Friday, April 27, 2012

Mother Nature's Son

The interwebs have, of late, been full of foment over motherhood. The current debate has two centers: a discussion of whether 'natural parenting' undermines the status of women based on Elisabeth Badinter's recent book entitled "The Conflict;" and a discussion, spun off of Mit and Ann Romney's recent inarticulations about work and motherhood, of whether stay-at-home parenting is 'work.'

After a bit of time pondering, I'm going to toss out that I don't think these two debates are separate at all. And I think both of them are the sort of straw-mom scuffles that distract us from addressing the real issues of motherhood and work in our culture.

In October of 2005, I started working as an environmental compliance specialist at Death Valley National Park. It was great opportunity - good pay, good benefits - that would likely have turned into a career for me. I was able to work three-quarters time because my husband and I worked ten-hour-days, staggered our days off, and paid one of the few other mothers in the valley to look after our two-year-old for a couple hours two mornings a week.

I was off on a new career track. A track that ended, less than a year later, with the birth of my son.

Would I have chosen to quit because I wanted to stay home with him? Maybe...  I don't know because I didn't have that choice. There was no reliable infant childcare available in Death Valley. (Our presence in the Valley and our housing allotment was based on my husband's job, not mine, so his staying home wasn't an option). Twelve months later, when my son could have moved to cow milk, my job had been filled by someone else. A single guy who didn't have any kids in tow.

In the back-and-forth over Badinter's book on Slate, Hanna Rosin says of formula that, "This powdery substance is arguably as critical a chemical innovation as the birth control pill in fostering women’s progress and freedom." Given my own experience, I just don't buy that. A parent can have a supertanker filled with formula and it is only going to liberate her to pursue progress and freedom if she has a trusted, reliable, affordable caregiver to make sure that the formula makes its way into their infant. And to make sure that the baby's diapers (whether cloth or disposable) get changed. And to make sure that the baby gets to sleep (whether in a swing or held in a sling against someone's chest). And to make sure that the baby gets entertained (whether that means with a plastic teething ring or whatever chemical-free, brightly colored, organic, Bach-playing do-dad parents are being sold these days).

The limiting factor on the progress of women isn't some ivory-tower ideal of 'natural' parenting to which American women are alleged to be striving, failing to achieve, and then cat-o-nine-tailing themselves over.  

It is the lack of reliable, affordable child care.

Which, I hear tell, isn't quite so much of a problem over in France.

My kids are now eight and five. When I talk to the other mothers around town, I generally have no idea what their children ate for the first year of their lives. I don't know if they drank a glass of wine, ate sushi, or rode mechanical bulls during pregnancy. I don't know whether my friends had epidurals, doulas, gave birth in a whirlpool tub, or had a scheduled c-section so they could make it to a Dave Matthews concert. I don't know what sort of carriers they used; where the baby slept; whether they used cloth diapers, or disposable ones, or if they swaddled them in the bark of a willow tree. I don't know if they ever hand-ground organic wheat into crackers, whether their boys are circumcised, or if they cut their teeth on toxin-free blocks.

What I do know is that, years after the moments to make these choices have passed, and long after we might have been 'freed' by the existence of a miracle white powder that our children could drink from someone else's hands, we are still struggling to balance finances, motherhood, work, and childcare.

What do we discuss? Often the fact that money is tight, that a second job doesn't net much in income, and that trusted caregivers are hard to come by.

What rarely comes up? The ways in which many of us - myself included - failed to live up to the alleged 'natural mother' myth. The myth itself doesn't come up much, except when outside sources raise it as something to which we are comparing ourselves. It certainly isn't something that conditions our daily interactions and aspirations.

So, here is my plea: let's agree to table the fight over whether we as a culture of mothers are being oppressed by this mythical vision of the 'perfect natural parent.' Yes, parenting choices matter, but bickering solves nothing. (I learned that from my kids!) And basing sweeping statements about the oppressed state of American mothers based on the inference that some sad-faced woman at a park in Seattle is chastising herself because her organic orange marmalade didn't jell right solves nothing. (Although, for the record, I think she was sad because her childcare fell through).

Let's work instead towards an affordable system of childcare for families of all income levels.  We could model it on the French system, even. Then parents (whether moms or dads) who want to return to work, or need to return to work, or simply need a break from their tyrannical infants (which, heavens know, I needed: A LOT), can pursue "progress and freedom," or "the dignity of work," or even five minutes alone in the shower without someone banging on the door and crying. Whichever applies to their particular case.

My son will start Kindergarten in the fall. It has been 70 months since I held a career-track job. I'm glad I got to spend time home with my kids, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have jumped at the chance to take on some part-time, intellectually and financially rewarding work years ago. I'm worried that with my out-of-date resume, getting my foot back in the door won't be easy.

Especially since a full-time job will mean $800 a month in after-school care.

We'll see what I can find.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Memory Remains

A few nights ago, I watched Coraline with my kids.

This was a mistake.

Not that Coraline isn't a good movie. It is. But it scared the daylights out of Lilly. The scene where Coraline returns from the Other Mother's world to find her parents gone - a bag of long-rotting veggies on the table - was the real kicker.

Coraline was alone. No one was there to take care of her, or tell her that everything would be okay. It's a terrifying prospect.

Later that night, Lilly asked me to tell her the most terrifying movie I'd seen at her age. I think she takes comfort in the knowledge that I was once afraid, too.

And I was. I remember a movie frightening me in the exact same way.

Time Bandits. An excellent movie. A hilarious movie. That ends with this:

Just like Coraline, Kevin finds himself alone in the world. The prospect petrified me. It kept me up at night. Just like Coraline is now keeping Lilly up at night, waiting for me to get into my own bed where she can see that I am still there. That I haven't left her. That I haven't disappeared at the whim of pure evil.


A few days after we watched Coraline and discussed the toaster oven that contained the a chunk of evil that whisked parents away to nothingness, our toaster oven broke. For a day, it limped along, toasting only the bottoms of our Eggos and warming - but not browning - the cheese on our nachos. It was a circumstance I was willing to live with, given my feelings about this particular toaster.

But then it gave up entirely. Kaput. The little red light goes on, but nothing warms.

It made me sad. Beyond what one would consider normal grief for a minor household appliance. Not because I would now have to get a new one - that's a pretty minor annoyance - but because of the toaster's origins.

It was a wedding gift.

After my husband and I got engaged, we went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and were duly armed with a UPC gun that allowed us to wander through the store making a wedding registry. While I spent my time making important life decisions about whether we should go with sage or seafoam, my husband headed straight for the toaster aisle declaring that - whatever else happened - our lives would be incomplete without a toaster oven.

I was dubious. Maybe because of Time Bandits. Maybe because my mom purchased a toaster oven soon after we watched Time Bandits and - on what might have been its maiden toasting - it set a tortilla aflame. In that moment, as my mom approached the appliance intent on putting out the fire, I believed - with 100% certainty - that she would open the oven and simply disappear.

Which, to my great relief, she did not. But it didn't matter. I never trusted that toaster oven again.

So, when Rick wanted to put a toaster oven on our registry, I checked to see if they came in green, determined that they did not, and left the rest up to him. Wasn't my thing.


The toaster oven was purchased for us by Betty and John L. Friends of our family, they came into our lives - to the best of my recollection - when I was in the third grade. About Lilly's current age. They often took care of us when my parents were away. Betty always told us that John L - a mechanic for American Airlines - would personally check out the plane our parents took when they flew away. At some point I must have realized that that left all the connecting flights uncovered, but it remained a comfort.

And Betty cared. She always knew what we were up to and how we were doing. She gave us hugs and ate lunch with us when we visited my father at work, and she was always there with a note or a card when we passed milestones like birthdays and graduations. When I got married, she bought the toaster oven off of our registry, delighting my husband. I told her how overjoyed he was and she told me she was glad, and that they'd gotten it because toaster ovens were, in fact, very useful appliances.

Which, of course, they are. We used it all the time. So much so that, in these days of designed obsolescence, it amazes me that it lasted eleven years. For the most part. The handle only lasted seven. We persevered.

Just about every time I used the toaster, I thought of Betty and John L. It became bittersweet for a while because - not long after our wedding - Betty died when the car she was in was struck by a drunk driver. The toaster made me sad then, too. I'd use it and wonder why something so unfair had to happen to such a wonderful person.

There is, of course, no answer to that question. There never is. Bad things happen and people disappear.

I don't remember when exactly, but time passed and it once again became sweet to be reminded of a wonderful woman who had been a caring presence through my childhood and early adult years. Someone who was interested, and was willing to take care of me when my parents went away.


And so - at the end of this toaster-oven's use life - I am sad.

Not for the oven itself, of course. But because I realize that - strange as it sounds - part of the joy of this toaster oven is the memories that came with it. Harkening back to my days studying archaeology, I can put a name to it. Ideofunction: When an artifact encodes or symbolizes ideas, values, knowledge and so forth, it is said to be serving an ideofunction (Skibo and Shiffer 2008:110).

This toaster oven was more than just a toaster to me. It toasted things and it was a symbol. It helped me remember a good woman.


Sometimes people disappear. Not because they touch a fragment of pure evil smouldering in a toaster oven, or because a Beldam traps them in a snowglobe. They die, they move away, they simply become busy with other things and make choices that lead them down paths that no longer converge.

This is one of the great terrors of life. For children and adults.

And one of the comforts is knowing that, should your parents go missing, there is someone in the world who will step up and try to make things okay. And - even if they can't make things okay - they will try. Someone who tells you - when your parents fly off on a plane - that nothing bad could possibly happen because John L checked to make sure that the plane was working right.

As a child, I had many people that would have stepped up if my parents had inexplicably touched the evil in the toaster oven. I was lucky that way. It is still a comfort to remember them as I move through life.

Even adults need to believe someone will be there for them.

It is strange, perhaps, to keep your memories of someone in something as mundane as a toaster oven. But it is nice, too, because you get to think of them every time you make nachos. In that way it is better than keeping your memories of them in something precious and rarely seen.

In a few days, I'll go to a store and buy a new toaster oven. Maybe - eleven years on - I can find one in sage or seafom. Or maybe not. Either way, I'll buy it, and bring it home, and - probably - I'll think about Betty as I do all those things.

And, knowing me, I'll go right ahead and think of her when I use the new toaster oven, too. That's the thing about symbols. You can make them for yourself out of anything you want. You can put them in mundane places so that the memories are never too far away.

I find great comfort in that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Last month, I was privileged to attend Viable Paradise, a week-long workshop for writers of speculative fiction.

After we left, many of my fellow students blogged lists of what they learned that week. Usually ten things, generally about writing.

I tried, but I couldn’t.

That week was -- and the memories of it remain -- too expansive to compress into a list. And I think I still need the memories to sprawl like fabric before the pattern has been cut. To remain as potential. There is no need to hurry. I will run my fingers over the cloth and appreciate its beauty before I make it into something more.

(It will be a cloak. That’s a different story).

I can’t tell you ten things I learned about writing. I can -- and will -- tell you this one thing I learned about me.


When I was a child, I lived between two unrealities: the Little House on the Prairie books and the Star Wars movies. Each, in its own way, resonated with my internal wiring -- they rang the heck out of my bell -- and I spent a lot of time in my own head, telling myself stories drawn from those sources.

At the time, it occurred to me -- in the vocabulary extant before someone coined ‘mashup’ -- that it would be kind of, well, awesome if this prairie place could include (and this -- I thought -- sounds so crazy that I can’t tell anyone because they’ll think I’m nuts...) the Force.

And Lightsabers. And Wookies! And evil emperors, princesses, and monsters!

And a Quest! Oh my God... A QUEST! What if they had to do something? Go out and fight... Something evil. What’s more awesome than fighting evil?

Wow! Someone should write that! That would be so cool! It would be way cooler than anything anyone ever wrote!

Or, obviously, it would be Fantasy.
But I didn’t know that.

It amazes me that I remained ignorant so long.

My world didn’t lack for doors. Sometimes I stepped through them to enter rooms filled with wonders of fairies and elves, princesses with swords, quests, myth, dragons, wizards, mechanical wonders, vampires and warewolves. The Horse and His Boy, The Last Unicorn, Time/Life's The Enchanted World books, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Princess Bride, Greek Mythology, Monte Python’s Holy Grail, The Gunslinger, Twin Peaks, The Sword of Winter, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Hobbit, Dune, Harry Potter.

I didn’t comprehend the gravity that bound these things together. That what rang my bell was the speculative element. The sense of wonder.

So I walked through doors into rooms I believed were singular and unconnected. I marveled over the contents, and then exited by the door I’d used to enter. I never tapped the back of the wardrobe or looked behind the curtains for the hidden latch. I never knew there was an entire realm of wonder on the other side.

And -- to be brutal and honest -- I was enmeshed in a destructive myth about myself and my place within the larger world. From a young age, I believed that I had to get a PhD and then discourse in an erudite manner with my fellow academics about some really big, important topic in order to call myself a success. In order to be listened to. And I wanted someone to hear me. My belief that “great” books were only found in the section marked “LITERATURE” was part of this. I kept to the far edges of the bookstore, away from things with the taint of genre.

It is hard to write those words. To admit I felt that way.

At twenty, I walked through Prague with a friend. Two characters appeared in my mind. One held a sword, the other had magical powers. A story spun out from them, and it remains the place that my mind goes when it is free to do as it will. Sixteen years later it has sprawled into a world much richer than any I could have imagined that first day. I know which parts I imagined in grad school, the ones I hid in during the first hard months after my daughter was born, and the ones that came to me on long drives across this country. I tell myself these stories over and over, refining as I go.

Perhaps someday I will write them down. I didn’t at the time because this life-encompassing story felt subordinate to my college degree, to my work, or to whatever else I had going on. I mean, how could the overarching narrative that dominated my imagination be important when it was just... A fantasy?

It took a long time to strip all that nonsense away. It took the solitary confinement of Death Valley; an unplanned, career-ending baby in the Land of Little Childcare; and a single-wide, up-on-blocks, filled-with-mouse-shit Inyo County library trailer. A trailer where I found Paladin of Souls, The Mists of Avalon, and Silver Birch, Blood Moon. A trailer where someone handed me Assassin’s Apprentice. There was nothing to stop me from Googling these authors and ordering their books off Amazon. So I did.

My career felt over. My baby wasn’t impressed if I read Literature as he nursed. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I needed to listen to the tolling of bells that resonated. I needed to spend time with things I loved.

So I opened the window and moved -- unabashed -- into world of wonder.


There are no words more powerful than these. Maybe all human language, myth, and story is no more than us telling each other this one truth, over and over again.

The path was the first sign that I was not alone. There are no paths where none have traveled. This path -- the one with the stories that resonated -- was covered with fresh footprints and breadcrumbs. The trees along it were marked with neon blazes. I knew there had to be others.

I wrote. I read. I found authors I liked. They showed me doors into other worlds. I went through those doors to find other rooms, more doors. I took classes. I learned. I wrote more. I became better. I took a hike, saw a man, had a dream (and listened to it), and then I started to write a story. When it slowed, I had another dream, took another class, connected with other writers, heard a song, wrote more, and submitted the thing.

That is how these things happen.

This makes me smile:

I wrote a story about a woman who learns there are doors to other worlds. Magical worlds. This knowledge changes her life. I was accepted to Viable Paradise on the first 8,000 words of this story. I crossed the water and went through a door to a magical world that has changed my life.

It is one thing to know you are not alone. It is another to spend time in the community of storytellers.

I arrived at Viable Paradise to find myself among friends. People who love what I love. Magic and science, myth and words. Not just as consumers, but as creators. The fledgling gods and goddesses of our own worlds. Together we learned from others with even more experience at godhood.

Professional deities.

They didn’t act like deities, or expect to be treated like them. They’re just folks, too. People who like to talk and sing and have fun.

In that week, we talked about books and writing, and about the coolstuff that you have to put in there. We talked of demons and children and jellyfish, triangles and spirals, mazes and labyrinths and chess, poker, the environment, yarn, of boats versus ships, writing markets, snow, love, hats and ipads, horses, rocks, cookies, swords, knives, hair, hair dye, spaceships, guitars, birds, kimchee, whiskey and curry. And all the wide worlds in between.

We were not constrained by the hard edges of reality, only the sense of wonder which -- in the end -- isn’t a constraint at all. It is wings.

On the final evening, I sat on the floor of a room surrounded by people playing music. It started with Signal to Noise and it ended with Landslide, and I can’t recall where it went in between. But somewhere in the midst of those songs I moved through a door in my own mind and left a piece of myself elsewhere.

My initials are carved into some old tree. You probably know the one.

Oh, gods. There is this whole other world. It is Fantasy but it is also Real, and I spent way too much of my life denying its existence. It is the world that we make together when we tell each other stories and sing each other songs. When we create things.

I went there. With a whole bunch of amazing people. It was awesome.

I am still struggling to come back. Maybe I never will, and I hope that’s fine, too. Writing, like life, is a journey. And it isn’t easy. But I’ve heard nothing worth doing ever is.

I sit in front of my computer and look down this ancient road of story and myth. It is covered in breadcrumbs and footprints. And coolstuff.

I look to my left, and I look to my right. I have companions now. My new Veeps, and the other writing friends who have joined me along the way. I am ready for the journey.

What did I learn at Viable Paradise?
More things than I can count or list. This one truth that contains them all:


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider

“Mom, sing the song about the spider.” Will is investigating a web spun between branches. A single ray of morning sunlight has pierced the canopy of leaves, illuminating the fragile structure.

I am out of breath from climbing the steep hill on which we live. Still, I sing:

The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout...

We seldom walk this hill. We’re far enough from town that walking it only renders us slightly less far from town. And, though a pretty walk, there is only one destination along it: the swimming hole. We never walk there, either. Any day hot enough to make wading in the chill water pleasant is too hot to make the return climb attractive.

We drove the hill quite a bit, though. Back and forth, everyday. Often several times. It was the fastest way to town.

The laws of nature being what they are, it was also the fastest course downhill for Irene’s great deluge. Now our steep road is just one of the hundreds of destroyed roads that crisscross Vermont.

So, today I walked the hill with my son.

In summer, the swimming hole is a shady spot with lots of large, flat rocks above a slight plunge pool. It is deep enough for the kids to submerge, but not so deep or swift that we have to worry about them; they are within arm’s reach as we sit on the rocks and let the water sluice around us. After cooling off, the kids wade upstream and peer under the old stone bridge. It has been reconstructed over the years -- reinforced with concrete on the uphill side -- but the original rock structure is still exposed on the downstream edge. The kids like to peer into it, daring each other to venture inside. The dripping masonry walls are slick with moss and suggest something ancient and dangerous: a troll that will exact a payment more precious than blood or a toe-eating monster lurking in the depths.

Now, a great crevasse runs just above the swimming hole and below the bridge that was not enough to contain the vast volume of the flood. Though the waters have subsided and the brook is back to its usual path under the old stone structure, it is still far to swift for me to feel comfortable letting go of Will’s small hand. We scramble up and over the cut, examining the exposed rocks. Quartzite and schist: much of it quite beautiful. My son throws pebbles into the torrent, then finds a smooth, purple rock to put in his pocket. We turn and start the steep walk home.

Will talks as we climb, but I am silent, wondering how long it will take to fix the damaged roads, to reconstruct buildings that were the product of decades of labor. Things that -- like the old stone bridge my children dare each other to explore -- stood for centuries before Irene.

Weeks? Months? I don’t know. Maybe it will be patched up by then. But there is so much to repair across my town and my state that it will be years before it is all put to rights.

Half-way up, Will spies the brilliant web and asks me to sing. How many times have I sung this song? Today, in this old bit of doggerel, I heard something new. Something about renewal.

...Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider walked up the spout again.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trouble Me.

Yesterday, just as my daughter was due to return home, a thunderstorm that had been brewing all afternoon broke open with pelting rain, winds, and a lot of lightening.

We're in a house at the top of a long, steep driveway. The driveway isn't onerous: a minute's quick amble and you are up. But for a seven-year-old - with a backpack - at the end of the school day - in a thunderstorm it's... just... a little much.

So I drove down the driveway to hang out in the car and wait for her. With, of course, my four-year-old son along for the ride. After all, I can't leave him by himself: too risky. Don't get me wrong - he's a good kid - but still a bit too prone to using four-year-old boy logic (i.e. a dangerous mix of curiosity and illogic, overlain deep desire to still be attached to me via umbilical cord).

In any event, there's no telling what he'd get up to.

As I sat in the car with my son and was serenaded by near-constant thunder while watching the forest of trees around us sway alarmingly in the wind, it occurred to me that it would be sadly ironic if my daughter's school bus arrived to find us crushed beneath a fallen tree.

It's not just idle, unrealistic supposition that one might fall. Later that evening, driving home from a friend's house, it was clear that a lot of trees had already been cut off the road. And a couple of smaller ones fell in our woods during the storm.

have been much better off in the house.

But it would have left my daughter out in the chaos. And, in the end, we were all fine.

This time.

All of this came back to me this morning when I got a Facebook post from a cousin telling me of the dangers of raising backyard ducks. Specifically as regards avian flu.

I'll admit it: I hadn't, at any time up until this morning, given avian flu a single, solitary, passing thought.

My husband broke the news to me - sort of - as I finished up packing my daughter's PB&J sandwich. I could tell he was worried. Not about the flu - he's not much of a worrier on those sorts of scores - but about the fact that it would cause me to worry. Because, historically, I have proven to be capable of worry about any number of problems. Often, I worry about several problems simultaneously.

What can I say: it's a gift.

Husband: "One of your cousins posted something to your Facebook page. They think you should worry about the ducks."
Me: "Should I worry?"
His voice was hopeful: "No?"

So I looked. And I learned this: we should not raise poultry in our backyard.

At all.

Chickens are dangerous, but ducks are worse (because - unlike chickens - they don't become visibly ill).

Our ducks could kill us. They could give us the flu.


And - of course - while mulling this new information, I remembered sitting in the car with my son wondering if we would die crushed under a tree simply because we were trying to save my daughter a walk up the driveway in a lightening storm.

What are the odds of getting struck by lightening?
What are the odds of getting crushed by a falling tree?
What are the odds of dying of avian flu?

I have no idea.

They're better if you are out in a storm. Or if you live in the woods. Or if you have ducks. These are the risks we take.

Humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk. They'll talk about their fear of flying while driving in a car without a seatbelt. It doesn't have to make sense. The more visceral the fear, the greater the perception of the potential disaster, the more it scares us.

And, the more information we get, the faster news travels, the more things there are to worry about.

Like e coli.

I mean, first off, it could be in a hamburger. So I should char those until every vestige of deliciousness is gone.

But then it could also be on my spinach. Or my tomatoes. Which means that I should cook my veggies and not have a salad. Or maybe I should wash them with a very dilute bleach solution? And then rise them really well? But should I worry about cross-contamination? Should I wipe everything down with Lysol and antibacterial hand sanitizer after I make my lightly bleached or slightly cooked salad? But what if - in using antibacterial products - I contribute to the creation of a super-bug that will resist all possible antibiotics?

What if - in attempting to feed my family a salad - I end up dying of infection by flesh-eating bacteria?

Maybe we'll just have some fruit instead. What could be wrong with a nice fruit salad? Well, is it organic fruit? Have the strawberries been sprayed with carcinogens that will eventually kill my children? Well, I'll just wash them. Or maybe I'll just have a melon. That was shipped here from Argentina. Using fuel resources that can never be put back into the Earth and that are contributing to global warming. Is the oil from Nigeria? Have you seen what's going on there?

Okay, I'll just get a bunch of nice, organic grapes. But - holy shit! - what if the kids choke on them!

Okay, back to the supermarket. Let's try again.

1. Buy eggs. Should I get the expensive, local, free-range ones that come from places where hens might have access to the outdoors and disease vectors? Or the ones from massive poultry houses where hens are housed in atrocious conditions.
2. Buy coffee. Organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee? Otherwise I will have to worry about pesticides, endangered species, and the lives of exploited workers on other continents. I guess I'll just suck up the oil that was spent bringing them here?
3. Buy butter. Because, as it turns out, margarine isn't better for us after all. Maybe? Or should it be olive oil. Or coconut oil? Is it organic? Because in refining non-organic oils, the pesticides apparently get concentrated.
4. Buy fruits and veggies. Organic? Conventional? Local? In-season? Integrated Pest Management? Not picked by exploited migrant workers or shipped across oceans?

Okay. Go to check out. Paper? No... that kills trees. Plastic? No... that just ends up in the oceans. Cloth? Of course! Except, of course, that the material from which the cloth bags are produced also comes from somewhere. Is it organic? Is it sustainably harvested? Irrigated? Harvested by people with health care who earn a living wage?

Um... No?

And, in case you haven't heard, studies show that because cloth bags are used to carry food they are often covered with surprisingly large colonies of harmful bacteria. Which also might kill you.

Okay... Get out the antibacterial hand sanitizer and let's cause some evolution!

Or... not. Let's just try to escape all of this by growing our own food.

Like ducks. A reasonably low-hassle, generally healthy way to produce protein.

Except, of course, that the very fact that they appear reasonably healthy might cause us to get avian flu from them.

Seriously. Locally produced food was supposed to be the thing that got me away from large-scale industrial agriculture and processed food. It is supposed to be part of the answer to the unsustainable use of oil. And, here, I learn that it's going to kill me too.

Just in a different way.

Inexplicably, I thought of this:

The moment that initially occurred to me comes at about 1:57 in, and has to be one of my absolute favorite moments in the Star Wars trilogy. And that's a high bar.

What are the odds that we'll get Avian Flu from our ducks? I don't know.

"Never tell me the odds."

Watching it, though, I realized that the moment of true analogy comes later, starting at nine minutes in.

I could get rid of the ducks. I could search for and take refuge in what seems to be a safer place. Eggs from an industrial, large-scale source. But I'm guessing that I'll soon discover that the surface on which I've built that plan is, also, not entirely stable.

Every path has it's pitfalls. And we've got to eat.

Maybe I should be really, really worried about avian flu. It's possible that it will kill me. Or, worse, kill my kids.

We're probably going to look into some new ideas about sanitizing duck stuff. And having specific shoes. And we'll ponder some other options, I'm sure.

But I don't think we're getting rid of the ducks.

Because I've come down with a raging case of anxiety fatigue. I've hit a wall. It's too much. I just can't get all wound up in worrying about another thing.

Maybe we'll get hit by a drunk driver on the way to the movie theater.
Maybe the theater will catch on fire.
Maybe we'll choke to death on a piece of popcorn.
Maybe a grape.
Or a piece of hard candy.
Maybe a tornado will hit the theater.
Or a strong wind will blow a tree onto our house.
Maybe some crazy guy will shoot us in the supermarket.
Maybe I'll get salmonella from picking up a turtle.
Maybe I'll get avian flu from the robins nesting in our woodshed.
Maybe avian flu will evolve and become capable of human-to-human transmission somewhere very far away.
Maybe it'll be Ebola.
Maybe someone else will hit a black bear through the windshield of my car.
Maybe it'll be a plane crash.
Maybe I'll slip and fall on some ice and hit my head in exactly the wrong way.

Maybe, maybe, maybe...

Maybe I'll just sit in my backyard, watch my ducks frolic, my corn grow, and the sun set. I'll take in a deep breath and enjoy life.

I'll put on sunscreen. And some carcinogenic bug spray. I'll wash my hands afterwords.

And I'll sleep well at night, and try not to worry about the fact that we'll all die, eventually, of something.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

White Rabbit

When I started elementary school, there was no missive more coveted among my classmates than an invitation to a birthday party at Starlight Roller Rink. We all knew that a Starlight birthday party guaranteed an hour of roller skating fun that culminated in the Hokey Pokey and Chicken Dance under a flashing disco ball, followed by a cupcake with a four-inch-high swirl of neon-colored frosting, and a keychain made from a rabbit foot that had been dyed an unnatural rainbow hue. Preferably (but rarely) bright pink.

The “lucky” rabbit’s foot: Kindergarten’s most desirable trinket.

I’m not sure how many I ended up with over the years before Chuck E. Cheese became the hot birthday spot. Several. I would latch the ball-chains they came on together to create a weird, multi-colored foot fetish to which I assigned vague, mystical powers. It was a soft, strokable talisman on which I could wish for extra toys or stickers, or maybe more invitations to parties at Starlight Roller Rink.

I never gave a thought to the actual rabbits involved.

The only time that the feet seemed “real” to me - in the sense that they had been taken from a living creature - was when I was scratched by the claws, which could leave welts and sometimes draw blood. The claws were dyed the same, unnatural color as the fur, and so would blend in - forgettable - until they struck back against an unwary child who had thought of the foot as a benign stuffed animal rather than part of a once-living animal.

On those occasions, it struck me: This was a foot! From a rabbit! A soft, cuddly, warm, fuzzy rabbit.

That is now dead.

It was an unpleasant thought. So I didn't think too hard about it.

It’s amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.

Some of my friends recently got their daughter a pair of rabbits as a 4-H project. I have only seen their pictures online, but they appear to be some awesomely cute bunnies. And, despite the fact that 4-H is - in essence - an agricultural group (and “agricultural” activities generally culminate in some sort of "harvesting" process, right?) I’m sure that these bunnies are pets. They don't need to fear either the plate or a piecemeal transformation into keychains and other gegaws.

Because, for a lot of us, that’s what bunnies have become: pets. They are cute and fluffy; they hop around and do adorable things like wiggle their nose and ears. At some point they used these skills to jump (or burrow under) the conceptual fence within which we enclose "food" or "livestock" and cuddle their way into the "pets" enclosure that surrounds dogs and cats.

Lucky rabbits, for sure.

People and - by extension - cultures, have innate organizational schemes that condition the way they categorize the world around them. One of the areas where these beliefs and categorizations are most fascinating and diverse is the realm of food. Which plants and animals are edible? How must they be cooked? How can they be combined? When can they be served? To whom?

The variety of answers can be mind-boggling.

It goes without saying that - in modern American culture - we don't eat things that we consider "pets."

A few years ago, I bought a reprint of the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking. At the time, I purchased it out of a sense of nostalgia for the edition my mom had when I was growing up. I clearly remember it being out in our kitchen as she cooked: it rested in a handy, clear lucite stand that protected it from drips and splashes.

It is easy to see why it was such a presence in her kitchen and why it remains one in mine: if there is something that needs cooking, the Joy of Cooking will tell you how to do it.

One of the things that makes my 1975 edition interesting - at least in my mind - is a section entitled "Game." It is entirely devoted to explaining how to cook a variety of animals, starting with rabbits and squirrels (these are considered likely enough candidates for consumption that they include diagrams that show how to skin and eviscerate them), and progressing through possums, porcupines, raccoons, muskrats, woodchucks, beavers (and - separate section - beaver tails), armadillos, venison (deer, moose, or elk), bears, peccaries, and wild boars.

When I first purchased the cookbook, this section seemed quaint and amusing. After all, who on Earth would consider a beaver tail to be food?

(Answer: "To Indians and settlers alike, this portion of the animal was considered the greatest." Yum!)

Now, my 1975 Joy of Cooking seems less quaint and more like a lens into an earlier reality. There was a time - not so long ago - when enough people in American might, on occasion, eat wild animals - including beaver, muskrats, and porcupines - that it was useful to have instructions on dressing and cooking them for the table.

And not in just any cookbook; not in some random niche cookbook for hunters: in The Joy of Cooking.

Of course, as exotic and weird as it might seem to eat an armadillo, possum, or porcupine, even that would be less preposterous than eating a pet. The 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking does not include a section on dogs, cats or horses.

Because, in our culture, eating a bear might be weird, but eating a dog is just wrong.

Soon after I started pondering a self-reliance initiative, the question arose as to which animal is the most efficient to raise and butcher on a small scale. Opinions differ, but rabbits get mentioned quite a bit: they breed prolifically and mature quickly on a reasonable amount of feed. When well kept they aren't prone to disease, and they produce loads of useful manure that can be returned to the garden.


The problem that arises with meat rabbits is that they have jumped the conceptual fence between "food" and "pet." As one forum participant put it, "some people will act like you are eating your dog."

Which, of course, is considered good eats in some cultures.

There is a scene in the movie "Roger and Me" in which Michael Moore is talking to a woman about her rabbits. Which she is raising for consumption.

It's not necessarily for the faint of heart.

I will be the first to admit that banging a bunny over the head with a metal pipe wouldn't be my personal choice for dispatching a rabbit. I would guess that there are quicker and more humane methods - I've heard the rabbit wringer is a good choice, but it is still shocking to watch.

But, however you do it, there is no sugar coating the fact that an animal just died.

It usually goes without saying that you shouldn't look at the comments on anything posted on the internet: people say some awful things. But I found the comments on the YouTube page from which the Roger and Me video comes interesting. There were, of course, some discussing Michael Moore (he's kind of a flashpoint for opinions, no?).

But, beyond that, most of the comments seemed to fall into two categories: (1) this woman is evil and awful because she just killed a cute, fluffy pet bunny; and (2) well, you gotta eat.

And, if you eat meat, you sort of have to accept the fact that something not unlike what happened to that rabbit happens to each and every one of the animals we consume.

They are killed.

And suddenly it occurs to me that there is a way to sugar coat the fact that an animal just died: the shrink-wrap plastic that covers all the meat you buy in a supermarket.

It is simple, in our modern society, to go to the store and buy a piece of meat. Some, like a roasting chicken, still kind of resemble the animal that they once were. Many have been reduced to parts and pieces; packages of wings and breasts and ribs. Others have become ground beef or sausage; packages completely unlike the cattle and pigs from which they came.

You can buy the meat without having to watch the death. That's some serious sugar coating.

Given the way in which meat is packaged, it is unsurprising that my son - who sees living chickens on a fairly regular basis - still doesn't seem to believe that the animal "chicken" and the meat "chicken" are the same thing. He seems to believe that like "son" and "sun," or "rock" and "rock music" they are just dissimilar things that have the same name.

And why not? A pound of ground turkey has no apparent relationship to an actual bird.

But, as with every animal we eat - like the rabbit in the video above - animal products we purchased came from beings that lived and died.

It's just that, when we buy meat from the supermarket, we know nothing about those lives and those deaths. We are purchasing the depersonalization - the not knowing about an animal's life and death. We are purchasing the freedom from having to kill an animal about which we might care.

Because that would be cruel, right? To kill something we had nurtured and raised?

Well... It certainly won't feel good for us. It's unpleasant to watch anything die.

The fact is, though, that there is ample information about the lives of animals in large-scale livestock production to inform us about their lives. And deaths. You can find it, should you care to look into the industry that provides us with most of the meat wrapped in cellophane in the store.

It isn't pretty.

And it is that - the not knowing - the depersonalization - the unwillingness to look - that, to me, seems cruel. To accept the meat while looking away from both the death, and - more importantly - the cruelty of the life.

Cruelty is raising an animal in cramped, poor conditions and then butchering and selling them in a manner that renders them into a commodity and not a life.

It is easy, in modern America, to buy a package of chicken breasts at the store, and not think about the animals they came from. At least, it's easier on the people involved. It's not easier on the animals.

It is amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.

The act of doing things for yourself is, in essence, the practice of not putting such things out of your mind. Of realizing and appreciating that eating meat takes a life.

In that context, far from being cruel, facing the reality of eating meat - and the taking of a life that it requires - seems significantly more humane than the wrapped, disembodied pieces of meat from the grocery store. It acknowledges what has truly happened and, despite the moment of bringing death, it is possible to ensure that the life has been decent, and the end is swift.

Knowing this - and saying it - doesn't make it easier to contemplate killing and skinning a rabbit: they still seem like pets to me.

But it does make me realize that if I am going to do make a real attempt at self-reliance, I can't continue to rely on packaged meat from the store.

Rabbit feet, as it turns out, carry symbolic meaning in a number of cultures around the world - not just suburban elementary-school kids of late-20th century America.

It makes sense. The only places on the globe where rabbits or hares are not native are Antarctica and Oceania. Humans have had plenty of time to coexist with rabbits; to hunt, raise, eat, and develop mythology about them. Across all that time and space, the foot of the rabbit remains one part that has few clear-cut uses - which makes it the sort of object that can easily be loaded with alternate meanings.

My favorite legend of the lucky rabbit's foot states that such a talisman could only be created when it was taken from an apprentice hunter's first kill - a relic that marked their growth and maturation, and represented their skill in the tasks they would need to assume to become an adult. In an individual life there would be only one such amulet - only one object to mark the acquisition of abilities.

The idea of marking life's transitions, of acknowledging them, resonates with me.

Such a lucky rabbit's foot would be very different story than the tchotchkes that I got, as a child, from roller-skating rink birthday parties. Items that were mass-produced from animals whose lives I don't want to contemplate and for which I wouldn't want to be responsible; by-products that were attached to brass caps and vat dyed in a factory somewhere to eventually be sold, in bulk, as "lucky" items.

As though luck could be mass produced.

And yet the difference between a rabbit's foot as an emblem of learning, accomplishment, and the transition to adulthood and the mass-produced bauble it has become in modern life seems not unlike the gulf between an animal that was raised with care and has been dispatched quickly and humanely and the masses of shrink-wrapped meat at the store.

It’s amazing what you can not think about, if you just try hard enough to put it out of your mind.

I believe that we do ourselves, and the animals, a disservice by looking away. Better to ensure that a life is humane and a death is swift, better to mark and acknowledge transitions from one stage to the next, than to look away and accept the mass-produced bounty and the cruelty that - though we don't see it - is still there, although it is made easier on us because we can look away.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Time and Money

In the course of musing, writing, and blabbering, I'll frequently find myself stating that there isn't any logical reason not to go to the store and buy whatever I'm trying to make, grow, or raise.

Often, going out and buying it would me cost less in both time and money. And, yet, I'm resisting that course of action.

(As an aside: I'm led to believe that the cost we pay for something these days does not reflect all the externalized costs, so it seems possible that - while the retail price of a good makes it seem cheaper - it isn't really cheaper to just go out and buy it. It's a question that would be interesting to address. In a different post).

It's not a point I can rationally address, even in my own mind. I realize it isn't logical in our current system. Which makes it a difficult point to defend to anyone else, beyond simply saying that I'm not in love with the current system, wherein we spend our time earning money and then use the money to fulfill our needs and wants.

So many middle men. So much Wal-Mart (or, whichever less-detestable store you might prefer).

It makes me wonder if my time is best spent earning money to fulfill my needs, or if - for some things - it might be more efficient to spend my time fulfilling my needs.

Because that'd be crazy. Right?

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about the scarf I intend to make for my husband. He wants - and has wanted for years - a Dr. Who scarf. Specifically, one of the Dr. Who scarves shown on this website for people who spend a lot of time thinking about Dr. Who scarves:

Just how long has my husband wanted a Dr. Who scarf? Longer than I've known him. At least since college, when he asked one of his grandmothers to knit him one.

At that time, he was not specific enough in conveying his desires. Or, possibly, his grandmother had never heard of Dr. Who and just translated his request to, "I want a really long scarf."

On the other hand, now that I have attempted to fill an online shopping cart with the exact yarns specified on the knit-your-own-Dr.-Who-scarf instruction page, it occurs to me to think that, upon being asked for a ridiculously long scarf that would consume many skeins of yarn, his grandmother just bought whatever happened to be in the bargain bin on the day she went shopping.

End result: ten-foot-long scarf made of varying shades of brown.

It is a magnificent scarf. Truly.

But - while it is more than ample to warm someone's neck and, simultaneously, several other extremities - or, alternately, an entire small child - it is not a true Dr. Who scarf.

Wrong colors. Wrong pattern. Dr. Who would never wear it. Sheesh!

When I started crocheting, my husband initially expressed great excitement at the fact that I could now crochet him a Dr. Who scarf. Upon seeing the result of my early crocheting skills, he pronounced it nice, but not sufficiently like the Dr. Who scarf.

Which, as it turns out, is because a Dr. Who scarf must be knit and not crocheted.

Big difference.

Someday, perhaps, I will delve deeply into the rift that I have discovered between knitters and crocheters. It is, I have come to believe, among the great untold conflicts of our time.

Suffice it to say for now that history and literature are filled with such stories of warfare and strife: the Capulets and the Montagues, the Hatfields and the McCoys, Cain and Abel, the Earps and the Clantons, the creationists and the evolutionists, the Sharks and the Jets, or the Bloods and the Crips.

While less bloodthirsty (despite the sharp implements), the division between the knitters and the crocheters appears no less disdainful than these. Ware to those who cross between the two realms of yarncraft!

Okay. That's sort of an exaggeration.

Most people I've met who can do one can do the other. But they do so disdainfully, wishing they could get back to the one they love. And it is in this manner that I have embarked upon learning to knit in order to make my husband the scarf he has desired for almost 20 years.

What can I say? I'm just that awesome a spouse.

So, yesterday, as I was telling this tale of scarves and hostility to a friend, she asked why I didn't just look for a Dr. Who scarf on Etsy.

I looked at her blankly.

Not because I'm unfamiliar with Etsy (I have, as it turns out, my own completely unsuccessful Etsy store, thank-you-very-much:

But because, as I told her, that would defeat the purpose of the whole project. It would be contrary to my idiom.

As an aside, it turns out that there are several Dr. Who "inspired" scarves (not unlike the one my husband already has) on Etsy. Should you, like my husband, desire such a scarf, I recommend looking there.

I'm sure as heck not making one for anyone else.

The thought of simply buying my husband a Dr. Who scarf being outside of my idiom struck me as similar to my disinclination to spend his hard-earned money to purchase entryway furniture or new socks.

It's quirky and fun to make a scarf. But is there any way that knitting a Dr. Who scarf, or darning socks, or making a futon frame is a rational use of my time? Wouldn't it make more sense to convert my time into money through employment and just buy stuff?

Time is money. Right?

At some level, doing these things makes about as much sense as it does for me - a person with only the vaguest hold on economic principles - to try and answer this, essentially economic, question. And, of course, reality won't stop me in either venture...

If you've got a great gig, and can pull in some serious money with your time, it is logical to turn your time into money you can use to amply fill your needs and wants. You can fill lots and lots of wants that way.

But I don't have a great gig pulling in the big bucks. I'm a stay-at-home mom.

It makes me wonder if my time is money, too?

If you calculate the value of my time at $20 an hour, then the scarf (pictured below) that I spent 5 hours crocheting cost approximately $100 in potential income. Which makes it an outrageously costly scarf. Especially when I could buck my idiom and buy one at Wal-Mart for $12.50.
But I'm technically unemployed. So the value of my time - the amount someone else will pay for my labor - is, more or less, zero. Right?

In that sense, if I find five hours over the course of a couple of days in which I can knit a scarf, the labor is - essentially - free!

Score! It's cheaper for me to do it than it is to pay someone in a foreign sweatshop.

So... Which is it?

Well, I don't know. But it's clearly more complicated than just being $20 or $0, because - even if I could find a hypothetical twenty-dollar-an-hour job (which isn't, by the way, a stretch, since I maxed out at a GS-9 before getting knocked up and dropping out) - I wouldn't be taking nearly that much home.

A quarter will go to taxes - which I'm happy to pay, of course - and child care will run at least $5 an hour for my son and somewhat more than that after my daughter gets out of school in the afternoon.

I'd also have to pay for some sort of transportation to and from work and - for many jobs - a wardrobe that consists of something other than mom jeans. Now it looks more like I'm taking in eight or nine dollars an hour.

Which is, funny enough, what my landlord offered to pay me to shovel horse manure out of her barn.

Maybe I should rethink that gig.

When I ran this theory by my husband, he pointed out that shoveling horse manure out of a barn differs from an entry-level position somewhere else in that it isn't the first rung on a ladder to anything grander.

While I'm not convinced that a job shoveling shit is completely unrelated to my former career in archeology, I'll give him that one.

It would be wonderful if this moment in my life felt like I was working towards some sort of larger career goal. If I were, it might make financial sense to spend my time at a job that only netted eight or nine dollars an hour. It would be an investment in future earnings.

As an aside, I think that this is the hardest part of stay-at-home motherhood for me, a person who was once defined by career goals (which were not - as it happens - in the field of child care - the career most relevant to my current activities).

And the truth is that I don't have any GS-9, 20-bucks-an-hour job opportunities to turn down. I keep my eyes open, but I haven't seen anything local open up in my career field or for that kind of pay. So, even if I wanted to enter the job market, it's not clear that it would be in a job that would be a step towards something more grand.

Which brings me back to my scarf-based confusion. Which, by extension, is confusion about all the tasks I am planning over the course of the coming year. Are they liabilities? Activities that cost us the amount that I could (in theory) otherwise be earning through income-generating activities? Or should I view them as generating the amount we otherwise would have spent acquiring eggs, scarves, socks, or tomatoes?

Or should we even think of them in terms of time and income?

Should I toss it all off and view it all from the Bhutanese perspective of gross national happiness?

All this blather comes to a single crux: I wish there were a level at which I could make these activities logical. Speaking of them as "hobbies" diminishes the importance of the role I'd like them to attain in our lives. My intention is for us to consume a fair number of our summer calories from the foods we grow. I want for the eggs we raise to constitute a real, measurable unit of our food supply. Farther down the road, I'd be interested in raising a portion of the meat we consume as well.

In my mind, that's more than a sideline.

On the other hand, I don't want to pretend that making scarves or growing tomatoes is going to be my profession.

There is a vast gulf between a hobby and professional, marketable production and - in my mind, at least - within that gulf lies the realm of self-sufficiency. Producing enough to fill your family's needs, and maybe enough to share with friends in hopes of future reciprocity, but no more than that.

In this scenario, time doesn't equal money; it equals food, clothing, and shelter.

Maybe it's a delusion. But I'm going to call it a goal.

In the end, I don't know how to conceptually monetize of my time in this endeavor. Am I a financial liability? A benefit? Or is it a wash? Would I be better off getting a "real" job - in the event I could find one - than trying to raise chickens or knit things? Can this learning period be viewed as educational? One step on the way to a moment where my labor could directly fill wants and needs.

I'm not delusional. I realize that this entire discussion reflects my psychology more than it does my tenuous grasp on economics of the home. I was raised in a time and place where "success" is defined by money, and who you are is defined by your profession. I expected to have both a profession and an income at this stage in my life. I feel adrift and dependent without them. Attempting to provision our needs while staying home seems like an avenue to assuage these feelings in the absence of a job at which I could earn more than I would be paying out to replace childcare, cooking, and housework.

But then I return, in my mind, to a place where it doesn't seem crazy. Humans have done this. They have - for tens of thousands of years - worked to provide their own subsistence. Were it impossible, our species wouldn't have made it this far.

It is real labor, and it can be difficult and uncertain. But in a time and place where the wants multiply, the layoffs are unending, money invested in the market swoops up and down in value at the whim of events I can't control, and there just aren't all that many jobs around for an archeologist who hasn't worked full time in eight years...

Suddenly, forgoing turning time into money and, instead, looking to turn labor into subsistence doesn't seem quite so crazy after all.