rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)

I keep pondering the best way to work in some commentary/discussion about the most recent Root Simple decluttering posts, which are about decluttering one's diy supplies and garden, but I haven't arrived at a satisfactory method just yet. I do appreciate their perspective on how nature will eventually reclaim things for itself. I've certainly had that happen with my yarn stash. Vegetables, too. And paints.

I am thinking, though, that the best response is really just a reflection on my current living situation and how I got here. The majority, if not all of you, know that I packed most of my belongings into a moving pod six months ago, and sent the pod ahead to Lincoln while I wrapped up my time in Bryan. Thanks to J, K, and B, I was not wanting for any creature comforts while in Bryan; I was especially amused that J has the same blender/food processor that I had. We did an extravagant amount of cooking, as [ profile] scrottie had predicted.

Now that I'm here, I have the dilemma of whether or not to call up and have the pod delivered. On the one hand, it would mean the return of things like the KitchenAid mixer and toaster oven, convenience items. On the other hand, it would mean having to figure out where to cram all the gardening supplies and dealing with the filing cabinet full of notes and papers.

I do miss things like my spice collection.

The Root Simple authors suggest that a lot of the psychological baggage that is attached to diy-supplies comes from a "just in case" mindset, and I suspect they're right. I've already had a number of "come to Jesus" moments about crafting supplies, which is why I only kept a couple balls of the crochet thread from my grandma and donated the rest to the thrift store. During this interim period, I intentionally kept a couple of projects out of the storage pod, but it has been interesting to track how other projects have come and gone over this period. For instance, I made two sisal cat scratchers, one for Emma and one for Creature.  The only remnants are a bit of wood glue and two clamps, which have come in handy for other things.  I frogged most of a sweater vest that I'd started, purchased two additional skeins of yarn for it (the first of which wound up being a bad color judgment), and paused to knit arm warmers for my dad instead. I had to buy duplicate knitting needles for the arm warmers, so now I have to figure out what to do with the extras. First world problems, as they say.

The vest and the quilting project are now sitting here in the living room, front and center, but I've been finding other things to do lately.  Hopefully I can get myself into a routine soon that includes time for crafts in addition to time for books, time for cooking, time for exercise, time for the leafcutter manuscript, and social time (like volunteering at the bike co-op). Actually, cooking is significantly simpler by myself.  I made a pasta bake yesterday that will last for four meals, and a soba seaweed salad today that will last two meals. I really only need to cook twice a week when it's just for me.

One thing amazes me-despite my pared-down possessions, getting things organized still ate up a bunch of time today. On the other hand, I now feel much better organized than I've felt in ages, which will hopefully help me focus on work tasks. Work here promises to be much more demanding than in Texas, but I'm glad for that.

I also checked out the Lincoln Bike Kitchen this afternoon. [ profile] randomdreams should be pleased to hear that I was FINALLY able to get the fender bracket bent to the correct angle today, although I lost some other hardware (foreheadslap) so no installation photos just yet. The Bike Kitchen was both comfortingly familiar and hilariously different from Bike Saviours. Lots of apologetic greasy handshakes, but absolute CHAOS in the parts organization department. So I spent two hours trying to sort things on a benchtop until I could at least see the benchtop again, and in the process started to learn my way around the shop. I think my next self-assigned project will be to revamp their tube patching station, which currently only consists of tire levers, sandpaper, and tire boots, ha. You might recognize that sime key ingredients are missing. They also badly need fresh shop rags. If any of you have ideas for free sources, I'm all ears. Seriously, the shop is kinda like they just set loose a horde of teenage boys in the place...which actually probably isn't all that far from the truth.

Bur really, I've mostly just been procrastinating on the bleaching project. Perhaps tomorrow I'll get back at it, so I can be DONE.

rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Small chicken sculpture
Small chicken figurine given to me by my Aunt L, who originally gave it to my grandfather, then regifted it to me upon my grandpa's death

Have you yet witnessed the next "simplification" trend that has been hitting the US recently, manifested in the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo? I've seen it appear in several different scattered-around places - for instance, apparently it's been the #1 bestseller on NPR's hardcover nonfiction bestseller list (what? NPR has bestseller lists?!). Anyway. The first and uncharitable thought that crosses my mind is that it's hilariously ironic that people are buying a book to figure out how to declutter.

However, the thoughtful and more charitable folks over at Root Simple have rolled up their sleeves to give the approach a solid test-run, and their thoughts on their experience with the process are making me reconsider, to some extent. The hubbub might not be sufficient to convince me to actually acquire the book, but I'm taking away some useful insights from the secondhand experience.

For example, as Kelly points out, the Shinto-influenced tendency to personify objects speaks to the emotional element of dealing with stuff. It's easy for me to get stuck when dealing with possessions for this reason. I have several boxes full of handwritten notes and cards sitting in a storage pod somewhere in Lincoln, NE. It does make sense to me to hold objects and ask if they bring me joy. It's a reminder that I live in luxury.

And gifts. Somewhere, over the course of the "stuff-purge" commentary, it was pointed out that gifts should not be kept for so long that they become a burden. It makes sense to me to say thank-you to the gift-giver and the given object, and then let go of the object after a period. Some things will linger longer than others. In the case of the small chicken figurine pictured above - I am grateful that my aunt thought of me and my chicken-keeping ways, but the photograph will be more than sufficient as a memory. Figuring out where to put the thing rather quickly becomes a burden with figurine-type objects. I should know, for I have burdened myself with many such things over my ceramics-making periods.

Another thing I appreciate about the Root Simple approach is that I know they share my desire to avoid simply throwing things away, but they're also human about this desire - we have to do the best we can to send orphaned things to the right home, but we also have to avoid getting too caught-up in the process of trying to get everything to exactly the right place (for instance, trying to sell all of one's purged rare books on Amazon won't necessarily move them along quickly).

I'm also going to have to figure out how to store my clothes when I move to Lincoln (dresser's in the moving pod), so the tips on how to fold your clothes may become really handy really soon.

And, only partly related, here's today's reminder-to-self to get off the internet occasionally:
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I have strong opinions on the subject of bulk shopping. I generally dislike the style that involves going to Costco and buying a pound of cinnamon. Unless a person makes cinnamon rolls every single day, I have a hard time imagining a scenario where a person would be able to use up a pound of cinnamon before it loses its wonderful flavor. Plus, you're still left with an empty plastic container at the end, and now you have to get rid of it somehow. Downcycling isn't quite the same as recycling either.

Shampoo and conditioner have been a slightly different story. I know I've written about that before, specifically because I know [ profile] annikusrex made a good conditioner recommendation to me, but Goog seems incapable of pulling up the old entry, sigh. Lame. Regardless! I can now tell you that it takes me ~3 years to use up a one-gallon jug of shampoo, and the shampoo remains perfectly good up until the end. And so, today, I had the joy of ordering a fresh one-gallon jug of shampoo, along with a one-gallon jug of conditioner. Here's to the next three years of hair-washing!

This reminds me of two other things I've pondered recently. Have you heard about the trend of coloring armpit hair? I think it's hilariously fun. Why not? It celebrates the fact that women have armpit hair.

I still shave my armpit hair. By this point, it just feels better to me. But I go through periods where I stop shaving my leg hairs because it's an annoying costly chore and my skin doesn't like it. That got me to thinking about what it would be like to live in a culture/place where people don't have strange notions about body hair modifications (think about threading as another instance). What "manufactured needs" do we accept, and where do we draw the line for personal/aesthetic/financial reasons?
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
After a trip that was full of crazy amounts of shopping, I'm still reeling a bit. I managed to check a few more items off of the current List of Things to Acquire, to a point where it's time to re-write the whole list. They weren't particularly fun items or anything, but they'd been occupying mental space, along with overall trip planning, and now all sorts of other thoughts are rushing in to fill the vacuum: what's my current situation in terms of bike maintenance, how am I going to transport my junk up to Lincoln, where am I going to live, what things should I have my eye on for the near future, what about SolsticeChristmasHanukkahKwanzaa gifts, I want to bake things, there are a bunch of upcoming holiday event extravaganzas, et cetera.

In light of it all, I appreciated reading this piece on how parents set holiday gift expectations for their kids. I REALLY like the notion of taking a lot of the guesswork out of gift-giving. This goes hand-in-hand with teaching kids how to have a healthy attitude about stuff. Overall, that's what my parents pushed for, and yet the stuff attitude management is an ongoing process. I'm happy to put the bulk of the stuff-acquisition and stuff-reduction on hiatus again for a while.

I think I've finished the bulk of my winter gift-giving endeavors. The part that tends to be the most tricky for me is how to set appropriate boundaries - what can I do to best celebrate my relationships with more-peripheral friends? It's tempting to go nuts and make candy and cookies and chocolates, but these things tend to be overabundant this time of year. I suppose that's why many other people write a holiday letter and call it good.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
This isn't going to be a comprehensive post on the subject, because I'm fully aware that I still operate with limited knowledge on this complex topic. Instead, it covers just a couple of recent articles I've encountered that touch on different aspects of the topic. It's all tangential to the work I do on nutrition in insects, but it forms part of the broader context for my work and is a subject I care about and often think about: what's the best way to spend our time on this planet, as living, eating, drinking, pooping, peeing animals who interact on a global scale with different ecosystems?

That last issue of Nature had something relevant in it: an article analyzing how different diets affect both environmental sustainability and human health. I'm sure it's fraught with sweeping generalizations, but one nice element is that the article has been accompanied by a commentary piece as well (once again, if these are paywalled and you'd like to read, please get in touch with me). This is a great method for presenting the conclusion of what's clearly an involved investigation that needs to be presented as a multifaceted conversation, not a unilateral declaration.

I don't think there are any major surprises in these pieces - the sound-byte conclusion is that it's better for both human health and the environment to eat lower on the food chain (ovo-lacto vegetarian as compared to pescatarian, "Mediterranean," and omnivore). But it's useful to back up this conclusion with in-depth life cycle analyses of different food production systems - put the conclusion in more mechanistic contexts so we have context for exploring how to change those food production systems. For example, how would a switch to mini-cows affect livestock production efficiencies? What does it mean if people are encouraged to swap out cow meat for deer meat, or chicken? Et cetera.

Just prior to encountering these items in Nature, my bedtime story consisted of an article about plant-microbial linkages and ecosystem nitrogen retention - exploring how interacting plants and microbes affect nitrogen levels in soil, for the sake of thinking about how to improve our management of nitrogen in crop systems. The basic notion is that nitrogen cycling changes considerably depending on whether soil is bacteria-dominated or fungus-dominated. There's greater potential for nitrogen leaching in soils dominated by bacteria. Shifts between bacteria and fungus depend on a number of factors, of course, including plant types and soil management. I think this argues for more carefully considering which crops are grown, and how, for the sake of both crop productivity and limiting downstream consequences of agricultural runoff. And I think it matters less for nitrogen than for concurrent effects on phosphorus. Nitrogen's easier to obtain and rebuild in soils. Phosphorus, not so much.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Bike fashion is in the news again (NYT). There was some interesting commentary on this piece in the Slow Bicycle Movement group, noting that this sort of crazy coattail-riding bicycling fashion craze has happened before, but I think there are two different elements to consider in the present case. One element is that the technology for incorporating reflective material into clothing has only recently been developed, so it's still something of an experimental arena for fashion designers. Bicyclists are a logical target audience in the US because we Americans have done a fantastic job of designing our transportation infrastructure for cars, to the point where anyone interested in riding a bike for transportation spends time deliberating on whether or not to go the traffic-cone route. I'm reminded of this book that I just started reading that talks about many peoples' conflict-of-interests between wanting a feline companion but not wanting a home that's festooned with beige carpeting and litterboxes. Anyway - I like the reflectivity from an aesthetic standpoint, and mostly I just hope someone gets womens' pants right, one of these days. I plan to check out Clever Cycles's pants selection when I'm in Portland next month. I like the look of this shirt, but for some reason I'm still failing to find women's short-sleeve button-down dress shirts. I tried one on at Goodwill last Saturday, but it had poofy sleevelets and squeezed my biceps - a no-deal.

I only recently discovered that the League of American Cyclists has a bike-friendly university list. None of the universities I've attended are on the 2013 version, but I'm pleased to see that Arizona State has managed to step it up and get on the list for 2014. The improvements are noticeable.

In the realm of simple living, I'm working my way through thinking about my relationship with sentimental items. I think the author makes a valid point about emphasizing the importance of shared stories over sentimental items, but I'm still working on figuring out an appropriate system for acknowledging the presence of the sentimental items and then letting them go. Can't say I've pulled out my high school yearbooks in a number of years.

Words of encouragement for sharing your writing in public. This post on coping with insecurity also feels related.

The psychology behind Social Media Brand F's 'success', which is important to consider when thinking about how we use it in our lives. While I was off traveling over the past two weeks, I spent substantially less time on social media sites. Now that I'm back in Texas, it's featuring prominently in my procrastination loop, I think because of differences in how my social interactions are structured out here. Traveling was socially overwhelming, but also included time spent with [ profile] scrottie, and the long-distance absence is still just as hard, if not harder, now, as it was when I first left Arizona.

Lastly, how about an intriguing video demonstration of cymatics? One of the presentations at the recent Bio-math meeting, mostly focused on computational questions in topology, included this video. Turn off your computer's sound after a certain point.

rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I had stuck a spare combination lock (in an unopened package) in the toolbox, too, I'm remembering. Probably won't replace it.

The telescoping pen that lived on my keychain fell off, at some point.

I have no idea where I stuck my grapefruit spoon, which I generally use every single day to eat yogurt at lunch. Must replace, pronto!

Between that, and the toolbox, I am going to have to go shopping. Deep, melodramatic sigh.

Now, if I could simply go over to Hardwick's, I would be a happy camper. But this is middle America, where Mall-Wart and bLowe's and the Home Despot and Target have driven the moms and pops completely out of business. I could order things on the internet, but that invariably means excess packaging. So instead, I will whine to you about it all, and hope that some day I will live somewhere that hasn't been gutted by corporate America.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
This morning, after I took care of some farmer's market and housemate duties, [ profile] scrottie helped me pack all of my large furniture objects into a moving pod. The plan is for stuff to stay in the moving pod for a couple of months, while I figure out where I will be going next. Presumably, Nebraska, but it seems unwise to me to haul all my worldly possessions there without knowing, with slightly higher certainty, where or not I'll have employment. Renting storage space in a moving pod is only marginally more expensive than space in a storage facility, in the event that any of you ever wind up having to weigh the various options.

I then spent the rest of the afternoon shoving boxes in every single nook and cranny of the pod. If packing boxes is like a game of Tetris, then Moving Pod Tetris is the hardest, highest level, and the progression feels quite similar to whenever you reach the level where the pieces just keep coming way too fast and you can't quite keep up.

I had to force myself to stop and rest a couple of times. It's pretty warm out these days. Pickles and refrigerated water tasted good.

However! I managed to pack ~97% of the stuff I intended to pack in the pod, in the pod. I'd ordered two, just in case, but one will do. I hope it weighs under the maximum 2500 pounds. Otherwise, I suppose I can claim that I actually *do* own a TON of stuff!

And now, for the next four months, I'll live with a simplified subset of my possessions. I have this feeling that part of me is going to appreciate the simplicity. However, I'm pretty certain that another part of me is going to regret having packed away the blender.

Perhaps the pod-packing will persuade me that I can get rid of the four boxes full of academic publications, too. It has been a tough call to make - I've hand-written notes on many of the pubs, and some of them aren't available electronically, so they really do deserve a thorough going-over before tossing the bulk to the recycler.

I also keep thinking about The Little House on the Prairie, and other stories of homesteading in the US. I suspect a covered wagon is much, much smaller than a moving pod. So, where did all the stuff come from, this time around? I can't take it with me, in the end, so someone will eventually wind up having to go through all of it, unless I spare them the chore by keeping things simple.

But then - many of the objects are reminders of memories, or art pieces, or tools for the kitchen or otherwise. At least some deserve to stay.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
"The US House of Representatives quietly passed a last-minute addition to the Agricultural Appropriations Bill for 2013 last week - including a provision protecting genetically modified seeds from litigation in the face of health risks."

I hope Washington State manages to pass its labeling bill, because apparently we can't count on the national government to weigh evidence and protect people where necessary.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Yesterday, I skimmed through a blog entry about minimalism that made an important distinction between "minimalism" and "voluntary simplicity." The need to distinguish between the two has stuck with me, because I identify much more strongly with many of the ideas behind voluntary simplicity than the ideas behind minimalism.

For example, where someone interested in minimalism might start keeping all their lists on an iPhonePadBook-indle, someone interested in voluntary simplicity might just as readily keep lists on the backs of envelopes that would wind up in the recycling bin otherwise.

I remember when voluntary simplicity started to take off. It was sometime in the 1990's, and I think it coincided with the re-release of Duane Elgin's book on the topic (which I haven't read). For me, a lot of the ideas are associated with things emphasized by the church I grew up in, and in particular that church's focus on social justice issues (what I'd rank as THE most valuable thing I've received from a Catholic upbringing, and NOT to be confused with any air of colonialism). These were strongly reinforced by my visit, in 1994, to our church's sister parish, Nueva Trinidad, in El Salvador (they've just recently had a celebration of this continued relationship, which was great to see!).

There I was, at the beginning of high school, visiting a country that had been ripped apart by civil war. We witnessed evidence of the consequences of civil war firsthand. Our sister parish, for example, was located in a part of the country that had been decimated by the war; people were forced to flee across the border into Guatemala to escape the violence. There were buildings riddled with bullet-holes, and few animals anywhere. When I visited with the youth delegation from our church, the community was attempting to rebuild (physically AND emotionally), and community members welcomed us with open arms. They gave us a place to stay and things to eat, and hosted a dance party and other celebrations for us. We had so much fun playing with the kids there.

El Salvador was my first trip outside of the US, aside from brief excursions into British Columbia. While part of the purpose of the trip was to bring supplies to our sister parish, another purpose was to give us a chance to witness, firsthand, what life in another country was like. It becomes much harder to take opportunities in the US for granted after one sees what people have to do just to survive in other contexts - for instance, kids desperate to sell candy or wash car windows on busy roads, just so they can make a few pennies to be able to survive until the next day. People washing their clothes in a river flowing with trash and raw sewage. But people who are generous, full of life and ideas and interests and with a thirst for knowledge and experience.

All of this means that some elements of this Minimalist movement make me queasy at times. People who smugly pack just a credit card and laptop for their next plane trip to Italy, for instance. Sure, that's minimalist, but it isn't simple living. Simple living is choosing to travel locally instead, taking the bus, walking, or riding a bike. It's checking books out from the library instead of buying a Kindle. It's buying used things instead of new ones, figuring out how to repurpose them, and sharing with others. It's hauling things by bicycle every day instead of showing off a brand-new, flashy fixed-gear bike. It's not as glamorous as those fancy transformer apartments that are being constructed for small spaces in New York City, but I'd hope the intentionality of simple living gives it more meaning and makes it more fulfilling in the long run. And it's not about buying that magazine Real Simple (which is just so hilariously ironic).

There seems to be some confusion on this topic in the Tiny House movement as well. That makes me want to ask, is it really better to build a new, freestanding structure, instead of living in an apartment or retrofitting a home so it's shared? Altogether, it makes me glad to see things like that interview.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
With the move on the horizon, I find myself pondering material possessions a lot, lately.

-Those people who have been showcased in the news, lately, for owning only 20 things, or some other such arbitrary number. How did they dispose of the rest of their possessions? Where do they work? How do they eat?

-There's a scene in the film Iraq in Fragments where a man who works as a car mechanic is seen repairing a metal folding chair. I wonder if there are many Americans who put much work into repairing things instead of throwing them away and getting new ones.

-I just shipped a set of broken Bose headphones back to Bose. A few years back, I experienced a whole lot of simultaneous electronic gadget failure (SEGF), including the headphones. Technically, they still work, if one holds the ear cups onto one's ears. I didn't want to throw them away, because they were expensive. I tried to repair them, but my repairs failed. Eventually, they became just one more piece of flotsam that got moved from desktop to side table to dresser to shelf to desktop again. I don't know what Bose will do with the broken headphones, but at least someone there will have to open the box and notice them before disposing of them. I switched my electronics-purchasing strategy after the SEGF - I mostly buy used products, now. I love my cheap, used camera, with its broken flip-screen and quirky light sensor. It took me a very long time to get around to buying replacement headphones, but the replacement headphones appear to be much more durable than the Boses. For now. In the interim, I accumulated some cheapo headphones with huge earpieces that I do not care for. Would you like them? This is why I tend to hesitate before buying electronic junk - I hate getting rid of it.

-My parents have a fascinating basement, largely because they are careful about how they dispose of things. My unwanted childhood toys would always wind up on a table or in a pile down there, where they would sit for months or years before getting moved along to a charity or thrift store. My dad has a bucket going in the basement for accumulating all kinds of shreds of scrap metal - old staples, rusty nails, wire, et cetera.

-I am thinking about purchasing a convection toaster oven when I move to Texas. I wonder if any exist that are repairable. My roommate and I are on our third toaster oven in as many years.


Jun. 24th, 2010 06:05 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
I should be eating some food and going to ceramics, but I have to write a few words first instead.

I'm reading an article that was passed along to me by Ms. [ profile] gfrancie, about the state of affairs of the sustainable agriculture industry in the US these days. Clearly, the perspective is biased, but it's also got some seemingly well-researched information about key players in the whole extravaganza, and their connections to Industrial Agriculture.

I've just read a section on some of the US goals to export crops, and it's making me think back to what I've learned about different native American groups who have resisted and protested against mining on their reservations. Reservations were established before anybody had any clue about the value and location of oil deposits, and as soon as those deposits were mapped out on reservation lands, people started getting greedy about them. I'm not sure of the particular native nations involved, but a lot of native groups don't want to have resources mined from their lands because they see this as a violation of the sacred nature of the land. In a way, they are right - once a precious resource is removed from the land, there's no going back. Mine tailings, the consequence of selective extraction of a resource, are a terrible sight.

So how does this tie in to food? Perhaps you are aware of worldwide problems with soil erosion. In some time, I think the public will become more aware of this problem, as the public has become aware of the problem of global warming. Those who pay attention to soil erosion issues have noted that it is becoming a much larger looming crisis than global warming.

For although plants gain some important nutrients from the air, such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen, they are also critically dependent on important nutrients that are non-gaseous, like phosphorus. In fact, my university (the one that makes me grit my teeth) has launched a Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative to foster discussion about this particular biologically important player. Where does this phosphorus come from? Well, it must come from young soils, or it must be mined. Old soils, such as the weathered soils that underpin tropical rainforests, are often very low on phosphorus, which affects the plants that are capable of growing there. The water cycle eventually pushes all phosphorus towards the ocean. Though the recent oil spill is causing massive problems in the Gulf of Mexico, you may be unaware that there has been a longstanding "dead zone" at the gulf of the Mississippi River, due to nutrient runoff from all of the agriculture along the river.

So, when this country decides to export agricultural goods en masse, I have to stop and think of it as sending off mined resources. It's such a different situation than what's faced in Australia, where the human population is relatively small compared to the mineral resources, and where mining can thus be more readily justified. I just don't think that, in the long run, the US will get enough bang for its buck if it continues to pursue the strategy of exporting food.

Many of the key players involved in structuring agricultural policy in the US have ties to biotechnology. The problem is, people who study biotechnology are typically not biogeochemists or ecologists. So they have a myopic view of the best way to grow food.


I don't know that my perspective has anything unique to offer - the original article is probably more informative. But I do know that Americans need to stand up and speak up about this issue if we are to have any hope to make real change to how our country's agricultural system operates. No one can pretend to have the right answers to this one, but there's certainly a lot that could be done to more effectively address the situation.

Spilt Oil

Jun. 4th, 2010 05:03 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Today a friend passed along an image that someone created:

Meanwhile, many people are deeply troubled by the images of oiled animals that are appearing in the media.

I always have a hard time with this - the suffering animals are suffering, yes. But what's more insidious are all of the levels of suffering that we cannot see and cannot relate to as easily - things like pesticide use and rising carbon dioxide levels. Many people have made great strides in identifying ways to get people to relate to these more insidious problems, in recognition that we desperately need to do things about them.

Here's what my father wrote:

On the front page of today's Seattle Times: A brown pelican laden with oil struggles in the surf at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010.
Thomas Berry asked: How can you have a healthy human population on a sick planet?
Listening to interviews of people who live in Louisiana who oppose the moratorium on drilling in the gulf, people who are concerned about the loss of well-paying jobs, I wonder, if in the process of obtaining our livelihoods we destroy the planet ... How to make sense of this tragedy?

Meanwhile, I try to imagine what life would be like if I lived somewhere where there were no building materials available, no method for dealing with sewage, not enough food, and no promise of a better life.

When I leave school today, I will ride my bicycle home, to my garden and chickens, then I will ride my bicycle to the store. I will not ride past either of the ghost bikes, but I will think about them as I ride. This state is symptomatic of many larger problems.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
There was a story on the local NPR affiliate a few days ago about a group of scientists at the University of Arizona who are studying the effects of dust on climate, our health, and everyday lives. I only heard a few snippets from it.

I thought a lot about that story on Saturday, as we rode our bicycles through Saguaro National Park and looked westward (towards Three Points) to where the southern winds were picking up massive clouds of dust, carrying the dust northwards. You would not have believed the size of the clouds unless you were there. Eventually, the billowing clouds caught up with us and carried us northward along with the dust. I wished for a face mask.

I thought about reading Coming Home to Eat, by Gary Nabham, in which Nabham talks about this very problem with desert agriculture; the soils are so dry that, when they are tilled and laid bare, the wind scours them away. Western agricultural tilling methods vastly speed up erosion rates and deplete soil nutrients in desert regions. Traditional Southwestern agricultural methods involve creating structures to capture and retain the dust.

I thought about dust earlier that Saturday morning, as we rode our bicycles through Cottonwood. The last time I rode through Cottonwood was almost a year ago, in March, when I went to cheer on participants in the MS-150. In Cottonwood at that time, the wind scoured the freshly-tilled soil and sent billows of dust onto myself and the riders. It contributes markedly to bicycle wear-and-tear. I can only imagine what it's doing to my lungs.

On Saturday, we rode through Cottonwood early in the morning, before the wind picked up, and it didn't seem as dusty then. Instead, we watched a crop-duster at work, and inhaled what a warning sign called "Agricultural Fragrances, Pesticides, and Fertilizer." It could have been worse; the crop-duster was downwind, and the air was calm.

I think about dust whenever I get a sinus headache. Sure, pollen is a major contributor right now, but I can't help but think that dust is also involved in my general respiratory ailments here.

When I was in high school, [ profile] annikusrex and I went to watch several Iranian films, in the midst of all of the other films that were brought in as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. Iranian films are exquisitely beautiful; they possess an aesthetic quality I've never seen in films from any other part of the world. One of those films, Dance of Dust, was about brickmaking, and about aspects of everyday life in Iran in an area that is probably even more dry and dusty than the Arizona deserts, as the Iranians waited for rain.

We hear a lot about global warming, and carbon dioxide. We don't always hear as much about global topsoil losses, although it is just as pressing of a problem. I think about it, though, every time I breathe in dust.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Although it was somewhat exhausting (and I expect [ profile] scrottie will agree), it was really nice to have a chance to really show S around town. In my experience, expatriate Seattlites become notorious for talking a lot about our city of origin. But I like to think it's because this city is doing a lot of things the right way. Here are a couple of examples, some of which I've already talked about:

Bicycling Infrastructure
Most of the bicycle lanes and routes in Seattle are designed to actually go somewhere.

Seattle has been busy updating this infrastructure as well. Pretty much everywhere I ride, I see sharrows now. I was skeptical about sharrows when they first started appearing - did they really actually do anything? By now, the sharrows are common enough that I can expect to see at least a couple on every ride that I go on. That means that motorists are probably seeing them everywhere as well. Unlike the "Share the Road" signs (which I love to bash for their meaninglessness), sharrows contain information. They indicate where a bicyclist should be riding on the roadway. I think the Scottsdale and Tempe police would be shocked if they saw where the sharrows are placed in this town. They also give me a feeling of legitimacy when I'm on a given roadway; I can instantly tell that bicycles are supposed to be there. Many of the "Share the Road" signs in Tempe are along major arterials where speed limits are around 45 mph and where there's no bike lane in sight. Conditions are intimidating enough to make a bicyclist try to do anything possible to avoid such roadways, even though bicyclists have a right to be there.

Driving culture is also different here. I think in the entire time I've been here so far, there have only been a handful of moments when motorists have been anything less than courteous (and in some cases, I think their behavior was appropriate because we occupied a major roadway instead of a neighboring bicycle route). S found it to be a little bit over-the-top, because there's an overly-polite "No, you go first" exchange at a lot of intersections. Still, I'd take that any day over the aggressive driving style in Arizona.

Wayfinding signs have continued to spring up. Riding a bicycle is energetically expensive, so bicyclists subconsciously take a number of different strategies to reduce their energy expenditures in ways that cars do not. Motorists actually take a lot of vehicle-oriented wayfinding signs for granted (I have to stop and consider how easy it was to get to the airport yesterday with S - I didn't have to check a single map!). Bicyclists need to know where the major neighborhoods are located, and like to know how far away they are. The wayfinding signs nicely complement the sharrows. Imagine if there were wayfinding signs to help bicyclists navigate between major neighborhoods in Phoenix. That would save me from a lot of those moments where I would normally have to stop and pull out a giant map.

Waste Reduction
I read an article this morning in the paper about a new waste-reduction program that's getting underway. Basically, the neighborhood that does the most to reduce its waste production will win a $50,000 prize, to go towards a project in that neighborhood.

The City of Seattle has set up a couple of other programs that are worth talking about, too. Trash bills are determined by the size of a household's trash can. So my parents have a small box (a 12-gallon micro-can) and pay less to have its contents hauled away each week. The City provides recycling and yard waste service as well, and the City regularly talks about its goals to reduce waste production city-wide. S found it kind of funny that residents pay to have yard waste hauled away and composted, and also pay to pick up some of that composted material. Personally, I'd rather pay for that than pay to have Tempe throw my yard waste in a landfill.

There's a strong cultural element to a lot of these things. That's a part of what's missing in the GPSA (Greater Phoenix Suburb-o-politan Area); no shared culture of conservation. I will continue to wonder what it takes to go from these great ideas to their actualization in Arizona. If only the area were self-aware enough to look at other cities and start competing with them over a greater realized quality of life.
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Over the last couple of days, the Stranger has been bringing my attention to two different faces of consumption. First, on Slog someone re-posted a pair of articles out of the New York Times and New York Post about American Fat Culture. The literature on the subject tends to be redundant (Americans are fat, we don't entirely know what to do about it, some people say accept it and move on, others want to hem and haw about the epidemic and its causes in the industrialization of the food supply, blah blah blah). Then, this week, there's an article in the Stranger about the overabundance of sweets shops in Seattle. I'm inclined to agree with Seling about the overabundance and overwhelmingness of it all.

I'm going to ignore the food matters brought up in these articles to focus on something else instead. Collectively, these articles raise questions about how we Americans choose to live our lives. Do we devote time and money and energy to obsessing over our weight and physical appearance? Do we go over the top in search of more and more sophisticated foods to titillate our minds and palates? To what degree do these places speak to a good aesthetic sensibility?

These sorts of questions came up sharply for me when we went to eat cupcakes at Cupcake Royale in Seattle. I'd been hearing about the Strawberry 66 cupcake for weeks on KEXP (sixty-six percent local ingredients! Fresh, local strawberries!), and wanted to see what it was like for myself. A man was standing out in front of Cupcake Royale, selling the paper Real Change (one of those papers for the homeless/unemployed, to help get them back on their feet). I did not buy a copy. I bought a cupcake instead.
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I'm trying to get back into reading the newspaper (Christian Science Monitor) every day, a habit that waned over the summer and fall as I got busy and lacked internet at home. The immediate benefit of reading the newspaper is that it's encouraging me to think about subjects I might not think about as much otherwise.

For example, today's paper has a nice story that highlights how economic hard times are impacting recycling programs. More than anything, this story is a good reminder that environmental salvation will never occur through recycling alone; it's still just a waste management system that addresses one aspect of a larger material cycle.

This all relates to an ambitious New Year's resolution that I've been contemplating for a while, but that I don't think I'll actually do [I realize it's a bit late to write about this, but I tend to start New Year's resolutions around January 20].

I've been considering photodocumenting all of my waste production for the course of a year. This would include not just things thrown in the trash, but also items that are recycled or composted. The idea comes from my dissatisfaction with the way that Americans' waste production is portrayed--it's simple enough to develop some sort of numerical estimate about how much trash the average American produces. But what does that numerical estimate actually mean? My hope is that a photodocumentation project would provide a new way of thinking about our connections to material goods. In the very least, it would make me more aware every time I dispose of something, and by nature it would encourage me to waste less [I equate this to how tracking my spending habits makes me less likely to make impulse purchases].

The whole idea raises a whole bunch of other questions and issues: when I'm sharing food or other things with other people, what counts as my waste? I also decided that it would be too gross to include direct human waste products, but how about that q-tip I use in the morning? And what about waste for my cat? Nobody wants to see those things, but isn't that part of the point?
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Last Wednesday evening, D, L and I attended an event put on by the Phoenix Permaculture Guild. It was a presentation by a guy named Scott Kellogg, who is a co-founder of an Austin-based organization called the Rhizone Collective.

Do you ever have one of those experiences where at first you feel like the information that is presented is relatively simple and straightforward, and only later realize that actually learned a whole lot? Well, that was kind of what this presentation was like. It was a presentation/workshop called Radical Urban Sustainability Training, where the overall idea was to teach us about cheap and innovative methods to make urban living more sustainable.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing was how it incorporated knowledge about microbiology and other living systems into design plans. Kellogg pointed out, for example, that drinking water is chlorinated to kill bacteria/harmful microbes, but that this also affects beneficial bacteria in soil ecosystems. So when people irrigate with chlorinated water, they often do as much harm as good. He also said that one of the main reasons why worm castings are so great for gardens is because worms don't kill microbes during digestion, so their castings are still rich with all sorts of delicious bacteria.

But Kellogg also talked about the opposite side of dealing with microbes, particularly the case of composting human waste (which can be pretty dangerous if done incorrectly) and also simple systems for water sterilization. And I should mention that he also described some systems that can be used to treat most types of household wastewater, keeping it from unnecessarily undergoing the extensive municipal treatments that are designed for treating everything from household wastes through industrial wastes.

One subject that he commented on towards the very end of his lecture really stuck with me. Someone in the audience asked about the application of many of the ideas/methods to other countries, and Kellogg said that, based on his experiences, such applications won't be nearly as cheap/simple in developing nations as they are in the United States. That's mostly because of the amount of excess waste that Americans produce--companies here pay to dispose of still-valuable resources, which makes those resources cheap/free for people who can creatively repurpose them. In contrast, landfills in so-called developing nations are thoroughly picked-over, so that little reuseable material is ever left behind. The described technologies could certainly be applied, but they won't be nearly as cheap as they are here.

And the last aspect that I want to mention is Kellogg's perspective on alternative energy, because it's in marked contrast to the emphases that are receiving a lot of public attention these days (systems that seem designed to line the pockets of corporations inasmuch as they provide alternative energy sources). He pointed out that alternative energy sources that are heavily technology-dependent will never become very widespread, because they are dependent on advanced technology for their manufacture. For example, even if we could get solar panels shipped out to some place in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, they would eventually become difficult/impossible to repair. And such technologies often break before they manage to pay for themselves in purely monetary terms anyway.

No, the energy solutions will have to come from elsewhere. Instead, Kellogg said that the Rhizome Collective has been focusing on low-tech alternative energy sources. For example, they created a solar water heater by taking a regular water heater, stripping it of its insulation down to its black iron core, and placing it into a stripped-down refrigerator. When this system is kept in the sun, the dark metal does a fantastic job of capturing energy from the sun to heat the water. The refrigerator insulation then keeps the water warm enough through the night so that one can take a warm shower in the morning. At present, old water heaters and old refrigerators are abundant in the US of A, and here's a system that's cheap and simple to build (=also simple to repair) and could replace one of the devices that consumes the most electricity in many households.

And all of that is probably just the tip of the iceberg. I believe that we need more people capable of this kind of thinking/innovation/inspiration if we truly seek to create a sustainable future.
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On Saturday, as we rode around on our bicycles, my friend E and I talked about what it's like to not watch television. She mentioned that one of the strangest side-effects is that when one actually does watch TV the commercials seem awfully strange. For instance, how about commercials that are all about saving energy, and yet at the same time are trying to sell you something?

It's just weird. Frankly, I think I'm happier having not watched any TV since, gosh...I don't know when? Occasionally I'll see advertisements on Teh Internets for big-screen thingamajigs, and all I can think about is how much electricity they guzzle, especially the high-definition ones. Before you rush out to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs, hybrid SUVs, and carbon credits, take a moment to consider the giant, flashing lightbox.


Yesterday, when I wasn't grading, I finally cleaned my bicycles' chains, a project that's about a month overdue. By the time I finished, I had gotten black bicycle grease all over my arms and legs and in all the little crevices of the skin on my hands. I am now thinking it might actually be worthwhile to get one of those chain-cleaning devices, especially if R would also use it. After I finished cleaning and applied a fresh layer of ATB (can a chain lubricator have a fan club?), I did a wee bit of smooth, quiet riding. I need to not put off the bike cleaning for so long. A well-maintained bicycle is just so much more pleasant to ride. For serious.

I wrote up a summary report of the bicycle conference, which you can read here. I have a lot of projects going on. They're a trifle...distracting. I hope I can finagle things to a point of manageability in the near future, because I'd like to be doing everything I'm doing, but perhaps with slightly less intensity.


Sundays appear to be my main cooking days this semester. Yesterday I made a delicious chickpea and beet green stew (thank you, Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian), and also some almond biscotti. Hopefully I'll be able to keep myself from eating all of them before Scrabble on Wednesday. No guarantees, though. They are biscotti, after all. I also cooked some additional chickpeas to turn into hummus. I have to say, fresh-cooked chickpeas are so much more delicious than those silly canned ones in their tinny liquid, especially if one has a sweet pressure-cooker that will cook them up in a mere 35 minutes.
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This morning, my rowing buddy K and I spent some time talking about food and our eating habits. K was commenting on how differently different generations approach the matter of food (she compared her eating habits to those of her son), and our discussion and others that I've had lately gave me such a great feeling of hope. My generation is standing up and taking notice of a lot of things, ranging from Earth Hour (symbolic, yes, but still an important recognition) to politics to alternative transportation (yay bicycles!) to shopping at farmer's markets. My generation falls somewhere in between Gen X and Gen Y (or whatever we're called), but we're definitely not characterized by Gen-X apathy. Even when we don't agree about things, we're at least standing up and taking notice.

I hope that this notice transfers over to a better awareness of how to balance out both immediate and long-term global needs. The blog Stuff White People Like could serve as a useful starting point for illustrating what I mean, particularly the entry on recycling, which highlights a most extreme degree of lip service that can be paid towards the idea of doing the right thing. [Aside: if there isn't recycling available, carry the thing with you until you find a place where you can recycle it, white people].

The artist who created the Emergy show included a segment in her artist's statement on what it was like to move to the US from another country and be introduced to the whole "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle" slogan. She wrote that she was quite familiar with the first two statements, but found the concept of recycling baffling. This makes sense to me--in many parts of the world, people don't have the option of buying things in semi-disposable (recyclable) packaging, and they only have the option of going without or reusing what they've got. That statement, as well as The Emperor's Children, have been making me think about first-world vs. third-world troubles. First off, it's an interesting way to frame one's life's work. How do we identify injustices, present and future (isn't it unjust to leave an inhospitable planet to future generations?)? I mean, I probably wouldn't be so worked up over gun control laws if it took all of my time and energy just to feed myself and perhaps my family.

I'm definitely not the only one trying to find some kind of balance between thinking about and addressing global and local concerns. I guess I should just feel damned lucky to have such a luxury as the time and resources to do such thinking, and I just hope I can make the most of it.


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