Monthly Archives: September 2013

To everything there is a season. A time to use être and a time to use avoir. A time to say I’m thirsty and a time to say I have thirst. Two of the phrases I found most confusing as a beginning French student were “I am hungry” and “I am thirsty.” Instead of using the “to be” verb, être, as I had expected, you’re actually supposed to use the “to have” verb, avoir. 

We can chalk that up to a linguistic quirk, but as I was bringing two hungry and thirsty kids home from the park yesterday, I realized that I much preferred referring to hunger and thirst in the French manner. The children are British, native English speakers, so I could easily ask them if they are hungry/thirsty. Instead, I switch to French (which they also understand due to being in French schools).

While I don’t think this hugely impacts the kids, I was struck by the way thinking of hunger and thirst as things we have (versus are) was so reassuring to me. I have thirst. But I also have water. Everything will be okay. Rather than internalizing these physical states, “I” remain separate from the wanting, from the lack of something.

On the other hand, I like thinking of myself as thirsty in a more metaphorical sense. While I may have a thirst for knowledge, I want to be thirsty. The Whole Earth Catalog printed two sentences on the back of its final catalog: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” (Steve Jobs has said this in at least one speech, so the quote is often attributed to him, but he saw it there first!)

Obviously there is a big difference between chronic hunger and the hunger pains a well-fed person feels right before dinner or right after a long walk or something, and I’m not talking about chronic hunger here. But when it comes to the normal hunger and thirst one feels in an active day, I think it’s a good practice to develop this sense of slight distance between yourself and your biological need–but to embrace the sense that you are your thirst, when the thirst is for something higher, like passion or knowledge.


In which I respond to The Economist. With a little bit of slow-burning fury. 

The Economist explains: Why don’t Americans ride trains?
Despite the title of this article, the question isn’t fully explored. The primary reasons provided in this article are (1) America is bigger (than the other regions being compared, such as Europe), (2) American trains are more frequently delayed due to sharing lines with freight trains, (3) road travel is subsidized. While these are undoubtedly significant factors, probably the most significant, I think there are also many others at play, some of which may have more of a bearing on everyday decision making. I’ve been in Europe close to two weeks now, and I’ve watched how traveling by local trains is absolutely normal for people of all walks of life. Adults heading to work, children heading home from school, tourists, etc. In the U.S., public transit tends to be more widely used by people of lower socio economic status, for whom owning a car isn’t a feasible option. Additionally, many local rail lines aren’t particularly convenient and rail stations in some areas may be considered very dodgy. So in addition to little economic incentive to take rail, there are also some class and social issues at play as well.

Farming as rocket science: Why American agriculture is different from the European variety
While this article doesn’t outright say “American farming is better,” it does paint America’s agro-industrialism with a flattering brush, denigrating alternatives (such as smaller organic farm systems) in its comment about the difference between American and European subsidies. “EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit.” Though subtle, this is yet another example of serious ethical values being placed on a much lower level than economic prerogative. It seems very American, to me, to want to totally separate these spheres–moral and economic–and it also is typical of us to undervalue the more qualitative aspects of life. This article efficiently connects the education of rural children to the route of development pursued by many American farms,  but it fails to offer any kind of analysis of this effect. What is blatantly missing here is that many 4H children are no longer living on working farms. While we may have a few farms with more technological advances, we do not have many people making a living from farming regardless of technological innovation. In fact, many up-and-coming farmers are pursuing much different models for financing their production, such as selling CSA (community supported agriculture) shares directly to consumers, and are conscientiously prioritizing the quality and variety of their product over quantity. While a difficult route, this is proving successful for many people. Culturally, we need to move away from being blinded by science.

Yesterday, I dared myself to buy something—anything—so that I was forced to speak French. I came home empty handed.

Leaving the country, as it turns out, is easy. Leaving my comfort zone is hard.

My comfort zone is not tiny, but it does not extend to buying peaches (or anything else) at a French market.

This dog has no anxiety about grocery shopping whatsoever!

I have found myself in Lyon, the second-largest city in France, living with a British family as an au pair. Because they are British, I am starting to say things like “queue” (line) and “till” (cash register) and “jumper” (sweater), but I am not saying things like “bonjour” or “puis-j’aller au parc avec vous?”

Fear can be useful, but it can also be limiting. Take global warming, for example. Most people believe global warming is real and real scary. For some, that inspires action like recycling, reducing consumption, buying a Prius, whatever.

For others, that fear is paralyzing. Looking at what can be done, these people throw up their hands and declare action pointless (or just look away). Still others, I think, are so afraid that they do not “believe” in global warming in the first place. The entire concept is too scary.

For me, very ordinary things tend to be the most intimidating. Last year, I skipped class one morning to help butcher a sheep at a local farm. For many people, butchering the sheep would be the intimidating part of this adventure. For me, the hard part was saying hello to the farmer, someone who is actually a good friend of mine.

I was comfortable with the idea of pulling the hide off an animal that had recently been alive. Holding several pounds of intestines in my hands did not make me flinch for a second. But how do I enter this unusual situation? How do I figure out what my role is? How do I convey my joy at being invited to participate as well as my more solemn respect for the event taking place?

My fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted is so extreme that even when I’m speaking my native language, I can become tongue tied very easily, especially with people I’m not close with.

Switching to a different language only compounds the anxiety of the situation, even if the situation is only something as simple and really trivial as buying fruit. Whether or not my fears are rational, I am very consciously trying to work on decreasing the extent to which they limit me.

This is why I am in France, in fact, and why I am trying to learn French (a subject that gave me panic attacks in school), and why I am going out again, in a short while, to go buy some peaches.

Maybe buying a product designed to clean teeth that goes by the name “Dirty” was not my best idea. However, these “Toothy Tabs” by LUSH do clean teeth pretty well, even if I’m not a huge fan of the flavor.


The questionably named tabs, photo from LUSH cosmetics website.

 The basic idea is that they are more sustainable than regular toothpaste, mostly because of their totally recyclable packaging. Personally, I do not think that regular toothpaste is a spectacularly unsustainable enterprise, but I have to admit that I get frustrated throwing out the aluminum-lined tubes. Especially the really tiny travel-size toothpaste that seems to really be more tube than paste.

The LUSH website states, “Sodium bicarbonate forms the basis of our toothy tabs,” and boy is that ever apparent. My main objection to these little dudes is that you can really taste the baking soda. In fact you could just brush with baking soda. That would work. However, I’ve only tried this variety, and there are several others (take a look, here).

For $4.95, you get enough tabs to last several weeks at least. I think you could cut them in half and still have enough in one 1/2-tab to easily brush your teeth. The directions call for you to “nibble” the tabs between your front teeth, apply water to your toothbrush, and then brush. The baking soda really creates a lot of foaming very quickly so it doesn’t take much, but admittedly nibbling toothpaste is weird.

Is it a cost-efficient purchase? Sort of. Comparing with a very large tube of Crest or Colgate for $3-4, or a medium tube (their largest) of Tom’s of Maine for about $4.50, it is extremely expensive. The same number of brushings would cost over $20–a cost that seems absolutely ridiculous just to avoid putting a little aluminum in landfills. However, the Toothy Tabs box provides about as many brushings as a tiny travel tube, which generally cost $1-2. Because they won’t dry out (I mean, they’re already dry…) or separate, they have the storage advantage over travel tubes, in addition to the environmental consideration.

If you do a lot of traveling, these are a nice airline-security-friendly option. For me, that was the big advantage. There is a nice aftertaste, but the overwhelming baking soda flavor while brushing is repellant!

The best part, though, is definitely the packaging. Completely recyclable, it is also very small–small enough to pack efficiently or even carry around in your pocket or purse if you have a tooth brushing obsession (the whole box is about the size of a Pink Pearl eraser).

I don’t think these will ever totally replace regular toothpaste for me, but I will probably turn to them for traveling purposes, and since I’m getting used to the baking soda flavor, I may consider making my own version at home sometime. Would you try brushing with a “tab”?


As I’m in transit on my way to France for a year, I’m posting one of my favorite views of my parents’ house, which is not actually the house but rather the garage, a former carriage house. At night, it never fails to remind me of George Ault’s paintings of buildings at nighttime, particularly this one:

George Ault, Black Night at Russell’s Corners, 1943, Oil on canvas, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, John Lambert Fund.

So on Monday I mentioned my geek out about emissions ratings on new cars. Brace yourself for another geek out–this time about FENCES. If you’re thinking about those people with skinny swords who go around stabbing each other…

(I found this photo here: and I have no idea what the context is!)

… I’m not talking about that kind of fencing. [Note: fencers! don’t be offended! I just get more worked up about the stuff that keeps livestock contained.] In fact, I’m talking about this kind of fencing…


This is nice, right?

The first thing I noticed in Sweden that seemed distinctly Swedish was this type of fencing. This probably says that I pay too much attention to fencing… but this fencing is very distinctive, hard to miss. It works equally well on level places or going on slopes which is ideal for this kind of terrain. It works well with a variety of livestock, including goats. Since goat-proof fencing is basically a gold standard, that says something.


None of the poles are spectacularly strong, I suppose, on their own. In this formation, however, the fence makes an excellent visual barrier, meaning that it is less likely to be tested (by animals pushing against it). Additionally, the way the fence is put together makes it very sturdy while still being composed of lightweight materials. Even better, making these fences requires few tools.

It does take a certain amount of skill, however. The two vertical sections of the fence are bound together with what appears to be a strip of bark/young wood wetted, wrapped, and dried into a cross piece. The horizontal poles rest on these. Although it is a clear design, it requires a certain knowledge of the appropriate materials to make it strong and long-lasting.



As with many things, when the skills are lost (or limited to very few people), the work can become very (even prohibitively) expensive. The materials for these fences are readily available in Sweden (LOTS of trees, I have never seen so many trees!), but the skills may not be. Although the fences are quite different from typical fences in the U.S., the issue of a somewhat dying skill is familiar. Happily, it seems that more people are taking an interest in learning how to do this, so it should be a skill that remains.


So, for the record, I’m in Sweden for a few days, so frankly I have better things to do than blog! However, in the name of consistency, I will do my best…

I think environmental folk in the U.S. tend to paint Sweden in a very rosy light when it comes to sustainability, and I certainly am somewhat guilty of doing that. We go to IKEA and while we’re walking around a big box store, we’re still thinking about how impressive are the energy-saving lamps! And of course we also think Sweden = IKEA.

Sweden is not IKEA. It’s much cooler, actually. But like all places, there are issues and controversies. It is not a land of jolly do-gooders. Earlier this morning I was listening to a radio program in which people could call in and say basically whatever they wanted for half an hour. I don’t speak Swedish, so I had no idea what they were talking about, but my lovely hostess filled me in, and people were not calling in just to compliment emissions taxes.

Most buildings in the Swedish countryside are this red color because the stain is a mining by-product--plentiful and cheap. And now traditional, as well!

Most buildings in the Swedish countryside are this red color because the stain is a mining by-product–plentiful and cheap. And now traditional, as well!

However, that leads me to Thing #1 that is interesting/cool about Sweden. Yesterday we drove from Ludvika to Södertälje, which took about three hours. On the way, the topic of fuel efficiency came up, and my friend casually mentioned that her car has both a gas mileage rating and emissions rating. So when you buy a car in Sweden, you have two pieces of information about fuel/emissions/etc. In the U.S., you only have the theoretical gas mileage of a car, and that is often not a big factor.

One of the reasons this other number–emissions–matters is that Sweden gives some benefit to cars with lower emissions ratings. I think you can find these emissions ratings for cars sold in the States, but the difference is in the availability and display of information.

If that “one cool thing” about Sweden was too nerdy for you, then how about this: there is also an unofficial (but longstanding) law that says basically anyone can go anywhere, so it is okay to walk around (or camp in) forests and land even if you don’t own it! It seems that although there are occasionally problems with renegade berry picking immigrants (seriously), this is generally a respectful practice that most Swedish people wouldn’t want to see ended.

Check back for more on Wednesday!