Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beating Hearts: The Humanist Symposium

As you might guess from the title of this blog, I am a bit obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe.

Imagine my surprise when I began to read through the submissions for this week's edition of the Humanist Symposium and came across Michael Campbell's clever post, "Edgar Allan Poe Should've Read Carl Sagan." Quoting from Poe's "Sonnet: To Science" (Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart?), Campbell points out that it is pure nonsense to imply that science and its emphasis on reality steals all beauty from life. Instead of imagining that science kills poetry, we should open our eyes to see the majesty of the cosmos. At the same time, Campbell acknowledges that poetry has a special beauty of its own, one that depends on its subjectivity to reveal "the complex nature of what it means to be human." (Those of you who want to redeem your faith in Poe might want to check out this essay which addresses the question of Poe's potential humanism/atheism.)

Steven Handel suggests that it is precisely this "poet's heart," beating solidly in each human, that gives our lives meaning. As he writes, "In some sense I find that creativity in humans is just as important as our need for air. What we express through art can give us our first sense of worth and purpose." After a thoughtful discussion of the ways creativity can enhance our lives, he offers many ways to be express one's inner life even for those of us who don't think of ourselves as artists.

In a fascinating essay over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee anazlyzes how creativity can be stifled by fundamentalism. He reviews a book about Christian pop culture and learns about the Christian version of Woodstock, called Cornerstone. One of the long-time participants at the music festival eventually abandoned his religious faith--as has a prominent Christian comedian. Lee argues that since "evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers," it is incompatible with true and honest expression. In order for the poet's heart to beat, it "requires self-doubt, introspection, and self-questioning."

Recently Greta Christina headed out to the Edwardian Ball, where a weekend-long celebration of poet/author/artist Edward Gorey is a place where "Goth, steampunk, ballroom, and historical recreation society scenes collide in a magnificent explosion" complete with "live music, ballroom dancing, costumes, art, exhibitions, absinthe cocktails, trapeze performances, weird taxidermy displays, and more." (Now this is an event I am sure Edgar Allan Poe would not want to miss.) What Greta realizes is that, as she says, "the Edwardian Ball is a near-perfect example of what I think of as the atheist meaning of life." Go read her wonderfully-written and inspiring post.

* * *

Of course, having a heart isn't just about personal expression and creative exploration. It is also about kindness and caring about all of humanity. There is a long history of people arguing that people who do not believe in God cannot be good people. As Ophelia Benson points out that old line of attack is still alive and well. She quotes an inflammatory article in the National Catholic Register which asks, "Why is other human life worth anything if there is no God?" Most humanists would argue that valuing human lives happens simply because we feel empathy and connection with all humanity. When you click through to Butterflies and Wheels, make sure you don't miss that great conversation going on in the comments.

Sometimes the critiques of non-believers feel mean-spirited. But at other times, we can tell our best interests are fully in the hearts of those who confront us.  Hemant Mehta (The Friendly [and Handsome] Atheist) shares with us a beautiful and hilarious letter to a young atheist from his Christian grandmother.

* * *

Edgar Allan Poe wrote (in the sonnet mentioned above) that science is all about "dull realities." While he was wrong that science is dull and cannot show us beauty, he was correct that what is at the heart of science is reality--that is, what can be measured, what can be studied, what can be observed. Several of this week's posts concern this issue.

Secular Guy points out that it is totally unnatural to believe in the supernatural. As he says, "Isn't accepting the universe on its own terms more realistic than trying to change it by fruitlessly praying for miracles?" As the Secular Guy's wife argues, embracing the natural can set us free.

One way we can be set free is to recognize that our social conventions and beliefs hold us back from acknowledging scientific research. Andrew Bernardin chronicles how students in his class are asked to take sides on a heated issue (same-sex parenting) and use information from a textbook to support their positions. Invariably, many of the students attempt to use their own experiences and beliefs instead to back up their ideas. Bernardin finds himself saying again and again, "While that sounds true, is there any research that supports it?"  And now, new research has come out!

Russell Blackford presents a thought-provoking review of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. Although Blackford makes it clear that the subject is fascinating and that the writing is compelling, he is disturbed by Wright's repeated hints that "the narrative of religion's cultural evolution may be evidence for something divine behind it all." At times, that "divinity" seems to refer to Natural Selection. At other times, it is "just something [still] unknown to us, something of great significance that stands in relation to us, who are ignorant of it." But Wright is being intellectually dishonest--or perhaps disingenuous: ignorance and imagination does not a God make.

David Michael tackles the same kind of question by asking what will happen to religion in the future. "Religion probably originates either from a desire to grasp the ungraspable and control the uncontrollable," he writes, "or to gain political power, or some combination of both." He predicts a future world of more interaction and more debate--and therefore less rigid orthodoxy. The consequence will be less powerful religion. As David Michael says, "In a post-religious world the appealing myths of religion will seem only that: appealing, and nothing more."

* * *

Finally, you can't miss the generous heart of Chanson. She writes a post about attending a fundamentalist Mormon service and getting to know a group of people with beliefs and practices very different from her own. When meeting a "sister-wife" (in a sea of folks dressed as pioneers) in a polygamist family, Chanson stammers a bit and "explained to her that I was visiting the AUB church because I wanted to learn more about my Mormon heritage." Chanson continued that her great-great-great-great aunt was one of the wives of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Looking back, says Chanson, "I figure I was either motivated by a pathological desire to fit in under any circumstances or I’m secretly proud of my strange Mormon-history claim-to-fame and figured that if anyone would be impressed by it, it would be the polygamists."

* * *

If you still have it in you to read a bit more Poe, make sure you check out my favorite piece of his, The Tell-Tale Heart.

* * *

The next Humanist Symposium will be hosted on Feb 21, 2010. You can find more information at Daylight Atheism or over at the carnival homepage. And if you are interested in hosting an upcoming Symposium, email ebonmusings at gmail dot com.

Friday, January 29, 2010

In the Pot

One of the presents I received for the holidays was a beautiful 4.5 quart enameled cast iron Le Creuset French Oven (usually called a Dutch Oven in this part of the world).

As a big fan of both non-enameled cast iron skillets and slow cookers, I had a feeling that this would be a pot I would love.  And I certainly do: the "French Oven" holds heat tremendously well, it is naturally nonstick (more or less), and it looks absolutely beautiful sitting on the stove or on the table.

Some people love all the bright colors that Le Creuset comes in--but as a confirmed plain-jane, I'm ecstatic about onyx (pure black) and dune (off-white).

* * *

In these cold days and in our cold house, stews and braises feel just perfect. I scoured the library for cookbooks and found several--and know I can adjust slow cooker recipes as well. I'm looking forward to more experiments with this pot.

I also found an interesting cookbook called Glorious One-Pot Meals which uses a technique very different from slow braising. Instead, you layer raw ingredients into the pot, cover, and cook in a very hot oven for forty-five minutes or so.

The technique, which author Elizabeth Yarnell calls the infusion method, is incredibly convenient. All the cook needs to do is chop the ingredients, layer them in the pot, insert the pot in the oven, and head to the couch with a glass of wine and some good company to await the glorious smells which will soon emerge from the kitchen.

The recipes in Yarnell's book are all fairly vegetable-heavy.  As a confirmed veggie fanatic who loves to cook but hates to clean up, I thought I might have found a perfect match with this book.

After cooking a few dishes, though, I am only partly convinced.

While the meals are easy to put together, easy to clean up, and in general quite healthy, they sometimes are a bit pedestrian in their flavors. Although Yarnell takes inspiration from a variety of ethnic cuisines, the recipes are all substantially Americanized--or perhaps "Mid-Westernized" would be more accurate.  Fine--I can spice things up to my own tastes. And pedestrian is just fine for most of our weeknight meals, anyway.

The larger problem for me is that the individual ingredients don't always need the same amount of cooking time, even though by definition that is what they get in this cooking method. Last night's meal (Argentinian Beef) featured both mildly crunchy rice and somewhat limp broccoli.  Perhaps the special South Carolina-grown rice I used had too much bite for this cooking method?  I plan to do a bit more experimenting to see what will work.

One of the things I do like about the cookbook is that while it offers plenty of recipes, it also emphasizes the wide range of possibilities this method makes available to a cook adventurous enough to try out his or her own combinations.  The author actively encourages the reader to imagine new possibilities.  What if I were to skip the rice and add a few root veggies instead?  What if I were to replace the broccoli with mustard greens?  In fact, for tonight's meal, we'll be replacing chicken with some tempeh we've had in our freezer for much too long.

On a cold day, a hot stew coming out of the dutch oven can be just the thing to make us warm.  But having stew after stew, night after night, can get old.  Yarnells's Glorious One-Pot Meals are recipes that are not simply more stews. Although the ingredients are all cooked together, they in general remain quite distinct.  This makes for a nice variation from usual Dutch Oven recipes.

Another thing I really like about the cookbook is that the recipes are written for just two people.  For our family of three, I usually double the recipes (which the author encourages) and pack leftovers for lunch the next day.  But cooking a single recipe--and augmenting with salad or soup or dessert if we need to--might make a lot of sense for us sometimes.

So, in summary: although I do have some reservations about this cookbook, it seems like it will add ease and variety to our basic no-time-to-think weeknight meals.  We'll probably use some of the recipes for nights when we do have time, too.  But I don't foresee this being a go-to cookbook for special meals with company.

Have any of you tried out this book?  Do you have other favorite cookbooks or recipes for the Dutch Oven?

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Young Omnivore's Dilemma

A guest post by my 10yo son Abe, who has just started a new blog. Check out his beautiful first post over there!

The The Omnivore's Dilemma talks about four meals the author eats that can teach us about the different ways food is produced and eaten in the United States. I read the new version for young readers, The Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids: The Secrets Behind What You Eat.

First, the fast food meal.
For his first meal, Michael Pollan ate the classic fast food meal, a hamburger. But what a hamburger means now is very different from the what it used to mean. Farmers get paid very little and aren't always treated fairly. Both chickens and cows often live in feedlots where they are tightly packed together and often kept in the dark. It turns out that cows are not even eating grass anymore. Instead, they now eat corn. And the corn they eat is sprayed with harmful chemicals. Cows eating corn is not healthy for cows and is not healthy for people who eat hamburger, either. One of the problems is that when a cow eats corn, a type of harmful e-coli can develop more easily. The bacteria live in the meat and can kill people who eat it.  Raising food this way is also harmful to the environment.

Second, the industrial organic meal.
For this meal, Pollan cooks only with organic ingredients—that is, foods that are grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. With meat, the situation is often the same as above, except the corn is not sprayed. When you eat organic vegetables, you can guarantee that fewer chemicals get in your body. So organic is definitely a step better than the conventional fast food meal. But the way the animals are raised is still a problem and the ways workers are treated also needs fixing.  Also, the food has to be shipped a long way from where it is grown, meaning it requires a lot of oil to get food to the grocery store.  This is bad for the environment.

Third, food grown on a farm.
Joel Salatin calls himself a grass farmer. His cows feed on grass and weeds in the farm's large open pastures. The cows' manure attracts flies and then his chickens eat the flies as natural protein. The manure also feeds the grass and weeds which his cows eat. It is a natural circle that continues without any pesticides or fertilizers or food grown elsewhere. Salatin’s farm Polyface is near DC. I have friends who get their meat from there. Michael has friends that live near Joel’s farm too and so he travelled there to cook a meal for them. On the menu was applewood-smoked BBQ chicken, roasted sweet corn, arugula "rocket" salad, and a chocolate soufflĂ©. This sounds so delicious!  Pollan knew the animals on the farm had lived a good life, the workers there were treated well, and the food was healthier.

Fourth, a hunter-gatherer meal.
For this meal, Pollan only served food that was hunted, gathered, or grown by someone he knew. Angelo Garro is an avid hunter and mushroom gatherer who also fishes and gathers wild plants like fennel. Michael hunted boar with him and also went mushroom foraging. He then held a party and almost everyone who came brought something they had created themselves from special ingredients they found or grew.  I like the way the author talks about how connection with the food we eat means our meals become special.

*  *  *

This book talks about how the food system works. It explains how much is bad and how we can start to fix the problems.  I thought the book was really inspiring.  I knew a lot of the information already from my parents (who read the grown-up version when it came out), but reading this book myself really pressed the information home for me.  Now I often don't order eating meat at a restaurant if I think was raised on feedlots.  (Though I still love Vietnamese Pho soup....)

I highly recommend this book to young readers, as well as to anyone who doesn't have a lot of time or background about food issues.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In a Pickle

I am very excited about participating in the Tigress' Can Jam this year.

Click for tigress can jam food blog challenge

Participants can one fruit or vegetable a month throughout the year--and this month's choice is CITRUS.

* * *

I have a lot of excuses for not getting it done yet. Really. And some of them are pretty good. Yep.

But nevertheless, the citrus is whole and the jars are still in the box, and they are going to be staying there all day. Instead, I will be rushing around to meet the requirements of a day filled with activities and a special evening occurring at our house.

In short, I am in too much of a pickle to can jam today.

Instead, I am preparing my canning fiesta for tomorrow, using a recipe for spiced oranges from The Joy of Pickling, Revised Edition: 250 Flavor-Packed Flavor-Packed Recipes for Vegetables and More from Garden or Market.

Citrus in a pickle? An experiment too hard to resist!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

No Waste, but Lots of History

I recently dug out my childhood lunchbox, decorated with Charlie Brown and Lucy (and even the only cartoon character I ever had a crush on, Schroeder the pianist)--and marred with a few dents, a little rust in spots, and some tape that used to secure my name to the lunchbox:


This was a Hanukkah gift for my partner David--not for our son who is homeschooled and therefore only packs a lunch occasionally

I filled the Peanuts lunch box present with cheerful Graze Organic bags, a product my son and I fell in love with when we spotted them on Fake Plastic Fish

For lunch today, I filled the bags with a cheese sandwich, some pretzels left over from our travel snacks, some carrot coins, a little pack of organic raisins leftover from our Halloween stash, and a napkin.  I think a clementine made it in the box as well.

lunchbox inside

The lunch bags are made from unbleached organic cotton, printed with water-based inks, and contain no plastic except for the velcro closure. Of course they aren't the right packages for the leftovers that usually go with David for lunch--but they are fantastic for adding to the retro-schoolkid-lunchbox to hold basic sandwiches, grapes or cherries, cherry tomatoes, carrot or celery sticks, pretzels, or treats like cookies. They can go in the washing machine but usually are fine after a good shake or a bit of spot cleaning in the kitchen sink.

Packing your own lunch is the easiest way to TakeOutWithOut--especially if you are trying to stay out of restaurants...

*  *  *

David happily carried the lunchbox to his work--a federal government office filled with health care professionals.  I can't wait to hear the reaction!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

School Gardens and the Seeds of Change

Poster uploaded by Joan Thewlis

Have you seen the critique of school gardens published recently in The Atlantic?

Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because that child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks though the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.

The author continues that schools should never be "a venue in which to advance a social agenda." They should not try to teach self-sufficiency in the growing and eating of healthy food. She suggests, although rates of diabetes and heart disease are astoundingly high among inner-city communities and others living in poverty, the "suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself." Instead of teaching students about gardening and cooking, "the solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better." Therefore, the only question educators should consider is "What are you doing to prepare these kids for college?"

At a certain level, I agree with the author: poverty is the problem at the root of so many of our society's ills. And I also agree that the answer to addressing poverty goes way beyond school gardens.

But honestly, addressing poverty also goes way beyond trying to send all students to college.

Students raised in a family and community with less than they need often struggle in academic settings. Yes--college is absolutely a way out of poverty for exceptionally bright students who can fight against the odds. But poverty also prevents many just reasonably bright students from succeeding in academia, no matter how much their teachers drill them in test-taking skills or even teach them great literature. This is terribly wrong--but it is true none the less. Those of us who grew up middle class with educated parents often have an easy time in the classroom, even if we're NOT reasonably bright.   And honestly, not all students (and this has nothing to do with whether they are poor or rich) should be told that college is their only option for creating a productive life.

While school gardens might not solve the problems of poverty, I do believe that they begin to address far more than just the eating habits of students.

Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard is located at a school with a high number of brand new immigrants who speak little or no English yet. While learning English can happen in a classroom with a textbook, language also gets learned in real life when students of many cultures come together in a more relaxed place to grow, cook, and eat food together. They share their native plants, the recipes of their cultures, and their traditions of hospitality. This makes for a place where people can both appreciate each others' differences and see each others' similarities.

For those students who do struggle in the classrooms, the garden offers a place where learning happens in a different fashion--just as the art classroom and the music rooms can. Should these subjects be offered completely INSTEAD of teaching a skill that (as the author states) clearly "improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future"? No--but leaving these other subjects completely behind--and suggesting they are not at all valuable as real education--denigrates those who now create their lives in fields like these. And of course denigrating the growing of food means that that farmers will never be paid enough or respected enough. It is a vicious circle.

As our world moves rapidly into a time when we have to confront both climate change and severe resource depletion, it seems likely that farmers will be in great demand and treated with much more respect than they have been recently. All students--those who have grown up in families of farmers and those who have grown up thinking food comes from Wal-Mart, those who are living in poverty and those who are living in McMansions--need to know about how sustainable agriculture works.

Barbara Kingsolver approached these issues long before the author of the Atlantic article wrote her inflammatory attention-seeking piece:

The baby boom psyche embraces a powerful presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt--two undeniable ingredients in farming.  It's good enough for us that somebody, somewhere, knows food production well enough to serve the rest of us with all we need to eat, each day of our lives.

It is our disconnect from growing food and our disrespect for the manual labor that sustains us that leads Americans to, as Kingsolver says, "consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too--the processors, marketers, and transporters." The corporatization of our food supply and the high degree of food processing have made farmers almost invisible. If we were more educated about the process of what farmers do to grow our food, perhaps we would "want to compensate or think about these hardworking people."

* * *

So my family plants a few seeds in our tiny garden--partly to produce a few treats here and there and partly to remind ourselves of the skills and labor of those who grow more. We have a CSA share and we meet the amazing growers who work there. We shop at the farmer's market in order to remind ourselves that the food we grow has been nurtured by human hands.

My homeschooled son jokes that this is our own school garden, our own edible schoolyard.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Keeping Warm in the Winter

We keep our house on the chilly side during the winter.  We all wrap up in layers of knitwear to keep warm.  We moved our microwave (which we rarely use) upstairs for the winter so we can heat up cherry-pit warmers.  We keep so many blankets and quilts on our bed that it sometimes feels the weight will crush us.  And I have even been known to sleep in my gloves.

Last year we replaced the windows downstairs with extremely efficient windows, and we plan to replace our upstairs windows this year.  That will make it a little safer to turn the heat up a bit.  Until we do it, I wonder if our heater single-handedly causes global warming whenever we turn up our heat--since every bit seems to seep out into the world and heat the outside as much as the inside.
Often during the night I scoot closer to my partner David, a source of both emotional comfort and physical warmth, as I shiver in and out of sleep.  As I was commenting yesterday that when we sleep closer together we're so much warmer, he pointed out that this was not quite true:  "I move closer to you because I love you, but moving closer to you means getting COLDER!"

Monday, January 18, 2010

Peace and Justice

reposted from 2007

"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."  
--Martin Luther King

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?" 
--Mahatma Gandhi

*  *  *

During the 1950s and 1960s, my parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the town where they were then living. I grew up hearing stories about my father passing out candy bars to protesting African Americans sitting down at the segregated lunch counter at the drugstore. For this, his graduate school took away his fellowship.

I also heard stories of my father's father and his critiques of the Ku Klux Klan. He believed they were cowardly for hiding their faces when they should be proud of what they believed and fought for.

What a long way my father came from how he grew up.

I grew up with images of people wearing their Sunday best, proud and strong, marching peacefully to express their refusal to accept segregation--and images of those same people being sprayed to the ground by fire hoses strong enough to peel bark off trees. The hoses were held by police officers. Whenever people told me that policemen were our friends, I cringed.

I sang with my parents on every long car trip, learning the words to many many freedom songs, including a few turned-around verses written by the few liberal white southerners in the movement: "If you miss me at the front of the bus, I'll be sitting in the back...."

* * *

Yesterday we watched as our community celebrated Martin Luther King day in the way that seems to be becoming the traditional commemoration in the United States: rather than a day committed to justice and nonviolence (which one might expect and want), it is a day of service (which seems less edgy or dangerous, I suppose).

The service projects in the DC area that accepted children as volunteers all seemed to be more about making the kids feel connected and enjoy their experiences than actually get anything substantial done. We went to a Day of Service fair that sometimes just felt like a make-crafts-with-plastic-crap festival. In my cynical mood, I walked around the noisy hotel ballroom, frustrated that the charities represented there were not even allowed to have posters explaining the point of their organizations. Making dice out of recycled boxes or making decorations for a party to thank donors to the Republican party basically cannot help me memorialize Martin Luther King.

And then, as usual, fiber stopped me in my tracks.

Using the idea of the prayer shawl ministry where volunteers knit shawls for people in need of comfort and prayers, the local hospice program decided to have volunteers decorate fleece shawls to offer to the hospice patients and to their family members "to wrap them in the comfort hospice can provide." I sat down with polar fleece, scissors, Red Heart yarn, and a needle barely sharp enough to pierce the fabric--and started to cry. After I made mine, Son came to start one as well:

Some people made really elaborate scarves:

I then made a flower from tissue paper for the a local shelter for abused and homeless women including those with families. The flowers would be used by the children there to help them prepare corsages for Mother's Day. Can you imagine what it must be like to be spending your first Mother's Day in a shelter because you were a brave enough and strong enough mother to take yourself and your children away from a batterer?

Do the fleece-and-sequins-and-glue shawls or the tissue paper flowers really do any good in the world? Perhaps not. But despite my reluctance, the process of making them DOES do a lot of good in the world. Making those of us with plenty feel connected to the incredibly deep needs of others may be more important than anything we could actually do for people in need in just an hour or so. It is not their lives we change but our own. (And of course, most of us are both "us" and "them" at various points in our lives.)

And now I am off to finish a scarf for Food and Friends, cast on a scarf for the Orphan Foundation's Red Scarf Project, and finish plans to put together with my family an afghan for Afghans for Afghans. Anybody want to join me?

* * *

After we left the hotel ballroom, we stopped by our favorite movie rental place to pick up an episode or two of Eyes on the Prize, the phenomenal documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. The video store did not have it (and I've now put it on hold at the library) so we went back to one of MLK's roots and checked out Gandhi. Although I know it would be made differently now and has some factual problems as well, we were all overwhelmed with the power of the movie.

The two moral centers of my personal universe are honesty and pacifism--although I constantly fail at my efforts to be an honest person who never relies on violence--even verbal violence--to win my way. (Perhaps the fact that these are weaknesses is why I am so committed to the ideals?) I completely realize that people's ethical commitments can vary tremendously and even completely conflict with each other, and both people can still be very ethical people. So please, if you don't share my pacifist beliefs, understand that I realize that this is my own path and not necessarily that of my readers.

I believe that force can never win true and lasting change. I believe that violence cannot create a world based on respect and peace.

Nonviolence is not just an ethical practice. It is a successful strategy. Ghandi talked a great deal about how the nonviolent soldier had to be just as committed to engagement and just as prepared to lay down his or her life for the cause as any military soldier would be. Instead of accepting domination, fight by refusing it, both in small ways and large, symbolic ways and tangible ones.

Gandhi, resisting the dominance of the British markets, encouraged Indians to reconnect to skills that could insure their independence. When the empire required that salt be bought from Britain, Gandhi marched to the sea and made salt. When the empire required that cloth be bought from Britain, Gandhi mobilized an entire country to spin their own thread and weave and wear homespun garments. (Ah yes, it all comes back to the fiber arts.)

When faced with violence, don't turn back. Violence shows the weakness of those we fight against. When you do nothing but vigorously challenge oppression, the person hitting you may be able to see your humanity. If he or she does not, at least the people across the world learning of the story will be able to understand your side. Yes, there will be pain and death--but will there be more pain and death than there would be in military battle? And will change come about because of force, change that cannot last, or will justice come because we finally see the greater humanity that links us all?

* * *

Imagine a world committed to both justice and nonviolence. What if we had that in the US? Can you even think what the War on Terror would mean if that was our starting point? What if Palestinians and Israelis had moral leaders like Gandhi or MLK?

May we never loose the ability to see such a world.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Carbon Diaries

In the young adult novel The Carbon Diaries, Laura Brown documents the events of the year 2015. As the book begins, the global climate has declined so precipitously that the United Kingdom has made the unilateral decision to cut its carbon emissions by 60 percent. In this modern epistolary novel (a diary format supplemented with few emails to a cousin), 16yo Laura chronicles her own experiences during this year of great change.

Due to an extremely severe European storm, Britain decides to implement carbon rationing. During the course of the following year, incredible drought, extreme cold, riots, forest fires, and serious flooding shape the daily experiences of the central characters.  The UK is the first country in the world to respond to the global-warming crisis by setting strict limits on how much energy people can use. Everyone is given a carbon allowance of 200 Carbon Points per month that can be spent on food, heating, and travel. These ration points came on top of the higher prices people already pay now that the carbon usage of each commodity has been factored into the item's cost.

As Laura's family confronts carbon rationing and the effects of global warming, they each find themselves going in new directions. Unable to withstand the pressures of carbon rationing, Laura's parents decide to separate. Her mother becomes involved with a militant women's commune, while her father develops into an urban homesteader--raising a pig, tearing down neighborhood fences to create a common field with his neighbors and taking a job driving a horse-drawn delivery wagon.

On top of the difficulties Britain faces due to climate chance and rationing, Laura tries to keep her eco-punk band (the Dirty Angels) together, negotiate family tensions, survive the complications of teen friendships, and get the attention of the cute boy next door.

I highly recommend this book, but be aware that the amount of British teen-speak may make you feel both old and foreign.  It is not great literature, but it is compellingly written and endlessly thought provoking.

I can't wait to read the sequel, The Carbon Diaries, 2017!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Handmade Holidays, pt 2

(continued from this earlier post)

I was sneaky and knit a couple of items without my son or partner catching me:

For David, a subtly striped scarf:

David with scarf

And for our son, this playful death-mask balaclava which he doesn't want me to block:

knight hat in action 3

knight hat side

David knitted this beautiful scarf for my mother:

Handmade Holiday

And our 10yo son designed, cross-stiched, and sewed up this needle case for his Grandmama:

Handmade Holiday

Handmade Holiday

Together, my son and I learned to sew while making tank-top reusable bags, which we gave as gifts:

Handmade Holiday

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Turning Off Your Brain

Although we do not have a television at home, my entire family gets sucked in by TV when we're staying in hotels. In our travels over the last three weeks, we've fallen in love with the Food Channel.

The fact that it is such a draw and manages to eat up so much time is exactly why we don't have a TV at home!

I especially enjoyed the focus on local and sustainable cooking during the White House Iron Chef show. Did you hear about it?

But last night, as we watched the terrific television personality Alton Brown, I was stunned by the commercials for high fructose corn syrup. Despite all the medical concerns suggesting that its safety is not a given and the agricultural/environmental concerns about monocropping corn, the Corn Refiners Association has put out a set of advertisements designed to get us not to question their product.

Every ad I saw seemed to follow the same basic plot-line. One person would suggest that the other should not eat something because it contained HFCS. The other would dismissively say something like, "Why? Because it is natural, has no more calories than sugar, and is part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation?" And then person A would reach out his or her grateful hand and scarf down the product containing high fructose corn syrup. In each case, the person trying to avoid the product seems not to have any idea why her or she is avoiding it, and the person who supports us can persuade person A just by saying that it is fine to eat it. There is no real convincing, just Consumer A waiting for permission to eat some forbidden fruit and someone else telling him or her to just do it.

Honestly, even if you read a non-politicized article about the process used to make high fructose corn syrup, I have trouble believing that anyone thinks it is natural. Sweet? Yes, although many complain about the flavor compared to table sugar. Cheap? Yes, thanks to government subsidies. Useful in making processed foods last longer on the shelf, and therefore a boon for corporations? Supposedly yes, although this is totally freaky. But NATURAL?

I am especially amused that on the website the advertisement leads the viewer to, the refiners make the argument that HFCS is natural because it is made from corn--but then argue that it is very unlikely to be allergenic since any corn proteins left in the product are so altered.

The website also states that HFCS has no discernable corn DNA in the product (in the effort to say that using GMO corn to make HFCS is not a problem). If there is no corn DNA in it, doesn't that make it clear that it is not a natural corn product?

I'm not out to convince anybody to avoid HFCS. But I do strongly urge you to watch advertisements critically and realize when the ads are designed to shut down your critical brain.

Monday, January 11, 2010

One Small Change: Greening Up Away from Home

While my family decides how best to approach our green resolution for the year (to figure out how to reach the "Hanukkah Standard"), it is really nice to have some little doable steps to take along the way. With a goal as complex and amorphous as ours, it seems especially important to be able to reach milestones along the path.

Hip Mountain Mama suggests that we all try to make one small change a month to work towards our goals. I've had a wonderful time reading through all the participants' ideas and can't wait to see how everyone fares this month. It looks like an inspiring community!

We've begun the month traveling an enormous amount. We've visited both sets of grandparents as well as attended a conference in a place which has a lot of history for both David and for me. But by Wednesday morning, we'll be back home with plans to stay there for the rest of the month.

In the past, we've often felt that we cannot make any real changes while we're away from home. As soon as we get home, we'll get started...

But on these trips, we've done a pretty good job at using our reusables, producing less garbage, and trying to do right by the planet. We haven't been perfect--but we've tried hard and are starting to build habits for our long trips.

1. We packed our Klean Kanteens and our reusable coffee mugs--and used them regularly. For coffee out, we've used our mugs for years. And for years we've carried our reusable water bottles for hiking and for outside festivals, etc. But on longer trips, we've never used our Klean Kanteens before.

For a family who drinks no soda at home, we have always managed to stack up a zillion Diet Coke bottles when we were on long drives. This year we were much better. We had water in our Klean Kanteens handy which we could replenish from the tap at rest stops. And David even filled up his Klean Kanteen with Diet Coke a couple of times when he was craving a cold caffiene hit.

2. We carried not only reusable bags with us but cloth napkins, cloth hankies (which came in handy when I came down with a cold), reusable cutlery as well as a sharp knife we bought along the way--and even a small box of stemless wineglasses which we used for our evening picnic date one evening in south Florida.

3. We brought snacks from home when we could--and acquired some snacks from grocery stores (like baby carrots and rice cakes) rather than gas stations on the highway. When we stopped at restaurants, we made sure they were locally-owned places instead of chains.

4. We carried a tiffin and a lunchbot with us so we could pack up leftovers in restaurants. Although we've talked for a long time about our need to make this change, we finally started doing it regularly and are committed to continuing the practice.

* * *

Our goal for the rest of the month is to continue these habits. Many of them are things we've done for a long time at home, but #4 is not a habit yet. Strangely, I think starting it while on a trip made it easier. Since we were in the car so much of the time, we always had the tiffin with us. When we're at home in Takoma Park, our car is far less convenient as a storage spot.

David takes a filled tiffin (and the car) to work with him most days. But our 10yo homeschooled son and I explore DC on foot and using public transportation. It is not uncommon for us to have a violin and a fencing bag with us--as well as all the books and knitting projects that have to accompany at all times in case I get a free moment. Without really planning ahead of time, the containers (shamefully including my coffee mug!) just don't make it out of the house with us. But from now on, I'm committing to making that plan. I'll update you at the end of the month to let you know how things go.

We are already looking forward to February's changes!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Six Degrees

Mark Lynas's Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet is a powerful book. In 2001, the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report projecting average global surface temperatures to rise between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees Celsius (roughly 2 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. Analyzing what such temperature rises would mean for the planet, Lynas sets out to track what geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers, climate scientists, and paleoclimatologists expect, as well as what "major scientific projections" from computer modelers suggest.

Lynas divides his findings into six main chapters representing the consequences of a one- to six-degree shift in temperature rise:

Plus 1° C, the American West (from California to the Great Plains) could suffer a mega-drought lasting decades or centuries, devastating agriculture and evicting inhabitants on a scale far larger then the 1930s dustbowl. Over-exploited aquifers will fail as powerful dust and sandstorms engulf entire states.  Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia will face similar challenges.

Plus 2° C will bring thirst to parched cities across China. Facing a chronic shortage of water, China won't struggle to develop a more affluent lifestyle; it will fight to feed itself. Warmer seas will struggle to continue to absorb additional greenhouse gas emissions, radically altering the ecosystems that cover 70 % of the globe.  On top of that, by 2040 Europe could experience temperatures endemic to North Africa today and the consequent death toll during searing summer heat waves may reach into the hundreds of thousands.

Adding 3° C will see a return to Pliocene norms when the Trans-Antarctic Mountains were covered with beech trees. Pine trees will return to regions hundreds of miles north of today's Artic tree line, and global sea levels will rise 25 meters. Other harbingers include a persistent super El Nino, desiccation of the Amazon and Australia, hyper-hurricanes, an ice-free arctic, dry Indus and Colorado rivers, and the inundation of New York City.  Growing food in this habitat will prove increasingly problematic since rice, wheat, and maize yields decline by 10% for every 1° C temperature increase over 30° C. Over 40° C yields are reduced to zero. Starvation will replace obesity as an epidemic.

An additional 4° C will see the end of the Nile and Egyptian civilization.  Alexandria will be flooded as Antarctic ice melts raise global sea levels by 50 meters (164.1 feet). If both major Antarctic ice sheets destabilize, sea levels could rise by a meter or so every 20 years--far outside humanity's adaptive capacity. Global warming of this magnitude would eventually denude the entire planet of ice for the first time in nearly 40 million years.

With 5° C of global warming, an inhospitable planet awaits us. Rain forests may have burned up.  Rapidly rising sea levels, after inundating coastal cities, may begin to penetrate far inland into continental interiors. Human civilization will be confined to small areas limited by of drought and flood. At the highest latitudes, Siberian, Canadian, and Alaskan rivers will experience dramatically increased flows due to torrential rain. East Asian monsoons will dump nearly a third more water in the Yangtze and nearly 20% more in the Yellow River.  The United Kingdom will experience severe winter flooding as reset Atlantic weather patterns lash Britain, Scotland and Ireland.

At 6° C, Lynas describes our situation as descending into the Sixth Circle of Hell, an earthly inferno.  Terrifyingly, our planet could reprise conditions last experienced during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.  Disruption on this scale could unleash massive amounts of methane hydrates, resulting in runaway global warming and the planet might began to emulate Venus.  This would be a pace of warming far too rapid for meaningful adaptation by natural ecosystems. Mass extinction will rule the day as the earth recreates itself.

*  *  *

Are we ready to make some changes?  We are already in the pipeline for a devastating future.  To climb out, we need to realign radically both our personal lives and our global and national politics.  Although Lynas certainly does not prescribe any insta-fixes, he proposes that living simply, in community and intensely locally, is our best course.  As he writes at the end, "An outdated view still prevails that a low-carbon lifestyle requires immense personal suffering and sacrifice.  In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.  All the evidence shows that people who do not drive, do not fly on planes, do shop locally, do grow their own food, and do get to know other members of their community have a much higher quality of life than their compatriots who remain addicted to high-fossil-fuel-consuming lifestyles."  He continues, "It seems to me that this low-carbon society would be one that remembers that our planet is a unique gift."  While he makes it clear that he is not talking about any utopia, the choice is clear: "Unless we do constrain carbon, life will very largely not go on at all."

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Green Resolutions 2010

For our New Year's Resolution this year, my family has decided to spend the year considering how to move towards "The Hanukkah Standard"--an idea I talked about recently in a post over at the Green Phone Booth.  Hanukkah is a time when Jews commemorate the "miracle of the oil" when one day's worth of sacred olive oil in the eternal lamp stayed lit for eight days as the early Jews rededicated their temple after its desecration.

We have come to a time where we again must use much less than we assume we need.  The idea of the Hanukkah Standard, a plan created by Arthur Waskow and the folks at Green Menorah Covenant, is to make what normally lasts for one day carry us through eight--that is, only use 1/8th of the energy resources used by the average American.

Although the three of us here at Chez Raven have attempted for several years to green our lives and reduce our impact on our planet and community, this year I am committed to stepping up our efforts.  Guided by the Riot 4 Austerity, over the course of the year we'll look at the changes we need to make in order to reach our ultimate target.

The goal for the year is not to reach the Hanukkah Standard immediately but to begin the journey and learn how to get there.  We know that some changes will be much easier than others.

Join me this year as my family imagines a new future, struggles against the forces of darkness, celebrates our successes, and displays our lights in this window for all to see.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Handmade Holidays, pt 1

For several years, my family has made a point to give predominantly handmade gifts to our families. I usually give mostly handknits and supplement with a few home-canned jams and pickles.

This year I made my brother a hat (one of the hardest things I've ever knit, including the elaborate lace shawls and cabled sweaters). Here it is modeled by my husband:

Handmade Holiday

Handmade Holiday

My father, an academic who usually gets shorted on the knits with just a hat or scarf, received this lap blanket to keep in his study:

Handmade Holiday

Handmade Holiday

And both my mother and mother-in-law received knitted beaded necklaces. Mom got a topaz-colored necklace which I though might look good with the colors she tends to wear:

Handmade Holiday

My MIL's necklace, packaged here in a little sewn felt glasses case, was black with shiny highlights from the beads:

Handmade Holiday

Handmade Holiday

* * *

All of the recipients were wonderful in their responses. I love to give knitted gifts to people who act like they genuinely appreciate them!

At times I have given to other folks who have either looked disappointed that they were being given something homemade, or "complimented" me by saying the knitting "almost looks storebought!" (One of my least favorite comments ever was when someone told me that the sweater I was knitting for David looked like it could be from Land's End.)

How did your own handmade gifts go over?

Tomorrow I'll post pics of the little surprise gifts I knit for my partner David and our son. I'll also show you what the two of them created this season to give!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


For many years, David and I have talked about the politics of food with his parents. Before this year, those conversations have gone nowhere. Usually, they just humor us as we buy whole wheat bread and organic milk when we visit them. They nod mindlessly as we drone on about sustainable local, seasonal, or organic “real” food. Those kids! Once the discussion erupted into the closest thing to an argument I have had with them in all the time I have loved their son.

Both of David's parents grew up in post-WWII New York City immigrant communities. Although food was an incredibly important part of Jewish culture and even Jewish religion, the people in their community had relatively little direct connection with the actual growing of the food they ate. Both my MIL and FIL were instilled with beliefs in Americanization, in progress, and in a post-rural economy. They are loyal and trusting people who believe deeply in justice—but I think they have trouble believing that anything that looks to the future could possibly be wrong, that anything that is a convenience or a small luxury could possibly be bad for them or the world.

I first met Jay when he was in the ICU after a heart attack. (Interestingly, the day I was supposed to meet David’s parents was two months earlier--the day I was admitted for my brain surgery.) He is a diabetic who has lost much of his sight and had other complications from the disease as well. Sue--the recipient of some of my finest knitting (like this silk lace shawl, and this beaded one, and this lightly multicolored one) because of her petite size--carefully watches her weight and her family member’s weights. Recently, she has some recurring heart issues--and had a somewhat high blood sugar reading at her last appointment as well. Eating a healthy diet is something extremely important to her—although she approaches healthy eating with a shopping cart full of iceberg lettuce, margarine, low-fat American cheese, artificial sweeteners, and diet sodas. Her sweet tooth doesn’t always make it easy to avoid the highly processed goodies she can find in the local grocery stores here in south Florida (like chocolate babka and rugelach, or that fat-free/sugar-free chocolate that tastes like Styrofoam to me).

When the movie Food, Inc. came out this year, we wondered if this might be the perfect way to bring up these issues again. But after much thought and discussion, we decided not to mention it this year. Yes, we’d buy our own milk and the like, but this time we wouldn’t say a word about their choices. They've suffered through that discussion quite enough. At some point, we recognized that our connection with them had to lead us to at least try to respect their food decisions.

But then Sue surprised us by describing a show she had watched on Ellen Degeneris. What she could remember is that it was a young man with a new baby who talked about how industry is doing bad things to food and that we need to use our dollars to support what we believed in. She was excited to pass this information on to us. After searching on Ellen's site, I think the interview she saw might have been with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals. You can watch the clip over at Ellen's site.

I was thrilled--and immediately started thinking that perhaps this was the right time to do a little proselytizing after all!

We started telling them about Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma, his next book In Defense of Food, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. As we were talking, Jay picked up the phone and dialed the number of the service that provides audio books for the blind to him at his request.  He ordered all three. If after listening to these he is still itching for more, I think I'll recommend Fast Food Nation to him.  It was the book that really pushed us into this issue when it first came out.

Jay commented to Sue that it would be hard for them to listen to the books together because of the way the technology works. So we also bought paper copies of In Defense of Food and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for Sue to read in print. When she finishes those two, if she wants more I might give her the new young reader's adaptation of The Omnivore's Dilemma which my son has enjoyed.  I’ve also heard about the guidebook that accompanies the Food Inc. (Anyone know if any good?  I think I'll have to go check it out.)

After seeing their interest, we started to reconsider showing Food Inc.  It is currently available for instant watch on Netflix, so we pulled it up on their large-screen computer and gathered our chairs around.

After watching the film, we sat at the kitchen table and talked a bit. Sue was very moved by the film and interested in making changes, but she was at a loss as to how to go about it. “Are there still any farms around here?” she asked—a good question since gated retirement communities (including their own) are replacing farms everywhere you look.

Immediately I popped on Local Harvest and found the address of the farmer’s market nearby, a farm stand, and even a CSA. I don’t think they are quite ready for a CSA since they are not yet serious fresh vegetable eaters and Jay is pretty picky about what vegetables he’ll even taste. (Serving broccoli and asparagus to him will illicit cries of “Are you trying to poison me?!”) Nevertheless, I do think finding places where they could make their own choices might work.

The south Florida growing season is during the winter, so the markets are open and full of abundance right now:

fl tomatoes

fl grower

fl grower 2

As a DC gal, I'm blown away by their "homegrown" labels on things like mangos, avocados, and bananas!

fl pickles

For New York transplants, these pickles are a welcome sight.

* * *

David knows it won’t be easy for his parents to break habits they have had for decades. And we’ll be miles away from them as they navigate this new terrain, unable to offer regular shopping support. We tried to think of a few first steps to help them out.

1. Buy organic milk when you go to the grocery store.

2. Commit to going to the farmer’s market or a farmstand at least every two weeks. Plan to spend at least $20 of your food budget on foods you can buy from a local grower.

Do y’all have any other suggestions for those just getting started on this path?

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Nature of Togetherness

water and bird

As we near the end of our holiday travels, I think about my favorite parts of our long vacation. We first visited my family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (where my parents grew up). We then drove down to visit David’s family in Florida.

In both places, we got to visit our parents, our brothers, and our cousins and retell stories of years past. Our 10yo son had a wonderful time seeing his uncles and grandparents. He is the only grandchild on both sides, and that seems relatively likely to remain true.

All three of us enjoyed eating foods traditional to our families and the places we grew up. For me, that was roasted oysters, soft-shelled crab, and boiled shrimp my uncle caught himself. For David, it is bagels and chocolate babka , as well as the salmon croquettes my MIL always makes. (David’s family is not made up of observant Jews, but even so, the treif feast we eat on the coast of SC always feels like a funny precursor to our visit to the southeastern part of Florida--the New York of the South.)

Two very special parts of our vacation were spending time walking at Myrtle Beach after a big storm and finding incredible shells, and walking on our favorite wildlife boardwalk in south Florida and watching birds and alligators and turtles.

After a few days in south Florida, I was struck that while waiting in line at the restaurant or milling around at the pool, the interactions between people were short and typically rude. Most people even resist making eye contact with strangers. While South Carolina has a long tradition of “southern hospitality” and friendliness to strangers, Myrtle Beach has become so large, so cosmopolitan, and so transient that many characteristics of southern culture are beginning to disappear there.

As soon as we were out in the fresh air surrounded by wildlife, everyone seemed to relax and open up to each other. On the beach, people smile at you and exchange pleasantries, even if they walk past you without acknowledgment at other times.

And at the wildlife walk, conversations start when someone spots a beautiful or unusual bird...

proud bird with reflection

…especially nesting birds...

nesting birds

and the amazing anhingas drying their wings.


Folks continue to interact in a slow and relaxed way as they slowly circle the boardwalk together, pausing to snap photographs or look through binoculars. Sometimes someone spots a teacher bird with her students:

school of birds

Or turtles lounging in the sun on the remnants of a tree…


turtle with reflections

…or even their brothers and sisters confidently hanging out with a little alligator:

turtles with alligators

Or perhaps a bird in the process of catching and preparing his dinner, a long and shining snake:

bird with snake

Everyone gathers in very quiet amazement, whispering intimately at times to complete strangers to keep things peaceful and to welcome the animals. Even the sounds of beeping cameras sometimes seem like an interruption to the quiet communion between humans and other animals, and between humans and other humans.

People point out iguanas--and the vivid green parrots who have found their way to the park.

iguana 3

Folks on their way out will tell excited children on their way in where to find the big alligator.

big alligator

And a crowd of laughing (but also terrified) children calls a small crowd to visit the smaller alligator who had crawled on land right to the edge of the wooden fence.

alligator eye

Brave fathers bent with their cameras close enough to pet her:

some dad with camera and alligator

And more cautious fathers bend nearby with binoculars:

our dad with binoculars and alligator

Later in the evening we discovered that David’s cousins had been at the park about half an hour after we saw this alligator. By then she had backed away from the fence. Our cousins saw three incredibly tiny babies at the waterline with her! We had been so transfixed (and frightened!) by how close she was that we did not realize what treasure she was protecting.

The boardwalk is always full of new sights—every day and every hour. Today will be our last walk there before we have to pack our bags and begin our long drive home in our overly-full little red car. I’m looking forward to sleeping on my own hard mattress, to eating our usual diet, to imagining our new year together at home. Nevertheless, this has been a warm and wonderful communion with family and the world.

self portrait
Self Portrait


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