Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Hint of Fall

It's not quite September yet, but we're getting our first taste of fall. A cold front drifted through yesterday, and the overnight temperature dropped to 65F: blanket weather! We haven't had the window units on for a couple of days already. I'm not sure how much money that actually saves, since the animals shed more in the heat, and I expend a measurable amount of electricity hoovering up. Great mounds of hair came off of Woody (a tall, elegant mutt with an undercoat like a Huskie) when I used the furminator on him, and I need to repeat the exercise today, unless I can convince both dogs to spend most of the day out of doors, shedding into the grass.

If it weren't for the mozzies, this would be perfect gardening weather. I am, in fact, going to suck it up and dowse myself in repellant later, so I can execute some cleanup. We attempted to sip our wine out under the trees last night, but despite my new herbal spray bug-off stuff, I was bitten eight times in five minutes, so we quickly retreated. It's back to the Cutters today, I'm afraid. But the chives are in bloom, the tomatoes have finally set fruit, and the mexi-bell peppers are beginning to ripen, so it's time to tidy up and plant a few fall things (beans, squash) and splash some nourishment around.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were feeling particularly flush, we visited Elliott's Hardware (a real, old-fashioned hardware store that reminds me of Gwen Gardner's store on Main Street in Lone Pine, even though the merchandise is spread out over much larger area and is rather easier to locate) and bought a rain barrel and some Garrett Juice. The rain butt hasn't been installed yet, partly because it's so butt-ugly (sorry) that we can't decide where to put it; it's just like the one on this how-to video, so at least we'll know exactly how to do it when we figure out where it goes.

The Garrett Juice is the ready-made version of a concoction invented by local organic gardner, Howard Garrett (better known around here as the Dirt Doctor), who offers instructions on how to make your own on his website (He also explained how to make your own rain barrel in a recent Dallas Morning News column). But since I'm never that organized, I bought a couple of gallons of the concentrate, and smaller jugs of the special versions for tomatoes and veg. Those go on the garden today, although the front-porch pots have already been given their treat and are much the better for it.

Even though I know this lovely, cool weather (it'll only get to around 88F today, and the humidity's so low that it won't feel any warmer than that) won't last longer than a few days, I'm ready to enjoy it. I experienced one of those smell-related floods of nostalgia this morning when I cut open a peach and was transported back to my grandmother's kitchen. The sheer dryness of the morning, combined with the rich, ripe fragrance of the peach reminded me immediately of late-summer high-desert mornings in the kitchen of my grandparents' bungalow next to the LADWP power station at Cottonwood. I'm not sure how we got the peaches (I remember mostly blackberries and walnut trees, but there were probably fruit trees as well), but they were sweet and juicy and sticky and smelled fantastic. To this day I judge a peach by its potential to rise to that standard.

I was fortunate on my way home from class on Thursday to find fresh, local white peaches on sale at the grocery I'm frequenting until Whole Foods opens nearby. (No, I'm not boycotting Whole Foods Market; the CEO is entitled to his views and I'm not about to condemn the whole store because I disagree with him!) Anyway, I bought two huge peaches that smelled promising, and the Beloved Spouse and I shared one this morning.

I spent the rest of my morning-sitting-in-comfy-chair-reading time drifting back and forth between north Texas prairie and eastern California intermontane desert. Not a bad way at all to start the day.

This afternoon will be devoted to compost turning and sweeping up squirrel-dropped half-eaten unripe pecans, cast-off squirrel nests, and myriad broken branches that have come down as a result of the nice breeze blowing through. I'll also clear a spot for beans and squash, and maybe plant some amaranth in the border, where I've got some gaps left by Beloved Spouse's overly-enthusiastic "trimming of the verge" earlier in the summer. I just might then mosey over to the garden store for a new watering can to use with the Garrett Juice. Something purple or periwinkle blue would cheer me up no end when the weather goes back to being miserable, before fall really does set in.

Images: Blooming chives among fallen pecan leaves, baby yellow cluster tomatoes (not yet yellow), Mexi-bell pepper almost ripe, and a smirking fuzz-tailed tree rat.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not So Bad News From Nowhere

I'm not usually one to find--or even seek--silver linings, but I keep seeing examples of positive outcomes from the recent troubles plaguing economies around the globe. It's much simpler, of course, to notice these locally, in the United States, whose population is far wealthier than many on other continents. And once again I do not mean to belittle or diminish the suffering of those who have lost jobs, income, homes, and livelihoods because of the recession.

However, it's impossible for me not to attend to some signs of useful change, especially when articles about shifting economic priorities are continuously being featured in the news, and not only on the front page of the daily rag's Business section or in the Economics And You portion of the op/ed pages. They're showing up everywhere: Front-page news about new kinds of jobs; articles in the Features pages about xeriscaping, organic gardens, city chickens, eating well at home on less, and wiser shopping; the Metro section's pieces on local green buildings, efforts at pollution control, and more healthful lunches in school cafeterias.

I admit that some of these might be more indicative of negative economic issues (less shopping means less income for merchants, and the possible failure of more businesses), but on the other side of the situation lies the possibility that we're exchanging our recent greed-based acquisitiveness for a more home-centered, frugal way of life (in both economic and environmental terms). This shift promises to generate new businesses that more responsibly serve local communities.

One ironic result is that bankruptcies of large franchised businesses might bring back the mom and pop stores, the small-business entrepreneurs that once served as the mainstay of communities but which have been all but eliminated by the rise of big supermarkets and dime stores--later, dollar stores. Cheap goods available at big boxes are attractive on tight budgets, but they rarely reflect a community's values or address their real needs. Perhaps in a sliding global economy the old post office-general store-pub/cafe culture might again knit villages and small towns together into viable decentralized economies.

I'm not terribly sanguine about this prospect--because all the talk about new energy sources seems to focus on huge systems of power transfer across immense grids--but I can dream. My utopian bones are vibrating to the tune of possibility. What if, for example, somebody could design local energy systems fueled by wind and sun, and every member of the community could contribute to a local collection/distribution grid? Instead of sending all of McKinney's coal/nuke/wind-generated energy into a regional MegaPower company (in north Texas that's OnCor, even though Beloved Spouse and I buy our power from Green Mountain), we could create our own with home- and business-based systems of wind and solar collectors.

Instead of massive powerlines carrying electricity hither and yon, we could make and use our own, and send the excess into a locally centralized storage system (that would require fewer lines, most of them underground, perhaps) for distribution among members of a local co-op.

While I'm fantasizing, how about a taxpayer-supported (i.e. shared) system of garden allotments within city limits, in vacant lots of failed big-box stores, where mini-produce farms and "farmers" could grow what they want to eat, and share the surplus with one another and needy families. Children could be taught the principles of organic gardening as part of school curricula, and even perhaps get their hands dirty with a bit of weeding and harvesting.

I have never really understood why "civilized" folks seem to measure their success by how many of their needs are supplied by other people: the ones who collect our garbage, service our sewer systems, take care of and educate our children, clean our homes, cook our meals, make our clothing, etc. "Successful" Americans buy huge suburban houses with environmentally absurd expanses of lawn, and then hire labor forces to cut the grass and deposit the clippings onto city streets with noisy, air-polluting leaf-blowers. Then we complain about paying the taxes that allow the city itself to hire people to clean the streets. But the economic downturn shows some promise of stimulating a bit more self-reliance among local citizens.

What I'm noticing in the papers and in news sources online is an increasing number of stories about people who are learning to do more for themselves, or at least to channel their cash into projects that help communities rather than focus primarily on their own little plot of land. In some cases, the stories are about wealthy folks out there doing the right thing with their big yards--turning them into more natural or at least environmentally sensible landscapes, or even into appropriate gardens. Even if these folks are doing so to save money on increasingly high water bills, the motive doesn't negate the beneficial effects of their actions.

Neighborhoods of suburban moms who have been a bit reluctant to shell out cash for high-dollar summer camps are sharing expertise among their children, providing mini-camps that teach kids how to garden, sew, and cook. Cash-strapped families are staying in town, or at least close to home and taking advantage of local museums and arts venues. If families keep this up, we might generate both brighter kids and closer-knit communities.

Some of the high-dollar government incentives to stimulate the economy seem to be working, and some show real promise: Cash for Clunkers, tax rebates for first-time home buyers, and the up-coming energy-efficient appliance rebates. But real economic change should include plans to promote green energy development and support the companies that use and supply the new technologies with low-cost educational loans or programs to train people to operate them, like the one now being promoted by the President. Changing technologies means changing jobs--but it doesn't have to mean a net loss in total jobs. It's undoubtedly difficult to switch career paths and undertake new training, but it might actually be more rewarding to work for a company that won't be poisoning your grandchildren's air and water supply.

I'm perfectly aware that for every one of these "good news" articles, there are probably twenty that chronicle the bad news. But for years I found far fewer indications that we might finally be getting things right, even though I was looking for them. I started this blog in part to help me understand what was happening to my planet, by remembering what it was like, thinking about possible solutions to multiple ills, and noting what we had lost before we lost it forever.

These days I hear a lot of talk about wanting "my America" back--but I think the folks who're chanting this slogan in opposition to the present administration's attempts to help us recover from recession are failing to realize that many of us have been wanting "our America" back for a long time. And we finally seem to be succeeding. A very little bit at a time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wellness for All

Health issues have been, for reasons I've previously noted, a topic of concern in my household of late. I do not understand, however, why they've become so political elsewhere, when they should be primarily economic (in the home-keeping sense of the word), which is why I feel pressed to devote more space than usual to my own take on the situation.

The ephemeral notions of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" on which this nation was, in part, founded have set up expectations among some of the citizenry that government should be practically invisible (it shouldn't tax, it shouldn't tell you what to do, and it sure as hell shouldn't interfere in the market). "Liberty" has become a mask for fiscal and personal irresponsibility because it seems to mean (from what I can hear over the screams) freedom from government interference in anything (except in regard to sex and its consequences) and (especially) freedom to pack any kind of firearm I want, whenever and wherever I want.

There isn't much talk in these crowds about the freedom to hold civil discourse on important issues, or liberty as being built on a marriage of rights coupled with responsibilities.

I was taught by those fierce nuns at Dominican School in Taipei that caritas was a basic Christian virtue. I was also taught that citizenship required civility. I never read anything in the New Testament (and I read huge chunks of it in the original Greek) about its being acceptable to shout down any idea you don't particularly agree with. Caring about the health and well-being of ones fellow citizens is one of those virtues you'd think would be among the first on anybody's list of responsibilities.

I'm not going to get into the emerging evidence that many of the town hall meetings designed to discuss health care reform have been infused with corporate money and recruiting by the industries involved, or by their spokespeople. I'll leave that to Rachel Maddow, who seems to be on top of the situation. But I do want to talk about the "shape" of medical care in this country, and even make a plea for reason in the debate about public options and/or single-payer plans.

The bugaboo surrounding "socialized medicine" is tied to the old-school statist Communism of Lenin and Stalin. As you may have noticed, that model of socialism has all but disappeared, and is only still maintained in marginal (although potentially dangerous) areas of the world, like North Korea, where charismatic leaders have managed to jam their citizens' neural responses with some kind of political opiate.

Lots of perfectly reasonable countries in the world (well, reasonable to me) are governed by systems that combine elements of socialism with free-market economics, like England, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, etc. All of these countries have universal health care, lower health costs, lower infant mortality rates, and comparable or lower abortion rates, but somehow because America is different (read: better), we can let our free-market system decide who gets taken care of and who doesn't. The "invisible hand" that keeps the market from being too focused on its own well-being will take care of things for us. Everything will be fair and earn a profit, and we'll have the best health care system in the world. I can hear the moldy remains of Adam Smith rolling around in his coffin as I type.

Smith, as a few folks may remember, having read his Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments in economics class, said in the latter book that "By acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effective means for promoting the happiness of mankind" (Part III, Ch. V). I'm pretty sure he didn't mean "promoting the happiness of a select group of mankind."

The truth is, we do not have the best health care system in the world. We actually do a sorry job of birthing babies and seeing our loved ones die with dignity, according to their own wishes. We pay more and get less than any other major industrial nation. [For a variety of sources to support this contention, see the WHO World Health Report 2008--the chart is on p. 82--and posts on The Science Blog and The Moderate Voice]. Yes we do a lot of research, but that doesn't make up for the the fact that so many citizens of the country lack coverage at all.

To be sure, excellent care is available to all who can afford it. I'm a prime example of this fact. I have a pricey (very) insurance plan with a $500 deductible that covers 100% of about anything except elective cosmetic surgery and sex changes. My bill for treatment at the Baylor Heart Hospital, Resort, and Spa cost about $135,000, of which I ended up paying $166 (the amount left on my deductible for this year). The insurance company actually shelled out $35,000 (after paying only the negotiated prices for each segment of the three-page bill I received)--which makes one wonder how much all of this stuff actually costs.

But what about the poor sucker who's worked his tail off at minimum wage for years, eaten crappy food because he lacks the education and the pocketbook to shop at Whole Foods (Oops! There's another can of worms!), goes home after work and watches TV with a six-pack of Bud Light next to his La-Z-Boy? I apologize in advance for the stereotype, but it's been exploited in other quarters for opposite reasons.

When this guy feels chest pains, as he inevitably will, he's going to end up in the ER, where you and I are footing the bills through the aforementioned blue-chip plans, and through various taxes that support public hospitals. And the insurance companies are still going to make a profit, even though Joe Six-Pack may well die or become disabled.

Admittedly, I've cost my health care plan a considerable amount of money, and they're in the business of making money. But I've also paid them a truckload--and so has my company. The combined stated costs of my surgeries over the last fifteen years (a four-vessel bypass and a valve replacement) is about $170,000 (not counting any of the tests that led up to the actual chest-crackings). Notice, by the way, how the costs of comparably difficult surgeries has risen in the interval. The monthly cost involved, spread over fifteen years, is under $1000 per month, even at full rates, which the insurance company does not pay. If the actual paid amounts of this last hospitalization were spread out over seven years (half the time between operations; that should take care of the tests and drugs my plan has also paid for), the monthly cost to the insurance company would average in the neighborhood of $415--less than what my company and I pay in premiums.

If you factor in Beloved Spouse (who has a much less generous BCBS benefit), the per-family cost to Blue Cross/Blue Shield goes down significantly, because his total hospital time in the twenty years of our marriage is about three days, including one out-patient surgery. I don't even want to think about what my recent week of rest and relaxation would have cost us if I were covered under his plan.

When my mother was living out her final three years of life in Dallas, she was on Medicare and Medicaid (her total income was $300 per month from my father's Social Security), which paid a large percentage of her constant medical bills--but we paid the rest, and are still paying. Her hospital bills got "zeroed out" because she was essentially indigent, but we paid for the drugs that weren't covered. These were not cheap, and we were still living on adjunct pay because neither of us had yet secured a full-time teaching job. If we hadn't paid for even that much, she would have done without and died rather sooner. Mind you, the doctors at the Baylor Senior clinic did their best to fix her up, so I've got no complaint against those guys. But the system is deeply flawed, and the President is absolutely right to make fixing it a top priority.

Trouble is, the louder members of the populace are making it really difficult to get anything meaningful done, because all somebody has to do is scream "I don't want socialized medicine! This is a free country! Don't tell me what to do with my health care!" and the politicians scramble into their little warrens, and quake in fear of not getting re-elected if they do the sensible thing--which is to get to work reforming a system that leaves about fifty million people to cram the waiting areas at local emergency rooms.

Here's my deep dark secret, and the reason why I'm not moved by all the scary talk. I was taken care of by "socialized medicine" for the first eighteen years of my life. My father was career Air Force, and I was covered as his dependent. Get this, folks: under military health care (at least as I knew it), you don't get to choose your doctors, you wait for elective surgery, and you don't get to choose the expensive name-brand drugs. Just like those systems in Europe. But you do get high-quality care, and you get it when you need it.

In a few years I'm going to be eligible to participate in another socialized medical system, into which I've been paying for my entire working life. Most of the folks I know are happy with Medicare, and want to see it go on being funded. If they don't like the level of cushiness, they can pay extra to a private company and get additional benefits. And that's exactly the way any public option would work in the bills being proposed by Congress.

The difference is that Joe Six-Pack would finally have health insurance, because there would be something he could afford. And if he could go to a doctor on a regular basis, he might learn that eating Fritos and drinking beer and watching TV all the time might not be the way to prolong his life. And he would get help in changing his habits. And if he did end up on the critical list, he'd be able to have a doctor help him decide about living wills and such so that he could go out on his own terms. And no, the doctor would not decide for him.

I know I'm over-simplifying the situation--but not nearly as much as the screamers are, and most of them seem not to know what they're talking about. Whether or not they're being paid to hold up placards and bibles and such doesn't really matter. What matters is that they're getting in the way of serious, productive conversations about what's really going on, what's really in those bills, and what will happen to our kids and grandkids if we don't repair the system now.

Before I finally shut up for the moment, I offer Owlfarmer's Health Care Toolkit: A few random suggestions for improving the situation with little damage to our own pocket books.
  • Stop advertising drugs on TV. Period.
  • Stop advertising booze on TV. Period.
  • De-eroticize advertising; sex is not the only way to sell stuff.
  • Offer sensible, straightforward information about sex in middle school.
  • Insist that your children's school include physical education and health in their curriculum.
  • Prepare and eat healthful meals at home, with family or friends.
  • Get real exercise: run the dog, dig up the garden, mow the lawn with a push-reel.
  • Have children tested at birth for high cholesterol.
  • Know your family's health history, and act to mitigate congenital defects.
  • Have a yearly checkup.
  • Work hard, but not too hard (if you've got work, that is).
  • Play. Rest. Talk. Read.
  • Drink in moderation and stay sober.
  • Walk or bike to places you can reach easily without driving.
  • Stay out of the mall; shop at places where you have to walk around in the open air.
  • Help reduce chemical particulates in the air by driving less, avoiding chemical "air fresheners" and artificial "fragrances," reducing your use of petroleum-based products, etc.
  • Support local agriculture by buying seasonal produce at farmers' markets or grocers who sell local farm goods, or by joining a CSA.
  • Read labels; know what you're eating and how much processing is involved.
I could go on and on and on, but I think these are good ways to reform health care at a very basic level, and they're all stuff I've blabbed/blogged about before. If we want to change the way health care is provided and administered in this country, we also have to take on our share of responsibility for staying well. The first five of these require community effort, but in the end, change starts at home.

Image credits: Ayers Cathartic Pills label; Van Dyke, Charity, both from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Another Summer Sunrise

The moon at dawn . . . recorded on an iPhone. At times like this I wish I had the cute little Nikon CoolPix job we just bought my daughter for a graduation present. But I can't not take sunrise pictures if there's anything at all handy to use.

The opening shot is taken from my driveway before I left at 6:15 for work.

The rest were taken from the roof of the parking garage (at about 6:45) except for the last--which doesn't involve much sky, but was kind of interesting. It's what greeted me when I came downstairs from the roof. The problem with having this stuff in your blood is that during the whole drive to Dallas I keep noticing the shots I'm not getting because I'm on the bloody freeway.

Ahh, smog. Gotta love what it does to a sunrise photo:

I do promise better stuff in future, but this is midterm week and I'm up to my eyeballs in grading. I'll also start hauling around the D80 again, in hopes of doing future sunrises more justice. Have a great weekend.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Parking Lot Sunrises

I don't have time for a full-blown blog post here, because I have to go teach about Roman and Byzantine art and design, but I've have had a theme going on my iPhone for some time and I thought it might be time to upload the results.

These are all photos of sunrises taken with an antique 2-megapixel phone camera, either whilst stopped at a light or from a parking lot somewhere. Now that I have two 8 am classes and have to leave by 6:30, I see quite a number of sunrises:

These last two are from this morning. The last one was taken right after the first, but with the sun reflected in the building opposite.

Happy Skywatch Friday, folks. Have a great weekend.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Airing the Laundry

Clairz's response to my last post brought on such a nostalgic wash of memories that I had to get the following down before I could begin to deal with the usual Sunday class-prep chores.

My best-ever laundry story, bits of which may have already been told on this blog, involves mulberries, Cedar Waxwings, and three dozen cloth diapers.

When we first moved to this corner of the globe from New York, my growing family rented a little house in a close-in northern suburb of Dallas in an old development marked by Cape Cod inspired cottages on streets with New Englandish names (ours was on Provincetown Lane). So much for genuine prairie living.

Out of this little house my daughter was born, three months after we moved in. Because I was something of an earth mama (and breast-milk pumping donator to a Red-Cross milk bank, don'tcha know), I eschewed the growing practice of wrapping one's baby's bum in paper and plastic. For the first couple of months I subscribed to a diaper service; after that, it was washed-at-home and dried-in-the-sun cloth diapers--a couple of which I still use as dust cloths. I only ever used disposables when travelling, and since we didn't travel all that much and my kids toilet trained themselves early, I've never had to feel particularly guilty about contributing very many nasty little bundles to landfills.

Our laundry room was just behind the kitchen, but I had to go out into the garage to access it, and I only had my 35 year-old Maytag washer--no dryer. Even when I got one, a couple of years later, I preferred to hang my laundry on an umbrella-type clothesline. In that first house, though, I simply strung line from one tree to another in the back yard. Adjacent to the yard, however was another tree: a purple mulberry. Once or twice a year now I note the coming and going of Cedar Waxwings, mostly because of the experience that summer, thirty years ago when the mulberries fruited later than usual, and I wasn't paying attention. One day, after washing the week's diaper pail contents and stringing them like white flags all over the yard, I went in for a "feed and read" (when I nursed the baby and read to my son). After the children were down for their naps, I went out to check on the diapers.

My flags, alas, had been profusely decorated with purple mulberry-juice colored bird poop. Every last one of them. And the culprits, dozens of them, were still there, chirping and pooping away, all over the diapers. I truly didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

In the end, though, I took them all down, re-washed them (with a bit of extra Clorox--because I didn't know any better at the time), and re-hung them after the birds had left for the day, just in time to start supper.

Many years later, when the children were grown and their parents were each well into new lives with new spouses, and after I'd spent several year living a more urban life (in Chicago we had to use a laundromat, but in Dallas I still dried my laundry on the line whenever possible), I ended up in this wonderful old house with a back-porch laundry room that reminds me of the one my grandmother had in her little house next to the Cottonwood power plant in Owens Valley. Even the house in town where she moved after my grandfather died had a washing machine (but never a dryer) on the back porch, handy to the clothesline outside.

I have an energy-efficient gas dryer now, and, alas, tend to use it more often than not. But I try to get bedding, dish towels, cloth napkins (I've never used the paper versions of those, either), and even bluejeans out on the line. I actually enjoy seeing them all strung out from my study window, especially when there's a breeze. Clair's remark about neighborhood objections to sights like these reminds me of why I chose not to live anywhere with a "neighborhood association" or zoning restrictions on laudable objects like clotheslines, chickens, victory gardens in front, and the like. I guess one of the best things about living in an historic district is that they sort of expect people to hang out the wash--or at least they know enough to tolerate it. As long as I don't hang out Beloved Spouse's y-fronts in the front yard, I don't think anyone around here would really complain, anyway.

The irony, of course, is that in this time of economic difficulty and environmental hazard, simpler technologies and old-fashioned practices make increasing sense. I hope that the situation ends up causing enclave-dwellers with restrictive HOA rules to re-think the nature of the communities into which they're gating themselves. Flying knickers on a clothesline actually say better things about a person's ethics than dwelling securely behind iron bars, free from the "taint" of chickens contentedly clucking as they rid the yard of bugs and lay lovely fresh eggs, or the uniquely reassuring smell of laundry dried in the sun.

Image credit: Berthe Morisot, Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry, 1875. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Putting the Recess Back In Recession

Before I begin musing once again about interesting (to me, at least) linguistic phenomena, let me preface my remarks by noting that I am fully aware that the recession has hurt many people, and these may not find much of a silver lining in the current economic situation. The President himself has recently noted that while Americans are losing jobs, the recovery--however promising it might look to some of us--has a long way to go.

That said, I did want to mention some of the more positive events that have been collecting in my pile of tear-sheets from the newspaper, and to muddle around in yet another etymological connection.

We probably all remember that blessed moment in elementary school every day (sometimes twice) called "recess," when we'd all pour out of doors happily to escape our educational imprisonment for twenty minutes of running around screaming, playing on the monkey bars, playing four-square, or jump-rope, or trying to elude the reigning bully. It occurs to me now that all my memories of "recess" are drawn from the single year I spent in a U. S. school, between my father's stints in Japan and Taiwan. All my schooling before and after that occurred in Asia, until I returned home permanently to begin high school--and I don't really remember "recess" as part of my experience overseas.

The only other "recess" story I have involves my son, and the first pre-school he attended at about 4 and a half. Since he could already read, I let the administrators place him in a reading program meant to encourage and build on existing abilities. But when I picked him up after his first day, he announced in no uncertain terms that he hated reading. Oops! It turns out that the school's special program involved keeping kids in from recess to read instead of going out to play.

Now, I don't know whose lame-ass idea that was, but I yanked that kid out that school the very next day, and eventually found a Montessori school out in the country, which turned out to be about the best thing that ever happened to either of my children (my daughter started there at 18 months, at her own insistence). Recess to children in this country is sacrosanct, so if you want to, say, break them from smoking or drinking, insist that they stay in for recess to do it, and the problem is licked.

All silly jokes aside, "recess" was once a good thing. But because it comes from the same root as the dreaded word "recession," I thought that playing around with the innate concepts involved in that root might be illuminating, and suggest reasons for some of the more positive views of the current economic moment that are starting to emerge.

The noun, recess, according to the OED, refers to "the act of retiring for a time from some occupation; a period of cessation from usual work or employment," or "cessation from work, relaxation, leisure." It comes from the Latin resessus (from the verb recidere, to recede, draw back, retire, retreat) which means a going back, a receding, a retreat--or even a place of retreat. The thing about words that always confuses us, however, is that they frequently connote both positive and negative aspects of the same concept. So, while recess to a kid is replete with ideas of fun and games, that's hardly what recession implies in economic terms.

However, I have been noticing an increasing number of efforts to put a positive spin on current conditions. I'm thinking in particular of a photo in the Dallas Morning News a few weeks ago (I can't even hope to find it now) of a guy sitting on his back patio reading the paper, simply because he had started to slow down. His family is eating meals together on a regular basis these days, because they're becoming more conscious of how much money they spend, and aren't eating out as much. Instead of running out to breakfast and shopping afterward, he was relaxing in his back yard on a pleasant Saturday morning.

Another recent article from the local rag (pinched from the New York Times) by Pico Iyer carried the headline, "The Joy of Less." It was originally posted on the Times's new "Happy Days" blog, which carries this description:

The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed. Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.

Pico Iyer's contribution describes his own, rather spare, life in the outskirts of Kyoto (which I find enviable, to say the least, based on my remote memories of the Japanese countryside, and the simplicity of our life in rural Japan). He notes, however that it's not for everybody:

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

In the papers every week I see evidence that the economic downturn carries, at least in some sense, a positive aspect, and perhaps an optimistic note or two. The local kerfuffle (I do so love this word, and Rachel Maddow didn't use it even once this week, so I will) over city chickens (whether or not they can be sold in Dallas garden shops is the Big Topic lately), the increasing number of backyard and front-yard veggie and herb gardens, the resurgence of various nesting behaviors (among people as well as chickens), the formations of more-or-less accidental communities of like-minded folk: all of these stories and events provide a little hope that we've managed to muster a bit of can-do spirit to replace some of the whining we used to do about how bad things were.

My cranky little newly-repaired heart was warmed this week by a conversation with my daughter, who lives in a converted industrial building in one of the legendary neighborhoods of Dallas: Deep Ellum (or "way down on Elm street"). Although it's being gentrified by rehabbing, a new DartRail station, and new construction, it's still a bit seedy and if I hadn't already planted myself here in the northern 'burbs, I would seriously consider moving there. Her fellow loft-dwellers are a generally friendly lot, and several of the neighbors have gotten together to form a sort of Sunday supper club. My daughter loves to cook, but seldom does because she lives alone (with a Very Large Dog who can't eat people food) and it's not worth the trouble after a long workday. She and the neighbors and their dogs now pool their resources and have become a little family of folks who enjoy one another's company on a regular basis.

I don't mean to sentimentalize the situation, but the economy we knew was completely unsustainable. People were making and buying way too much crap, spending way too much money, and incurring consequent debt. Having to cut back doesn't have to mean establishing a lower standard of living. Different, certainly, but perhaps actually higher, in terms of contentment, happiness, or whatever we want to call the psychological well-being that comes with shedding some of our stressful behaviors and reassessing our values.

The Times is also running a segment in its Economy section called Living With Less: The Human Side of the Global Recession. The conversations attending this coverage and the Happy Days Blog are interesting and informative, so I highly recommend both to anybody who wants to tune in to this aspect of the debate on recession and recovery, and who might want to be thinking about this whole thing as an adult form of recess.

Image credit: Hammock in a Beach House by Raven712 at Wikimedia Commons. In my advancing stage of old-guyness, a hammock is a necessary requirement for recess, even though I don't yet own one.