Odds and Ends

August 3, 2009

Hi, all.

No set topic here: lots of little ones.

We’re closing in on a year since Mom died and my brother said something to me yesterday that a friend of his, whose mother has been dead for a decade or more, said to him — that actually, it gets worse after the first year because if you don’t live near your parents, you’re used to not seeing your mom for a year. It’s year 2, 3, 4, and 5 where you start to really notice it. We’ll see. This is my first experience with close death, and I find it’s always somewhere in my mind but not eating me alive, that I have a lot of moments where I miss her and that some things make that worse than others, and that I know I thought about her a lot when she was alive but I don’t know how the extent to which I think about her now compares to that. Did she really cross my mind this much when she was still around? I cannot remember. But I’m taking care of one of my ex-cats this week, and holding a cat really brings her back to me. She loved cats.

On to business.

Sustainable living is more than that which sustains the planet, although that is where most of us need the most improvement. It also means sustainability for ourselves — and I would argue that a signal point of sustainability for ourselves has to be happiness.  I’d also argue that for many of us, the attempt to do too much, the presence of too many obligations and pressures, and the stress caused by these get in the way of actual happiness. That, in a nutshell, is my argument for why simplification enhances personal sustainability — in addition to how it often enhances planetary sustainability.

I’m reading Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less” — Leo, for the uninitiated, runs a blog called Zen Habits which has taken the blogosphere by storm. The book is about accomplishing more by setting limits & priorities, and being able to focus on the important by shedding the unimportant. I’ve only read the introduction so far but will keep you posted — and I’m anxious to see how he advises those of us who have simply ridiculous professional pressures to set these limits and priorities when our time is not our own!

Also reading Alan Greenspan’s “The Age of Turbulence.”  He’s not just Republican, he’s Libertarian — although he proves what I’ve long said, which is that I can like and admire anyone of any political persuasion if they are thoughtful  in their approach to life, even if I disagree with some of their opinions. I happened to see Greenspan yesterday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” and I think it will prove valuable that someone as respected as he, and with his political leanings, was as supportive of the statements made by Timothy Geithner (who appeared ahead of him on the show and spoke about the U.S.’ financial outlook) as he was. That’s what I mean by thoughtful — he followed a Democrat who was speaking about a Democratic economic platform, and he gave an opinion that was NOT party-based.  I confess that during the George (W, not Stephanopoulos) years, George so infuriated me that anyone tainted with his political leanings got short shrift from me. But he’s gone and I’m over it and I find that what I actually react badly to is partisan expressions of opinion that parrot the nonsense on FN or otherwise show an inability to actually consider whether an idea has something to offer, not just who it comes from.

I’m also reading Eric Alterman’s “Why We’re Liberal” — and folks, he’s saying a lot that needs to be said. Highly recommend this book. This historical perspective on how liberal became a dirty word and the forces of history that fragmented liberalism, plus the examples he provides of why progressive ideas add value to a society are timely — we have to get past the history and state our case better.

Also reading Laszlo’s “Chaos Point” — about the worldwide societal tipping points we’re approaching on a variety of fronts — and Lappé’s “Getting a Grip” which is about sustainable, individual democracy. Interesting juxtaposition, here, because the first does nothing if not show that individual actions on a mass scale are needed, and the second does nothing if not show how possible individual action is.

It’s been too long. And as my title implies, I have reasons but no excuses.

In January 2008 I got a new job — incredibly challenging. Six weeks later, my mother — who had always been healthy, strong and vibrant and who was 10 years younger than my father — was diagnosed with terminal, metastasized lung cancer. In the middle of this, I started questioning whether or not I wanted to stay in my then-relationship. (I guess the “then” gives away what my decision ultimately was.) My entire life was in upheaval and everything that was not necessary to move forward got put on hold — including the writing.

By March, I’d pretty much decided to leave the relationship but was putting off the actual exit until we could see what effect Mom’s chemo would have on her prognosis. In June, she had her last chemo and was doing so well we were all convinced it had worked wonders. False hope: it shrank the lung tumor but every other tumor grew in the meantime. However, during the time we thought it had worked well enough to make an actual difference in her timeline, two things happened: I told my ex I was leaving, and, that same week, I met face to face someone I had happened to meet online the week before — and knew as soon as I laid eyes on him that I was supposed to be with him forever.

She deteriorated quickly. She died on August 31. Four days before, on her last lucid night, she met the man I married four months to the day later (last Saturday, in fact), and he was with me when she died. I have not begun to assimilate her loss nor the joy my new husband brings me, but I am trying to look both of these huge changes in my life squarely in the eye and take whatever they have to offer.

One effect emerges nearly immediately: I have become more convinced than ever of the importance of measuring one’s actions and their effects. My mother led a fairly simple life but I have come to know how broad her scope was, how many people she affected, how profoundly she is missed, and how very very much a life that was, in effect, a collection of right actions stacked one atop the other came to mean to those around her. She had grace and courage and lived those two characteristics fully. She believed that her responsibility to those around her extended to meeting their needs regardless of whether or not it was “her job” to help and, if possible, sending everyone she met away healthier and whole-er than when she first encountered them — and she succeeded in living this belief to a remarkable degree. She took care of her family, her neighbors, her customers, total strangers, her children’s friends, animals, forgotten civil war battlefields, her own and everyone else’s gardens, the rabbits who exasperated her by eating said gardens, wildlife, this planet. She lived a thoughtful life. She was, in her way, a simple activist.

And I am, very much, her daughter.

Be talking to you soon.

Hiatus

March 1, 2008

All:

Two events have occurred: I’ve taken a new job (minor), and my mother has become very, very ill (major). I won’t be around for a bit until the dust settles here. I’ll post when I can, but at the moment, I have to spend my time and thought elsewhere.

Give It Up

I just read Mary Carlomagno’s “Give It Up: My Year of Learning to  Live Better With Less.” I must say I ended up liking the premise better than the book. The author gives up one habit or item each month for the duration of the month — taking cabs, cellphones, eating out, cursing, alcohol, whatever. But it doesn’t seem to result in long-term simplification of her life, reduction of waste, or addition of meaning on many fronts. She seems to go back to each thing she gave up once the month is over, at least to some extent. (And from a literary standpoint, she really needed a good, professional editor.)

Still, it is New Year’s Resolution time, and I am intrigued with the idea of making a number of small changes  over the course of the year as opposed to making them all at once. So I’ll keep the premise and ditch the book.

It’s the 3rd of January today, so I’m already late with picking my 12 things. Figures. And I don’t want them to be things I do only for me — I want them to be good for society and/or the planet also.  Another difficulty: some of the ideas I have are going to take more than  a month to implement. So there will be some overlappage.

A challenge:  come up with your own list of 12 and let me know what it is!  And they don’t have to be subtractions only — you can add things to your life. You could, say, commit to eating two vegetables per day instead of denying yourself something.

Goals Met, Habits Changed

Here are a few steps in the right direction I’ve noticed that we’ve made around here, waste-wise: for about the last 8 months, we’ve ended the week with exactly one bag of garbage, but our recycle bins have been full to over-flowing. Christmas morning we threw away exactly one handful of detritus — everything else was either saved for reuse or recycled. No “live” tree for us, either — just can’t justify it. (Interesting bit of framing, for those of you who are familiar with the concept of framing — calling a tree you have just killed by cutting it down “live.”)  We gave up the electric can-opener, because the hand opener works just as well. We unplug some vampire appliances every day and only plug in things like the computer printer when we’re actually going to print something.  Our electric bill plummeted after we did the two-degree change, and plummeted further when we firmly established the habit of only running either the heat or the AC when we were actually here.  I did not set foot in Walmart all year. We did not buy into the alleged “need” for cellphones — neither of us has one nor wants one.

A Couple of Things I Know We Want to Do This Year

On the home-energy front — the first big thing is to finally get off our dead asses and get the new fridge. A refrigerator can be a horrible waster of energy if it’s old and leaky (ours on both fronts).

On the organic/ sustainability/ self-sufficiency front: I’ve found some interesting heirloom tomato seeds and am going to grow my own this year in our atrium. This is also intended to strike a blow for bio-diversity — so many varieties of all kinds of vegetables are disappearing. It’s time to bring them back! (A note: the vanilla we’re growing hasn’t bloomed yet but this year it might actually get big enough to do so — it’s thriving and has tripled in size this last year!)

On the simplifying front: This year, I know one focus of mine is going to be on finishing the many unfinished projects that are well, all over this house.

And I’m going to continue to actively resist my bad consumerist habits. Book buying is a specific vice! So I gave myself permission to buy books during the week between Christmas and Jan 1, and from that day forward, I read what I have all year with only two exceptions — one trip to each of the local FOL booksales, spring and fall. With a little self-discipline, I should wind up the year with a net book deficit. (We’ll see!)

Tell me what you’re doing this year!!

The Silver Lining

December 7, 2007

I just finished reading Matt Bai’s “The Argument” and below is the comment I sent him about it (because I’ve been meaning to post about this for awhile):

I just finished reading “The Argument,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. And yes, it is going to make a fine Christmas gift.

One of the exciting themes of the book is the extent to which the frustration of the ordinary American with the non-responsiveness of our government has resulted in people voluntarily becoming involved with the process and speaking out. (By non-responsiveness, I mean, how often have you thought that some of the citizen uprisings of the sixties, which in many cases had a profound effect on events like the civil rights movement or our attitudes toward the Vietnam War, would now fall [and in fact are falling] on deaf ears? I watch all these anti-war marches now and think, W has cottoned on to the fact that he can get away with ignoring what the people want, and these demonstrators don’t seem to realize it.) I love seeing the increased involvement in the debate, and the extent to which progressives are not only demanding change but are willing to be the change they want to see.

A tandem trend I’m seeing is this: people are so frustrated with the lack of action by the current administration on truly pressing problems, they’re taking action themselves over and above speaking out. A good example is the issue of climate change — W refuses to do anything constructive about it, but nationwide people are changing their own habits and voting with their dollars in ways that will make a difference. I believe some of these problems (climate change is a good example here, too) are going to require intervention on two levels — governmental policy and citizen activism. I also think that it would be easy for citizens to bow out if government had taken the lead (“Well, the government is taking care of that so I don’t have to do anything.”). So, ironically, by failing to take the lead on these major issues, our non-responsive government might actually have done us a favor, by frustrating the citizens to the point where they themselves take the lead. By the time the government follows suit, the two-level intervention will be firmly in place.

Another area where this is happening is in helping Iraqis who are displaced or economically harmed by the war. There are funds out there through which ordinary Americans can make loans to Iraqis to help them get started again, and these funds (and other opportunities like them) have been publicized nationally in such places as ABC’s World News Tonight. No small feat.

Yet another — the program whereby U.S. teachers post projects they lack funding for, and citizens can voluntarily fund them, thus providing educational opportunities for children who otherwise wouldn’t get them. Education funding is cut, and the citizens, frustrated by the government’s failure to act on this priority, are taking action themselves.

I guess the silver lining is this: the failure of the GOP to behave in the best interests of Americans, and the failure of the Dems to come up with a solution, has, ultimately, opened the door for citizens to stop relying on government to solve everything and take some accountable, responsible, community-minded action themselves. Our government’s failure is making better citizens out of us, and in ways that I think harken back to the best characteristics of the founding fathers.

Anyway, enjoyed the book!

Shameless Plug

December 3, 2007

Exciting things are happening with my friend Deb’s blog, BuckNaked Politics. Reuters has picked up some of her posts in toto (even the illustrations!) and she’s even been linked by the Wall Street Journal!  She’s meticulous in her research, and it shows — she deserves the notice she’s getting. Check her out!

The End of the Argument

November 8, 2007

No matter where you sit on the discussion of global warming, watch this video. It won’t change your position — it’s not about that and I’m not trying to do that. It is, however, about how to decide on a course of action in the absence of the ability to be able to predict the future.

glumbert – The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See

The title sounds sensationalist. The video isn’t. Seriously — watch it. It will be nine minutes well spent.

Blog Action Day

October 15, 2007

Today is Blog Action Day, on which thousands of bloggers have committed to blogging about the environment in an effort to bring it even farther into the light than it already is. I’ve been reading some entries around the web, full of advice and philosophy and tips and exhortations and so forth. It would be difficult to add to that. So my entry is a question: what did you do today that was environmentally sound?

I asked myself. Here’s my answer.

1) I recycled my junkmail and some plastic packaging.

2) I put the coffee in a thermos instead of leaving it in the pot and leaving the pot turned on.

3) I remembered to unplug the vampire appliances (tv,  dvd, cable box).

4) My bedside clock is battery operated.

5) Instead of meat for dinner, I had a cheese sandwich.

6) I bought used books today, instead of new, and rented some at the library, instead of purchasing.

7) I didn’t run the AC.

8) I remembered to turn the computer off when I left the house (not always a given!).

9) I ate cage-free eggs and drank organic milk.

10) I used a hand can-opener instead of the electric one.

11) I limited my driving to two trips. Not as good as one, but better than some other days I can remember!

12) I read the paper online instead of buying a paper copy.

13) I signed some petitions and action initiatives for environmental causes at the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists websites.

14) I donated money.

15) I educated myself a little further — for example, today I learned I shouldn’t use cypress mulch because it’s made from fresh-cut trees that are needed for water conservation/absorption purposes in their native soils.

None of these was the least bit of a hardship. None, I fear, made a great difference, but it’s the little differences that add up, and therein lies my comfort.

Once again, my commentator has left me a response that has made me think. (See his comment on my entry, Perspective.) He and I don’t seem to agree on much, but I will say this: he clearly thinks about the world, just as I hope it is clear that I think about the world. Even if our conclusions are different, I find much to admire in other people who understand that this life and this planet deserve a mindful, thoughtful approach, and that a life lived mindlessly is a life wasted.

I think Brutus has read me way wrong in one way, I think — I have nothing against prosperity and in fact am pretty prosperous. My point is also not strictly about environmentalism although specific posts may be, and it may be skewed in that direction at the moment because that’s where my head is. (Now, next month when I write the article the DBNJ commissioned from me about decluttering your life, you may see a shift!)

Two things: one, I don’t think what big business tells us we should equate with prosperity is making very many of us happy. It doesn’t work — at least, not for anything except the corporations’ bottom lines. Part of the reason I started this blog is because of how many people I saw around me who seemed to be in the same boat I’m in — overwhelmed by stuff and meaningless commitments, tired of being told to ignore the little voice inside that says “buying that will not make you happy,” and disgusted at the recklessness of our lifestyles with regard to the wellbeing of other human beings — as well as, admittedly, to other species and the world as a whole.

But that’s only part of it. Another point (not the only other point, but another point) is this: if you listen to the world’s oil experts (the scientists, not the paid mouthpieces), you’ll hear some disturbing truths about the difference between what actually exists and what OPEC says exists. Some of my “slowing down the rampant consumerism” rant and “making changes now” rant have very much to do with how little prepared we are for an economy or a lifestyle post-peak-oil, and how very much I don’t want to have to walk nine miles to work every day or have filling my gas tank cost the equivalent of pimping out my ride.  So yes, I think the time is now to give up the SUVs, not just because of global warming but because they get crappy gas mileage. And yes, I think the time is now to reexamine how much we really NEED a new cellphone every six months, because the oil that makes the plastic (not to mention the 6000x its weight in oil/gas every computer chip uses up just to get itself made) is non-renewable and we’re going through it like that doesn’t matter.

Nowhere have I said that our entire lifestyle should be turned upside down. Do I believe that until we get past some of our challenges, everyone is going to have to change some habits? Yes. Do I believe it would be easier and less painful ultimately to do so in small ways now, rather than getting slapped hard later? Yes.

Look at Atlanta. Did you see the news last week (and for the last several months) about its water shortage, now deemed so severe that one of its main sources may be dry by next year? They’re looking at regulating laundry, dishwashing & showers for literally almost half the state, as well as forbidding ALL outdoor water use. Bye bye garden, bye bye yard, bye bye swimming pool. Ok, I could live with that — but bye bye doing my laundry when I want?

What haunts me is not that I might have to make difficult changes at some point in my life. It’s that I could have made a bigger difference sooner by doing something smaller, earlier. And its hugely this: I’d rather make easy changes voluntarily than have the hard ones visited on me by circumstance and authority.

It’s also this — a reordering of priorities. If you ask me which is more important to me, having a teakwood desk or having a world where scarlet macaws still exist, the macaws are going to win every time. Now, that’s my choice, my priority, and I’ll live by it — but someone else may choose differently.

Brutus, my boy, I think in the end that the primary difference between us is where we believe circumstance will lead us. I’d love it if you were right and we COULD maintain the status quo, and that even if we chose to make improvements here and there, they would be done from choice and not necessity. I’d love it — but I’m not betting the farm on it. And either way, I’ll probably choose to live more simply and more thoughtfully because it feels better, for me, to do so. (PS — the last sentence in no way implies that you don’t live thoughtfully. I think if you see paragraph one, you’ll realize I have formed quite a different opinion of you.)

To my other readers — sorry it’s been so long, I’m working on novel number two, and I’ve written 42,000 words in the last two months — just not many of them HERE. I’ll try to do better.

Perspective

September 23, 2007

I talk a lot with my friends and acquaintances about all the issues covered here. Something that repeatedly comes up is how overwhelming it all is, and how impossible to stay informed and keep up with all the fronts where we’re in trouble, as a society, as a planet and in our personal lives. I absolutely see that. It is overwhelming to think about global warming, dependence on foreign oil, erosion of our civil rights, incursion of marketing and consumerism into our minds, health challenges, our lack of time & the enormous number of demands on it, the horrible environmental and humanitarian crises worldwide, pollution, wastefulness and you name it.

It’s tempting to be immobilized by it.

But I see two things.

One, on how very, very many fronts we’ve taken a wrong path. Indeed, it’s hard to find an area of life where we couldn’t stand to find a less selfish way of doing things and where we don’t need to take a good look at the long view and the bigger picture and adjust our behavior accordingly.

But two — the fact that we are so overwhelmingly screwed up is very freeing. It means that we have a huge range of possible improvements to make, an enormous number of possibilities for changing things in a way that works for us. Thousands of places where our money, time, effort, and voices can make a difference. Not all starting places are easy for all of us. But each of us has some starting places that are simple, virtually painless, and worth doing.

One of my friends still shops at Wal-Mart (no matter how many nasty and uncalled-for cracks I make about it to her face, and I’m hoping to reform her yet) but she also knits squares that make charity afghans for disadvantaged people and baby hats for a local neo-natal intensive care unit.

My parents both drive small SUVs — they don’t want to, but they can’t get into and out of low-to-the-ground cars anymore. Yet they recycle.

Another friend built a house 30 or so miles (maybe more!) from where she works. But she bought a Prius.

As for me, well, I’m documenting our good changes. But we have weaknesses — I still eat meat (although I object to it philosophically and it’s an enormously wasteful source of fuel for humans because of the amount of food that has to be grown to raise a single beef cow, pig, or chicken). I gave up walking to the grocery store this summer (temporarily) because of a bad case of plantar fasciitis. And I can think of a host of other ways in which I’m wasteful or environmentally or humanitarianly (I’m sure that’s not a word but you know what I mean) inconsiderate, wasteful or prone to perpetuating the problem.

But I, like many other people I know, have at last made a start. Let’s keep going.