Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's that time of year again....

Time for the annual posting of my favorite holiday story!  I hope you enjoy it!  I'm not ashamed to say it makes me tear up every time I read it.

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.”


Monday, November 21, 2011

Pie Crust Confidential

This was actually a comment on Sharon Astyk's post "Pie Crust Chronicles".  I claim that I only posted it because I love her, and while this is true, I love all of you as well!  No one should have to suffer through difficult crusts when there are tricks to be had.  So here you go, with a sincere hope for a happy thanksgiving with you and your family & friends:

Only because I love you, I will pass along my very best secret weapon for pie crust making--vodka.  No, not as in "drink it until you don't notice how bad the crust is", but as in an ingredient.  I actually got this from Cook's Illustrated (who certainly can err on the side of fetishizing things).  You see, the big tension with pie crusts is getting them to come out tender and flaky at the same time.  Flaky isn't too hard (non-fully-incorporated butter is the key), but tender is tricky, because the water wants to combine with the flour to make gluten, which makes things tough.  That's why all recipes say to add barely enough water to make it come together.  But then it's hard to roll out, and you end up overworking the dough, which makes--heyhey--gluten!  And you're right back to tough.

BUT, vodka doesn't make gluten when combined with flour!  Woo hoo!  So we keep some in our freezer (nice & cold), and substitute about half of the water for vodka in the recipe.  You can then add a reasonable amount of liquid, making the dough more workable (and less stress-inducing), and gives the cook more wiggle room on adding water, while maintaining tenderness.  The flavor bakes out, as does most of the alcohol (and really, we're talking 2-3 TBSP of vodka for an entire pie).  Works a treat!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupying: now with more (or less) focus

On my last post, I mentioned that I've been involved with the Occupy movement in our area.  I got the following comment:

"Honestly, my only problem with the Occupy movement is a lack of focus. If they were a little more unified and had actual goals I think it'd be easier to understand. But I think the majority of the people out there are more lost than not."

I've found this to be one of the most common criticisms of the Occupy movement, at least by those who are at all sympathetic to it.  I find this criticism to be both fair, and deeply flawed at the same time.  That I can think something like this means, among other things, that I am an incredibly frustrating person to argue with.  =)  But no matter.  I also think that this criticism, and why it's flawed, is incredibly important, so I begged the commenter's patience for me to be able to respond in a full post, rather than just in a comment.  Since you know how often I post here, and now I'm writing a second post in under two weeks, you must know that I think this is important!

Okay, in essence I have three reasons to think that this criticism is flawed.  They are all independent of each other--which is to say, I think that any one of them would function well on its own, even if the other two didn't pan out; or to put it a different way, they don't depend on each other.  That said, I think they're all also consistent with each other--they don't cause each other problems.  (And so ends today's brief lesson in critical thinking.)  I do think there's something of a natural order to the responses, so I'm going to go through them one by one.

1.  Reports of our lack of focus have been greatly exaggerated.

I've certainly seen any number of news reports, man-on-the-street remarks, newspaper editorials, etc., complaining that they can't even tell what we're protesting.  Yet if you look at the signs, read the stories of the participants, see the posts on places like Facebook and others, I think it becomes clear that there is a basic nexus of issues.  Almost all of the protests boil down to issues about the disproportionate sway of money over our government, the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, and the betrayal of our public by the government in collusion with the banks for the bailout.  And really, even these issues all boil down to one broad point--crony capitalism of the worst sort.  We are protesting our near-complete loss of power, and a system that reinforces this loss, concentrating the power into fewer and fewer hands.  Really, that comic above sums it up pretty well.

The problem here is that the real issues don't sum up well into 10 second sound bites, which is all that makes it onto the news anymore.  The issues are complex, and the various slogans dreamed up by us placard-painters are only pointing to them, not stating them outright.  So things look far less focused than they really are, and the media doesn't seem to be eager to correct this perception.

Having said that....

2.  Gauge your strength before choosing your target.

There is a very genuine sense in which OWS has not chosen its targets, or made its demands, and there is a specific rationale for this.  Occupiers--all of us, not just those in NY--need to be able to get a clear assessment of the real strength of OWS before issuing any demands.  If this movement proves to be very strong, as I hope it will (and I think it's headed that way), then we don't want to sell ourselves short by demanding--and maybe getting--some token concessions, essentially blowing the power it has with very little to show for it.  On the other hand, OWS needs to be careful not to overshoot and make demands that it does not have sufficient power to fight for, which is another way to blow what power it has.  It is very tricky to gauge this, and even the best process could screw it up.  The process that the GAs of OWS have decided on will be to convene a congress next year (no, of course I can't remember when) to formalize a list of demands to which they expect the President and Congress to respond.  The current threat of power (as of the plans right now) will be to form a third party if the current parties are unwilling to engage with OWS to achieve our goals.  This could change between now and when the congress convenes, but this is the most updated version I've seen so far.

But all of that pales before....

3.  No demand is big enough.

This reason comes from this piece from Charles Eisenstein, reposted variously across the interwebs, called "Occupy Wall Street:  no demand is big enough".  I can't possibly do justice to his eloquence, so I hope you'll follow the link and read it, but I will excerpt the core part for my purposes here:

"Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear demands, but how do we issue demands, when what we really want is nothing less than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big enough. We could make lists of demands for new public policies: tax the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment, end the wars, regulate the banks. While we know these are positive steps, they aren't quite what motivated people to occupy Wall Street. What needs attention is something deeper: the power structures, ideologies, and institutions that prevented these steps from being taken years ago; indeed, that made these steps even necessary. Our leaders are beholden to impersonal forces, such as that of money, that compel them to do what no sane human being would choose. Disconnected from the actual effects of their policies, they live in a world of insincerity and pretense. It is time to bring a countervailing force to bear, and not just a force but a call. Our message is, "Stop pretending. You know what to do. Start doing it." Occupy Wall Street is about exposing the truth. We can trust its power. When a policeman pepper sprays helpless women, we don't beat him up and scare him into not doing it again; we show the world. Much worse than pepper spray is being perpetrated on our planet in service of money. Let us allow nothing happening on earth to be hidden."

And finally, I'll throw in one fourth reason, which doesn't really stand alone, but is often operating in the background of my thoughts on this--at least now, people are starting to pay attention.  You know, I've spent the past 5-7 years of my life trying to get people to think about the sustainability of our institutions, of our economy, of where this is all going; for the past two years, it's even been my job to do so.  And I will claim with certainty, and some humility, that all of the work that I, and everyone who reads this blog, and everyone we read, and everyone who works on this in any capacity--all put together--have not had as much success getting people to pay attention to these issues as OWS has in only two months.  I'm glad we've been doing all of this work for the past few years, because finally people are coming and starting to learn about it.  I credit OWS with this.  Sure people might have come around on their own, or all wandered over to us eventually, but how wonderful that it is finally starting to happen en masse.  And I will stand on a cold streetcorner all winter, every chance I get, if I can keep that momentum going--to just get people to wake up.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's define some terms, shall we?

I've been AWOL again.  Seriously, some of you should probably try to tie me down and chip me or something.  But a thank you to PatriciaLynn for kicking my butt (gently, kindly).  =)

What have I been doing?  Mainly working, gardening, organizing a co-op, and Occupying.  Funny how in  my case, all of these are significantly interrelated.  Makes for a good life--nice and consistent.

Being that I've spent a fair amount of my recent life involved with the Occupy movement, I've heard a lot of the pros and cons about what we're doing.  Maybe as the days go on, I'll try to talk about them.  But there's one criticism of Occupy Wall Street in particular that I am really, really worried about, because it demonstrates how far down our cultural lack of understanding of our whole financial system goes.  The criticism goes something like this:

"It's not the financial institution's fault that the economy went ka-bloey a couple of years ago.  People took out loans that they couldn't handle.  If you take on a debt, it's your job to pay it off--it's not the fault of the banks that these people have no sense of personal responsibility.  You should either pay off your debts, or you shouldn't take on the debt."

Now, there's obviously a lot going on here, and many ways to unpack this criticism.  We could discuss fraudulent behavior on the part of both the borrowers and the banks, or the wonderful "exotic loan instruments" or the fact that even Dr. Nouriel Roubini (the nobel *ahem* prize winner in economics) said that he couldn't understand the loan documents for his own mortgage.  We could also discuss people who bought way more than they could afford, and who just didn't care or think about the consequences, and the relative lack of personal responsibility on the part of all participants.

But that's not where I want to go here.

The core problem I have with this argument--and I think that this problem is desperately important for everyone to understand--is that all of those loans made cannot be paid back without more debt.  Lemme repeat that:  all of those loans CANNOT be paid back without taking on more debt.  This isn't some deep social critique about the psychology of a borrower or the American point of view, this is a simple mathematical truth.  It is Not Possible for the current loans to be paid back, with interest, without more people taking on more debt, because there will not be enough money to do so without more debt.


Um.... what does someone else going into debt have to do with me having enough money to pay my loans off?


The monetary system we currently have is designed to ensure ever-increasing debt loads, and in the absence of this, ever-increasing defaults.  Or, to put it a different way, the system we have now is custom-designed to screw us all.  I am not exaggerating here.  This isn't a matter of personal responsibility, it's a matter of structural impossibility.  It's like demanding that someone draw a triangle that has 5 sides--it's not a criticism of the artist if she looks at you like you're a nutjob, it simply isn't a possibility.

I might be able to do a decent job of explaining why this is the case--I've got a pretty good handle on it--but other people have done a better job than me, and in video form!  Here's the shortest one I've seen so far, at ~20 minutes:

The Fractional Reserve System from Greg Stuessel on Vimeo.

This is the core of the story, though hardly all of it (and it's a little heavy on the scare-tactics, which I find wholly unnecessary--the system itself is scary enough).  For more context, check out the link to "Money as Debt" in the sidebar.  And for a very comprehensive, complete understanding of how this fits into our overall economic, energy and environmental system, watch "The Crash Course" also in my link-list on the right.

I wish I could make every person in America learn about this, somehow.  So please, please--if you were with me I would actually be begging you, possibly on my knees--you care enough about the things I do that you read this blog.  Take the next step--watch this video, it's only 20 minutes long.  If you hate it, disagree with it, or whatever else, fine, you're out 20 minutes.  But I'm betting you won't.  I'm betting that quite to the contrary, if you didn't already know what was in this video, you will be very shocked indeed.

Once you've watched this video, I invite you to think about a few things.  (I'm stealing this from the Crash Course.)  Did you know that for the first ~300 years of our country's history, from around 1660 to the mid-1900's, we had no inflation.  None.  Think about that.  Imagine saving $1,000, putting it in a box and burying it, and then your great grandchildren digging up that box and having the same purchasing power that you had when you buried it.  Inflation is not a law of nature, it's a construction of our current monetary policy, which is in fact a very recent invention (broadly from 1913, more literally from 1973).  What does it mean that anything you save becomes worthless?  What does that do to our livelihoods?  Huh.

Friday, July 22, 2011

But honey, think of the property value...

I've been thinking a lot about the recent "vegetable felon" cases.  I'd be surprised if anyone reading this blog hasn't heard about them, but the ones I'm familiar with are the "Julie Bass in Oak Park, MI" case, the "Compassion Farm" case, and the "Terrorized by CEDA" case.  The cases are all a bit different, and go to different extremes (i.e., threat of three months in jail, six months in jail, and the property being seized by the city and demolished, respectively).  But no matter how psycho the aims of each are (property demolition, srsly?), there is a common thread underlying all of them--no one wants to see your veggies.

From here on out, I'm basically only going to talk about the Julie Bass case, partially because it's the one I'm the most familiar with, and partially because the other two are so off the deep end crazy that it will only obscure my ultimate point (yes, this post has been brought to you today by an actual point).  So here's the basic scoop:  the city dug up her front lawn to do some needed sewer/drainage repairs--cool, thanks for that.  Then she needed to repair her front lawn because, well, it was big piles of dirt.  The family decided to put in a vegetable garden (after, they thought, obtaining permission from the city).  Ordinance violation citations followed, and now the City of Oak Park is the preferred internet pariah for their Stepford Neighborhood goals (apparently the Casey Anthony thing finally ran its course).

Basically up to speed now?  Good, because I'm going to say something very surprising, that I doubt you would expect to see from my fingertips--I sympathize with the surrounding homeowners.  Please note that I did not say I agree with them, but I do have sympathy for them.  How not?  They're a product of their generations, their society, their upbringing.  Look, I'm a trained philosopher.  One of the real downsides to this is that I am pretty good at seeing both sides of an argument.  It does a great deal of damage to otherwise wonderful rants of righteousness.  (But woe betide the world when, after careful consideration and seeing both sides, I still have enough venom for one side to launch into a rant.)  So unfortunately for me, I can understand the surrounding homeowner's positions.  They bought their houses with certain expectations about the nature of the neighborhood, its look, and the probable nature of their property value.  And they're concerned that the vegetable garden in the front yard will do harm to some or all of these.

Furthermore, they're right.  The vegetable garden probably will affect the character of the neighborhood, the look of the neighborhood, and will likely harm their property value.  [NB:  did you see what I did there?  I only claim that one of those three will actually do harm.  Sneaky am I.]  And this brings me, circuitously, to my point.  We now live in a society where being forced to see food growing nearby is considered harmful.  I don't think anyone seriously believes that if those garden beds had been filled with flowers, that Julie Bass would currently be in the media, or would be enduring harassment by anyone.  Besides, the citations specifically cite the vegetables as the problem.

I was mulling this fact over in my head while working in my own garden tonight.  And yes, it was hotter than Hades, let's just get that out of the way right now.  What is so offensive about vegetables?  I mean, there are many things that will lower a neighborhood's property value:  the presence of crack houses, the installation of a waste dump, the house collapsing or being obviously derelict and falling apart, etc.  I totally get why any reasonable neighborhood wouldn't want that sort of thing, and why there would be ordinances to assist in preventing or dealing with those situations.  Is "seeing food growing" on the same list as "waste dump"?

Yes, seeing food growing is indeed on the same list in a great number of neighborhoods in our country.  And honestly, I think that this fact all by itself goes a long way towards explaining the mess we're in as a nation right now.  What hope could a country have that can no longer endure the sight of food in its natural state?  What is the worth of a citizenry that thinks so highly of itself that not only does each individual feel that he/she does not have to stoop to the level of farmer, but that person can actually bring the law to bear on anyone who forces them to have contact with farming or gardening or food growing in any form.  You see, I might have some sympathy with those poor, benighted neighbors, but I've lost all sympathy for the culture that spawned them.

At root, I think this is a class issue--most things in America are anymore.  What is wrong with seeing food growing?  The same thing that's wrong with seeing laundry hanging to dry, or chickens in the backyard, or any other of the myriad potential offenses that HOAs across America decry.  It's not that it looks unseemly, it's that it looks poor.  We associate growing food with poverty, and thank god we don't have to grow our own food anymore because now we're RICH!  We can afford to make other people do it for us!  (And pay them poorly, and make sure we never see them, and often bring in slave labor to make sure our prices are acceptable.)  And we can afford machines to dry our clothes for us!  And chickens?!  O.M.G., those were from, like, the depression days or something.  No one in their right mind would want to do anything like that again!  Well, except for those folks who were too dumb to become investment bankers or interior designers. They can still do those things, but *ahem* Certainly Not Us.

So I guess my take-home message here, for what it's worth, is that this isn't about an insane property inspector in Oak Park (although that doesn't help), or about an abusive city government, or a freedom fighter woman defending her land (god bless her for it, though).  This is far more systemic than that.  It's about a society that is so deeply, fundamentally broken to its core that it can no longer endure sight of the most basic things that got us out of the trees and made us human beings in the first place.  We've become totally and utterly ungrounded as a nation and a society.

So just imagine how hard its going to go when our economy finally does bite it.

Have a happy weekend.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

No flogging!



I got my whole list done--DONE, I SAY!  And I was having a record-breaking crappy weekend.  Crappy enough that today at church, various kind people approached me quietly to make sure everything was okay.  Well, no, not a bit actually.  But nothing is wrong that I'm at liberty to discuss (and yes, that includes here as well, sorry).  And having that list of stuff to do hanging over my head did wonders for focusing the mind--sort of like the hangman's noose.  It actually provided some respite for the tormenting thoughts I was otherwise having.

So what did I accomplish?  Let's review:

  • temporary chook pen:  done and done.  It is the definition of the word "kludge," but that's where my DIY skills max out, so it's just as well.  I'll try to get pics soon.  The baby chicks are now happily installed in their new homes, protected from outside evils like raccoons, owls, and the adult hens eyeballing them through the chicken wire.  The interior of the pen is a bit difficult to access--I did mention that it's a total kludge, right?--but otherwise, it's all good.  And though it was designed to be temporary, I might keep it up as an isolation area, in case I have a sick chick, or a bully that needs to get taken down a peg or two.  Of course, if I do, then my next weekend list will have to include "paint roof of temporary chook pen."
  • I made the new waterer with the chicken nipple, and gods alive, they figured it out!  I ended up using the "put jam on the nipple to encourage them" method, which was just the trick.  The babies now have fresh and clean water in an easy-to-refill setup.  And the hens have taken notice since they've been outside.  I think I'll make another one and hang it on the outside of the pen, near where the baby chick's one is, and see if the old hens can be taught any new tricks.  (Wondering what the hell I'm talking about?  Click here.)
  • I made a wheel of Wensleydale.  I'm not sure how it will turn out, though.  I might've been too rough with the curd during several of the milling steps, and it's also really quite hot in our house.  I think the combination of these two factors might have created a "catastrophic butterfat loss" situation--it was leaking out everywhere.  Ah well, we won't know for another 3 weeks when it comes out of its cave.  My guess is that it'll be good, but very crumbly rather than smooth and creamy.  Live and learn, right?
  • Garden paths:  weed-whacked.  And I totally deserved the flying object right in the eye, since I couldn't be bothered to take an additional 5-10 minutes tracking down my safety glasses.  No harm done, but it was a good warning shot.
  • Blackberry brambles are as back under control as I'm likely to get them this year.  And some of the blackberries are neeeeaaarrrrllllyyyyy ripe.  Mmmm, blackberries...
So I'm digging this whole "public accountability" thing--I got more done this weekend than I have in a long time.  On the other hand, that's just about the maximum I can get done in one weekend, and I really didn't have any time to relax or enjoy myself.  True, I do enjoy doing much of what was on my list, but a bit of time to kick back, read, spin some yarn, whathaveyou?  Yeah, that didn't happen.  Maybe I'll get some spinning done tonight.  I've got some lovely suri alpaca roving gifted to me by my dear friend Dave, and I've been itching to get to it (and he's been needling me, too).  Pretty soon I'll be getting my niece's adopted llama's fleece to process, which he'll be helping with, so I'd better clear this other roving out of the way first, right?


Thursday, July 7, 2011

This weekend

Okay, here's the deal.  I am going to very, very publicly proclaim Those Things What I Will Do This Weekend(tm).  You, in turn, will publicly shame me until I actually accomplish at least half of what I list.  No, you do not get to shame me until Monday.  Yes, flogging is approved (but only with wet noodles).  But I draw the line at being put in the stocks--how am I supposed to finish my list then?!

So, here's the list:

  • Finish the temporary pen for the new chooks.  (No, I'm neither British nor Australian, I'm just a snob and I like that bit of slang.)
  • Create a new water-feeder for the baby birds using the water nipples (damnit, one set of birds is gonna figure this thing out if it kills me).
  • Make a new wheel of cheese--my husband has selected Wensleydale (Hi Wallace!!!).  I shall be following the method a la Monsieur Gavin, my new favorite cheese blog.  Okay, my only favorite cheese blog.  But if there were more than one cheese blog out there, and even if lots of them were my favorites, I think that Gavin's would still be my most favorite.
  • Weed-whack the garden paths.  Again.  (Godsdamned crabgrass.)
  • Get my blackberry canes back under control.
I pulled my first potato out of the ground today.  Lunch tomorrow!

And hey, did I tell you guys that I've made my first Cheddar?  It's true!  At least, I really hope it's my first Cheddar.  I guess we won't know until we actually try it.  It might be my first, "Dear, I'm not sure this is Cheddar."  (Sort of like "I can't believe it's not butter" but ... well ... not.)  Right now it's in a little cooler in front of a fan, sitting on top of a plastic thingy of ice, developing a rind.  I'm then going to vacuum seal it (unless my mom gets me cheese waxes for my birthday, in which case I'll wax it), and put it into *da da daDUM* The Cheese Cave.  What's with the cooler?  Well, it's like 85*F in our house right now, which is well and truly too warm to be letting a cheese sit out to develop a rind--it will start leaking oil everywhere.  So I've tried to put it somewhere that it will stay at least in the mid-70's.  And the cheese cave?  What, do you think I did major excavation on my house last week?  *snort* If you haven't figured out how much I suck at DIY yet, you haven't been around long.  I scored a sweet little dorm fridge off of Craigslist for $30.  I just plugged it in and set it at its warmest setting, and we'll see where that leaves us.  Cheddars should age at ideal temps of around 50*-60*F, which I sorely doubt the fridge will achieve.  I may put it on a timer and only run it for a few hours a day, see if that works.  If I get both desperate and dedicated to cheesemaking, I may spring for the $75 external thermostat.  And if I get dedicated to cheesemaking and my husband gets re-dedicated to beer & soda-making, we might spring for a full-sized fridge for our basement (which is also about 70*F).  

Hm.  There were a lot of "and"s running around that last paragraph.  In italics, even.

I'm having a great deal of fun at work these days.  We've got a great group of new interns who are all completely keen to learn whatever we have to teach them.  We'll be doing farm field trips, breadmaking and cooking workshops, environmental philosophy seminars, spiritual direction meetings, and oh so much more!  I'm completely psyched!

And, in my final story for the night, I'm reasonably sure I've been given approval from my boss to become our resident herbalist.  SCORE.