welcome to my deep-green blog!

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by.

This blog is dedicated to low-footprint living. I am out to promote a #GrassrootsGreenMobilization. Can you imagine what would happen if millions of people voluntarily reduced their carbon footprint? by 90%, 50%, or even just 10%? The impact would be similar to that of the household austerity measures imposed during World War II, except that this time we’d be doing it voluntarily. And instead of channeling our time, money, and energy toward a war effort, we’d be working toward a shared global aim of restoring the earth’s ecosystems to health, and preserving our life and wellbeing on this beautiful planet.

Does living at a fraction of the average U.S. footprint sound unrealistic or uncomfortable to you? The truth is, lots of us are already doing it, or are well on our way. And in the process of reducing our footprints, we’re putting money in our pockets, and freeing up our time and energy for the things that give life meaning (which of course differ from one person to the next).

And not only is it not uncomfortable (beyond a bit of manageable discomfort here and there), it’s fun!

At its root, a low-footprint lifestyle is a great way to improve your quality of life, even if planetary concerns were not a factor. In this blog I share a wealth of tips and resources to help you design your own version of a low-footprint lifestyle, or, if you’re already on this path, to go further than you’ve ever gone before.

Again, thank you for being here!

P.S. On this page (and on my Facebook page Deep Green Book by Jenny Nazak), I explore at leisurely length, and in no particular order, a variety of threads related to sustainable living. If you also want a handy, compact, ordered guide that contains in condensed form the basic principles for designing your own low-footprint lifestyle, get yourself a copy of my book Deep Green! It’s available on Amazon or direct through me.

Cooped Up with Kids?

During this time of pandemic sequestration, I’ve heard many parents say they’re loving the opportunity to stay home and spend time with their kids. Even some parents who are now unable to earn any income are savoring the slowdown, aside from the financial worry. The other day, a couple with several kids passed by our porch, amid a gaggle of big dogs on leashes. “We’re having so much fun!” they shouted when I asked how they were faring with school at home. “There are so many cool free educational resources online!”

But I’m also hearing from plenty of parents who are going stir-crazy with the additional responsibility of having to keep their kids schooled and entertained all day, every day, on top of all their usual parental responsibilities (and in some cases on top of their professional jobs, if they are working from home). Their kids miss their playmates; the parents miss the company of other adults. And adding insult to injury, a lot of parents right now are getting chastised for having these perfectly natural human feelings. I’ve seen Moms getting shamed online for saying they could use a glass of wine. Please!

My take on the “kids at home” struggle is the same as my take on other challenges that the pandemic has brought. My take is that the pandemic, besides being a crisis in itself, has exposed cracks in society that have been there for many years or decades.

Now, before I go any further, let me say I’m well aware that some parents feel that if a person is not a parent, that person has no business commenting on child-rearing issues. And I am not unsympathetic to that viewpoint, especially when the commenters are trying to shame people or tell them how to raise their kids. But my take is 1) Parents are emotionally enmeshed in the high-stakes, stressful task of raising kids, and it could be helpful to get support from someone who’s not as emotionally involved. And 2) It is impossible to solve, or even fully grasp, any major problem in society without looking into how that society is bringing up its children.

So, in that spirit, here are some of my observations based on a combination of things I’ve observed myself, or heard from older relatives, or read in books and magazines. I realize I’m speaking in generalities here, but generalities have their place, as they can help us see more clearly and get to the heart of things.

There’s a wealth of articles out there offering tips on how to keep kids happy and engaged at home. If I find some particularly outstanding ones, I’ll post them in the Further Reading section. But there are lots online that you can find easily. For now, I’m giving you two main takeaways:

1. Community, Community, Community. By now, pretty much everyone is familiar with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Isolation is one of the two biggest culprits of parental overwhelm. The nuclear family, detached from the old hometown and extended family, is a modern experiment that just hasn’t worked out well. The other day in a “Coronavirus overwhelm” discussion thread online, I was happy to see a couple of Moms, whose kids are playmates, talking about the possibility of living under the same roof. What a great idea! I hope it catches on. The truth is that living alone or in nuclear families is expensive, and raising kids is way too much work for one set of parents alone. Part of the original motivation for the emergence of the nuclear family–a trend that accelerated after World War II–was surely the lure of independence from “the old hometown” and its bossy elders. But nowadays, with so many people learning how to set healthy emotional boundaries and tolerate differences, it seems feasible to have the best of both worlds: the ability to be true to oneself, without having to disengage from extended family. In general, over the past few years, it’s been good to see more people living in multigenerational households again, even if a lot of the motivation is economic constraints (young adults not able to afford their own places because of school debt, etc.) This is one case where all the arrows (economic, social, division-of-labor, and ecological) seem to be pointing in the same direction: Live with other people if at all possible! (If you are living alone and it’s working out great for you, disregard this bit of advice.) This is true whether or not you have kids, but if you have kids, it could save your sanity and make life a lot more enjoyable for you and the kids.

2. Instead of being overwhelmed by kids’ energy … harness it! In permaculture design, we have a saying, “Turn problems into solutions.” Most of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by a kid’s energy. For a long time now (for my whole life, really, which is almost 60 years) I’ve observed parents feeling overwhelmed by dealing with kids, especially young kids. And recently, my observation has led me to ask, “Is there anything we can learn from people in other times and places? How did people in the old days cope with an exhausting toddler? How do people in indigenous cultures manage to look after their kids on top of foraging for food, gathering firewood and all that?” In a nutshell, very young kids want to help with household tasks, and want to be near their parents. When we try to get kids to stay out of the way, “go play,” etc., we create stress because not only do we create a situation where kids get bored and come back looking to the adults for ideas on what to do, but also, we push away a whole bunch of really robust energy that wants to help! The ideal is to start engaging kids while they are still toddler age. But I think there’s hope at any age if the parents make it clear that they really need their kids’ help; that the kids are indispensable to the household economy. As kids get older, their creativity starts to shine, and if you ask kids for ideas on how to solve household problems, they think of amazing solutions that you or I might never have thought of.

From everything I’ve read and observed, kids are happiest and least overwhelming when they know that their labor and creativity are needed for real stuff that the household depends on. Cooking, shopping, running the cash register, designing a logo for the family business, greeting store customers or hotel guests, feeding farm animals, collecting eggs, watering plants, even laundry and dishes and what have you. (By the way, as a kid I hated yardwork. But if we’d been growing food, as opposed to toiling in the service of suburban standards of neatness and conformity, I might have felt differently.) And, when they know their parents really want them around (which is more likely to be the case if the parents aren’t constantly getting interrupted for entertainment while the parents are trying to get work done)!

Of course there is more to life than chores. Creativity is another way for families to spend time together, while also making the world a better place. I’ve heard/read of many families doing creative and compassionate activities during the stay-at-home order. One neighborhood has started a “teddy bear hunt” to entertain little kids who are out walking with their families. People put teddy bears in their windows so as to be visible from the street, and kids see how many bears they can find on their walks. I also read about a 17-year-old girl who did a ballet performance at her grandparents’ nursing home; residents could watch from their balconies. And a friend of mine, a Dad, dressed up in drag (a powder-blue ballerina costume complete with tiara, to be exact!) and went walking through his neighborhood with his young daughter, who was also in some sort of costume (the Facebook photo was too small to see clearly). This kind of playful spirit is all too absent from most people’s everyday lives, and the enforced slowdown seems to be really bringing it out. Here’s hoping it’ll continue even after “normal” life resumes!

Besides those two main points, a few other things.

One, It’s OK to want wine (or whatever you enjoy: eating chocolate; reading a novel; painting). Assuming you’re not harming yourself or neglecting your family, it’s actually healthier for all of you if Mom and Dad get to have their fun too. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when it was still OK for parents to go out to movies or cocktail parties and leave the kids with a babysitter (or let the oldest child be the babysitter for their younger siblings). Nowadays it’s more popular for parents to hang out together while their kids play. Either way, you’re not a bad parent for wanting a treat.

Also, get to know your neighborhood and neighbors; a neighborhood with a web of social connections is more resilient in any possible circumstances than one where neighbors don’t know each other. Many of us find that our best friends (and/or our kids’ best friends) are widely scattered, requiring a car trip. But it’s not sustainable for parents to constantly have to drive their kids to a playdate. The stay-at-home orders affecting most of the population are highlighting the unworkability of that setup. Walk around your immediate neighborhood with your kids, meet your neighbors. And keep in mind that your kids, even young ones, are their own people; the friends they choose for themselves won’t necessarily have parents that you’d choose as your friends. And that’s fine!

Finally: A major factor in parental overwhelm is economic anxiety. See if there are some household expenses you can cut, so you can slow the treadmill down. Ditto for household tasks; see if there are any you can ease up on a bit. Do you really need to have perfectly square shrubs? Does the laundry need doing right this minute? It might be worth trading some niceties for just plain ol’ free time for each other. There’s no point in having a family (and no point living on planet earth, really) if we can’t all take a deep breath and enjoy each other, listen to the song of a bird, watch the sunset, learn the names of the wildflowers growing right around us.

On a personal note, today when I got home from the farmer’s market with my groceries, it felt like it was taking a long time for me to get things put away and stow the reusable bags. I found myself wishing there were a toddler in the vicinity! I would have enlisted the little one’s assistance stashing the bags in the milk crate where I keep them. I had the same thought later, when I needed to wash some clothes. I always hand-wash my stuff in a tub, then pour the water on whatever area of the yard needs a bit of water. What a perfect job for a little kid to help with!

If you’re a parent (or grandparent or other relative in close proximity with kids), I’d love to hear your ideas on this topic. What, if any, aspects of working with kids do you find overwhelming? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Or if you’re from another country, whether or not you’re a parent — How are things different in your country? What tasks are kids expected/allowed to do at each age? Same question for people of older generations, wherever you’re from. What household tasks were you required/expected to do as a kid?

Further Reading:

• Maybe the single most illuminating resource I’ve found on the “kid energy problem” so far is this short article from npr.org, on how to get kids to do chores. It gives impressive examples of how people in other cultures harness the “power of toddlers.” In a nutshell, toddlers naturally want to help (in one study, 20-month-old children stopped playing and crawled across the floor to help adults pick up dropped objects), and by being willing to spend extra time even though the toddler’s involvement slowed things down or makes a mess, parents invest and end up with kids who continue to love to help even as they get older. Typical parents in modern Western culture rebuff a toddler’s offer to help, and send them off to play. But mothers from indigenous cultures will invite the child to stay and watch, and participate. The article also cites a book that sounds like a must-read: Anthropology Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans, and Laborers, by David Lancy.

Childlike Innovation: Parents Find Creative and Fun Ways To Keep Kids Busy and Happy. (Daytona Beach News-Journal). Even very young kids can start learning a valuable skill like gardening or cooking, and can collaborate on a wall painting or other house project. “We just involved her in everything we do,” one couple said of their 2-1/2-year-old daughter. She’s interested in practical life skills, so instead of trying to keep her out of the way while they get stuff done, they involve her in cooking, seed-sprouting and other tasks. It sounds like it’s a lot more fun and less exhausting than the other approach!

5,000 Staples

I’m in love with my stapler. Yes, in love. With a stapler. Because it’s sturdy and metal, and I doubt it will ever break. I will probably get old and die first, or just decide I don’t need to staple anything anymore, before this little beauty would quit on me. I bought it a few years back at a yard sale or thrift shop, one of the two, can’t remember which. It is pure old-school, all steel or other sturdy metal, enamel-painted a pretty blue that one color website I hit upon when I Googled “names of shades of blue” referred to as “Cadet Blue,” and another as “Air Force Blue.” I might call it a dark shade of sky-blue.

It’s got small rust spots here and there. Just enough to add a touch of dignity and gravitas. It’s a compact stapler that fits neatly on the small antique sewing-machine table that doubles as my desk. And with the stapler, at the same garage sale or thrift shop, I bought a little box of staples. Both the stapler and the faded yellow cardboard box of staples look like they came from a time capsule made by a stationery store in 1963. And they both look like they would survive Armageddon.

Except, I aspire to use the staples up in my lifetime, or at least make a big dent in their number. Although the box of staples was decades old when I bought them a decade ago, it did not look like a single row of them had been used. And yesterday as I was stapling little bags of wildflower seeds to put out in the Free Seed box I set up out front of my house, I noticed for the first time the number of staples in the box. I’d been thinking maybe 500? 1,000? Nope! When I read the fine print, I saw that the box had originally contained five THOUSAND staples. Packed in like little rows of square soldier sardines.

It seems like I’ve been using them forever, freely, but still I’ve barely made a visible dent in the rows. The box of staples is small, maybe 2 inches wide by 5 inches long by an inch and a half high. Not much bigger than a stick of butter. Maybe when the original buyer bought staples, he or she bought an extra box, not realizing how very many staples the deceptively small box contained. Or maybe boxes of staples were on sale two for one, and we know how that can go. (File that image in the same folder as a snapshot of the guy who’s hanging a picture or something and goes to the hardware store for screws, and comes back with two boxes of 500 or something because the price is cheaper per screw that way. Little did he know he’s consigning some future person somewhere to hold a garage sale to get rid of the unused portion.)

Was someone starting a clerical business and then gave up on their plan? A widow in a college town who was about to start a typing service to earn a bit of extra income, but then she passed away? Or maybe a secretary sent out to buy supplies for her company (not to be sexist, but I’m not sure there were male clerical workers back then), which later either folded or just got a newer bigger stapler which required newer bigger staples?

Anyway, I appreciate my stapler. And, while I try never to waste staples or other supplies, I do aspire to use them fully, and would rather use them up than reach the end of my life with way too much extra.

I feel the same about the needles, thread, embroidery floss, and yarn that were accumulated by three generations of crafty women in my family, and have now ended up in my custody. Needles in particular might be tough to use up; you can’t imagine how many little packets of needles there are. And I still have a primal fear of ending up in the Zombie Apocalypse with my last needle broken or lost. But I really don’t want to leave needles unused; someone made them, and they were made to be used.

If worst comes to worst, and my noble anti-hoarding sentiments end up leaving me short, I do have some spiny prickly-pear plants growing in the garden, and have heard that the pioneers made needles out of the spines.

This blog, on the surface, is about low-footprint living. Choosing to live lightly on the planet. But on a deeper level, it’s about living deliberately. For me, having excess stuff (beyond a reasonable backup supply) is an invitation to see if there’s someone else who needs, right now, the stuff that for me is excess. I have never regretted shedding stuff in that spirit. When I got into permaculture design, one of the design principles I learned was “Stocking,” which means having stuff in appropriate quantity. And part of the definition of “appropriate quantity” that I learned was, “being able to remember what you have and where it is stored.” For a lot of us in the wealthy industrialized nations, this is a bigger challenge than one might think. I speak as someone who has not only, herself, on many occasions forgotten what she has and where it is stored, but also done many de-cluttering and downsizing jobs, helping people clear out attics and garages that were packed to the ceiling with still-usable but long-forgotten stuff, much of it still in the original packaging. Important note: None of this is to shame or chastise anyone. We are all in this together, we’ve tried some things as a species that have seemed great at first but turned out to be not such a great idea (herbicides and single-use plastics come to mind), and I feel us each working in our own way to create a saner, kinder world where humans are living in balance with ecosystems, and all creatures have their needs met.

How about you? Do you have everyday tools or other possessions you particularly treasure? And do you have any multigenerational accumulations of good stuff that you’re in the process of figuring out how to use up or distribute?

And, to take it beyond the material, I think this concept applies to talents and energy as well. But I’ll save that for another post!

Facing Down Fear

“Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness–”
— Albus Dumbledore to Voldemort in Harry Potter.

The fact that there are things worse than death doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for humans to fear their own death. After all, most of us don’t know for sure what happens after death; we have to go on faith. Still, reminding ourselves that there are “much worse things” can help ease our fear of death.

Worse things than death: Not living fully while we’re still alive. Reaching the end of our lives with amends unmade; rifts unmended. Living an imitation of someone else’s life; never discovering one’s own true self. Knowing who we are but always putting up a false front and never sharing our true self with the world. Stumbling around never waking up. Never making mistakes but also never stretching, never growing. To list a few.

Just as there are worse things than death for an individual, there are also worse things than death for society as a whole. At a time like this, with people getting sick and dying; people losing their livelihoods and maybe their homes, this is a hard thing to say and a hard thing to hear, but it needs to be said: There are worse things for society than a pandemic or other crisis that threatens the very future of human life on earth. The main “worse thing” I can think of, is that after the crisis passes, we just slip back into our old default ways, with no changes, nothing learned, no lasting corrections to the craziness that passes for “normal” in everyday life. I like to think that won’t happen in this case, but it is always a possibility.

Today, I “attended” my church (the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ormond Beach) for the second week in a row, together virtually with many other members, courtesy of live-streaming technology. The sermon was titled, “Befriending Our Fears,” and you can catch the recording of Reverend Kathy Tew Rickey’s service on YouTube. The theme of befriending our fears could not have been more relevant to me this morning.

I’d gotten up fairly early, around 6, and gone outside to catch the beauty of the morning and water some plants. Fairly quickly, I found my fresh morning joy spiraling down into anxiety and hopelessness as I contemplated the lengthening drought and my still-insufficient gardening ability. Plants were looking peaked (the lack of rain adding insult to the injury of my innate plant-cluelessness) and I had run out of things to try. Water more? Water less? Nothing seems to help.

But as I sat with my feelings, the deeper fears that underlay them started to rise to the surface. And as I faced those fears, fully acknowledged them one by one, I began to get relief. There were more layers than I was expecting. There was a fear that my ineptitude would kill these innocent living beings I had taken into my care. That’s a tough thing to bear.

There was a more prosaic fear that the native plants I’d bought for privacy hedges (as well as for the benefit of wildlife and the land) would never grow, and I’d be stuck needing a fence forever, and also would never be able to screen out the obnoxiously bright streetlights. For the first time, I fully felt that I could handle any of that; that there were worse things. I realized how I’d been hanging onto this idea “I must have tall high shrubs and I must have them now!” Realizing I could just deal with things as they are helped me relax.

I realized that I could let myself off the hook, quit spending money on lovely plants only to live in constant fear of killing them. I could just be happy with what’s growing right now, as it is, the unflappable native wildflowers, a few stunted but scrappy herbs and veggies, and other buoyant survivors, and let the rest unfold in its time. Surely plants, like people, can’t thrive in an atmosphere of nervousness, and I’ll give them a better chance at life by cultivating a more relaxed loving attitude. And I can just focus on the unchallenging but (to me) richly enjoyable activity of layering my yard with the oak leaves, grass clippings, and other riches (termed “yard waste” by conventional wisdom) that I gather from curbside in my hand-cart, and let this earthy lasagna do its magic of attracting the teeming community of good microbes and bugs that form the foundation of healthy soil. And trust that this evolution will take place to a sufficient degree and in sufficient time for the soil to be more plant-friendly when I really need it to be, if such a time should come to pass.

Another layer of fear I noticed was a primal fear of starving to death because I haven’t been very successful at growing food. Could I handle it, if it came to that? I realized I could, because there are worse things to me. For example, spending my life ignoring other people because I’m so wrapped up in worry about my own fate — that, to me, would be worse than starving to death. Anyway, I have in fact grown food quite well at times in the past — just never alone. Always in cooperative arrangements. There’s a lesson there. Find nearby likeminded folks; grow stuff in partnership. I’m working on it.

I am of course worried about drought; I have been for a long time here in Florida. Our conventional landscaping practices (which I sometimes refer to as land-scalping or land-scraping) — the relentless clearing and incessant mowing that leaves just a thin film of turfgrass and increasingly bare patches of compacted sand — strip away the green buffer and ground-sponge, creating conditions ripe for ever more intense drought-flood extremes. What I’m calling the “crispy” season seems to be lengthening here, and now maybe we’re going to be having it in March-April as well as in October. (The past two years’ Octobers here have been brutal, with seasonal raininess stopping short while summer heat was still in full force.)

This morning I sat with my fear of drought. Yes, this place could become a desert in my lifetime. Yes, we could all become displaced; there could be horrific wildfires, widespread famine, the utter decimation of all life from the lush paradise Mother Nature had provided. Hard to imagine worse than that. But as I felt my commitment to doing my best to save the lives of other people, present and future, who may not have had the opportunity to live as long or as many lives as me, my own fear began to dissipate. I’ve got a post in the works for you about simple things we can all do to help mitigate drought-flood extremes, wherever we live.

Another primal fear I contacted was the fear of being useless, superfluous, having no skills of any use to anyone, ultimately being alone and unwanted, no community. (This is one I’ve been peeling away layer by layer for decades, but today I found a new layer.) I asked myself could I handle it after all, if it came to that — if really I ended up with no place to live, no way to make myself useful? And I realized that yes, I could; that somehow I would find a way to move forward and love life and somehow be in service, not be a burden on anyone. That there were worse things.

Facing each fear, experiencing it deeply and feeling it dissipate, I ended up feeling simultaneously calm and energized, and had a beautiful morning, capped off by the sermon on “Befriending Our Fears.”

Later in the day, the theme of facing fear and coming out stronger on the other side of it continued, as I spotted an extremely powerful article on a friend’s Facebook feed:

It’s Time to Emotionally Prepare for What’s Coming, by Elad Nehorai on medium.com. Anticipatory grief — preparing ourselves emotionally for the loss of life (our loved ones’, and our own) — is a heavy task but an essential one, and I really want to thank my friend Flip Solomon for sharing this article. Flip is a talented and hardworking visual artist, fashion designer, and all-around creative soul. You can see Flip and her work by visiting her Facebook page The Art of Flip Solomon and her website. Enjoy!

Because, yes, we can have joy too amid all this pain and uncertainty. Life is wondrously fractal and layered. The deepest, giddiest-yet-most-solid joy I’ve ever found in life has always been on the other side of fear and pain.

P.S. Another treat for you! Beautiful talk that a friend just now shared with me. “Remaining True in a Time of Crisis.” About taking the crisis as an opportunity to slow down, “grow inward,” engage in self-discovery, become centered in our true nature. (The speaker, Mooji, points out that fear comes from not being centered in our true nature.)

Unintended Consequences

Though I have not yet heard anything to the effect that the pandemic has fueled an increase in consumption of single-use plastics as a consequence of the rise in takeout meals, I would not be surprised to hear it.

To tell you the truth, my consumption of single-use plastics has gone up slightly in recent weeks as I’ve been trying to make a point of supporting local restaurants at a time when they’ve been compelled to shut down their dine-in operations. I figure it’s OK to ease up a little to offer a bit of support in a time of need. (I also sometimes ease up on plastics/styrofoam at ordinary times; for example, when ordering from a minority-owned restaurant and/or one that’s struggling to survive in a rough part of town.) In the long term, of course, I remain committed to avoiding single-use plastics to the best of my ability.

So I was happy to see in my inbox today an email from the Surfrider Foundation, offering a map of ocean-friendly restaurants across the USA. Ocean-friendly restaurants are ones that avoid use of plastics, since plastics are wreaking such havoc on the oceans and the creatures who live there. Just input your location/zip code to find OFRs near you. As it says on their website, “One restaurant, one customer at a time, [The Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants program] increases awareness, drives behavior change, and ultimately creates scalable impact to reduce our plastic footprint.” Bon appetit!

One unintended consequence of the pandemic is happening for sure: Human beings are demonstrating great flexibility and creativity in adapting to the challenges. Then again, adaptiveness is one of the core defining attributes of human nature. And while the situation that’s motivating our inventiveness is tragic and scary, it is reassuring to see human creativity rise quickly to meet adversity.

Today in my local paper (the Daytona Beach News-Journal), an AP article reported on how hospitals are accommodating increased demand for beds:

“With capacity stretched thin, U.S. hospitals are rushing to find beds for a coming flood of patients, opening older closed hospitals, turning single rooms into doubles and re-purposing other medical buildings. Louisiana is making deals with hotels to provide additional hospital beds and has converted three state parks into isolation sites for patients who can’t go home. Illinois is reopening a 314-bed suburban Chicago hospital that closed in September. In Seattle, Harborview Medical Center is turning a homeless shelter into a 45-bed coronavirus recovery center.” (Makes me worry about where the homeless people got put, but anyway.)

This ability to be flexible and make more from less, particularly for the hospital sector to be flexible and make more from less, is reassuring. I would like to see such inventiveness applied to cutting the costs of hospitalization and other health care. Having lived for some years in Japan, where the hospitals were nowhere near as plush and spacious but everyone had access to low-cost health care, I have a bit of resistance to the large, shiny, cushy nature of USAmerican hospitals.

Never once in Japan did I doubt the quality of care I was getting, nor did I or anyone else lack access to basic health care. A lot of hospitals I’ve seen in the USA (particularly in recent years with the rise of the for-profit hospitals) feel more like luxury hotels. It’s kind of creepy actually. The problem is, of course, not everyone can afford the price of admission to these luxury hotels.

Well, I’m rambling a bit here. Long story short: It’s good to see citizens of the Land of Extreme Luxury demonstrating that we have not lost our ability to make do with bare-bones solutions. As in, suddenly deciding that older hospitals are good enough to use after all; that people can deal with being in double rooms; that a state park can serve as a quarantine facility. Maybe if we can be that flexible in an emergency, we can carry that flexibility into the future. Then maybe our hospitals over the long run can become accessible to all, and not eat up so many of our financial and other resources.

And while we’re at it, maybe we could apply that mentality to our colleges and other schools too. School facilities have gotten over-the-top fancy over the years. Maybe we’d be willing to trade some of that fanciness for “less fancy but more affordable.” I’m indulging myself a bit here by allowing this tenuous thinking-tangent to make it into a blog post. I will scout around for some more authoritative voices to support my thinking, and will add any good links I find. But for now I’ll leave it at this.

What do you think of my comments about the fanciness of hospitals and other facilities?

And, what are some unintended consequences you’re noticing (either positive or negative) of the pandemic? By the way, when I ask you questions in my posts, they aren’t rhetorical; I really enjoy hearing your opinions. In fact, I’m thinking of taking the plunge and enabling comments on this blog, even though it opens the door to spam. (A blog I had in a long-ago chapter of my life even got taken over by Soviet hackers; I woke up one morning, circa 2000, to find the Trailer Park Girl blog turned all Cyrillic and cartoon-risqué). I may try enabling comments for a week or so to see how it goes. I guess the worst thing that can happen is I find out that the dreaded Dmitri, hacker of obscure blogs, is still alive and well.

Update March 28: I just read about another unintended consequence of the pandemic: Gasoline prices have dropped below $2 a gallon here. That might explain why I’ve seen several motorists lately idling their cars for 15, 25 minutes or more. Then again, people were doing that even when gas was over $3 a gallon. That always amazes me, because the people doing it just look like everyday folks who don’t particularly have money to burn.

Another unintended consequence I just read about: Bait & tackle shops in my area are seeing a surge in business as people seek safe outdoor activity to escape cabin fever and the 24-hour news dripfeed. Now that’s a happy thing on many levels!

Further Reading:

Is This a Hospital or a Hotel? (Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times): “Some hospitals in the United States … have long been associated with deluxe accommodations, and others have always had suites for V.I.P.’s. But today even many smaller hospitals often offer general amenities, like room service and nail salons, more often associated with hotels than health care. In the current boom of hospital construction, private rooms have become the norm. And some health economists worry that the luxury surroundings are adding unneeded costs to the nation’s $2.7 trillion health care bill. … American hospitals are looking less and less like their more utilitarian counterparts in Europe, where the average hospital charges per day are often less than a quarter of those in the United States…” This article ends with a link to a quiz “Can you tell a hotel from a hospital?” It’s actually even harder than I thought in some cases — I got several answers wrong!

The Most Solid Investments

In challenging times, wise people start to look for investments that won’t lose their value, and will pay bigger and bigger dividends as time goes on. The return on what I call “solid investments” or “real stuff” isn’t financial (unless, for example, you end up growing enough food to sell). But, to paraphrase an old saying from the 70s, “Real stuff will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no real stuff.”

Today I’m starting a list of the most solid investments I know. No money to spare? Got you covered with cheap or free alternatives.

Food garden: Seeds; seedlings; soil; pots or containers. Buy from your local nursery if at all possible; we need to support these guys, whose role I predict is only going to get more essential over time. No money? Connect with neighbors who grow food. Most gardeners produce a surplus of seeds, seedlings, and crops, and sometimes are actually scrambling to give this surplus away. As part of growing food, be sure to invest in building your soil via mulching and composting. This can be done cheap or free with leaves, grass clippings, your kitchen scraps. As part of your food garden, plant native wildflowers for the pollinators (and to give your neighbors a gift of beauty whenever they walk by). You may not even have to plant wildflowers; often they will emerge if you simply let the grass grow out. People are calling this a “meadow yard” or “freedom lawn.” (The latter is a phrase coined by native gardening expert Ginny Stibolt (Climate-Wise Landscaping and other books).)

Rainwater harvesting: A golden investment that not enough people are doing. I can hardly think of any place on earth that isn’t dealing with chronic drought-flood extremes, and I predict that this situation will continue if not get worse. Barrels and other containers can be expensive but keep an eye out; for example, sometimes restaurants give away food-grade barrels. Don’t get discouraged thinking you need to shell out for a 5,000-gallon cistern or something. In fact, that’s probably not a good idea. Too many eggs in one basket, so to speak (cost of a leak or other failure is large), plus which it’s a kind of hoarding. I was impressed when I heard Brad Lancaster (Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond) say in one of his public talks that he and his brother only have a total of 1,500 gallons of cistern/tank at their house. That was some years back, but I doubt they have significantly upped their capacity; Brad always counsels against “tank envy” and encourages us to do small earthworks that help the land do the heavy lifting, collecting and retaining more water itself so we don’t have to be collecting so much in a tank. If Brad can do this minimal-tank approach in Tucson, Arizona USA (which only averages 11 inches of rain annually), you and I can surely do it too.

Renewable-energy, grid-free cooking equipment: Woodstove (conventional or Rocket Stove) is a big one. My personal favorite is the solar oven. It’s great not only for cooking but also for tasks such as drying food, pasteurizing potentially contaminated water, sterilizing washcloths and dishcloths, heating water for washing dishes. A sun oven is basically a plain box that’s painted black and covered with a glass lid. This combo turns the sun’s rays into heat enough for slow-cooking. A medium-temperature oven that needs no fuel! Sort of like a crock pot that needs no electricity. The Global Sun Oven is my personal favorite; I own two of them. Such a high-value investment. If you just don’t have $300 or more to spend, other companies make lower-end versions, or you can make your own. Ditto for a Rocket Stove; I’ve made and given away a number of them.

Renewable home energy: Look into getting solar panels to meet your home electricity needs. It’s not physically or economically feasible for everyone, but it’s ideal for many, and you might qualify for rebates. Contact your nearest solar company for an assessment. (A company local to me, Solar-Fit in the Daytona Beach area, offers free assessments and seminars; your locals might also.) Even if you’re not a good fit for rooftop solar, consider investing in a portable panel to charge your smartphone and tablet or laptop.

Resilient transport: bicycle, panniers, bicycle trailer. And, good walking shoes, or feet tough enough to walk barefoot. To go with this, you’ll need a certain general level of physical fitness, but you don’t need to be mega-fit. The human body is designed for foot travel, at long distances if needed. Even if your distance radius is relatively small, you can expand it fairly quickly and easily just by walking a little each day (this is assuming you are able to walk; if you aren’t, you may have to rely on neighbors for resilient transport; more about that in the next bullet item). And the bicycle is a highly efficient machine (the world’s most efficient machine, according to what I’ve read), designed to take maximum advantage of human power. If you have the physical fitness for human-powered transport, reach out to help your neighbors who are not mobile.

Social connections: also known as “social capital.” Though the idea that building relationships with your neighbors is an “investment” may sound crass, the truth is that for decades, the trend in our hyper-affluent, widely geographically scattered society has been to DISinvest from neighborly connections, because our relative economic affluence gives us the illusion that such connections are not essential. Of course this is a huge mistake, as witness the toxic effect of social isolation on people and communities. Our social fabric and our economic resilience have suffered greatly. So, we can think of (re)building neighborly ties as a long-overdue “correction” (to use another word associated with financial markets) to a highly dysfunctional norm. To get on the right track, think of all those quaint, old-school things like asking if your neighbor needs anything from the store when you’re going; bringing your neighbors tomatoes from your garden; initiating a block party or potluck; offering help with onerous yard tasks.

Skills: Educating yourself on basic life-skills is truly a blue-chip investment in your household and community resilience. Besides the above-mentioned skills, you can study and practice food foraging, food preservation, berm-building and other small earthworks, weaving from locally abundant natural fibers, carpentry with hand-tools, and much much more. Pretty much anything you could possibly want to know can be found for free online or at your public library. It just takes an investment of your patient attention. Bill Mollison, known as the father of the permaculture design movement, said that education is the most portable and flexible investment you can make. Truly golden advice!

Mental health: Whether or not you consider yourself to have mental-health “issues” (I myself do; fairly serious ones though manageable), mental health is an investment that always pays off. Barring a chemical imbalance or other condition that may require medication or other special treatment, it’s not about “fixing” yourself so much as really getting to know yourself. Become a brave explorer of your own mind; learn more about what makes you tick, how the human mind works (your own, and minds in general). Some call it “inner permaculture” or working on the inner landscape. I will post some of my favorite resources for this in a follow-up post. For now, be assured there is much available for free online, and you can trust yourself to find what’s right for you. I can truly say that every dollar and every hour I’ve spent on learning to navigate and master the operation of my own mind has paid off thousand-fold. More than all of the above investments combined. Note: If you are experiencing any kind of mental-health crisis right now or at any other time, don’t mess around: Call a hotline or seek other immediate help from a professional.

Music, visual art, storytelling: These arts have been shortchanged in our education system and in greater society, but make no mistake, they are essential to human survival, even if we were only using them to transmit valuable information in memorable form (which of course, is far from being their only value). Solitude and isolation are silent killers; the arts can help bridge the gulf of social isolation. Even in solitude, engaging with the arts reminds us of our connection with all our fellow humans and all of life, across time and space. The elevation of STEM and denigration of the humanities in recent years notwithstanding, a society composed only of scientists, engineers, and MBAs would quickly wither. Resurrect your long-buried art-heart. Sing; play music; even if you simply shake a gourd or bang on a can. And while you’re at it, if you’ve studied sociology, philosophy, anthropology, history — bring those out of the closet as well; we need that knowledge.

Spirituality, metaphysics, the divine: I know not everyone is into this, but I have to mention it since it is the main theme in my life. Everyone who chooses, can cultivate a connection with the divine, the beyond-earthly realms. Ample resources exist online and in libraries, as well as via priests and shamans, established meditation techniques, spiritual sanghas. I have often found all of the above sources helpful. But also, the divine realms are accessible directly by anyone who is willing and interested. No special training or tools needed. Going out in nature and being quiet is one reliable way. Another is engaging in nondemanding repetitive tasks such as sweeping a sidewalk or path, shelling nuts, and allowing your mind to range untethered (when worries come, let them float past rather than engaging with them; this gets easier with practice). Still another is via our dreams. Yet another is listening to music or tuning in to nature’s sounds (rivers, surf, and the sound of trees and grasses rustling in the wind are some of my favorites). The highest prize in life (in my experience) is being able to engage fully on earth while staying connected with the divine (whether you call it God/Goddess, higher self, the cosmos, all-that-is, the transcendent, or some other name).

In the interest of brevity, I have not gone into deep specifics on any of the above solid investments. But I will be adding to this post and/or making follow-up posts on each topic. In the meantime, a wealth of information on food gardening, rainwater harvesting, and other essentials is available free, via sources such as YouTube and public libraries. If you notice anything I left off this list, drop me a line!

Car-Free Living Tips

In my recent post about the value of reducing one’s financial overhead (even after the economic shutdown from Coronavirus eases), I mention doing without a car as one major way to cut overhead. I could have sworn I had written you a post awhile back, offering a compilation of articles on the benefits of car-free living. But it seems I did not! Or at least I can’t find it if I did. So … Rustling up some links for you now:

I Live in the Suburbs Without a Car — Here’s How You Can Too (Realtor.com). I agree with her tip about setting aside $1,000 per year for taxis and other car service. I probably spend about $200-500 a year. A tiny fraction of the cost of car ownership, and none of the headache of car trouble.

9 Big Reasons Why You Should Choose To Live Without a Car (The Frugal Gene). Cost, safety, no more parking hassle, etc.

A House in the Suburbs, Three Kids, and No Car (USA.Streetsblog.org). “The Montgomery family in Brampton [Ontario] realized that the mother’s salary was consumed by the costs of car ownership and day care. They sold both cars three years ago, and now she stays home and the family of five bikes and uses transit.”

Car-Free Living (Payette.com): Three people’s perspectives. I like how one person ended up expanding her “walkable radius” to 5 miles.

Living Car-Free in American Suburb (RayAtkinsonPlans.wordpress.com): A transportation planner who loves city life ends up taking a job in the suburbs because the job is very rewarding, offers great opportunity to make a difference.

Living Car-Free in Rural Areas (discussion thread on bikeforums.net)

I haven’t finished rustling up links yet but those should hold you for now! If you try car-free living, let me know how it goes. Or if you’re already doing it, share your favorite tips!

Photo shows my trusty errand bike, a single-speed Trek Earl with cage-style panniers. The shopping bags are “new”; I sewed them this past week. The fabric is canvas from discarded beach furniture that looked practically new. Love the bright color: Bonus for cycling safety.

Rethinking Celebrations

The daughter of a friend had set her wedding date for this spring, but has postponed it til fall. If it were my decision to make, I would go ahead with the original wedding date — but have the celebration online, maybe with only immediate family members physically present.

Life goes on. Young couples ready to get married, start families and all should go ahead and get married, not wait. For that matter, same with old couples who are ready to get married. We shouldn’t assume that things will be “back to normal” at some future date. (And in fact, fall being hurricane season in this part of the country, I would not plan an event for that time of year anyway. Learned from experience.)

Am I saying we should forget about celebrations? No! An online event is still an event! In many ways it opens up possibilities: More people can attend. And there can be more room for heartfelt creativity in the tributes we make. You could send the happy couple a congratulatory meal by delivery after the wedding’s over; you could video a congratulatory performance of some kind, such as singing them a song.

And in-person celebrations aren’t gone for good; just for now. I do see this shutdown of events as a “correction”; an opportunity to rethink the mass long-distance “travel at the drop of a hat” to which many of us have become accustomed. So accustomed, in fact, that a person almost feels like a spoil-sport or a renegade for choosing not to travel across several states to attend a wedding, graduation, or other gathering. But if nothing else, I figure a young couple could use money, and at least part of the money I’d spend on travel and hotel, I could instead give as a gift.

I feel the same about graduations. Whatever we lose by not gathering in person, I think we make up for by saving travel footprint, time, and energy. And money (at least some of which is then freed up to be given as a gift if we choose). Northeastern University is holding its graduation online, reports Channel 10 Boston.

I feel bad for the hotels and event venues that are losing bookings. But the individuals who run those places, and the individuals who work there, are sure to devise their own creative strategies for earning a livelihood that does not depend on events or long-distance travel. (As just one example, a lot of my musician friends are live-streaming performances. Online art shows are happening as well.)

Even funerals are going online. This is not just a response to the Coronavirus; it’s actually a trend that’s emerged over the past decade or so, according to funeral industry experts. I like the idea. We have all this great telecommunication technology and broadband infrastructure; what better use for it than to bring more people together, while taking a load off of people’s schedules and wallets, not to mention Earth’s ecosystems!

Yes, of course telecommunications has an eco footprint. Servers use quite a bit of electricity. But I think that if you add up all the costs of a physical gathering, you come out ahead with a virtual celebration. The present circumstances invite us to really push the envelope of what it means to have the best of both worlds: We get to (are forced to) spend most of our time at home. And at the same time, thanks to technology, we also get to spend time gathered in each other’s living rooms, collapsing distance and time.

Further Reading:

Virus could change funerals; how we handle death (Daytona Beach News-Journal): Live-streaming funerals, and using social media as a gathering space for celebrating a loved one’s life, has become a growing trend over the past few years — and one that could continue to grow even after the virus panic passes, say experts quoted in the article.

Other examples: Sports events are a kind of celebration. They are starting to go television-only, with athletes playing to empty stadiums; see photos and report in Wired Magazine. (But then many have canceled their seasons entirely.) The Olympics might even get canceled — or maybe it’ll just be online/TV only! NASCAR has introduced simulator-based racing, which is televised and offers the excitement of crashes (without the blood) and familiar star racers.

Movie studios are starting to release films onto DVD and streaming at the same time as the theater release date (not that the theaters are open). Universal Studios was the first studio to do this, reports Vanity Fair.

Many churches I know are streaming their Sunday services. I just listened to my pastor, Rev. Kathy Tew Rickey of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ormond Beach, on YouTube! Check out her sermon to hear some comforting words amid the pandemic — and to see a beautiful example of how a church can keep many of its programs going, and maintain a sense of family, via phone and online channels.

And finally, April 22, 2020, marks the 50th Earth Day — and the first-ever digital Earth Day. Visit EarthRise2020.org to register and to invite friends.