Monday, June 30, 2008

The Green Bandwagon

Everybody wants to be on it, now that it's all the rage; now that there's a buck to be made, everybody seems to want to go "green" and save the planet. Everywhere I look these days, somebody's flogging the "green lifestyle"--as if sustainability had become The Next Big Thing and that's why we should all get with it. Even cable television has discovered a lucrative trend and has lobbed a volley into the court of home improvement/DIY TV with something called "Planet Green." (Sorry; I've probably been watching way too much Wimbledon.) There seem to be many laudable features about this channel, but my introduction to its programming wasn't promising.

While I was hand-stripping the corners of the former sunroom/new study floors yesterday, I turned on a show called "Greenovate." The first episode--of three they were showing in a row--was actually the least offensive of the day's offerings. A "professional flipper" fell in love with the bungalow she was fixing up to sell, using "green" materials and methods, and decided to live there rather than sell it for a potentially hefty profit. The house is in Echo Park, an historic neighborhood in Los Angeles, and it may have been saved by preservation guidelines.

Some of the renovations were thoughtful, like stripping wood floors and painted woodwork with a citrus-based solvent (a bitch to use, but better than many of the alternatives) and using low- or no-VOC finishes. But the owner betrayed absolutely no interest in the sensibility that built the house (described as a "Victorian" on the program guide, but really a bungalow) and converted a potentially lovely built-in sideboard into a white-painted desk-area (although she was in the process of stripping woodwork elsewhere), eschewing the rich Craftsman color palette in favor of the ubiquitous white-painted interior that you can see on any spec-built house around here. It's pretty clear that even though she plans to live in it for a bit, the "flipper" will undoubtedly be turning this one over as soon as her kid is a little older and the housing market's not so depressed.

The second show raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels. A pretty little Craftsman bungalow on a Venice, California canal was gutted because the owners thought it was "the ugliest house on the canal." They destroyed the classic front porch and turned it into a god-awful open deck with no personality and no benefit that I can see, except that it opened up the "dark little house" to let in the sun. The same sun that is now baking southern California with temperatures hotter than they are here in north Texas.

Of course, they installed new sustainably-harvested floors (after having ripped out the originals, which didn't look all that bad to me, as I was hunched down on my knees scrubbing old varnish and rug crud off my pine floor boards), and "green materials" and spent way over their budget, in part because they didn't realize that permits were required for just about everything they did. Would that Venice had an historical preservation mandate that would have kept these people from turning a perfectly good house into a ranchburger. The cost of the house and its renovations ran in the neighborhood of a million and a half, and the show touted its new value as being around two million.

Two million damned dollars for a house! Any house!

The third episode was about a couple of greenies who wanted to "walk the talk" in their mod condo (in Santa Monica, California). The place already looked pretty good, but for $10,000 and a couple of months' work they wanted the following: all new, energy-efficient appliances (dishwasher, refrigerator, range, washer, and dryer); a new HVAC system on top of the condo; new countertop and cabinet facings in the kitchen; water-saving faucets and showerheads, and low-flow toilets in the bathrooms. All that and all new eco-bedding: bed, mattress, organic linens. All for ten grand. Right.

In all fairness, the place looked great when they were done. But they also went way over budget because their new bathroom fixtures had to be installed from within the tub-surround walls, requiring (for reasons that I do not understand) that all of the tile be torn out and replaced with new, recycled glass tiles. Why the hell not recycle the tiles they pulled out and leave the rest intact? Dunno. Not good TV material, I guess. The bathroom floor then had to be replaced with--get this--pebbles retrieved from a beach in Indonesia. Not pebbles gathered off the Santa Monica pier, but ones picked up in Indonesia (probably by underpaid peasant folk who don't understand that someday they're going to run out of pebbles) and transported to California using fuel. You know: the stuff these people are trying to save by renovating their house.

They spent $20,000 total, and that must have been because they had--ahem--connections. My rough estimate on the cost of appliances, the bed, and HVAC (no labor, no cabinet renovations, no countertop) is $12,600--shopping at Best Buy, Home Depot, and online (at EcoBedroom).

I'm thinking that if this couple were really trying to be environmentally conscious, they'd have thought a little more carefully about the impact of some of their choices.

I have to give these folks credit, though. They had the cojones to install a worm farm in their fancy new kitchen with its recycled-glass countertops and spiffy new stainless steel appliances and sustainably harvested teak cabinet fronts. This they use to compost food scraps to provide fertilizer for their house plants.

Last Friday, the Dallas Morning News, which has climbed aboard the bandwagon at full steam, ran a story about one of the founders of the local business organization, Sustainable Dallas. Once again, however, the message is this: if you have oodles of money you can transform the environment. You can live in (what looks like) an 8,000 square-foot house (with a conservatory under construction) on an acre and a quarter, and compost your neighbors' lawn clippings (their lawn-care service workers dump the stuff in the compost area for them), without asking (I'm guessing here) what kinds of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are being used on the the acres of lawns from which those clippings come. And you can feel really good about life, the universe, and everything because you're keeping bees, or baking cookies in your cute little solar oven.

I suppose I should just be happy that all of these folks aren't buying new McMansions being built on spec in old neighborhoods, like the one that replaced the tiny little bungalow in Lakewood Heights, were we lived before we bought this house. After buying Velvet Oil for our floors at Dallas's best outlet for environmentally friendly stuff, Green Living, we drove down the old street. We knew we were going to be depressed, but we did it anyway. Literally every other house on the block has been torn down and replaced by a huge Thomas Kinkaid mock-house: a silly evocation of a non-existent past not even remotely connected to north Texas.

Although I should be thankful that people are finally getting interested in sustainability, I just wish we could collectively get away from the idea that the only way to live "green" is to throw everything out. Wouldn't it be better if we rehabbed as simply as possible, without tearing away a house's historical being, and without going out and buying more new stuff that we don't bloody well need?

Sorry. It's been a long week, and the floors still aren't finished. But the paint's on the walls, the crown molding goes up today, and we should be able to "move office" before the weekend. Only about four days off schedule--and still under budget. Our total budget for this effort, by the way, is our "economic stimulus" check: $1200. And that includes the bookcases.

Photo credit: Once again, Wikimedia Commons came through with a lovely photo by Slivester Nuenenorl cor Bounifeuisc (that's how he spells it) of a sunset at Jimbaran Beach in Bali. He calls it "The Affinity of Stadérrouté," taken June 7, 2005. I think the pebbles would look better here than on somebody's bathroom floor.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Recycled House

I suppose that there's something to be said for buying a brand-spanking new house, with everything pristine, fresh, and never messed with by anyone else. The attraction is actually somewhat more appealing now that I'm in the middle of rehabbing two rooms in our 85 year-old prairie/craftsman bungalow hybrid (with a floor plan similar to the Aladdin kit home pictured at left and linked here; our porch wraps around to the left of the living room, and there's a former butler's pantry/now breakfast room between the kitchen and the dining room), and trying to undo the bad previous rehab jobs carried out (I suspect) by the previous owner. He and his wife had lived in the house for twenty years before he died and she decided to give up a great house for a spit-and-sawdust piece of architectural crap on the other side of town.

Mind you, the first house I owned was a new one, in a low-cost suburban development, primarily because it was all we could afford. That, apparently, is one reason first-time buyers don't choose old houses--the financing is easier to come by if you buy from a development, and it usually requires a much lower down payment.

When Beloved Spouse and I finally landed full-time teaching gigs and could afford to buy a house, we really wanted to stay in East Dallas, where we moved after my daughter graduated from high school. We had spent two years in Chicago and moving back to the suburbs was difficult, so we got out as soon as we could. After five years of living in a real neighborhood, within walking distance of good restaurants, pubs, and interesting places to shop, we were ready to settle down into a little prairie bungalow in the same area. But two things happened to thwart our plans: other people had discovered the area, making it more desirable than it had been when we moved there, and causing prices to start drifting up. On top of that, many of those who had just discovered the neighborhood didn't like the little houses, so they began to buy and tear down--completely destroying the character of the place. Enter the McMansion speculators, and the resulting end of our plans to stay in Dallas.

Few places exist these days that are actually safe from this phenomenon. Some areas of Dallas have since acquired historical preservation status, but the prices in these neighborhoods are beyond our reach. We began to look at northern suburbs that would lessen my husband's commute, and ended up here in McKinney, which has a well-established historic district and still (eight years ago) affordable houses with some character. Morris's Craftsman aesthetic had ruined me for today's housing styles, and we really wanted something more substantial and more closely geared to our own "antique" lives. It takes me longer to get to work, but I've got a schedule that only requires my presence on campus three days a week, so it's not as bad as it seems. And, we don't have to watch the cheesy little house across the street torn down and be replaced by something totally inappropriate to the lot and/or the neighborhood. The rule around here is that if a house is sound, it has to be restored within city guidelines. If it's not, it has to be replaced with a house in an appropriate vernacular style represented in the city's history.

The main problem with our preservation efforts has always been money. The house was so incredibly attractive to us when we bought it that we overlooked its many flaws, and firmly believed that we could fix everything ourselves. Chief among these problems--at least the ones that didn't have to be taken care of by professionals immediately, like wiring and a heating system--are the floors. In three rooms they are potentially gorgeous quarter-sawn oak. In two others, they're red pine. I hand-stripped the floors in the living and dining rooms, after we had removed the gold shag carpet installed in the '70s and discovered that between us and the great floors lay carpet padding embedded in the original lacquer. That's as far as we got before we had to throw down some rugs and live with what we'd been able to do, because we ran out of time.

Nobody who visits seems to notice how cruddy the floors are because the house itself is so charming. It's very comfortable, and the walls are lined with books everywhere one walks, so the floors don't get noticed. But we notice them, and are finally getting around to doing something about the study and the sunroom (where we watch television, and where the dogs sleep). We're actually switching the purposes of the two rooms, so that I can work while looking out on the garden, and so the now-study can be turned into a guest room in anticipation of my daughter's graduation from college (finally!) this coming winter, when we'll be having family to stay.

This new effort has required emptying the dog-room/sunroom of books and most of the furniture, so the really bad seventies-era wallboard job can be repaired (what were they thinking?) and the walls painted, crown molding (which was removed for some unknown reason) can be replaced, and floors stripped and sealed or otherwise protected. Then the new Ikea bookcases can be installed, the desks moved, the books returned--and we can start on the "new" guest room.

What chaps me more than anything, and what has made me somewhat more sympathetic to new-home ownership, is the fact that the "repairs" attempted on this house thirty years ago were accomplished so badly. The guy may have survived the Battle of Iwo Jima (according to his wife), but he didn't know bollocks about remodeling a home. So I've spent the past three days patching great gaps between drywall segments, just to prepare to paint. Today that part will be done, and we go to rent a sander, because I've tried fifteen different ways to get the padding-encrusted varnish off the floors (which we've had covered up by large area rugs for the past few years). Nothing works that doesn't cause me several days' worth of lower-back recovery time.

As if by magic, this month's issue of Old House Journal arrived yesterday, and features a post-fire renovation. There are floors in this house that are as close to natural as it gets--with only an environmentally safe oil sealant to protect them. This is exactly what I've been looking for: permission to leave this potentially lovely wood looking as bare as possible. Clearly, I spent much too much time amongst the nuns in my youth to need "permission"--but it was a kind of moral confirmation. I'd probably have done it anyway, but just seeing a good house in a national magazine with floors that haven't been layered with polyurethane (the way they seem to require it done on This Old House) was enough to bolster my confidence.

The plan for the next two days is to finish the floors, paint the walls (the color is The Freshaire Choice's no VOC "Natural Ginger Root"), and install the molding. At the weekend the move will take place, and the now-study will be emptied so we can start in on it. The room itself is much smaller, the molding intact, and the quarter-sawn oak floors in better shape, so it shouldn't take as long. Which is good, since I've only got a week and a half left before I've got to get back to renovating my courses for next quarter in time for classes to begin on Bastille Day.

More on this later. But I did want to let folks know that I haven't turned into a slacker while on holiday.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ruminations on Weaning

I was inspired this morning by an editorial article in the Dallas Morning News on breastfeeding, prompted by the death this week of La Leche League founder, Edwina Froehlich, at the age of 93. Thinking about nursing babies leads to reminiscences of "those days" around 30 years ago, when it seemed that I had a child attached to a nipple for the better part of six years of my life--and I only had two kids. But although I was not a La Leche League member until I moved to Dallas and was searching for some kind of community in this god-forsaken corner of the universe (sorry, Dallasites, but I never have been able to learn to love this place and still think of myself as living in exile), and even though I fondly referred to my fellow members as "the militant milkers," I nonetheless kept nursing my kids until long after "normal people" had weaned theirs and sent them off to pre-school.

I was gratified to learn that about 75% of American mothers now at least attempt to nurse their babies, but not at all surprised to discover that Texas is somewhere near the bottom of the stats. Once, when my daughter was about eight months old and we had visited a mall so my husband could take my son skating, I sat in the observation area happily watching them scoot around the ice, and nursed the baby, who was covered by a shawl so completely that only her little feet poked out. I noticed a woman glaring in my direction from a few seats down in the row ahead of me, and when she caught my eye, she scowled and said "That's just disgusting. Can''t you do it in the bathroom?"

Even then I was a bit of a snark, so I smiled pleasantly back at her and asked, "Why? Is that where you eat your dinner?"

She huffed out of the area, and I felt a bit smug, but also furious that anyone could view such an activity as "disgusting"--as if I had bared my breasts and gone prancing around the arena. Come to think of it, that might have brought on some applause (I was rather a babe in those days).

Remembering this incident also got me to thinking about the fact that because I nursed the kids for so long, they were each a bit difficult to wean. They were no longer nursing for nutrition but for comfort and security, and it was an easy way to get them to sleep. But when it came time, we literally weaned them on books: substituting reading time with Dad for nursing time with Mom.

If only it were that easy to wean ourselves from the comforts and conveniences of modern life: the fast food, the fast cars, the chemically laced products that permeate our daily lives.

My dear friend and former student, Jen, has essentially told me I'm nuts (see her comment on my last post) for suggesting that we wean ourselves from sugar--and so I'm here to defend myself, and to argue not for abstention but for moderation: To wean ourselves from the satisfying (but calorie-laden and nutritionally bankrupt) bowl of Tiramisù, toward a more moderate means of taking care of the culturally-induced cravings for sugar that we've all become prey to.

Every now and then, when I'm feeling my exile more deeply than usual (I need a mountain fix every couple of years, and it's getting near that limit again), I crave something to make me feel better. Usually, it's pie. I love pie: Key lime, lemon meringue, chocolate, strawberry, cherry, pecan--almost any kind of pie. I've been known to call my husband and ask him to pick up pie on the way home. Of course, this becomes more and more difficult as one becomes aware of all the crap that goes into commercially produced pies--the ones available in the freezer case at the supermarket (their in-house bakery versions are usually awful). So the poor, dear, man is confronted with the problem of locating the least environmentally and nutritionally problematic version of pie. Loaded with trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup (usually only one of several sugars), the ingredient list alone usually dissuades me if I'm the one on the pie hunt. But he's more tolerant than I am, and wants to help me out, so he comes home with the most inoffensive choice available.

Lately, however, we've discovered the wonders of nuts. And dried fruit mixed with nuts. Or a square of really good chocolate (preferably with nuts, and even better with a bit of dried fruit). A handful of Nature's Best "Nantucket Blend" from Costco (here's a recipe from the Paleo Recipes blog) will usually do the trick now, but I'm also going to try something else the next time I'm confronted with waves of desert-longing and nostalgia. I'm going to make Gram's Applesauce Cake. This is a spice cake my grandmother used to make, filled with raisins and occasionally walnuts. It calls for an indeterminate amount of powdered chocolate, and uses applesauce instead of fat. Except for the white flour, it's actually a nutritional godsend, full of fiber and wholesome nutrients, and now I make it with a blend of whole wheat and unbleached white flour, and add a bit of ground flaxseed to bump it up even more. I haven't made it in a while, though, so this week, in the cool of the morning, I'm going to make a double batch and freeze segments of it so that whenever I want to feed what's left of my sugar addiction, I can just pull a chunk out of the freezer and save my husband from the frustrating--and ultimately unsatisfying--pie hunt.

The other weaning issue that keeps coming up is this: How do we change our lives so that we depend less on gasoline and other petroleum-based products? Sunday's Dallas Morning News ran a story about how gas prices affect just about everything we buy--and it turns out that it's really hard to find stuff in the average supermarket that isn't in some way dependent on the industry. So the way to wean ourselves from this unhealthful dependence is to become aware not only ingredients (check labels for chemical information), but origins: where products come from, and how far they have to travel. Since everything from shampoo to toothpaste can contain petrochemicals, take a look at Ecology Center's Body Map: The True Cost of Petroleum to discover not only how pervasive these chemicals are, but how they affect our health as well as our economy.

Solutions don't have to involve buying pricey substitutes for fancy cosmetics at Whole Foods. It's fairly easy to make natural cosmetics (especially lotions and creams) from simple ingredients. Same with household cleansers. A few standbys like baking soda, vinegar, witch hazel, aloe gel, and olive oil, are cheap and easy to obtain and can be used to make everything from drain cleaner to night cream. If you need help getting started, Earth Easy has some great information on home-made cleaning products and non-toxic house care.

Since soap-making isn't one of those things we can do all that easily by ourselves (although some folks do it as a hobby), a jug of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap in your flavor of choice (I was once told that the Peppermint version is "better than sex," and although I don't think that's quite true, the soap's still a treat in the shower). By the way, forget any rumors you've heard about Dr. Bronner's containing a date-rape drug--any true soap will test positive for it as the company's president Michael Bronner shows on this video. Toothpaste isn't particularly easy to make, either, but you can get by with baking soda if you have to. We substituted Tom's Natural toothpaste for Arm & Hammer a few years ago, and our teeth are actually in better shape than they were with the commercially-hyped versions. The toothpaste is a bit more expensive, but Dr. Bronner's is cheaper than most fancy soaps, and is just plain nice to use.

Many of the suggestions I make on this blog are based on the notion of the thought experiment. So no, Jennifer, I do not think you really have to give up sugar--no more than I really think that people have to give up electricity, even though the folks in More News From Nowhere do so. But imagining a different life is a step toward making a different life. We are, after all, metaphor makers. It's one of the things we do that makes us human; we can see things differently and, if necessarily, act accordingly.

Around this house we've made a considerable number of changes over the last few years. The place is becoming a kind of laboratory for working through alternatives to our own personal status quo. We are finding that old dogs, in fact, can learn new tricks. And while I don't insist that everyone make the same changes, I do hope that the blog has begun to inspire folks to deal with the current economic situation with imagination and mindfulness--rather than despair.

Image credit: Stanisław Wyspiański Macierzynstwo, 1905. Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Simpler Food, Better Lives

Some of my most treasured moments growing up in Taiwan involved taking a day off from school for an appointment with the Air Force dentist stationed at the "listening post" where my father worked as a radio code guy (we thought he was a spy). After the appointment, I was on my own until Daddy got off work, so I'd head for the base library for the afternoon, and this is where I discovered both science fiction and British children's adventure fiction in the guise of Enid Blyton.

I loved these stories (especially Island of Adventure and Five Go to Smuggler's Top) because the kids were much braver than I was and I could enjoy their perils vicariously. One remarkable (to me) aspect of these adventures, however, was the emphasis on food. The protagonists were always off on picnics or camping trips and would take enormous amounts of food with them. Or they'd buy freshly baked goods and fresh fruit and good cheese from an affable farmer's wife--or they'd come upon stores of tinned food (including, usually, potted meat and peaches) in pirate lairs.

On weekends we'd often head off to Bitan (Green Lake), near Taipei, where my parents and their friends would hire a canopied boat. It doesn't look all that attractive in some of these vintage photos I found, but we'd load the boat up with food, beer, sarsaparilla, and chisueh (a 7-Up clone), and chug out to the middle of the lake where we'd spend the day talking, eating, and swimming.

Many of my earliest memories, in fact, centered on the very particular combination of camaraderie, fun, and companionable eating and drinking. As a result, it's really no wonder why my own utopia is replete with these same associations--especially among eating, drinking, and talking. And it seems that the simplest food--picnic staples like sandwiches and fruit, grilled veg and meat--makes it possible for human beings not only to survive, but to create the background for lasting friendships and meaningful conversations. Summer, even here in the humid Southwest, brings out the legions of backyard barbecue mavens anxious to try out the latest marinade. Beer-swilling minions brave the heat and the mozzies to show off their cooking talent, and fill the breeze with the scent of roasting flesh--and lighter fluid.

Ah well. If only these folks would learn that they don't have to douse their charcoal with petrochemicals in order to make it burn. A simple chimney affair will get it lit within a few minutes and move us one step further from dependence on fossil fuels. But, I digress.

The nature of these activities is almost primal. Grilling our food takes us back to our roots and ties us into the first culinary traditions. Cooking outside also keeps the temperature in our houses down, and reduces the amount of electricity and/or gas we use, thus lowering our energy bills. But the sheer simplicity of it all is what attracts me: throw a few peppers on the grill along with assorted other bits, make up a simple salad, bake some flatbread, and voila: an al fresco feast worthy of our earliest ancestors. As long as we don't char everything, we can avoid the carcinogenic effects of grilling; as in everything else, moderation is the key--as is mindful preparation.

There's a lot to be said for peasant food, especially in times when folks are spending more and more of their budgets at the supermarket. The less processed the food, the cheaper (as I mentioned in my last post), and the more potential there is for creating truly healthful menus. In many ways, meals based on whole grains and pulses, with vegetables and fruits cooked or eaten raw alongside, would address a number of problems (including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer) and help transform the economy.

Unfortunately, the world-wide food picture looks rather grim. Here I am, suggesting that everyone eat more whole grains, while the price of grain is making even this basic "staff of life" more and more difficult to obtain for more and more people on earth. The causes are manifold, but among them is one ironic ingredient: the growing prosperity of formerly marginal economies is increasing the demand for meat--which in turn raises the price of the grain used to feed cattle. In addition, the growing demand for biofuels is further affecting the price we pay for a bowl of cereal or a loaf of bread. Supplies can't keep up with demand, and so prices go up--it's the law of the market economy. The situation provides yet another reason to decrease our intake of meat. Even if you can't bring yourself to become a vegetarian or a vegan, it's not all that hard to forgo being a carnivore a couple of times a week. It might also be time to make friends with a hunter or two.

Dairy products and eggs are also increasingly expensive, especially if one insists on buying from organic, free-range, grass fed sources. Few of us would like to give up our daily glass of moo-juice or grated Parmesan on our pasta. But these are essentially luxuries that can be extended with some imagination--or even done without altogether. I seldom use eggs, so that when I buy them I can afford a half-dozen organic cage-free versions from (preferably) local growers. In a pinch, dried skim milk will sub for the fresh variety in cooking, and a glass or two to drink is all we really need. We are, I'm constantly reminded by vegan friends, the only species that drinks the breast-milk of other lactating animals. So it's certainly not an absolute need. In truth, almost everything we can think of cooking can be made without dairy products at all. Well, maybe not real lasagna . . . .

Reading books on how people survived the Great Depression and rationing during the war years can be instructive, and the best of these is M. F. K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, originally published in 1942 (and reprinted, along with others, in the collection The Art of Eating). She goes off on everything from the idea of "balanced meals" (in her chapter, "How to be a Sage without Hemlock") to eating sparsely with friends ("How to Be Cheerful Though Starving"), and much of what she wrote then is still applicable today--and certainly timely. With the possible exception of Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet, I don't think any other book has more thoroughly influenced my views of food and community as this one has.

I also recommend reading the recent reprint of Helen Nearing's Simple Food for the Good Life: Random Acts of Cooking and Pithy Quotations, from the doyenne of simple living. The original version was published in 1980, and there is no better source for solid advice on plain cooking with wholesome ingredients. If you're a confirmed carnivore, you could learn a lot about how to get by without eating animals from this book. The Nearings' work is being carried on these days at The Good Life Center, which deserves a visit, if only online. And for truly inspiring source on simple eating and building community, see Eat Grub--the organization founded by Anna Blythe Lappé (daughter of Frances) and "eco-chef" Bryant Terry.

And this is really the core of getting by and eating well: learning to enjoy basic foodstuffs, and to do without what isn't really necessary. Since I try not to eat tortured animals, I eat little meat. I could probably become a vegetarian again fairly easily, although I'm not particularly bothered by eating animals who've been humanely raised and not killed in horrible scary factory abbatoirs that haven't changed much, it seems, since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. But one could easily argue that killing anything is hardly humane, at the core. And that may be right, and I may come around to that way of seeing things in the end. Nevertheless, it is certainly wise to minimize the amount of meat one does consume, and to make sure that it's not plugged full of hormones and antibiotics and other crap. It just makes sense to eat any food in as natural a state as possible.

One encouraging sign, in addition to the proliferation of farmers' markets I mentioned in my last post, is the growing availability of so-called "heirloom" plants. A burgeoning effort to re-establish fruits and vegetable varieties now makes it easier to buy tastier versions of everyday items like tomatoes and apples, and easier to grow your own alternatives to Burpee Big Boys. At the moment, the supermarket offerings are pricey, and unless they're organic they've probably been sprayed abundantly with bug-murdering chemicals. But local markets are offering more and more alternative choices with the possibilities of different nutrients (according to color) and more varied flavors. Once you've bitten into a fresh, warm Mortgage Lifter tomato (an appropriate choice for the current economic moment), you'll never want to touch another Beefsteak. Try doing a Google search on "heirloom" tomatoes to see how pervasive this movement is becoming.

I'm not sure how it was that Americans became addicted to all things sweet, but we could easily do without all the sugar we consume. Of course lots of food contains various sugars, and it's not necessary to avoid them. But huge amounts of added sugars end up in processed foods, and are completely unnecessary to our existence on this planet. Another advantage to cooking from scratch is that you can control the sugar content by not adding any.

While I'm at it, the very idea that "dessert" has to be a part of everyone's evening meal is ludicrous. And if we really want to round out the experience of eating a lovingly prepared bean casserole and a salad, a nice fresh peach in season should do it.

Confections such as cakes and cookies do not have to be a regular part of our diets. They can certainly be eaten on occasion, but we do not have to have them every day in order to remain human, I promise you. We tend to add unnecessary sugar to everything, including bread, but why not bake wholesome, unsweetened whole grained flatbread (like pita or naan) most of the time, with the Friday night challah (made with whole wheat flour) ritually added as a weekly treat? While there's no reason to deny oneself of the celebretory slice of chocolate cake, there is also no reason to assume that we actually need this stuff. Buy yourself a good jar of honey and leave it at that. Don't keep sugars in your pantry, and you'll find other ways to satisfy your sweet tooth: a handful of dried cherries, a few dried figs, a nice cold apple.

The bottom line is this: simple food can be inexpensive, nutritious, and relatively easy to prepare. Minimize the meat and sweets, and concentrate on fiber, along with colorful vegetables and fruits. You need nine servings of the latter per day, but a serving is only the size of your fist--so it's pretty easy to accumulate the optimal number, and it's not terribly expensive if you buy in season--especially from local markets. We are extremely fortunate in this country to still have abundant food (far too much of it in many cases) at prices most of us can still afford. But if we could imagine, even for one day a week, what less affluent folk have to get by on, perhaps we could become wiser about what and how we eat.

Cooking simple, nourishing, traditional foods with friends not only provides companionship and builds communities, but it provides opportunities for sharing garden produce and learning new cuisines. The adventure of discovering new ways of cooking may not be as exciting as stumbling upon tinned peaches and Spam in a smuggler's cave, but it can have its moments--and you won't have to worry about being abducted by pirates.

Photo credits: "Peasant Meal," an illumination for Aristotle's Politiques et économiques, France, 15th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits. "Old tomato varieties" taken at Marché Beauveau, Place d'Aligre, Paris, by "Popolon." Photo of 6-braid whole-wheat challah in the process of being shaped for baking. Photo taken on March 30, 2006 by Yoninah. All from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Eating Well in Troubled Times

One of the things I loved about reading News From Nowhere was Morris's descriptions of eating within the community "Guest" was visiting. Wholesome, nourishing food served by happy folk in pleasant surroundings:

. . . we fell to our breakfast, which was simple enough, but most delicately cooked, and set on the table with much daintiness. The bread was particularly good, and was of several different kinds, from the big, rather course, dark-colored, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaf, which was most to my liking, to the thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, such as I have eaten in Turin. (Chapter III)

But it's getting tougher to look at food as much more than another pain in the pocketbook, despite the fact that (as I've noted previously) in terms of real costs, we're still paying too little.

A story on Thursday's All Things Considered (As Food Prices Rise, There is No Dancing in the Aisles) caused a bit of a stir--especially about the upper middle-class mom's complaining about not being able to buy organic food at Whole Foods Market anymore. She also complained about the prepared foods at the local supermarket, because everything available was "breaded" and there were many fewer choices. That told me a great deal right there.

At the other end of the spectrum was the mom who has to feed her three kids on less than $800 a month (and that's not just her food budget; that's the whole budget). She's given up twelve-grain bread for white, does without paper towels, bottled water, chips, cookies, candy, and toiletries of any kind. The story doesn't say what she does buy (other than white bread), but it probably includes meat (most likely cheap hamburger, which was a staple of my childhood when we were out of money), and perhaps some cheap prepared foods designed to make the meat go further. Shopping at places like the Mennonite grocery is certainly a help, but I truly wonder if part of the problem isn't one of education, or lack thereof, on food and nutrition.

I still haven't reached the point where I'm pinching pennies, because I'm used to paying more for what I eat--since where food comes from and its nutritional value are both philosophical considerations that inform my eating habits. I shop both at Whole Foods and Costco, and I buy premium natural dog and cat food at PetsMart. But we're a two-person, two-income family of empty nesters, who do little else but enjoy one another's company at home when we're not helping to turn the next generation into productive members of the workforce.

I do grow some of my own food (mostly herbs, but also tomatoes and peppers in season, and I'm trying squash this year--not very successfully), and should grow more, but that would require transforming my back yard into a farm, and I'm not ready (yet) to do so. The pecan trees that provided the bumper crop last year shade a large percentage of the available space, and the Carbon Sink (previously known as the Accidental Garden) has taken that area out of cultivation.

At any rate, I started thinking of what I might do with only $400 per month to spend on food, and several solutions came to mind. These are all strategies I have used in the past, including the time in Philadelphia when I lived on a food budget of $50 for each of two months (in the early '70s; it included feeding two cats and two adults, and entertaining several friends at least once a month). My usual food budget was around $75, and what I gave up was primarily booze.

First, never go to the supermarket hungry or without the week's basic menu in mind. The meal plan should not be set in stone because flexibility allows you to take advantage of special deals. But have an outline of meals and know what is missing from the pantry.

Second, whenever possible, buy unprocessed foods in favor of processed. Many chain supermarkets like Tom Thumb (Safeway) and Kroger offer store-brand organic products, so it's possible to buy dried beans, brown rice, pasta, and other fiber-sources that can serve as staples. My local Tom Thumb has a bulk-buy section (modeled after the ones at Whole Foods and Sprouts), that offers brown rice, barley, several kinds of beans, pasta, nuts, and dried fruit. These should form the basis of the diet anyway, and they're incredibly versatile. For the occasional need for quick food, buy a couple of cans of organic beans (kidney, chickpeas, cannellini, pinto). They're much more expensive than dried beans, but nutritious and still relatively inexpensive compared to the brand-named versions. Cook up a batch of beans or rice or whatever to keep in the fridge and use them within a couple of days in salads, pasta combos, and stir frys.

Third, buy organic produce when possible, but don't buy your lettuce pre-torn--buy the whole head of Romaine (NOT iceberg) and do your washing and tearing at home, where you can put it into a handy container to use as the basis for salads every day. Some fruits and veg are less problematic when not organically grown--those whose skins aren't eaten, so if you have to skimp, buy conventionally grown versions of bananas, but buy organic versions of the rest if possible. If you can get deals on frozen organic veg and fruit, take advantage of them, but canned versions (except in the case of tomatoes and beans) are seldom satisfactory. By the way, it's so easy to make a good pasta sauce from canned tomatoes and tomato paste that buying the stuff in bottles hardly ever makes sense.

Fourth, buy whole grain flour and yeast and make your own bread. Even if you have little time you can still make bread. And children need to be taught this very basic human activity anyway. Bread-making binds families and creates irreplaceable memories that involve taste, smell, and love.

If you can't afford fresh organic skim milk, buy it dried and reconstitute it at home. Use it sparingly for drinking, but make your own yogurt (buy a small tub of really good plain Greek style to use as a starter). Re-hydrated dried milk can be refreshing and it's quite possible to acquire a taste for it. I didn't have fresh milk for the entire five years during which I lived in Taiwan, and I lived to tell the tale. When my son was small, we had very little money to spend on food, so dried milk was a staple. Babies and toddlers can be nursed, so cow's milk is not an absolute necessity.

Finally, if you're not already a vegetarian, buy meat to use only as a flavoring (here's a blog where a mom gives the same advice). And buy lean pork (loins) in tenderloins or roasts, and cut them up into small cubes when you get home, to freeze for use in stews, soups, and stir-frys. Buy chickens whole, and use everything--cut them up or roast them whole and base meals around the bits. Freeze leftovers, including the carcass, for later meals and soup stock. Buy lean cuts of beef (again as roasts), but primarily for use in stews, soups, and stock. Buy fish when you can get a deal, but make sure it's sustainably raised or harvested. Keep canned tuna and salmon on hand, because it's much more versatile than fresh. Again, buy the store organic brand or check the label for sources.

A basic rule about food is that the more you make from scratch, the more money you'll save. If you involve the whole family in the cooking process (and in the cleaning up), you'll be teaching them more than they could ever learn in school on the subject, and you'll start your kids on the road to self-sufficiency when they leave the nest.

It's really instructive to see what other people do about feeding themselves, so check out this site on what people eat around the world (and how much it costs them). It's pretty clear from the photos that those with the lowest food costs are the ones who severely limit the number of processed foods they consume.

One of the best ways to manage food costs is to become aware of the role of food in the economy. The New York Times has a page of articles on this topic: The Food Chain, which provides a mini-course in the business of food, and information that can help even those with a tiny budget make wiser, more ethical decisions about what they eat.

Community gardens and co-ops can help people save money and put more nutritious food on the table. Unfortunately, the Community-Supported Agriculture movement has become so popular that most CSAs have waiting lists. If you can't join one, shop local farmers' markets where they're available, because then you're completely cutting out the middle man and paying farmers directly. Prices can be substantially lower (and quality immensely higher) than supermarket food. Farmers' markets have become really trendy lately, and thus more abundant--and Dallas has one of the best.

Food is a basic need, both in terms of sustaining our bodies and in sustaining our families and communities. Perhaps the rising costs will help forge new attitudes about it in this country and become the proverbial blessing in disguise. If people start banding together to grow and share food in order to survive, perhaps the "crisis" will retrain our thinking about how and what we eat. But the solution is certainly not to start eating gummy white processed bread. That doesn't sustain anyone but Mrs. Baird.

Next time: Cooking Well--some thoughts and sources on cooking and eating what we've managed to buy.

Photo credit: Vegetarian Diet, from the Agricultural Research Service, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The quoted passage is from the 1970 Routledge edition, edited by James Redmond (p. 12).

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Room for a Moral View

I've been re-reading Mary Doria Russell's splendid science fiction novel, The Sparrow (Fawcett Columbine 1996), about Jesuits in space (well, it's much more complex than that, but there are Jesuits involved), and the following bit of conversation began to resonate beyond the evening's reading:

You know what? I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they're religious. I do what I do . . . without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently, thank you very much.

It's spoken by a woman my age (Anne Edwards), responding to a Jesuit priest (Emilio Sandoz) who has noted the fact that even though she professes not to believe in god, she nonetheless behaves morally.

One reason for the resonance is the fact that Beloved Spouse and I are in the process of re-visiting our rather massive DVD collection (we buy DVDs instead of going to movies; it's usually cheaper and we don't have to listen to cheesy music and watch interminable ads before the show) because there's so little worth watching on television these days, and last night we chose the Merchant/Ivory production of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View. Not long ago the PBS "Masterpiece" series aired a new production of the story (rather disappointing, and with a dopey ending), so we were in the mood to compare the two versions. I was hankering for more Forster anyway, since I recently revisited his only science fiction story, "The Machine Stops," which I used to teach in my technology and utopia class, and had been thinking about re-reading Howard's End. At any rate, we watched some of the "extras" on the DVD, which included a quotation from his essay "What I Believe" from Two Cheers for Democracy. A quick search of the web pulled up the essay itself, which begins thus:

I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy - they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long. But for the moment they are not enough, their action is no stronger than a flower, battered beneath a military jackboot.

This was written in 1938, as the National Socialist Party was tightening its grip on Germany, and on the eve of the second World War. But in the current war-infused atmosphere, it strikes a chord of recognition and sympathy. Those of us who do not find particular comfort in the idea of a transcendent deity, and especially one with whom we are supposed to have a personal relationship in order to be rewarded with eternal life, are often asked to explain how morality could possibly exist without religion. Those who ask this question usually have a particular religion in mind, and in my part of the country, that particular religion is either Southern Baptist or some notion of "non-denominational" Christianity.

The snitty answer is, of course, that non-believers don't need the threat of damnation in order to behave ourselves. Religious formulas like the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) or its Jewish counterpart, Hillel's Law (what is hateful to you, do not unto others) are essentially similar to Kant's Categorical Imperative: behave as if your actions were universal law and everyone else behaved that way too. All of these boil down to an identity between being and doing: we are what we do. If we say one thing and do another, we're liars and/or hypocrites.

What does all this, you might reasonably ask, have to do with utopia? I didn't really mean for this post to turn into a rant against organized religion (although I have been known to go off on the topic when tweaked), because there are many aspects of many religions that I find admirable--as I'm sure I've mentioned before. But the recent spate of vindictive pronouncements about God's anger at various groups (Gays, Liberals, Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists) and the assumption that adopting more expansive views of topics like "family" and "marriage" and "traditional values" will ensure the fall of Western civilization, have prompted me to wonder how it is that religion (or is it Religion?) has managed to become the sole arbiter of morality.

In my weekly romps through the Blog-o-sphere, I ferreted out a rather lovely post in Aardvarchaeolgy's archives, called US Politics Have No Left Wing. The author, a witty and erudite Swedish archaeologist, makes some excellent points, but what struck me most was the lack believership (is that a word?) among the Swedes. Now these guys aren't out killing folk in other countries as far as I know, and they've got traditions like taking care of old people and providing universal health care, and so I don't see much evidence of their sliding into cultural oblivion. Although not a perfect society (I'm not sure what that would look like anyway), Sweden has much to offer its citizens, and doesn't seem much like a bastion of iniquity. Sweden's Christian heritage is for the most part Lutheran, and that might explain the tradition of social responsibility and community that must underlie the tax burden these people elect to assume. Still, modern Swedes are less religious than they once were, and have so far managed not to become a country of immoral reprobates.

It's becoming fairly clear that nature and nurture interact in very complex ways to engender the wide range of human responses to the situations in which they find themselves, or which they themselves generate (e.g. life and death dilemmas like when to pull the plug, or in artificial constructs like war). For example, in a discussion in the current issue of The Seed, Marc Hauser (an evolutionary psychologist/biologist) and Errol Morris (the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker who made Gates of Heaven and The Fog of War) consider genetic components of moral behavior, and the discussion itself opens up several cans of worms--including Abu Ghraib.

We have plenty of such examples of how badly we've acted in the past. We truly need now to look back at these events as lessons about possibility, and then reject them out of hand, not because we'll be punished by God if we do, but because we can choose not to sanction genocide, torture, slavery, or any other of the sins to which our flesh is heir. If we do these things, we become them. And this is what many of our politicians seem to have forgotten.

What's interesting to me is that even though we don't seem to be programmed to behave "morally" (i.e. according to some particular fundamental code), we do seem to have a predisposition toward behaving in ways that help our communities survive. Behaving well toward one another--helping and nurturing, for example--enhances the survival possibilities of a group, and co-operation among different groups seems to produce better results than conflict. Short-term advantages can always seem to be won by feeding extra sheep on the commons, but in the end the folks who voluntarily (i.e. by choice) keep their sheep populations in hand have a better chance of maintaining not only the quantity of food, but the quality of life: bigger gene pools, better trading opportunities, better environments, etc.

Years ago, Gregory Bateson (psychologist and anthropologist, once married to Margaret Mead) held a conference on The Role of Conscious Purpose in Human Adaptation. The book his daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, wrote about what transpired is called Our Own Metaphor. It's a true gem, and has played an enormous part in my intellectual development since I first read it in 1980. (It was reissued by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1991.) Not only does it explore the human proclivity for seeing everything through our own personal (and cultural) lenses, but it suggests fairly convincingly that we can direct our own cultural evolution.

This is the very notion that got me to wondering about how we might live (one of Morris's fundamental questions), and led me to write More News From Nowhere. In her afterword to the new edition, Bateson notes that "Religion does offer unifying metaphors, but it is difficult to imagine any particular religion serving as a basis for a world-wide consensus on human responsibility to the planet" (316). And herein, I suspect, lies the rub.

Because of the variety of moral viewpoints they reflect, religious institutions impose a number of highly divisive doctrines that put the planet's inhabitants on conflicting paths, often with disastrous results. Like capitalism in economics, religion seems to work fine as a moral framework in small, face-to-face communities. It may well have been a necessary component in human cultural evolution, and the ability to imagine god may even be an essential ingredient in being human. But as globalization increases (and it seems unstoppable at this point), religion seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Mindfulness, cultural awareness, compassion, tolerance for the beliefs and lifeways of others, and wisdom (derived through thinking, listening, and learning) all seem to offer constructive paths toward world-healing. Even a healthy skepticism and a dose of cynicism could help, but I mean cynicism in the original sense of the word (dog-like): the ability to recognize true friendship, and to be suspicious enough not to embrace every half-baked idea that comes down the pike. Conscious purpose, rather than some ethereal notion of transcendental purpose, should become the foundation of change; but that purpose should be informed by all of the other moral components I've mentioned and undergirded by practical concerns about implementation.

If we are to be motivated by fear, I suggest, let it be fear of what we are leaving our children and grandchildren, rather than fear of being consigned to somebody else's idea of hell. The overarching concept of sustainability needs desperately not to become a buzzword or a brand name, co-opted by the corporate interests that have played such a large part in confusing our perceptions of need vs. want. We need to heal the world. But we need to do so not because we're afraid of punishment imposed by god, but because if we don't, we're punishing the future.

Photo credit: view of the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) taken by Bob Tubbs from the Arcetri astronomical observatory in Florence. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The photo brings together several of the themes mentioned in this post, including religion (Catholicism) and science; and the view of the Duomo is similar to that seen at the end of A Room with a View.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Age of Endarkenment

I stole the title of this post from an article by Michael Ventura in the Winter 1989 issue of Whole Earth Review. He focused on the lack of rites of passage among adolescence in the modern world, but I'm beginning to think of "endarkenment" as a pretty good description of the growing anti-intellectual attitude in this country in particular. More recently, Susan Jacoby (following in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter) has described the problem fairly clearly in her new book, The Age of American Unreason.

Of course, predicting the fall of Western civilization at the hands of the unthinking is nothing new. H. L. Mencken and Jonathan Swift, writing about the "boobocracy" and the "Yahoos" respectively were describing earlier manifestations of the phenomenon (then in its nascence, as it turns out) in the previous two centuries. The problem, it appears, is not at all new, but consequences much more dire than those imagined previously now loom darkly. That's because we had only begun to destroy the environment by then, and our demise only seemed imminent.

The promise of the eighteenth century, of the Age of Enlightenment (particularly in Scotland, where they didn't send a bunch of their intellectuals to the guillotine as they did in France during the "sleep of reason"), was fulfilled in the rise of capitalism (thanks to Adam Smith's description of the process in The Wealth of Nations--which should not be read without also reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments) and the scientific and industrial revolutions. The seeds of everything we're living through today were sowed then. I'm pretty sure the guys talking about this stuff over beers with the fellas in Scottish pubs had no idea what would unfold.

If market capitalism had gone no further than the streets of Edinburgh, where folks kept an eye on one another and the "invisible hand" could actually work, maybe things wouldn't have gotten out of hand. But human beings don't seem to be able to think very far ahead, or imagine consequences very well, and so ideas that seem terrific at the time end up going afoul when we don't exercise the imagination we're also born with.

What bothers me is not so much general ignorance; there is simply so much information flooding the culture these days, that it's not surprising that people can't keep up--let alone spend much time wandering around in the past. The real problem is a fundamental lack of curiosity, the absence of wondering--which is where, according to Plato, philosophy begins. How can one become wise (that is--again according to Plato--arrive at a place where you're aware of what you don't know), unless one wonders enough to formulate questions and seek answers?

I'm writing this as I'm watching shenanigans on the Discovery shuttle (STS 124), where gleeful scientists spent part of yesterday turning somersaults and making videos of their activities in preparation for docking with the International Space Station today (where they're going to install a new lab and fix a toilet). None of this would have been possible without the Enlightenment, of course. But what I worry about is whether or not the Endarkenment will threaten future space exploration, one of my abiding interests as a child of the Sputnik era and sometime writer of science fiction.

Science education is also on the decline in this country, as children become less and less well prepared for the maths involved, and as their attention is drawn increasingly away from intellectual activities toward the seductions of popular culture and its various media. In some ways, science itself is making it more difficult to attract kids to basic learning experiences. A recent post on the Science of Battlestar Gallactica blog noted that kids are so used to seeing the enhanced-color shots from the Hubble Space Telescope that they're disappointed by what they can see in backyard telescopes.

But the real culprits are the activities that take them away from time to think--the multiplicity of extracurricular sports and "lessons" of all kinds that occupy every waking moment that's not taken up by watching television or playing video games. Many of us used to be able to get away from the doldrums of schooling and go home to read, or romp with our friends, or just sit and stare out the window, letting our minds wander. Now, however, children's lives are far more orchestrated, perhaps to keep them away from more sordid temptations, and/or to compensate for lack of genuine family interaction in two-income households. Whatever the reason, imagination seems to be suffering, and science is just another "boring" class they have to take in order to pass a "skills" test.

For what it's worth, I advocate the "Only One Thing" rule. Children can participate in one scheduled activity and that's it. Early on, the parent decides (music lessons were our choice; both kids took piano lessons until they couldn't stand it any more). Then the child gets to choose. My son chose orchestra in high school, and my daughter decided to get a job when she was fifteen. They both participated in "Odyssey of the Mind" events as well, but it involved the whole family, so it fell within the spirit of the Rule, and it only lasted a few weeks per year. The rest of the time was devoted to studying when necessary, and to fooling around whenever possible. Both kids had mediocre high school grades, but went on to creative careers. I will, alas, never attend a Nobel Prize award ceremony, but my kids are smart and happy and brimming with imagination.

All I really want these days is for kids to be able to have the same thing: a life filled with creativity and interest in what's going on around them. The future is theirs, and what I fear today--in the country where the word "intellectual" is a put-down more devastating than "whore" (which I've hear little girls call one another with glee)--is that our generation is stunting their creative development by vilifying actual thinking. When children can watch "educational" television shows that vastly misrepresent evidence and provide spurious interpretations (such as the recent Secrets of the Dead episode on the Minoans), or suggest (uncritically) that "crystal skulls" (which we know are fake) could never have been made by human beings (on the Discovery Channel feature), they grow up thinking that Indiana Jones is a real archaeologist and that stuff he finds is really stored at a secret warehouse and that Roswell isn't just a town in New Mexico.

Until we wake up and realize as a culture that we're putting reason to sleep and creating monsters that our kids are going to have to battle, we're not doing them any favors. We owe them the opportunity to be bored, and to seek avenues of intellectual stimulation that aren't programmed from babyhood. How will they ever understand the natural world if they never see it up close? How will they understand the wonders of advances in scientific technology if they don't look through a basic telescope? How will they ever be able to adjudicate between reason and unreason if they're fed predigested pabulum through a textbook that dumbs ideas down into formulaic "concepts" designed to be spit back on standardized tests?

I admire the mom in New York who gave her kid car fare, phone change, and a map, and sent him out to find his way home. When I was about his age (ten), my parents gave me free rein in a foreign country where I pretty much wandered at will, taking pedicabs to the movies in Taipei, or wandering trails on the mountainside outside the city. I spoke only enough Japanese (I never did learn Chinese) to communicate with the old guys who'd lived through the Japanese occupation, but I knew my address and that's all I needed. I remember being ill-at-ease when my kids were out doing who-knows-what when they were growing up in pre-cellphone America, but I lived through it and so did they.

We do live in dangerous times. But we're probably making them even more dangerous by trying to cocoon our children out of fear, and suffocating them with good intentions. Rather than occupying every second of their time and hovering over them, maybe we could start by throwing away the television set, assigning "media hours" and following the "Only One Thing" rule. If we parents turned out okay, shouldn't we give our kids the opportunity to develop the imagination and the real life skills it's going to take to stave of the forces of Endarkenment?

Image: Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.