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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fixing a Hole

I've been talking a lot about things I intend to do. Which makes sense: most of what I am doing right now is planning.

But there has been some doing as well, and these doings are rich with excitement. Last night, for instance, I darned a sock.

I know... Whoa.

There was a phase of my young adult life during which I always gave my older brother socks for Christmas. There's a back story there that would probably only entertain little sisters who like to tease their big brothers. And who doesn't need socks, right? Darned useful things.

After many Christmases of socks, I was talking to his wife and joked that I should think of something better than socks to give to him. She told me that he actually liked getting socks because socks are useful. And that he didn't understand the underlying teasing. Oh well.

I think that was the year that they sent me some socks in return.

The socks they sent match in pattern but not color; both are a mix of purple, lavender, turquoise and dark blue. They're funky. And nice socks. I wear them a lot, primarily because of their vibrant colors. It's not so much that these are my favorite colors - they aren't. It's the fact that, by virtue of being the only purple/lavender/turquoise/dark blue things in my sock drawer, I can always find the pair of them faster than any other pair of socks I own. It's a mighty helpful attribute.

But one of these socks, the generally more purple of the pair, ended up with a hole in the toe. I'm not the sort of person who tosses out a pair of socks just because of a single hole, but the situation kept getting worse, and I'd find myself in the morning confronting my sock drawer, able to find this one pair, and then scrambling for another simply because of this toe hole. It bummed me out. Not as much as the global economic crisis, of course - but even the small things can seem insurmountable before my first cup of coffee.

A few years ago, when my daughter was younger, I'd just picked her up from the YMCA babysitting room when she took a spill and skinned a big hole in her new pair of tights. After we determined that it was just a flesh wound, we both got a little sad about the hole: for my part, I was bummed about the money that had gone down the tube; she was sad because it had been her new favorite pair. And now, all seemed lost.

Luckily, my mom was visiting at the time. Mom took one look at the hole and said, "Let's darn it." Just as simple as that. And she did. We went home, I pulled out my embroidery thread (I can make an awesome friendship bracelet, FYI) and she made a huge rainbow-colored fix. It was brilliant, and my daughter loved it. She wore those tights for another two years.

It was sort of miraculous, really, the way my mom took an item that appeared to have its functional value diminish to a total loss and, in the space of fifteen minutes, gave it two more years of use life.

You might, correctly, point out that I could have gone back to Target and paid another $7.99 for an identical pair. I couldn't argue with you on that point.



I don't know how to articulate it, really. It's just that I'm trying escape that answer.

So yesterday I went onto YouTube and found a video of someone darning a sock.

Then I pulled out the sock, some yarn, and a needle, and darned it.

And, you know what? It's all better now.

It took thirty minutes or so to really get it all figured out and finished, but I don't think that's bad for a first attempt. I'm sure the next one will go more quickly. And I've got plenty that I can do: a cashmere sweater that has some moth holes; more socks; more of my daughter's tights.

I know, I know... We could probably just go to Wall-Mart and replace them, right? It would be simple and inexpensive. (Well, not the cashmere sweater - there's no chance we could replace that).

Going to Wal-Mart and buying more socks is, after all, the apparent answer to sock holes in our current cultural moment.

But I don't want to do that anymore. It is the easy answer, but I don't think it's the right one.

So I darned a sock. And, soon, I'll darn another!

And in fixing those holes, rather than chucking and replacing the whole sock, I'll feel the smug sense of satisfaction that comes with tearing one thread of the web that consumer culture and designed obsolescence have spun around us.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Challenge For You

A few months ago, my friend Jaye Wells blogged about National Buy a Book Day ( a day on which we could support authors by going to a book store and buying a book. In a fact of life about which I rarely thought prior to her post, authors don't make any money when people borrow books from the library or buy them second hand. That doesn't make either of those things bad (I frequent libraries and used book sales - I love them). But, you know, authors need to eat too, and National Buy a Book Day was designed to show them a little love.

Her post, and some comments and discussion that followed it, got me thinking. (I like thinking).

Authors are hardly the only creative people that are not richly rewarded for their work. I know a lot of people who have hobbies, or sidelines, or businesses, or business plans that involve the creation of something. Almost none are making a living at it. I know people who make jewelry, beer, cheese, scarves, dolls, photographs, music, paper, sculptures, incredibly cute crocheted animals, jelly, fruits and veggies, scones, paintings, stained glass windows, and yarn. And that's just a starter list, really.

Almost none of those people are well compensated - or compensated at all - for the time they spend.

I believe that humans create for the joy of it. I believe that the act of generating something new - and beautiful, or useful, or delicious - fills a need that most of us share. We do it because we love it. Because it is part of who we are.

But, let's be honest, even when we are fulfilling our need to create, it's also nice to get some recognition, some appreciation, and - sometimes - payment.

So I came up with this idea. I'm sending y'all on a quest.

Go out over the next few weeks and buy something that someone else has created. If your house is already full of stuff, don't limit it to a material object: buy a song, or a loaf of bread that you will consume. Or show your appreciation for someone's work by exchanging it with some of your own (thereby reducing your own pile of stuff: win-win).

I don't want to limit it by setting too many parameters - in large part because I want to see how creative everyone can get with this - but I'll toss out a few examples. You could:

Buy a turkey directly from the farmer who raised it;
Ask the person playing the pickle-barrel drums on the corner for a specific song and then put money in his money jar;
Buy a glass of lemonade from the kid selling it on the corner;
Hire someone who loves to cook make you a special meal;
Hire a string quartet to play at your holiday party;
Offer a child some money to create a piece of art for you (someone did this for me when I was a child - a gift for which I am still grateful);
Pay someone to teach you a creative skill;
Arrange for someone to write you a poem;
Hire someone to hand-make some of your holiday cards.

The two important things are that you seek out something that has been created by hand and that your economic transaction is with the person or persons who have worked to create the beer/poem/cheese/jelly/scarf/artwork. It is about both the creative act and the personal nature of the economic interaction.

And then come back and tell me about it.

I look forward to hearing your stories.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Boxing Day

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.

With this project, I'm setting out to learn those skills now. Better late than never.

And I thought (don't laugh!): "Maybe my kids would appreciate having the chance to learn some of these things while they are still young. It'll save them from having to acquire these skills later!"

Seriously. Stop laughing.

Before I had children, I had this idea about what my kids would be like. Sort of the Platonic Ideal of children. Clean. Well-behaved. They would listen to everything I said. Always fun to be around. Psychic (Yeah. Really. I mean, I realize now that that would really screw up the whole Santa thing, but what did I know back then?).

Perhaps you will observe, based on this list, that I was completely unfamiliar with the entire concept of children prior to becoming a parent.

We can add that to the list of things I didn't learn about growing up.

Now I recognize that I was envisioning my then-nonexistent children as extensions of myself. They were smaller, more perfect (and psychic!) versions of what I wished I could be. They would do what I asked because these fantasy mini-mes would want the exact same things.

Several thousand reality checks later, it's abundantly clear that neither of them is a small version of me.

Which is a fantastic thing.

My kids are great. They are funny and interesting, they have cool imaginations, enjoy reading, and don't complain too much when forced to listen to music that I like while we are driving in the car. Their listening skills are lacking... but if I weren't the one who has to clean up after them, force them to eat healthy foods, disappoint them daily with my failure to provide them with an endless supply of plastic toys, and nag them both into bed and out of it on school mornings (because, helpfully, they are always up that the crack of dawn on weekends), I think we'd be friends.

But we aren't friends.

I'm their well-intentioned (but often sorely mistaken) mom.

And sometimes things don't go quite as I'd planned.

So, I wanted to bring them along on this journey to self-sufficiency, and I cast about in my mind for a while to come up with a project that we could share. Eventually, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to give each of them a garden box in which they could plant whatever (legal) plans they wanted to grow come the spring.

I still think this is a really good idea. It is a way that they can be invested in a project, see it from beginning to end, and enjoy the literal fruits of their labors. Yes, I know that the odds of inducing them to consume veggies without an undue amount of angst are approximately 3,720 to one. Never tell me the odds!

A connection to the plants. A sense of pride in ownership and production. These will be the tools I use to facilitate their peace with the peas.

When I told them of my plan, they exhibited a great deal of excitement. They are super-cute when exhibiting a great deal of excitement.

Excitement! Fantastic! It was time to figure out how to make a garden box. And then, after I completed them with the loving assistance of my children, I'd blog about learning to make a garden box. Score.

If you have read my Projects post, you will already know that I have absolutely no experience building things, and that garden boxes were first on my list. It was a good choice for first project because it was - even for me - really simple.

Especially since someone else did the hard work.

I feel like I should talk more about the fantastic landlord that I have these days. The rental experience in which I was embroiled immediately prior to this one would have made me appreciate a simple scenario wherein we had a landlord that took our money in exchange for providing decent, safe, pleasant housing and a reasonable response time to problems.

We had a low, low bar.

It appears that I paid off some vast karmic debt with that last one because we have lucked out now with Lou and Don.

Among the many fantastic bonuses that come along with living here is the fact that, when I asked Lou if they had any wood from which I could build some garden boxes, I ended up receiving expertly sawn wood (and, yeah, I don't know what kind - 2-by-somethings? - probably a fact I should figure out if I'm going to build something else), screws, and the loan of one heck of an awesome drill.

Once everything was delivered to my back porch (yes! delivered!) it took about ten minutes to get everything screwed together. My son even helped with the drilling part, exhibiting a four-year-old's innate love of dangerous power tools.

It didn't take much longer for the whole kid-participation part to go to Hell.

I could tell you all the different topics about which my children fought over the course of the next hour as I tried to get the boxes positioned, weed-free cloth placed in the bottom, and horse poop piled inside...

Okay, actually, I couldn't tell you all the topics because after a while the different topics just all sound the same. And - since I didn't go into this part earlier, I'll tell you now - I had started the day by asking my daughter to fold her clean clothes and take them to her room ("That's so unfair, mom! Why should I have to do that?"), a request that culminated in an argument about chores, followed by a denouement of cleaning out her room (to the tune of my endless rant about endless piles of little plastic toys), before we even made it to Lou and Don's to get started with the garden boxes.

So, it hadn't been the best morning ever. And, from an interpersonal standpoint, it still had some downward spiral to travel.

The culmination came when I heard my daughter sobbing from inside the house (I'd given up on getting them to help shovel poop). I went inside to find her dressed in a bridesmaid dress I wore at a cousin's wedding over a decade ago and crying over a dead monarch butterfly with a crumbling wing. Her father had given her the butterfly years ago and she has treasured it since. The wing damage, she alleged, was due to her little brother - but it is hard for me to tell how hard one would have to joggle a butterfly that has been dead for years in order to get it to fall off.

In any event, both children had devolved to a state of tears and hysteria.

There was approximately zero interest in garden boxes at that point. And no interest in family activities. Or in what we might or might not grow the following summer.

Eventually I got both of them settled, to my chagrin, in front of the TV and watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was the one thing they seemed to agree on during the course of the day.

I got the boxes to a good stopping point and threw in the towel. The remaining horse poop will have to go in later this week.

It felt like a pretty big failure. Not the boxes. They are great. But the attempt to involve my children in this larger project that I would like to use to connect us to each other, and our environment, and our larger choices as a family.

Then, on the way out for the evening, my daughter got to talking about what she was going to grow in her box. Apparently it's sugar cane. And flowers.

My son chimed in, excited about tomatoes, carrots, and peas (all things he would disdain if I placed in front of him for dinner).

I realized then that this project that I am undertaking is not an event: it is a process.

So they lost interest after the first screws went in. Maybe they just felt more like bickering that day. But there will come a day when we choose the seeds to plant, and start them inside in their little peat pellets. There will be days when we plant the seedlings out for the year, days when we water and pull the weeds. And then there will be the days when we harvest our crops and I have to force the kids to eat them.

There is a long road ahead of us: with this garden, with this project, with our lives together. It's important that none of us let the bad moments define us.

Let it go. Focus, instead, on the coming miracle of sugarcane in Vermont. And how I'm lucky to get to share this project with two wonderful, funny, annoying kids.

I've edited to add a picture of the final product, filled and ready for the spring.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Whether Girl.

There are a lot of people who don't believe in global warming.

I haven't met a lot of people who don't believe in global warming up here in Vermont. People who have lived up here for a long time all recount how much warmer the winters are these days than they were a decade or two ago. The ground doesn't freeze solid like it used to, the spring thaw comes earlier and earlier, fruit trees set buds way too soon and a freeze kills them off, or apple picking comes a month or two early.

There is a lot of talk about this type of change around here.

I think some of it has to do with the fact that they actually have apple trees here. And maple trees. And veggie gardens they've been tending for years. And they view these enterprises as more than a hobby. I have never in my life been surrounded by so many people who are at least tangentially involved in food production. It connects people to their individual environment much more closely than happens when apples are things that come from the store and are purchased without knowing if they were grown in Washington or Argentina.

But, for all that awareness, I don't personally know if what they are seeing is the result of Global Climate Change (writ large) or shifting weather patterns.

Don't get me wrong, I believe our global climate is getting warmer.

I don't think there is a way you can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as humans have over the past three centuries and assert that it won't have an impact. But is the fact that March in Vermont now includes some warm, balmy days a result of global warming? I don't know. A sunny day in March just isn't reliable evidence either way.

At some level, it's just a nice day in March.

I believe there is a difference between what can be observed on a day-to-day basis - the things that occur at the level of a state or region and one person's notice - and global, long-term events. I'm not sure that I believe that global warming is something that is visible within the scope of human observation and recollection. You need ice cores and long-term pollen samples to really see what is happening. Not the Farmer's Almanac.

In any event, this post isn't about climate or weather. It's about elections and government. So I should get on to those.

As happens every two years, there was a major election this week. Not as major as the ones that happen every four years. But major. Some people won, some lost, majorities and minorities shifted in state and national legislating bodies and now things will, allegedly, be different.

Maybe they will be different. Maybe not.

When I look at politics, I feel like the stuff that I can observe is often a lot of sound and fury. A lot of yelling and posturing. Filibusters and mud-flinging and accusations.

The kind of stuff that I just tune out. Like the weather.

I'm not saying that I want to tune out our governmental process, or the trajectory of American history. It's just... I have a hard time staying focused when what I see is all the bluster.

And that's the way in which it all reminds me of climate change and weather. I feel like the elections that come and go every two years are like the freak storm events. Oh, you know it's going to snow come winter... But who would have thought that last year Maryland would have had more snow than Vermont? Freaky! Exciting! Something to shout about! Let's make prognostications about how this does or doesn't mean something regarding global climate!

I can't say with any accuracy if those five(?) feet of snow that fell on Silver Spring last year were harbingers of rising temperatures (because higher temperatures means more evaporation and more moisture in the air means more potential for precipitation, and greater temperature differences means that the atmosphere will work more quickly to redistribute the energy which, yes, can mean more snow - even though snow isn't usually equated with warmth).

I also can't say with any authority whether the recent elections will cause any real change in American government. Although I'll bet that there will still be shouting, and rhetoric, and gridlock. You know, the politics. That'll still be there. Just like there will still be tornadoes and blizzards.

And, let me tell you, all of that excites me about as much as a root canal.

So, maybe in the same way that a lot of people don't believe in global warming, I don't know that the evidence indicates that our government is headed towards Hell in a handbasket.

I am sure that American society has changed over the past two-plus centuries. How could it not? If you plucked one of the founding fathers out of his timestream and plopped him down in modern America it would blow his fucking mind.

And then he'd tweet about it! "@const. cong. Tea Party success 50/50 #tinyurl http://blah, blah, blah."

(Yeah. I don't get twitter.)

But we've still got the basic documents of governance to guide us. And we use them! They're great.

It is obvious that American society and culture have changed, as demonstrated by the blown mind of the time-dislocated founding father. But the cultural changes aren't, in and of themselves, a sign that our system of government has really altered. One hundred and fifty years ago, most of the people in America of African ancestry were slaves. A decade later, they were formally given the right to vote. There has been a massive social shift since and it has brought us to a moment where our society has elected a president of African heritage. Whatever your feelings about that president, that is a ton of cultural change. Our society is markedly different than it was before the Civil War.

And not just in that one way.

The process of American government by which Obama was elected, though... Has our governmental system changed substantively over that time?

Like climate change, it isn't something that I personally can get a hold on. I'm smarter than any of the people I've ever seen on Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segment, but - like a lot of Americans - my hold on the actual facts of government and history is spotty in areas.

And, unlike some bloggers, I'm not going to even pretend like I've cornered the market on facts.

The data is overlain with such a depth of cultural change in all areas - massive shifts in technology, economics, social issues, agriculture, and warfare. There is no control group here. There is no way to just observe the changes in government without all the rest.

Which makes it hard for me to tell if the people telling about our changing government, about how we are in danger of loosing it all, are really on to something. Or not.

People on all sides of the political spectrum make ominous prognostications about the direction our government is heading. Usually it's downward, to either the left or the right.

I have no data with which to debate them. Maybe we are driving it off into the ditch. But sometimes I feel like so much time is spent expending energy in the hoopla - the typhoons of scandal, dust-ups comparing politicians to Nazis, and deluges of mocked-up outrage, that it is hard to get a real intellectual grasp on the health of our governmental climate. Or which direction it might be heading.

A storm blew past us this last Tuesday. I can see the bands on the Woolly Bear caterpillar and prognosticate that another, bigger storm is coming two years from now.

But, honestly, I can't say if the coming storm - or the one we just weathered - is evidence of larger changes or not.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A few months ago, I was at the doctor's office. The sleep doctor. I snore.

Or, I did snore: now I have a CPAP machine. The woman scheduling at the front office informed me that I would need to make an appointment for six months in the future.

"What," she queried, "is a good day for you in December?"


How on Earth, I wondered, could I say with any certainty what day I would have free in six months? Does anyone know what their schedule will look like that far in advance?

I feel the same way about coming up with a list of projects that I'm going to do over the next year. How on Earth can I speculate with any accuracy as to what I'll have time for next August?

Oh, yeah. I'll have time for it next August by planning it now. Right?

Without making a to-do list, I won't have anything to work towards, and I won't have any way of measuring my progress.

Plus, there are things that I know I want to try, and maybe some of you have insight you can offer on doing them.

So, with the caveat that this list is sort of a moving target and things might get shifted around somewhat, I am hereby presenting a list of planned projects.

Updated to add: I have changed the text of the projects that have been completed to green and, when I have also blogged about the results, I added the individual post title. Enjoy!

Garden boxes - see Boxing Day;
Duck pen;
Shoe shelf/bench;
Entryway furniture;
Futon frame.

Grow veggies from seeds;
Try growing some new veggies/fruits;
Save seeds.

Food Prep
Cook the food I grow (a topic ripe for exposition);
Make kids eat food I grow and then cook (dream on, mom!);
Preserve food (I have a dream of organizing a class - another topic for exposition).
Try making some cheese?
Get back to making yogurt?

Learn to fix holes in socks - see Fixing a Hole;
Sew next year's Halloween costumes;
Make NPS junior ranger pin banners (long story, but the short story is we're dorks);
Figure out how to mend Rick's pants, or what I can do with them (long story);
Make something for each member of family to wear;
Improve crocheting - I've done some - see The Chain.
One big project, to be determined...

(I know I want to try some of these things, but it is hard to say what I am going to be able to make work).
Try beekeeping?
Raise ducks?
Maybe chickens or guinea fowl?
Find someone with other animals and learn from them about care.
Learn about slaughtering/processing?
Try dairying with goats?
Try to get some wool or fleece?

Weird and random stuff:
Wild food investigations;
Preserving hides;
Take a fleece from sheep to final product (except not a sheep because of the lanolin);
Use up all my basket-making material;
Alligator wrestling (because Gavin said it was inevitable);
Should hunting and butchering go here?
Loose tons of weight (because it goes on all my lists).

Finish three short stories, shop them around;
Blog at least once a week.


I am sure that there is more. I know there is. But this is the horizon thus far. If there is something you think I'm missing, let me know.

Now I should probably go and find out when I scheduled my appointment with the sleep doctor. December, and the date when I alleged to be free, is almost here.

Monday, November 1, 2010


I have no desire to own pigs. Pork is great - I'm all for it - but pigs seem like a ton of work.

Yesterday, however, I was cleaning out our fridge and it made me think of pigs.

Cleaning out the fridge is a depressing task because I am confronted with the large amount of food that we waste. Some of it is just little bits and noshes: the last dregs of mac and cheese that Will always seems to squirrel away back there; a few bites of a sandwich; half an apple that I intended to serve for dinner and then forgot about. Some of it, however, is large: a container of yogurt I forgot, half a pizza that never made it to the table as leftovers, a bag of shredded cabbage that should have become pad thai.

The cabbage and the apples will make their way to our compost pile. They will at least have a second life as nutrients in our garden, feeding the next generation of veggies that will wilt and decay in our fridge.

The pizza, yogurt, and mac and cheese just end up in our garbage. A complete and utter loss.

As I throw these foods away, they remind me of the money we spent (and the time spent earning that money) in order to purchase them; of the time, labor and energy that went into growing them; and of the resources that went into packaging them and delivering them from the field and factory to the grocery store.

If I don't ponder it deeply, the action of throwing away food - taking a piece of Tupperware out of my fridge, peaking timidly inside, wrinkling my nose at the smell of moldy chili or old eggs, and then dumping it in the trashcan - doesn't seem like much more than an unpleasant chore. But when I think of the resources that went into what I have just thrown away... it saddens me.

One answer to this problem is to do a better job of meal planning and eating leftovers. I try. I really do. And if you guys have suggestions on how to make that happen, I'm all ears. Because I suck at it. Somehow, planning meals just results in the production of more formal, well-planned meals, which in turn results in more partial, leftover meal fragments in sadly rotting in their cold Tupperware coffins at the end of the month.

What? Yes. Of course I clean out my fridge monthly. Don't you?

Rick tells me that his mom used to take all the leftovers they produced, whatever they were, and put them in their freezer in a big container. Then, once the container was full, she would take the whole thing and dump it into the crockpot and cook it into a meal that she called "FreezerPot," a meal that reflects her vast and wise sense of thrift.

I believe that this meal worked for them in large part because my mother-in-law's (very fine) cooking tends towards mostly foods of a similar style, so that FreezerPot probably would have contained some veggies, some spaghetti, some ground beef, and maybe a little rice. Things that don't clash when combined.

FreezerPot in my house would likely end up being some unholy combination of enchiladas, pad thai, hummus, tortellini, potato soup, yogurt, and a chunk of bleu cheese. I don't think I could convince myself to eat it, let alone the kids. Dire threats would be involved. It would be the thing that my children would use to underscore the unpleasantness of their childhoods. For them there would be no stories about how hard life was when they had to walk uphill both ways to school. Instead, they would talk about the scars created by being forced to eat barftastic, pan-ethnic FreezerPot.

You know who would probably dig barftastic, pan-ethnic FreezerPot? A pig. A pig would be all over that action.

When I was in elementary school, the cafeteria had two large garbage cans. One was for containers and paper bags: the general trash stuff. The other was for slops. Looking in the slops can always, for me, produced a dire sense of nausea that I am sure is familiar to anyone who has a suggestible stomach. It looked barftastic. But it was all technically edible. I don't know who said it or how this information to me, but I remember at some point being told that these slops were, "for the pigs."

Now, I'm not going to dwell too deeply on the fact that there were probably very few pigs in North Dallas by the time I was in elementary school. When I was younger there were farms within a few miles of us just north of LBJ. My Montessori preschool was nestled amongst them until they were razed to make way for the Galleria shopping mall. After that, it seems like getting slops to the nearest pig would be something of a commute. So I don't know how far these fine food items might have had to travel before they were united with swine who could appreciate them. But the intention was there. And it made sense. Even as a Kindergartener, I could see that one meal at a small elementary school cafeteria could produce of an awful lot of food waste.

Pigs, like us, are omnivores. And I am led to believe that they aren't very discriminating about what they get all omnivorous with. Giving food that has passed beyond my tolerance for consumption to a pig recycles the wasted calories of spoiled yogurt into the potential calories of bacon. (Mmmmm bacon). Which makes way more sense than just throwing those calories in a trash bag and taking them to the dump to be forever entombed in a landfill.

Of course, in order to make use of this fantastic calorie-recycling program, there needs to be a pig somewhere. Which brings me back to my initial reluctance to personally take on the responsibility of a pig. They are big and they have needs. I've already got two small people and a cat with needs that I don't seem to be able to meet on a day-to-day basis. I don't need to add a pig to this mix.

Therefore, this is not a post that is going to come to a simple conclusion.

At present, I am left with a general notion that there is more to explore on this topic. As much as it seems like our family wastes a lot of food, it isn't enough to actually feed a pig. So maybe I need to find more families that want to band together to slop and care for a pig. Because who wouldn't want that, right? It's the perfect project of community responsibility and reward. Pass on your food scraps, clean out the pen once or twice a month and, at the end of the year, we can have a luau!

Or not.

It is almost certainly the case that I would be better off entirely by finding someone who is already raising pigs and providing my food waste to them, excising the guilt without the responsibility.

Which sort of sums up the American style of penance, doesn't it? There's a post topic for another day.

While driving in the car with my family yesterday, I asked Rick if he had ever had a slop bucket at his elementary schools. After all, he grew up in Kansas, Colorado, and Georgia. Surely they would have had just as much of a shot of having pigs that needed slopping as we did in Dallas. Right? He just looked at me like I was crazy.

But L piped up from the back seat. She knew exactly what I was talking about: they have a slop bucket at her current elementary school. And, in truth, I would be astounded to learn that there isn't more than one pig currently living somewhere in our town. This place isn't North Dallas.

So maybe the answer to my issues about waste (beyond reduction - which I still need to figure out) is to find out if there is someone, or "Some Pig" in our neighborhood who would be delighted with the occasional gift of FreezerPot.