Friday, December 24, 2010

Why I believe in Santa

I believe in Santa. Yes, I'm serious, I really do. I have a lot of reasons for this, and maybe someday they'll all spill out onto this blog. But for today, Christmas Eve, I don't see any reason in belaboring the point more than necessary, when Terry Pratchett got most of it exactly right in he best book, Hogfather, in a conversation between Death and his granddaughter (trust me) Susan.

Susan: Now tell me what would have happened--
Death: If we hadn't saved the Hogfather? The sun would not have risen. A mere ball of gas would have illumined the world.
Susan: Alright, I'm not stupid. You're saying that humans need fantasies to make life bearable.
Death: Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
Susan: They're not the same at all.
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point?
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?

Merry Christmas, Happy holidays, and joyous New Year everyone!

Monday, December 13, 2010

And now I'm mad.

When did it become unacceptable to spend money at Christmas? What the hell happened? Yes, I get that plenty of people do not have jobs or money to spend. Really, believe me, I get that--if you don't believe me, just look back about one year's worth of posts here. And I get that Debt Is Bad. Yes it is. But if you do have the money? If you've been saving it up just for Christmas? If you *gasp* want to spend money on your friends and family? Why is it that I now have to defend myself because I do plan to spend money--more than average, too, the horror--on my family for Christmas?

When did it become a badge of honor to spend as absolutely little as possible on the people you care about, as if reducing your final spending is the only goal. I see people preening themselves all over the eco-blogosphere right now over how tiny their Christmas bill will be. Or congratulating themselves that they don't really get anything that they wouldn't otherwise, like PJs or a rainbarrel. Or that all of their gifts are handmade, and never purchased from anyone (who, you know, might've done a nice job and could've used the paycheck).

You know what I don't see in all of these self-congratulatory posts? I don't see any discussion of fun, or of happiness, or of joy. I see self-satisfaction oozing, no doubt. And I'm sure these people get a wonderful, healthy eco-smug glow on Christmas morning as their family opens their gifts, carefully selected to ensure that they are all in line with anti-consumerist zeitgeist.

Well you know what? F*ck that. I do have a job, and we saved specifically for this, and I'm gonna spend money that I never would on stuff that I never would and I'm gonna have a blast doing it. I'm gonna get things that we ordinarily never would--often things we need, sure, but also things we want. And I'm gonna get my kids some Hex Bugs. Why? Cause they're completely stupid and AWESOME! And a blanket fort kit! Why a kit, of all things? Cause it's AWESOME! And some roving for spinning yarn. Why? Cause I love it and I can't usually afford it and I'm gonna sooooo love spinning it into some yummy yarn! And maybe some shelving for various things, cause it'll make our lives a bit easier. And super-keeno things for my husband that I can't put here because he is NOT to be trusted when it comes to discretion. And I'll make some gifts too, not because I want to bask in the eco-glow, but because I enjoy making things for people, and I think that the gifts I make will in fact make these people's lives better, rather than because they have some crazy stamp of approval. And we'll have cookies and family and brunch at home and too much wrapping paper everywhere and popcorn and FUN! Because Christmas is supposed to be FUN!

I get the fact that our culture goes crazy-overboard on buying stuff. And I'm as sickened as anyone by the commercialism of Christmas. And no, I do not think that going into debt-slavery for Christmas is a good plan. But I'm also trying not to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. There is a reason that Christmas got commercialized--because it's the time of year when we collectively think about what we can get for others, or do for others, that will be appreciated and enjoyed and just generally will make our lives a bit nicer. And it has gone too far, when we buy stuff unreflectingly, just to be able to say that we bought something for someone.

But taking the goal of a tiny Christmas bill is the same sin as aiming for a huge bill--it's the wrong goal. I like the goal of buying things, making things, doing things for others that will bring joy and happiness into their lives, within the means of the giver (both in terms of money, materials, skills, and time). The point is to think of others, and how one can make those other's lives better, even if just for a little while. If you lose sight of this goal, then you lose sight of the joy in the season, and that's a real shame.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's that time of year again...

We finished celebrating my youngest son's birthday, which means that the Holidays have OFFICIALLY BEGUN. And that means it's time to post my favorite holiday story. Just try and read this without tearing up, I dare you.

Merry Chanukwanzmas, and a happy Solstice, too! (And all the other myriad holidays, those're good, too!)

by Margaret Morrison

Five minutes before the Winter Solstice circle was scheduled to begin, my mother called. Since I’m the only one in our coven who doesn’t run on Pagan Standard Time, I took the call. Half the people hadn’t arrived, and those who had wouldn’t settle down to business for at least twenty minutes.

”Merry Christmas, Frannie.”

”Hi, Mom. I don’t do Christmas.”

”Maybe not—but I do, so I’ll say it.” she told me in her sassy voice, kind of sweet and vinegary at the same time. “If I can respect your freedom of religion, you can respect my freedom of speech.”

I grinned and rolled my eyes. “And the score is Mom - one, Fran - nothing. But I love you, anyway.”

People were bustling around in the next room, setting up the altar, decking the halls with what I considered excessive amounts of holly and ivy, and singing something like, “O Solstice Tree.”

”It sounds like party.” Mom said.

”We’re doing Winter Solstice tonight.”

”Oh. That’s sort of like your version of Christmas, right?”

I wanted to snap back that Christmas was the Christian version of Solstice, but I held back. “We celebrate the return of the sun. It’s a lot quieter than Christmas. No shopping sprees, no pine needles and tinsel on the floor, and it doesn’t wipe me out. I remember how you had always worked yourself to a frazzle by December 26.”

”Oh honey, I loved doing all that stuff. I wouldn’t trade those memories for all the spare time in the world. I wish you and Jack would loosen up a little for the baby’s sake. When you were little, you enjoyed Easter bunnies and trick-or-treating and Christmas things. Since you’ve gotten into this Wicca religion, you sound a lot like Aunt Betty the year she was a Jehovah’s Witness.”

I laughed nervously. “Yeah. How is Aunt Betty?”

”Fine. She’s into the Celestine Prophecy now, and she seems quite happy. Y’know,” she went on, “Aunt Betty always said the Jehovah’s Witnesses said those holiday things were pagan. So I don’t see why you’ve given them up.”

”Uh, they’ve been commercialized and polluted beyond recognition. We’re into very simple, quiet celebrations.”

”Well,” she said dubiously, “as long as you’re happy.”

Sometimes long distance is better than being there, ‘cause your mother can’t give you the look that makes you agree with everything she says. Jack rescued me by interrupting.

”Hi, Ma.” he called to the phone as he waved a beribboned sprig of mistletoe over my head. Then he kissed me, one of those quick noisy ones. I frowned at him.

”Druidic tradition, Fran. Swear to Goddess.”

”Of course it is. Did the Druids use plastic berries?”

”Always. We’ll be needing you in about five minutes.”

”Okay. Gotta go, Mom. Love you.”

We had a nice, serene kind of Solstice Circle. No jingling bells or filked-out Christmas Carols. Soon after the last coven member left, Jack was ready to pack it in.

”The baby’s nestled all snug in her bed,” he said with a yawn, ”I think I’ll go settle in for a long winter’s nap.”

I heaved a martyred sigh. He grinned unrepentantly, kissed me, called me a grinch, and went to bed. I stayed up and puttered around the house, trying to unwind. I sifted through the day’s mail, ditched the flyers urging us to purchase all the Seasonal Joy we could afford or charge. I opened the card from his parents. Another sermonette: a manger scene and a bible verse, with a handwritten note expressing his mother’s fervent hope that God’s love and Christmas spirit would fill our hearts in this blessed season. She means well, really. I amused myself by picking out every pagan element I could find in the card. When the mail had been sorted, I got up and started turning our ritual room back into a living room. As if the greeting card had carried a
virus, I found myself humming Christmas carols. I turned on the classic rock station, but they were playing that Lennon-Ono Christmas song. I switched stations. The weatherman assured me that there was only a twenty percent chance of snow. Then, by Loki, the deejay let Bruce Springsteen insult my ears crooning, “yah better watch out, yah better not pout.” I tried the Oldies station. Elvis lives, and he does Christmas songs. Okay, fine. We’ll do classical—no, we
won’t. They’re playing Handel’s Messiah. Maybe the community radio station would have something secular humanist. ”Ahora, escucharemos a Jose Feliciano canta ‘Feliz Navidad’.”
I was getting annoyed. The radio doesn’t usually get this saturated with holiday mush until the twenty-fourth.

”This is too weird.” I said to the radio, “Cut that crap out.” The country station had some Kenny Rogers Christmas tune, the first rock station had gone from John and Yoko’s Christmas song to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Silent Night,” and the other rock station still had Springsteen reliving his childhood.

”—I’m tellin’ you why. SANTA Claus is comin’ to town!” he bellowed. I was about to pick out a nice secular CD when there was a knock at the door.

Now, it could have been a coven member who’d forgotten something. It could have been someone with car trouble. It could have been any number of things, but it certainly couldn’t have been a stout guy in a red suit—snowy beard, rosy cheeks, and all—backed by eight reindeer
and a sleigh. I blinked, wondered crazily where Rudolph was, and blinked again. There were nine reindeer. Our twenty-percent chance of snow had frosted the dead grass and was continuing to float down in fat flakes.

”Hi, Frannie.” he said warmly, “I’ve missed you.”

”I’m stone cold sober, and you don’t exist.”

He looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and compassion and sighed heavily. “That’s why I miss you, Frannie. Can I come in? We need to talk.”

I couldn’t quite bring myself to slam the door on this vision, hallucination, or whatever. So I let him in, because that made more sense then letting all the cold air in while I argued with someone who wasn’t there. As he stepped in, a thought crossed my mind about various entities needing an invitation to get in houses. He flashed me a smile that would melt the polar caps.

”Don’t you miss Christmas, Frannie?”

”No.” I said flatly, “Apparently you don’t see me when I’m sleeping and waking these days. I haven’t been Christian for years.”

”Oh, now don’t let that stop you. We both know this holiday’s older than that. Yule trees and Saturnalia and here-comes-the-sun, doodoodendoodoo.”

I raised an eyebrow at the Beatles reference, then gave him my standard sermonette on the appropriation and adulteration that made Christmas no longer a Pagan holiday. I had done my homework. I listed centuries, I named names—St. Nicholas among them. “In the twentieth century version,” I assured him, “Christmas is two parts crass commercialism mixed with one part blind faith in a religion I rejected years ago.” I gave him my best lines, the ones that had convinced my coven to abstain from Christmasy cliches. My hallucination sat in Jack’s favorite chair, nodding patiently at me.

”And you,” I added nastily, “come here talking about ancient customs when you—in your current form—were invented in the nineteenth century by, um...Clement C. Moore.”

He laughed, a rolling, belly-deep chuckle unlike any department-store Santa I’d ever heard. “Of course I change my form now and then to suit fashion. Don’t you? And does that stop you from being yourself?” He said, and asked me if I remembered Real Magic, by Isaac Bonewits.

I gaped at him for a moment, then caught myself. “This is like ‘Labyrinth’, right? I’m having a dream that pretends to be real, but is only made from pieces of things in my memory. You don’t look a thing like David Bowie.”

”Bonewits has this Switchboard Theory.” Santa went on amiably, “The energy you put into your beliefs influences the real existence of the archetypal—oh, let me put it simpler: ‘in the beginning, Man created God’. Ian Anderson.” He lit a long-stemmed pipe. The tobacco had a mild and somehow Christmasy smell, and every puff sent up a wreath of smoke. “I’m afraid it’s a bit more complicated than Bonewits tells it, but that’s close enough for mortals. Are you with
me so far?”

”Oh, sure.” I lied as unconvincingly as possible. Santa sighed heavily. ”When’s the last time you left out milk and cookies for me?”

”When I figured out my parents were eating them.”

”Frannie, Frannie. Remember pinda balls, from Hinduism?”

”Rice balls left as offerings for ancestors and gods.”

”Do Hindus really believe that the ancestors and gods eat pinda balls?”

”All right, y’got me there. They say that spirits consume the spiritual essence, then mortals can have what’s left.”

”Mm-hm.” Santa smiled at me compassionately through his snowy beard.

I rallied quickly. “What about the toys? I know for a fact they aren’t made by you and a bunch of non-union elves.”

”Oh, that’s quite true. Manufacturing physical objects out of magical energy is terribly expensive and breaks several laws of Nature—She only allows us to do that on special occasions. It certainly couldn’t be done globally and annually. Now, the missus and the elves and I really do have a shop at the North Pole. Not the sort of thing the Air Force would ever find. What we make up there is what makes this time a holiday, no matter what religion it’s called.”

”Don’t tell me,” I said, rolling my eyes, “you make the sun come back.”

”Oh my, no. The solar cycle stuff, the Reason For The Season, isn’t my department. My part is making it a holiday. We make a mild, non-addictive psychedelic thing called Christmas spirit. Try some.”

He dipped his fingers in a pocket and tossed red-gold-green-silver glitter at me. I could have ducked. I don’t know why I didn’t.

It smelled like snow, and pine needles, and cedar chips in the fireplace. It smelled like fruitcake, like roast turkey, like that foamy white stuff you spray on the window with stencils. It felt like
a crisp wind, Grandma’s hugs, fuzzy new mittens, pine needles scrunching under my slippers. I saw twinkly lights, mistletoe in the doorway, smiling faces from years gone by. Several Christmas carols played almost simultaneously in a kind of medley.

I fought my way back to my living room and glared sternly at the hallucination in Jack’s chair.

”Fun stuff. Does the DEA know about this?”

”Oh, Frannie. Why are you such a hard case? I told you it’s non-addictive and has no harmful side effects. Would Santa Claus lie to you?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again. We looked at each other a while.

”Can I have some more of that glittery stuff?”

”Mmmm. I think you need something stronger. Try a sugarplum.”

I tasted rum ball. Peppermint. Those hard candies with the picture all the way through. Mama’s favorite fudge. A chorus line of Christmas candies danced through my mouth. The Swedish Angel Chimes, run on candle power, say tingatingatingating. Mama, with a funny smile, promised to give Santa my letter. Greeting cards taped on the refrigerator door. We rode through the tree farm on a straw-filled trailer pulled by a red and green tractor, looking for a perfect pine.
It was so big, Daddy had to cut a bit off so the star wouldn’t scrape the ceiling. Lights, ornaments, tinsel. Daddy lifted me up to the mantle to hang my stocking. My dolls stayed up to see Santa Claus, and in the morning they all had new clothes. Grandma carried in a platter with the world’s biggest turkey, and I got the drumstick. Joey’s Christmas puppy chased my Christmas kitten up the tree and it would have fallen over but Daddy held it while Mama got the kitten out. Daddy said every bad word there was but he kept laughing anyway. I sneaked my favorite plastic horse into the nativity scene, between the camels and the donkey.

I came back to reality slowly, with a silly smile on my face and a tickly feeling behind my eyes like they wanted to cry. The phrase ”visions of sugarplums” took on a whole new meaning.

”How long has it been,” Santa asked, “since you played with a nativity set?-“

”But it symbolizes—“

”The winter-born king. The sacred Mother and her sun-child. Got a problem with that? You could redecorate it with pentagrams if you like, they’ll look fine. As for the Christianization, I’ve heard who you invoke at Imbolc.”

”But Bridgid was a Goddess for centuries before the Catholic Church-oh.” I crossed my arms and tried to glare at him, but failed. “You’re a sneaky old elf, y’know?”

”The term is ‘jolly old elf.’ Care for another sugarplum?”

I did.

I tasted gingerbread. My first nip of eggnog the way the grown-ups drink it. Fresh sugar cookies, shaped like trees and decked with colored frosting. Dad had been laid off, but we managed a lot of cheer. They told us Christmas would be “slim pickings.” Joey and I smiled bravely when Mama brought home that spindly spruce. We loaded down our “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” with every light and ornament it could hold. Popcorn and cranberry strings for the outdoor trees.
Mistletoe in the hall: plastic mistletoe, real kisses. Joey and I snipped and glued and stitched and painted treasures to give as presents. We agonized over our “Santa” now we knew where the goodies came from, and we tried to compromise between what we longed for and what we thought they could afford. Every day we hoped the factory would reopen. When Joey’s dog ate my mitten, I wasn’t brave. I knew that meant I’d get mittens for Christmas, and one less
toy. I cried. On December twenty-fifth we opened our presents ve-ery slo-wly, drawing out the experience. We made a show of cheer over our socks and shirts and meager haul of toys. I got red mittens. We could tell Mama and Daddy were proud of us for being so brave, because they
were grinning like crazy.

”Go out to the garage for apples.” Mama told us, “We’ll have apple pancakes.”

I don’t remember having the pancakes. There was a dollhouse in the garage. No mass-produced aluminum thing but a homemade plywood dollhouse with wall-papered walls and real curtains and thread-spool chairs. My dolls were inside, with newly sewn clothes. Joey was on his knees in front of a plywood barn with hay in the loft. His old farm implements had new paint. Our plastic animals were corralled in popsicle stick fences. The garage smelled like apples and hay, the
cement was bone-chilling under my slippers, and I was crying.

My knees were drawn up to my chest, arms wrapped around them. My chest felt tight, like ice cracking in sunshine. Santa offered me a huge white handkerchief. When all the ice in my chest had melted, he cleared his throat. He was pretty misty-eyed, too.

”Want to come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas?”

”You’ve already given it to me.” But I sat on his lap anyway, and kissed his rosy cheek until he did his famous laugh.

”I’d better go now, Frannie. I have other stops to make, and you have work to do.”

”Right. I’d better pop the corn tonight, it strings best when it’s stale.” I let him out the door. The reindeer were pawing impatiently at the moon-kissed new-fallen snow. I’d swear Rudolph winked at me.

”Don’t forget the milk and cookies.”

”Right. Uh, December twenty-fourth, or Solstice, or what?”

He shrugged. “Whatever night you expect me, I’ll be there. Eh, don’t wait up. Visits like this are tightly rationed. Laws of Nature, y’know, and She’s strict with them.”

”Gotcha. Thanks, Santa.” I kissed his cheek again. “Happy Holidays.”

The phrase had a nice, non-denominational ring to it. I thought I’d call my parents and in-laws soon and try it out on them. Santa laid his finger aside of his nose and nodded.

”Blessed be, Frannie.”

The sleigh soared up, and Santa really did exclaim something. It sounded like old German. Smart-aleck elf. When I closed the door, the radio was playing Jethro Tull’s “Solstice Bells.”


Friday, November 19, 2010

I wanna learn permaculture

My chickens are doing wonderfully! They're digging on their coop, scratching up a storm in the run, and practically killing each other every time I pull up a dying kale plant to toss in for them. (OMG, they are seriously hilarious.) I must be in some kind of chicken nirvana, and we're not even getting any eggs yet. (And we won't until spring, so don't ask.)

But this whole chicken thing, paired with an article in the most recent "Urban Farmer" magazine, has pushed me again to want to investigate permaculture. I'd love to give you a brief discussion of the highlights of permaculture, or a quick glossing of its main points, but the simple truth is, I don't know. I do know that it has something to do with creating systems in your environment that reinforce each other, and I remember a nifty drawing I saw once of a permaculture garden where you could practically feed a family of four from the 30' diameter circle surrounding your family apple tree, but otherwise.... I know that I know nothing.

But my chickens are making me think. Chickens are fertilizer machines. Chickens love to eat grubs, bugs, and all manner of other things that I do not want in my garden. Chickens scratch and aerate soils. These things are good.

However, chickens also decimate crops. Chickens scratch up seedlings. Chickens eat an entire year's crop of lettuce. Chickens roost on my neighbor's car. These things are bad.

There must be a practical way to capitalize on the good, while at least minimizing the bad. I have heard and read stories of people with chicken-bearing gardens who only suffer minor heartaches, but I'm not sure how to make this happen here in my own backyard.


I think permaculture might provide a key. A principled method for integrating the two in a way that neither destroys my crops, nor pisses off my neighbors. (Currently my neighbors are either quite happy that I have chickens, or quite blissfully ignorant--I'd like to maintain the status quo in this instance.)

So it's off to the library website to reserve a copy of Gaia's Garden. Other suggestions?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How this day went wrong: or, RESPECT THE FOOD, DAMNIT!

I spent a very greatly huge amount of my day in a training session for work. And I'll be honest, it was, mostly, a very good one. It was about safety training, which sounds like some kind of psycho pseudo-phrase for "how to annoy employees even further," but it really wasn't. Or, at least, it probably will annoy employees even further, but if properly motivated, is actually a really good thing. So. Yes.

So what's with the yelling in the title of the post?

Well, for all of its good points, this meeting had one basic problem, and that was time management. First off, it was a scheduled 4-hour meeting. This was twice as long as it really needed to be. At the outside this training could've used 3 hours and still had time to spare. And nonetheless, the presenters managed to run behind schedule, telling us lots and lots and lots of anecdotal stories that, while nice, were mostly superfluous.

This, in turn, resulted in The Way Things Went Wrong(tm). It happened when the lead presenter said, "Okay, in about 10 minutes we'll break for lunch.... and can we make this a working lunch?"


This pissed me off. A lot. Enough that it surprised even me. But on reflection, I realized that this stepped all over some of my most dearly-held bits of food ideology. If you've read here at all, you know that I am nothing if not a minefield of food ideology. And this guy just started hopscotching straight through that field.

What was my problem? Glad you asked!

{begin rant}

I found this request--simple though it may have been--to be so incredibly insulting that I actually had trouble articulating the reasons why, there were so many of them.
  • The presenters were incapable of maintaining a presentation schedule, and so the attendees were put-upon to fix the problem.
  • It was insulting to the people who prepared the food for us--many of whom were in the room for the training--to force the room to essentially ignore the food they'd carefully prepared for us in favor of the continuous stream of lecture.
  • It was insulting to the food itself, that we were being forced to not pay attention to in favor of the continuous stream of lecture.
  • It was insulting to the participants, who needed a break from the continuous stream of lecture.
  • It showed a complete disregard for the act of eating a meal in community, which I consider a very serious breech of etiquette. The midday meal was treated as nothing more than a minor inconvenience that could be easily run over by a continuous stream of lecture.
  • It showed a complete disregard for the health of the participants, who were being encouraged (practically required) to eat our food mindlessly, without attention or care. We were not even given the option of actually enjoying our food.
Am I weird? Yes, I'm sure I am. Everyone there cared far more about the fact that, by eating mechanically without paying any attention to our food, we would get out of the training sooner (which, as it happened, was false, but no matter).

And I think that at the end of the day, it was not just the presenters making this request, but the overall "Sure! No problem!" attitude of everyone else that got to me. That didn't really piss me off, it just made me sad. I don't think it even crossed anyone's mind that we were giving up anything by working straight through lunch. Even the people who cooked the food probably didn't taste it as they ate it, and probably also didn't notice that they didn't taste it. People wonder why we have such a weight problem in America (myself certainly not excepted here). Well, if the attitude of most Americans towards food resembles the attitudes of my co-workers, then it's pretty easy to see why. Food didn't warrant our attention. It wasn't worth it. Just shove it in your mouth while listening to horror stories about gangrenous infections at the safety lecture.

No prayers were said (and, I should note, I work at a Catholic Motherhouse). No comment on the flavor. No thought about how the food was grown, or harvested, or prepared. No gratefulness was felt for what was given to us.

I did my very level best to not pay a whit of attention to the lecture while eating. I will admit, I probably enjoyed the food more than I would ordinarily have, because I was so bloody-minded about eating it slowly and with attention. But I also missed out on a rare opportunity to chat with co-workers with whom I am rarely able to interact. I missed out on a little bit of a recharge, which left me feeling like I'd been hit by a semi by the end of the meeting. I missed what it usually my favorite part of my work-day--I missed my lunch. Maybe I'm spoiled. No, I'm certainly spoiled. But every day at my work, we sit down and eat in community. And no one works. No one even has to answer their phones, even if they ring. We eat. We talk. We find out about what's happening in each other's lives, and tell stories, and laugh. I could have done that with a whole new set of people today. But instead, we worked. Because, really, that's far more important, right?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Well now, that couldn't have been more differenter.

So here is where I spent Wednesday:

As before, this isn't literally where I was on Wednesday. This was taken at a Volunteer Fair in 2005 at some university somewhere else. But it was the same one that I was at yesterday (except we used laptops instead of CRT monitors).

As a purely academic exercise, flip back two posts ago--you remember, the one about psychic damage? Look at that photo, then look back here. Then back at the first post then BACK TO ME.

Er, whoops. Sorry. Slipped into an Old Spice commercial there.

*ahem* Anyway, there are a few instantly noticeable differences. No vortexes of black power suits and drool. Liberal use of color, smiles, and happiness. Heartfelt desire to use the time you have on this planet to make it a better place for everyone.

I got to slide into the volunteer fair because I recruit volunteers as well as interns, and my interns "count" since it's for a non-profit. And even thought it was at exactly the same location (to the building!) as the Career Hell I'd just attended, neither it, nor the recruiters, nor the attending students, bore any resemblance to each other. However, there weren't chair massages at this one, so it wasn't perfect.

Great gods, I felt like I'd come home. We got a home-esque cooked vegetarian meal before the fair opened. It was really good--even the eggplant casserole, which is just asking for disaster--although someone apparently mistook cayenne pepper for nutmeg on the apple crisp (no, I'm not making that up). The only thing bittersweet about it was that no such fairs existed (or were available at my college at least) when I was in school, except for volunteer opportunities at the school/in the city. Now, those are great, and I'm a fan, but we were recruiting volunteers for places like inner-city Detroit, rural sustainable farms (ahem), and villages in Paraguay. I was politely turned down by several people who were looking for a year or longer commitment (we typically have 3-6 month internships). I spent three hours talking to all manner of engaged, eager, happy, go-getter students who wanted to use their power for the forces of good.

It could heal one's soul.

And in entirely unrelated news....


Here they were just 1.5 weeks ago:

And here they are today:

(OMG they've grown so much! Can you see the feathers on their wings already?!)

And here will be their home in about 4 weeks:

(This has now been painted an unsightly color of primer-white, but will hopefully soon be transformed into a more pleasing hunter-green).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Teaching Green

I gave a sermon at my Congregation today about teaching environmental values in children's religious education, and the lessons I've learned about doing so. Since it's relevant to this blog, I'm copying it here. Of course, I would probably copy my sermons here even if they aren't relevant, so the relevancy is sort of a bonus in this case. If, for some incomprehensible reason, you'd prefer to listen to me give it rather than just read it, you can go to our podcast blog here, where it's uploaded.

Teaching Green Sermon

(Opening, transitional, and closing words all from Wendell Berry.)

OPENING "The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first."

TRANSITIONAL "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.
— Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry)

This sermon actually comes from a presentation I was supposed to give at the Green Congregations Conference earlier this spring. I was asked to do a joint presentation with Candace Minster from the White Violet Center; I would have been representing the UU perspective on teaching environmental values in children's religious education. If you picked up on the past subjunctives in the previous sentence, you already realize that this didn't happen. The conference was cancelled, another in a long string of events sacrificed to the imploding economy. Apparently our service associates got wind of all this, and felt so very badly for me that my presentation was not given, that they wanted to offer me an opportunity to do it here. This will be a fairly modified version of that presentation. I don't have Candace as a partner, and frankly I'm not really trying to instruct you on proper pedagogical techniques for youngsters. I'm interested in talking to you about my own experiences, and discoveries, while teaching environmental values to our kids in RE.

Both the opening and transitional words come from Wendell Berry (as do the closing words), an author I frequently use for my work, mostly because he is one of the very few people with whom I almost entirely agree. Berry asserts, and I think exactly rightly, that most of our assumptions about how to live in this world have been wrong. Understandable, perhaps, but wrong. We have spent a great deal of our human history, and for the past hundred years have also had a great deal of success, at fighting and subverting our worlds own processes, and ignoring its own inherent limits. That this couldn't last really has been lost on us until recently. We've started to hit up against creation's limits, and we've found that they do not give easily.

There are few places where this is clearer than when attempting to teach environmentalism to children, especially teaching it from within the UU tradition.

Teaching children's religious education in our tradition is, well, weird. It's not a lot like what you may have experienced growing up in a more mainstream religious tradition. As UU RE teachers, we aren't trying to bestow belief in crucial truths to our children. We don't think we have the right answers. We aren't trying to imprint our religion on impressionable minds while they're young, so that they will grow up strong in our belief system.

Teaching children's RE in the UU tradition is a lot more like "building your own theology". In keeping with the UU 4th principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the methodology is typically a combination of introducing our kids to a range of religious traditions, beliefs, and paths, while also helping them to articulate their own intuitive sense of the divine (or lack thereof). It's much less about handing out truths as it is handing out TOOLS, which our children can use to begin creating a path that is right for them. There are a lot of ways that this can go wrong, and a lot of ways that it can work beautifully. When done poorly, we hand our children pre-finished wooden sculptures to play with. When done properly, we had our children a block of wood and the best tools we can find, and let them create their own work of art.

So how is this supposed to work for environmentalism, exactly? Can the same basic methodology for religion work for environmentalism? Just like religious education, shouldn't we be giving our children the tools they need to "find their own environmentalism"? How is that supposed to work?

The first problem you hit upon is that in our culture, we don't have many and varied environmental methodologies to teach the kids to give them some background, or framework from which to operate. Sure, we've got some turf wars--used cars versus new Priuses, paper versus plastic versus bring-your-own-bag, vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, conscious omnivore, and so on. But none of these are from a different framework. They all come from the same basic place. And because of that, unlike with religions, we are very willing to be more dogmatic about things. Here's a list, a very typical list, of 10 things you can do to go green:
1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
2. Use Less Heat and Air Conditioning
3. Change a Light Bulb
4. Drive Less and Drive Smart
5. Buy Energy-Efficient Products
6. Use Less Hot Water
7. Use the "Off" Switch
8. Plant a Tree
9. Get a Report Card from Your Utility Company
10. Encourage Others to Conserve

Anyone who knows me well can already see how this will go badly for me. I hold lists like this in the utmost contempt. Why I so strongly dislike these lists will become apparent (I hope) as I go. But suffice it to say, this was the core message of most of the available environmental resources.

You see, I just don't believe in those lists, or pretty much any variant of them that I've ever seen. And if you've ever tried to teach children, one thing you realize quickly is, to be blunt, children can smell a lie from 10 miles away. They may not call you on it, especially if they are particularly "well behaved", but you can see when you lose them. And I would be lying if I tried to teach this "shiny happy" environmentalism to our kids--and then they'd hold me in the utmost contempt. Yuck.

But why don't I believe in these lists? That actually has everything to do with teaching children. Is there anything really wrong with telling kids that they should use less air conditioning, or that they should drive less, or change their lightbulbs to CFLs? Well, no... and yes. You see, children actually have a much better grip on environmentalism than any adult I know. Environmentalism is nothing more or less that a justice issue--how can we all play fairly with Earth? We all know that kids just spank us on understanding injustice. They might not be the greatest when it comes to sharing with each other, but they get the clarity of injustice far better than any adult.

So let's say we're talking about global warming with the children in RE, and we're not sugar coating it. We're discussing polar bears, and refugees from Bangladesh. We talk about major seasonal swings making it difficult to farm, and making food too expensive for some people to afford. So they want to know, very reasonably, what can we do to stop this. And then I tell them "turn your AC up to 73*F". Really? THAT is the great message of the ages to save humanity--use less AC and drive less?

I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't do these things, not by a long shot. But saving the planet? Kids can tell this is nonsense. How? Because I think it's nonsense, and kids can tell. I suspect that, deep down, most adults think that this is nonsense. It is very hard to preach this sort of environmentalism to children if you're thinking at all seriously about the situation. I discovered that I had very little to say to the kids in the "conventional environmentalism" model that wasn't a lie, that I simply didn't believe.

I also discovered that I was under a double whammy with kids when teaching conventional environmentalism. First, as I already said, kids can smell a lie, so now you've lost their trust.

Second, and more importantly, I was staring in the face exactly the people who would be most harmed by my own complicity in this nonsense. I'm sure everyone's heard the Native American saying that we should think seven generations in the future when deciding how to act. And anyone who's tried this also knows that this is really almost impossible to do--I don't even know how to start that project. It's a metaphor, designed to encourage us to think about the future of our actions, but it's really not that helpful from a practical standpoint. Well, I can tell you what IS helpful is to look one of those future generations square in the face while trying to spin a yarn about how being "just mildly less comfortable than we're used to" is all we have to do to save the world. Once I realized that this is what I was doing, well, how could I continue?

Alright, so what should I do instead? I mean, I didn't want to abandon the project of teaching environmentalism, it's too important. But how? I'm not conveying the right message to our kids. What is the right message? Do I even know? Uh oh.

My own discovery here can be summed up nicely by Albert Einstein, who said "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them." Remember how I talked about teaching lots of religions, but not really having multiple models of environmentalism to teach? That should have been a warning. It's not that there are no competing models of environmentalism out there; it's that we adults live very much engrained in one way of life, one way that things are supposed to be. Solutions to our problems, such as our received views on environmentalism and living green, need to conform to our lifestyle. They must fit the way we live, not so that we will be willing to adopt them, but so that we can even SEE them. There are alternative stories for how to live sustainably out there, but they're so far outside of our ken that we can't perceive them, or can't take them seriously when we do. To us, that sort of lifestyle is uninhabitable.

But, not so with children. There isn't a "way things are supposed to be" for them yet. They can get the real, and in some cases absurd, picture of our lifestyle and what it's doing to the world much better than I can.

• I try to turn my fridge up as high as is safe; kids wonder why we're using a fridge when it's 35 degrees outside, and frankly it's just silly to use electricity to do what is given for free for over a quarter of the year.
• I wonder about buying a more fuel-efficient car; kids wonder why stuff is so far apart that we need cars for everything, especially if this means there won't be any oil left for them when they're adults.
• I wonder how high I'll set my AC during the summer; kids wonder why I'm turning it on at all when we have Bangladesh refugees due to the effects of climate change, exacerbated by coal-fired electricity.

I could go through the whole 10-step list, or any other similar list you like, with similar results.

Now, I'm not arguing that children will lead the way here, or that any suggestions they might have are obviously right and should be adopted. But they CAN open our eyes a bit, and introduce us to paradigm-breaking ideas. Perhaps we can't all just ditch our cars, no matter how much we'd like to, due to the overall layout of our country. But maybe now we see a real way to try and change future planning, and choice of housing, so that we CAN ditch our cars in the future. And why do we use refrigerators when it's cold outside? It is almost beyond the pale to suggest that we shouldn't, but go ahead and try to justify it to yourself sometime, given the huge amount of energy--and coal firing and environmental damage--that goes with them. And I assure you, from personal experience, there are few worse feelings than discussing the devastating effects of climate change, only to have a child call you out for being in a room so cooled by AC that I was wearing a cardigan in July. No one had AC at all until the 1970's, but now our own comfort is clearly more important that the lives of people in far off countries, people suffering daily because of our choices, not in the future, but right now. Trust me, that hurts.

I have found, for myself, that when I'm considering lifestyle changes for environmental purposes, I like to put them through the 5-year-old test. I imagine explaining what I think of as the problem to a 5-year-old and trying to imagine what she would reply. If I can't come up with anything good or novel, I try to find a 5-year-old and ask them (okay, maybe a 10 year old, but no older). And failing that, I try explaining to the 5-year-old in my head what my solution is, to see how it fares. I suggest this method for everyone.

Children are the fastest path to learning to live within our limits, but only if we let them. If we listen, if we give them access to real information, and then take their responses to it seriously, we can see through the eyes of someone who hasn't been fully indoctrinated into our culture. They don't know how things "should" be, so they can tell us how things "could" be. If we stop trying to teach them, they can teach us a great deal. I will never teach environmentalism again, I have learned that lesson. But I will take whatever lessons our children will give me, or at least, the 5-year-old in my head.

In truth, I don't know the right answers here, and neither do 5 year olds. I've got my pet solutions, ones that have gotten the 5-year-old seal of approval, but I suspect that's not really much of a guarantee . I'm trying to figure things out, and will likely spend the rest of my life doing so. But I want to take these problems as seriously as I can, and I can't think of a better way to do that than to listen to the children on these issues. I invite you to join me. Put your choices past a 5-year-old sometime, see how it goes.

CLOSING WORDS "The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stunning levels of psychic damage.

I must preface this post by explaining that I am writing this almost entirely for its therapeutic and restorative purposes. I hope to expel some of the evil from my soul, and regain a modicum of balance. I put this out there on the blogosphere partially to serve as a warning for others, but mostly because I suspect my readers are more like me than not and will get a sort of voyeuristic pleasure from reading this. Sort of like watching a train wreck (where no one is hurt, of course).


Here's where I spent my day yesterday:

Well, no, not exactly there. This photo was taken at a Career Expo at some university somewhere in 2008. But it doesn't really matter, it was the same one I was at yesterday.

Take a moment to look at that photo. The first thing you need to get past is the fact that this was not taken at a goth club, and that all of the black clothing is actually power suits. What is not being clearly conveyed in this photo (I think mainly because they got a disproportionate number of students staring intently at their notes before talking to the next recruiter) is the heady, pervasive, almost tangible atmosphere of Go-Get-'Em-We-Can-Do-It-ness in the air. Or maybe that just doesn't photograph well, it's hard to say.

The Career Expo I attended yesterday was at one of the most prestigious private universities in our country. In the course of four hours, I saw hundreds of the absolute best, cream-of-the-crop, that this university had to offer, perfectly coiffed and immaculately turned-out, bright-eyed and face-forward, all falling all over themselves for the chance to spread their legs for the nearest corporate master. "Soul crushing" doesn't quite capture it, but I'm stuck for a better metaphor.

I was a recruiter. Or, to put it a different way, I was on the side of the forces of darkness. Now in fairness, I was recruiting interns for an organic farm, so you might imagine that I was a bit out of place there. In truth, I just sort of blended in. I mean, hell, I was between PNC and Deloitte accounting, both vortexes of black suits, tasteful eyeshadow and desperate drool; I'm not sure I was entirely recognizable for what I was. I felt a bit like I was behind enemy lines. Of course, these enemy lines did have a gourmet catered meal and free chair massages, so there is something to be said for it.

And then, about an hour into the pain, it happened. A bright young thing, in line for Deloitte (yes, a line. a long line.) looked at my banner and looked away. And then looked again. And then again, with a look somewhere between confused and hopeful. And then, lo though she had advanced mightily in her line, and was only 3 candidates away from getting her shot at selling herself to the biggest accounting firm in the U.S., she left the line and came over to me. Her first question was an almost pleading "Um... is your table really advertising what it looks like it's advertising?" When I said yes, we really are an organic farm, we really are taking apps for interns, and we really would welcome her application, she looked like she might cry. I think she was as scared of what she was seeing around her as I was. I was actually offering her an out, even just for a little while (maybe a few months, maybe just for the time we got to talk at the fair) of not having to be the person who will eventually get a job at Deloitte. I think in that moment that nothing could have made her happier; and honestly, I'm not sure anything could have made me happier, either.

In sum, I spoke with around twelve kids at the fair. A couple of them had even researched us before they got to the booth, and were looking to pad their resume with some unique experience in environmental service before graduating. Another few were interested, but were graduating seniors and needed to be finding a job (I suspect that once they realize what the job market is like, I'll be hearing back from at least one of them). And some of them were like that first girl, unaware of our existence, and falling all over themselves with happiness when they found us. One student grew up in the mountains of South Carolina, and just wants to come out to our farm and feel like she's at home again. One girl has a dual major in Anthropology and Chinese, and wants to work on environmental issues in China; the possibility of having on-farm experience for her was breathtaking.

Almost all of the kids I saw that day, not just the ones I spoke with, are good, bright kids with good hearts. And most of them genuinely believe that the best thing they can do with their lives right now is to land a good-paying job with Discover Card (across the aisle from me, next to Proctor & Gamble and Target Corporate). It makes me sad. But the kids that came and spoke with me--they make me happy. They will try to make a difference, even if they're working at Discover. Maybe they will make the world a better place. Maybe they'll end up out at my farm, or on their own. I don't know, but it was odd to feel some hope in such a place of desperate, corporate-black hell.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Goodness how one's life can change

For anyone who's followed this blog for while (and for those who haven't--Hi there! Nice to meet you!), you know that our lives have been pretty upended several times over the past year. I'm hoping that now we're settling into some kind of pattern, but I know life well enough to understand that it just waits there in the corner, biding its time until you let your guard down, and then KABLAAMO.

Yes, that's a technical term.

Anyway, I thought I'd spend a post getting everyone more or less up to speed on where we are in our lives these days. First, with respect to this blog and its focus of adapting to a low/no energy lifestyle while in-town, we've doubtlessly backslid. In our defense, it's been a really, really, really, really hard year. And now that things are evening out a bit, my husband and I have gone through a role-reversal. This means that now I'm the full-time breadwinner, and he's the housespouse. But in practical terms, this also means that he's taking over a role that I had 5 years to work at and improve. He has a steep learning curve ahead of him, and he knows it, but he's also tackling things pretty well. So to be perfectly honest, a lot of projects I'd been working on have been pushed to a back burner. And that's okay. At least, I hope it's okay. I've been assured by Sharon Astyk that you've still got at least until Friday before the end of the world. Hm. Oh crap, that post was date-stamped Aug. 3rd. Maybe I'm screwed after all?? But aside from applying personal salve to my wounded deep-green ego, I must recognize that peak oil is no respecter of persons. Our world energy situation doesn't give two craps if we've been unemployed or not. So while I (like everyone else, I suspect) am praying for a nice, slow decline, perhaps it's time to start ramping up again. (Or is that ramping down? What's the appropriate metaphor here?)

Both of our children are now in full-time school, and both seem to be enjoying it. It may surprise some readers here that we do not homeschool, given the sorts of people we are and such. I've got no issues with homeschooling, just like I have no issues with goat ownership--as long as it's someone else doing it. (FYI, I hate goats. And they hate me, so it works out.) But I am grateful to live in a nation that, over a century ago, recognized the critical importance of having an educated populance for running a democracy, and instituted compulsory, universal education. I am further blessed with living in a pretty good school district, with teachers and principals that I very much like. In a more long-term, philosophical sense, I also have some grave concerns about the abandonment of said compulsory, universal system of education as a society, but that's a post for another day (and, just possibly, for a different blog). For now, I will quote my dear friend Kate, who once said, "I like to think of public education as a personal gift to me from my government."

My own life is now quite interesting and different. My full-time job is unlike anything anywhere else. I work for a Motherhouse (yes, the place where nuns live) in their eco-justice ministry (yes, that does make sense. Think it through, creation, god's gift to us, care for each other and the world.... there ya go.) This means I have done all of the following in the past three months: written a draft of a business plan; dehydrated over 40# of tomatoes and 20# of apples; created a new yearly budget; been named head of the Safety Committee; worked the farmer's market; scooped alpaca poop; written check requests; paid bills; planned an invasive species workshop; planned a workshop to introduce peak oil to Sisters; and wrote a proposal for getting chickens. All as a part of my job. My job rocks. A lot. A whole lot.

On a related note, my job has also done wonders for my posture. I must pass at least 5 seriously osteoparetic (is that an adjective?) sisters every day, and nothing says "stand up straight, girl!" like that does.

My garden did well in the early season, but now is in... shambles? No, not shambles, that's unfair. But it is DONE. And I planted out my fall crops too early, so the seeds all fried. Gonna try again, possibly this weekend. At the least I'd like some beets & lettuce, ya know? And, of course, there is the new CHICKEN COOP! But no chickens yet, alas. I will likely need to wait until next spring and get some chicks, which is probably the best way to do things anyway. I am also investigating various chicken + garden alternatives. We shall see what we shall see...

So, onward and upward, right?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Silence is golden.

Oh dear, I seem to have 22 followers. Twenty-two of you are invested enough in what I have to say that you've bothered to add me to a feed? I'm both surprised and flattered. =) I suppose this means that I really ought be getting on with writing more stuff here, doesn't it? Well, it's past my bedtime now, so I won't do it just. at. this. moment.


Teaser: I have a new CHICKEN COOP! (no chickens yet, though)

More soon.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Touch of grey

(I seem to be on some kind of video-posting kick. Please bear with me, it's probably just a phase.)

You know, I don't know if I've spent enough time extolling the virtues of my readers (or musing over the incredible fact that I have readers). You guys really rock, you know that? I was, perhaps, a bit depressed in my last post. A bit, perhaps, melodramatic. A bit, perhaps, of a pretentious gothy snot. But you all took it in stride, commiserated with me, shared your own experiences, and generally talked me back off the ledge. I even got a lovely evening of knitting with good friends in the deal. Hm. Maybe I should whine more often? (/jk)

The shoe is on the hand, it fits // There's really nothing much to it // Whistle through your teeth and spit, cause // it's alright.
We will get by // We will survive.

But, as the estimable Jerry Garcia says, we will get by. In a lot of ways, that song sums up how I feel most of the time, admittedly more acutely at some times than others. It really isn't the case that "I think we're all doomed" (I didn't even think that during my last post). I do think our way of life is doomed--and good riddance, really, so that's not even very depressing to me. What depresses, scares, and just generally cranks me off, is that we are so screwing ourselves working through our not-quite-doomed-ness. There are good ways to transition our lifestyles to a healthy, sustainable culture. There are less good ways of doing it. There are tricky ways of doing it. There are outright bad ways of doing it. And then there's the way we're doing it, which as far as I can tell is edging up on worst-case scenario bad. Everything we need to do, everything that we'll have no choice but to do, is being made progressively harder and more traumatic by our collective attitude towards it. Even the people who are supposed to be at the forefront of the battle, the avant guard, as it were, find that they only fight just up to the point where it becomes mildly incovenient for them. And because of that, everything is going to go much harder than it needs to.

Every silver lining's got a // touch of grey.
Yeah, we'll get through this, I will gladly concede that, even though it's just gonna suck for a long while. So it's good to have reminders of how we're not totally doomed, and why we might be worth saving. You readers are part of that, reminding me that the ledge isn't really where I want to be. My friends & family, playing with the kids, the cat, all those things that will still be worth doing no matter what our dumbass culture goes and does next. The first Farmer's Market of the season, seeing people I hadn't even realized that I missed until I saw them. People who loved our two sons' new mohawk haircuts (!), and had worried all winter about if B and I would ever find a job (we did!), and wanted to trade bread for cherries.

During the worst of the Soviet Union collapse, when the only food to be had was via garden or barter, and no one knew what tomorrow would bring, people still celebrated birthdays. Weddings were held (and consumated!), and babies were born. Grandmas held grandchildren, and died peacefully, having lived a full life. Games were played, people laughed. There was pain, and agony, and starvation, and death. And there was joy, and happiness, and giddiness, and love. All things in balance.

We will get by. We'll return to your regularly scheduled blogging soon. Thanks, guys, and enjoy the song!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sometimes you just gotta vent

Today I found despair. Or perhaps I should say that despair found me, as I can honestly say I don't remember going out to look for this or anything.

I've always know, intellectually, that the project of "living green and saving the world" is in essence a total bullshit job. I know this partially because we've made a cock-up of the whole job of taking care of our planet and I'm dubious it even can recover. And partially because even if it could recover, it would take actual and genuine *gasp* effort on our parts, and probably a willingness to give up most of our God-Given Western Lifestyle, and well, call me crazy, but I'm just not seeing that on the horizon. We'll stop sucking oil & coal down with a straw when it's pried from our cold, dead hands (which, I rather suspect, is exactly what's going to happen). So I know this. Really. I'm not stupid, and I'm not pollyanna. I'm more pessimistic than just about anyone I personally know, and am probably in the running for Most Pessimistic Indiana (I've been barred from the "Doomer of the Year" award, since I've apparently turned pro). I don't think we're all going to die off, but I do think that we're not going to change our behavior until it is way, way too late and we have absolutely no choice left, and that will be the worst possible way to go about it imaginable.

But today I discovered that there is a difference between the simple intellectual knowledge that, really, we're fucked, and the cold, biting, clenching, gnawing despair that comes from actually feeling it. Today I really felt, for the very first time I think, just how totally impossible the project of changing the behavior of Americans will be. And it hurt. Physically. I almost got sick. Rage mixed with confusion just blew up inside me and then, just like a balloon, I totally deflated. I felt completely defeated. I don't remember knowing despair like that. I just sat and cried.

Ironically, perhaps, it was over something comparatively stupid--a triviality really. Certainly not something that will change the world, or even make a significant dent in our problems. It had nothing to do with the oil spill, or stalled climate bills in Congress, or anything that's actually important. Which is why I also feel really dumb having such a strong reaction to it--it was way out of proportion to the situation. But there was jack-all I could do about my reaction.

And no, I'm not giving out any details about the actual event, which is probably really frustrating to you readers, and for that I'm sorry. I've just got to vent, but the simple fact is, the specifics of the situation don't really matter. It could've happened at any time, with just about anyone, so I'm not going to single this event out. B'sides, I suspect that most folks who read this blog have either already had a moment like this, or perhaps will have one soon. When it hits you, right in the gut, just how hair-rippingly hopeless it all is. =(

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dancing Days are here again

(Go on, indulge. It'll make sense soon enough.)

I've alluded in the past to how, during our time of unemployment (which stretched out Yea These Turbulent Nine Months--and was not fun), the work that we had done for adaptation to a low/no energy lifestyle was a huge help to us. But I've managed to not really discuss how, except for a lengthy diatribe about the importance of social services and how you really ought to be looking for them now. So while most of my computer's speed is being taken up downloading a video game off of Steam (hey, don't judge--it's old, cheap, and no packaging), I thought this would be a great time to finally delve into that particular project. This will likely be a multi-part post, because my attention span is only just so long ya know.

Some of the ways our low-energy adaptations were helpful should be pretty obvious. I mean, when you don't turn your A/C on at all for the summer, your electric bill is bound to be lower, right? But part of that was being in the right situation to pull that off. In our case, this means having the presence of mind (er, well, at least having a spouse who had the presence of mind) to see the value of buying an old house--other than the gorgeous interior woodwork. Our house was designed to not have A/C. It has high ceilings and lots of windows. I seriously doubt we could've pulled off the no-A/C thing in your modern tract house, or any house built on the assumption that you will cope with exterior temperature fluctuations by moving a little slide-bar on a box screwed to your wall. How did we actually do it, though? Several ways.

The Dance of the Windows
C'mon, sing it with me, you know you want to: "Dancing days are here again as the summer evenings grow / I got my flower, I got my power, I got a woman who knows". How does one dance with windows? Easy. Once the outside temps cool down to at least 65*F, you go around the house and open every window you can find. Leave them open all night. Then, the next morning, very first thing, close them all, pull the blinds, etc. If you have reasonably good insulation, and especially if you have high ceilings, this will do wonders for keeping your temps down.

Two problems with this strategy: first, it's easy to let things get away from you. Once you let your house warm up, then that insulation starts to work against you. So don't slack off! And start doing it sooner than you think you need to. The first time you think "Man, we should've opened the windows last night" it could already be too late. Constant vigilance! Second, summers around here eventually hit a point where even the nights don't go below 70*F. It's about this time that the temps in the house will go to, and stay at, around 80*F or even higher. Sleeping isn't too bad typically, if you have open windows and good fans, but during the day it can be brutal. At this point, other measures are necessary.


Being outside
Yes, being outside when it's hot is better than being inside when it's hot. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes it can actually be cooler outside than inside, so that has something to do with it. There's air movement & breeze, although with good circulation you can get that inside, too. But I think there's also a psychological thing in our heads that says "It shouldn't be this hot inside!" (which is, of course, nonsense--there is no normative "ought" about interior temperatures, except to us modern Americans). It's just "more okay" to be hot outside. Fine, whatever, go outside. Sheesh.

This is technically still in the "being outside" category, but is so significant I think it deserves its own heading. Last year I sprung (sprang? springed? Can I get a past tense on that?) for one of those blue pools, where you blow up the ring at the top and then fill it with water, etc. And you know what? That was the solidly, hands-down, no doubt about it BEST $50 I've ever spent. Period. To hot? Go sit in the pool. Bliss. And once you come back inside, it just felt cooler somehow, even once I was all dried off. And the kids loved it. Yes, you have to have the filter plugged in, but the electric increase was negligible (and minuscule compared to the energy it would've taken to run our A/C). Yes, you do need chlorine for it, and chlorine is a nasty thing (besides other issues, it makes me puke). I am very willing to entertain non-chlorine options for pool care, so if you've got 'em, throw 'em my way. But seriously, the pool is 10' across and 2' deep--we aren't talking chlorinating Niagara Falls here. Furthermore, it must've been of at least a mild enough concentration that, no matter how much got splashed on our lawn or, occasionally, the potato plants, it never killed or damaged anything. And the pool was deep enough to comfortably submerge oneself, and even stretch out a bit--very, very relaxing and cooooool.

Remember those curtains I put up for winter to keep the heat trapped in certain locations? Well, they work the other way around, too. We put the curtain back up between the kitchen & the rest of the house to keep the heat in the kitchen. And you know what? Even a single-layer sheet makes a HUGE difference.

Acclimatizing, and letting your expectations go
Don't turn on your A/C. At all. No, not even to take the edge off. Your body will get used to the temperatures, but not if you keep monkeying around with them. Will it eventually be as comfortable as a 68*F room? No, of course it won't. But once you're acclimatized, you can be in a state where you're up & doing, and suddenly you realize "Hey, it's hot in here!" and then you just keep doing whatever you were and forget again. Given that I have an office job now (where I have no control over the thermostat, and would probably anger people greatly if I tried), I'm very curious how my body will react this year. And let your expectations go. Like I said above, there is no "ought" about indoor temperature. Or if there is an "ought", it's of the form "If it's hot outside, it ought be hot inside, too." Just stop thinking that somehow houses are supposed to only hover between 68*F & 72*F.

Isn't this dangerous? No, not in our climate it isn't (midwest). Can children and elderly handle this? If properly managed and checked-on, of course they can. I mean, crap, no one had A/C anywhere until the 1970's! Did everybody's granny and baby die each summer? No, they all had the skill-set to cope. Now, if people have a medical condition (and no, age is not a medical condition) that compromises their body's ability to self-regulate, or worse, their ability to identify when they need to get cooler (and here, age is a concern, both young and old), then you're in a different situation. If you have an elderly person in your home, especially if they're easily confused or disoriented, make sure they are doing okay, drinking enough, and have ways of staying cool. If they aren't doing well, take them somewhere cool to recoup. And if they've lived a long life and just cannot cope anymore without A/C in the summer (for whatever reason), maybe it's time to re-evaluate the no-A/C decision. For kids, watch them closely, make sure they're staying hydrated, and coming in to the shade to cool down occasionally. Kids often can't tell when they're overheating, so if you're in charge of them, that is your job. Do it.

Now, what could we have done to make things even better?

Ceiling Fans
Someday we're seriously going to install a bunch of these all over the place. As it is, we have a number of box fans around that do a reasonably good job, but ceiling fans are just more efficient and effective. But they're also more expensive and very high on the DIY scale, where I rank about a 2 out of, say 500.

Attic Fan
Big purchase time, but if we could afford one, wow would that be awesome. And our house has a great setup for one, too. Suck all of that hot air right on out of your house, pull in cooler outside air!

Moving Downstairs
We never actually moved downstairs to sleep at night. The discomfort of sleeping upstairs where it's hotter never seemed to outweigh the annoyance of setting up shop (kids & all) downstairs. But that might change this year. We now have a sleeper sofa (or, as my kids put it, a *gasp* TRANSFORMER COUCH OMGOMGOMG!), which is posh and in fact more comfortable than our regular bed. But will we be willing to put our bed up and take it back out every day? Hm. Kinda doubt it. We have been known to clear the dinner plates to make room for the breakfast plates....

What else can/could we do? Suggestions? Send 'em along--I'll be out in the pool. =)

(In other news, the State of the Garden is GOOD this year. Pictures and details forthcoming.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Earth Day...

... please don't buy things packaged in ridiculous "100% compostable" bags & wrappers unless you actually have compost to put it in. Understand that throwing a 100% compostable bag into the trash/landfill is no different than throwing a 100% styrofoam box into it. Nothing biodegrades in a landfill. So stop it. Or better yet, start a compost pile. Or better still, start a compost pile and still don't buy those ridiculous products. Mm-kay?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Chain of Lawnmowers

In fact, this was originally a companion piece to Pierre de Chardin's foundational "Great Chain of Being", but his publisher had just ended an unhappy love affair and didn't see why anyone else should be having a good time. So, I'll present the basic outline of it here to you, with my own *ahem* embellishments.

You see, I have two lawnmowers, and both of them are broken. Here, let me repeat that, to let the absurdity sink in. I have TWO (?!) lawnmowers, and they're BOTH (!??!?!?!) broken. And in case you live in the mojave desert, I'll just let you know that lawnmowing season came upon us with a vengeance. No, not even that. I think it used some kind of tachyon-based time-field thingumy. One day I probably had two weeks to get at least one of our mowers fixed, and the next day I was already two weeks behind. My neighbors were starting to give us nasty looks. We were in serious danger of not being invited to the next neighborhood barbeque.

And so I did what any small town dweller with a deep-seated hatred of her lawn, but an even deeper-seated hatred of confrontations with her neighbors, would do. I borrowed a lawnmower from a friend.

Ah so. Perhaps the more astute of you can already see where this is going. I now have in my possession THREE lawnmowers, and they are all of different basic types. I am now in the unique position to be able to evaluate the variety of lawnmowers available to mankind (at least for under $300). Lo, as Prometheus brought Fire down from the Gods, I shall bring unto you the Truth about Lawnmowers.

The Reel Mower
Oh reel mower, what can I say about you that could convey how I love thee? You run silently, leaving me able to enjoy the sounds of nature or, better yet, my iPod. You have no noxious fumes to foul the air. You don't fling chunks of stick & rocks at my ankles or, occasionally, eyes, with lightning precision. You do not suck down anything non-renewable, except perhaps my energy. You are easy to maneuver, and when kept well-oiled, easy to push. I need not fear the dismemberment of my children when you are in use, and in fact can also hear when the children are attempting to dismember each other, thanks to the aforementioned silent running. You don't make my arms vibrate for hours after I'm done. You don't make my head hurt. Yes, it's true, if we fallible humans allow the grass to get too high, you may struggle mightily, and eventually even need rescue. But this fault cannot be laid at your feet--er, wheels, for surely it is only the weakness of humans and the allure of the Wii that allows such events. No, in this and all things, I find you flawless. Truly, you are God's Own Mower. In heaven, the angels use reel mowers.

The Electric Mower
(Warning: drastic change of writing style ahead.) This is the mower I borrowed from my friend. What can I say? It's certainly not as awesome as a reel mower, but when your reel mower is busted, and your grass is nearly one foot high in some places, it's a godsend. Upon reflection, though, its qualities are stranger than I'd originally thought. It starts up delightfully easily. It's not as heavy as a gas mower, so it is easier to maneuver than one, but it's still at least two, if not three, times as heavy as the reel mower. Dealing with the power cord was... well... weird. Not really difficult, just a minor nuisance, but it was just strange to have to constantly be yanking a cord back & forth out of your path. Originally, I was going to say that it doesn't smell terrible like a gas mower, but I realized that this is wrong. It's just a master at displacing its smell. Gas mowers run on gas (duh) but many people forget that electric mowers run on coal (unless you've had your house re-roofed in PVC cells, and you live in Phoenix). So that mower wasn't stinking up my yard, it was stinking up someone else's yard, so really that's okay, right? Oh, no its not, is it. Damn. But still, in the final analysis, I will take an electric over a gas mower any day, hands down, no question. Which brings us too...

The Gas Mower
Comes directly from Hell. Is part of the trials and tribulations assigned to mankind (how much more religious imagery do you think I can shove into this post?). The only, and I mean only good thing I can say about the gas mower is that by emitting a constant stream of brain-cell-killing fumes, you are at least reminded the entire time that your desire to make the land around your house look like a golf course is destroying the world. So there is that. Otherwise, those things can all die in a fire.

Okay, I admit it. I had way too much fun making that graphic.

Of course, I have not addressed my preferred method for dealing with the lawn, which is to get rid of more and more of it every year! I hate lawns! The only flora or fauna they bring are grubs; they take up space that food, or at least flowers, could be growing in, and you have to kill the planet to maintain it (or get a reel mower and be the envy of your neighborhood). The only excuse I can see for lawn is when it is more properly called "pasture." I did offer for my current boss to bring the alpacas over to mow the lawn, but she declined (there's a big, badly trained, dangerous german somethingorother dog a couple of doors down that makes her edgy).

So my current strategy is to fix the reel mower, and continue my quest to eradicate the lawn once and for all. Mwahahahaaa.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Spinning Life

This is my spinning wheel. Er, well, actually, it's a friend of mine's spinning wheel, but I'm thinking I need to make some kind of offer to her to change this fact.

Truth is, yesterday was the first time that my wheel had seen any use in well over 6 months, possibly a full year. It might seem that spinning yarn would be a calming, meditative exercise, perfect for those stressful days of unemployment. Yeah, funny how things like that never work out. You see, first, spinning is only calming and meditative if you're any good at it. Since I have only barely crossed that magical line between a non-spinner and "hey look, I think this is actually yarn!" I don't think anyone could fairly call me good at it. As such, spinning can be an exercise in frustration rather than zen if things don't go well.

However, that's not the main reason, or the one most relevant for my purposes, as to why my spinning wheel has been resting alone in a corner for so long. The real reason is that spinning your own yarn is an incredibly useless thing to do. Of course, that's wrong--it's a very valuable thing, a great skill, an enjoyable pasttime, a craft, and more. But not when you're unemployed. When you're unemployed, it's pretty hard to justify sitting around pushing on a peddle for hours to make something that you could've bought for $6 (or in the case of my yarn, could have gotten for free due to quality issues). Shouldn't I be out looking for a job? That's not guilt from others, that's guilt from right inside my little ole head. So it could be frustrating, and I felt guilty doing it.

And unlike other useless things that I persisted in doing to get me through the stress of unemployment, it just doesn't offer the same diversions. You can watch TV and just ignore everything else--there's a lot to recommend this. When I knit, I can either do something else at the same time (e.g., read, watch TV, etc.) or if the pattern is complex enough, I would be focusing on that instead. Great diversion! But spinning? There's not much else you can do and spin at the same time. It takes both hands and a foot, so reading is straight out unless you've got some kind of truly wacky setup. You can't really watch TV since you need to watch the fiber you're drafting out. But it's not a very intellectually engaging activity; it doesn't "keep your mind off of things". Nope, spinning consumes both all of your attention and none of your attention at the same time. Once you get the hang of it (i.e., you get past that whole "frustration" point), it really is quite meditative. It focuses your attention brilliantly inside your own head, where you can think. A lot. About stuff you don't want to think about. Like unemployment. Yay.

But you no doubt notice, dear reader, that the wheel is back! What does this signify? It's a sign that my mind is returning to being a safe place to be left alone in. I spun yarn last night for a few hours, perfectly happy. My thoughts were calm, not stressful. I reveled in the incongruity of listening to an iTunes Genius mix of the Urge, Dada, Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and the Catherine Wheel, while spinning yarn (and if you know who any of those bands are, then you were just as much of a geek as I was in high school!). I thought about my job, my family life, my house, my town, and all without hyperventilating. My life finally seems to be settling itself down.

So I'm going to enjoy this all while it lasts. Does this mean that I'm no longer preparing for the zombies? Au contraire! I feel like that's a project I can finally look in the face again, since it no longer feels like the zombies are already at my door. Also, while I am confident that my current job isn't going to disappear tomorrow, I don't really know what the long-term prospects are for a well-paying administration job in the field of eco-justice. I don't hold out much hope for the lasting viability of our current economy; the growth capitalism model of doing things just isn't sustainable. Will the economic crash (which I believe is still to come) spell doom for my job? Honestly, it seems likely. On the other hand, working in an eco-justice center is a pretty good job for doing preparation, learning and teaching everything I can now, to help everyone through it. So there's always that. But will these days of bliss last forever? Nope. Buddhism got that one right.

So I will embrace impermanence and enjoy this while I can. I will use the calm to reapply myself to things I was just too depressed to work on before. My garden is getting a MAJOR upgrade this year. When I'm done with the construction, I'll post pics (my regular State of the Garden reports). Seedlings are growing in my dining room and on my sun porch (which, despite the name, has almost no access to said celestial being). I'll finally build the vent box for our root cellar to help regulate the temps down there. Maybe I'll even finally build or buy a sun oven! Crazier things have happened. Depending on where we are in a few months, or by next year, maybe we'll finally invest in a wood-burning cookstove. Many possibilities are open.

But what this all really means? It means I need to overhaul the "To Do" list on here. But not right now, I've got yarn to spin! =)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Smell the air....

It's getting closer, isn't it?

It really is....

You can smell it, even if you're not trying....

It's just under that vague scent of barbeque on the air....

Close your eyes.....





Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting through tough times

Until recently, my whole working-aged family was unemployed, and in fact, although I have a new job (which OMGILOVEIT), we haven't gotten our first paycheck yet. And my benefits don't kick in for 3 more months, so we're still living kinda close to the bone. I was pleased to find, though, that the lifestyle towards which we've been moving was very, very helpful to our ability to cope with unemployment. I suspect I'll ruminate on this occasionally for many months to come. But here are some of my initial thoughts on the matter. [Edit: now that I've done a draft of this and am re-reading it, I see that this post has little to do with out lifestyle adaptation per se, but is still important info IMHO.]

First, to optimally prepare for unemployment, or any interruption in your regular income, having a year or more's warning is highly recommended. This is another way of saying that we had a really unfair advantage with respect to unemployment--I've never seen anyone with more warning than we had. Since my husband is an academic, and they hire on annual cycles, cutting his position was a known early on. Further, due to the wording in the standard contract (also a result of the annual academic hiring cycle not lining up nicely with the annual academic firing cycle) we had a little over a full calendar year to prepare. And further still, because of the way my husband's pay was structured, we were payed for two months after we had technically become unemployed (this included benefits). Even allowing for this, we were without income for six months, and we are still without benefits (except for our children, who are on state aid). So what's the message here? My take-home is that everyone pretty much needs to assume that you're going to lose your job, and plan accordingly. Let me be clear here--I don't think we would have been able to keep our house, stay in our town, avoid moving in with parents, etc., without the warning we had. If you have no reason to believe that you will get one year's warning (and crap, who could expect that?), the only way to cope with the situation is to assume you'll be fired soon. Sorry. (You probably won't be fired soon, so try to avoid the attendant fear and nausea that goes with imminent firing--compartmentalize, ya know?)

Second, find and USE every single state or federal benefit you possibly can. They are there for a reason. Too much pride? Swallow it. Maybe if it's just you, make your own decisions and suffer or not as suits you. But if you have a family, I genuinely believe that there is a moral question about how one will deal with a lack of income when your family may suffer as a result, and my response to this question is that pride can take a back seat (or get shoved in the trunk). Without sufficient income, children are at risk of malnutrition and all of the attendant issues, including behavioral and educational problems, which even mild malnourishment can bring. A lack of insurance can cause families to avoid needed doctor's visits, often exacerbating otherwise simple problems. And this is not just for the children--families are not improved by a parent being out of commission (or worse) due to an illness that could have been dealt with by early care.

There are also the penumbral problems of the stresses brought about by losing one's income. Can you stay healthy through the constant stress? How's your blood pressure now? How's your immune system--can it make it through the added stress? How will you deal with job-hunting when you are constantly getting sick due to an AWOL immune system fleeing from all the stress? Can your marriage or partnership survive near-nightly battles over money? Jobs? Income? Spending? Even if your partnership is very stable, a money crisis can spell doom--don't let it (or at least, do everything you can to not let it). Social safety net programs are there to help people keep from falling too low, and to give you some breathing room, so that you're not panicking every time you think about needing to buy groceries, or when your kid wants to go roller skating and you know you can't afford the soon-to-follow leg break and treatment. They help keep you and your family healthy and whole--not sick and divorced. Use them. And if someone gives you flack, tell them to fuck off, you are taking care of your family.

I would strongly suggest finding all of the programs that are even vaguely applicable to your situation now--yes now--while you still have a job and an income. Consider this just another part of the "assume you'll be fired" scenario above. Speaking for my own state, there is a morass of programs available, complete with attendant paperwork, all of which is very difficult to sort through. Don't try to do this when you're on the edge of losing a job, or worse, have already lost one. From my own experience, once we knew we were going to lose our jobs, I got very panicky and depressed. Panic and depression can lead to many places, but rational behavior is rarely one of them. So even though I knew we would soon need these programs, I didn't research them. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. And so I put them off and off and off until holyshitweNEEDthemnow--whatdoIdo?!?! That's not the best head-space to be in when attempting to navigate government bureaucracy. Really. So do it now, when the biggest part of your brain can truthfully say "Dude, I'm not actually getting fired, I'm just doing this as, like, an academic exercise--maybe in case one of my friends gets fired or something, so I can help them. Yeah!" I don't care how you have to trick yourself, but find a way to do this work now.

Don't believe me? Feel confident about how you would access aid programs? Okay. Do you know what the income cutoffs are for food stamps? What kind of documentation do you need from your employer in order to claim unemployment insurance? Does your doctor/family healthcare person take state insurance? Is there a medical insurance program available for adults in your state--and if so, what are the requirements? What are the requirements for WIC? What is WIC? Can you get both TANF and WIC at the same time? Which state departments handle TANF, WIC, unemployment and Medicaid? Are there prescription programs available to avoid interruption of needed medications? If you don't know the answers to these questions, you need to find them. It is too, too, too easy to miss out on an important program that could have genuinely benefited your family by just not being familiar with the offerings. And moreover, it is even easier to accidentally screw yourself out of one program by not knowing its details and either missing a deadline or putting something on an application to program A which would cause issues with program B. Oh, and by the way, all of this paperwork will take you at least a month to get through, even if you know what you're doing, so familiarizing yourself with this stuff now is really not a bad idea. Have you ever heard someone say "It's a good thing that I'm unemployed, because claiming unemployment insurance is a full-time job!" Well, that's not actually a joke.

True story: our state offers adult health coverage for families under a certain income level. After having been on unemployment insurance for months, with children on medicaid and making applications for numerous other programs, I had absolutely no idea this was available. Now, it's not the best insurance in the world--"cadillac" it ain't--but it's a damned sight better than my husband's leg going gangrenous because he refuses to go to the hospital for care because we can't afford it. Now, as it happens, we have not missed the window on this, and that's lucky for us. This is what comes of wading through welfare programs when stressed out--don't do it! Start now! Trust me!

Okay, for my next post on this, I will actually address how our lifestyle helped out. Promise! =]