Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Stimulate This

Sometimes, I just can't help myself. Saturday's front page of the Boston Globe had two stories in juxtaposition that illustrate perfectly how screwed up we are. One article talked about a proposal to spend millions of our much-ballyhooed federal stimulus money for a footbridge across a highway to connect two parking lots operated by the multi-billionaire Kraft family, owners of the New England Patriots NFL football team and the new "Patriot Place," a collection of upscale shops,restaurants and entertainment establishments. The other article told how services for the homeless were being cut because of a budget crisis in the State House.

I fired off yet another letter to the Globe, but I needn't have bothered because it seems quite a few people were struck by the same irony and several letters were published today. Luckily, I know a blog that is very good about publishing my whinings. The "Tom" I mention is Tom Brady, star quarterback of the Patriots. The photos of the stadium and shopping areas were taken this morning as I biked by while doing my laundry delivery.

Here's the letter:

$9 Million for a Parking Lot?

On the same front page (Saturday, November 7, 2009) that presented a story about $9 million in federal stimulus money for elevators and a footbridge over Route 1 to an empty parking lot at Patriot Place in Foxboro (For the Krafts' Patriot Place, a golden gateway) was a headline about further cuts in beds and services for the most vulnerable among us (Budget trims lead homeless shelters across Mass. to cut services and beds). When will we have leaders with the vision and courage to take us into a brighter, more sensible future; a future where people and the environment matter and we stop worshiping personal automobiles? Patriot Place is a vast wasteland of asphalt and concrete. It's a billion-dollar shrine visited by those with the time and money to spend on idle entertainment, overeating and excess consumption. In no sense does Patriot Place contribute to a real community with real services like homes, schools and grocery shopping. It's not even close to any of those things. Virtually every visit to the mega-complex is made in a private car driven many miles.

It's time to spend our dwindling resources on living arrangements with a future. We are broke and running out of energy. It may not be fashionable to dismiss the work of Tom and the boys as anything but noble, and it may be difficult to admit that we don't need to buy more junk made in China, but do we really want to put our children and grandchildren into debt for the betterment of NFL Football and Christmas Tree Shops? We need to devote our efforts to building real communities where people can live, walk, bike and take public transportation to jobs that matter. We need to invest our shared resources in manufacturing, education, renewable energy, local food production and affordable housing. Let's build in a better world.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Marathons Not Required

The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner reports on a quest to find small pockets of extreme human longevity around the world. Dan and his team report on four places - Sardinia, Okinowa, Loma Linda and Costa Rica - where an exceptionally high proportion of the people live into their 90's and 100's.

What I find most interesting about these stories is the things these places have in common, and the things we can incorporate into our own lives to be healthier and happier.

Not surprisingly, there are no marathoners or triathletes among the longevity champions. That's not to say they spent their lives on the sofa searching for sit-com reruns with the remote while snacking on Pringles, but they didn't spend hours and hours working out either. Instead, all the old-timers lived lives that included steady, regular, moderate low-intensity exercise in their day-to-day activities. They walked or cycled to get around. They hiked to pastures to tend sheep. They worked on the farm or in the garden.

Eating habits seem equally important. Blue Zoners ate lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, usually grown or gathered personally. They drank lots of water. While they did eat meat, it was consumed rarely and usually on special occasions. Foods mentioned in the book that I hope to eat more frequently include: tumeric, fava beans, miso soup, tofu, sweet potatoes, ginger, nuts and tomatoes.

Family connections also seem essential to long-term survival. Many of these people live in multi-generational homes. In a tradition that is almost unknown in America today, children, parents and grandparents all live in the same house and support each other. The grandparents have something to do in helping with the children and the children benefit from the wisdom of the ages.

Whether it's watching the grandchildren or volunteering in the community, a reason to live seems extremely important in living a long and happy life. We all need love and companionship, and helping others is a great way to get it.

One That Got Away

Around the time of the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, an op-ed piece appeared in the Boston Globe extolling progress America has made in civil rights and social freedoms as a result of the spirit of love and peace that arose from the sixties as epitomized by Woodstock.

Not surprisingly, I'm prone to looking at the world around me and wondering: "Where did all those hippies go?". I look at the miles of strip malls, the big-box stores, the ubiquitous Chinese crap, the suburban subdivisions grinding up forest and farmland, the religious right, wall street greed. Human nature being what it is, I'm not really surprised. People want to take the easy way out and do what feels good now without considering long-term impacts or affects on others. So what if shopping at Walmart puts Americans out of work and despoils China? I can save ten dollars on that plastic Santa to put on my brown lawn this year! So what if they pour tons of fungicide on the soil and pump fossil water from hundreds of feet underground? I want to supersize my fries at the drive-through!

I wrote this letter, but it didn't make the paper. I'm not surprised. Online comments show there were many responses to the article. When I told my wife that I wrote yet another letter to the paper, her basic response was: "Get a life. Nobody cares what you think." How can I argue with that?

August 29, 2009

Rene’e Loth goes a little too easy on the Woodstock Generation (“Woodstock pays dividends,” Op-Ed, Aug. 28). If body piercings, flip-flops in the White House and corporate branding of things like Woodstock itself represent progress, then those great leaps forward must be balanced against the accomplishments of the culture that also brought us SUVs, McMansions, lawn care service, high fructose corn syrup, an obesity epidemic, reality TV, NASCAR, cage fighting, liar loans, credit default swaps and the Iraq war. For every boomer that paddles a kayak or pedals a bike to work, there are thousands who drive alone in a car. For every hipster who lives in an integrated urban neighborhood or on a commune, there are scores who lust after gated communities.

We boomers like to pat ourselves on the back, but we had our chance and blew it. We talked about peace, love and harmony, but what we really wanted was just the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Let’s hope a new generation rises up to foment true revolution.

Photo: "One Minute to Midnight" San Francisco, February 2010

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Burning Our Future Forests

A recent article in the Boston Globe about plans to build wood-fired power plants in Massachusetts made me worry that the voracious appetite these plants have for wood, and the scale of the machinery used to harvest the trees will make wise forest management that has traditionally been focused on high-quality hardwood logs impossible. Back in the 70's I observed one of these operations in New Hampshire. They gave lip service to setting aside quality logs for lumber or veneer, but we watched as one beautiful birch after the other went right into the chipper.

Proponents of these plants often make the claim that forests are renewable and that trees can be re-planted. Well, native New England mixed hardwood forests are never planted. They regenerate naturally after harvest, and to ensure that this regeneration happens properly, a trained forester should be involved to make sure harvesting operations are planned and conducted in a way that allows for good quantity and quality of regeneration. The kind of people that worry about delivering tons of chips to a power plant today are not the kind of people who dream about what a woodlot will look like 50 years from now.

My letter in response to the article appeared in the August 2, 2009 paper:

Beth Daley’s piece on proposed wood-burning power plants in Massachusetts ( “On wood, burning questions,” Boston Sunday Globe, July 26, 2009) prompts concern about the future of our forests. To feed the beast of a biomass-burning power plant, trees will likely be harvested by big, expensive machines on very tight production schedules. The pressure to constantly supply huge quantities of chips will prohibit much discrimination in selecting trees for harvest.

The most valuable trees in Bay State forests are high-quality hardwood sawlogs, typically red oak. Deciduous forests in New England are not planted, they arise from natural regeneration. High densities of quality sawlogs don’t just happen, they are nurtured by careful control of regeneration, species composition and stem quality by professionally-trained college-educated foresters known as silviculturists. This careful woodland culture requires thoughtful care over periods that span decades.

While the increased demand for timber that these power plants create may enhance opportunities for timber stand improvement, professional supervision of forest operations with equipment and techniques that harvest the right trees is essential. Biomass might help supply our future energy needs, but the harvest of that biomass must be done in a way that protects the character and value of our forests for generations to come.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Snow in August

Or: Where is Gary Larson when you need him?

So, on a recent Friday morning I'm riding along Route 1 South in Foxboro, right near Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, on my way to make a delivery with my bicycle and trailer. I'm minding my own business and am riding well out of traffic in the breakdown lane. I was lost in a reverie about dreams that do indeed come true when, from the passenger-side window of a speeding pickup truck, a skinny, shirtless tanned twenty-something hangs his head out, looks at me and yells "BLAAAAAAAH!" at the top of his lungs.

He was loud, but not very articulate, so I have no idea what his message might have been or what he was thinking. I'm pretty sure he didn't do that to every car they passed, so I'm assuming that my being there on bicycle somehow prompted his utterance. Was he trying to startle me? Did he think he was being funny? Was I annoying him? Was he feeling superior? I suppose trying to plumb the depths of a post-adolescent male mind is a pointless exercise, but I had to wonder.

One thing I'm quite sure of is that he wasn't upset because seeing a guy doing work on a bike suddenly made him realize that the power and joy he was feeling in a pickup today might be only a distant memory when he is an old man like me. He probably didn't suddenly understand that the world of his parents and grandparents would not much longer be his. He most likely didn't see that he had better get busy planning for a future world much different than the world of rock music, football and internal combustion that he now takes for granted.

A favorite old Gary Larson cartoon immediately came to mind.

Two long-necked dinosaurs are standing amid the prehistoric tropical plants. A small furry animal, looking something like a scruffy hedgehog, is passing by. One dinosaur is pointing at the proto-mammal with his dinosaur foot and laughing heartily at the silly little thing while the other dinosaur is looking at the sky with a puzzled and worried look on his face and is holding out his stubby foot to catch a snowflake.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

From the Less is More Department

I suffer from commute envy. No, I don't long to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours listening to bad radio and fighting off fits of road rage. Rather, one of the things I envy in those who go to the same place of employment every day is the chance to be a bicycle commuter. The chance to get fresh air and exercise twice a day while happily pedaling by those trapped in gridlock just seems cosmically correct.

Since I don't have a real job, a regular bike commute is not really an option. Much of the work I do involves carrying all manner of tools and materials, and while I may be a dreamer, I'm not yet crazy enough to start strapping two-by-fours and table saws onto my bike.

One of my business activities, however, does involve making twice-weekly laundry deliveries to a physical therapy office. This is a small account and the bundles are not very big. It always seemed a little unfortunate to be doing all that driving for so little and I eventually began to wonder if there was some way I could do it by bike. I got the idea to try a bike trailer and in the process of asking around about trailers, one of my biking buddies offered me a kiddie trailer he no longer needs. (Thanks, Harvey!)

My goal is to make the trip by bike about once a week, weather permitting. The weather has been abysmal so far this spring and summer, but I've been able to pull the load under my own power several times so far, and it's fun. It's about 16 miles round trip and with my heavy bike, the trailer and the cargo, the ride takes a bit over an hour - about the same as an exercise class at the gym. That's quite a bit more than it would take in the car, obviously, but in the way I measure these things, it still makes sense. Much of the ride is through nice streets in the community and along roads through the woods. I could even pedal over Moose Hill, but I don't want to get carried away with this. It is work, so I want to consider efficiency a little.

I have to ride along busy U.S. 1 for a couple of miles, but the shoulder is wide along this stretch, so it's not too scary or annoying. Plus, I've discovered that pulling the trailer has its advantages. When motorists see the bright yellow trailer, they think "Baby!" and give me more leeway than usual. If only they knew it was just an old guy with dirty laundry!

It feels good to get outside on a sunny summer morning and do some work, get some exercise, burn less gas, create less pollution and take up less space in the world all at the same time. Sometimes, less truly is more.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Turtlehead Boulder, Borderland

One of the traditions of bouldering is to name the rocks. It's a bit of a mystery to me who gets to name a boulder. Maybe it's the first climber to find a rock and bother to name it. Perhaps the honor should go to the first to climb it. Giving a unique name to a rock has obvious advantages, if for no other reason than to help other climbers find it.

Several of the boulders in Borderland State Park have names that have been published online on New England Bouldering and the Mountain Project. I've been able find - if not climb - a few of these rocks including the Ames Boulder, Hardly Working and the Ridge Boulder.

One rock I like may or may not have a name already, but for now I call it "Turtlehead" because it looks like the head of a giant tortoise emerging from the bowels of the Earth. It is right in the middle of the French Trail, not far from its intersection with the West Side Trail. This boulder is in an area with many other good climbing opportunities for beginning and advanced climbers.

This is not a large boulder - maybe 8 feet high - but it has a variety of climbs good for beginners. A few routes have generous handholds and footholds, and one side has a sloping slab with small finger-holds where a climber can practice trusting the grip of his shoes.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Ridge Boulder

Thanks to the good people at The Mountain Project and their detailed information about bouldering in Borderland State Park in Sharon and Easton, Massachusetts, I found another good climbing boulder close to home. As if carefully placed in the forest by the giant unseen hand of God, the Ridge Boulder sits in the forest at the end of the Ridge Trail about a tenth of a mile up an old woods road from Mountain Street in Sharon.
This big granite erratic is about 15 feet tall and offers many different routes to the top. So far, I've been able to climb four of the easier routes, but there are at least that many more that may be forever out of reach for me but might be fun for those with more favorable power/weight ratios.

On our first visit to this rock, climbing buddy Shai and I met Aubrey, a local climber with lots of experience in the area. He generously offered a couple of beginners lots of good tips and let us use one of his crash pads. Aubrey was wearing a climbing helmet. Many may think that wearing a helmet for bouldering is overkill, but it turns out that Aubrey is a neurologist. Now, when a neurologist - someone who knows a thing or two about head injuries - wears a helmet, I pay attention. Call me a dork, but I now wear one too.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pac-Man and the Devil

My newly-discovered interest in rock climbing that germinated on a walk to the Boulders on Moose Hill continues to grow. I've been reading, watching You-Tube videos, and I even purchased a pair of climbing shoes. I've learned that a subset of rock climbing known as "bouldering" seems well suited to my ability level and available resources. In bouldering, as the name implies, one finds a big boulder and climbs on it. This can be very easy or very difficult, depending on the size and shape of the rock. A boulder may have gently sloping sides with lots of places to place hands and feet, or it might have tall, sheer faces with nary a bump or crack to grab.

I'm discovering that there are many fine climbing boulders close to home. There may be some on Moose Hill, but the best local climbing spot could be Borderland State Park that is about a 15-minute bike ride from home. This park is said to have many good boulders and I've already visited a few of them.

Even closer to home is Devil's Rock. This huge much-visited glacial erratic is along Massapoag Brook on Sharon Town Conservation land and is easily reached via a blue-blazed side trail off the orange-blazed Massapoag Trail.

Devil's Rock is maybe 20 feet tall, has three very steep sides and one sloping side. I can make it up the sloping side with the help of an old, dead tree trunk that leans on it, providing secure hand-holds on the steeper lower half of the climb. The upper half has a slightly gentler slope I can scramble up quite easily - if slowly - with the help of the sticky rubber soles of my climbing shoes. I find getting down much more nerve-wracking than going up. It's much easier to see where I'm going while looking over my hands than when looking between my legs.

The vertical sides of Devil's Rock are way beyond anything I hope to climb in this lifetime and creeping up and down a smooth slab of granite loses it's interest pretty quickly. Luckily, the Devil has a smaller sister boulder that may well have split off the big rock millennia ago. I call this rock Pac-Man because a big chunk of it has also split off in a way that reminds me of the 80's-era video game character.
Pac-Man has four or five different routes to the top that I've been able to complete so far and a nice traverse - or sideways climb - along the "chin." I hope to complete a few more routes as my skill improves.

This is a good rock for a beginner. Some of the routes are very easy, and others are a bit more challenging, requiring long reaches for small hand-holds or reliance on single small toe-holds. The climber is never very far from the ground, so chances of injury are small.

As I hoped, I am finding that rock climbing is healthy full-body exercise combined with bike rides to the woods. After work just the other day, instead of a car trip to the gym, I rode my bike through the neighborhood and did some good stretching, reaching, pulling, gripping and climbing while listening to the calls of ovenbirds and veerys on a warm Spring evening.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back to the Future Again

A few months ago I bought a 12" cast iron skillet. I've been cooking more lately inspired by Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and Mark Bittman's Food Matters. I've been trying to get back to basics, using whole foods in simple recipes. It seems appropriate to take the same approach to cookware.

I also suffer from increasing distrust of corporations and the things they tell us. I've been feeling a nagging unease while wondering what chemicals might be leaching into my food from now-ubiquitous non-stick cookware coatings. Sure, I've been frying all kinds of stuff at high temperatures on these miracle coatings for years, and it's no doubt too late to worry about it now, but what the heck.

After searching around the web, I settled on a skillet and matching lid from a major outdoor sporting goods supplier. I liked the idea that it was pre-seasoned and made in the USA.

So far, I'm very pleased with my frying pan. I use it to saute big batches of vegetables and then add heaps of beans, rice and curry powder. It's great for baking whole-wheat flatbread that quickly becomes a pizza when topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella. It bakes a wonderful corn bread and fries fresh, local eggs. It's so big, that one session in the kitchen yields enough for several meals. Many of the things I put together taste even better a day or two later.

It's about as easy to clean as any pan with a high tech coating. I simply rinse it with hot water while scouring with a copper pad. I dry it on the stove for a minute and then coat it with a little grapeseed oil to keep it seasoned. My mother would have used bacon fat, but, well, we don't have any of that around these days.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

They're Back

Every year, in late April, I start my sky watch. My eyes are peeled for the first "cigar with wings," or chimney swift, flying over the neighborhood. They arrive around May 1st and depart on about September 1st. I saw my first one on Saturday, May 2nd. It was alone, flying high and fast. I suspect the regulars that spend every summer zooming and swooping over the house will be here soon, as soon as a nasty weather pattern clears the area.

Check out the "Spring Sightings" map on Chimneyswifts.org.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not So Silent Spring

Spring has arrived in eastern Massachusetts. How can I tell? The early migraters are back. I heard the first rusty caroling of a robin just the other day. The crocuses are up. The snow and ice are gone. Hints of green are everywhere. But none of those things say "Spring" like the roaring drone of small internal combustion engines.

As early as 8:15 this morning the landscaping crew arrived to begin the spring clean-up on the massive lawn of our friend and neighbor's yard. I counted at least one riding mower and four backpack leaf blowers. The relentless drone went on for nearly an hour.

I was reminded that I have about eight months of this noise ahead of me and I am reminded how sick and tired I am of it. I've ranted about this before and I won't repeat myself here. I'll simply say that I dream of a day when we, as a society, see how stupid we have been regarding the pointless waste and pollution we create in our mindless quest for the perfect suburban lawn.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Egg

In case anyone asks, the egg came first. But I want to talk about chicken eggs, the kind you eat, not evolution.

There's an old farmstead in town that was the home of a revolutionary soldier that is famous for being a woman who disguised herself as a man so she could fight for our liberty. For years, decades maybe, I've been driving by this well-known landmark and seeing a sign for "fresh eggs for sale" without giving it much thought. We get our eggs at the supermarket. Well, as part of my new awareness of the wisdom of supporting local agriculture, I called last week and made arrangements to buy a dozen eggs produced about a mile from home. I even stopped on my way to another errand, so I didn't have to make a special trip.

The proprietor wasn't around when I picked up my eggs, leaving my payment in the honor system box, but I hope to chat with him soon so I can learn something about poultry husbandry. It feels good to eat food that comes from close to home, knowing the good people who grew it, and knowing the birds weren't abused or force-fed chemicals.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Simply Amazing

I've been thinking about food a lot lately.

A few months ago, I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. Now I'm reading Food Matters by Mark Bittman. (Not to be confused with Mark Bittner, the Telegraph Hill parrot guy.) Both are well worth the time and can be eye-opening.

I've been doing a pretty good job of sticking to a New Years resolution of eating more mindfully. I'm trying to eat mostly food I've prepared from something close to scratch so I know what's going into it. I stole my son's new bread machine (Don't worry, Dave, I'll get you another one once you have a real place to live.), and have been making some pretty good whole-grain breads. I try to bear in mind how little food one really needs to stay healthy and active; it's obviously a heck of a lot less than most of us have been eating lately. I try to avoid the industrial, corporate, packaged food-like products that passes for food these days.

I'm not on a diet. I have a new diet. I like to think this is permanent. (Hey, I can dream.) I did something like this a few years ago, so I know it's good. It takes discipline - something that is often in short supply around here - and I'm hopeful that my resolve will be stronger this time.

I think the thing that helped get me started again this time is the story of Scott Cutshall. I won't tell the whole story because he has his own blog: Large Fella on a Bike. He has a bit of an edge, and it's a bit hard to find the meat of his story his vast blog, but it's worth looking for because this guy went from 501 pounds to under 180 in just over three years by totally changing his eating habits and riding his bikes.

In this post, Scott has a YouTube video of his transformation. Check it out. It's a simply amazing example of what the human spirit can accomplish.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

First Vulture

I spotted my first turkey vulture of the year as it coasted over the house this afternoon. I wasn't really expecting to see one for another week or two. I'll be keeping my eyes, ears and nose open for more signs of Spring!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Monterey Baydreaming

If you live long enough and have a warped sense of memory, things come around. About five years ago now, our wonderful daughter moved to the Monterey, California area to work as a VISTA volunteer in Americorps helping mentally-handicapped adults get their lives together. She is the kind of young person that gives me hope for the future. We loved to visit once or twice a year to visit her and tour the fabulous sights in the Monterey Bay area. We took a kayak out into the bay looking for seals and sea otters, we rode bikes along 17-mile Drive to Carmel, and visited the Monterey waterfront. I promptly read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row about the lives of a collection of colorful depression-era characters in the days when the sardine fishery thrived in Monterey Bay.

From the 1920's to the 1940's, the sardine was the most valuable fish in California and Cannery Row bustled as boats unloaded their catch, and factories on the waterfront processed and canned the silver bounty. Eventually, commercial fishing caused the sardine population to crash and Monterey fell on hard times. In the 1970's a new boom began as new restaurants and shops attracted tourists. Now, all that remains of the sardine industry is a museum and a few remnants of old iron pipes and tanks rusting along the bike path behind the converted factory buildings.

Do Boomers eat sardines? I never did. Something about those little fish complete with skin and bones packed in those little cans always struck me as totally unappetizing. But visiting California made me think I should try some as a way to experience a link to some interesting history. But I never did, until today.

Sometimes, forces converge. Last week, I was listening to Tom Ashbrook on NPR's On Point chat with New York Times food writer Mark Bittman on conscious eating. One remark that caught my attention was the suggestion that we would be easier on the planet if we would try to eat a little further down the food chain. Instead of eating so much meat, we should eat more of the plants we feed to animals. Instead of eating lots of predatory fish like salmon, we should eat more plant-eating fish like sardines.

Then, on Friday night, I listened with great interest to a presentation by Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, the founder of Mitzvah Meat, a group that is trying to bring locally-raised grass-fed kosher meat to the Northeast. Apparently, grass-fed beef has a much higher concentration of the highly-desirable Omega-3 fatty acids than does typical corn-fed beef. In our discussion about Omega-3's, the good doctor also told us that sardines are a great source of this vital fat.

I may be slow, but when I get two signals within days to get off my butt and do something I've been thinking about for years, I take notice. I went to our local supermarket and picked up a few cans of pacific sardines canned in olive oil. I selected the ones that came from Canada rather than the ones packed in Poland, figuring anyplace in Canada was closer to Monterey than Gdansk.

For lunch, I ate a whole can, sandwiching little chunks of the oily fish between saltine crackers. You know, they were pretty good! Plus, I could almost feel the Omega-3's greasing the neurons in my brain. I think I'll try to eat more sardines and less tuna. Eating lower on the food chain is better ecologically and the contaminants in fish - like mercury and PCB's - that we worry about will be less concentrated in plant-eating fish.

It's funny how a simple thing like a few little fish from a can for lunch can connect me to so many thoughts that have been rolling around in my head. Maybe that's what conscious eating is all about.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Revolutionary Acts

I'm such a rebel. You know what I did today? I went to the library. I wanted to read "The Dystopians" by Ben McGrath in the January 26, 2009 edition of The New Yorker. Now, any self-respecting, middle-class, middle-age suburbanite would dive down to the local big-box bookstore and score a personal copy. But, for a number of reasons, I've been trying to use the library more. I won't bore you with all the details about my struggles with clutter, or wanting my to walk on errands rather than drive, and issues like that. No, I want to reflect on community.

One of the things that made America great was our creation and support of public institutions. Things like public schools, public parks, mass transit systems, waterworks and libraries. We are letting all that slip away. We buy our books online, we drive our own cars rather than take the train, we send our kids to private schools, we build playgrounds in every backyard, we even buy individual servings of water in plastic bottles.

The time has come to see that we can't go it alone much longer. We can't continue to pretend to support the public sphere while trying to do everything on our own. We can't pay both taxes and pay for private replacements for things the community used to provide to everyone. We need to pull together again. If we all use and value our public spaces we will value them more and take better care of them. If we spend less selfishly on ourselves, we will have more to contribute to the public good, and we will all be better for it.

Be a revolutionary. Borrow your next book from your library, take your kid to the park and drink a glass of tap water.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

More Reasons To Eat Local

Good grief.

I just heard a piece on the radio about how Chinese honey is finding it's way to U.S. markets via other countries so they can avoid paying an import tariff. And, as so often seems the case lately, the honey is contaminated. Naturally, this honey is so much less expensive than domestic honey, that suppliers can't resist the temptation to use it. But what are the real costs? Once again, we see how we know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Not long ago, a friend told us how Chinese tea producers dry the tea leaves by spreading them out on the ground and backing diesel trucks up so the exhaust dries the leaves. Add this to the growing list of contaminated food and pharmaceutical products coming out of China, and it seems to me we'd be better off getting our food and drugs from closer to home. OK. We won't be growing any tea in New England until global warming really gets going, so for now, we buy organic tea.

Make that VERY close to home. Even careless or greedy domestic processors can mess us up as we see with the latest contaminated peanut butter problem.

I believe in a future where so many of the things we need will come from sources closer to home. Our economic and energy problems may force this on us, but I hope we see the day when we understand that life is better that way.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

All That's On Offer

Once again, my mishugas makes life harder than it needs to be.

I was in Wally World early this week, not because I crave low, low prices, but because they and their ilk have managed to eliminate just about all the competition for miles around. I don't make a special trip there, it's on my route for other errands I routinely make and I pop in about once a month to pick up a few odds and ends. In a perfect world, I'd never darken the door of this evil empire, but I'm no hero and I try to avoid tokenism and martyrdom. Besides, places like this won't be around much longer, but that's a different story.

I was looking for some rubber sink mats, the kind that go on the bottom of a porcelain kitchen sink so it doesn't get all scratched up during pot scrubbing. A simple thing, right? In America, more often than not these days, when we go to buy a simple item, we are often overwhelmed with a blizzard of choices, but on this day I faced a different problem.

I found what a first glance looked like just what I was after: a plain, inexpensive, rubber sink mat. But, wait! What's this? The mats were treated with something called "Microban." I didn't spend a bunch of time studying the miraculous benefits of this marvel of modern chemistry. I didn't want it and the entire line of rubber and plastic kitchen accessories on sale in this store were from the same supplier and they were all treated with this anti-microbial chemical. No untreated product was on offer.

I'm proud to say my local doctor is enlightened and not easily swayed by the pleas of sniffling patients for drugs. I know many docs will blithely prescribe antibiotics at the first sign of a cold, and I'd venture a guess that the vast majority of Americans wouldn't think twice about taking antibiotics for a cold. But most colds are viral and antibiotics will do no good, and unnecessary drug-taking may well come back to bite us.

Likewise, antibiotics are fed to our food animals. Chickens and cattle are regularly fed all kinds of drugs, partly because they are so crowded together on factory farms that many would sicken and die as diseases swept through the vast poultry sheds and squalid feed lots. Also, animals fed a diet laced with chemicals grow faster and fatter and are more profitable. But what could all those drugs be doing to our world?

We seem to be facing wave after wave of childhood diseases and disorders today that were almost unheard-of when we were kids. ADD, ADHD, allergies, asthma, autism: you name it, and that's just the A's. What's going on? Perfect parents who have done all the right things for their precious darlings like to blame mercury in vaccines. I like to think that if we let kids be kids and didn't program and schedule all the fun out of life so they can all get into Harvard, kids would be a lot more relaxed and better behaved. But maybe we're doing something else, too. Maybe our kids are too clean and our germs are too strong.

We've been trained by modern science and commerce to believe that all germs are bad and should be exterminated. We've also been taught - at least for the past eight years - that evolution doesn't exist. Well, not all germs are bad, they can't all be killed anyway, and the ones that don't die will evolve and develop resistance to our weapons.

We try to raise our kids in sterile worlds where everything is scrubbed, sprayed and treated. Little bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere. I think you can even buy entire kitchen countertops treated with some kind of germ-killing poison.

How many times do we hear a story about somebody who went into the hospital for some minor routine procedure only to be infected, consumed and killed by flesh-eating bacteria. Even multi-million-dollar NFL quarterbacks can go in for a little knee-scoping and wind up with a staph infection.

So, now we have the world's largest retailer selling only kitchen accessories that are biocide-enhanced. I'm not buying it. I'll keep my kitchen clean (If you can call it that.) the old-fashioned way with a little detergent and elbow grease. I embrace the friendly microflora that dwell happily in my sink, in my mouth and on my body. I want my gut to be an ecological wonderland. I want my soil to be a veritable Garden of Eden for worms, bacteria and fungi. I want us to keep our powder dry and save our miracles of modern medicine for fighting real diseases and not to make our Big Macs cheaper.

Crap. I did it again. Can't I even go to f-ing Walmart without getting all worked up. What time does the Super Bowl start?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Miracle of the Monarchs

I just watched the PBS Nova program on the amazing story of the monarch butterflies. Every fall, these tiny, fragile creatures fly from Canada and the northern United States as much as 2000 miles to a special mountainous region in Mexico. There they spend the winter and in the spring migrate back north to Texas where they finally mate and die. Three successive generations of butterflies continue to move north in stages through the summer until the fourth generation mysteriously and instinctively knows to head to Mexico. Just how they manage to do this is not yet fully understood. Naturally, people are finding all kinds of ways to mess things up, and this spectacular natural phenomenon may soon be lost.

The show makes no mention of Monarchs on the west coast. Places like Pacific Grove, California celebrate their Monarchs, but I don't know if they follow a similar migration pattern, or not.

It's shows like this that help me believe there is some value to television.

"The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Climbing Out

Perusing the weather page in the Globe at lunch today, I was thrilled to see that, as of Saturday, we started climbing out of the depths of winter. Many celebrate the winter solstice as the moment that the days start getting longer. That's a wonderful thing, but it's when the temperature graph turns upward that I start getting truly hopeful for Spring.

The average daily minimum temperature bottomed-out for a few days at 21 degrees (F). On Saturday, January 24 the average minimum ticked up to 22 degrees. There is over a month's lag time between the time the days start getting longer and the time temperatures start to rise.

Obviously, there will be days when it is colder than the average minimum, but hope and anticipation are on the rise, and nothing can stop that.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Fattening of America

One of the main reasons I cling to the Boston Globe, is the op-ed section. I usually turn there first for interesting views and analyses of our world.

Today, there was a piece praising the work of a commission that came up with a long list of things our new president could do to combat our obesity epidemic. OK, the institute is based at a law school, so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the list of recommendations includes all kinds of programs, incentives, requirements, funding, regulations and taxes. It sounds more like a full-employment plan for lawyers than a health plan for America.

Here's a letter I sent to the Globe in response. Thanks to Michael Pollan and In Defense of Food for sharpening my thinking on this subject.

Dear Boston Globe:
Richard Daynard and Mark Gottlieb ("How to fight America's obesity epidemic," January 8.) summarize 47 recommendations from The Public Health Advocacy Institute on how to combat the shocking fattening of America. Not surprisingly, the recommendations are obese with more government programs and taxation.
One step, not mentioned by the authors, is to stop all Federal incentives and subsidies to large, corporate agribusinesses that pump us full of cheap fat, salt and sugar. Like so many things in American life today, if we had to pay the real costs of food like that, and healthy alternatives could compete on a level playing field, we would be free to make better choices.
The pervasive influence of corporate lobbying has rendered even the best intentions of government unreliable at best, downright destructive at worst. Let us keep our money and our freedom, and we'll do the right thing.

UPDATE: This letter was published in the January 18, 2009 Sunday Boston Globe on the back page of the "Ideas" (my favorite) section.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Amazing Shrinking Newspaper

When I walked down my driveway to get the Boston Globe this morning, I was taken aback. When I bent over and picked up the newspaper in its usual plastic bag, I was surprised at how physically small, thin and light the package was. Back inside, I checked to see that the main news section had only 10 pages. The metro/local/business section had only 16. The sports section, which - after a quick check for cycling news - is promptly sent to recycling, had eight pages, and that in a town with very active pro and college sports scenes. For the very first time, I think, the classified section was totally absent. I don't recall seeing ANY store flyers.

OK, I know the holiday shopping season is over, so one would expect advertising to be down. I also know online services like Craiglist have made classified ads more or less pointless. But, wow. Undoubtedly the local car dealers have have been a major source of ad revenue, but under the current economic conditions, the car business is in the toilet. I've long thought that one big retailer, Macy's, was single-handedly keeping the paper afloat with its multi-page ads. I'd never voluntarily set foot in the place, but I was grateful to it for propping up my paper.

But, I'm really starting to worry. Can't an area like Greater Boston support at least ONE decent newspaper anymore? I wonder if our current recession may be the last nail in the Globe coffin. I know things are tough all around in the news business, but I am worried and saddened about the prospect of living in a world without one serious newspaper.

The Globe has been shrinking for some time now, and I've been giving serious thought to dropping it in favor of the New York Times, but I really would miss some kind of local coverage. We have a little weekly paper in town, but it is next to worthless as a source of any real local coverage. The Globe rarely has anything to say about our town, but it's nice to read about the region in general.

Why do I worry? Well, let's face it. TV news is a joke. Even the local stations that pride themselves on hyper-local coverage are spending more and more time on any sensationalized national crap that has good video. Even the local coverage is driven by video. Crime scenes, car crashes, perps in cuffs, celebrities and political horse races. In a half-hour news show, a big percentage of the time is devoted to sports, weather, entertainment and consumer news. No longer is there a time and place for in-depth investigation, coverage and analysis of important issues.

I suppose if one is educated and has nothing else to do, one can spend all day searching the web for news and commentary, but I think most of us would benefit from one or two trusted news sources. There is still something to be said for journalism. We need paid, talented, skilled, honest professionals who can sort out the events in the world and make sense of it all for the rest of us. We need hungry reporters who can doggedly dig for a story. We need finely-crafted opinion pieces rather than sound bites. We need honest brokers who can differentiate truth from hype and spin.

Even the Romans gave the people bread and circuses. All we get is entertainment and advertising posing as news. As the title of Neil Postman's book says, we're amusing ourselves to death. We have a collapsing economy, incompetence and corruption at all levels of government and a world going up in flames and all we get are stories about John Travolta's son. Shouldn't somebody be keeping an eye on the serious things for us?