Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rousseau's Walk

I'm teaching Romanticism this semester, and we started off today with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Reveries du promeneur solitaire) (1776-1778).

I have a love-hate relationship with Rousseau.  I love some of his ideas, but I really hate his misogyny (obviously), and his self-absorbed paranoia.

It's no joke: by the end of his life, Rousseau was terribly paranoid, and the Reveries reads like a 10-mile testimony to that fear.  At the same time, however, Rousseau was persecuted for his philosophy and his home was attacked by an angry mob, so... I can't fault him entirely for being so nervous. 

One of the more interesting of his Reveries occurs on his Fourth Walk, when he reflects on the notion of lying.  In his earlier autobiographical memoir, The Confessions (1769), Rousseau tells the story of a lie that has haunted him for years: as a young man, while staying at the home of Madame de Vercellis, Rousseau steals a pink and silver ribbon:
Though several things of more value were in my reach, this ribbon alone tempted me, and accordingly I stole it. As I took no great pains to conceal the bauble, it was soon discovered; they immediately insisted on knowing from whence I had taken it; this perplexed me -- I hesitated, and at length said, with confusion, that Marion gave it me.
He realizes (of course) that what he has done is wrong, but in retrospect, Rousseau makes the rather odd argument that
friendship for her was the immediate cause of it. She was present to my thoughts; I formed my excuse from the first object that presented itself; I accused her with doing what I meant to have done, and as I designed to have given her the ribbon, asserted she had given it to me. When she appeared, my heart was agonized, but the presence of so many people was more powerful than my compunction. I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame...
Although he argues that, having confessed his guilt, he no longer needs to discuss the incident again, in the Reveries, he once again refers to it and once again meditates on when it is justifiable to tell a lie.

Interestingly, Rousseau never suggests that we shouldn't tell lies: he openly admits that we all lie and that we all will--the issue is, when do lies become unjust and dangerous?  We're not obliged to constantly tell the truth, but we are obliged to be wary of using lies for our own advantage.

On the one hand, Rousseau suggests that, if the truth serves no use or purpose, well, then... no worries.  You can lie without compunction.  If I ask you if you like my dress and you really don't, but it serves no purpose to tell me otherwise, then you can tell me you love it.

The problem is, how do you know whether or not the truth is "useless"?  As Rousseau argues, "if the obligation to speak the truth is founded solely on usefulness, how can I set myself up as a judge of this usefulness?  Very often one person's gain is another's loss, and private interest is almost always in conflict with public good" (67).

In the end, Rousseau is forced to hedge the issue a bit.  On the one hand, we can argue that a person's intentions can serve as an index of whether or not a lie is justified: if the person thought it was a "useless" truth and lied accordingly, s/he is not necessarily guilty of a "bad" lie.

So, you didn't like my dress, but you didn't think there would be any harm in pretending you did.  You never dreamed I would wear it to an important job interview and on a date too... As Rousseau points out,
for falsehood to be innocent, it is not enough that there be no deliberate harmful intent, we must also be certain that the error into which we are leading our fellow-men can harm neither them nor anyone else in any way whatsoever.  It is only very rarely that we can attain this certainty; consequently it is only very rarely that a lie is completely innocent. (69)
The problem with judging intentions, Rousseau argues, is that it is easy to misjudge intentions: we can assume we know why someone told a lie, when in fact, we don't know all of the circumstances and the context surrounding it.

In the end, Rousseau resorts to a key component of his own philosophy: the idea that we possess an innate or "natural" sense of virtue and, left to itself, this "instinct" will guide us to do what is right.  The incident involving Marion was a cautionary one that taught Rousseau the dangers of even the most innocent lie.

Or so he claims.  Because Rousseau's reflections and reveries ultimately raise more questions than answers. Resorting to his own fine-tuned sense of what is right, Rousseau nevertheless continues to confess and testify to a range of incidents in which he plays fast-and-loose with the truth.

At the end of the day, I think Rousseau's self-scrutiny teaches us that, contrary to his own philosophical tenets, the idea that we can simply know in our own hearts that we are "good" and mean to be "truthful" is ultimately not enough.  While the innocence of a lie may become clearer in the light of one's intentions and subsequent actions, at the end of the day, a viable moral framework has to depend on something other than one's own sense of innate goodness.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


"If you are falling... dive."
--Joseph Campbell

The unpredictable continues unabated.

But I'm starting to realize that it's only bad if you think things had to go a certain way in the first place.  If you scrutinize the unpredictable, you'll find that the unplanned often carries its own benefits, but we overlook them because we're busy being royally annoyed that things haven't gone our way.

But maybe I'm just a glass-half-full kinda girl.

For instance, yesterday, after I mowed half the yard, I decided I wanted to catch high tide and go for a swim in the Bay.  So I biked out to the beach, went for a lovely swim, and came back to find my bike had a flat.  This meant a 3 mile walk back home to get my car.

Which isn't all that much of a walk for me, actually, but I had been to boxing class the night before, and I fell in boxing class, actually, during one of our running and crouching drills.  Mostly I just hurt my pride, but I had a few aches and pains and a slightly bruised knee.

That knee ended up getting decidedly bruised when I had to hoist my bike into the car later on.  And the aches and pains also got a bit more pronounced along about mile number 2 of my impromptu walk.  By the time I made it home, my hamstrings were requesting some quiet time to themselves, preferably with a book and some tea.

But as I walked along, I thought, well, you know, this isn't the exercise I had planned, but it is a workout, and given that I had originally planned to bike from East Providence to Bristol on the Bike Path, when you think about it, this 3-mile walk is a blessing in disguise.  The Bike Path is 14 miles, and as it turns out, I had a slow leak in my front tire, so sooner or later, I was going to be hoofing it.

3 is definitely better than 4.  Or 7.  Or 14.

And if I hadn't had to take my bike into the shop, I wouldn't have found the cold-weather top and tights I'll need to keep riding when the weather gets cooler this fall on sale at half-price.

Then this morning, I discovered that my tomato plants have some kind of blight.  It's either Top Wilt or Curly Top or something else.  So, they're living on borrowed time.

But again, I realized this isn't so bad: I've harvested nearly 50 Roma tomatoes at this point, and by tomorrow, I think I'll have enough to make a few pints of sauce.  I've harvested about 4 pints of yellow pear tomatoes.

And once school starts, the amount of time I have to garden and harvest begins to become seriously limited.  So it's not the end of the world if tomato season ends around Labor Day for me this year.  And this will give me time to figure out whether it's a bacterial blight or what, and make sure the soil is okay for next year.

Meanwhile, people have asked how the no-shampoo thing is going, and it's going wonderfully.  I went 5 whole days without shampooing my hair at all (just used water), and then I used the baking soda rinse, and the vinegar rinse.

Again, I think it depends on the person, but I wouldn't go an entire week without at least rinsing my hair with water, and I think my preference is going to be to use the baking soda and vinegar rinses about 2-3 times per week.   And I repeat, I have short hair: I think it would be a bit harder for someone with long hair to adjust.

But it's totally worth doing: my hair looks great, feels soft and clean, and is more manageable than it was before.  Win-win.

That was unpredictable: giving up shampoo.  I would never have thought to do it, and I only decided to do it because I was busy researching something else and stumbled on it.

I'm reading Mary Karr's memoir, Lit.  I haven't read The Liars' Club or Cherry, the first two parts of her memoir, because I'm kind of ready for a break from the traumatic childhood/adolescence memoir. (I read Tobias Woolf's This Boy's Life last month and Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle in 2010 and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted earlier this summer, so I'm full up for now.)

Karr talks about getting sober and the power of prayer in that process.  Initially, she's quite skeptical about the existence of God (although she will eventually convert to Catholicism), and Lit documents that skepticism and her eventual conversion.

At one point, shortly after she begins her half-hearted attempts at prayer, Karr experiences a significant windfall: she gets a major grant she never even applied for (unbeknownst to her, someone submitted her name).

Her sponsor in AA wants her to acknowledge that this is the result of prayer.  Initially, Karr balks a bit, but then acknowledges that it's possible--she admits she can't know for certain that it isn't the result of prayer.

Color me majorly skeptical.  I think life brings us all kinds of little (or big) instances of luck, and some of them arrive when we least expect it.

I think life brings people who are working at Harvard (even if only part-time) who are married to someone who comes from money and who graduated from and also works at Harvard, "luck" of a kind that someone who has far less privileged connections is unlikely to experience.

I wish Karr acknowledged this a bit more.  To my mind, it doesn't mitigate her achievements, but it colors and tempers them.

As Karr admits, her life was a combination of hard work and luck, and it was the combination of the two that enabled her to escape her past and eventually find a sense of purpose.  Don't get me wrong: I think if she--or anyone--draws strength and comfort from prayer, then she should pray as often as she wants.

I get a bit edgy, though, when people tell me to pray or tell me they're going to say a prayer for me.  The latter attitude kind of pisses me off, actually, because I make it quite clear to everyone that I'm a big ole atheist.

In my experience, that announcement ("I'll say a prayer for you") is often a way of alerting me to the fact that I shouldn't be expecting any other kind of help or support from them, big or small, because they aren't paying the slightest bit of attention to what is actually going on in my life.  They're focused on implementing their own solution to life's problems-- prayer--and not particularly interested in the specifics of what's going on with me (the ostensible subject of the prayer).

In short, they're busy praying.  End of story.  Or, more exactly, they tell me they're busy praying, because whether they actually are or not is between them and God.

In these moments, I always feel that the person is letting me know that they're checking out, indefinitely, and that they'll be back when my problems are over and they can celebrate the success of their prayers with me.  Except that, when things don't work out in the rosy way they anticipated, they don't come back or, if they do, they don't want to hear me talk about what happened.  At that point, it's "in the past" and "we" need to "move forward."

I think that, in those moments, life reminds them that it isn't enough to just pray.  Again, color me cynical and skeptical, but that's been my experience.

I make a distinction, though, between people like that and people who just quietly pray without telling anyone--or maybe they tell me after the fact.  But in the meantime, they'll also stop by and offer to help out in the here and now.

As Karr admits in her memoir, this is what strikes her about the members of AA who are working on their sobriety.  On the one hand, they seek a "higher power" (variously defined) for help with their addiction, but on the other hand, they seek a means of active engagement in the world and with others as a way of drawing themselves out of their addiction-absorbed existence. 

Their recovery often starts when they begin to step outside of themselves and their own (usually numerous) problems in order to assist someone else.

Oddly enough, I have quite a few friends who have struggled with addiction.  Most of them have become my friends after they've sorted out their lives a bit (okay, a lot).  Occasionally, there have been relapses, but the more you learn about addiction, the more you begin to realize that this is often how it goes.  Movies and TV paint a very unrealistic picture of addiction, I think, in which one trip to rehab usually "fixes" a person for life.

My friendships have helped me learn about this facet of unpredictability.  It's a world I know nothing about, and my friends have taught me strategies that keep me (usually) empathetic and (usually) non-judgmental.  At the same time, they have helped me avoid getting drawn into the messy lives of those who are struggling with addiction.

They've taught me a lesson I'm still learning to implement on a daily basis: sympathy can be tempered by distance.  One of my friends once told me that it helped her, as a recovering addict, to hear me talk about how upset another friend had made me.  He was abusing prescription drugs and alcohol, so he was unreliable, unpredictable, volatile and, at times, downright friggin' mean.

And that was when he was making sense, which was not all that often.

She said she had thought she knew "what she had done" to people in her life when she was using, but it was very different to watch with sober eyes as someone did it to someone she cared about.  She said she hadn't really registered how manipulative and chaotic her behavior was at the time, or what effect that would have on the people around her--what it meant to try to live with that kind of constant (destructive and unnecessary) unpredictability on a daily basis.

She said, "I used to resent the fact that people 'abandoned' me.  But they didn't 'abandon' me.  They saved themselves, because they had to.  I didn't care about them, really, although at the time I thought I did and I insisted that I did.  But at that point, I couldn't really care about anything except myself, and at that point, words like 'me' and 'myself' boiled down to getting high."

I realize this blog post has meandered in an odd--and unpredictable--direction, but I think maybe that makes sense, given its subject.  I guess what I've been thinking about in terms of looking at my own life over the past few years and reading Karr's memoir is that life is--as I've said so many times now--a balancing act that we learn to navigate as we go.

As Joseph Campbell once wrote, "We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

When the life that waits for us seems to be filled with chaos and crisis or illness and addiction, obviously, that isn't good.  That's the kind of unpredictability that wears you down and makes you feel tired and sad and old.  That's when you really do have to find a way to save yourself.

If you seek a position of strength and stability in your life, I think you have to constantly take stock of the unexpected and figure out what it will mean to you.

For me, this is what Karr is testifying to when she acknowledges the power of prayer in her own life: the shift to a positive conception of life's luck and her own personal discovery of how to comprehend and accommodate the unpredictable.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Not As Planned

Over the past few days, things have not been going as planned.

On Monday night, I planned to return my books to the library, then go for a refreshing swim.  I returned the books, but ended up with a half-hour to kill before the pool opened.  So I went to the bookstore.

Yeah, not a good idea.  Me, at the bookstore, for ONLY a half-hour?  Not likely.

I did manage to keep it to 45 minutes, but when I got to the pool, it was packed.  I don't know what everyone was thinking, swimming in my pool on a Monday night like that.  I waited a bit, to see if anyone would leave, but they didn't, so I ended up sharing a lane with Michael Phelps and Michael Phelps' swim-twin.

I'm an old lady.  I'm trying to ward off osteoporosis and coronary disease and fat.  End of story.  I did my best to hold my own with two, young speed-demons, but it was a rather stressful swim and I cut it short.

Yesterday, I planned to pick raspberries.  The farm I went to didn't have them anymore: they were "all picked out."  So I got some blueberries and blackberries instead.  I figured, I'd go to the other farm I like, and pick away.

The other farm doesn't do pick-your-own berries on Mondays and Tuesdays.  So I just bought a few half-pints of raspberries, because I couldn't leave empty-handed.  Not if there are berries in the vicinity.

When I arrived home, I found that I had totally forgotten about a very large bag of raspberries I picked and froze LAST year.  After a small cry of dismay, I did what any reasonably sane person does when she finds herself with too many berries on her hands: I started Googling.

I found a recipe for raspberry cookie bars that coincidentally used 9 cups of frozen raspberries.  This is exactly what I had.  (Yes, I know, I have a berry-picking addiction.)  Here is one of the cookies, ready to eat:

(Needless to say, this was its final photo.)

Coincidentally, the cookie recipe also used the bag of homemade streusel topping I got from a friend.  I don't know what kind of friends you have, dear reader, but I have the kind of friends who give me bags of homemade streusel topping because they know I like to make things like apple crisp. 

The beauty of the raspberry cookie recipe was, it also came with a recipe for using the seeds to make a body scrub.  If you want to make raspberry-anything, you have to strain the seeds out--you just do.  It's a wonderful berry, but it hides those little seeds until you cook it and then... it's a fertility fest!  Seeds everywhere.  Your berry jam or spread or whatever is now officially... crunchy.

Not cool.  So you must simply strain it.  This is kind of a pain in the butt, actually, and you feel like you are wasting a lot of your raspberries, since you can't get just the seeds out.

You have to just be patient and think deep thoughts about whether or not Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson were ever really a "couple" at all, in the conventional definition of the term, whether the tell-tale cheating photos were a publicity stunt, and whether Jennifer Aniston's second marriage will finally erase the pain of Brad's betrayal--all while using a ladle to stir and press cooked raspberries through a mesh sieve.

The end result is, I now have a very pretty raspberry body scrub, which I certainly didn't plan on having.  (I'm still not using shampoo, though.)  Here's the scrub:

Oh, and this has nothing to do with anything, but it gave me pause and I don't know where else in this blog narrative to put it, so I'll simply mention it here.  On the drive home yesterday, I was mildly startled to hear a commercial that announced that "Here in High Anus, we have plenty for you to choose from."

Hyannis.  It's Hyannis.  I love accents, but sometimes, they can be deadly.

My plan for today was to take a major bike ride.  But as I was getting up this morning, I stretched and got one of those horrendous leg cramps you get in your calves sometimes.  Well, actually, I don't know if you get them, gentle reader, but I do, and when I do, I swear like there's no tomorrow.

I have no idea what causes them, but they are quite painful.  You stretch, you feel your calf starting to cramp, and from that point on, all you can do is scream.  So of course, this left me limping for most of the morning and thinking that a 15-20 mi. bike ride might not go as planned.

So I wandered out to my garden, where I was quite sure I didn't have enough basil to make another batch of pesto to freeze, but then I thought, if nothing is going according to plan, the unplanned may work out just fine.  

Guess what?  There was enough basil, so I have another 8 oz. jar of pesto freezing even as we speak.

This left the blackberries and blueberries from yesterday's farm-fiasco.  Again, I don't know about anyone else out there, but I'm a huge fan of bread pudding in any and all manifestations, so I made a berry-and-bread pudding.  Here it is, still untouched:

And if you're wondering what will become of my girlish figure, what with the abbreviated swim on Monday and the aborted bike ride today, I would simply like to remind you that tomorrow is my boxing class.

And tonight, I'll try for another swim.  Enough of the unplanned: let's get back to the predictable.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Summer Sunday

I took a 2 hr. bike ride this afternoon, and although my legs are currently feeling a bit rubber-bandy, it was definitely worth it.  It rained all day yesterday, but today the sky cleared, the sun came out and it was perfect.

In that spirit, I'm going to share some pictures from today's garden.  This way, when it's January and I'm cold and tired from shoveling a foot of snow, I can scroll back to August and remember when.

So here's what's in season right now, chez moi.

Roma tomatoes and yellow pear tomatoes.  Looks like I'm just going to have to make that blueberry-jalapeno salsa again...

Luckily, I have  jalapenos. Actually, I have lots of jalapenos.

I also foresee eggplant parmesan in my future.

About a week ago, I harvested a huge crop of basil and made pesto to freeze. 

It is amazing how much basil it takes to make a small amount of pesto, when you're planning on freezing it, but, in the end, it's totally worth it.

There's nothing better in the dead of winter than opening up a jar of homemade pesto with basil from the garden.  It brings summer right back to you.

And as far as summer itself goes, it may seem like there's not much left of it, but don't worry, there's still plenty of thyme.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cleaning Up

I've stopped shampooing my hair.


No, I'm not kidding.

Here's the thing: the cosmetics industry pisses me off.  Just as much as--if not more than--the pharmaceutical industry.  They are the modern manifestations of what were previously purveyors of hair tonic and snake-oil.

My mom used to say, "They make a fortune selling glorified water and sugar pills and, if you're lucky, they won't have put anything in them that might kill you."

The cosmetics industry bothers me even more than the pharmaceutical industry, though, because at least there's some ostensible purpose to manufacturing medications to combat diabetes or hemophilia or what have you.

The cosmetics industry has absolutely no reason for existing.  None.  Wash your face and the rest of yourself on a semi-regular basis, laugh frequently, smile regularly, eat well, and you'll be fine.

You do not need to smell like a floral-scented rain forest.  My guess is, the rain forest itself 1) isn't floral-scented, and 2) even if it is, it doesn't smell like that.

The only thing that pisses me off more than the cosmetics industry is the all-natural cosmetics industry.  At least the cosmetics industry is making a profit by selling me crap I can't make myself, like dimethicone and parabens and all other kinds of floral-scented toxins.

The all-natural cosmetics industry is making a profit selling me things I could actually acquire entirely on my own, and they're charging me 10 times as much.

About four years ago, I stopped buying laundry detergent.  I make my own.  Buy a box of borax, a box of washing soda and 4-6 bars of Fels-Naptha yellow soap or plain old Ivory soap, and you're halfway there.  Grate the soap, mix it with some of the borax and some of the washing soda, and you now have about a year's worth of laundry detergent, all for about 5 dollars.

And it doesn't smell like whatever it is that they make detergents smell like--"tidal rain mist" or "fractured fruity sunshine" or whatever--your clothes are just clean.  It works in high-efficiency washers, because it doesn't do all of that sudsing that manufactured detergents do--so no, you don't need to buy the special HE detergent at all, actually.

The sudsing isn't the soap, it's the crap they put in the soap to make you believe it's "working."  "Look at that rich lather!"  Yes, it's wonderful, except that's what's polluting our rivers and streams, and it's not at all necessary.

The only drawback to the homemade detergent is, you can't use it on wool or silk.  If you do, your garment will shrink.  Trust me on this one.  So, I buy a bottle of the natural detergent and keep that on hand for when I need it.  Even so, the yearly cost of laundry detergent for myself alone dropped from about $75 to less than $10.

If you're interested, you can find a recipe for homemade laundry powder here.

So on the heels of that, I became increasingly disgruntled with soaps and lotions in general.  And when you find out what's in them and what it can do to you, you get more upset.

But here's the thing: if I don't wear sunblock, I burn almost instantly and get melasma all over my face.  Not good.  Given how much I swim, if I don't use lotion, I won't have any skin left.  So I needed to make the switch to the (expensive) all-natural products for those items, if I wanted to get away from the chemicals.

But as God is my witness, if I find a way to make my own... they're history.

I tried to switch to all-natural deodorant, and I can't speak for anyone else out there, but it didn't work.  At all.  I know it's not an anti-perspirant: I wasn't expecting to stop sweating, but I was expecting not to stink when I did.

For those of you who don't know this already, anti-perspirants contain aluminum that blocks the pores in your skin.  That's the only way to keep you from sweating: stop it at its source.

But it isn't actually the sweat that's the problem: it's the bacteria on your skin and hair that interacts with the sweat.

Sweat itself doesn't smell.  Think about it: you can have sweat pouring off your face and it may be uncomfortable or unpleasant, but it doesn't stink (at least not at first).  The sweat glands on your face, hands and feet are eccrine glands.  The sweat produced by these glands doesn't contain fatty acids or proteins.

The sweat glands in your armpits and genital area are apocrine glands.  The presence of hair follicles usually indicates apocrine vs. eccrine--it's easy to remember, because you don't have a hairy forehead or feet or hands.  (I hope.)

Apocrine glands produce sweat that contains fatty acids and proteins and when the bacteria on your skin has a field-day with that, well, then, you stink.

Unlike anti-perspirants, deodorants don't use aluminum to block the pores in your skin; instead, they neutralize or mask the metabolized bacteria and kill the smell.  For years, they did that with parabens.  Parabens are preservatives, and they're in nearly everything: they're kind of like the cosmetic "high fructose corn syrup."

Even products listed as "all-natural" may contain parabens.  You have to check the label and look for the specific names of the specific chemical compounds.  It's a royal pain in the ass, to put it mildly.

And just so you know, the term "fragrance" or "parfum" is a major cosmetic loophole that companies use to include phthalates without having to list them in the ingredients.  Phthalates are also what they use to treat faux leather products: you think you're helping the planet by not buying leather, but typically "leatherite" and other faux materials consist of polyvinyl chloride (think PVC pipes) treated with phthalates.

So all of this is a very round-about way of saying that I decided to try to make my own deodorant.  I found a place and ordered supplies (no aluminum, no parabens) and I'm going to see how it goes.

While I was researching homemade deodorant, however, I came upon recipes for homemade shampoo.  Actually, I discovered that there isn't really any reason to use shampoo on your hair at all.

None.  Whatsoever.  Seriously.

I should have known.  I'm not a high-maintenance, Vogue kinda girl, so I'll often go a few days without shampooing my 2-inch long (rapidly greying) hair.  At first, I used to worry about "getting the greasies" (we've all been brainwashed by commercials), but the funny thing was, I actually never did.  My scalp would get a bit itchy, maybe, but that was it.

Well, as it turns out, that really is it.  You have to keep your scalp clean, end of story.  Your hair produces natural oils that are actually good for it: shampoo strips those off and, if the chemicals are harsh enough and used often enough, you damage the protein strand that makes up the hair itself.

This is why you then think you need all kinds of styling products, all of which are brought to you by the same people who tell you to "lather, rinse, and repeat as needed," all so you can buy more and keep the vicious cycle going.

Your hair has a natural ph level that is specific to you, so if you leave it alone, it'll be fine, actually.   Totally fine.

Unless you get gum stuck in your hair or a bird craps on your head, of course--but personally, the former hasn't happened to me in about 35 years and the latter has only happened once in 43 years.

(I did have an incident in which I was making sticky buns and ended up getting splattered from head to toe with melted butter, honey and cinnamon, but that's another story.)

Ph levels are measured on a scale of 0-14.  0 is acidic, 14 is alkaline or basic and 7 is neutral.  Hair has a natural ph of approximately 5. 

Hair dyes usually have a ph of approximately 7-8 (bleach is an 8-9).  Shampoos, water and peroxide also have a ph of approximately 7.  Lemon juice and vinegar are a 2-3, and baking soda is an 8-9.

So, to keep your hair clean, rinse it, with water, every couple of days.  Then, you can use a mix of baking soda and water as a shampoo and a mix of apple cider (or plain) vinegar and water as a weekly conditioner.

It's a simple formula: one tablespoon of baking soda to one cup of water--that's the "shampoo" mix.  And, for the "conditioner," one tablespoon of apple cider (or regular) vinegar to one cup of water.

You want to make sure you only put the vinegar on the ends of your hair, not your scalp, and don't use it too often (remember, it's acidic).  Also, be sure to rinse your hair thoroughly after using each (same as you would after using a commercial shampoo).

Remember, your goal is a ph of about 5.  Baking soda is 8-9, vinegar is 2-3.  Water is 7.  Rinse the "dirt" out every couple of days and leave it alone and your hair will be FINE.

I put "dirt" in quotation marks because really, unless you're working a serious manual labor job, how "dirty" is your hair going to get on a daily basis?  Personally, I don't typically immerse my head in piles of filth until it congeals on my hair and I try not to let particles of debris rain down on me.

And if the oil on my hair is naturally produced, that kinda means it's supposed to be there.

I'm not the only one blogging about this: if you Google "no 'poo" you'll find all kinds of information about doing without shampoo (no, I'm not kidding).  Some say your hair will go through a transition period while it adjusts, producing more natural oils until it calms down and realizes that the days of being attacked daily and strip-searched with sulfates and toxins are over. 

That may be the case, but I can't really tell because my hair is so short.  Personally, I've never experienced a "flat" or "greasy" look when I've gone for a couple of days without using shampoo. 

People with curly hair swear by the "no poo" approach, and people with straight hair have been equally impressed.  One blogger commented that she actually didn't even need to use styling products anymore: her hair seemed to be more manageable and stay in place better than ever.  At first, I was skeptical, but I must say, that has turned out to be the case for me as well.

Various bloggers have posted photos of their hair after a few weeks of the baking soda/vinegar "no poo" regimen, and I must say, when I first saw them, I was green with envy.

(Sorry, I couldn't resist.) 

So I say, bite the bullet and give it a try.  Worst-case scenario, you freak, acknowledge your shampoo and/or conditioner addiction, and go back to doing what you were doing--but maybe a little less often.  At least you gave it a shot.

But if it works, well, a 2 lb. box of baking soda is a dollar and contains nearly 200 tablespoons.  Vinegar is also about a dollar or so and a quart-size bottle contains 63 tablespoons.

My guess is, you'll find yourself saving a lot and not missing the sulphates and the parabens at all.

(For more on giving up shampoo, check out this article.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Encore Once More

As Britney Spears once sang, "Oops, I did it again."

Since this will probably be the only time I ever quote Britney Spears, we should probably pause briefly to acknowledge that fact.

Okay, done.

I had another wonderful week, but it once again meant that I was away from computer screens and blogging.  My best friend visited with her little guys (who are increasingly less little), and we went to NYC.

We walked from Penn Station to Times Square and on up to Rockefeller Center.  If it hadn't been raining, we would have spent some time in Central Park.

The rest of the time we spent in NJ eating pizza and ice cream.  How could that ever be bad?

Okay, it maybe felt a little bit bad last night during my boxing class, but I've officially done penance for a week of fun-filled eating, and now I'm back to getting my abs back.  If you've lost your abs and want them back, I suggest Pilates and boxing.  Nothing else will do it quite like those two.

I've also been swimming and biking.  I confess, I love when summer is warm, but not hot, and unlike the rest of the country, I've been lucky enough to be located where that has been the case this year.  A few hot days, of course, but nothing to complain about.

This morning, I did a Friday-morning berry-picking run, and got some raspberries (which are freezing even as I type), and some blueberries.  When I returned home, I made a blueberry-jalapeno salsa:

Add a bag of Hint of Lime Tortilla chips, a glass of wine and a friend (or two) and life may not get any better than this.

I used roma and yellow-pear tomatoes from my garden, along with (of course) jalapenos.  I have a TON of jalapenos this year, but luckily, they freeze.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a small garden must invest in a storage freezer.

Thought I'd throw that last sentence in to see if the literary types out there are paying attention.

It's unbelievable to me that, in a mere 10 days, I will be back in school.  On the one hand, this is good, because I do so love to teach, but on the other hand, I'm wondering where exactly the summer went.  It's been a busy one.

It's hard for me to believe that it's been a year since I lost my little friend Ezra: we think about him all the time.  I miss his gleeful little giggle when I'd say something silly or strange and his sage way of setting me straight.  I like to imagine him still with us, always, even though we can't see him.

It's odd how, in a few short years, my life has become peopled with ghosts.

And I'm still mourning the loss of my orange kitty earlier this summer, but I'm also enjoying my new cats.  I like the fact that they are all so different: neither of the two new cats are anything at all like my orange guy was, so I feel like I'm allowing myself to grieve the loss of him but also making sure that I don't become overwhelmed by it.

It's a good feeling to have someone to take care of.  My kitty's death deprived me of that, and I missed that feeling along with missing him.

One of my rescued kitties was supposed to be euthanized by the urban shelter where she had been left, but the rescue society I adopted her from intervened in time.  It was pretty bogus: she's extremely timid and they ran out of room, so they deemed her "unadoptable."  And, I suspect, treated her accordingly.

She was quite traumatized by her experiences, obviously, but I adopted her and the handsome Russian Blue who was her cage-buddy, and we have all had a lot of fun settling into our new life.  The two of them are like a 1930's Hollywood film couple.

It's a good feeling when you can watch living beings learn how to trust.

So this has been my week in review.  In the next few weeks, I'm definitely going to have to be cracking open the books a bit more, and I suspect the blog will begin to reflect that once again.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Good Friday

I gave it all away in the title: it's been a good Friday.

Actually, my good Friday started on Thursday, when I went to boxing class.  Granted, the workout made me feel like I might actually vomit or pass out at a couple of points, but I didn't, and as we all know, all's well that ends well.  What I was left with instead was a sense that I had had a "good sweat," worked hard and burned off a few trillion calories while simultaneously exercising my brain.

Who could ask for more?

This morning, I got up and went blackberry-picking.  (Look to the right.)  I picked 10 pints: 5 for jam, 5 to freeze.

I made it home just in time, because by the time I got back, it began raining and eventually the rain showers turned into a small monsoon.

This was perfect for my good Friday, though, because it gave me a chance to make the blackberry jam and a pound cake (and eliminated any need to water the garden: always a plus).

The pound cake is also perfect for my good Friday, because in it I used the remaining eggs I had left from my stint in the Berkshires.  While I was vacationing in the Berkshires in July and visiting the homes of Melville and Wharton, I took care of my friend's wonderful chickens.  My reward was a dozen fresh eggs.

The only problem with all of this fresh stuff is that it ruins the (tasteless) store-bought stuff for me--pretty much forever.   There's just no going back, once you've turned that corner.

Meanwhile, I have a garden full of jalapeno peppers (jalapeno jam is quite wonderful--a winter favorite for me is poached egg on toast with jalapeno jam) and my yellow plum tomatoes and Roma tomatoes are also starting to ripen.  And there's eggplant.  Tomorrow, I'm going to have to harvest the basil and make a stash of pesto to freeze for the winter.

I also spent a bit of time working on a tank-top I started knitting weeks and weeks ago.  I always fall behind on knitting when the really warm summer months hit.  But then again, I always look forward to getting back to it when things cool off a bit.

I'm advising an honors thesis project in the fall, and my student recommended Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace.  It's over a thousand pages, but thousand-page novels don't scare me: I'm the girl who read War and Peace.  (Twice, actually.  It's a really good novel.  Seriously.)

Anyway, I'm liking Infinite Jest: it's going slowly, but mostly because I feel like I'm actually savoring it.  This is a good thing.  I like it about 8 trillion times better than Naked Lunch, which as you may recall from my blog post about it, I didn't like at all (see The Naked and the Unfamiliar).

I don't mind reading about drugs or drug use in a novel, if I feel like there's something else going on.   It's a novel, after all, not a document about you being a total idiot.   If you're just asking me to think you're cool because you get high and nearly die, well, I can't say I'm going to be all that intrigued by what you're telling me.

There are tons of websites out there about how to read and survive Infinite Jest--just as there are tons of websites out there about how to read and survive James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).  I prefer to ignore them all.  Authors make choices, and some of them decide to write 1000+ page novels (and then somehow manage to get a publisher to agree to publish it).

Whether or not I think they should have done such a thing is between the two of us (the author and myself I mean).  In my opinion, Norman Mailer had no right to make The Executioner's Song (1980) over a thousand pages long and then attempt to justify himself by claiming it could have been 2000.

Personally, I don't want to be coached, encouraged, advised or warned--I just want to read for myself and see what happens.  I realize, though, that a lot of people want or need the encouragement, and I try to provide it when I'm teaching long novels.  (I think none of my students in 19th Century British Novel would have been at all surprised last spring if I had arrived sporting a pair of pom-poms and a sweater that said, "MIDDLEMARCH.")

Dave Eggers' introduction to Infinite Jest made me nervous: I don't like when intellectualism drifts towards the hoity-toity, and I think he spent more time apologizing for the length of Wallace's novel than was necessary.  He also resisted the publisher's request to try to make people believe the novel was easily consumable because, he argued, every sentence was worth spending time on.

Well, now, I don't know that I'd say that about any novel, really, but what I would say is that Infinite Jest is very readable and very funny.  I don't think anyone who has gone through high school in the U.S. could help but laugh when the Admissions Office tells Hal that his test scores are "a bit closer to zero than we're comfortable with."

I think there's value in patience.  Americans are too often a society of consumers: we want what we want and we want it now, preferably in a sound-byte.  Why can't I just spend the next month reading Infinite Jest?  Well, actually, there's no reason at all why I can't.  So that's what I'm-a-gonna do.

See how easy that was?  Like I said, good Friday.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

USDA Seeks to Enforce Licensing for Puppy Mills

The USDA proposes the licensing and inspection of all commercial facilities that breed and sell puppies. 
The proposal is designed to close a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that has allowed commercial puppy mills to operate unregulated and deny basic, humane care to the dogs they breed and sell. 
As with all proposed regulations, there is a open period for public comments: that period ends on Aug. 15th. 
If you are a U.S. citizen and this is an issue that matters to you, please show your support by filling out this form-- it only takes a minute.
Thank you!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

TED Talk by Sherry Turkle

I'm a big fan of Sherry Turkle's work: this TED talk addresses many of the issues she raises in her book, Alone Together.  It's worth the 20 minutes to watch it, I think.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Workaday World

On the heels of my last post, I'm still thinking about an interesting article by John F. Witt about how the evolution of workers compensation in American industry can be tied to changing conceptions of work.

Think about it.  American life and American thought is and always has been structured around the notion of "work"--it is so embedded in our day-to-day life and perceptions, in fact, that we hardly notice it.  Why has a show like Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" enjoyed such success?  It celebrates the "unseen" American worker: the individual who "cleans up" after the rest of us, or who does the "dirty job" that no one else wants to do.

Two hundred years ago, this kind of labor would have been the province of the poor or the enslaved, and the operative assumption would have been that this labor should remain unseen, because it was appropriately relegated to a sector of the population whose alleged purpose in life was to make things easier for their "betters."

The conception of "work" in American culture is strategically tied to ideas of virtue and moral value and, as Witt's article points out, the ideas could be adjusted to serve the needs of whoever was deploying them.  Thus, "[f]or the skilled craftsmen and middling classes of nineteenth-century America, dignity and self-discipline in productive labor represented one of the critical components of the moral foundation of a self-governing citizenry" (John F. Witt, "The Transformation of Work and the Law of Workplace Accidents, 1842-1910," [1998] Faculty Scholarship Series.  Paper 400, pg. 1470-1471).

The dignity and self-discipline associated with free labor is precisely what set it apart from slave labor: the work of slaves was coerced and the social justification for that coercion depended in large part upon dehumanizing the worker him- or herself.

Tied to this conception and justification is the idea of ownership: the slave is owned.  The worker, presumably, is not.  But in order to achieve this distinction, subtle shifts had to occur in the 19th-century notion of labor as American society moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.  Early American republicanism of the late eighteenth century depended on the idea that self-government and ownership of the means of production went hand-in-hand.

As Witt points out, "only the economically independent producer would be free of the relationships of dependence that threatened to corrupt virtuous self-government" (1471).

We still see this idea today: how many people long to "own their own business" and "be their own boss?"  In American culture, this opportunity is seen as integral to and embedded within our conception of democracy: we are always capable of freeing ourselves from the (implicitly) dependent position of a wage-earner.

As the 19th century unfolded, however, and opposition to slavery grew, a new understanding of the relationship between work and ownership emerged.  Witt notes that, "[a]mong elites, a different, narrower conception of free labor began to emerge in the years before the Civil War," one in which "the status of wage earner rather than independent owner-producer was sufficient to sustain a narrowed conception of the relationship between work and virtue" (1471).

As Witt points out, this narrowed conception was fueled by Enlightenment notions of possessive individualism--the idea that every individual is a free agent who can participate in a market economy by trading goods, services, property and labor.

You don't need to own the store, because you always "own" yourself.  By this token, your skill and labor take on a value all their own as well and, not surprisingly, this value is slowly but steadily realigned with the American value of self-governance.

When you work, the theory goes, you learn to "exercise judgment and discretion" and thus acquire the education needed to be a productive and informed citizen.

The flip side of all this, however, is the way in which the alignment of work and moral virtue could be used by employers to justify worker exploitation.  If a particular group of laborers is identified with a set of stereotypes revolving around qualities such as laziness, drunkenness or general shiftlessness (as almost all non-white or immigrant groups in American society were at one point in time), employers could argue that they were serving a clear social function by imposing stringent or unreasonable demands and long work hours.

They were "teaching" the shiftless and the lazy worker the value of labor.  And making a profit at the same time, of course.  As Witt argues, "[t]he moral value of work could become a moral imperative to labor, with less regard for the moral virtue that work could inculcate than for the maintenance of a bourgeois social order constructed at the expense of the laboring poor" (1472).

According to this logic, the "haves" always have what they have because they deserve it: they are more moral and work harder.  The "have-nots" have nothing, not because they aren't paid a fair wage or provided with adequate living conditions, but because they simply don't work hard enough.  Poverty is the result of moral inadequacy or vice, and not the result of economic injustices--or so the theory goes.

(Again, this is a logic that you can see and hear on a daily basis in American culture and the American workforce: it fuels many a stereotype surrounding the urban poor.)

What begins to unfold, Witt argues, is a changing conception of American labor--one riddled with ambiguities.  On the one hand, American industry still values the skilled worker and, in many cases, affords such laborers a degree of discretion in the performance of their jobs.

On the other hand, however, there is an increasing shift away from this reliance on worker discretion and a new emphasis on managerial control--a shift that is marked by a "scientific" language of "efficiency."

You can see this conflict daily in the tenuous relationship between "management" and "labor," and the notion that one essentially precludes the other.  Workers will often complain that their managers don't understand the practicalities of the job itself, and managers constantly struggle to find and implement new workplace strategies designed to increase job efficiency on the part of their workers.

As Witt points out, lurking beneath the surface of scientific management practices is the notion of the worker as machine: if the emphasis lies on creating the most efficient and productive laborer, what will be lost is the notion of the laborer as a unique, embodied individual.  Individual craftsmanship and the idiosyncrasies of the worker give way to a streamlined and efficiently depersonalized workforce.

And so we come back to the popularity of "Dirty Jobs": perhaps what draws people to this representation of the American laborer is the fact that it returns us to the idea of a worker as an essential--and at times, idiosyncratic--individual.  The worker is the one who knows his or her craft and who finds value in doing even the most menial labor, and the "message" ultimately communicated to the audience at large is that we too derive can intrinsic value from this definition of "work."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Work, Responsibility, Authority

I love the ripple effect of ideas and information.

As I mentioned in my previous post, reading Joan Druett's In the Wake of Madness gave me a new perspective on the plot of Melville's novel, Moby-Dick.

Druett's non-fiction account of the murder that occurred on board the whaleship Sharon in 1842 examines the tenuousness of the community that exists among a sea-captain and his crew.  In December of 1842, the world was shocked and gripped by the story of the murder of Captain Howes Norris by several South Sea islanders who had become members of his crew.

Information about the incident was somewhat sketchy: the bulk of the crew had lowered the whaleboats and were in pursuit of a whale, when they received a distress signal indicating that the captain had been killed and several mutinous crew members had seized the ship.  The third mate swam back to the ship under cover of night and eventually retook it, more or less single-handedly.

Druett examines the back-story that was never told in 1842, when everyone assumed that the "natives" who had killed the (presumably innocent) captain were cannibals and thus prone to violence.

Independent journals kept by the third mate and the ship's cooper, however, reveal that Captain Howes Norris was in fact a disturbingly brutal man himself, prone to fits of rage and alcoholism. 

Earlier that year, on board the Sharon, Howes had repeatedly tortured and eventually beaten the ship's steward, a man named George Babcock (who may have been a runaway slave), to death.

During the weeks and months of Babcock's abuse, the members of the crew apparently looked on and did nothing to stop it.

After Babcock's death, indications are that Norris began drinking even more heavily and looking for a new victim.  When the Sharon put into port after Babcock's death, an unprecedented number of the crew abandoned ship, forcing Norris to enlist Pacific islanders.

The islanders left on board ship while the crew lowered in pursuit of a whale ultimately attacked Norris with the flensing tools typically used for skinning whales (shown here).

They basically hacked their captain in half.

Melville followed this story closely, and in many ways it resonates with the central theme of his famous novel: the arbitrary abuse of authority by a ship's captain who may or may not be insane.

I think Melville was fascinated by the interwoven ideas of responsibility and authority and the ways in which they intersected with American workers' self-definition.  Much of Moby-Dick is about work and identity--how each of the members of the whaling crew of the Pequod function in relation to the others, and what it means for them to do the work that they do.

Interestingly, Melville's father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, was a prominent Massachusetts judge who, in 1842, ruled on one of the nation's most famous cases involving workplace injury and the issue of an employer's liability.

In Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Railroad Corp (1842), Shaw argued in favor of what is known as the "fellow servant rule," a principle that would set the standard for rulings on employer liability in American industry for nearly 70 years, up until the advent of workmen's compensation.

According to the "fellow servant rule," an employer is not responsible for injuries to an employee if those injuries are incurred through the negligence of a fellow employee.

If this doesn't sound so bad, pause and think about it for a minute.  You're working a manual labor job in a high-risk industry with a co-worker who is clearly a nit-wit.  According to Shaw's ruling, you're responsible for your own safety, no matter how dangerous or dumb your co-worker is or might be, because you knowingly took the job.  Legally, it's not up to your employer to guarantee your safety.

Farwell was an engineer for The Boston and Worcester Railroad Company.  When his train derailed after the switchman improperly threw the switch,  Farwell lost his hand.  He attempted to recover damages from The Boston and Worcester Railroad, on the grounds that he and the switchman were not "fellow servants."

Because Farwell did not know the switchman personally (he had probably never even met him), because they served in different and distinct departments and because they did not fulfill the same kinds of duties, the attorneys for the plaintiff argued that they could not be legally considered "fellow servants."

Shaw disagreed, siding with the defense, which argued that one of the risks Farwell knowingly incurred in taking the job of engineer was "his liability to injury from the carelessness of others who were employed by the defendants."

Citing the18th-century British legal precedent established by William Blackstone, Shaw noted that "if a servant, by his negligence, does any damage to a stranger, the master shall be answerable for his neglect."  On this basis, the railroads were legally obligated to protect their passengers: if the switchman's action had injured a passenger, the passenger could recover damages from The Boston and Worcester Railroad.

Shaw argued, however, that "this does not apply to the case of a servant bringing his action against his own employer to recover damages for an injury arising in the course of that employment."  In such cases, Shaw argues, the guiding principle is "the express or implied contract" between "master" and "servant"--or, in this case, "employer" and "employee."

Shaw ruled that, according to the law, "he who engages in the employment of another for the performance of specified duties and services, for compensation, takes upon himself the natural and ordinary risks and perils incident to the performance of such services."

According to Shaw, "These are perils which the servant is as likely to know, and against which he can as effectually guard, as the master."

In the case of Farwell's injury, Shaw ruled that "the loss must be deemed to be the result of a pure accident, like those to which all men, in all employments, and at all times, are more or less exposed."  If he wished to recover damages, Shaw argued, Farwell should try to sue the switchman himself.

What I find most interesting about all of this is that it offers a new way to think about the interrelationship of the characters aboard the Pequod.  Melville's narrator Ishmael famously describes them as "isolatoes" or "islands" unto themselves. 

What I'm interested in exploring further is, to what extent could this characterization be said to stem from the historical circumstances of U.S. labor law and its practice in 19th-century America?  It seems to me that Melville's novel can be situated on the cusp of a changing sense of the interrelationship of work, identity and authority in American culture.

How, why and to what extent is a community responsible for the actions of its members, and what happens when those actions are intertwined with American business interests and a capitalist desire for profit? 

More broadly stated, what is the relationship between money, American democracy, and the law?  And how does that relationship affect the ways in which individuals define themselves and their labor?