duncan Graham-Rowe writes “reading a newspaper online for 30 minutes a day produces more emissions than reading a paper version.” This puts a twist to the argument that e-books are environmentally friendlier than print books. It’s simply not enough to read an e-book, you must also consider what you are reading on. If a reader is using a computer that is plugged into an electrical outlet, the electricity being used is creating emissions. Even when using a dedicated e-book reader emissions are created when downloading e-books. If a reader wants to be the greenest they can be and read e-books, then the best option is to use a dedicated e-reader, suggests Graham-Rowe. “That’s because devices like this not only allow content to be downloaded wirelessly without needing to go through a PC as well, but also because their novel electronic-paper displays use so little energy.” It’s clear that the argument between what is best, a print book or an e-book, is not simple to answer.

To the e-book advocate, e-books are cheap, convenient and if using the correct device, environmentally friendly as well. As more and more readers decide to go e-book over print book, bookstores are suffering. One major bookstore that took its fall was Borders Books and Music, which closed all their 399 locations in 2011. At its peak, Borders had 1,200 stores worldwide, but when faced mounting debt, they had to downsize to 399 stores. According to Cris Ferguson, who was once a Borders employee, many factors contributed to Borders’ fate, but “the single largest contributing factor to the company’s collapse was the growth of the e-book market and [its] failure to capitalize on market change.” Borders didn’t launch its own e-reader and didn’t take advantage of the growing number of readers switching to e-books like other major booksellers, Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The company announced in 2008 that it would carry the Sony e-Reader and have an online e-book store, but it didn’t go into effect until 2010, “three full years after Amazon debuted the Kindle in 2007, and one year after Barnes and Noble’s release of nook,” (Ferguson).

Borders seemed unprepared to enter the technological world that other major booksellers were phasing into and their late entrance into the e-book market made it difficult for employees that had to sell e-readers, which were often faulty and difficult to navigate. Borders didn’t even have control of its website until 2008, which moved at a snail’s pace and caused customer frustration. Borders is proof that bookstores need to adapt to the changing market to appeal to both the e-book reader and the traditional print book reader.

The closure of such a major bookstore has had a deep impact in the publishing world. Hundreds of people will have lost their jobs, beyond Borders own employees. Publishers had teams that specifically dealt with doing business with Borders. Suddenly, a major outlet for book sales has shut down. “There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go,” says NPR blogger Rachel Syme. “The most logical thing is to stop printing them.” It is hard to imagine a world without print books, but if bookstores keep closing down, there doesn’t seem to be a bright future for either bookstores or print books.

Barnes and Noble, a major bookstore company, hasn’t had much of an issue in phasing into the new era of e-books, but what about the independent bookstores? Their future has always been precarious, with the big bookstores breathing down their necks. E-books now pose another challenge to the financial stability and security for all those “mom and pop” bookstores. In an interview with Darrin Sennett, some light was shed on the new obstacles that independent bookstores now face. One of those is what Sennet calls the “showrooming’ factor, which is when people go to a bookstore to look through a book in person and if they are interested, will go and purchase it online for a cheaper price. In an effort to make some money, bookstores are dedicating more floor space to non-book products, like toys and games. It may seem like the obvious solution is simply to jump on the e-book/e-reader bandwagon like other major booksellers. Sennett says that it would be a massive investment for an already struggling business to try to get an edge on the Kindle or the nook by creating a new device. Not only would the bookstore need plenty of capital to launch the device, but would need to continually update hardware and software.

Doom and gloom doesn’t have to be the fate of independent bookstores. Sennett offers insight on what keeps consumers going to Powell’s Bookstore, a successful indie bookstore in Portland, Oregon. One big factor Powell’s has going for itself is it’s a tourist attraction. “The Burnside Powell’s has always had its massive attraction because of its singular size, which draws not only tourists but local people who love it for what it is…” Other bookstores should consider that less can be more. Instead of having a giant selection, bookstores should sell and display the books that readers should read. A reader should be able to go to the bookstore and talk to a person that’s passionate about the books they are selling, that way it makes it easy for the reader to want to purchase the book right at that moment. Sennett also suggests that bookstores could work the “socialization angle” and create an environment where people can gather for coffee, book clubs, author events and even cocktails. Powell’s currently has author events and readings which does attract local readers. In all honesty, people don’t open bookstores to become rich but because of their love of books and their desire to share that love with others. What bookstores need to do, now more than ever, is find ways to creatively show people why bookstores are important.

Something of importance to point out, besides the fact that there are major changes in the publishing world currently happening, is that books are selling. This means that more people are turning to reading as a form of entertainment. Authors aren’t being financially affected by the switch from print books to e-books. “Generally speaking, authors make more royalties on an e-book than on a paperback” (Bosman). The jobs that were sadly lost by the closure of bookstores, like Borders, might be balanced out by jobs being created as e-book sales rise and people are needed to create and sell them.

Ultimately, the question still remains: e-book or print book? The answer doesn’t have to be one or the other. I believe that there is room in today’s market for both. There will always be people that prefer one form of books over the other, what needs to happen is for bookstores to learn to appeal to both consumers. A major bookstore like Barnes and Noble appeals to both readers by selling print books at their locations, while also selling e-readers and e-books online; Powell’s appeals to readers by having a wide variety of books to choose from, as well as by having author events and selling e-books online. The independent bookstore can also appeal to both readers, without having to sell e-books or e-readers and without having a huge selection. How? By having passionate readers sell the books that they are passionate about, enabling them to carry a conversation with a customer about which book the reader should lose themselves in next. The bookstore could have weekly book club meetings, where both e-book readers and print book readers can meet and discuss novels. Readers need to consider what they prefer to read from best: print or e-book, while keeping an open mind about using both. The possibilities for bookstores are out there, it’s just a matter of being creative. The opening of the new era of e-books doesn’t have to mean the death of print books. In fact, print book publishers and bookstores should use this as a time for reinvention and as a time to help people fall in love with reading all over again.