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.

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!!

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.

My Terrapass entry got a lengthy and thoughtful comment yesterday (see it here) from someone who also runs a blog (the point of which seems to be exploring a healthy skepticism about global warming, in a calm and non-shrill way) and it has made me think quite a bit today. (I just tried to go back to the commentator’s site, “thankgodforglobalwarming.com” and it seems to have disappeared. Weird.) Anyway, I’m going to address the comment because I believe thinking about the questions it raised is useful.

First, guilt. Pat (the author of the comment, and as I have no idea if Pat is male or female, this could get awkward) asked me where my guilt comes from and at what point to I stop feeling guilty? The simple answer is a) from being part of the problem and not part of the solution for so long and b) when I am more a part of the solution than of the problem. But it goes deeper than that. It’s becoming increasingly obvious on a number of fronts that from where the planet sits, humanity is a cancer — just as rampant, just as destructive, ultimately just as potentially fatal. This is admittedly a nihilist view.

Read the rest of this entry »

Marketing Coolness

July 14, 2007

I watched Frontline’s “The Merchants of Cool” this week and in some ways it was chilling. It was about the lengths to which corporate America goes to market to the huge group that is the American teenager. The amount of money that group has to spend is staggering, and the amount it talks others (read “parents”) into spending is likewise staggering.

So these companies have to figure out what is going to be cool next and how to market it. Enter the mook and the midriff. The mook is male, and feel free to think of some of the gross and humiliating things you see young males do in movies these days — those are mooks. The guy diving into the sewer for fun or shoving beans up his nose or — like Eric Cartman, making his friends eat their own dead parents unbeknownst to them — those are mooks. Midriffs — well, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton (people South Park refers to as stupid spoiled whores) personify this.

It was fascinating, to say the least.

But the question that is most compelling to me and one which it can’t yet answer is “what kind of consumers are these kids going to be 20 years from now?” Will they still be spoiled and rushing off to buy every “latest new thing” whether they need it or not? Will they still be susceptible to marketing, or will thought have intruded into the process? Will they be the brainwashed automatons the corporations would like them to be, or will they be responsible citizens of Earth?

You ever notice how sometimes several things you are reading or watching seem to coalesce? I’m also reading a book called “The High Price of Materialism” by Tim Kasser. Among his findings: people who focus heavily on materialism are less happy, less fulfilled, and more likely to participate in anti-social or unhealthy behaviors. Not surprising, because most of us have heard ideas to that effect. But Kasser actually did studies to find out if that widely-held impression was just that, or if it had validity. It’s valid.

So another compelling question is this: Are we as a society, with the help of corporate America, deliberately raising a generation of people who will be unhappier, more likely to be anti-social or engage in unhealthy behaviors, and unable to fight their way out of it because the only tool they’ve been given for coping is to acquire more and more of what they don’t really need?

We recycle paper, of course. But recycling paper is actually only a start. A better option for some of the paper we recycle is for it not to show up at our houses in the first place. Every day I stand over the recycle bin tossing in paper junk mail (including ripping the plastic windows off envelopes so the remainder can be recycled). Some of it is unsolicited, and some of it is duplication because Scott and I have both wound up on the same mailing lists. Into the bin it goes.

This may save some trees, but it does nothing to reduce the amount of fossil fuel that was burned to create and ship the mail to us to begin with. Today I added us to DirectMail.com’s Mail Preference List, a free service that takes you off mailing lists so you don’t receive the junk mail you don’t want. I added both of us, and made sure that for the stuff we want, only one of us was included in the “keep sending this to us” section, to eliminate the duplication.

Other things we have done to eliminate needless paper from arriving at the house: Read the rest of this entry »

The Cost of a Candy Bar

June 18, 2007

I’m standing in the grocery store today and I catch myself doing something I’ve caught myself doing before — trying to talk myself into buying a candy bar, even though I’m not hungry and I don’t actually crave one. It’s amazing how often I give in, too. As if I’ll regret not having bought it when I leave without it (which has, I’ll admit, happened). But I long ago learned that five minutes worth of discipline in the grocery store saves hours of discipline later on, so I try to ignore the self-destructive voices urging me toward chocolate, with spotty success.

Historically this has largely been for health/diet reasons. I lost 50 lbs during 2000, and have kept most of it off (although lately I’ve been fighting some creepage-back). And I think that’s how most people typically evaluate many food choices – in terms of health. Recently, though, I’ve started to think of candy bars in larger terms.

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Paper vs. Plastic

June 11, 2007

One thing this forum will be about, I hope, is eliminating confusion. Many people want to make choices that are good for the planet but aren’t sure what choice to make. Do I use aluminum foil or plastic wrap? Wood fencing or metal or plastic? Which one REALLY has the least impact, both in manufacturing and in disposal?

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