Climb Every Mountain
I am starting a new tradition, right here, right now. Leading up to Rosh Hashanah I will choose a Jewish woman whose energy, attitudes, accomplishments, and fearlessness I want to take with me into the New Year.
I learned about this extraordinary woman in a feature story in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. What impressed me about this mountaineering-scientist-activist was her dogged tenacity in every area of her life. At the risk of sounding sappy: she is a woman who lives her dreams and accomplishes epic goals, all the while mobilizing others to join the cause. At the risk of sounding colloquial: she is a woman who gets sh-t done.
Let’s begin with her early days when she climbed mountains—literally. (We’ll get to the figurative mountain climbing soon enough). It’s 1960, a good 12 years before Title IX has seen the light of day, and Blum wants to join a high altitude expedition. Arlene was told that she was welcome to come as far as the base camp to -- brace yourself dear reader -- “help with the cooking.” In a letter from 1969, a leader rejects her from an Afghanistan expedition, when he takes the “old boys club” mentality to a whole new level:
“One woman and nine men would seem to me to be unpleasant high on the open ice, not only in excretory situations but in the easy masculine companionship which is so vital a part of the joy of an expedition.”
What does Arlene do? She organizes her own expedition! And then another and then another:
1970: Arlene organizes an all women expedition to Denali; young feminists take note— she was only 25.
1971: She organizes what she names the “Endless Winter,” a 15-month trek through Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Iran, Kashimr, Afghanistan, and Nepal.
1978: She leads the first all female ascent of Annapurna I, a 26,545 foot peak considered the world’s most dangerous. In its history, 89 people have attempted the ascent, only eight have made it; nine have died trying. Besieged by storms, avalanches, illness, and the death of two party members, two American women and two sherpas did make it to the summit.
Also, in addition to climbing India and traversing the Himalayas on foot, she carried her infant daughter, Annalise, across the Alps on her back. (I just love that image.)
The woman is tough. Clearly.
Arlene can take on towering peaks, but can she take on monstrous… bureaucracies?
At age 61, Blum returned to her first career: science. You may remember back in the 1970's the “The Pajama Game.” But I refer to a different "pajama game"—the one that exposed flame retardants in children’s pajamas as carcinogens. Arlene was the force behind this discovery. When her study went public, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned Chlorinated Tris and its related flame retardant compounds from the market. However, we would not see the last of that carcinogenic culprit because now, thirty years later, it has moved to your couch—actually it IS your couch.
But, as Arlene has pointed out, it’s easy to throw out a pair of pajamas, not so easy to throw out your couch. And, as the author of The New York Time Magazine wrote, “The choice isn’t between my Tris-treated couch and another flame-retardant free one. It’s between this couch and no couch.”
Arlene owns no couch; though she owns many comfortable floor pillows.
Arlene got wind of the situation six years ago at a conference. It opened her eyes, and now she stresses that we “live in a foam-filled world” and that “flame retardants do not stay in the foam because every time someone sits on it all the air that’s in the cushions gets expelled into the environment.” Around the same time she wondered whether her couch was killing her cat, Midnight, who after losing weight was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, one of a host of maladies caused by flame retardants that include (for people as well as pets) anti-social behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, diminished intelligence, and lowered levels of male hormones.
Blum approaches flame retardants and the home furnishings industry the same way she takes on any mountain, with equal parts fearlessness, chutzpah, and optimism. “Himalayan mountain climbers are acute optimists,” says Blum, “because there’s such a high fatality rate.” Oy.
Arlene, thank G-d, is very much alive, a fighting force actually. She has founded the nonprofit organization, the Green Science Policy Institute, and has gained the support of major scientists, furniture manufacturers, and policymakers. Most recently in a whirlwind effort (a campaign in which she had only a month to prepare), she was able to stop the a global standard set forth by the International Electrotechnical Commission, in which all televisions would be required to have casings resistant to the flame of an open candle. What that means: flame retardants (and its carcinogenic qualities) would be added to every television in the world.
After a month of hiking a seemingly uphill battle, at the end of May the international t.v. standard had been voted down by 40% of the countries, largely due to Blum’s efforts.
So as we enter 5773, and as you dress your child in his bedtime pajamas, turn on your t.v., and plop yourself on the couch, I invite you to think of Arlene Blum. How can we channel that unbridled optimism, sheer endurance, and tikkun olam spirit into this New Year?