(this is a featured article in this month’s issue of The Be Zine. Click here to see the whole thing.)
Once upon a time, there were a bunch of Big Brains who decided that living things (which they rarely called ‘living beings’) needed to be neatly organized. Grouping things together based on similarity was important to them for some reason. So they made up categories and named them Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, in succession from broad to specific. Then they had to remember these categories, so they memorized “Kindly Professors Cannot Often Fail Good Students” – apropos of nothing much. (Personally, I think “Kindly People Courageously Offer Fauna/Flora General Sympathy” might make better sense.)
Meanwhile, some other Big Brains decided that everything in the Universe was made by one Creator and that He gave humans dominion over all the other animal species on Earth and gave every plant for human use. That made them feel they were Most Important among the creatures on the planet. They felt very comfortable with that and valued themselves, and those that looked and acted most like them, very highly.
As for those creatures who were terribly different from them, well, they were kind of “icky”.
Well, these Big Brains were very clever. They prospered and multiplied (and divided and conjugated and came up with quantum physics). They learned how to make a Big Impact on the Earth, making things they liked out of the raw materials Earth had. And every year, there were more of them. They liked to be comfortable, so they tried to eliminate things that bothered them. Like locusts. And dandelions.
They liked to be powerful, so they claimed victories over other living things that had power. Like lions. And giant sequoias.
Gradually, they noticed that some of the other living things (or Living Beings) were disappearing completely. Some people thought that was a shame, especially if the thing was useful or furry or had a face. Others noticed that when one type of thing was gone, things began to change for the rest as well. A few Big Brains began to ask some really Tough Questions about why things on the Earth were changing so quickly and whether the Big Impact of humans had anything to do with it.
I can’t tell you the ending of this story. Perhaps the Big Brains will disappear like so many other Living Beings did, and Earth will go on without them. Perhaps the Big Brains will become less numerous, less dominant, and Earth will go on with them. Perhaps something altogether different will happen. It doesn’t really matter how I tell the story.
What does matter?
What we Big Brains decide to do with all matter will matter and will help tell the end of the story.
This week’s challenge is perfect for the photos I took yesterday at Hippie Tom’s Serendipity Farm – an antique/junque pickers’ and gleaners’ mecca in Southeastern Wisconsin. Steve and I were out for a ramble through a wildlife area and stumbled upon the road signs advertizing his sale. The parking area was bustling, TV cameras were rolling, and Hippie Tom was in full swing for Spring. It seems that his farm is only open twice a year for the public to browse and discover treasure in his vast complex of old out-buildings. It’s a jungle of old and semi-new, broken and mostly intact, recyclable and re-purposeable stuff. And we do create a lot of stuff, us humans. It makes no sense to simply throw it on a trash heap, polluting the land with it. Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse. Broken is not finished. There is purpose and life even during brokenness. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to type with my left pinkie right now. (Broke it in high school. It’s distinctly crooked, but usable. Yup, I play keyboards and sometimes guitar with it…not expertly, but ‘proficiently’.)
My mother’s birthday is but 2 days away now. I’ve told you a bit about her specific talents in music, cooking and parenting, but she also possesses a general talent for being organized and efficient. She is a Domestic Engineer, by her own reckoning. She comes by it honestly, for her much-admired father was a professional electrical engineer. Her administrative skills are well-developed and have been applied to a multitude of volunteer positions, from Girl Scout leader to chamber concert coordinator to clerk of the Vestry to museum archivist. She has raised money, written newsletters, cataloged artifacts, designed living and office space, kept detailed financial records, chronicled events, communicated, consulted, collaborated, and carried on for so many organizations that I could never recall them all. To my knowledge, she has not received any remuneration since graduating from college. Nevertheless, she is highly professional and knows how to get a job done. Because of her, my awareness of basic functional habits goes back to my early childhood. Here are 10 of her specific instructions.
1) Write it down. Whatever it is, a shopping list or a line of poetry, if you want to remember and refer to it, write it down. My mother’s tiny notes could be found in any number of spiral bound flip pads in our house. She’s not so untidy as to leave them on single Post-Its or envelopes. I now carry Moleskine pads in my hiking backpack because even on the trail, my thoughts are harmonized with the echo of my mother’s admonition: write it down.
2) Use double-entry bookkeeping for your finances. With numbers, it’s better to write it down twice. (Sorry, Mom. I stopped doing this a long time ago, and I also don’t balance my checkbook anymore. Online debit records are all I’ve got now. Don’t worry; it’ll do.)
3) Label it. Remember those label-making guns that punched letters one by one onto a plastic strip? That was a bit much for Mom, but her laundry marking pen, white cotton bias tape and adhesive tape were always on hand. With four girls in the house and summer camp every year, you can bet she was keen to keep everything straight. Even our dolls were marked at the nape of the neck with our initials. Why else would my doll be called ‘P Baby’?
4) Never go upstairs empty-handed. (You’d laugh, Mom, at how many times I have said this to Steve as he’s moving books up and down from the attic.) I went so far as to purchase stair baskets when I had 4 kids and a big house. Making every effort efficient was my mother’s goal, within the house and in the broad world. So…
5) Plan your errands well in advance. For most of their marriage, my parents shared one car. On the one or two days in the week when she had a vehicle, her route was specifically engineered to save time and gas. There was no “running out to pick up something” at odd times of the day. Everything — bank, library, dry-cleaners, grocery store, filling station, school, church office — was expertly orchestrated in one trip. I have internalized this mode. I do not “shop” or browse or dilly-dally when going to procure something. Even a Christmas tree. (ask Susan) This trait drives Steve nuts sometimes. It’s not spontaneous; it’s not in the moment; it’s not an interesting way to travel. I have to turn off the “get the job done” mentality deliberately when our purpose is experience.
6) Clip coupons and keep them organized. This is part of planning your errands and shopping trips. Mom’s library scissors were always in the center drawer of her desk. When Dad was done with reading the paper, she’d get to work. It’s a habit that can get out of hand, though. I always kept a card file box full of coupons, most of which had expired long ago, in my kitchen. Finally, when I moved, I pitched it, but not without hesitation. I now keep just a handful under a magnet on my fridge.
7) Waste not. This is deep in Mom’s blood and deep in mine, Scottish heritage and all. Keep those bones for soup stock. Keep that packing material for your next mailing. Keep those worn jeans for shorts and patches. And you can bet that with 4 girls, the youngest (me) was always in hand-me-downs! I think most Americans have lost this value long ago, much to the disadvantage of the planet.
8) Recycle. Mom was doing this before it was convenient. There was no curb-side recycling in the 60s, but along with her other errands, she’d visit the recycling center with paper sacks of old newspapers, boxes of aluminum cans, and glass bottles separated by color. There was no plastic recycling then.
9) Load your appliances correctly. Dishwashers and washing machines and dryers take lots of energy…your own as well as the power company’s. Learn to pack them well. My mother was always able to get more into the dishwasher after I’d loaded it. I’ve gone back to washing dishes by hand, but I’m always trying to figure out how to use less water and fit more on the drying rack. It’s a good practice.
10) Put the kitchen to bed before you retire. A clean kitchen in the morning is a lot nicer to wake up to. A clean house is nicer to come home to after a vacation. I think of the ending scenes in PBS programs like “Upstairs, Downstairs” and The Boston Pops concerts: the char woman cleaning up before the lights go out, and the stage is ready for the next installment. It gives me a very settled feeling to follow this example. Of course, tidy endings aren’t always attainable. That’s life. I do my best.
Where were you in 1970 when Earth Day was first celebrated? I was 7 years old. My particular corner of Earth was a suburb of Chicago where I played in a Forest Preserve across the street from my house. I learned to recognize wild flowers like violets and Jack-in-the Pulpit and animals like squirrels and blue jays. I picked up litter that motorists had thrown out their windows or that picnickers had left in the woods. I’d often find broken beer or Boones Farm Strawberry Hill bottles near the concrete structure off the trail, within the circle of the remains of a campfire. I could never understand why people would just leave their trash behind. My parents would not tolerate that kind of disrespectful behavior in me, and I was incredulous that adults could get away with it. I would come home and tell my mother (a Girl Scout leader) that I’d found evidence of people not “leaving the place cleaner than they found it”. I can still feel my girlish outrage. When I was in 6th grade, I joined an Eco Club and volunteered to help pick up trash in the playground after school. I think I was the only one. I remember being alone with a big trash bag, meandering the grounds and talking to myself. I was very happy feeling that I was contributing to the Ecology Movement. Now that I’m 50, the scope of my awareness has outgrown the patch of land I call my neighborhood. I still feel outrage; I still hope to be part of the solution but on a more grown-up scale. How to do that as an individual is perplexing. There is not one easy button to push to do it. It is a network of decisions, with threads crisscrossing from recycling to teaching to voting. To stay engaged, to keep up the effort, to put energy into learning and practicing responsibility is the way of Earth friendliness. How is your friendship with Earth going today?
Our online store is up and running with over 200 items — finally! Check out the link in my sidebar to visit the site and find out what I’ve been photographing. Our Rocky Horror Picture Show Scrapbook is up for sale for the next 6 days. Buy It Now or give us your Best Offer…the perfect Valentine’s Day gift! Or check out our Vintage Toys and Games & Puzzles. Our first vintage toy sale was a thrill for me. He was a little Schuco wind up toy, a clown faced monkey that played the violin and shuffled around in a circle, made in US zone Germany right after WWII. He was in his original box and in excellent condition. We asked what we thought was a reasonable price after having researched other items of the same ilk…and there weren’t many! Within a few hours he was snapped up by a buyer in Braunschweig, Germany. It made me very happy to think the little guy was going back home! We shipped him off and just received confirmation that he arrived safe and sound and is making his new owner very happy.
This is the latest adjunct to Steve’s online book business which he’s been running from this location for about 5 years. In the process of buying books from estate sales, he’s also been in the position to pick up other items as well. He used to rent an antique mall booth to display and sell these things, but now we’re doing it all online. I am his new business partner, and so far, I’ve been “specializing” in Children’s Books, Toys, Games, Puzzles and Hobby Kits. That means I get to research where all these curious things originated and when they were manufactured. I tell you, I’m learning a LOT! Frequently, it’s a LOL experience, coming face-to-face with humorous cultural idiosyncrasies and fetishes. There’s a lot of history thrown in as well, which I find fascinating.
So pop on over and satisfy your curiosity. There’s much more to come! Haven’t even begun to list the German LPs, stamp collections, and QSL cards…
Steve and I donated our hair to Locks of Love yesterday. Ten inches each. A wonderful way to re-purpose hair if you don’t have your own compost pile. We got our cuts for free and were left with enough to still pull into a ponytail so that hair care on our camping trip will be a bit easier. Thanks to MaeLyn and Megan at Azana Spa in Brookfield, we are now ready to roll down the road a bit freer and easier! Here’s a gallery of shots of the event:
Transitions. Stuff. Accumulation and de-acquisition. Now that I am almost 50 years old, I have seen a lot of cycles of hoarding and purging. When I was a kid, my mother would periodically declare that it was time for “one great hour of swearing”, meaning it was time to clear out clutter and clean house. She is a highly organized and tidy person, rarely sentimental about material things. However, she is also an historian, an archiver. Things that were deemed valuable were carefully stored. Sterling silver was always wrapped in the proper cloth. Her off-season shoes were in a zippered case, so were blankets. Photo slides and correspondence were kept in carefully hand-constructed boxes of just the right size and shape. Sometime in the 70s, recycling became a household habit. She always had her glass bottles in separate containers, according to color, and everything perfectly sorted. She’d load up the station wagon and make the trip to the recycling center about once a month. I got to help her throw stuff on the appropriate piles or in the dumpsters. Breaking glass can be fun! She’s worked for the past few decades as a museum docent, cataloging the music collections. She has my wedding dress stored in an archival quality box. She keeps a full pantry (for earthquake preparedness), but she is not a hoarder. I think she regularly updates her pantry and donates stuff she’s not going to use before its expiration date. She’s a great example to me, and ahead of her generation’s learning curve.
Steve’s aunt is delightful and messy. She thrills for a bargain. She will go to great lengths to capitalize on a sale. She knows that this creates problems for her, though, and is somewhat like a struggling addict, trying to quit. She lives alone in the house in which she cared for her mother. She’s never been married. She solicits our help in taming the clutter she has accumulated in that house. Steve is a willing worker, completely kind and patient, but always clear about his own limits. He has some professional experience with estate sales from the book business, so he has worked with elderly strangers as well doing similar service. He can assess and clear out an entire house in a weekend, if he must. No one boxes more efficiently, in my opinion.
What do we do with stuff?
Reduce, reuse, recycle, freecycle. Keep it out of the landfill, off the streets, out of the woods and wetlands. Don’t buy it if you don’t need it; if you do anyway, give it away. My mother has always had a habit of sending me “care packages” of stuff she acquired, often by mail order, that wasn’t quite what she wanted. She was always on the lookout for a good home for something she didn’t want. I would often end up taking some of that stuff to donate to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but it didn’t get thrown away. We’re working on finding good homes for Steve’s aunt’s stuff. I’m fixing to give care packages to each of my children from what we brought home yesterday. Beauty and cleaning products from her bathroom, mostly. The unopened items will go to a local shelter. A bottle of shampoo that was used once and turned out not to be to her liking can make some useful suds. Would you just pour that down the drain? Somehow, I can’t.
How long do you figure it would take to use up the stuff that’s already been made before we make more? Depends on the stuff, of course. But there must be categories of products that we could use up…and then, maybe, discontinue forever. How many varieties of shampoo do we need? How many varieties of cleaning products? You could use Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-in-One Soap (made from hemp and essential oils) in peppermint to clean your entire body (including teeth), your clothes, your dishes, your surfaces, your car, etc., and we’d never need to make anything else. Sounds like de-cluttering to me. Of course, there are a million ways to disagree with me and get on your own soap box. We like choices. Depending on how old you are, you may be just beginning to explore all your options, and you’d hate to have anyone restrict you. Wait 50 years. Then you may be cleaning out your house and wondering, “Why do I have all this crap?!” You’ll give it to your kids, who want to have stuff but have no money to buy it. Some day there’ll be a story out there of a family who free-cycled the same object for 5 generations. Why not? I’m still using my grandmother’s electric mixer/food grinder. But nowadays, things are built cheaply according to the economic principle of Planned Obsolescence and the landfills overflow. It’s a sickening trend.
One great hour of swearing is not gonna cure the planet of its clutter these days. (sigh) We’re way out of scale. Something’s gotta give. I wonder what…and how… and when.
The social tradition in this country is to spend New Year’s Eve with the person who is most important to you, someone with whom you’d like to spend your future. That first kiss of the New Year is supposed to impart good fortune for the year to come. For many Americans, then, it’s off to parties to drink up and link up in an attempt to avoid the curse of loneliness for the rest of your life.
Yeah, well, I’ve never seen it quite like that. You see, New Year’s Eve is also my mother’s birthday. We always spent it at home, having a family celebration. When I got married and moved out, my new nuclear family did the same thing. We dressed up in prom gowns and tuxes (and sometimes like pirates) and danced in the living room, sipping champagne and listening to the weirdest music we had. Kisses were passed between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters and mothers and sons and sometimes siblings. Our future was with the family; our past was with the family. The two were intertwined, and we liked it that way. We watched the ball drop in NYC some years, and sometimes we just let the kids run outdoors with big spoons and pots and pans and make all the noise they liked at midnight. One year, we were visiting Jim’s best friend’s family, and the kids had a silly string fight in the middle of the street that afternoon. They made a huge mess. Which makes me wonder: who cleans up the confetti after New Year’s Eve in NYC? How much gets recycled?
Who do I want to be next year? My future is rooted in my past and lived in the present. I will always live with my family legacy coursing through my veins, pulsating in my brain. I am my father & mother’s daughter, Jim’s lover, my kids’ mother, and that will stay with me year after year. I am also Steve’s partner, a writer, a budding naturalist. I hope to become a home economist & ecologist. I want to keep on practicing awareness, appreciation, attitude and action. Ultimately, the person with whom I will spend my future is…myself. At the stroke of midnight, I’ll look myself in the eye and say, “You and me, kid! It’s gonna be a great year!” Hopefully, I won’t feel cross-eyed and alone when I do. And I promise I’ll clean up after myself.
You know how once you get pregnant, all you see around you is pregnant women? I want to trigger that phenomenon in this post and bring awareness to something I feel is pretty common in our fast-paced American life. I want to see how often people come up with the “I’m sorry; we can’t do that” line when what they really mean is something else. Something like, “I’m sorry; I haven’t been trained to do that” or “I’m sorry; my computer can’t do that, and I don’t know how to do anything without the computer” or “I’m sorry; we aren’t willing to do that. Your request is not as important as other things.” The real answer is absolutely valid and a fine place to begin negotiations. The problem is, we don’t often get the real answer.
I worked in customer service for a few years, and I remember the nervousness that accompanied requests to depart from policy. I didn’t know if I had the authority to make exceptions. I often didn’t want to be in the position of the middle man going back and forth from the customer to my superior. It made me feel caught in a conflict that wasn’t mine, especially if it dragged on and on. Eventually, I got to the point where I rather enjoyed listening to people and trying to come up with creative compromises. But then I was told that I was spending too much time on these discussions and I should simply state the policy and get off the phone.
Dealing with people is tricky. They require your time, and time is money. To be an efficient society, we must streamline our systems. Any person who does not comply with procedure is throwing a monkey wrench into the works. So what do we value more, the “works”, the people, or some other ideal? Once you become aware that you’re getting an “I’m sorry; we can’t do that” response, what do you do?
Here are a few examples of this kind of exchange in real life. The first one is “How do you want your coffee?” Steve does not like the prevalent custom of serving coffee in disposable containers. He likes to drink his latte from a mug. He rarely orders anything “to go”. He values conservation of resources and energy and is not too concerned with “convenience”. We have breakfast often at a local cafe that has recently been hiring new staff. Young staff. I am patient and cheerful and as helpful as I can be when I’m placing our order. I got to ordering Steve’s latte and said, “With that breakfast, I want a latte in a mug with 2% milk.” “Um, okay. What size?” “In a mug.” “I’m sorry; we can’t do that.” We happened to have had breakfast there just the day before. “Well, yesterday you could.” A more veteran server came up behind him and whispered, “Yes we can. It’s served in a soup mug.”
I’m not saying this young person did anything wrong. It was probably about his third day on the job. The point is that we often get streamlined into making concessions in our decision-making and forget that there are other options. We don’t have to take the disposable option. We don’t have to take the profitable option if profit is not our highest goal. We don’t have to have a lawn or rake our leaves or live in the city or send our kids to public schools or give birth in a hospital. We don’t have to go “up and to the right” and continue to support a growth economy. But we’ll probably be told when we suggest an alternative, “I’m sorry; we can’t do that.”
Here’s another example. I am following a discussion on a blog about an architectural idea coming out of Italy. The title of the article is “Milan’s Vertical Forest”. http://pensci.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/milans-vertical-forest The premise of the idea is to create a “less crowded, less polluted, less inhumane” city by erecting high-rise buildings with open balcony space on all four sides to accommodate trees and greenery that would help clean the air and provide a natural aesthetic. It sounds great, but it makes me wonder whether it’s assuming “we can’t” do something else instead. If what Milan wants is forest, why not tear down the high-rises and convert the land into open green space? If what Milan wants is urban housing, why are they calling it a forest when in reality, it’s just apartments with more balcony space? Are potted trees really going to thrive there? And will people actually use all that space for vegetation instead of storing their bicycles and grills and laundry there? If we really want the city to be less crowded and polluted, why not encourage people to move out and work the small farms in France that are being abandoned, for example? No, “we can’t do that”, we have to think of solutions that keep people in the city and promote more construction and more growth. Well, we don’t have to. Let’s just be honest about what our goals are and discuss from there.
So what happens when you “throw a monkey wrench” into the system and ask for a different option? Do you get an honest negotiation? I would like to gum up the works of the political machine and ask for a candidate who would admit that s/he is not perfect in character, is not superior in knowledge about every facet of American life and doesn’t necessarily have to be the prime ideologue, but who would be a skilled administrator willing to represent the people and carry out their ideas.
I don’t want a cardboard cup with the shiny logo and a snappy lid. I just need a teacup to hold some tea long enough to get it to my mouth. Any Buddhist will tell you, it’s not about the teacup, it’s about the tea.