Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose (A post that has nothing to do with roses)

A slow down is a down turn is a slight bump in the road is a ....

Are we calling it a recession yet?

Because I think we can safely say it's official. I've started noticing it just as a matter of every day life. A lot of stores and shops (with the exception of our local Safeway which just did a complete makeover including installing an instore Starbucks, just two doors down from our local Starbucks, don't get me started) look a bit thin on new stock. Spring came and with it new spring and summer shipments for shelves, but far less of it than usual. Especially in shops that carry nonessentials. And restaurants. Less people in them, less waiters and waitresses on staff.

I know virtually all of these shop owners and workers personally and so I've talked with them about it. It's not just my imagination. Things are slow. Things are teetering on bad. Some people are hanging onto their jobs or businesses by the skin of their teeth. Others have already given up or been let go. Did I mention yet that our lovely, lovely, lovely tea room has closed it's doors?! SOB.

In Ashland, a town that's built on the tourist trade, it was even more dramatic. (Dramatic. Ashland. Ha ha. Get it? Theatre? Dramatic? Okay, nevermind.) Shops that have been there for decades are considering closing or were already gone. The restaurants and motels that are usually busy were ghostlike. It's nice to be able to get a table creekside without a wait but....

Hubby's job is secure, for which I'm grateful. (In fact, California's budget crisis has, inadvertently, been to our financial advantage.) Raising a large family, we've always lived close to the bone and tried not to live at the edge of our abilities. We've thrift shopped, bought used cars, lived in a house that was cozy instead of big. People thought we were crazy, or at least eccentric. Now it's starting to pay off for us and people aren't laughing at our choices like they did.

I wanted to make this post be about the economy, write another post about living a simple lifestyle, and pen a third post about the environment. But when I tried to unravel what I wanted to say, it wouldn't work. These issues are all intertwined so tightly that I can't just pull out one at a time. It's like trying to explain the taste of cake one ingredient at a time - eggs, flour, sugar.... It makes no sense to talk about each thing individually. It's how they all work together that makes a cake a cake.

So, yeah. Apparently we're in a recession. Which, I might point out, I've been waiting for ever since the big Shock and Awe display. You can't bleed money at the rate we've been bleeding and expect to stay healthy. I'm not so much surprised we're economically anemic as I am flabbergasted at how many people thought it wouldn't happen.

So here we are in a recession. This is where I could say that it's forced us to budget, cut our spending, make new choices, simplify our life. Everyone would understand. It's what everyone is doing. You do what you have to do. Only, that's not true. We are, knock on wood, economically stable enough for now.

After a couple years of financial frolicking (our first opportunities to do so as a family, ever) we do want to now settle down to a smaller budget. We don't want to spend less money so much as we want to spend it for different goals - our house needs some TLC and upgrading, college expenses for another child is looming in the future, and beyond that retirement in whatever form that happens. (In our case it certainly won't mean a condo and golf in the afternoons!)

But now that we've had a bit of fun, I'm ready to do be less of a consumer and more of a ..... I don't know what. Not necessarily a producer either, unless it's in a creative mode. I don't want to increase quantity, just quality. When you do without for a long time, it's probably a given that one will experiment with how much one can accumulate when it's finally possible. But you can't buy everything, where do you put it all!? It's not that I want to give it all away and move to Walden's Pond, but I am still, and more strongly, examining my relationship with STUFF, trying to form new and healthier ways of interacting with it alll.

And then there's the environment. I find it inspiring, bittersweet, sad, and amusing all at the same time that GREEN is back in style. Even my kids, who, for the most part, have spent the start of their adult lives rebelling from childhood, their hippy mom's vegetable growing, herbal tincture making, composting, recycling, Goddess song singing lifestyle, are now "discovering" things like clotheslines, compact cars, and local farmer's markets. Although I'm thrilled to see the tide turning - or rather, REturning - this new generation thinks they've DISCOVERED all these amazingly important and useful ideas and issues for the VERY FIRST TIME. Everything old is new again? I know back in the 70's, at the peak of the back-to-the-land movement, oldtimers must have found us amusing as we were growing gardens, making our own quilts, nursing our babies. That stuff was what they did as a matter of course, what they did by necessity not choice.

And then, for a lot of my generation, the dreams faded or were beaten down. Recessions, yuppies, world changes coming so fast it was hard to keep up, and just the everyday struggle to raise families, keep gas in the car and a roof over our heads - it was hard to keep the fervor. I remember outright derision from people when I was still worried about pollution and recycling and organic foods in the 80's. That was so LAST decade. Let's party! Let's all buy new cuisinarts and top of the line coffee grinders and these new fangled things called Personal Computers.

I admit, a lot of my ideals had the edges worn down. I kept up the whole foods, composting, ecology, living lightly on the earth as much as I could. But some years it was all I could do to keep a family of seven in shoes and snacks and make sure everyone got to their Little League practices on time. But now I have the time and opportunity to "get back to my ideals" in more serious ways.

Before we left for Paris I started to formulate a plan. When we returned, I wanted to do a stint of nonconsumerism. Take a month, say, or maybe a week at a time, or day at a time, whatever worked, and buy nothing but necessary items. Being a consumer is a lot like being a smoker, now that I think about it. Trying to quit is hard. It's addictive. It's a habit. It's tied up with psychological and emotional comfort in ways that aren't healthy but we've grown dependent upon.

I knew, even as I firmed up my commitment to the idea, that it was unlikely I'd be successful at such an extreme goal. I didn't really care about it as an absolute. It didn't feel like a competitive challenge or something I wanted to prove I could do it. It's more a longing to move towards something. A sense that this is a direction that will bring me more true content and joy than anything I can currently afford to go out and pluck from a store shelf. And since we've been back home I have spent less, bought less, and spent what little time I've been home being at home. No, I haven't completely done without the dinner out or the Starbucks coffee or the new book purchase. But for every item or service I've bought or used, I've walked away from buying dozens more. Not by strength of will power, but by disinterest. I don't want it. I certainly don't need it. (although, I'm still in a state of confusion about what to do with or about all the stuff I already own - stuff that owns me?)

Which, of course, leads me back round to the recession. In Ashland, it was as if the waitresses and shopkeepers and motel staff and gas attendants were overtly GRATEFUL to us for coming, for spending, for helping them hang on to their jobs. Locally I know the waittresses and cashiers, I know which ones are single mothers, which ones have children who go to school with my kids or who suffer from bad backs, have mortage problems or ailing parents. I want to cut back on how much we eat out and spend while at the same time I feel a sense of responsibility towards these people who I care about, whos lives I touch regularly in a small, drop-in-the-bucket way. It's an emotional conundrum.

And yet, stimulating the economy by spending, spending, spending can't be the only solution. It's a pyramid scheme that's doomed to eventually crash in on those at the bottom. There has to be a better solution, a sustainable solution. Just like the environmental crisis can't be solved by ignoring it or going back to being hunter/gatherers living in skins and weaving baskets. We have to find a fulcrum where we can balance it all. We have to find that balance on a global level, we have to find it on a national level, and I want to find it on a personal level - knowing that it's not one single spot, but a segment I need to find and then try to keep my movement within it's length.

I'm talking about a continuum, a long line with extremes on either side. It's a tidy way to imagine it. In real life, however, it presents itself like a box of yarn, hopelessly tangled together. Which skein does one untangle first? Where are the ends from which to start? At what point does one give up on a tight knot and just cut through for a new start?

I took another of those "carbon footprint" online tests the other day. There are many of them out there and they are meant to show you how environmentally conscious (or not) you are, how lightly you do or do not live on this earth. I've taken enough of them now to feel a shiver of apprehension about how I will score. I think of myself as environmentally conscious and active compared to most folks around me but I always end up with a disappointingly heavy footprint as my result. I know why, and it's mostly because the tests don't accomodate certain choices or circumstances.

For instance, I don't get brownie points for using public transportation. But, HELLO, we don't HAVE any public transportation in our small town. It's really insane. Without a car, you literally can not arrive at or depart from our community. We're a hundred miles away through high chaparral and mountain forest from the nearest bus or train. We're a four or six hour drive to the nearest metropolitan commuter line system. Most of the local population live in the country, along dangerously narrow and isolated roads and highways miles and miles from services.

We live in town and I try to walk whenever I can, which only works if I'm not getting groceries or picking up a son with 70 pounds of football gear. Our town is tiny though, I drive a compact car, and I don't even take my car out every day. It probably average out to 2-4 miles of driving a day. This is much less than your suburban mom or average commuter - who, by the way, probably commutes not by choice but was driven far away from where they work by crime and/or exorbitant housing costs and so I think they're not the cause of our dependency on cars as much as they are victims of their gas guzzling commutes. America often offers no other reasonable options.

Another thing that twists my gas usage - long distance travel. I rack up minimum mileage at home but if I try to visit family up and down the Pacific Coast, the odometer spins so fast it blurs. Life has flung my kids all over the place. How do I balance family health with environmental health? And let's not even mention traveling overseas. We've already had people suggest it was unpatriotic of us to spend our money in another country. Forget "It's a Small World After All" - apparently global togetherness only counts if we're spending American dollars.

I also get notched down for not buying new Energy Star appliances - but I don't get credit for not owning a zillion energy using appliances in the first place. We don't have central heat and air, we don't air condition our home, I only use my clothes dryer in the winter. I used to grow the majority of the fruits and vegetables my family ate, but now I live in a harsh, dry environment with a short, risky growing season, and like may people, I don't have the LAND to grow my family's needs. We don't have community gardens available. It's not that I don't do it, it's that I can't do it.

There was a show on the Sundance Channel recently that highlighted a famous couple who build a completely green new home. While I applaud their environmental consciousness, I couldn't help but consider the fact that they were privileged to have that choice - not everyone can just up and build a new home or even afford to make changes to an existing one (assuming as well that they own and do not rent their living space) - and that while their home might have been completely green, it was also ENORMOUS. Easily six TIMES the size of our home. Where did "more is less" fit into their choices?

It seems like absolutely everything is a choice nowadays. Paper or plastic? Or bring your own bags? I want to make and bring my own bags but I don't because I know if I do then my husband will just go out and buy plastic bags to line the garbage cans (yes, I know you can use them unlined - tell my husband - or more importantly, tell my cats not to use their litter box that necessitates emptying into something disposable) instead of using the cheap plastic bags our groceries come home in. How do I buy local food when the only really local food is BEEF and I generally don't eat cows? Should I buy and spend less and watch people in our small town lose jobs? Should I visit my children and grandchildren less? Do I continue to use my old refrigerator or washing machine because they still work and replacing them would turn them into more landfill, or should I buy new energy efficient machines that will pay for themselves in energy costs in a few year's time?

We already cut down on driving just to "go out for a drive". We replaced all our lightbulbs with the new ones that look like Dairy Queen ice cream cones. We buy used, compost and recycle everything we can, turn off lights, unplug things when not in use, and buy in bulk when possible. We do all the small things that consumer's are encouraged to do. In fact we've been doing all those small things, and sometimes more, for decades. Still other people do not. And no matter that I turn off my porch light, businesses up and down Main Street keep their stores and signs lit up day and night, Walmart shines inside like a football stadium. People still buy water in pastic bottles stacked in cardboard crates and then shrink wrapped into even MORE plastic. Hello? Sigh.

I guess that's it. I've kept you here at your computers, depressing you for long enough. I have no words of wisdom at the end of this lengthy pondering. No moral of the story. No insights or thought provoking question to leave you thinking. Just me. Muddling. Untangling. Confused.

Maybe I'll go distract myself. We have a new Indian Restaurant in town and it's finally opened it's doors. Hey, I told ya. I'm not a perfect UNconsumer. Let's pretend it's for a good cause, for the sake of "currying" flavor.., I mean favor with other cultures. (Oh, that was bad!)

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Anonymous alala said...

I understand your dilemma, and I don't have answers either. We just became something I swore I'd never be part of: a two-car family. But my husband has to commute to another country, and I still have to get groceries and deliver kids to sports in other villages. I feel really bad about this, but I don't know how else to do it. I tell myself it's just for this year. I hope that turns out to be true.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Tanya Brown said...


I can really relate to your post. I've been going through a similar period ... lightening my material load, reviewing the manner and ethics by which I live, and wondering where our particular handbasket is going.

For awhile there, I was in a knee jerk mode in which I'd get a craft or fabric store coupon and go off and buy ... stuff. Stuff, stuff and more stuff. Stuff crammed everywhere in my house, so many places that there really wasn't room to live.

Getting out of that mode has been nice. One happy result is that when I get a wild hare and really want something, like a book or a piece of artwork, I usually have sufficient "allowance" money to go do it. It feels like a better, less compulsive relationship with discretionary funds.


5:28 PM  
Blogger JulieZS said...

Well said Laume, I totally concur. I also have more questions than answers, but I comfort myself with the thought that at least I am *asking* the questions. This is where change begins. With an individual such as yourself, making a choice (voting with their $$) every second of every day. And influencing every single being (human or not) around them in some way, big or small.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Jaye said...

You aught to take this post to both QC and PV. I had this conversation on Pagten about 3 months ago, and having lived similarly for years I feel the same way. Why is it now hip to be green, etc. The biggest thing that irritates me is the whole "buy yourself out of your carbon debt" play that is going on. Not one of the 8-10 Carbon Footprint tests that I took was without it's wee spot for "contribute your money..." to ease your guilt. grrrr... Maybe I'll dig up my posts and send them to the lists.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Belita Rose said...

Okay so in my defense I didn't grow up with a mom that grew vegetables, recycled, or even used the word organic. So it really is all new to me! (Remember I was just an egg the first time it was in.) I am also one of those suffering from the commute problem, and only having one car with which I have to use to drive Joe back and forth to work everyday. Hopefully next year, after we've recovered from buying a house, we'll be able to get a hybrid and help with both problems! But I am doing a lot more, thanks to all of your knowledge, and wise teachings!! :)

5:44 PM  

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