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Monthly Archives: October 2013

When this is posted, I will be leaving on a quick traveling-while-traveling trip to London and Oxford as I live in Lyon, France. I never saw myself as the “kind of person” who would be doing this much running around (rather, flying) because for years I resisted even traveling the 200 miles to my grandparents’ house–or for that matter, the few miles to my schools. Any commute was–and is–too much of a commute (I’ve been known to bitterly stifle complaints about a 3-minute commute).

I reluctantly assume the “homebody” label, sometimes. I like being home. 

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Exotic zoo critters. Are they home or not? Sometimes I feel this limbo.

That said, I felt so adrift when I graduated college that I needed to do something–anything–to shake up my perspective and try to figure out what going home means, to figure out what I’m actually looking for.

A month into my most recent “experiment” and I think, by Jove, I’ve got it! Meanwhile, I’m living abroad with a contract that keeps me here through July. I realize that in many ways I’m quite fortunate to have this opportunity, but I’m also aware–every day–that this isn’t mine, I ain’t settled. And as much as I am getting into the routine of this family and this place, there is an ever-looming expiration date on this experience.

At some point, I will have to uproot myself, no matter how firm (or how fragile) those roots may be, when the time comes. Even if I found a way to continue living abroad, I would still be switching apartments or even countries.

For me, living sustainably involves cultivation not only of ideas and personal ethos, but also of physical, tangible things: housing, food production, etc. I love making yogurt here because it means a little bit less packaging getting thrown away (or recycled). I’m also a fan of being able to walk basically everywhere I need to go. However, I am yearning for the day when I can plant a garden that I will not only tend and harvest, but plant again the next year.

As much as my generation rhapsodizes about travel, it’s more and more vital for people to stay in place and cultivate those places. Exploring places unlike your own can be an important exercise in understanding, first-hand, cultural relativity, but traveling continuously, or living a deliberately nomadic life, can sometimes mean shirking human responsibilities, as well.

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I’m not saying that everyone needs to own a herd of dairy cattle and be directly tied to daily agricultural duties; I’m also not saying that travel is inherently evil. I’m just saying: home is nice, too. If you (like me, pre-September 2013) felt a tremendous pressure to travel, travel, travel and you don’t want to? Don’t feel bad about it, just make use of your staying put. Relish it.

 

“The ocean is broken,” states the title of this article recently published in the Newcastle Herald. After the sailer’s lengthy description of the terrific desolation of the ocean he found during his sail from Melbourne to Osaka, one Twitter commenter dismisses the entire article: “Some important marine issues identified but mostly an anecdotal tear-jerker. What [does, sic] a broken ocean even mean?”

This commenter follows in a long tradition of dismissal of anecdotal evidence in favor of–what, exactly? As pointed out in this same tweet, the article’s author identifies critical issues. These aren’t strictly “marine issues,” either. Marine issues become human issues when they impact our water supply, the availability of seafood; they are human issues because we made these issues.

“Pollution” is an inherently hazy term (pardon the pun). Most climate change words are. They’re either too big or too indefinite–or both–for us to really wrap our minds around. Most of us don’t feel climate change the way we feel weather; that partly explains the absurd abundance of weather/climate change conflation in news reports (headlines in the vein of, “Record setting blizzard! Must not have heard of global warming”).

Even in areas that are full of pollution, it is sometimes difficult to really see this. I’ve spent a lot of time in natural bodies of water, from my early experiences trying to catch minnows in Deep Creek Lake, to family summer vacations at Ocean City, to my college years canoeing and swimming in the St. Mary’s River. Along the way, I’ve lost my inhibitions about creepy crawlies and mud between my toes.

I’ve also never had much of an inhibition about swimming in “wild” waters. I remember always wanting to wade in the stream near my house when I was little, and being told it was too dirty, too polluted–but doing it anyway. Ditto for the ten foot wide strip of rushing water in the street outside our house after a hard rain. In Lyon, I am fortunate enough to live right across the street from one of the two major rivers, the Rhone.

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The Rhone, from Pont Winston Churchill. Isn’t this lovely?

My first thought: oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to go swimming here? Evidently, some people do, but I’ve been warned off it–too polluted, not exactly ‘lovely.’ Looking at the water, I wouldn’t be able to see that it’s really that “dirty.” However, it gets difficult to breathe after a few days without rain. Some people routinely wear masks, especially while bicycling. Over time, you start to feel the pollution–but it’s still not visible.

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A very pleasant form of contact–go for a row!

As much as we need to have statistical, numeric data about pollution (and other environmental problems), we also need anecdotal data. Without traveling to the ocean between Australia and Japan, I was able to envision the environmental calamity due to this article, “The Ocean is Broken.” Without looking up data which may or may not exist–after all, somebody has to do the data collection, and without a reason to seek out information, people seldom do–I wouldn’t have been alerted to this story about pollution, overfishing, human wastefulness.

We're in Sweden, now.

We’re in Sweden, now.

Contact is important. While visiting a friend in Sweden, her body-building-obsessed son frequently used the word “contact” to describe a certain feeling he was trying to get while lifting weights. This term has stuck with me. He was referring to an intuitive sensation, not one defined by the number of kilos he was lifting or how many repetitions he had done. “Contact” was something that you could only sense from within the action itself; it wasn’t something you could measure objectively (as far as I know). Even if you could measure it objectively, you weren’t.

Contact in environmentalism means going outside and means listening to people who go outside places where you don’t or can’t. Contact means putting ourselves in touch with ecosystems that are often more complex than our measuring systems.

As more and more places on earth are influenced by human habitation and consumption, the wilder and more remote places may start to show “signs of wear” in more dramatic ways than the places we routinely clean up and keep livable. (The ocean, for example, is pretty “wild and remote” for most of us.)

For me, water would be merely something that comes out of a tap–often at an alarming speed–except for my experiences mucking about in puddles or in my big red canoe. Most of my experiences of natural bodies of water have been in the context of vacations and recreation, so the connection between water and its importance in our survival (and, obviously, that of many many many other species) is not always the most immediate.

“We were weaving around these pieces of debris. It was like sailing through a garbage tip.”

What statistics and even impassioned policy reports cannot convey are the subjective perceptions of the world that prompt emotional connection to real issues. While public policy decisions and other issues are best decided with a prudent balance of research and anecdotal observation, dramatic accounts like these can serve as useful flags of real issues. If you can truly bring someone to tears through your writing, that’s powerful. Of course I’m biased. But interest, sympathy, and impassioned rage all make for very powerful motivators as well.

In anticipation of Monday’s upcoming post on water, pollution, and travel, here’s a photo I took last week in the lovely Parc de la Tête d’Or, the second-largest park in France (so I’ve been told).

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Yep, I’m one of those people who eat yogurt every single morning for breakfast. I like having something that always tastes good to me and that doesn’t require a lot of thought to start my morning routine. So sue me. 

What I don’t like is yogurt packaging. There seems to be no way around it. Even larger containers of yogurt still demand to be recycled eventually (or take up a staggering amount of cabinet space, if you let them).

In France, I’ve found it’s actually harder to find larger containers of yogurt than it is in the U.S. Perhaps they are not undergoing the same kind of yogurt craze we are. At any rate, the enormous tubs of the stuff have eluded me, so the remaining options look more like the above packages (though there are some with recyclable glass packages). As much as I think the little glass jars are cute, the foil lids have to be chucked out and there is very little yogurt-to-glass ratio. It’s a few spoonfuls of yogurt in a few spoonfuls of packaging.

Why?!?!?!

This kind of thing drives me nuts. Obviously yogurt needs some kind of container, but does it need this much containment? Do people really want only a few spoonfuls of the stuff, anyway? Personally I could always eat at least two little cups of the stuff, but that seems beyond wasteful when you look at the packaging.

And it’s depressing to finish a meal with a pile of stuff next to you to throw away. Banana peels are bad enough–but this? Ridiculous.

Enter the yogurt maker.

The family I work for happens to have been given a yogurt maker, so the mother and I alternate yogurt making and make about two batches a week. Each jar is slightly larger than one of the store-bought packages and is also completely dishwashable and reusable. Unfortunately, we still have the plastic packaging from the milk jug and the glass-and-foil packaging from the one yogurt we use as a starter culture to throw out, but I think the net is still something of an improvement.

The yogurt in progress looks something like this – though with lids on. (Photo from this article.)

There are recipes available online for making yogurt without a machine, but I will say that it takes possibly 5 minutes to do this and I am less worried about harmful bacteria than if I were doing a stovetop recipe. The machines also aren’t particularly expensive. On Amazon, they seem to be about $25-40 and make 7-9 jars depending on the size of the model and jars. That’s comparable to 5 medium-large size tubs of Greek yogurt!

Please note that you need more than milk and a machine to get this to work; yogurt is a fermented product so it needs the appropriate starter culture to get the right bacteria to develop (so that it becomes yogurt and not toxic slime). If you’re in the U.S., I’ve been told that Stoneyfield brand works well as a starter culture. Once you have it going, you can just use one of your own yogurts as a starter. It’s also possible to source the culture itself through online retailers.

While I’m not usually a big fan of one-purpose gadgets, this one seems like a serious time and money-saver if you’re a diehard yogurt consumer (like I am). If you only want to try out making yogurt as a one-time culinary adventure, you might want to find a good stovetop recipe and go that route rather than cluttering up your kitchen with this little device.

Sure, there are compelling arguments to be made for “dropping your child off on someone’s doorstep” or various other forms of child abuse for the “worst parenting mistake,” but don’t those kinds of errors really deserve their own category? My parenting pet peeve is when parents set the bar too low for their children.

Sometimes, it’s true, you need to tell children they can’t do things. For example, I’m often finding myself telling the 4-year old girl, M, that she can’t hit her little brother T (who is 2). While theoretically, of course, she can hit him (and does), I want to emphasize that that behavior is so far outside the realm of acceptable behavior that she should not even feel like it is an option. Use your words, I tell her.

Kids are shockingly strong, durable, and intelligent–if given the opportunity to be. They are also shockingly annoying–if given the chance. And while I’ve watched M do quite astonishing acts of throwing away the yogurt container and asking nicely for a snack and even saying please!, I’ve also been informed to keep my expectations of four-year-olds a bit lower than that.

My high school’s motto was Positive expectations yield positive results. (How’s that for progressive education?) While I thought it was really cheesy back when I went to the school, when I left, I was faced with the harsh reality that most of the world has negative expectations. And guess what? … negative expectations yield negative results.

Expect your four-year-old to scream at the dinner table and she almost definitely will.

Not topically relevant, but it would be a shame to lose this place, no?

The other night at this very same dinner table, over the screaming, the adults at the table had a conversation about global warming. I mentioned a study I had read about recently in the New York Times article, “By 2046, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say.” It’s a disturbing idea, yet it’s already been suggested by a huge body of research. This is just a different way of explaining and framing the narrative–hopefully making it even more compelling to a general public which is still reluctant to take action.

But why? We know there’s a problem. Many people point to a climate change denial as a reason we haven’t made much progress in reducing global emissions. However, more people than ever are coming round to the notion that climate change is a real problem that will become tangible very, very soon. Yet it is only a small subset of these people who actively support action to curb climate change. Even fewer have devoted themselves wholly to this endeavor.

Again, I can only say I’m including this because this is one of the kinds of views that inspires me to care about the world.

One of the reasons I think people are slow to adjust to the concept of climate change is that it is far easier to tell ourselves we can’t do anything about it. Urban farming is becoming increasingly popular because I think people see it as a way to build household-scale resilience. On a larger level–the level that is ultimately going to make more of an impact–we don’t have systems of transportation or energy production that are particularly sustainable. Infrastructure of this scale needs to change, but how can individuals go about changing anything?

I don’t have the answer. However, I do have positive expectations. Sometimes.

The Internet works in mysterious ways… as I was trying to watch this one particular French movie online, I stumbled across a set of instructions for making a tin can stove and an hour or so later I’ve read most of the Log Cabin Cooking blog. I have two take-aways so far. One: I must eat some beans and try to make this stove ASAP! Two: this line, from a post entitled “Crunchy Laundry,” stands out:

I just want to say that if you fall in love with crackly, sun-dried, un-treated cotton textiles; then the “chore” of hanging, taking down and folding your laundry becomes a slow pleasure that you’ll be happy to make time for whenever you can.

When my freshman year roommate and I did our first loads of laundry in college, I was shocked. Every single time she put something in the dryer there was this little piece of paper she had to hunt around for afterwards to throw out. I had never seen–and certainly hadn’t used–dryer sheets before. They were confusing to me! Dryers don’t need sheets like bed need sheets; clothes dryers already get clothes dry so it’s not like you need to put a special sheet in to make the dryer work.

Rube that I evidently was (and probably still am), I eventually learned what dryer sheets were for… and I still don’t get it. It is already easy to tell the difference between clothes dried in a dryer (sans dryer sheet) versus on a line. Yes, line drying clothes tends to make them feel a bit stiff at first. But replace stiff with “crisp” and you have a lovely laundry situation!

Whenever I find myself getting an inordinate amount of pleasure out of things like solid water pressure or really neat folded sweaters, I think I must be the only one who feels this way. But then I go stumbling around in the Internet and jam my toe on the blog of someone else who “gets” it–we spend most of our days doing eating, doing laundry, cleaning, carrying things. We might as well try to enjoy these activities as much as we can.

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One of the “little things” from home I miss the most.

Today at the playground, after most of the kids had left and only “mine” were sticking it out on the suddenly chilly fall day (because I made them…), I found myself involved in a weird game of “let’s do half-assed calisthenics very rapidly while pretending to be frogs” (at least I think that’s what we were playing). As much as I felt like an idiot, especially because at least one middle aged dude was leaning out a nearby apartment building to watch (or judge my leap frog abilities?), I also enjoyed getting a little bit warmer and feeling a little less like the grumpy referee.

While glorifying household chores, as a woman, can start to slip into dangerously “un-feminist” territory, there’s no need for that. I get it. You (another woman) would rather have a meaningful, interesting career than spend your life cleaning up after toddlers and men who act (at least once they get home) like toddlers as well. Trust me. I get it. Right now, that literally is my job, and I don’t wish it on anybody.

That said, no one can avoid eating, or going to the bathroom, or cleaning up a bit. Increasingly, we don’t have the typical-for-five-minutes-in-the-1960’s households with one man working, one woman at home. People are single. People are shacking up. People are married but living in separate houses (yes, I saw a TV show about it on HGTV).

I am super duper happy that I have a washing machine in my life, so that when I want to wash a ton of towels and sheets, I can just throw them in and take the kids to the park. That’s great–it’s a serious time saver, and it does the job better than I know how to. I’m not suggesting that we go back to wringer washers. But when you have the chance, you might as well enjoy chores–or parts of chores–that you have to do anyway, right?

Research shows that we tend to enjoy planning vacations more than we actually enjoy being on them. We look forward, with pleasurable anticipation, to the many delights we believe will await us. We don’t anticipate the delayed flights, the restaurant food that gives us food poisoning, or the week on the beach spoiled by an out-of-season hurricane. So we have an unambiguous sense of pleasure awaiting us, whereas in our normal lives, we are very aware of both the good and the bad things around us.

Can a bridge count as a “little thing”?

However, it doesn’t hurt to recognize when little things are nice. The first thing I noticed in the apartment I live in here in Lyon was the one, huge, glorious window in my room. I’m not always happy here–in fact, I’m frequently frustrated by dozens of tiny and not-so-tiny things–but I have started to accumulate things to love. While walking on most city streets there is a pervasive odor of urine, probably my most detested smell in the world (and I can’t be alone in that).

To counterbalance all the pee, I try to pay more attention to the wafted bursts of bakery and cologne and even tobacco smoke. These quintessentially French smells (all of them, even the urine) provide the sensory backdrop of my current life. To give in and wallow in the disgusting nature of the pee-stained walls would be a shame, because it’s really not that bad, once you speed up to catch a whiff of the rose-scented women!