Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Buy local, you say?

Today marked the end of Anything To Eat in our house and I had to go to the store. We polished off the last bitter parsnips and sweet carrots in a stew last night. The hens are only laying about three eggs a day so the omelette-fried-poached pickings were slim and the pickled eggs are long gone. The kids are sick of pickles and we only have the cucumber variety anyway. The dilly beans and pickled beets never make it past Christmas. We ate the last of the garden/farm tomato sauce a week ago and while homebrew is good for certain members of the household, it's illegal for others. So. I needed to get some vittles and the farmer's market isn't for days (and they don't have much right now, anyway) and driving to the co-op is a 38 mile round-trip carbon fest that I wasn't in the mood for. Especially after buying that salad mix from California last week. A serious moment of weakness in my quest for sustainability. A penance of 40 days of hanging laundry will be made. Off to Hannaford...
I tried. I really did. In keeping with our 250-300 mile radius of acceptability when it comes to what to eat I did my best to guesstimate at distances from our house to the four neighboring states that might produce food. I bought NY state cheese, apples and yogurt. None of it organic. I bought Vermont milk, Pennsylvania mushrooms, Massachusetts potato chips and NY state cottage cheese. Again, all conventionally produced. I was post 50 minute workout so it was no trouble for me to very slowly stroll through every single aisle in search of local or even localish edibles. It was pretty tough though, let me tell you. No carrots or squash. No cabbage or potatoes. No parsnips or rutabaga. Not that I'd eat rutabaga mind you... I couldn't even LOOK at the spinach, arugula, salad mix (I've already sinned), broccoli, mangoes, green beans, peas, swiss chard or romaine lettuce. All flown or trucked in from the far corners of the earth. Israel. China. Argentina. California. All of it, off limits until summer when everything but the mangoes will be available both in our back-yard and at our local farmer's.
Our family food choices may not be the road everyone wants to travel at this point, although I don't think I go too far out on a limb when I say that, eventually, we will all be forced to make these same choices. We just choose to adapt a little sooner in order to avoid the pain later. That's not to say that this can't be painful at times, it's just that we feel this heavy weight of responsibility about teaching our children about how best to steward this earth that we live on and local food is one of those ways. That responsibility far outweighs the longing for arugula. With pears. And blue cheese. But we simply cannot continue to eat or even live the way we have been for the past several decades. It's game-over for that nonsense and the way to ensure that it doesn't continue is to teach our children to eat properly. To engage in a meaningful relationship with a food producer, either through a CSA or by consistently buying from the farmer's markets. Beyond that, however, we need to let our big food stores know that we would be oh, so happy if they would kindly begin to offer much, much more locally produced everything. From milk and butter and cheese to jam and bread and meat. They need to start a relationship with the local producers and pledge to market their food just as they do those of Kraft and Cargill and Turkey Hill. Just get the food and put it in the stores. I would buy it. I really would.
While we are on again/off again this treadmill of locavorism and resource usage reductionism, food is pretty much a non-negotiable list item. To that end I try to go to several different locations to buy wholesome, decent food. When the kids are in an art class near my local farm store; I hit it for the milk, cheese, outrageous sauerkraut and kimchee and whatever vegetables and fruit they might have. When we have to go to the nearest small city, which is almost never these days, I hit the co-op. A local food paradise. When we're anywhere near a Whole Foods it becomes the mecca where we inevitably spend the Whole Paycheck on absolutely stunning food. Local AND organic. When I'm in the wine store I look for NY wines and, even better, organic NY wines. These forays into neo-hunter-gatherer mode are always interesting but not always successful and sometimes I have to come home with a less than inspiring catch.
An interesting by-product of this process has been my burgeoning awareness that there are so many others out there thinking just like we do but who are taking it a step further; actually acting on it. For instance, there is a distilling renaissance in our area with several different producers of outstanding (and outstandingly expensive) distilled spirits popping up here and there. Tuthill Town Spirits ( is making the first distilled spirits in New York state since Prohibition. (I guess I won't tell them about my great-grandfather's operation in the 1930s...) Harvest Spirits ( is creating an apple based vodka, applejack and apple and pear brandy six miles away from my house. And while it's not distilled there is a new winery about 20 minutes south of me using their own grapes. This is in addition to the existing choices of local fruit, vegetables, eggs, honey, meat, wool, and goat, sheep and cow dairy products. The trouble with all of this is that it's not in one place. We have to drive a minimum of fifty miles to hit all of these producers when we'd really rather have some sort of local food market where it's all in one place. The infrastructure exists; we just need to push the stores to offer the goods.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

There Is No Difference

It feels critical to me to lay it out there right from the start; I'm a forty-something. Born at the end of the hippy, free-love zeitgeist of the 1960s and just before the crash and burn, it's-all-about-me-and-my-needs 1970s. Scrunched in there with no real generational loyalty. Technically not a boomer. Definitely not a hippy or a swinger and too old for the Gen X scene of the late 80s. And while I've felt comfortable and familiar with older people; the people who were adults when I was a child, the people formulating the new dimension that America would take on during that important post-Vietnam era, I've never really understood younger people. I don't "get" people who were born in the late 1970s and 80s and I am completely befuddled by those born in the 1990s. I mean I was having my OWN children in the late 1990s. I can imagine totally not getting them as young adults.
This feeling of, "?what?" every time I interact with someone significantly younger than me; someone born of the grunge, nurtured and characterized by MTV and reality shows is disturbing, disorienting even. It always feels like I have entered another dimension where people speak in movie clips, sound bites, song lyrics and where, "did you see that ad...?" is a perfectly valid conversation starter. I think that's primarily where the discomfort begins; when one person assumes that media saturation is a given during interactions. There was a time when the house I lived in did not contain the following items: VCR, DVD, answering machine, dishwasher, computer, CD player, iPod, digital tuner thingie, fax, printer, and gosh, at one point my mother even took out the dryer and we lived without a television for awhile. I have these things now and I understand their usefulness and validity in day-to-day living. But they don't run my life; nor are they the center of my entertainment. Beating my husband at Scrabble is way more fun than watching So You Think You Can Dance? It happens way less often too. Anyway, that's the primary difference between me and them, right? Technology. It has reshaped the way we interact, behave and think. Has it also changed the fundamental human experience? Created a whole new set of problems and concerns for us to deal with? I was beginning to think so.
The older I get and the more I feel this complete disconnect with the emerging culture, the more disturbed I feel. I had been attributing it all to the seemingly vast scope of time between 1960something and 1990something and had basically decided that it was a bridge that couldn't be spanned. I was out of touch and misunderstood by anyone under 35 (or is it 40?). So, it was with great surprise and almost relief that I read and loved an autonovelography by Dave Eggers called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It is apparent that Eggers is much younger than I; coming of age in the 90s. How do I know this? Well, Google, of course, but also because in his book he discusses the death of the "father" of grunge (although some of us elders argue that it's really Neil Young) Kurt Cobain. He frames Cobain's suicide in an ironic and sarcastic obituary with a surprise ending - Haha! We're actually regretting the demise of...Richard Millhouse Nixon! This kind of jesting with words and parodying your sentiments and expectations is hardly new to literature; Shakespeare was a master but it seems to have taken on a new and urgent existence with Egger's generation of writers and artists. David Foster Wallace (RIP) created the modern masterpiece Infinite Jest based on just this literary technique and, before he killed himself, was considered one of the greatest modern writers and beloved and then mourned by jillions of his young students. Likewise, Cobain's suicide was a cataclysm amongst those-who-came-after-me. For a time, every twenty-year old acted as if he were more than the drug-addled, angry, nominally talented street urchin that he was. As if he were, say, John Lennon or something.
Anyway. Eggers book is about death. Decay. Mortality. The End. But it is also about life and what it means to take it on full steam without really having the time to think about it. Without the option of saying, "no thanks, I'd rather not." Having both of his parents inconveniently die within months of each other he becomes the guardian of his eight year old brother; the sole protectorate. His older siblings are marginally involved in their lives and it is clear from the start that Dave will be the main parental unit. The book covers an unclear amount of time but it seems to be several years. Eggers wrote this book as if he wished to create a new genre; neo-Joycean or Burroughs, perhaps. Like James Joyce and William S. Burroughs he is erudite and intelligent, wry and sardonic, witty and crazed and does the stream of consciousness trick as if he had studied at their feet. Ulysses on crack. Naked Lunch Takes Care of The Beav. Like Burroughs he takes vulgarity to its extremes using profanity in place of punctuation, inserting the mother-load of swearwords where and whenever. But there are moments of pure beauty and a bare, stripped to the bone prose that echoes and honors the raw emotional content that he is attempting to contend with. There is something ageless in his approach to what is really a Dickensian situation. I mean, how very 19th century of his parents to both die suddenly, leaving a newly minted adult in charge. As a 24 year old, 20th century American he has hardly been raised to expect that he will need to be this responsible. On the contrary his pre-adult expectations were probably filled with college, sex, drinking, girls and loud music, the current rites of passage in our culture. And yet, he takes on the challenge in spite of the fact that, on paper, his sister was to be the guardian of the youngest child. But, you know, she's in law school and so busy and all... Eggers is the man. He decides that a complete change of scenery is in order and moves from Chicago to northern California, with Toph The Younger. This move turns out to be great and terrible. Eggers starts his magazine Might while living there which enjoys a short-lived but fairly intense period of success and sets Dave on his writerly path. But the experience of living with a much younger person, a child for whom he is completely responsible turns out to be a major challenge and their time in Northern California contains painful moments of surrealism. Any time Eggers leaves the apartment he worries and frets like a victim of PTSD; has Toph been abducted? Has he been killed by a crazed neighbor with ropes and a chainsaw? Will Dave make it home in time to save him from the neighborhood pedophile? Just like any parent Dave enjoys a fairly constant stream of fear and worry about the welfare of his brother. He doubts and second-guesses his every move. He obsesses about what Toph wears. Whether he's clean. Whether the kids at school are mean to him. Everything. But the point is, he carries on. He "brothers" his younger sibling well; he hides his angst, encourages and supports and ultimately gets Toph to adolescence without more tragedy befalling either of them. By chronicling the process for us he allows us to look in and ponder what we might have done under these same circumstances. What would we have done? It boggles the mind.
Reading this book made me understand that, really? We all have the same issues. The same fundamental and profound journey. We are all groping our way down the road, trying to understand our place here; what it means and why. Age, technology, television shows and popular music have nothing to do with it. Suddenly I'm feeling sappy and full of gratitude to Mr. Eggers for putting everything down on paper for us to read. For me, the realization at the end was even more important than the details of the story. Hopefully I'll remember that the next time someone approaches me and says, "did you see that show where...?"

Friday, February 5, 2010


In 1970 when I was five years old, I began walking across the village to the neighborhood school. An imposing, brick building built in 1885, the Union School was by far the centerpiece of my life for many years, but I was intimate with the grounds and fields behind the building in a way I wasn't with the learning intended to be happening inside it. It is, perhaps, a betrayal of my true feelings about formal education to admit that I can see the milkweed plants in the side field, the wild grapes twining up the link fence by the swing-set, the old vines clambering over the rock walls at the edge of the playing field (and what IS that ubiquitous weedy flower with the bulbous protrusion in its middle, caused by some minute wasp burying its future progeny in the stem?), more clearly than I can the hallways and classrooms of the school. But it is with even much greater clarity that I can recall the seemingly long walk through the boggy, soggy strip of woods that lay, enticingly, between home and the intended edification of the young minds spending their days entombed in stone; our early embalming.
The walk across town was, by any adult standard, short. A half-mile, at best. Down three, tree-lined, village streets we would go; gathering children at each house and block until we were a clump of girls and boys traveling loosely together, picking up the path by the railroad tracks that led straight into the woods. Once through the trees we wound our way up a small hill and across the backyard of a long suffering schoolhouse neighbor whose lawn connected with the crosswalk. Here, we would wait dutifully for the crossing guard (a bossy sixth grader) before filling the school-yard. This walk was a daily event where children and their rules were in full evidence. No adults were present or even expected; fathers were at work, mothers were at home with younger siblings and housework. This was a time, by current standards, of unbelievable freedom, a cliche. Chewing gum, linty pocket candy, marbles, bits of string, pennies, brown, paper bags with tuna sandwiches and aluminum Charlie Brown lunch boxes swinging against the legs of ten or fifteen children was the look of the day. Boys would swagger and swear in too short pants and untied shoes, girls wore skirts and dresses, threatening tattling and shrieking at whatever was being thrown; snowballs, spitwads, frogs; we all walked through town together, fresh and young. Happy to be out in the world.
Once the path through the woods was gained, the pattern of walking shifted into single-file. The path was narrow and often wet enough to require some generous adult to put down boards for us to step on. When the boards weren't yet placed, the walkers were required to use whatever dexterity and coordination were at their disposal to navigate the pools and puddles amongst the logs and rocks. Jumping from rock to log to log to rock could be treacherous and often resulted in wet boots and stockings. The vernal magic of the woods was at its most obvious in spring when the peepers began their beckoning call; hiding in and on the trees, low bushes and plants of the path. In the pools, a teeming multitude of tadpoles representing several local frog varieties fascinated us and we watched them grow and change as the season moved on. Shiny, green, Leopard frogs, huge, khaki Bullfrogs, tiny Northern Spring Peepers. All were represented here, at all stages of life. In early spring, in the North Country, snow falls fairly regularly into late April. As the tadpoles grew quiescent under a blanket of fresh, wet snow, we would wait, watching for their hind legs and endless activity to emerge. Each day contained a new observation, a fresh magic that we could stow away. Once the snow truly melted, mud season began in earnest and, as in winter, attending school now required two pair of shoes. One for the squishy, squashy, oozing brown mud that covered and filled the path to school and one for the civilized component of our day - the classroom.
Arriving at school, dripping and draining all over the floors, trailing mud, weeds, leaves and much behind us in a revealing map of our recent travels we stopped short of entering our classes. Required to hang our sodden traveling garments on small, sturdy brass hooks and place our boots; complete with Wonder Bread bag liners, on low shelves, we would don sweaters and Mary-Janes or brown or blue or black lace-ups and enter the fluorescent world of reading, math, snack-time, milk-money and chalkboards. Getting up to sharpen our pencils at the front of the room, erasing the chalkboard, emptying the garbage, using the restroom and reading Dick and Jane filled our days. Although this was an enlightened school district with "experimental" educational practices, and although there were some teachers who deeply believed in public education and tried to erase the institutional atmosphere, the penitentiary feeling was never far from the surface. Occasionally, an unusually enlightened teacher would create an atmosphere rich with possibility but never could the classroom draw us as the playground, the fields, or the walk on the path with its frogs and mud did. Even bringing nature into the classroom was more interesting than what went on academically there. Once, in first grade, Mrs. Smith brought a monarch butterfly chrysalis in for the class to observe. We waited and watched over the weeks as the celandine chrysalis darkened and dried out; readying itself for the birthing of its magical contents. The wonder and happiness of this experience very nearly redeemed Mrs. Smith for her byzantine teaching methods. In fifth grade, Mrs. Dunne suggested and followed through on the creation of a papier-mache replica of the Statue of Liberty for the bicentennial parade. She came close to erasing a year of sub-standard educational practices and utterly boring material with this project. In sixth grade, when Mr. Upham allowed us to create, produce and televise a school news program and have student-led story and poetry hour in the class living room - complete with sofas, chairs and a rug, he could be forgiven nearly anything. And still; none of this was as meaningful as the walk to and from school. The huge, thick ice daggers that hung from the eaves of the school in January. The grass-blade whistles that everyone tried to make and that I could never master. The farm that lay beyond the school-grounds that led to the town's river. None of the math, reading, spelling, history or science spoke the same incantation capable of drawing our full attention. Outside. Out. We wanted, needed, out.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of children who do not go outside. Ever. For any reason other than to get into a vehicle which is waiting to transport them to another inside place. They do not hear or see frogs. They do not feel squishy mud or freeze their fingers and toes by getting them wet in spring precipitation. They cannot identify bugs, plants or birds. They do not risk certain death by eating the berries growing on the fence. They don't skin knees on grass. Rip bits of tongue off on a frozen flag-pole. Build elaborate snow forts and play King of the Mountain. They are, instead, in stasis. Sitting in front of the glowing tube that we have all been called to worship. Performing the simple ritual of pressing a button to create the magic of light and sound on a screen. It is a travesty which will have unimaginable consequences for those who participate.
My experiences as a very young child, of being outside; walking to school, playing, running, walking, riding my bike, watching my mother garden and rake and plant, skating and sledding and building with snow. All of these helped to create a person with deep compassion and empathy for the world around me. Not just for humans but for frogs and flowers and birds and bees and butterflies. All of the world. How can we expect this same response to our current ecological calamity if our children don't even go outside? How can a solution even be imagined by a mind that isn't connected with the sufferer in any concrete way?
Parents! A call to action! Send your children outside! It IS safe! It IS good! It IS necessary for their health and well-being. They won't die or be abducted or run-away. They can, no, they must have time to be free; to let their minds wander with the clouds and sun. To lie on their backs in the grass and contemplate. To catch snow on their tongues and learn the animals, plants and birds of their home. It is imperative for all life on this planet that we begin, now, to reconnect the union of our children with the outside world. Turn off the tube and begin.


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