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.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


In honor of Thanksgiving, I purchased our family a Freebird: a free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free (and fresh, organic, and local) turkey. It was as tasty as it was karma-neutral. The bird's happy days gobbling in a field were perceptible in every bite. As far as I'm concerned, this turkey had only one downside: price.

Freebirds aren't free.

Over recent weeks, my husband and I have spent many happy hours perusing the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog: we are planning to acquire chickens and ducks in the spring

While we will be new to actually raising poultry, we've been fans of the poultry catalog for a couple of years.

A few years ago, we lived in Death Valley: the hottest, lowest, driest place in America. Or, as Obi-Wan Kenobi observes as he stands upon Dante's View and gestures towards Furnace Creek Ranch, "the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the entire galaxy."

On the whole, I found Death Valley to be largely free from scum and villainy. Most of the time.

But life there was abundant with complication. Rising to the top of the long list of complexities was the hour-long drive to the nearest grocery store in Pahrump, Nevada.

We tried not to go often, depending instead on planning ahead and stocking up on basics. Failing that, we either did without, bought something from the twice-monthly Schwann's truck visit, or paid an exorbitant price at the one little convenience store in the Valley.

And, every two weeks or so, we'd make the pilgrimage into town.

Halfway between home and the grocery store, we would pass through the intersection that comprised the town of Death Valley Junction (alleged population: 4).

Death Valley Junction was the home of the Amargosa Opera House - where Marta Beckett was still performing - and the Amargosa Inn - which was, occasionally and unpredictably, open to providing accommodations to travelers. And... well... not much else. Sometimes a mustang ambled through.

But there were peacocks!

A flock of them made the Opera House their home. More reliably present than any other inhabitants of Death Valley Junction, they strutted around the parking lot as if they owned the place - which they may well have. Sometimes they wandered into the road, tail feathers spread, proudly preening at their ability to slow passing tanker trucks.

Our young daughter loved to get out and look at the peacocks. She followed them around in a vain effort to become friends. Peacocks, as it turns out, can fly for short distances - up to and including the top of the Opera House - when encouraged to do so by the friendly advances of a two-year-old girl.

One day, while sitting by the yucca and mesquite thicket that dominated what was once a parking lot and watching our daughter toss cheerios at the birds, my husband marveled aloud at the fact that the peacocks were there. "Where," he asked, "do you even get a peacock?"

Where indeed?

We got home, hopped on our dial-up internet connection and, 30 painful minutes of slow page loads later, discovered Murray McMurray Hatchery.

A week later, we had a catalog. Heaven!

I've railed lately against the sheer number of choices available to us these days. I've opined that more options don't actually make us any happier.

Thinking about a poultry catalog makes me want to take it all back.

Who knew that you could buy peacocks, swans, and guinea fowl? Who knew there were so many different types of chickens, ducks, and turkeys? Prior to my inaugural poultry catalog, I had honestly believed that all chickens were just that: chickens. One variety - one species - one bird. I thought that chicken decor displaying a panoply of colors and feathers were simply fanciful examples of artist's license.

What can I say? I was raised a city chick of the era before urban chickens.

I know better now that I've opened the Pandora's Box of poultry.
Our youngest family member ponders poultry.

We still have a dog-eared copy of the McMurray catalog. And it was with this catalog that my husband presented me after our journey to pick up our natural, organic, well-adjusted, emotionally balanced, local, free-range turkey.

Which had, of course, just caused us both a bit of sticker shock.

Catalog in hand, he noted that, for approximately twice the price of this one turkey, Murray McMurray would send us 20 newly hatched turkey poults. Birds that we could provide with all of the support and loving care necessary to ensure that they, too, would grow into natural, organic, well-adjusted, emotionally balanced freebirds. Turkeys that - assuming they made it to 16 pounds of post-processing meat - would have a street value of approximately $1,200.

Which isn't, let's be honest, that much money. It's not enough income to put the effort into raising 20 turkeys. Once you buy the turkeys, and the feed, and some shelter, and then all the necessary equipment for processing, and get them to some sort of market, you haven't raked in a fortune.

Turkeys aren't a gold mine.

But, what if you aren't looking for a gold mine? What if you are simply looking to eat some turkey once or twice a month? What if you aren't measuring potential income, but whether or not you can put some free-range, happy meat on the table? Think about provisions, and not profits. When viewed through that lens, it starts to seem sane. To me.

Whether or not I'm a good judge of sanity is - of course - open to debate.

When my mom was a child, she spent some time with her aunt in Tennessee. Sometimes, on Sundays, they had chicken. This chicken didn't come from the store.

I could try to tell the story the way she would, but I'd get it all wrong. And offend the vegans and faint-of-heart. Suffice it to say that the actual deed involved an axe, her aunt (who, as recounted in tales, seems like someone with whom you wouldn't want to tussle), and the chopping block; and it culminated in my mom's keen understanding of the phrase, "running around like a chicken with it's head cut off."

Chickens went from the barnyard to the table in the course of an afternoon. But it took some work to get it there. Which is, maybe, where the whole endeavor looses it's appeal for a lot of people.

After all, isn't that why we have jobs? So we can earn income which can be used to buy karmic turkey for $3.60 a pound? (Or for as little as a buck-fifty, if you are going with the flash-frozen Jennie-O). So we don't have to trouble ourselves with the feathers and entrails.

The thing is, I - like just about everyone I know - have no data on exactly how much work it is to raise turkeys. Or any other animal I might think of as meat.

Is having a couple on hand, letting them forage for food, keeping a few to lay and set eggs and ensure a continued supply, and harvesting them every couple of weeks more work and money than it's worth?

I guess it depends on what each of us consider to be worthwhile.

We aren't, of course, buying turkeys anytime soon. Which is a good thing.

Our family is having enough trouble trying to figure out which types of ducks and chickens we want to round out our small flock. Debates over the virtues of Cayugas vs. Khaki Campbells vs. Runners, and Aracunas vs. Silver-laced Wyandottes are taking up enough of our time already.

And none of our flock-to-be are heading for the chopping block. I think they will end up as pets that lay eggs. Which - by the by - makes them head-and-shoulders more useful than our cat.

But I think - and hope - that raising them will provide insight into the larger question of poultry production. And whether, next year, we will be shocked that our local, free-range, happy turkey - at $3.60 a pound - costs so much.

Or whether, given insight into the work involved, we will instead be shocked that it could cost so little.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Too Much

A few weeks ago, while blearily preparing breakfast for my kids, I hit a breaking point. The straw that broke this camel's back?

Ikea plates.

It's true. Pretty, plastic plates drove me insane.

A few years ago, we got a set of multicolored, plastic, kid-friendly tableware from Ikea. Enigmatic Ikea codename: Kalas. (Which, in case you are ever on Jeopardy, translates to party, feast, banquet, spread, or junket. Good to know).

They do look like a festive little rainbow-hued party, don't they?

Once you get past the fact that they are plastic (albeit allegedly BPA-free plastic, like most things Ikea), they are fairly anodyne objects. Functional. Simple. Unbreakable. The cup is sort of tippy - it's not heavy enough on the bottom to give it much stability - so we've had more than our share of spills. Other than that, they are non-offensive. I had no complaints.

How can pretty, multicolored, reasonably functional plates be responsible for driving a housefrau right over the edge?

Too many choices.

Every morning (and afternoon, and evening) my kids would start off the meal specifying not only the foods that they will and won't eat (and that's a whole other post), but also the exact color of plate, bowl, and cup they will accept. I could be serving them ice cream, and they'd dicker about whether they will accept their Lobster Tracks in a green bowl.

Who on Earth dickers over Lobster Tracks - possibly the best ice cream flavor ever (the flavor my husband and I kept to ourselves for months by telling the kids it contained actual crustaceans - which they've never had but simply assume they'll hate) - because of the bowl color?

My kids.

It's ICE CREAM! Eat it from the green bowl! Without crying! Please? Please eat the ice cream? See how I covered it with sprinkles? It makes the green look blue. Please?

Anyway, on this particular morning, after spending several minutes sorting out which flavor of instant oatmeal everyone wanted (Maple and brown sugar? Cinnamon and spice? Apples and cinnamon? Cinnamon raisin? Peaches and cream? Bananas and cream? Strawberries and cream? Blueberries and cream? Regular?), I set down at the table two bowls of oats and two cups of milk and received - not thanks - but instant cries of dissatisfaction.

"I didn't want the blue bowl! I wanted pink!"
"My cup is green and my bowl is yellow! They don't match!"


Seriously, kids, simmer down. Because:

A. I haven't even had my first cup of coffee - I haven't even made coffee yet - and I'm supposed to process this dissent? And...
B. Sans coffee, I have just managed to correctly deliver the apple cinnamon and strawberries and cream oatmeal to the child that requested it.

How is that not the most important thing about breakfast? How has this near-instantaneous and not unpalatable breakfast not been declared a raging success?

It's obvious how. Not based on the oats. It's those damn plates. The pretty, multicolored, reasonably functional Ikea plates. They made this breakfast - and every other meal I served my children - about something other than food. It's all about the Kalas.

The plates - specifically the variety of available colors - gave my kids too many ways in which to be disappointed.

And, frankly, I've got skills enough to disappoint my kids without the assistance of Ikea and their rainbow-hued plastic plates.

While we are talking about ways in which I can disappoint my children, can we discuss the upcoming holidays?

Because I am having a hard time getting excited when I know that, no matter how much I give them, there will invariably end up being something I didn't - or couldn't - get.

A puppy, for instance.

And it's going to cast a shadow over everything they do get.

A few years ago, when my mom sent out her annual holiday letter, she included a note that her grandmother wrote over a century ago when her children (my mother's father included) were ages six, four, and two. It tells of the Christmas gifts she was preparing for her three boys while in the mission field in Korea.

Pyeng Yang, Korea, Nov. 27,1900.

I have been having Christmas on my mind lately, and am trying to get something ready for the children. John wants more clothes for his doll and a little bureau to hold them in, and with the help of an empty condensed milk box, and a native carpenter, I guess we can satisfy him.

William's present has occupied me for several evenings, and has turned out such a success, that big William laughs at me for my enjoyment of it. It consists of a little pasteboard house set in the middle of a shallow wooden box, which answers for a yard. The house is six inches square, stuck all over with millet on the outside, and the roof covered with cereal coffee. Sprigs of cedar stuck in blocks answer for trees, and flowers cut from seed catalogues are pasted to little wooden blocks here and there over the yard. A horse and colt stand at the back door, and a cow, cat and dog are to be added. At the front of the house are a little boy and girl receiving an apple at the hands of Santa Claus, while mamma looks out from the font door. The little windows have lace curtains, and altogether I am sure that little William's wildest dreams will be realized. Will says the first thing will be a fight between the three of them for the possession of it.

Richard's present is not under way yet, but I think a rag doll will probably satisfy the longings of his heart.

I have to say, it's nice to know that, as much as times changed over the last century, children fighting over the possession over a desirable toy isn't reflective of the failings of modern parenting in general, or my personal parental failings in particular.

Also of note: overuse of the comma may be genetic.

Each gift was something my great-grandmother had considered carefully and spent some time creating. Something that she fashioned, or commissioned, using materials she had on hand. Items that were being reused. Nothing fancy. But it didn't have to be fancy - or have been made by elves and delivered by Santa - to be appreciated. Santa does make an appearance, though, and he brings apples. Apples.

I try to imagine my the reactions my kids would give to these toys.

Honestly, they would probably love them. My daughter would appreciate clothes for her doll. My son would enjoy a model house or a rag doll. But, having unwrapped these items, they would immediately look around for more.

More. Always more.

There are so many things to want in this world - for both children and adults - that it feels almost impossible to take time to appreciate what we already have. We are barraged with other options, or other choices; the knowledge that, though we have this thing - and it's great - there's something else that we don't have.

And there are a lot of things that we don't have. A world full of possible desires. And the knowledge that these other, desirable, unobtainable things are out there - in the hands of our friends, or in commercials on the television - diminishes our joy in the here and now.

What would happen if I turned back the clock? If I were to limit our Christmas to just a few things? Doll clothes and a dresser to hold them for one child. A doll for the other.

The resulting unhappiness wouldn't come from a failing of the gifts. It would come from the perception that there should have been more. A perception that derives from the culture of consumption that characterizes the current moment in America.

I speak of the unhappiness that would accompany a single, well-considered gift, but I think there is also an unhappiness of multiple gifts that don't truly satisfy wants and needs.

A decade ago, I had the chance to work retail as the holidays approached. With each day that passed, people became more and more harried and less happy. They were desperate not to find the right gift, but to simply find something, anything, that they could use to fill a box. The gift itself was unimportant - just a way to check a name off of the list.

In watching these customers, eyes bright with desperation, I began to wonder what the point of gifting is. If it is just a chore, why don't we just stop?

I don't have the answer, but the pondering brings me back to questions that rise again and again as I write this blog:

How do we live outside our own culture, in ways that are at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist?

And, more importantly

How do we create cultural change?


The Kalas are gone.

Starting that morning, I began to pack them up as they came through the dishwasher. For good measure, I tossed in all the plastic cups we have acquired from Moe's and Chili's (another source of discord). Now when we sit down to eat, we all eat from the one set of plates I keep in the house. Each bowl matches every other bowl. Each plate matches every other plate.


For the first time in years, no one dickers about the color of their bowl. It's amazing.

I'm not going to lie, we still have bickering about a lot of things - variety packs of instant oatmeal remain problematic - but we aren't butting heads about tableware. And - given the results of removing the pretty, multicolored plates - we might have bought our last variety pack of oatmeal as well.

Sometimes it is just all too much. Too many things, and too many choices. Having more options than we can ever pursue leads to many, many paths not taken. More chances for regret.

Could we be happier with less? With fewer? Especially if the few were what we really wanted. Could you make do with one? If you really loved it? Consider it material monogamy. Does that help?

Would we enjoy the bowl of ice cream more if the sweet taste of caramel weren't following the salty sting of tears shed over a green bowl?

It seems almost like heresy to say it out loud, since we seem to live in the Age of More, but maybe all this stuff - choices, options, things - maybe it's just too much.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Underneath It All

As winter approaches, the pile of warm clothing adjacent to my front door drifts like snow, heaping against the wall and over the sofa; obscuring every available flat surface.

Faced with these mounds of boots, fleece, and Gore-Tex, I chose to fight back. I decided it was incumbent upon me to contain these fallen mittens and scarves in a manner both organized and accessible.

Problem was, I didn't have a containment system up to the challenge.

Last year, I attempted to perfect the use of the big plastic box (AKA: BPB). In this scenario, all scarves, hats, mittens, and other warm gear got tossed pell-mell into the BPB, where they jumbled in a heap; intermingling with no regard for ownership.

It was - in almost every way - an imperfect solution.

When a child queried, "Where's my scarf?" I would answer, "Did you check the big plastic box?"

Inevitable answer: "No."

Of course not. Why on Earth would they look there?

One symptom of my kids' abhorrence of organizational schemes is their firm, unfaltering resistance to even acknowledging the existence of such schemes. They are organizational agnostics.

Like a missionary, I attempted to bring them the truth. To show them the light, the way, the mittens: "Well, go check there. That's where they should be."

The child would go off to check, disgorging the full contents of the BPB onto the floor in the process.

Inevitable result: "It's not here."

"If you put it in the box when you took it off, it should be there. Did you put it there when you took it off?"

Inevitable answer: "Uhhhh....."

Further investigation on my part would usually reveal that the scarf was, in fact, in the BPB, or on the floor next to the BPB where it had been disgorged by the child attempting to find it amidst the chaos.

Alternately, the mitten was often declared "lost forever," and the subject of much weeping, consternation, and rending of other garments.

Usually we would ultimately discover the item in the car, or at school, or stuffed into a shoe next to the door, or in a jacket pocket, or on the floor next to the toilet, or in a box of crayons, or frozen into the snow on the front step.

Pretty much anywhere other than the place it should have been.

And, on rare occasions, winter accessories apparently achieved translocation to whatever dimension socks, scarves, and mittens abscond to for vast portions of their use lives.

Which all goes to say that even I - the BPB evangelist - found the strategy lacking. It was just a container for our mess, not a remedy for the mess itself. We needed something better.

I briefly considered buying some new sort of entryway furniture. Target carries hallracks with benches, and there are a lot of things from Ikea that would probably work.

But I don't want to spend more money. Even reasonable amounts of money. And I really don't want to buy more stuff.

We already have plenty of stuff. The drifts of hats, scarves, and mittens, for instance, are stuff. And stuff, no matter how desirable, always somehow requires - through it's very existence - the acquisition of more stuff that can be used to contain the stuff.

It's mind numbing. It's too much. It's driving me insane.

We have so much stuff.

When I thought it through, it occurred to me that one nice thing about all this stuff is that, somewhere amidst the clutter, we probably already had a containment system that would work.

So I looked around my house, to see what might be repurposed.

When I think about my father working in the garage, I envision him standing at an antique piece of furniture that was central to his work space. I don't know what it's actually called, but "sideboard" seems probable. It has some shelves above an oblong, beveled mirror and a bunch of drawers that he used to hold screws, nails, and wrenches. One drawer was set up with partitions - they were intended for silverware - and was lined with a soft, blue velvet. When I opened it, it exuded that pleasant, oily smell of tools and hardware.

I love that smell.

I have been told that this sideboard was originally part of my parents' collection of living room furniture, which - the story goes - was sort of a motley assortment of pieces. As the current owner of a sort-of-motley assortment of furniture, I can understand my mom's desire to have things kind of match each other a bit, despite having varied origins. She accomplished this by painting her motley collection of furniture white.

Viola! Matching furniture!

In these, the days of Antique Roadshow, it seems obvious that this constitutes some sort of crime against furniture. Leigh and Leslie Keno rail against painting antiques on an almost weekly basis. But back in the olden days of the early '70s, I'm sure the white-painted sideboard and matching shelves looked super fly with my parents' zebra-striped faux-fur bean bag.

I love my father's repurposed work bench so much that, after leaving home, I offered to trade him the piece for an actual work bench. It was a tactical error to ask after leaving home, though, because over the past dozen years I have never had a chance to get it. I can only hope that, one day, there will be a way for it to get moved up to join my current sort-of-motley assortment of furniture. And I have always dreamed that - by that day - I would have acquired the necessary skills to make it something other than white.

Crimes against furniture notwithstanding, I'm a natural-wood sort of gal.

So when I looked around my home for possible containment systems for hats, gloves, and scarves, and my eyes settled upon an old, white-painted, hand-me-down dresser covered in stickers, I saw both a containment system and a learning opportunity.

If I have learned one thing from this learning opportunity, it is this: It is probably not worth the time, effort, and - more to the point - loss of brain cells it takes to refinish something about which you do not care deeply.

Somewhat conversely, I have also learned this: It is best to start your refinishing career with an item about which you do not care deeply.

In that sense, the little dresser was the perfect first project. It was small, not special or particularly nice, and it didn't belong to someone whose memory I cherish.

My husband and I acquired it in grad school from a guy who was leaving for another program and didn't want to get a U-Haul. A nice guy, but not someone I'm as sentimental about as, say, my grandma.

Over the years, one of the drawers developed a crack and the white paint had been embellished with crayons, markers, and some of those stickers that they give to kids at grocery stores. It was a mess.

I was using it to hold random scraps of paper. Yeah. Really. Let's not talk about it.

Suffice it to say that it was ready to serve a more noble purpose.

So, we purchased a bottle of CitraStrip "Safer" Stripper and some other random scraping tools and I got to work.

The bottle of CitraStrip alleged that it was safe for indoor use, so I figured I'd be good in the garage, which isn't airtight. Given that I've never used anything other than CitraStrip, I can't tell you if it is actually any safer, less toxic, or less likely to induce hallucinations than any other stripping product. What I can tell you is that for about 12 hours after stripping concluded, my heart was racing, I had funny thoughts, and my head felt screwed on all wrong.

This, in my opinion, might be the best reason not bother with too much more furniture refinishing. If I do find a reason to try again, it will be outside, in the summer, on a day with a nice breeze.

Fume high aside, the CitraStrip worked pretty well, bubbling up most of the paint with the first application. Everything that wasn't worked into a nick or crack.

Removal of the paint revealed another truth about refinishing furniture (and a lot of other endeavors): You can spend a lot of time with some stripper, and peel back a lot of layers, only to discover that what lurks beneath isn't all that appealing.

In retrospect, I'm not sure what I expected. It's a little wooden dresser. Not awful, not beautiful. Functional. It'll do. But once I'd scraped it was clear that the dresser wasn't worth spending a lot more time on. The law of diminishing returns pretty well predicted that further effort would not be rewarded with vast improvement. It would still look like an ordinary little dresser.

Like Kenny Rogers says: "You've gotta know when to walk away. Know when to run."

Even buzzed on "safer" fumes, I knew it was time to fold 'em.

I glued the cracked drawer, stained all the visible surfaces, and put the hardware back on. The dresser now stands by our front door, ready to accept our gloves, hats, and mittens. It generally matches my other wood furniture.


The kids are dazzled with my mad skills. They can't believe that this is the same dresser they used to draw on. They were excited to lay claim on their individual drawers. Kids always love to feel like something is theirs.

My husband, on the other hand, almost laughed himself into a hernia at the notion that our family would manage to maintain our stuff in our individual drawers.

He's probably right. But, what can I say? Hope springs eternal.

I realize now that, when I took on this project, I wasn't thinking about this little white dresser, I was thinking about the large, white sideboard in my father's garage - a project I've been pondering for years. It would have taken a lot more (not to mention less "safer") fumes to transmute one into the other, though.

But I now know that, if ever there is a day that I can undertake the task of peeling away the paint on that sideboard, I should enlist the help of someone more skilled in the process than I am. And perhaps that's the most important thing I could have learned from this project: how not to mess up when it really matters.

Knowing is half the battle.

In the meantime, I can get to work in our battle against the drifting outerwear. Will this be the moment our family actually achieves organizational zen?

Yeah. Well... I didn't inhale that much stripper.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Education and Community

I said it in Boxing Day, and I'll start again with it here. If there is one notion that underpins my self-sufficiency project, it is this:

There's an awful lot of important and useful stuff I didn't learn when I was growing up.

In writing that, I was thinking about the fact that my education - an excellent one - focused on advanced academics at the expense of practical knowledge. I never took a class in which I was asked to build anything, or plumb anything, or sew anything, or change my oil, or cook anything, or learn how to organize my finances. All of which are skills that people in our culture will require at some point or other. I believe that the rationale was that, as a college-bound, future white-collar worker, I would be paying other people to do those things for me.

Now, a couple of decades out of high school, I see that focusing on academics at the expense of other lessons hasn't been in my best interest. And I'm setting out to fill in those holes.

This post isn't about me, however. It is about the next generation, and it starts with this truth:

Focusing on academics at the expense of other realms of knowledge does not produce well-rounded adults.

Here is another truth: Money is tight.

Last night there was a school board meeting at our local school (which provides education for kids from Kindergarten through the eighth grade). The purpose was to start a discussion about which programs are targeted for "increased efficiency" so that our supervisory union (sort of a district) can cut 1.59% from its budget as (sort-of) required by Challenges for Change.

It's not quite required. It's apparently voluntary with the the not-so-gently implied subtext that, if we don't comply voluntarily, sterner measures will be taken.

Just like dinner time at our house.

In any event, Challenges for Change specifies that savings will be generated by making government more efficient, not by decreasing the services that are offered.

There are a lot of adjectives that I want to be able to apply to the education my children receive: excellent; well-rounded; challenging; enjoyable; useful.

I'm not so sure that "efficient" is one of them.

For me, "efficient" conjures up images of Big Macs and factory farming. Of a one-size-fits-all approach. Imagine how efficient our school system could be if all the children it served needed the exact same resources! If they being raised and taught so that they can step into roles as interchangeable cogs in a machine!

But they aren't.

They are kids. And they will grow up to be adults who need to be able to step into all the varied roles that our world requires.

But, money is tight. So we need to use it more wisely. More efficiently.

The principal - whose shoes I wouldn't want to be in right now - identified several programs that could be made more efficient without decreasing services. A feat that will be accomplished by eliminating some positions entirely, stretching the remaining staff tighter to cover the absolute necessities, and then eliminating what can't be covered.

Areas that will take the hit: nursing, health, and physical education (where p.e. teachers will pick up some of the health classes); guidance and therapy; music; and para-educators.

None of these programs will be eliminated entirely. There will still be music. There will still be a nurse. There will simply be fewer people to staff these programs.

Services will not be diminished.

Reduction without diminishing.

After they pull that off, I'll wait anxiously for them to pull a bunny out of a top hat.

What is the goal of education?

Our most recent President Bush once observed, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

I disagree. I think that is all too often the only question that is being asked. Children take tests. And we see test results. And schools are rated accordingly.

We aren't just raising children to take tests, though. Or, at least, we shouldn't be. We should be raising kids to step into their roles as members of our future communities.

You know what communities need? Communities need to be healthy. They need music and theater, and drama projects that they work on as a group. They need therapy for individuals and families who are struggling with emotional issues which - left unaddressed - might boil up into larger problems. They need as many people around as possible to pitch in and help with one-on-one attention so that no one falls behind.

We shouldn't only ask if our children are learning. We should ask if they are being given the time, tools, and attention they need to become full members of the community in which we want to live.

Not just my children. Or your children. Not just the ones we love.

Every child.

Even if you don't agree with their parents. If you think their parents are shiftless and lazy and should just get a job. Each and every child in America today will be a part of the larger community in which you live tomorrow.

What kind of place do you want it to be?

A woman said to me, regarding the cuts, something to the effect of, "I'm glad we home school. This won't impact us."

I disagree.

Unless you are planning to never let your children - or the adults they become - interact within an extended community beyond your home, or your private school, what happens in the public education system will impact them.

It will impact all of us.

We cannot pick and choose the individuals in our world whose choices and actions will be the ones that effect us the most. So, please, let's all choose to do the best job we can to make sure that every child has the support, and resources, and nurturing, and creative outlets, and therapy, and food that they need to become the community members that we want and need them to be.

Starving them of these things might be more efficient. It might be cheaper now. But the long-term costs, the externalized costs - as with factory farming or a world of processed Big Macs - will be greater in the end.

But there's no money. Times are tight. Something has to be cut.

Under the plan presented last night, the children still have some music classes. There is still a nurse if someone throws up or gets hurt. Hopefully the children who need therapy will find some other programs and not fall through the cracks.

I hope they don't fall through the cracks.

We were reminded again and again that our district - our school - actually already had more of these things than are standard in our state. That we should be willing to do with less.

Maybe if the people who have to make these difficult decisions were reading this, they would toss the tough calls back to me. "You make the cuts. You find the 1.59% and get rid of it."

I don't know. I don't know what program I would cut from a school.

I don't have the answers. I'm not alleging that I do.

We don't know what program will inspire one child in our community to greatness. It could be academics. Or sports. Or the chance to sing a song in a musical.

We also don't know what absence will be the crack that leads to tragedy. The lack of available nursing care at a crucial moment. Or a teacher's aide who can take the extra time to work with a child who is falling behind. Or a therapist who is available to connect a child with the counseling that they need.

What is the possible toll of all that efficiency?

Money is tight.

It is a reality for families. For our town. For our state. For our country.

I don't have the answers.

But I want to say this: Our public schools are the garden in which we grow the individuals who will sustain our future communities. Our future country.

To restrict what they need - to be efficient with their education - is to starve our future.

It isn't simply a question for our town - for our school board. We should ask our administrators to be as creative as possible, but we can't lay the onus of these cuts at their feet. Just as it is difficult - sometimes impossible - for individuals to behave in ways that differ from the dictates of our larger culture, it is hard for schools to operate outside the dictates of districts, states, and our federal government.

Rarely is the question asked: Are America's children learning the skills they need to become a community?

Maybe we should start asking that question.

There's an awful lot of important and useful stuff I didn't learn when I was growing up.

I didn't learn to sew. But I'll be okay in the end.

What won't today's children learn? What happens if what they don't learn - what they don't receive from their education - impacts all of us?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Creativity I

I'm a big fan of the New York Times Magazine.

Not enough to want to subscribe to a newspaper, though. I'm not a fan of newspapers. I have small kids so I never get around to reading everything; it always just ends up making a big pile of clutter that migrates around the house making me crazy; and then you have to recycle it, knowing as you do that some unspecified number of trees has died to bring you this information.

Three strikes. So no paper.

But I do like the New York Times Magazine. For several years my parents - who know we enjoy reading it and don't subscribe - would save all their copies of the magazine and send them to my husband and me a couple times a year. A much-appreciated deluge of sometimes out-of-date but otherwise excellent reading material.

Sometime after May of 2007, we received the magazine that contained this Freakonomics piece:

(Sorry it's not a clickable link - I can't seem to make those work).

In the article, the two economists behind Freakonomics mull over the apparent conundrum of adults spending time and money to perform "menial labor" when they don't have to.

The menial labor in question: gardening and knitting.

Tasks such as these aren't income-generating market work, they aren't housework (a.k.a. unpaid chores), and they aren't pure leisure, since they are work. How can the same activity to labor for one person and leisure for another?

In the end, the authors conclude that it is labor if someone else tells you to do it, leisure if you do it of your own volition, and that the desire to do such tasks are based in "incentives that go beyond the financial."

When I first read this article, the thing that struck me wasn't their conclusion, which seems like a reasonable tool for splitting the labor from the leisure.

No, I got stuck way back on the fourth paragraph:
"Isn't it puzzling that so many middle-aged Americans are spending so much of their time and money performing menial labors when they don't have to? Just as the radio and phonograph proved to be powerful substitutes for the piano, the forces of technology and capitalism have greatly eased the burden of feeding and clothing ourselves. So what's with all the knitting, gardening and ''cooking for fun''? Why do some forms of menial labor survive as hobbies while others have been killed off? (For instance, we can't think of a single person who, since the invention of the washing machine, practices ''laundry for fun.'') "

It's the last, parenthetical, question that gave me pause. How is it, I wondered, that these brilliant guys were puzzling mightily over something so blatantly obvious?

No one does laundry for fun because (correct me if I'm wrong) laundry isn't a creative activity. Other examples:
Changing diapers;
Doing the dishes;
Making mac 'n cheese and hot dogs that the kids will turn down again;
Taking out the trash.

You do them, you do them again, and then you do them again, all with the knowledge that - once they are done - you'll probably have to do them again. There is no tangible outcome (other than a clean home... which is nice).

Making a scarf, growing a garden, playing an instrument, landscaping your yard, weaving a basket, cooking a gourmet meal for friends, and brewing beer. Creative endeavors, all. Labor that has, as it's end product, a tangible item that can be enjoyed and admired and - importantly - serves to reflect information about it's creator. Whether it is a beer, a scarf, or the best-looking lawn on the block, it is displayed and shared as more than just a piece of clothing or a meal. It becomes a symbol of the creator.

Yes, it is labor that we could outsource. Some people choose not to because the payoff of creativity is, indeed, an incentive that goes beyond the financial.

I think that creativity and self-expression fill a need a basic human need. Talking about - and puzzling over - these tasks as just random chores we inexplicably don't outsource to Land's End and Whole Foods misses an entire facet of what it means to be human.

It is true that scarves are less expensive when they are mass-produced in an overseas factory and shipped to Wal-Mart. It's true that a bottle of tomato sauce made from tomatoes grown intensively in one location, shipped to another location for processing, and then to another to appear on a store shelf is less expensive than making your own, but only because we don't pay the true cost of the farming and shipping process.

It appears more efficient. The end product is cheaper. What I no longer buy is that either of those things is better. I also no longer buy the premise that earning as much money as possible in order to hire as many middle men as possible - at the lowest possible price - to make and grow the items that fill our basic human needs is better.

It doesn't feel better to me.

If the goal of the game of this cultural moment is to insulate ourselves from getting dirt under our fingernails supplying our own needs, I think I'm going to go play a different game.

Given the number of people who perform these "menial labors" in their free time, I suspect that I'm not the only one.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Gardening, 2009

I originally wrote this on January 25th of 2009 and posted it on my Facebook page. It's relevant to what I am trying to accomplish now so I wanted to include it here.

I married my husband in the spring of 2001. Within a month of putting on the old ball and chain, we moved from Tucson, Arizona to Coulee Dam, Washington for his new job. As we drove northward with a U-Haul packed to the brim and pulling my Subaru, the weather changed from the upper 80s characteristic of late spring in Tucson to cold and snowing in the passes of Montana. When we finally stopped at our new home and unloaded our truck full of the wedding presents that we’d hardly had time to unwrap, we found ourselves in the midst of early spring.

A time to think about growing a garden.

Once we had unpacked boxes, put away dishes, and gotten settled into our new jobs, our attention turned to the small garden area between our carport and patio. We started a compost pile, bought some cow manure, pulled shovels out of our shed, and got to work work, stopping only when our efforts disinterred what looked to be a wet and partially mummified Guinea pig in a plastic baby wipes box. A sight disturbing to behold - the waste of a good faunal specimen.

With our garden plot sufficiently fertilized, we purchased plants; a generic set of tomatoes, some lettuce, and herbs. All of which did well that summer - early frost damage aside. It wasn’t the greatest garden, but I had been bitten by the bug.

Shortly into that first long, dark winter, I started to plan our efforts for the following year. A friend at work introduced me to the concept of starting plants from seed, and gave me a spare Territorial Seeds catalog.

My mind was blown.

When I was younger, my mother purchased heirloom tomato seeds from a distinctly hippie-looking mimeographed four-page catalog that she got in the mail. She always seemed excited about the crazy varieties of tomatoes, herbs, and Jerusalem artichokes she grew next to my strawberry patch.

I didn’t like eating tomatoes all that much back then. And that dislike was mild compared to how I felt about picking tomatoes and weeding the plants in the humid Texas high summer with wasps all around and the smell of tomatoes seeming to make its way into my very pores. And I won’t even discuss the unspeakable flavor of Jerusalem artichokes - a tuber my mom was in raptures over due to its immense productivity and potential for sustaining us in the event of the complete collapse of the world system (an eventuality that I didn’t give much heed back then and that I would've rather succumbed to than weathered with Jerusalem artichokes).

All those issues aside, I was, like many other girls, pretty much immune to finding anything my mom deemed exciting worthy of more than a passing glance.

If mom was that excited, it was clearly lame.

But, with the wisdom of someone in the early stages of adulthood, I realized that as a pre-teen I had been completely, utterly wrong. Thanks to the amazing variety of heirloom vegetables available to be grown from seeds, it turned out that I could have a complete alterna-garden. I decided that, from then on, all the vegetables I grew were going to be unexpected colors. My beans would be purple, my cucumbers lemon yellow, my carrots maroon, and my tomatoes black, white, and peach. I would grow blue potatoes, chocolate brown peppers, and pumpkins that were white.

I ordered seeds, bought one grow light (and then another), got organic seaweed fertilizer to spray on leaves, and saved yogurt containers to hold my transplanted seedlings. I prepared the garden by placing a soaker hose under black mesh to keep the soil warm, moist, and weed-free without overwatering the leaves. I got a small greenhouse shelf so that my plants could harden outside in preparation for planting, and bought a fleet of large pots to hold the garden that had quickly outgrown the plot that came with the house.

That year, I had an amazing garden. And, as every gardener would probably tell you, I reaped all the rewards of spending time outdoors digging in the dirt. I bent and stretched, and picked up heavy things, and moved dirt around while soaking up a responsible amount of Vitamin D. It was fun. And it was rewarding to eat my very own tomatoes, dig up potatoes to eat, and have my own white pumpkin to carve at Halloween.

I had big plans for the following year. Plans that didn’t come quite to fruition because, while pregnant with my daughter, I had less energy to get seeds started and spend time bending over in the sun. Most of the veggies we did start didn’t ripen until I was almost due, and were left unpicked after we brought our daughter home from the hospital.

"Next year," I told myself.

But the next year came and went, without any free time in which to start seeds or plant a garden. Some volunteers grew from the seeds of unharvested tomatoes and bolted lettuce. But these were largely ignored for lack of free time and sanity.

I said it again: "Next year."

Before the next year even had a chance to get started, we moved to Death Valley. And all the seeds I had purchased two years before sat, untouched, in our blazing hot garage for three summers until we moved once again. This time to the DC area.

After unpacking our boxes for the third time since our marriage, I found myself looking in the box that held my long-neglected seeds. I couldn’t imagine that anything could have survived the immense heat of three Death Valley summers stuffed in a garage. It would regularly get to be 120 degrees outside and, in the absence of air conditioning, everything that we stored in the garage seemed to shrivel and brown in a way that reflected how I felt during those long, hot seasons.

I planted the seeds anyway. Primarily to be rid of them in advance of buying more, but also as an experiment of sorts. Was it even remotely possible that the seeds had survived with their potential intact? Where I once would have dropped only a few seeds on a peat pellet to germinate, I dumped on eight or ten. I put them on plastic plates under a crappy florescent light on a kitchen counter and watered them when I thought to.

To my immense surprise, they sprouted. Well, not all of them. Every single purple bush bean seed sprouted into a healthy plant, but not a single purple pole bean made an appearance.

White and peach tomato plants were abundant beyond belief - after sprouting so many seeds I found that I didn’t have the heart to thin them to harshly, and ended up expanding my tomato patch into the yard and up the sides of the fence. But none of the Black Russian tomatoes came up.

Armenian cucumbers, check. Lemon cucumbers, not a one.

Only a single marigold seed sprouted from a full packet, but it produced an abundance of flowers.

Basil, yes. Red eggplants, no.

I could see no rhyme or reason to what survived. But for me, the miracle was that anything survived at all, let alone flourished.

As our garden grew and blossomed, it became a place that I could play with the kids, sit while they spent endless hours spraying each other with the hose, or talk with new and old friends in the evening while watching the fireflies blink. I realized that I was blossoming in our new environment as well. Like some of my seeds, I had survived seasons in the heat, and was ready to move on to the next stage.

This winter, I have been thinking of my plans for our next garden. Today, I took my daughter downstairs and set up the grow lamps that I have not used since she was born. We took out packets of seeds, and talked about what we could start early to set out when it warms up in a month or two, and what we will wait to start until after all the frosts have passed. Tonight we will plant seeds together. Mostly pansies, and some cold-tolerant veggies. And I realize that she will find the kohlrabi and cabbages just as lame as I found my mom’s crazy tomatoes and horrific Jerusalem artichokes. But I hope that she will come to enjoy the experience of watching a plant grow from a seed, and learn that even after times have been harsh, there is still a chance that something wonderful will grow.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Chain

One of the skills that I have been working on for the past couple of weeks is crocheting. I knew that I wanted to try either knitting or crocheting and, after approximately five minutes of consideration, I decided on crocheting because it requires one tool (the hook) instead of a pair of needles.

Any craft reliant on my ability to keep a set of something together is doomed.

I know I made the right choice: my home has already experienced a hook diaspora. The hooks come in multi-packs of different sizes and colors. Their pretty, rainbow-hued shininess attracts my children in the manner of magpies or packrats. And, like packrats, they abscond with the hooks and squirrel them away in random places throughout our home. I consider myself lucky that, unlike packrats, they don't cement them into the clutter with amberat (although, given the current state of potty training around here...).

A second advantage to crochet hooks - not unrelated to the first - is that they aren't pointy like knitting needles. It's not the best day ever when I sit down on an unexpected crochet hook. But it doesn't require a tetanus shot or stitches.

I've discovered that I like crocheting.

I'm fascinated that a single strand of fiber (a line) can be efficiently converted into something that covers an area (a rectangular scarf) or even a three-dimensional object (a cone-shaped hat). It's geometry - with yarn!

It also reminds me of physics. Or - let's be honest - what little I understand about physics. My husband rented Physics: The Elegant Universe and Beyond last year and I watched - with almost no comprehension whatsoever - as the idea that there are actually eleven dimensions, most of which we can't perceive because they are all wrapped up inside each other, was explained. Somehow, the process of making loops, upon loops, upon loops that curl together into a row that holds its shape and builds into an item we recognize and understand makes me think of those other, hidden dimensions.

So, over the past few weeks I've been making things. I started out with a scarf and hat for myself, and moved on to something for my son. He's got a gigantic head and has outgrown all his hats from last year. Plus, I had some spare purple yarn hanging around the house, and purple is his favorite color. (And, yes, this picture is irrefutable evidence that I should add "Re-covering dining room chairs" to my project list.)

Although it isn't pertinent to crocheting, I'm excited about the buttons. I didn't have any hanging around the house when I finished the "turtle long-neck" portion of the project (as he calls it), so these are made from some shells I collected at the beach last year. I drilled some holes into them and sewed them on. Viola!

Beyond the practical reasons to pick crocheting over knitting, I also have to admit some historical bias: I already had some (rather limited) crocheting skill.

When I was a kid, one of the girls in my gang of church friends taught the rest of us how to crochet a foundation chain. I don't remember which of the girls was the source of this knowledge or the day I learned it, but I do have a clear memory of the group of us crocheting chains like children possessed. It became the activity that accompanied our endless games of "Little House on the Prairie."

Look! We're crocheting! Just like Laura and Mary!

I'm not sure, in retrospect, why no one at church observed the miles upon miles upon miles of foundation chain we were producing and thought to teach us to make a scarf. Given my own experience with kids, I suppose it was probably akin to letting sleeping dogs lie: if a gang of seven-year-old girls is happily entertaining itself, for heaven's sake, don't confuse it by trying to provide additional instruction.

Since I knew from personal experience that crocheting foundation chains is something that seven-year-old girls can excel at, I decided to try and teach my daughter.

I have a history of being bad at teaching her things.

I think there are a lot of issues, one of which is that I'm not very patient. I also find it difficult to use language to express actions that I don't usually think about in words. When I crochet, I think about what I am doing spatially, not verbally. It is more a muscle memory than an intellectual process. Telling someone how to do it requires me to translate my actions into language, which is difficult.

My daughter is also a lot more prone to blowing me off than she would be with her teachers at school (or, at least, that's what she's told me), and I am uncertain about when I should correct her and when I should let her make her own mistakes. It is hard to know when I should try to teach her by showing, and when I should just let her do it.

For us, "parent" is a different role than "teacher," and "daughter" is a different role than "student." It's a relationship we need to improve.

Crocheting was touch-and-go at first. She made loops way down the string and didn't know which side of the loop to pull in order to make it tight. But I showed her a little, and let her try a little, and let her ask for some help, and eventually she got to the point where she can make a crochet chain.

Her method is completely different from mine. And I don't know enough to know if it matters. We'll have to see when it comes time to turn and try to make a stitch. It took me almost 20 years to get to that part, though, so even if it takes a while, she will be way ahead of me.

In the meantime, she has made a chain that seems miles long - just like the ones I used to make. We're going to put it on the tree come the holidays and she'll have the joy of having made something we've put to good use.

She asked me, while I was teaching her, what I did with all the chains I crocheted. For the life of me, I can't remember what happened to most of them. I'm sure we made friendship bracelets and whatnot. The one thing that I do remember with some clarity is that I had one that was long enough to wear around my neck. I carried my house key on it on days my mom wouldn't be home when I returned from school in the afternoon.

I told my daughter this, and she stared at me blankly.

"Where was grandma? Why wasn't anyone home? Why were you alone?" She was visibly concerned about seven-year-old me. I reassured her that seven-year-old me turned out okay, despite my occasional status as a latch-key kid.

It's strange to think that, at her age, I was coming home from time to time to a house that was otherwise empty. It didn't happen often, but it wasn't unheard of. It wasn't a big deal.

I would also walk - sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend - to the strip mall near our home. We'd buy gum, or packs of "Return of the Jedi" cards at the local five and dime. Sometimes I would walk to the park and play with friends.

Yes, I had to tell my parents where I was going, but they didn't chaperone these expeditions.

I have fond memories of that independence. But I can't imagine letting my daughter do the same. She hasn't acquired the skills she'd need to be that independent. Because... of me?

Fostering independence in children: it might be an oxymoronic concept (wouldn't independence be something you develop independently?). And I know it is a topic too large to tie onto the end of this post. But I didn't want to leave it unremarked upon.

In this act of passing on to my daughter a skill that I acquired at her age - a skill that, in itself is of negligible utility, but which forms the foundation for a worthwhile pursuit - I caught a glimpse of the ways in which our childhoods are different.

Here is another difference: I'm not going to leave her stranded in the two-dimensional world of the crochet chain. I will give her the opportunity - should she choose to accept it - to turn those chains and explore the world of three-dimensional objects; to double crochet her way to her own blanket or sweater.

Who knows what dimensions she'll explore? Heck, maybe one day she'll crochet something really useful.

I hope it isn't a bikini.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's Already Tomorrow in Australia.

I was driving to the dentist the other day when I passed a local hardware store. The store has a sign that they usually use to announce sales and whatnot but, on that day, they had up the following saying:

"The world can't end today, it's already tomorrow in Australia."

I laughed.
But I'm not convinced.

Okay, I don't actually think the world is going to end today. (I'm less certain about tomorrow).

And, honestly, I don't believe that The World (as in the Earth) is likely to end at all. Is it going to be altered by humans? Yes. Are parts of it already pretty mucked up? Yes. But I think our planet is going to be revolving around the Sun for quite a while yet. We are changing it but, barring massive, all-out nuclear war, I don't think we'll end it.

I believe that by "The World" what we - or the guy on the street corner waving a sign that says "The End is Near!" - are talking about is our own individual worlds - our culture, society, lifestyle, family and friends, our governments and the institutions that sustain us.

Can the world truly end? In that sense, I think it can.

And I think that I'm not alone in that belief. I imagine it is a meme floating around in our collective unconscious - the Chicken Little meme - it facilitates the belief that the sky could be falling. Its presence is the reason some people stockpiled food before Y2K (among other things) - it makes the threat of disaster credible.

In the fable, Chicken Little was wrong - the first sign of the end was really just an acorn popping him on the head - but this didn't impact his ability to find some followers. Maybe it was crazy of Goosey Loosey and Drakey Lakey to put their faith in so little evidence, but I don't think it's nuts for us to think that the rug of stability could be pulled out from under our lives.

That meme is there for a reason. It isn't an accident that the theme of utter destruction and devastation pops up throughout myth, legend, history, and fairy tale. Those stories are a record of human experience.

Sometimes the sky really does fall in on us. Sometimes the world (writ on a personal or societal level) ends.

War, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, droughts. Invasions that displace thousands. Sieges. The fall of Rome. The fall of the Incan Empire. The Dust Bowl. Blankets infected with smallpox. Hurricane Katrina. Tsunamis and typhoons. It happens. It happens all the time. The sky falls. Over and over again, across human history and geography, the sky rains down unceasingly from above.

The United States is (or has been - some count it over) a global superpower for a number of decades. But we aren't the first political entity to have wielded such power - there was a time when all roads led to Rome; there was a time when the sun never set on the English Empire.

We won't be the last.

Hopefully the transition won't feel like the sky is falling.

The thing that I find most fascinating about all of this, though, is that there is a human characteristic that is just as strong - just as prevalent - as the Chicken Little meme. And it is, in some ways, its exact opposite.

It is a trust in sameness - the idea that tomorrow will, most likely, be pretty much like today. That the world won't end because the sun will rise tomorrow almost where it rose today. Of course it will rise. It's already up in Australia.

One of the places that this seems so clear to me is the realm of sustainability. Way back, when the "25 Things About Me" meme was floating around Facebook, I made a list of my own. Number 14: "I believe that everything that is not sustainable will eventually collapse."

I know that this is true. And yet, I keep behaving in ways that do not change our direction. I act as though our culture and society can continue at this pace of consumption without consequence. Even though I know it isn't true.

There isn't a logical reason for this behavior, beyond the truth that change is hard. Especially when it would take all of us changing direction in concert to avoid the iceberg. I don't think we can avoid it (because I'm Chicken Little) but I keep going on as though it won't. I drive my car and buy food at the store that was raised on a different continent. Most of us do.

In my mind, I see a tight rope strung between two poles: "the sky is falling!" and "the sun will come out tomorrow!" Both of which are fairy tales.

I imagine us - as individuals and, collectively, as cultures - on a unicycle balanced on the tight rope. Sometimes we veer closer to the meme of disaster, sometimes to the faith in sameness. Wobbling a little as we move back and forth.

Which is true? Where are we headed? Can we find stability?

It is already tomorrow in Australia. I guess they are that much closer to the day we find out.