the hot liquid magma crisis, and other reflections

To people who have grown up poor, the idea of recycling and reducing and reusing is nothing new.  When my dad was a kid, if his family didn’t live as simply and inconspicuously as possible, they’d starve to death or be evicted from the cinder-block house where they lived.  So even though I always had plenty of food and nice warm clothes as a child, I was still raised in a very spartan manner in a household where every penny was accounted for meticulously, and waste was not an option.  Making frivolous purchases or throwing something away before it was reused a hundred times was like disrespecting your ancestors.  If my grandfather worked so hard to get this family out of the coal mines and into civilized society, I should place some value in the comforts I have, and try to live the same frugal lifestyle that he did.  Don’t be conspicuous, don’t be a burden to others, don’t make a mess and not clean it up.  These are some of the basic principles we were raised on, and they translate easily into our ideas of how we treat our homes and surroundings.

These days it seems like “green” is the all-devouring advertising buzzword that is straight-up irresistible to the huddled masses looking for a way to make up for all those years of un-sustainable living.  And it will take a lot of dollars for them to make it up, too, assuming they account for everything up to and including those very-not-biodegradable teething rings they used as babies.  All these dollars just begging to be snatched up are falling easily into the hands of anyone willing to put out a product that somehow claims to be green / organic / will-not-induce-mutation / whatever, and it’s mildly sickening to see people buy these new products up without so much as an afterthought about the fact that they just paid four times more for dish soap without even taking a second to investigate how the dish soap claims to be “green.”

I suppose it’s my nature to assume that people selling something are always looking out for #1, and not necessarily concerned with whether or not they remembered to leave the poison out of the dish soap for this batch.  I mean how the heck are we supposed to KNOW for sure?  It looks the same, smells the same, cleans your dishes the same.  Are its labels, placed there by someone selling the substance, to be believed without question?  I hope hope hope that these companies really are the fresh-faced, trustworthy lovers of the planet that we think they are, and that there won’t be some Enron-like scandal in the “green” industry a few years down the road.

And yet, the times are pretty exciting when you can tangibly see changes taking place in your own immediate surroundings.  That girl in middle school with the dolphin t-shirt can yell and scream as loudly as she wants to about how badly the earth needs a hug, but as much as everyone else may agree with her they won’t actually change their habits until the problem somehow involves their wallets.  So now people are earnestly trying to conserve fuel, and it didn’t happen because they watched a movie or read a book.  It happened because gas prices went up.  Either way, a helpful trend is a helpful trend, no matter what the motivation is behind it.  Last year seeing a scooter was a relatively uncommon thing, and yesterday four scooters zoomed past me during just my 15-minute bike ride to work.  I’m officially deeming this “tangible results.”

I find myself very tired of the girl-in-the-dolphin-t-shirt brand of trying to plead or shock people into being convinced that the world will be consumed by liquid hot magma in 2.5 seconds and we shall all perish, or whatever it is that they’re claiming will happen.  I’m sure there are stragglers, but at this point pretty much everyone is a believer.  We know about the magma, and we are ready to help.  I like that the focus is slowly shifting off of the moaning and wailing and gnashing of teeth and onto the following questions:

— How can we change the things we buy as much as financially feasible in order to help?
— How can we change our daily routines in small ways in order to help?
— What do we need to try to avoid in order to help?

If a whole lot of people ask those types of simple questions, changes happen.  Dollars are the things that affect companies and prod them to offer certain products, so when you see the major car makers all racing each other to come up with more fuel-efficient cars, you know that lots of people are buying fuel-efficient cars.  These companies don’t want to die just because they’re hanging onto their “large automobiles,” as David Byrne would describe them.  They want to be on top of the next trend, and if that’s fuel-efficient cars, then doggone-it, they want you to buy yours from them.

Speaking of fuel-efficient / fuel-independent cars, Modern Chris showed me this video about air cars today.  Neato!  I hope the streets of the US are simply packed with these things, sooner than Big Oil can have this inventor murdered quietly.

But seriously, all this assuming that people are naturally predictable and always looking out for #1 is not very Jeffersonian.  Mr. Jefferson believed that human beings were inherently good at their core, and that “bad people” were made that way by their circumstances and not born that way.  That’s why he was into the idea that small communities would govern themselves, and that there should be no need for a strong central government and tons and tons of rules about every little thing you can possibly make rules for.  Laissez-faire!  The central government’s job would be to sign treaties and run the post office.  So lovely.  And yet you see how diligently his ideas have been ignored since then.  But let’s hope that in this particular case he was right, and that the human race is genuinely concerned with the earth and not just making a buck, and that their good intentions will bail them out of this liquid hot magma crisis.

Still, even though I didn’t get the idea that most people are looking out for #1 from T.J., it bears further inspection.  Upon doing this, I find that:

1. Almost every single time I’ve ever made this assumption, I’ve been right
2. It was instilled in me over a period of 26 years, by my dad

Although this entry’s beginning may have seemed an unlikely prologue for a treatise on the greening of the world, you see that I’ve taken you from my family to the liquid hot magma crisis and back again.

So this idea of thriftiness and thinking critically about all of your purchases is deeply ingrained in my mind, and this is probably why I’m so persnickety about balancing my checkbook.  And why I’m not quick to jump on the latest bandwagon without thinking it through completely.  For example, even though I’ve been consciously trying to help us out with the hot liquid magma crisis ever since I started living off of more than $100 a week, I find myself constantly questioning purchases made in the name of “green.”  For example, I’m down to use diy, home-made methods of saving the earth all day long.  If you can assemble it from normal stuff in your kitchen and it actually works, it sounds good to me.  And if you’re at the store and the “green” version of something costs the same as the regular, totally poisonous version (this almost never happens), it’s a no-brainer.  But it’s hard to rationalize paying $4.50 for a certain type of cleaner at the store when you could buy the $1.00 generic brand and give the extra $3.50 to another charity.  In the section of my brain where different causes are weighed, the urgency of kids being totally slaughtered in places like Darfur seems to greatly overpower the liquid hot magma crisis.  Sure, the liquid hot magma will “get” all of us and our good friends the animals, but right now, right this second, those kids are being “gotten” as they stare out pitifully from the front page of the Mercy Corps web site.  And for that matter, there are actual needy people living in the park behind my house right now, and if anyone should be paying attention to them and not wondering whether or not to spend $3.50 on dish soap in the cleaning aisle at the store, it should be me.  When I think about those kids, or what a small $50 loan can do for a poor female businesswoman in a third-world country, it makes the dish soap dilemma seem like a prissy, elitist thing that rich people think about just to pass the time.

Shall we forsake the earth and help other human beings live to see the next sunrise, or shall we count this generation as a sunk cost and invest in the future of this constant rock that we all stand on?  Or to avoid blame in either direction, shall we just wash our hands of the matter and not help any causes out?  I’m not saying I have the answer to this, I’m just saying it’s something to think about and consider in the complex web of decisions we make every day.  I have to say that I lean toward the cause of other human beings in peril, and it makes sense as the way of life I’ve personally identified as the Best Way and endeavored (however disjointedly) to adhere to, demands that others be put first.  Anyway these are the questions that run around in my mind as I do all of my breathing and eating and living and dying, which is why it’s worth making this deposit of conundrum gold into the friendly bank that is my blog, because it’s awfully heavy to carry around in my purse all the time.

on the subject of preparing advice.

I always feel very unqualified to give advice in every arena except for relationships.  Because outside of that category, what struggles and sufferings have I overcome?  What do I know about anything?  Being raised in the lower-middle-class in this society means having a way cushier life than most people in the world.  Good sources of advice are Thomas Jefferson and Google, not me.

But being a devotee of Valerie’s advice column and reading Matt Moment’s recent post made me think about advice, and what qualifies a person to give it.  Who wants their advice anyway?  Oh right, we readers of their blogs do.  But usually I don’t feel very motivated to send words of wisdom to the world at large.  I forget all the details of my life that make up answers to questions like “how’s life?” or “what did you do over the past five years?” so I document everything for posterity.  But I know my own major life lessons by heart, so why should I type those out?

Then I started trying to think of who would need my general advice.  Yikes…If it pleases the cosmos, in the next few years I’ll start having children, and then I’ll be too busy mothering for the following few years to figure out life and get all my advice prepared so when my teenager eventually asks “how does a person stay happy in this life?” I won’t know what to say.  Scary prospect!  I should get my advice in good order.

Mr. Moment is right about anger and what it usually stems from.  It’s cute that we’re on the same page, because it’s like having something in common with a good friend that you didn’t know you had in common until someone finally said it.

For getting my advice on the pursuit of happiness in order, here’s mostly what I’ve got so far:

Go on frequent adventures.  Take up gardening, or other pursuits like it that require cultivation and yield tangible benefits.  Your own happiness, calmness, and good intentions will speak for themselves to those around you.  You do not need to prove points.  If you think someone’s going about it all wrong, your actions and their results will prove your points.  Do your best to promote good things and curtail bad things.  You will know the difference when you see them.  If you don’t know the difference, ask yourself the question “Is this the better way to show love to others?”  If yes, it’s a good thing.  If no, it’s a bad thing.  Divide everything into two piles: Pile A consists of things you can’t change, and Pile B consists of things you can change.  Throw Pile A away and never think about it again.  Huge changes in the world are only made by a lot of people working on Pile B instead of grumbling about Pile A.

traded for tranquility.

So many amazing things in the past few days…

Charlottesville: Monticello, the Kluge Estate and a beautiful picnic, the Downtown Mall, and Mas.  Fell more in love with Jefferson, as usual.  Currently reading American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis, and so far it’s fascinating.

Va Beach: Terrible traffic, the Shebaylos’ first time in the Atlantic, shopping on the strip, big seafood dinner.  Much giggling and falling over in the waves, as the only beach they’d ever really been swimming at was at some lake in Canada.

Lovely hangouts on my back porch, talking for hours and watching Dan’s parents kick back the Budweisers.

It was bittersweet to part with them.

After so many weeks of preparation for their visit (and being completely immersed in it since they arrived), I can say it was certainly worth all the planning and traveling and shuffling around that was involved in making their time here great.  Imagine my delight at getting to explain the Civil War to two people who had never really heard of it.  At the same time, I will be glad to see things float back to the calm that is our life.  This evening it was so therapeutic to enjoy church with the noise of bees buzzing and birds chirping outside floating in through the open doors, and then to have dinner at Joe’s with amazing friends.

It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness. — TJ