Friday, April 29, 2011

Thoughts on Clutter

I've said it before, I'll say it again... neatness is not my forte. OK... that's actually a somewhat generous statement. The truth is I'm a total slob.

I come by it naturally though. My mother was the queen of slovenliness. In fact, now that I think about it, "hoarder" might be a more appropriate term for her.

I never really experienced horizontal surfaces in my childhood home. Every table, shelf, counter, and even most of the chairs, beds and floors were covered in a thick layer of clutter. The worst was the basement "rec room".

When I was little, the rec room actually served as a place where recreation took place. There was a fireplace, and a stereo, some old furniture, and even a pool table. I've seen old photos of social gatherings down there with friends and family, and I can even remember playing tag with my brother in what seemed like vast expanses of space.

But then my parents divorced and the pool table disappeared along with pretty much all social interactions. And the room that had once been a place for people to gather and have fun became a repository for things... a seemingly infinite store of things.

By the time I was 8 or 9, it had gotten pretty bad. The floor was long gone and the stuff was about 3 feet deep down there. I didn't really mind this as a kid... heck, I didn't know any different. At one point my friends and I decided to embark on a great adventure and carved a path all the way to the mysterious "back room". We were pretty sure it would hold some sort of pirate's cove of treasure and jewels, but alas, just more junk.

When I was in junior high, I decided that I wanted to re-claim the basement for myself. It was an arduous process, one which provoked a great deal of my mother's rage, but I persevered. I built shelves, I organized, I forced my mother to make purging decisions, and after many months of work I had converted the back room into my bedroom and the rec room became a hang out for me and my friends.

Still, I'm haunted by the memories of that old rec room, and also by the hoarding habits that, despite my best efforts, seem to have winnowed their way into my being. I try... lord knows I try, but it's a constant battle for me.

Sometimes I cruise the minimalist blogs and gaze in disbelief at the photos of spotless homes. Check out these images, or these, or these, or these. Seriously, do people really live this way? Sigh.

Anyhow, I recently decided that the clutter was just getting too much for me to deal with, so I've been purging (again). Oy vay! Did I mention this isn't easy for me? For some reason I always feel some sort of strange fear that I might regret getting rid of something.

Minimalists tend to use a standard of "if your house burnt to the ground, would you replace this item?" Ha! I'm afraid that most of the junk I'm holding onto isn't even close to meeting this criteria.

Let's see... would I replace this item if I had to go buy one for full price? No.
Would I buy it if I found it for a bargain at a thrift store? Um... no.
Would I respond if somebody offered one on FreeCycle? The truth... no.
If I was at a rummage sale and I found it in the free box, would I take it home with me? Actually, not.

So what on earth is going on here?!? I mean, if I wouldn't even take the trouble to carry one home, why on earth am I holding on to it? Most of it is not even stuff that I want, it's just junk that I feel like I "should" keep for some reason. Maybe I could use it some day, wouldn't it be wasteful if I had to go get another one? AAARRRRGGGHHHH!!

Then, I was reading the comments on a post over at Zero Waste Home. A woman was talking about how she was getting older and didn't want to leave it to her children to have to deal with all of her stuff after she was gone. Now, we've all heard the pithy phrases like: we didn't inherit the world from our parents, we're borrowing it from our children... and stuff like that, but somehow, that comment made something click for me, and I had a revelation, an actual epiphany, in fact.

Here it is: I don't really own these things. In fact, nobody really owns anything!

I realize that may fall into the category of the absolutely obvious, but it really hit me like a ton of bricks. This isn't my stuff, I'm simply using it while I'm here. When I'm gone, the stuff will remain, and perhaps somebody else will use it. I know this might sound overly philosophical, but I don't really think it is... I think it's a practical reality, and I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to realize it.

All I'm really doing by holding onto this stuff is providing storage space for the human family. And why do I feel like it's my responsibility to do that? I mean, why can't I simply allow the thrift store, or the library or somebody else to store it? It's not like I couldn't go retrieve it from one of these other places if I really need or want it. I might have to pay a small amount to go get it from one of those places, but it's not like there isn't any cost to me to provide this storage space as it is. I pay every day in real terms (like mortgage payments for the house and money spent on heating/cooling the space) not to mention the emotional cost of time spent looking for things, and just general stress dealing with all of the clutter.

Holy Moly! What an amazing thought! The stuff won't all disappear if I'm not holding onto it... it will simply go live somewhere else, and I can go get it (or something similar) if and when I really need it. The whole world is my storage room... hence, I don't need to try to keep the whole world in my basement! Wow!

So... I've taken one carload off to the thrift store and I have a bunch more to go (like a whole house full). We'll see if I'm able to maintain this attitude, but for the moment it really feels like a breath of fresh air. Whew, what a relief!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Commercialization of Easter - One Non-Christian's Perspective

First of all, I want to start off by apologizing to any Christians that I am about to offend. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I want to offer the unfiltered view from my side of the aisle.

I was raised in an atheist household, and as such, Christian traditions were always a bit of a mystery to me. Growing up I sort of felt like a visitor from another planet, trying hopelessly to make heads or tails out of the strange behavior known as Christianity. As a kid, I didn't quite grock that there were differences between Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics and Mormons and Unitarians and all of the countless other brands of the Christian church. For me it all basically fell into one big smoldering pot of bewildering rituals.

As far as I could tell, the main unifying principle had something to do with wearing fancy clothes and singing songs on Sunday mornings. But beyond that things got a bit murky. My friends were always going on about Catechism, and Confirmations, and what looked to me like very unusual swimming lessons. There were odd rules about who should eat fish on which days, who could or could not have caffeine, prohibitions on chocolate during the early spring, and bizarre cracker eating ceremonies.

And what I got from my friends paled in comparison to what I gleaned from the popular media. There were crazy Bible thumping TV evangelists guilting little old ladies into mailing in their Social Security checks, scary people playing with snakes and speaking in tongues, disturbing images of Tammy Faye Bakker with incredible amounts of mascara running down her face, people locking themselves in dark closets confessing their sexual exploits to men who were sworn to celibacy, kneeling worshipers kissing the ring of an old man wearing a long dress and a peculiar hat, stories of weird chruch-sanctioned underwear, and who knew what else!

And to top it all off, there was an omnipotent invisible man living in the sky, who entertained himself by determining the outcome of football games, condemning little Hindu children to rot in hell for all eternity, and drawing pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary in pools of motor oil. You've gotta admit, from the Martian perspective this stuff is pretty far out there!

Easter was a particularly perplexing one. In fact, I don't think I even realized that it was a Christian holiday until I was in high school and a local church hired a friend and I to beef up their violin section for a performance of the Messiah. Seriously, chocolate bunnies and colored eggs... come on, give the little atheist kid a clue! And it wasn't until I was in college and my Catholic friends were all walking around with smudges on their foreheads that I had any inkling of the magnitude of the holiday.

So, when people start bemoaning how the true meaning of Easter has been lost, I have to admit that I have a pretty hard time getting worked up about it. It seems pretty obvious to me that the Christians co-opted the holiday from the Pagans (goddess Ishtar anyone?), so it seems only natural that the dominant religion of the day, Consumerism, would in turn co-opt it from the Christians.

I'm not defending the tsunami of chocolate, and stuffed animals and cheap plastic crap, mind you, I just think that it's to be expected. I mean, no matter what religion people claim to belong to, when I look around me what I see is a society full of people who worship money and things. I don't think that it's a conscious decision for most people, but it does seem to be the default position. And it always puzzles me that nobody seems to notice until something like Easter comes along to give them a particularly gaudy demonstration of the practice.

I guess what I'm saying is that rather than lamenting the commercialization of a few holidays here and there, what we ought to be raging against is the culture of consumerism which invades our lives on a daily basis. The natural world is a beautiful and amazing place, and you don't need a credit card or a Toyota Prius or an Easter basket to appreciate it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Farewell to the Woods

This afternoon I had to run a few errands in the neighborhood where I grew up. It's only about 4-5 miles from where I currently live, but the area still feels worlds away to me. There's such a jumble of mixed feelings - I suppose the tangle echos my sentiments about my childhood in general.

Anyhow, today I was picking up some stuff from a fellow FreeCycler, so it took me a bit off the beaten path into a corner of the neighborhood I hadn't visited in many, many years. I turned down a once familiar street where I delivered newspapers every morning for most of my adolescence, and a flutter of excitement grew in my belly as I approached "the woods".

In truth, "woods" is a bit of a generous term for the area. Really it was just a plot of undeveloped land surrounded by a 6 foot fence and covered with thick brush and giant old cottonwood trees. The fence did little to keep us kids out however, as we all knew the places where the chain link had come loose, and in a pinch climbing a 6 footer was no big deal. Many an hour of my childhood was frittered away in those woods, daring each other to climb ever higher in the old cottonwoods, playing hide and seek amongst the underbrush, and even sneaking out after dark to tell ghost stories by the light of the moon.

So it filled me with a great sadness to see that this is what has become of my treasured woods:

I suppose it was inevitable, and when I looked it up online it turns out that this lovely batch of ticky tacky has been there for nearly 20 years.

Still, it makes me sad. The woods were always such a refuge for me. All I had to do was slip through the hole in the fence and I entered another world - a world full of imagination, and adventure and wonder, where none of the ridiculousness of the modern world could enter, or even seemed to matter at all. I wonder if the inhabitants of these "living units" have any inkling of the bold exploits that their sterile little cul-de-sac once witnessed.

Perhaps I'll turn out the lights tonight, light a candle and tell myself a few ghost stories in the dark, just for old time's sake.

I'm on the first step... I want my liver back... I'm on the second step... I want my liver back...

Human Gut Types - What Will They Discover Next!

I read a fascinating article today about a very interesting discovery:

Basically, the article says that they have discovered that human beings fall into three distinct categories based on the types of bacteria they have in their guts. Some have more of one type of bacteria, while in other people other bacterias dominate... but they fall into three distinct camps.

As a person who has more food allergies than really should be possible, this sort of thing fascinates me. It makes me want to call up the doctor and find out what my guts are like bacterially speaking!

It also makes me wonder if there might not be some correlation between these gut types and the sorts of diets that people do well on. I always find the "diet wars" to be a source of much entertainment (mostly because the vast majority of Americans live on a diet of cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes, so pretty much ANY eating plan would be an improvement.) But shitty American diets notwithstanding, I do think it's clear that different people do better on different diets. Some people do great with lots of grains, others seem to do better with lean protein and veggies.

I've heard of the blood type diet, but I'm not sure that makes much sense to me. But gut types... now that's something I wanna know more about.

OK... that's it... just thought it was interesting.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kitty Update

I fear I've been a terrible blogger of late, but I've been busy beating a path to the veterinarian's office. The short story is that everybody is doing great... the long story is that I haven't slept much because I worry about my babies.

But... Princess has had no more seizures and no other symptoms of any kind. This is GREAT news. It doesn't mean for sure that she couldn't have FIP or some other horrible disease, but it makes it significantly less likely. She has to go back to the vet in a few weeks for another FIV/Leukemia test, and a general once over from the vet, but if all goes well and she gets a clean bill of health we'll be able to start integrating her into the family. I don't want to count any chickens before they are hatched, but I'll be a very happy camper if this comes to pass.

In the meantime, my 13 year old sweetheart, Mr. Sputnik VonWiskars, started to act unhappy a few weeks ago. At first I thought he was upset about Princess being in the basement, then I thought he had a hair ball, then I was sure that CatMan had made him neurotic by playing the guitar at mealtime to keep him from eating his brother's food (long story... Sputty is terrified of the guitar and CatMan figured this would be a good way to get Mr. Piggy to let his little brothers eat). But as it turned out, he had abscesses in some of his few remaining teeth.

So, Mr. VonWiskars had to have oral surgery on Friday, which meant that I had to be up all night worrying about him the night before, and all through the day of the surgery, and for a few days afterwards. I know the chances of anything going wrong are slim, but since CatMan has had 4 pets irrevocably damaged by vets, my trust is not terribly high in that department.

The good news is that Sputnik is doing great! He's still adjusting to having no front canines, but he's starting to act like his old self again. He even crawled under the covers with me this morning and gave me a thorough belly massage (which I apparently needed.) I am sooo relieved and happy that my baby isn't in pain anymore.

I have a pile of thought provoking posts piling up in my head, but time will tell if any of them ever make it out of there and onto the blog. Hopefully things will calm down here in the next few weeks.

Here's a picture of my sweet, wonderful Sputty, just so you can get a small taste of his preciousness...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Greener Than Thou

The word "green" still seems fairly new to me. I'm not exactly sure when it entered the American vernacular, but I don't recall hearing it much before about the year 2000. Before that, those of us who cared about the environment were simply called environmentalists.

In fact, I'm not sure that I even would have identified myself as an environmentalist back before "green" became trendy, but I've been doing "green" things all my life. I mean, as a child back in the 1970's we recycled all of our cans and newspapers - and this was WAY before the concept of curbside recycling came on the scene. We'd collect the stuff in our garage and a few times a year we'd drive to the industrial section of town where the recycling center was. My dad has had a compost heap as long as I can remember. We never had paper napkins (well at least until my parents got divorced - but that's another story). We always got most of our clothes as hand-me-downs or from the thrift store. And I've been a most of the time vegetarian since I graduated from high school in the mid-1980's.

I suppose this stuff made me a bit of an odd duck back in the day. I mean, while most of my friends were all caught up in the launch of MTV and the latest fashions, I was worried about top soil erosion and acid rain. And when bottled water first came on the scene, the main brand was called "Evian" which, if spelled backwards gets you "naive" - and that's certainly what I thought anybody who would spend that kind of money on water had to be!

So I have watched with great interest as environmentalism has grown from a fringe movement toward the mainstream. And while it is heartening to see more and more people taking up the banner and trying to live in a more sustainable way, I've started to notice a somewhat disturbing trend... green snobbery.

I'm actually not sure that this is such a bad thing, I mean, I'd certainly much rather have peer pressure working for the environmental movement than against it, but it also worries me that so often, rather than supporting other people in their efforts to live more sustainably, we end up berating anybody who has the gall and audacity to _____ (fill in the blank with the eco-sin du jour).

Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled that people suddenly have started to care about the planet, but at the same time, it seems to me that many (from my perspective) newcomers to the movement are very quick to adopt a holier than thou attitude about their "green topic" of choice.  And what always seems so strange to me is that people are very keen on taking one particular element of green living to extremes. There are vegan evangelists, zero waste fanatics, car-free enthusiasts, solar power aficionados, bio-fuel zealots, frugal living eccentrics, local food junkies and on and on. And while I think that all of these things are laudable pursuits, it often seems that people will choose one topic to get all high and mighty about, while completely ignoring all other aspects of their environmental impact.

Now I don't mean this as a knock on blogs that focus on one particular element of green living... because I think that makes sense in terms of having a focus for a blog. And I also think that focus is necessary when you're trying to enact policy changes. But in terms of day to day living I don't think that "one trick pony" environmentalism is terribly helpful in the long run.

I mean, the reality is that everything we do has an impact, even breathing creates CO2 for heaven's sake! The vast majority of the time we're faced with choosing the lesser of a whole plethora of evils. And which "evil" is "lesser" is quite often a matter of considerable debate!

It's also just a fact that what is a simple change for one person, may be an impossible hurdle for another. So much depends on where you live, and what kind of support systems and resources you have available to you. I mean, there are many things that I find to be simple no-brainers (like going "no-poo" and not using TP except for number 2, and composting kitty litter, and driving under 1000 miles per year) that other people would consider to be extreme. At the same time I know there are many aspects of my life that would be severely frowned upon by certain members of the green movement (I occasionally eat meat, I can't deal with setting the furnace below 70 degrees because my toes go numb, I have a 50 inch plasma television set, and I am a hopeless night owl).

I guess my point is just this. I think that we, in the "green" movement need all of the help that we can get. We are fighting an uphill battle against the forces of corporatism and profit, and we're all performing a balancing act of one sort or another, so we need to support each other in our efforts. I'm certainly not immune from ecological snobbery. I mean self-righteous indignation does seem to be our national pastime these days, and we all love to have an excuse to indulge in self superiority. But, I think that in the long run, the planet and the human race would be much better served if we all tried to lift each other up rather than tearing each other down.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

From Kitty Litter to Moscato to Penne Pasta to a Vow to clean my Refridgerator

I'm not even sure where to begin this post. It all started Friday morning when I cleaned the litter boxes and took the dirty kitty litter out to the compost bin to dump it. At that point I discovered that the compost bin I had cobbled together last summer (heavy emphasis on the cobble) was coming apart and used kitty litter was spilling out all over the place. Yuck!

Undanuted, I set about fixing the bin. This, however, turned out to be easier said than done, so when CatMan called, it took him about 2 seconds to figure out that I was in a grump - how does he always know? Anyhow, he proceeded to tell me that I had built the thing all wrong from the get go - a fact that was clearly obvious, and one I didn't need to be reminded of.

Anyhoo... I fear our little "discussion" didn't do much to help my grumpy mood (nor did the scraped hands and smashed thumb) - and it ended badly Friday night with a run-in with a cheap bottle of Moscato.

Suffice it to say that I felt like crap yesterday. So I headed to the couch to lick my wounds, and commune with my television set and a big bottle of Tylenol. Here I happend upon a show called "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution". I'm sure most of you keep yourselves much less isolated from popular culture than I do, but I was heartened and excited that such a show could exist. Basically, Jamie Oliver is some popular British Chef, and he's on a mission to get people to eat real food as opposed to crap. So this was a reality show featuring his attempt to get the town of Huntington VA (which some government study had labled as the most un-healthy town in the US) to reform its eating habits.

Here's a link to video the of Jamie's TED talk about the show and his project in general: (I tried to embed it, but it didn't seem to work right)

Not being one to engage in moderation, I managed to find all 6 episodes on You Tube and spend the entire day watching Jamie Oliver battle the forces of USDA red tape, American stubbornness, and ignorance as he worked to make people more healthy. And after 6 hours of this, I found it impossible not to want to cook.

Sooo... I headed to the kitchen... I haven't been to the store in several weeks so the pickings were slim, but I decided to give it a go and see what I could come up with. And I created a delicious penne pasta dish with spinach and feta cheese. I was all set to write a wonderful post about how a battle with my compost bin had led me to a delicious meal when....

I began to feel not so good. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I think it's not a good idea to use up the half a package of feta cheese in your fridge if it's been sitting there for a month! I think I'm gonna live, but my poor little tummy still hurts, and alas, my wonderful creation is headed for the compost bin itself...

So maybe this is a post about how life leads from compost bin to compost bin? I dunno, but I do know that I'll be cleaning out the refridgerator and going to the grocery store today!

p.s. Here's the recipe - I'd advise using fresh feta though!
1 Onion
3 Cloves of Garlic
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
About 3 ounces of Feta Cheese
About 7 ounces of Whole Wheat Penne Pasta (7 ounces uncooked that is)
1 Bunch of fresh spinach
1 Can Black Olives
1 Can Great Northern Beans (or any white bean - Navy, Cannolini, etc.)
Salt, Basil, Thyme & Oregano to taste

Set the pasta to boil, meanwhile sautee the onion, garlic and spices in the olive oil. Smash and then chop the black olives and add to the mixture. Drain and rinse the beans and add them (it would be better to make the beans fresh and to use fresh olives instead of canned if you had been to the grocery store - to say nothing of the feta). Chop the spinach and add it until it's thoroughly wilted.

When pasta is done, drain it and add it as well as the crumbled feta. Mix it all together until the cheese is thoroughly melted. Top with a bit of grated parmesean and serve.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

When did "Hippie" Become a Dirty Word?

I am fond of saying that I live a neo-hippie lifestyle. After all, I don't have a job, I live on dirt (just finished my taxes and had zero taxable income for the year - hooray!) I loathe inequality, war and injustice, I believe that most of the problems in this world are caused by our refusal to accept our own humanity, and I just generally believe that peace, love, tuning in, turning on and dropping out are all wonderful laudable goals.

So it always shocks me when I'm surfing the eco-blogosphere and see disparaging comments about "hippies" as if everyone knows that hippies were bad, dirty, or somehow reprehensible. (I would provide links, but I don't want to single anyone out.)

I don't get it. I really don't. In fact, I've always had great admiration for the hippie generation, and felt a bit sad that I was born 20 years too late and didn't get to be a part of it. I mean, these were people who actually took a stand, and lived their lives in accordance with their values. I know not every experiment was a success, and many of them bailed out and headed for corporate America, but that in no way means that the hippie movement was not a success.

If I had more energy at the moment I'd do a bunch of research and provide a pile of examples of the wonderful contributions made by the hippie movement, but I don't so I won't.

It just makes me wonder... was the backlash of the culture wars so successful that it's convinced even green eco nuts that being a hippie was bad? Are people afraid of the open embracing of humanity (yes... I'm talking sex & drugs) that was such a part of the hippie movement? Did Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan really succeed in putting people back in their boxes where they'll just shut up and do as they're told? Is this sentiment coming from people who were raised by hippies - is it some form or parental rebellion?

What do you think? Am I just seeing the '60's through rose colored glasses or what?

I'd seriously love to hear what people think about this topic...