Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Seven years ago today, my dad died.

It was the first major loss of my life, and it hit me hard.  I really didn't think I was ever going to feel "okay"--much less "good"--again.  It didn't seem possible.

I still wince when I think about 2006.  And 2007.  And 2008.  Because that stuff they tell you about how "it takes a year" or "you just have to get through the first year" (yeah, "just") is wishful thinking.

It takes as long as it takes.  I wish I could offer better advice and consolation than that, but I can't.

I don't know if I'd say it gets "better," but it changes, because all things do, in time.  (The "it" here being grief, of course.)  Because I tend to be the kind of person who just puts it all out there--the good, the bad, and the ugly (in case you couldn't tell)-- I talked to lots of people about how I felt.

The people who haven't been through it often mean well, but they really don't know what they're talking about.  They're the ones with the cliches about "the first year" and "in a better place" and all that other... hogwash.

Seriously, it's hogwash.  You mean well, but you don't help anyone when you say these things.  NOT AT ALL.

You begin to get so that you can spot the people who have been through it, because they don't say much when you tell them.  They just look sad or they speak in broken sentences, because they know.  There aren't any words for it.

Seeing you reminds them of what they went through.  When you see that in them, you know that they know.

My neighbor told me, "My father died over 20 years ago.  Some days, the grief just hits me so hard all of a sudden, I have to shut myself in my bedroom and cry, I miss him so much.  It's been 20 years.  I don't feel that way every day, but when I do, it's like no time has passed since I lost him."

At first, that's all you feel.  Pain.  Physical, mental, emotional pain.  And it's exhausting.  Putting one foot in front of the other feels like an overwhelming task.  And it feels like it will never get better.  Because how can it?  The person isn't coming back, and that would be the only thing that would help... fix this.

But after a while, I think you begin to feel the person's spirit in your life.

Before I go on, let me just say that I'm an atheist who wishes it wasn't so.  I am simply never going to be convinced that what we have collectively identified as "God" actually exists.  I just don't see it, and I don't feel it and I respect people who do, but please, don't even try to convince me.  After a while, you'll just annoy me, because my feeling is, I respect your beliefs, so you need to respect mine.

Don't tell me you're praying for me.  Stop by, look me in the eye, say "hey, how are you?", treat me like a human being, and maybe cut me some slack or offer me some help from time to time.  That means more to me than prayers.  Because that kind of thing tells me that you realize that this isn't about you, it's about me: what I think and believe and how I feel.

Prayers can be your thing.  They aren't mine.

That said, I'm fascinated by the idea of faith and I have an enormous amount of respect for it.  I think many of the principles and ethics incorporated in various religious traditions out there are worth paying attention to and thinking about and perhaps implementing in one's life, in some way.

I just don't believe in following (what seem to me to be) "rules," and rituals are just not my way of feeling connected to people or ideas outside of myself.

At the end of the day, I'm an existentialist, I guess.  I think that, if there's meaning to be had in the (often senseless) world around us, it's a meaning that we create for ourselves, in our lives.

So we'd better make it good.

The day I lost my dad was the day I knew that I really was an atheist and I just didn't believe in God, however that entity was defined, and that I never could or would.  I can't explain it in words: I just watched my dad die and I felt that, there isn't a singular entity "in charge" of all of it.  Whatever images others have of "heaven" or "hell" or whatever just didn't make sense to me: it felt very much like a human attempt to script something we have no way of understanding.

And while I can appreciate the attempt, I can't accept the script.

But that said, I hated to think that my dad was just... gone.  It seemed very unfair that someone who had been such a good person had to just die and that was that.

On the morning my dad died, I was standing outside, hanging laundry on the clothesline.  And I suddenly felt a strange sense of peace: that what was happening to him was something that was simply part of the natural cycle of life itself.  He was dying, and in life, there is death.  

As I began to grapple with my grief, I decided to pay attention to things that reminded me of my dad's spirit, and right or wrong, I would credit him with those things.  I do the same thing for my little godson, Ezra.  Because there are times when it just feels like, "That had to come from him."

It's my way of remembering and showing gratitude for people who meant a great deal to me.  They are not "gone," for me.  Ever.

If I'm here, they're here.  Anything good that comes to or from me is something of theirs, always.  And it's important to me to pause and feel what it means to give them credit for that.

I first felt this sense of spirit one afternoon on the drive home from the cemetery.  It was a few weeks after my dad had died.  I went to his grave a lot in those first few months, because it was a place where I could mourn in peace and not worry about what anyone might see or think.  It's a cemetery, after all.  Grief comes with the territory.

That day, on the drive home, I turned on the radio and a song I hadn't heard in a couple of decades came on.  It was Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue."

When I was little, before I started kindergarten, my dad would take me to the playground every afternoon.  It was a little treat: our daily outing, because my brother had started school, so he got to play on the playground every day, and I didn't, unless someone took me there.  So my dad always did.

My dad liked to sing along to the radio.  This song came out in 1972, when I was 4, and it was pretty popular, so it was on the radio a lot.

My dad used to sing along to it, whenever it came on, and sometimes he would sing it to me when he did.

I had totally forgotten he used to do that until I heard the song again that day.

Yes, I know, it could be a coincidence.  But in a way,  I don't care.  Because 4 years later, the closing date for my house was set for July 30th, and I moved into the home that I love on this day in 2010.  At the time, I felt like it was the perfect way to honor my dad's spirit, because it was exactly the kind of thing he would have wanted to see me doing with my life.

I think of my dad as a protector-spirit and an enhancer-spirit.  He can't stop bad things from happening to me--because, really, this is life and the shit will happen--but he can maybe spin some good things my way and if I'm paying attention, I'll see them and they'll either help me through the rough times (like that day on the way home from the cemetery) or they'll make me smile a bit. 

So the trick is, to pay attention.

Like today.  I opened my Facebook this morning and found out that the shelter that rescued the two cats I adopted received a $10,000. grant from the Sidewalk Angels Foundation.  The owners said they began to cry when they found out.

I just smiled. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Into Thin Air"

I first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (1997) five years ago, and I've been wanting to reread it ever since.

I (finally!) figured out a way to incorporate it into a class I'm teaching this upcoming fall, so now I have an excuse to reread it that isn't even an excuse.  After all, I'm working.

Krakauer is a literary journalist, best-known for his book Into the Wild (1997) and Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains (1999).  As you've probably guessed by now, Krakauer is also a mountaineer and general outdoorsman--and an extremely good writer.

In 1996, Krakauer was sent on assignment to Mount Everest to do a story for Outside magazine about the environmental impact of commercial climbing expeditions.  Being an avid mountain-climber himself, he made arrangements to accompany a climbing expedition and attempt to reach the summit himself.

He did.

Five of his teammates on the expedition did so as well, but in the end, four of them died in a freak storm that swept in and trapped them on the mountain's peak. 

One can't help but think of the Book of Job: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."

Needless to say, the story Krakauer set out to write and the story he arrived home with were very different.  Krakauer wrote the commissioned article for Outside magazine, and then immediately began writing Into Thin Air.  As he observes, "The Everest climb had rocked my life to its core, and it became desperately important for me to record the events in complete detail, unconstrained by a limited number of column inches" (xvi).

He was advised by other writers and editors to wait before doing so, to "put some distance" between himself and his experience on the expedition "in order to gain some crucial perspective" (xvi).

Krakauer opted not to do this: "what happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out.  I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life" (xvi).

Krakauer's account is both fascinating and fraught with complexity.  At extreme altitudes, when a person's brain simply isn't getting enough oxygen, firsthand, eyewitness accounts become highly unreliable--including, of course, Krakauer's own (as he openly acknowledges).  In some cases, all he can do is speculate about what happened to some of the climbers who died.

The book isn't simply about the tragedy, however: it's about the mountain.  One of the things I like most about Krakauer's work is its self-reflectiveness.  Unlike many mountaineers who glory in the bravado and machismo that surround their activities, Krakauer recognizes that in a lot of very real ways and on a very basic level, such excursions are simply insane.

The stakes are high, and when things go wrong--as they did on Mount Everest in May of 1996--the cost is enormous for the friends and family of those who simply do not return.

And, as Krakauer eventually realized, when you climb Everest, there is always a very real possibility that you will not return.  The mountainside is in fact littered with human corpses:
At 21,000 feet, dizzy from the heat, I came upon a large object wrapped in blue plastic sheeting beside the trail.  It took my altitude-impaired gray matter a minute or two to comprehend that the object was a human body.  Shocked and disturbed, I stared at it for several minutes. ...
Feeling slightly better on Saturday, I climbed a thousand feet above camp to get some exercise and accelerate my acclimatization, and there, at the head of the Cwm, fifty yards off the main track, I came upon another body in the snow, or more accurately the lower half of a body.  The style of clothing and the vintage leather boots suggested that the victim was European and that the corpse had laid on the mountain at least ten or fifteen years.
The first body had left me badly shaken for several hours; the shock of encountering the second wore off almost immediately.  Few of the climbers trudging by had given either corpse more than a passing glance.  It was as if there were an unspoken agreement on the mountain to pretend that these desiccated remains weren't real--as if none of us dared to acknowledge what was at stake here. (111)
And yet, these excursions also possess an enormous attraction for many intelligent and skilled climbers, both male and female, of all nationalities.  The bulk of Krakauer's book revolves around the question of why, exactly, this might be, and what it means to live with and to act on such an attraction.

Krakauer's elaboration on these issues sets the stage and the context for the tragedy that he will attempt to document.  They temper his retrospective reflections about what that tragedy has come to mean for himself.  After the publication of both his article and his book, Krakauer came under fire for his observations.  The friends and families of several of the victims were extremely angry and hurt by his characterizations of their loved ones and the tragedy that took their lives.

I think that, in the end, such a reaction is inevitable.  When you lose a loved one, anger is almost always part of your response to the loss.  In many cases, the anger is (paradoxically) directed at the victim him- or herself.  The death  feels like an odd form of betrayal and yet, blaming the person who died for his or her death creates an unbearable amount of guilt in the loved one left behind.

If a surrogate can be found--a target for that anger, preferably someone not directly connected to the victim him- or herself--then odds are, that person will bear the brunt of this grief-stricken animosity.

Perhaps Krakauer is at fault; perhaps his perspective is inaccurate.  At the same time, however, I think he made every attempt to tell the story in an ethical and compassionate manner.

As Krakauer ultimately admits, "The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway.  And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time" (xvii).

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I had to get some maintenance done on my car this week, and as I sat in the waiting room for 2 hours, I worked on my knitting.

Really, knitting is the best thing for a waiting room.  I used to be able to read at such times, but now every waiting room has an enormous TV in it.  I can't read when the TV's on.  I just can't.  I never could.

So, I knit.  Knitting is actually a perfect activity in such situations, because let's face it, your time is being enormously wasted otherwise. 

Knitting is also a way to meet people, oddly enough.  And if you think all you'll meet are elderly women, check this out.  So if I knit and you don't, I totally stand a better chance of getting a date with Ryan Gosling than you do.  

If you knit in public, someone will usually talk to you.  People are intrigued by the sight of a person knitting, particularly if it's not an elderly person.

Most of us are staring at a screen most of the time.

This time, I met a woman who asked me what I was knitting (the standard opening), and then told me that I knit "very fast."  I've been knitting for 30 years, so, yes, I suppose I do.

This woman liked to crochet, as it turns out.  I used to crochet, before I learned to knit, so I always feel a little nostalgia when someone mentions crochet.  As it turns out, the woman was from Portugal, and her son was getting married the next day.

She had spent 3 years crocheting a cotton bedspread for him.  She whispered as she told me, "It's a gift, he doesn't know."

If you don't know what she is referring to, here is a blog post with a picture of a crocheted bedspread and some reflections on its significance.

After I expressed my admiration for the gift she was about to give her son (and learned that she had made one for her daughter as well, several years ago), the woman and I had a mini-debate.  I said that gifts like that were so precious, they should be used every day (I know that sounds odd), whereas the woman argued that gifts that are precious should be saved for special occasions.

On the one hand, I see her point.  You don't want it ruined in some stupid everyday episode involving coffee.  On the other hand, I think the spirit of an amazing gift should always be open and on display, not shut away in a drawer or a box somewhere.

I can best explain what I mean through examples.  In Moving Violations, John Hockenberry describes how, after he accidentally burns his legs by placing a hot dish on his lap (he has been paralyzed as the result of a spinal cord injury, so he has no feeling in his legs), his grandfather gives him a gift.

His grandfather sends him "a cutting board exactly the size of [his] lap":
He had taken two pieces of oak and glued them together.  He had sanded them and had carefully affixed to the back some green paper of the sort you might find lining kitchen drawers.  The paper was rough, like coarse felt, so it would not slide on my legs.  Finally, a sturdy metal handle was drilled into one edge of the board, for hanging.  It was a simple thing, but each part had been made especially for the purpose of protecting my lap.  The wood was cut to odd, narrow lengths; it was of half-inch stock, not the full inch or more of easily available butcher block wood.  Grandpa wanted the board to be light enough to use from a sitting position so that I could lift it with a pan from my lap to the kitchen counter.
The board's metal handle had been fabricated by him, not pulled from the bin of screws and washers at the hardware store.  There was not a nail or a fastener of any kind on this board.  The oak boards had been glued like fine furniture.  Each seam was a perfectly straight line, clamped and sanded to the tolerance of machine metal.  (47)
It is the only gift he ever receives from his grandfather that isn't picked out by his grandmother.  "This package arrived with Grandpa's meticulous wrapping, and the enclosed note was torn from an oil-smudged legal pad.  He had had to ask my grandmother for my address" (47).

Hockenberry concludes, "My legs could not thank him; I could not feel them, but he could.  Every time I set the cutting board down, I see Grandfather looking up at me."

In Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Pnin, the protagonist, Pnin, has been estranged from his son for years, because the boy lives with his mother after she and Pnin divorce.

Pnin hosts a party.  At the end of the chapter describing the party, a guest remarks on the punchbowl, "a large bowl of brilliant aquamarine glass with a decorative design of swirled ribbing and lily pads" (153).

When the guest says, "My, what a lovely thing!", Pnin "eye[s] the bowl with pleasant surprise as if seeing it for the first time" (153).

It is a present from his son who, after traveling with his mother in California, "returned to his school and ... suddenly sent this" (153).  It arrives, by coincidence, on the very day of Pnin's party.
It had come enclosed in a box within another box inside a third one, and wrapped up in an extravagant mass of excelsior and paper that had spread all over the kitchen like a carnival storm.  The bowl that emerged was one of those gifts whose first impact produces in the recipient's mind a colored image, a blazoned blur, reflecting with such emblematic force the sweet nature of the donor that the tangible attributes of the thing are dissolved, as it were, in this pure inner blaze, but suddenly and forever leap into brilliant being when praised by an outsider to whom the true glory of the object is unknown. (153)
This is why I think beautiful gifts should be used.  If you hide a gift away, you never really see it.

In protecting the preciousness of the gift, you hide its true beauty.

I have a leather messenger bag that I use daily.  My dad gave it to me, when I earned my Ph.D.

Actually, my dad gave me one, but one of the straps on it broke.  One day, he saw me lugging my books in some makeshift manner, and asked me, "Didn't you like the bag I gave you?  Don't you use it?"  I showed him that, actually, I had used it so much that, after a couple of years, the strap broke and there was no way to fix it.

He looked it over and said, "That's no good."

That Christmas, he gave me another, the one I still have today.  My mom said, "He had me worried.  He tugged and yanked on the straps of every bag he picked up, and checked the fastenings from top to bottom.  He flung it around.  I told him, 'You break it, we buy it, you know?'  He finally settled on this one."

About a year after my dad died, I was chatting with a colleague when she suddenly said, "That is a beautiful bag you have.  Where did you get it?  Was it a gift?  Someone must love you very much." 

Sunday, July 21, 2013


They say that perception is nine-tenths of the law.

Actually, they don't.  They say that possession is nine-tenths of the law, but actually that isn't true either--it's a common misperception.

If you take my stuff and I find out and I can prove you took it, there is seriously no way you get to keep it.

I decided to change the old adage, though, because it suits my purpose.  This week has been all about perception.

On Monday, I decided to go blueberry-picking.  I had gone blueberry-picking the week before, and it was a total bust.  I was not happy.  For two reasons.

First, the berries were sour.  I'm sorry, but they were.  I don't know what the blueberry-farmers there were thinking, but their berries SUCKED.  I shall not return. 

When they posted their little ad on their Facebook page saying they were "open for business" and had "tons of berries," they forgot to insert the phrase "too soon" after the word "open" and the words "green" and "unripe" in front of the word "berries."

So there I was, trying to get my berries in a basket, and there weren't any, and the ones that I managed to find were sour.  I left with less than a pound.  If you know me, this is a huge indication of how bad they were.

Secondly, the people running the farm struck me as "shifty."  I don't know why this was, and I couldn't even really explain what I meant by that at the time--even to myself--but I can tell you that when I stepped up to that farm stand and they said, "Good morning!," I immediately thought, shifty.

I did not expect to feel this way at a blueberry farm.  I arrive at blueberry farms expecting to feel a happy sense of sweet anticipation that is rapidly fulfilled by the sight of gorgeously bright blue berries. I hum on the drive to a blueberry farm.  This is just how it is with me and berry-picking.

Instead, I wandered the rows of this place thinking "shifty," wondering what the hell I even meant by that, and muttering words like "asshole" and "waste of my time" at the sight of green berries and the unending taste of sour ones.

After I arrived home, I opened their Facebook page, prepared to see all kinds of scathing comments and invective.  Imagine my surprise when I read the following:

"I just picked 3 lbs!  I LOVE your place!  YUM!  I'll be back!"

What?  Where?  YUM?!  NO.

"I'm making blueberry buckle!"

How the ?? Did you TASTE the damn things first?

Anyway, I decided that even though others didn't share my perception, I was right and I would simply go to another blueberry farm this Monday, so that's what I did.  While I was there, I overheard a woman saying, "You know, last year, I went somewhere else and picked all kinds of berries that looked good.  They were really large and ripe, but then they were just ... sour.  They were terrible.  I made a blueberry pie and it was so bad, I had to just throw it out."

So, there's the explanation for that other woman's buckle.  Bet she didn't taste them first either.  Just picked and picked at that damn shifty little farm.

Because I also found out that there is a phenomenon out there in the fruit-bearing world called "overcropping."  Blueberry bushes, like most fruit-trees, need to be pruned, otherwise they will produce a ton of berries that will look just amazing.  But they will all be sour.

Sometimes farmers don't prune, because they want to have more to sell.  If you want to sell good berries, you have to accept the fact that you to need to scale back on quantity in order to ensure a quality product.

So my perception of "shifty" was also vindicated.

As everyone knows, it was also hotter than holy hell this past week.  I'm sure you think you've heard me say this before, but I've simply said it was "hotter than hell."  I'm adding a sense of holiness to last week, because the heat began to take on Biblical proportions for me after Day 3.

I used to insist that I really don't like the heat and that it isn't just me, it's something about me and the heat together that isn't good.  Others would say that was just my perception, and I should "get over it" and "deal with it," that it "wasn't that bad," that it was "kinda nice, after last winter."

Personally, I spent last winter in front of a fireplace, curled up with a book, two kitty cats, and a glass of wine.  How does sitting in front of a fan, sweating my brains out because I just moved my foot half an inch, compare to that?

Since reading Bill Streever's book, Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places, however, I feel vindicated about my own personal perception of heat. Streever points out that most people have about 3 million sweat glands.  Some people have more than that, particularly if they are raised in hot climates.

Some people, though, have fewer than that.  I'm quite certain that I be one of those people.

So it isn't just my perception of the heat, it's a physiological fact.  An unverified (and presumably unverifiable) one, since I haven't actually counted or mapped my own sweat glands and I don't really intend to, but I'm going to go with it and insist that it's true and put that dilemma to rest once and for all.

I didn't have enough sweat glands for a day like last Friday.

My perception regarding my sweat glands cheerfully carried me through the first half of the heat-wave, because I just patiently acknowledged that I was facing a grim reality with a certain physiological handicap, and this meant I needed two fans and extra lemonade. (I don't have AC, by the way, although I do spend summers in a place with nice breezes.)

When those nice breezes stopped sometime around Thursday morning, though, and the humidity ramped up to 800%,  I began to get rather irritable.  Suddenly, the next 36 hours became "nearly unbearable."  "Impossible."  "Unreasonable."  I threw around all kinds of melodramatic words in my head, and I eventually uttered quite a few of them to my beloved kitty cats, who always agree with me unconditionally.

And then, today, cooler weather.  I was suddenly able to get all kinds of tasks done that had seemed impossible and unreasonable last week.

One such task was weeding the patio.  It was pretty well covered at this point, because for weeks and weeks, I kept thinking, "Those weeds aren't SO bad.  I need to get to them, but it can wait."

In last week's heat, it became vastly apparent that they were, in fact, quite bad and it couldn't wait.  But it had to.  It was "impossible," "unreasonable," etc. etc. given my insufficient number of sweat glands.

I dreaded the upcoming task.

It took me all of an hour.  I have realized that one of the great advantages of having a patio in which the blocks are 12 inches long by 12 inches wide, is that you are very aware that you are basically weeding by the square foot.  You feel a sense of progress that you might not feel if you're just looking at an overgrown garden bed with no imposed grid-lines.

I also vacuumed and did laundry and revised an article and wrote this blog post, and later I'm going to clean the bathroom and fold the laundry and make a pizza.

And so I say to you again: perception is nine-tenths of the law.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Half-Life: A Pale Green Wrapper

When I bought my home several years ago, I wanted to be economically sensible and, if possible, environmentally "green."  I had the decision-making power in my hands and I was going to use it wisely whenever I could.

My quest has been a series of small steps that have slowly added up.  I've shared quite a few of them on my blog over the past couple of years, but I thought I'd offer a little wrap-up of some of the highlights. 

My general advice is: Do Things By Halves.  I call it my Half-Life Strategy.

If you're trying to make changes, small-scale adjustments always "take" better than sweeping reforms.  The reason the status quo is the status quo is because it's unthinkingly comfortable.

Change makes us think.  And while I enjoy that (obviously), there are times when I find myself thinking, "Life isn't meant to be lived this way."

Like when I tried to switch to soy milk.  And when I tried to give up coffee.  And when I tried to do both, simultaneously.  I ended up greeting a glorious spring morning with the following announcement: "Goddammit, I'm having a friggin' cup of COFFEE and it's going to have goddamn MILK in it."

It was 6:30 a.m.  No one should start the day like this.  That's why I say, "halves."

Once I gave myself permission to just have coffee and to hell with it, I started to think, "Well, but would I like to have tea instead?"  And some days I did.  It has less than half the caffeine of coffee.  And, in time, I found that instead of having 3-4 cups of coffee a day, I now have about 1-2.

After I bought my house, I applied my Half-Life Philosophy to my Green Quest.  I am therefore Pale Green (as my page indicates).

The first thing I discovered: most advertising claims of "eco-friendly" and "green" are more or less total bullshit.  Anyone can claim to be "eco-friendly" or "green," and these days, almost everyone does.  These terms, like the terms "sustainable" and "natural," are not endorsed or regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

In effect, they're red flags that can signal products, websites, and individuals that may be more flash than substance, more interested in "trends" than "truth."  If they're genuinely "green," they'll tell you exactly what they do and produce and they'll reference specific, scientific, verifiable information--from reliable sources (not dot-com sites)--that you can consult independently.

Last Fall, the FTC issued revised "Green Guides" that cover what marketing words and phrases like "free of," "non-toxic," "recyclable" and "renewable" must mean.

Since trying to read the whole document is a great non-toxic sleep-aid, I advise simply looking up a term once in a while, just out of curiosity, or if you have a specific purchase to make.  Here are the Green Guides.

I've found The Sierra Club's Green Home webpage quite helpful.  When it comes time to replace something, I look at it before I shop.

I really like this August 28, 2012 blog post by Kristina Anderson entitled, "To Buy Green or to Be Green?"  The comparison chart at the end of the post is particularly useful.

Over time, I've found that the marketing of "eco-friendly" and "green" and "cruelty-free" consumer products is very misleading.  At the end of the day, they want you to buy their product and they'll play with phrasing and semantics to get you to do so.

Sure, they "care" about the environment and the animals and your health.  But they'd LOVE for you to buy their product.  And lots of it.

So I switched to looking at details and used common sense.  Show me the actual ingredients and give me links to the science about your products and contents, or I'll go find a product that does. 

And bear in mind, if they strip out all of the toxins and chemicals, they're now selling you a product you can probably make all by yourself, for far, far less money.  No, it won't have a designer label.  But think about it: if I handed you a page full of labels and said, "I'd like $10. for each one of these, please," you'd tell me where to put it.

This is what you're doing when you shop for "the brand."

If I told you, "Don't worry: for every $10 you give me, I'm going to donate $1. to an awesome charity," you'll think I'm awesome too.

Until you realize that I have just charged you $10. for something it costs me $1. to make.  That $1. donation is an awesome tax write-off that totally offsets my production costs.   

In my (Pale) Green Quest, I started small and did things by halves.
  • I began making my own laundry detergent.  One cup of borax, one cup of washing soda, one bar of Fels Naptha: grate the bar of soap, mix it with the borax and washing soda, and you have a 6-month supply of laundry detergent powder.  (You only need to use about a tablespoon per wash, and yes, you can use it in High Efficiency washers, because it produces no suds at all.)  Add a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle to help whiten whites. 
    • Half-Life Strategy: Since you can't wash wool and silk with homemade detergent, keep a small bottle of regular detergent (or Woolite).  If you really feel nervous about whether the clothes are getting clean with the homemade, you can fall back on the commercial brand from time to time.  
  • I stopped using shampoo and conditioner.  One tablespoon of baking soda in a cup of water will clean your hair.  One tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a cup of water will condition it.  
    • Half-Life Strategy:  If you can't make the switch, start by cutting back on the number of times you shower.  Really, unless you're working a serious manual labor job or working out and sweating a lot, you can probably shower every other day.  Once you do that, you've already cut the amount of shampoo you use in half.  Try the baking soda and cider alternative once: if you don't like it, no worries. You're still using half as much shampoo and conditioner as you were, just by showering less often.
  • I started making my own lotion and deodorant.  The recipes are out there.  The deodorant was a tricky one, because I reacted to recipes that used a lot of baking soda.  But it works and actually, it works far, far better than any of the commercial deodorants or anti-perspirants I used to use.   
    • Half-Life Strategy:  You can always buy or use commercial products again, if you need to.  So "switching" doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing move.  Last winter, I got disturbingly dry skin: I bought a bottle of non-toxic, phthalate-free lotion.  Likewise, I need to wear sunblock: I buy the non-toxic kind.  Because I'm saving money on a lot of other little things, I can spend the extra $$ on the non-toxic stuff and still come out ahead.
  • I installed rain barrels.  These are a godsend.  Yes, it looks like I'm having one helluva kegger in my backyard, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.   I no longer even turn on the water to the outdoor spigot.  Last week, it was 95 degrees for 5 days.  I used the water in my rain barrels to water my garden for the entire week, and I still didn't run out.
    • Half-Life Strategy:  I wasn't sure if the rain barrels would work, so I bought 2.  I could have installed just 1.  When I saw that they worked, I got another.  And another.  If they run dry, there's always the hose.
  • I planted a garden.  Everyone has a favorite something.  So plant it and see what happens.  Worst-case scenario, it doesn't grow.  Best-case scenario, it does.
    • Half-Life Strategy: I started small with just two raised beds.  I now have six.  When you plant it yourself, you become conscious of a whole lot of things.  First, bugs are annoying, but not terrible.  They're bugs.  Second, pesticides are like... holy crap... why would you sprinkle that on anything?  Especially if you're going to eat it sometime in the future?  No thanks. Third, home-grown has this thing called "flavor" that you can't get from store-bought herbs and vegetables.
  • I bought a composter.  It's hard to believe that garbage might not smell, but actually, vegetable-based, organic garbage doesn't.  It decomposes, and goes back to what it once was--basically, dirt.
    • Half-Life Strategy: I started with an in-home electric composter.  Although some would argue that using electricity makes it less green, as with all things green (or pale green), you have to think about the big picture.  The ends justify the means: I'm using a few extra pennies' worth of electricity, but I'm cutting back on what goes into the landfill.  And boy, do I mean cutting back: I now generate less than half a bag of trash PER WEEK.  I also have a compost bin outside, but for only one person, that takes a bit longer to fill.
Over time, little things add up.  So if you start trying to make little changes and you see someone who seems to be "greener" than you are or more "eco-aware" or whatever, don't worry or feel embarrassed or inadequate.  Ask questions and seek information.

Most people who are environmentally aware are really eager to share tips with others and to talk about their own struggles and slip-ups.  Being "green" isn't about who you are or what you buy: it's about what you do and how you help.

So if someone hassles you or tries to lord their (alleged) eco-superiority over you, chances are they're simply green with envy.

So, how "green" are you?  If you have advice or suggestions, please share them here--and everywhere!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Like a lot of people in the US over the past couple of weeks, I've been thinking about the 19 firefighters who died in the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona.

I have a friend and former student who has worked as a Hotshot.  I confess, it's the kind of job that is simply inconceivable to me.   Unbelievably difficult.  Incredibly dangerous.  Extraordinarily necessary.

I haven't been able to put it out of my mind since I read portions of Bill Streever's Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places (2013).

I don't think I ever understood the dangers of wildfires, in any real, immediate sense.  Obviously, it's fire.  Obviously, fire is dangerous.

But wildfires carry a level of danger and unpredictability that it's hard for me to imagine.  Grappling with them--doing the job that the Hotshots do so well--is not just about showing up with a hose and a helmet and setting to work.

As Streever points out, as wildfires spread, they begin to create their own weather.  The heat dries any moist vegetation, creating its own fuel.  "The fire reaches the crest of a hill, with an updraft on one side, and a downdraft on the other":
The challenge is to come up with models coupling the reasonably static reality of the landscape with the overwhelmingly dynamic reality of an uncontrolled wildfire.  The challenge is to create a model that captures land burning with a ferocity capable of creating sounds that firefighters have compared to the sounds of trucks, trains, tornadoes, hurricanes, and volcanoes.
In the case of the Montecito Tea Fire in 2008, some homeowners had about 15 minutes of warning before their homes were engulfed in flames.

Streever describes the fire shelters that were deployed by the firefighters at Yarnell Hill:  "It is a tightly packed cube of folded foil and fabric, wrapped in plastic.  The firefighter's first line of defense is to avoid being caught by fire, but these shelters have saved the lives of more than 250 firefighters who were surrounded and burned over."

Shaped "like an oversized sleeping bag" when opened, "[t]he fabric is aluminum glued to a fiberglass frame."  Firefighters are trained to deploy them in less than 20 seconds.  "The idea is simple: when surrounded and at risk of being overwhelmed by fire, find a firebreak, set up the shelter, crawl inside, and hope for the best."

Nevertheless, as Streever points out, "[t]he shelter will not survive direct contact with flames."  It will melt, like anything else would under such conditions.  Temperatures in a wildfire can typically reach more than 2000 degrees.

The principle of a fire shelter is to hold the portion that faces the advancing fire with your feet and stay as low as possible, breathing close to the ground.  "This close to the flames, strong winds will tug at the shelter."

"Typical burn-overs, typical entrapments, last fifteen to ninety minutes."

May the men who died at Yarnell Hill rest in peace.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mascara and Mandalas

Well, I did it.  I made my own mascara.

It's a disturbingly simple process.  As is almost all cosmetic manufacturing.  Which is part of the problem for me: I do one thing, see how easy it is, and then I think, "Why not do ALL of it myself?"

I truly do resent giving money to cosmetics companies.  If you're wondering "Why, dear God, why?", I can only tell you that it has always bothered me to have to spend so much money on something that never made me look like Lauren Hutton or Cindy Crawford or Christie Turlington or whoever is supposedly pretty nowadays.  (In case you can't tell, I gave up paying attention sometime around 1992.)

It also pissed me off that cosmetic companies were TOLD to stop putting toxic crap in cosmetics, so they reconfigured their definitions of "toxic" and "crap" and figured out another way to put it in.  Even the supposedly "organic" companies do it.

I don't like that.  I feel the way my mom no doubt did when she used to say to me, "I told you and told you NOT to do that, but you just went ahead and did it anyway, now didn't you?"

So I made mascara.  It involves aloe vera gel (4 tsp), coconut oil (2 tsp), and a tsp of grated beeswax.  Melt it all together, and then add two capsules of activated charcoal.

Activated charcoal is not the stuff you grill with, although it's obviously the same basic thing (i.e. carbon).  Activated charcoal is also called "activated carbon."  Some people take it as a pill.  Why, I do not know.  That doesn't seem wise to me.

I think they think it "cleanses" their system.  It can turn your stools black and lead to intestinal blockage, if you overdo it.  So I say, don't do it at all.

Life is hard enough without blocking up your own intestines with charcoal.

It's true that activated carbon is used in cases of poisoning, to help absorb the poison.  I don't intend to poison myself (or anyone else) (just saying), so I'll skip swallowing a charcoal pill.

Anyway, back to the mascara.  Once the ingredients are all melted and mixed, the fun starts.

Because now, you have to get it into a blessed mascara tube.  I'm calling it "blessed" because I'm trying to be very zen about this part of the process.

If you've never tried to load mascara into a mascara tube by hand, well, my friend, you are really missing out on something.

If you've ever watched Buddhist monks create a sand mandala and thought, "Look at those guys.  Rush, rush, rush," then I promise you, you will LOVE filling your own mascara tube.

It will go far more slowly than making your own sand mandala, trust me.

Because unlike the monks, you probably don't have a cool tube like the ones they use, and that will make a world of difference.

What I'm saying is, you need some kind of syringe.  Really, you do.  I didn't have one this time around, but as God is my witness, if I do this again, I will have one.

One site I checked out suggested filling a plastic bag with the mascara mixture, cutting a small hole in the corner, and then forcing it down into the mascara tube--kind of the same principle as making your own frosting bag to ice a cake, basically.

It didn't really work.  Whatever you choose to do, put down paper towels and be patient.

And get a syringe.

But the mascara itself seems to work.  I doubt it's waterproof, although the beeswax is supposed to help make it a bit more so than it would be if all you use is coconut oil and aloe vera gel.

Coconut oil melts at 76 degrees farenheit, so if you use coconut oil in your cosmetics, when summer hits, you will have a liquid, not the solid you thought you had last winter.

I'm testing the homemade mascara for the next week because 1) I don't plan to see anyone that I'm dying to bat my eyelashes at, and 2) it's hotter than hell, so this will be the test period for this stuff.  If it's not sweat-proof, I will know by sundown.

If you like the Tammy Faye Baker or Paula Deen or any other big-eyelashed look (you know, the ones with the fake eyelashes)  (I mean, really.  HELLO, ladies. We know they're fake), then this stuff isn't for you.  It's subtle.

But believe it or not, I like subtle.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Quiet Holiday

It was once again a busy week, with lots of ups and downs.

On the one hand, after hitting a mental block on the Gulag project, I was able to let my mushy brain rest, get good insights from my collaborator, and the end result is, we're off and running again.

Or we will be.  Tomorrow.

This is one of the few years in recent history when I don't have some kind of small July 4th plan--a party to go to, fireworks to see, a friend to visit.  And that's a good thing.

Yesterday, I was awakened out of a sound sleep at 4:30 a.m. by a sudden emergency involving one of my cats--my sweet, shy little girl.  I spent the next 2 hours debating whether to take her to an emergency clinic (after the initial crisis, she seemed okay), the following third hour on the phone with my best friend, getting moral support, and the remaining two hours waiting for the appointment with the vet.

It was a long 6 hours, needless to say.

But the good news is, she's okay, and will be even more okay in a few days.  I have the joy of single-handedly administering liquid antibiotics to a cat (it should be an Olympic sport) and taking care of her rapidly healing wound.

We all collapsed last night.  Because of course, my other cat was equally traumatized by it all.  Given the frequency with which he has taken to hiding under the couch on a whim, I think he keeps thinking he's next.

Let's hope not.

So I've decided the quiet holiday is a blessing in disguise.  I'm taking advantage of the peace and quiet and heat to try to catch up on the reading I've fallen behind on.  When I finally manage to do that, I'll actually have time to think about things to blog about.

It's been a busy first few weeks of summer.

I have two little projects under way as well: I'm going to attempt to make my own mascara (since as everyone knows, I seriously dislike cosmetic companies).

And I'm in the process of making my own mother.  For apple cider vinegar that is.

To make vinegar, you have to have something that, in the bread-making world, is known as "starter."  For some reason, vinegarians  (I just made that word up) refer to it as "the mother."

Actually, not "for some reason": it makes perfect sense.  It's the entity that "gives birth" to your vinegar--that creates it.

I suspect they call it "mother" in a desperate attempt to create some kind of bonding experience between you and the "mom," because quite frankly, it is simply a slab of glop.  Cellulose and acetic acid form on fermenting alcohol and... voila!

Isn't it lovely?  That's "Mother."

Yup.  Glop.

So anyway, you can make your own apple cider vinegar if you add sugar to leftover apple cores and peels (preferably organic, so there's no wax or pesticide), cover them with water, and let the whole mixture sit in a warm (70 degree), dark place.

And sit.  And sit.

In about a week, yeast will form and the mixture will begin to ferment.  Mold will also begin to form, so you should scrape that off.  But it's okay: it's just mold.  Think of it as "more glop."

You then strain the apple peels and cores out of the mixture, put it in a canning jar, cover it with cheesecloth (the yeast needs oxygen to "breathe"), and wait a few more weeks while the yeast consumes all of the available sugar in the mixture.

Over time, "the mother" will form and you can scoop this out and use it to speed up the vinegar-making process with the next batch.

Or, if you want to do this while the weather is warm in your basement, like I did, you can take a shortcut.  Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar is unpasteurized, so if you bring it home and let it sit, a "mother" will form.  I poured a bottle of Braggs into a quart canning jar, added fresh apple cider, covered it with cheesecloth, and, wouldn't you know it, I've got glop.

Pretty cool.  Why didn't we do stuff like this in high school chemistry class?  Make cider, talk about the ph level of hair, examine the chemical processes behind soap-making?  I think more people would have found it interesting if we had.

Have a Happy 4th, everyone.