Monday, November 29, 2010

New Traditions for Old

As I look out into my back garden, at the leaf-covered yard, and sheets hanging on the line, I'm musing about the changed character of holidays in our household. The weather is uncharacteristically (for this time of year) fine, after a brief morning shower that barely dampened the laundry (which has been hanging there since Saturday, sort of on purpose because leaving it overnight softens and "irons" bed linens better than anything one could add to the washer or dryer; I just forgot to take it in yesterday, so it got another night of airing). My long Thanksgiving break is coming to a close, and there are three more rather hectic weeks before the quarter's finished and a slightly longer winter break begins.

It occurred to me that over the last couple of years two new traditions have arisen for the Beloved Spouse and me. The first I've mentioned--the change of venue for the Thanksgiving meal from our house to our daughter's loft. The second, however, is probably more meaningful in the end: our refusal to participate in "Black Friday," which has become an emblem of corporate control over modern lives, and of the meaningless greed for stuff (and more stuff) that seems to have penetrated into the very being of American life.

The news yesterday was full of stories about how the economy seems to be turning around at least slightly, because so many people were apparently hopeful enough (or solvent enough) to go out and spend themselves into a frenzy after stuffing themselves with turkey. Some even seem to have foregone the feast in order to feed their desire for--what? Big screen TVs, elaborate and kitschy plastic toys, trendy clothing, digital gizmos of all varieties . . . and the list goes on. And on.

The stories were illustrated by footage of people standing in long lines overnight, and/or rushing through doors at ungodly hours to grab the "great deals." More videos followed of people standing in endless lines with shopping carts stuffed and piled high with goods (just what is "good" about "goods," I now wonder). Families, according to the Daily Poop, have made their own new traditions: shopping together. But stories of fights in malls and shopper stampedes indicated that not all of this was simply a pleasant way to spend time together after a good meal.

One good thing about living in the Bible Belt is that Sundays are pretty good days to shop, especially before church lets out. So the BS and I finally braved the crowds--which turned out to be sparse--and went out for several hours yesterday. We stopped in at Half Price Books and then had a long lunch at a sports bar (all the better to watch the finals of ATP tennis), picked up some small stuff at several stores in the "Villages" (a newish local outdoor mall that straddles the road between two adjacent towns; the one dud was a visit to the newly opened "a Real Bookstore," which turned out to be nothing of the sort), and ended our trip at Whole Foods. This was, after all, a milk run for the most part. But, including lunch and a late-birthday set of Deadwood for the BS, the whole thing set us back very little--especially since we hadn't done anything like this in months.

I've realized over these last few years of trying to live more thoughtfully, frugally, and responsibly, that small pleasures are fairly easy to come by. Meals based on pastured meat, humanely-treated cows and chickens, and well-raised plants don't even have to taste better (although they generally do, in part because I think more about how to cook them) to feel better. Spending more on food than on non-essentials means that farmers are getting more of what I pay for what I get. At some point in the near future, I'm going to write about the high cost of cheap food, but in the meantime I'm trying to plan meals and purchases ever more carefully so that I can afford to spend what they're worth.

Many people, I know, are in no position to be making these choices, because they don't have the time or the income or the opportunity; but I do, and so I can't ignore the consequences of what and how I buy. I've learned to do without a great deal, and I could certainly do without much of what I still buy. But I haven't yet reached the point at which I can live happily without my computer, the DVD library, the occasional new book or download to the iPad.

The balance between need and desire around here is still tenuous. At least, however, shopping is no longer an arbitrary activity, undertaken for its own sake. I've learned to postpone purchasing anything new until I've had time to think about its impact. I avoid going out to shop at all unless I can combine trips, and make sure I've got the cash for it; credit cards are reserved for dire emergencies (usually pet-related). The immediate result of these strategies, oddly enough, is increased enjoyment and appreciation for what the object (such as the aforementioned iPad) adds to our lives: the ability to read the New York Times on the exercise bike, or a digital edition of a magazine that doesn't have to be recycled.

A better man than I would probably think me frivolous for even desiring a new toy like this; and I'm likely to agree with him. But as the Beloved Spouse pointed out to me yesterday, while we were reflecting on our shopping trip, these are our small means of escape from an increasingly heavy burden: educating young people who have grown up in a culture that values entertainment more than intellect, instant gratification more than curiosity, and quantity over quality.

We have miles to go before we sleep. And so while I am always eager to rant away about the profusion of things that seem to preoccupy most lives, I do try not to feel smug about my sources of delight. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel good about the fact that I get at least as much pleasure from smelling my freshly folded, line-dried sheets as I do from reading the Times Magazine on the little digital reader we mulled over buying.

In truth, we would have bought it on the spot had it been available, rather than waiting the week or so before they were in stock at the local Buy More. My examination of technology and necessity will, therefore, have to remain a work in progress.

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Nothing But Blue Skies

The title of the post is pretty prosaic, but it's what's out there right now. The temperature's cooler, but no real freeze has hit us yet, and the weather has been swinging from gray and dismal to blustery to bright.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a couple of weekends ago we drove down to the San Antonio area to celebrate my father-in-law's eightieth birthday. The Beloved Spouse, my daughter, the puppies, and I all piled into the Element for my first trip out of town in a couple of years. I remembered to thank poor old Koko, who's recent demise made the trip possible in the first place, and raised a toast to him that evening.

This week's rather unexceptional Skywatch photo was taken from my father-in-law's patio in a posh retirement subdivision in the hill country. He's got a great view (and had an "Arlo and Woody Memorial Fence" built when he bought the place, just so we could take the dogs). On top of that, the weather was fine enough for me to sit out to grade exams before the surprise party we threw for him. We had a wonderful time seeing family again, and enjoying good company, good food, and very good wine.

But the sky was relentlessly blue all weekend. We didn't see a single cloud until we neared Dallas at sunset the following evening. Today's sky is pretty much the same. The last time I saw anything with any drama was on the 1st, when I ran outside in my slippers to get this one before the sun plummeted:

Next week's Thanksgiving, and although my son and his wife won't be flying out after all, I'm looking forward to a six-day holiday, my daughter's cooking, the company of her charming (and young) friends, and her big goofy dog.

The holiday forecast is for pleasant weather (sunny and 58). As Mariana Greene, the Daily Poop's feature garden columnist, put it this morning, "I try to remind myself every little chance I get that these kinds of days in November (and often in December through March) are our payback here in North Texas for six months or more of heat. " I'm with her. If we put up with the worst of this climate, we deserve the best it offers in recompense.

And those six days off? As much time as possible will be spent winterizing the garden. That North Texas weather has a habit of turning around and biting us in our collective backsides.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reconsidering Electricity

While doing research on the effects of EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) on Life As We Know It for a short story this week, I kept coming across comments about how we'd be jerked back to 5000 BCE were one of these events to knock out electricity.

EMP survival is a staple on the armageddon/end-times/survivalist websites and blogs, and it's really the only potential catastrophe I worry about because there is some real possibility that it could happen--whether as a result of a terrorist explosion of a nuke over the US or in space, or as an effect of an especially large solar coronal ejection (CME), as occurred in 1859 (now referred to as the Carrington Event). I've been getting quite a lot of CME chatter in my mailbox from science news feeds, so this stuff is on my mind.

I won't go into the details, because the dangers are nicely outlined in the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. But I do want to consider the claim that modern civilization would come to a screeching halt, and we'd be consigned to neolithic lifeways (I refuse to say "lifestyles" in contexts like these--because of the element of choice implicit in our current use of the word) if we were to suddenly lose access to electricity.

In the first place, the real danger is to solid state electronics and all the fancy computer devices (like the laptop I'm using to write this post, and the internet I'm using to publish it) that rely on sophisticated infrastructural and telecommunications technologies upon which the United States and other first-world countries have come to depend. As the report points out, less well-developed countries are potentially in much less danger of collapse than we are:

"Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow. The impact of EMP is asymmetric in relation to potential protagonists who are not as dependent on modern electronics." (Report of the Commission, 5)

In fact, simple electrical devices would still work--or could easily be developed--but almost everything we do these days depends on more complex systems. Most doomsday scenarios follow similar assumptions about how we'd end up in the aftermath of an EMP: cultural collapse, mass rioting and mayhem, takeover by one militia or another (foreign or domestic), rampant chaos, and eventually we'd be consigned to small pockets of "good" survivors at the mercy of "evil" ones.

Really? Good, helpful neighborly folk will turn on one another, co-operation wouldn't even be considered, the gun-toters would rise triumphant and ascendant, and shoot all the tree-hugging liberals and/or rape all their women folk and steal all their stuff.

To me this all amounts to a pretty dismal view of human nature (not that I really think there is any such thing). I can sort of understand the Apocalyptos who think the end is near and that god's going to rain tribulation down on all us non-believers (and on those who don't truly believe in their hearts according to one website I'm not going to link), smite us with hellfire and brimstone, set loose the beasts to devour us and all that. I mean, these folks rely on their literal interpretation of the most metaphorical text in the literary pantheon (fortunate choice of word, that), and they've been waiting for something like this since Jesus died, so they're actually looking forward to it.

But the rest of us? Wouldn't we be able to band together and sort things out? In the worst of times, don't we tend to work together--even when our government drops the ball (as with Hurricane Katrina)? And without electricity?

It's no coincidence that in my own view of utopia the occupants choose not to use electrical devices--and they get along fine without them. Of course, they've planned their lives around the complete absence of electricity (it's the first thing they decide they don't need), but they end up living pretty well, and with technologies that surpass those of the neolithic to some significant degree. Bronze Age, maybe, but not neolithic. In truth, there are degrees of technological sophistication that don't require any electricity at all, such as steam power. Just remember how much fun people are having with Steampunk these days.

Today's edition of the Daily Poop, in the "Lifestyles" section, there's an article by Alison Miller called Recovering Lost Arts: Brazos de Dios carefully crafts cheese, furniture, community--and a way of life. This is another reason why I still read the newspaper, and why I so enjoy coincidence. Just last weekend, as we drove south on I 35 to San Antonio, I noticed for the first time ever (after twenty years of making this drive) a sign for a town called "Elm Mott." I joked about how British it sounded, and wondered why I'd never seen it before--and then here it is: the very spot where Brazos de Dios is located.

The subject of the article consists of a community of about a thousand people on five hundred or so acres who "place great value in traditional craftsmanship, doing things by hand, and gathering ingredients from the earth and animals that surround them" (Miller E1). Begun in the seventies (like so many other intentional communities, only a few of which still exist) by a group of New York Christians, they now operate as Homestead Heritage and provide educational programs in crafts from cheese-making to boat building to letterpress printing. Their beautifully designed website offers this evocation of ideals that William Morris would have loved: "Our Traditional Crafts Village showcases a community of craftsmen who have returned, not to the past, but to the enduring values exemplified in handcraftsmanship. True craft requires more than skill: it expresses the craftsmen's care and concern, their personal investment in everything they do."

Now, I know that places like these are relatively scarce, although I'm going to spend some time finding more of them (before I lose the use of my electrical devices), because this kind of effort gives me hope for the future. I've been laboring under the illusion that my views of the good life are alien to most Texans (hence my continuing sense of exile). It's good to know that I'm wrong, at least to some extent.

It's also good to know that I'm right about the attractiveness of simple technologies. The folks at Brazos de Dios use electricity. But I don't imagine for one minute that they couldn't carry on just fine without it.

If, of course, they could also manage to keep the zombies and whackos from invading their farmstead in the event of an EMP.

Image credit: The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake, U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang, taken at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in 2005. It was the Wikimedia Commons Featured Picture of the Year in 2006. The photo has been manipulated a bit, but the original is posted on the commons. For an artistic interpretation, see the painting by Frederic Edwin Church, below, from 1865--also from Wikimedia Commons. Some really good photos and videos
of solar activity in general are available from the Telegraph (UK) page on solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and aurora borealis in pictures.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Home, Keeping

To hermit should be a verb. My usual modus involves driving down to school and back three days a week, and occasionally accompanying the Beloved Spouse on a shopping trip that may include a meal at one of our usual haunts. Otherwise I don't get out much.

Part of this is Vera's fault. She's training me to hypermile, which means that the longer the trips, the better the mileage, so I've become really hesitant to go anywhere nearby unless I can combine stops for overall fuel efficiency. I made my first close-in, purpose-driven trip last Monday to Fairview (the town just south of McKinney) to the new Whole Foods Market on opening day.

It's rather unfortunate, however, that I can now shop so close to home, because it means I'll be getting out even less frequently. WFM is on the way home for the BS, so he will be picking up his Old Growler and muesli by himself, and I won't be forced to head south early on Fridays to stock up on food for our one remaining cat, Harpo. (My previous WFM venue was in the complex where I work.)

So what?, one might reasonably ask. My only reason for mentioning these trivialities is that I've been doing a lot of thinking about home and hearth of late. My gnawing homesickness for Eastern California has been exacerbated during the election season by the relentless lack of intelligence reflected in the Texas electorate. California doesn't usually do much better, but I used to like Jerry Brown and he's got to be an improvement over Arnold (after all, Meg Whitman thought so, too). I'm lately tempted to buy a travel trailer and a plot of land in the Owens Valley and just move back out there.

But I'm not really in a position to go anywhere, so I've taken refuge in my hermitage. I've started clearing out the garage and the attic, sorting through assorted closets, recycling stuff I don't need--all in preparation for making a real effort to fix the place up. Finally.

I hear a great deal of buzz around work about how exhausted people are from "house work" and "yard work." It makes me wonder at the differences in attitude between those folks and people like me who talk about "home-keeping" and "gardening" instead. Yes, it's hard work; but it's enormously satisfying when one can sit in a comfy chair or in the garden after an afternoon's effort and enjoy a hot cuppa. I would like nothing better than to do "house work" all the time, at least when I wasn't at the computer yapping on blogs or writing the great American science fiction novel.

If the physical space that contains one's home isn't pleasant or well-loved, or if one has no occupational choice, necessary tasks like hoovering or dusting or tidying up might well seem like drudgery. Occasionally, while Koko was still alive, I grew tired of the constant cleanup associated with caring for an ailing pet. And perhaps a bit of my current fondness for nesting in, rather than venturing out, comes from my recent release from that small burden. Koko's brother, Harpo, seems to sense it, too; he's become an affectionate companion rather than a timid soul who hides most of the time.

My own isolation (hiding?) will come to an end this weekend, when we venture south to San Antonio to celebrate my father-in-law's eightieth birthday. Granted, we'll be with family, and we'll be taking the "puppies," but it'll be something of an adventure. I don't think I've been further south than Dallas in at least two years.

Nevertheless, my efforts at clearing cobwebs from the attic are helping to clear them from my brain, and this connection may lie at the heart of why I find these activities pleasurable rather than onerous. Lately I've been able to work in the breakfast room, refurbishing some old bookends by decorating them with Japanese papers and ephemera, only because I finally cleared away months' worth of collected detritus from atop the table.

For the last couple of years I've been stymied by the length of the list of things to do, most of them major: re-tile the bath upstairs, put in a new floor upstairs, re-roof the house, re-glaze the windows, re-paint assorted rooms, re-finish floors downstairs, re-screen the porch. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I've made endless lists, prioritized, and worried over it all whenever I wasn't busy worrying about school. Of course, this strategy accomplished nothing.

Then, around the end of summer, I started simply doing things. Small things: making sure the dishes were done and the downstairs tidied before bed (so I wouldn't be greeted by a pile and/or a mess in the morning); running the vacuum cleaner through the house once or twice a week (instead of waiting until the place was three-inches thick in dog fur); picking up stray twigs from the garden (mostly bits of fallen pecan branches) and adding them to the twig "wall" that edges part of the Carbon Sink (instead of pitching them on the brush heap); making weekly forays into the garage to find objects that have to be thrown out rather than re-purposed or re-positioned; recovering old electronics boxes from the attic for recycling.

Slowly, I'm retraining myself. Instead of pining away about the lack of time I have to get anything accomplished, I've started using the existing time more wisely. I no longer keep long lists, although I do jot down ideas for small, do-able tasks. In time (time, again!) the empty boxes will be gone, the garage will be more accessible, and there will be even more time.

This is not unlike getting out of debt. Once one starts paying things down, the lower the balance becomes, and the faster the debt melts away.

What I didn't realize when I started paying attention to the process (in terms of both monetary debt and "junk debt") was the sense of well-being that ensues. One source of my periodic funks, it seems, was simply being overwhelmed by mounting numbers of tasks. "Just do it," the ad preaches.

For once, advertising seems to be doing some good. I'm just not quite sure why it took me so long to get the message.

Image credit: As always, when I think of home, I think of Carl Larsson's evocative watercolors. This one is Lathörnan ("Cosy Corner") from Ett hem, 1894, via Wikimedia Commons.