Monday, April 30, 2007


I hereby declare my intention to run the 2007 Royal Victoria Half-Marathon, and by doing so publicly, I invite my friends and family to encourage, cajole, and scold me into sticking with my training program. Flattest marathon route in the Pacific Northwest. Done it before, I can do it again. But oh, the pain of starting out at 2 paltry miles. Sigh.

Enrico ran 13 miles yesterday just for fun. An entire half-marathon, for which I will slowly and painfully train over five long months, just for fun. Show-off. He wants to run the full Victoria marathon - which happens to be our on 12th wedding anniversary! Won't that be a sweet way to spend it, icing each others' aching IT bands? We'll need somebody to come along and hold our sweatpants and take our pictures and cheer us on though. Victoria is lovely in October!

Friday, April 27, 2007

At the risk of beating a dead horse

I have never once asked for responses to a blog post, mostly because it seems bossy and narcissistic, but also because it would certainly reveal the paltry number of people who actually read this blog. Which is no skin off my nose, but why go out of the way to point it out?

However, there's a piece on Slate that serves as a timely counterpoint to my recent longwinded post on religion, which moves me to encourage some responses from my few loyal readers. I suspect I am wedged between loyal readers who are more traditionally (in a Western sense) and monotheistically religious, who find my religious leanings so vague and watered down as to be virtually meaningless - a mile wide and an inch deep, so to speak; and those loyal readers who find the entire concept of religion useless and even dangerous, and fear that I've gone off the deep end every time I broach the subject, averting their eyes as if from an otherwise rational person who maintains an embarassing belief in fairies.

Certainly, the latter view is vigorously espoused by Christopher Hitchens in his upcoming book as excerpted on Slate, and it is a view that has seen increasingly aggressive articulation of late from thoughtful atheists who are - understandably - alarmed by what fundamentalist and oppressive religion seems to be doing to our world.

I will thus offer up Mr. Hitchens' piece, as well as a few other counter-arguments to my own position, and I would warmly invite non-abusive comment of any viewpoint on this subject.

Because I see a growing confrontation between two extremes - those who sincerely believe religion in a particular form must be imposed on everyone, and those who sincerely believe religion must be eradicated from human culture. I find this alarming because I think trying to eliminate the spiritual impulse is fruitless.

So - some final counterarguments heard from respected friends and family:

  • Even if there is a natural human urge to explore questions of greater meaning, why can't that need be met through philosophy rather than religion? This is a good point, in my opinion. Especially if philosophy could be pursued in supportive communities, and you added a little music. I don't actually know where the line is between theology and philosophy. I'm sure there must be, oh, say, a classicist out there who could enlighten us on this one, at least from the etymological/historical perspective.
  • How can you really have religion or even spirituality without God, and a soul? At some point, don't you get so far away from the world's generally accepted concept of religion that you make a mockery of it by trying to make it acceptable to everyone? Here I would go back to Buddhism without god, or for that matter Judaism without the immortal soul - our definition of religion exists soundly in the cultural lens of the so-called "Christian nation" that is the US. But, I think there's a fair point here. Who sets the boundaries of religious definition?
Talk amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

And now for something completely different

I am just excited beyond words for tonight's episode of Lost. What is up with Juliet? Could she be more inscrutable? Is she on anyone's side but her own, and why will she see the Others in a week? Where did Rousseau disappear to, and when will she pop up again? Is Locke's evil dad really on the island or is it a mirage, like Jack's dead dad or Hurley's imaginary asylum-friend? Where is Locke now? Will Charlie actually die? Will we ever find out whether Michael and Walt made it back to civilization, and if so are they doing anything to get the Lostaways rescued? Could they team up with the tenacious and wealthy Penny? Or is Michael too guilt-ridden? Who the hell is Jacob? Why is Jack still the "leader" when his judgment is so consistently terrible? Wouldn't you pick Sayid as your leader, with his mad skillz and his unfailing ability to tell when people are lying? What's going to happen to poor pregnant Sun? Is Charlie really going to die? Is the island really invisible to the world or is Ben just bluffing? Will the Dharma Initiative food drops stop? Why wouldn't the Losties go take over Otherland's lovely little surburban camp, with its electricity and running water and comfy mattresses, and recode the security fence to keep the Others out?

I don't think we'll get all those answers tonight, but after a bumpy start to the season, they've got me hooked.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A truly pompous pondering that I'm wholly unqualified for, but who cares

Recently I've had a couple of conversations about religion with people whom I know very well, which have me thinking. I feel a need to compose my thoughts, so painfully and imperfectly articulated, into some kind of order. Before I launch into that bit, I should probably spend a moment on Unitarian Universalism, since I've found most people know little about it. This will seem like an essay but bear with me. It is in no way intended as evangelism for Unitarian Universalism - this essay will show that evangelism is contrary to the very nature of the beast - but it provides some legitimate context for the later bits.

Unitarianism and Universalism, which merged in the 1960s, started in the Protestant reformation. Unitarianism's particular heresy was anti-Trinitarian, that is, they rejected the Christian concept of Trinity as something that doesn't appear in scripture and was made up by men. This may not sound like a big-whoop now, but back then it got Unitarianism's founding theologian burned at the stake by a very cranky John Calvin. Universalists, somewhat like Quakers, believed in the universality of divine spirit - the divine in all of us - and universal salvation - no such thing as hell.

Both faiths moved away from Christianity in the 1800s, the Unitarians more so after the influence of the Transcendalists - the Alcotts, Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne - which emphasized divine revelation from the natural world (think of Thoreau), the relentless exploration of individual conscience (Emerson), and the mandate of reformist action in the world (Alcott).

What eventually emerged from all the evolutions and merging is a faith that has core principles*, but intentionally demands no creed. It draws on the Judeo-Christian traditions that gave it birth, but others as well. You can believe in god, broadly defined, but you don't have to. About 20% of UUs think of themselves as Christian, and 80% believe in God in some form. About 20% think of themselves as humanists, seeking revelation of truth primarily through the human intellect. What really ties everybody together is a passionate commitment to the individual pursuit of spiritual truth, and the call to put justice and compassion into practice in daily life. That, and the love of a good book - supposedly we buy more books per capita than any other religious group.

Ok, that was long, but here's the point. I keep having conversations with non-religious people who are stuck on the idea that religion requires God. They can't be religious because they don't believe in God. I think lots of monotheists have discarded the anthropomorphic, bearded, male deity, but God still seems pretty critical to the whole endeavor. Yet as the preceding essay indicates, I hang with a crowd who don't think that's true. But lest you dismiss us as marginal, bear in mind that Buddhism has no god concept - rather a universal divine force not unlike that of modern Universalists or even liberal Quakers.

So this got me thinking - what is religion? How is it different from faith, or the ubiquitously generic "spirituality?" Here's what I think.

It's a natural human urge to ask questions of meaning and purpose, and to explore the sense of awe that life sometimes brings. Every now and then we hear or read or experience something that makes us go, "Yes! That's what I feel!" It's not perfect, but it seems to approximate some bigger truth that we're grasping at, aiming for. Sometimes the moments of clarity seem to come more readily when we talk with other people who are thinking about the same kinds of questions.

When we achieve those rare moments of clarity, we want to capture them. It's hard work, thinking about The Meaning of Life or Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. It's elusive, that sense of wonder we feel when gazing at a beautiful mountain view, or grasping the tiny fingers of a baby. So when we get something that works for us, we write it down, or set it to music, or develop a ritual that seems to reliably recreate our satisfying sense of awe or peace or clarity. We get with our like-minded friends and we agree, yes, this is what we think. This is what works for us.

But then, because the words and the rituals are imperfect, and because we are constantly evolving as thinking, experiential beings - the written words and the rituals don't stay just right forever. Some of the people are more concerned about maintaining the purity of the words and the rituals, and seem less interested in the underlying truth, and that bothers us. Maybe our group of friends is able to keep evolving, but maybe they don't evolve well enough for us. Maybe we leave the group and start over someplace else.

The striving towards truth and meaning and awe - I think that is spirituality. I think nearly every human being has that, whether they think about it that way or not.

The urge to articulate it, and put it into durable form - that is faith. Not faith as in "have faith in God" but as in the concept of a faith tradition. A set of beliefs - however loose or specific - and ways to act on that belief. Not everybody feels the need for a faith.

The group of people who agree to get together and work those beliefs and actions together, that is religion. Religion is the institution or community of people that is created around beliefs, ideally to nourish its members' spirituality, to elicit each person's best self in community with others. Religion is tricky, because it suffers from the same foibles and inconstancies as any other human endeavor. It is often co-opted for societal purposes that have nothing to do with either spirituality or faith.

I further believe that as humans, we've gotten these concepts all confused. Many people are - understandably - repulsed by many things that have been done by religions, and can't see that sometimes those religions nonetheless have very lovely faiths underneath them. People see that most religions have a god concept, and think that spirituality requires God. There are too many people who think their particular faith and religion has the only right answer, which drives other people to run screaming from the whole concept. Religion is at its best when it understands these distinctions, and looks for the common themes of faith - the golden rule, peace, justice, human dignity, the interconnectedness of all life on earth - rather than the differences between religions.

That's what I think. At least as of today. Because I believe in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, I reserve the right to think something different tomorrow - and because I believe in the right of conscience, I'm happy for anyone to argue something different.

The seven principles affirmed by Unitarian Universalists:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Monday, April 23, 2007

Maybe putting it in writing will help

Things we really ought to do on our house, in no particular order: (Warning: Enrico should probably stop reading right here because this will just stress him out.)

  • Tear down our leaning carport and have it rebuilt
  • Figure out how to fix the dripping hot water tap in the bathroom
  • Figure out why the cold water sporadically stops working in the kitchen
  • Call a structural engineer to figure out why cracks are appearing, and cabinets not closing, in the kitchen
  • Replace the bedroom light fixture which hasn't worked since the roof leaked three years ago
  • Verify that the roof leak which appeared after the December storm really is fixed
  • Replace the window in the living room that broke its seal in the December storm and filled with condensation
  • Patch the drywall behind the washing machine from when we had the house re-plumbed four years ago
  • Replace the thermostat on the furnace
  • Replace the washing machine with a front-loader
  • Replace the rotten siding by the dryer vent
  • Have the house painted
  • Clean and re-stain the fence and trellis
How did the list get so long???

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Populist leftist freak that I am

Here in Seattle, we have hired ourselves a new superintendent of public schools. The rest of the country may be unaware that the Seattle public schools have been in a state of conflict, financial distress, and general turmoil for some time. I have a friend who has become a prominent citizen activist on this subject, and started a blog that now draws lively discourse and thousands of visitors.

A recent post on the site (not from my friend) talked about behavior expectations in middle school and high school. Attire, gum-chewing, headphones and sunglasses in class, cursing, and back-talk were all discussed, with a general sense of shock at what was tolerated, and wondering whether the adults were fuddy-duddies in their expectations, or the schools were too lax, or the parents too complicit (since after all, somebody bought the hot pink thong and low-rider jeans for the 14-year-old girl).

Once again it makes me ponder my unlikely and fortunate high school experience. Students didn't have to go to class - well, some departments made you go, and some didn't. English required attendance, as did PE because nobody would've shown up for that. But other departments didn't take attendance. You had to do your work and pass your classes, so in that sense it was like college - skip at your own risk.

We had a student-only lounge, where we hung out on grungy furniture, much of it salvaged from street corners on the university campus or purchased second-hand. Kids went there during free time (or skipped classes) to sleep, socialize, study, dance, and snuggle. There was a beautiful, long wooden table - easily 20 feet long, like something from a medieval castle - where students did homework or played cards. The lounge was governed by a committee, with one member elected from each class, which set and enforced rules of behavior and was also responsible for the upkeep of the lounge. That meant raising money to replace furniture or buy amenities - which was done partly through a jukebox but also through other entrepreneurial activities - and then prioritizing needs, making decisions, and arranging the necessary purchases or repairs.

In short, within the confines of that room, we were our own little democratic republic. Short of something really extreme, no adult was going to come in and settle disputes or discipline anyone. It was up to us, either directly or through our elected representatives. We lobbied and campaigned for what we thought should happen, and occasionally even experimented with non-violent protest. (For example, the time a student played "Live and Let Die" on the jukebox a dozen times every single day until we all begged to have the song permanently removed. As Enrico can testify, to this day I can't listen to more than two bars of that song without lunging for the OFF button.)

Now, there are many, MANY ways that my high school was not normal, I will certainly grant that. Not least that it was very small, just 300 students in five grades. But I have often wondered how that experiement in self-governance impacted us, our understanding of rights and responsibilities, and the compromises necessary for the common good. I wonder how it changed our behavior in class, when there was an adult around to instill order. I wonder how much adult intervention actually happened behind the scenes, even when we thought we controlled our own destiny.

A few years ago I went back to my home town and visited the school. The lounge is still there, but there's no jukebox; the beautiful medieval table is gone (how did they even get it out the door?). The crazy furniture was replaced by sterile plastic picnic benches. Maybe there's still a Lounge Committee, I don't know, but I wonder if the great experiement in self-government, for decades part of the educational experience at that school, came to an end.

If so, I think it's a shame. Maybe part of teaching kids about societal expectations is making space for them to create their own society. A middle ground between demanding that they follow rules set down by - and inconsistently enforced by - weary adults, and leaving kids to their own devices entirely. How else do you learn empathy for somebody who has a completely different view on how things should be run? How else do you learn empathy for the person who has to negotiate a compromise, or enforce a rule when it's unpleasant to do so? These are the experiences that modulate our behavior, that allow us to say, "Well, I don't agree with that person, but I was in the minority last week and I remember how it felt" - and thus to talk to our peers with respect and compassion, even in conflict. Of course kids are learniing that all the time, from a young age, from their families and schools and the world. But by middle school and high school, we should be able to up the ante and get serious about the lesson. Surely it's no less important than the three Rs.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The historical detective game

I'm not exactly sure why genealogy is so fascinating to so many people. Certainly, up until a few years ago, I found it very weird. I was always a bit curious about the American side of my family, but that was mostly because we are recent immigrants on that side. There is nobody alive who even knows the names of my great-grandparents, and in all likelihood I could never find out. I visited the museum at Ellis Island a few years back and tried to picture myself in the confused mass of people, a babel of languages, the fear and excitement and uncertainty of it all. I didn't need the facts of my family's story; it was enough to try to feel the shared experience of so many people coming to this country, or even to Argentina, or Brazil, or Canada.

With the other side of the family - the adventurous Rutabegas, with their far-flung travels and the mountains and towns named after them - it's a whole different story. So much of the historical record is there, waiting to be found! I can find pictures of my great-great grandparents on the Internet. I can hear them speak to me from the pages of books. And so, when I encounter a gap in the records, or a mystery, I want to know. I want to know how that little boy in the photograph died, just a few short months later. I want to know what kind of inhertance motiviated Julian Rutabega to break the world snowshoeing record just to change his name, halfway around the world. I want to know what happened to my great-great-aunt's journal, potentially holding answers to these questions, but seemingly vanished into the mists of time.

Moxie and I have decided, upon consultation with our wise aunt in the north, to write our book as historical fiction. This allows us to take advantage of interesting historical background that might not line up exactly with our story. And more importantly, it allows us to write from the standpoint of the women, who are not so well represented in the historical record as the men, but whose stories fascinate us.

Thus I returned from Edmonton ready to write. But I needed some background help, because writing fiction requires the ability to describe your setting. So young Sarah wakes up one morning in Red River Settlement, poised to go out in the world and meet her future husband. What does she wear? What does she have for breakfast? What chores are assigned to her?

To help me with this, I picked up a few books from the university library, which holds a surprising wealth of relevant material. A book of first-hand reminiscences from 1923, entitled "Women of Red River: Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era," seemed like just the ticket. And sure enough, it was filled with just the sort of detail I require. What they burned in their lamps. How they made cheese (using calf stomachs in lieu of cheesecloth, in case you wondered). What they wore, and learned in school, and did for entertainment during the long winter evenings. It's all there.

And then, on page 167, unexpectedly, the voice of my great-great-grandmother herself. Talking about many things, including a difficult journey back home to the far north from Winnipeg, when all four of her young children came down with whooping cough. "I was in great distress for the poor children, and found it hard to relieve their sufferings. That journey was one of hardship, I will admit. I never knew greater kindness than the boatmen showed in doing everything they could to make it easier for us. And when at last we got to the mission of the French sisters...the sisters took us in, and made the children comfortable. My little boy who was two years old died there, and is buried there."

And so, by sheer chance, I learn how the little boy in the picture dies, a few short months later. He dies of whooping cough, far from home, in the care of the French sisters. This, then, is why people love genealogy, the great historical detective game. It is hardly interesting to anyone else, but as soon as the people step out of time and become real to you - you're hooked.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Update from the Great White North

What fun we are having in my other country. My sister Moxie and I always have a grand time together, of course. And my aunt, a tiny, impish, clever woman who has gone over her lifetime has been a television producer, a high school teacher, and a priest, has a wonderfully quirky sense of humor and uses words like "wee" and "madly" in regular conversation. Together, we have been taking Edmonton by storm.

I finally - FINALLY - managed to get my Canadian passport photos taken. Of course they are a different size than US passport photos so getting the photos has been a significant holdup in the whole passport process. So that was high on my list.

We went to a book store, and I always appreciate the opportunity to get books by Canadian authors on Canadian subjects. It's virtually impossible to find them in the US.

We visited two archives, one of which was incredibly casual and almost chaotic, and had a lot of family papers that weren't all that informative but were nonetheless interesting. The second archive was state-of-the-art, where we had to leave everything except pencils and paper outside. We thought we'd find something new there, but it proved to be something we already had. Then we found a ledger book from 1860 for the Anglican mission at Fort Simpson, where we could see what our great-great-grandfather contributed for the Widows and Orphans Fund and the Indian Mission Fund, as well as how the priest described his various Indian parishoners. (He considered most of them to be "careless" or "indifferent.")

All in all, a fun day. Our aunt is going to help talk to a distant relative about surrendering the remaining family papers either to me or (better) to an archive. It may entail another trip up, to Calgary this time, but that would be fine.

Monday, April 09, 2007

To the Great White North

Later this week I will be heading up to Edmonton, Alberta to have a ladies' weekend with my sister and my aunt. My sister and I want to write a book about a piece of our family history, which spans from the swaying palm trees of Ceylon to the frigid cold of the far Canadian north. We are torn between trying to write a piece of history and a work of historical fiction. The history is definitely worth telling, especially the underappreciated story of the women, but that would require so much pesky fact-checking. The fiction would allow us to make up some answers to a few family mysteries, and craft a ripping good tale and eventually a screenplay that would make us rich and famous! It's hard to choose.

Anyway, my sister had reason to visit Edmonton on business, so I'm jetting up there too and while we're there we'll do some research, since the University of Alberta archives holds some of our family papers. Doesn't that sentence sound cool, "the archive there holds quite a few of our family papers," as if we're the descendants of Emily Bronte or Thomas Jefferson. As chance would have it, we have also reason to visit Winnipeg in November, where the Hudson's Bay Company Archives hold an absolute treasure trove of relevant material. To have these two trips drop out of the sky in the same year tells me that it's time to actually write this book.

I've been to Edmonton before, but only in summer. I have managed to avoid winter visits to Canada for my whole life, in fact - the closest have been Thanksgiving visits to Toronto and Winnipeg (that would be Canadian Thanksgiving, in October). So I've never experienced the legendary winters, although I did spend a 36-below-zero week in Fairbanks in March once, so I think I get the idea.

At some point, I really want to visit the far north locations of the family saga - York Factory, Fort Simpson - which would take an immense amount of time and money. Fort Simpson is easier, flying Seattle-Edmonton-Yellowknife-Ft. Simpson, with an overnight in Edmonton. According to Parks Canada, getting to York Factory entails charter air transport from "various points in northern Manitoba" - seriously? Have you ever looked at a map of northern Manitoba? I think's its one big swamp.

So we'll just start with the nice, tame archives in the cities of our northern forebears, and see where we go from there.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Who knew?

We are one week away from the tax deadline - a week in which I will be mostly out of the country - and I have not started our taxes. Well, the accountant did the business taxes, thank heavens, but I've done nothing whatsoever about our household taxes. I opened TurboTax today to find that I can't just update the version I bought last year, I have to go out and buy a WHOLE NEW VERSION. I just assumped you could download an update - who knew TurboTax is a disposable product? I am crossing my fingers that this year's version is still available in stores, because I can't go back to the paper and pencil method, I just can't!

(Why am I in charge of the taxes, you might reasonably ask, given that Enrico crunches numbers for a living? Well, the ways in which couples divide up life's chores are mysterious. Suffice to say that I handle all matters financial, and Enrico handles all matters that involve dust, mold, the attic, and getting out of bed at 6 am. Even now, staring down the barrel of the tax deadline, I'm pretty sure I got the better end of the bargain.)

Second thing I learned this week: Did you know you can buy an external 10-key number pad for laptops? Plugs right into the USB port. Isn't that cool? See, I'm typing with it right now: 123456789. This will come in very handy for the whack of survey data entry that I have to do sometime between now and when I leave the country. Along with the taxes. No pressure.

Third thing I learned this week: There is no Hindi for Dummies or Complete Idiot's Guide to Hindi. These well-known (and actually fairly good, despite the titles) language instruction books can be found for Latin, Yiddish, and the languages of Middle Earth - but not for the official language of the second most populous country on Earth. It turns out that Hindi is the native langauge for less than half of the population, and there are over 20 official languages under the Indian constitution. So why does Hindi seem to be the de facto language for Bollywood movies? The more I learn about India, the more confused I get.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

When exactly was kibble invented?

You'd have to live in a cave to have missed the story about the recalled pet food causing liver failure in cats and dogs. A story in the news today reported that pet owners are choosing to home-cook food, and sales of cookbooks and nutritional guides for dogs have skyrocketed. But then the story added a note of caution: "Veterinarians warn that making balanced meals for pets can be complicated and should only be a temporary remedy until the scare passes."

Excuse me? What exactly did canis lupus and felis catus eat for tens of thousands of years before humans figured out how to chop up the most disgusting, unusable portions of animals, freeze-dry them into hard little rocks, and dye them a vaguely meat-like color?

Sure, there are things dogs shouldn't eat, like onions and chocolate. But if it's so hard to figure out what a dog should eat, shouldn't we be a little uncomfortable at being so completely ignorant of what we're currently feeding our pets? I know Americans are are famous for over-doting on our pets, but they do rely on us for their survival. We owe them a degree of care.

And here is where I make a potentially embarassing admission: We have home-cooked our dogs' food for seven years. We use a rice cooker to make big pots of brown rice and quinoa, and mix it with a variety of proteins: meat, tofu, eggs, tuna. The dogs do get some dog food too, but most of their meals are a mix of home-cooked carbs and protein. I know, this sounds nutty. But let me mention a few things in our defense.

First of all, we always have a pot of brown rice and quinoa available for our own consumption, just about the most nutritious mix of whole grains you can cook up.

Second, we started doing this after Nelly got her teeth cleaned, when the discharge instructions called for cooking the dog food for a couple of meals to make it soft - and let me tell you, the stink that came off that dog food made the whole house reek like a glue factory. So we asked ourselves, what the hell is in this stuff? I did a little research and let me tell you, you don't want to know.

Third, once we started feeding them rice & protein, the change in the dogs' health was immediate and striking. Their coats became absolutely luxuriant. Nelly stopped inexplicably throwing up all the time. Their water consumption dropped by about two-thirds. Apparently, living on kibble is like subsisting on vitamin-enhanced extra-salty Doritos.

So is it actually so hard to cook your pets' food? In our experience, the answer is no, and yes. No, it's not onerous, once you get into the routine. Preparing their meals is not at all complicated. But it was surprisingly hard to find out what dogs need, nutritionally, because the pet food industry has has virtually eradicated any memory of life before kibble - circa 1950. When I looked for a book on canine nutrition - not cutesy cook books filled with baked dog treats, but an actual nutrition guide - it was very hard to find. But find one I did, and when I conferred with our vet, she was extremely supportive, but admitted that vet schools now spend about one day - one day - on dog and cat nutrition. "If Nelly were a cow, I could help you," she said, "but honestly, armed with your book, you know about as much as I do." About the only advice she gave us was: feed them more organ meats, because canines in the wild eat the whole animal.

For what it's worth, although our guys are big fans of organ meats, their favorite form of protein, hands down, is fish. They would turn themselves inside out for a can of tuna.

Thus, though it was not my intention, I come back to my previous post, the politics of food. How interesting.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The politics of food

For a long time, I appreciated the importance of organic food, but I was still resentful about how much more expensive everything is at my local "co-op" (it really isn't a co-op, they don't even check your card any more). Trader Joe's has a fair amount of organic stuff, often at a fraction of the price. And the laundry detergent - what's up with that? Why is it literally three times the cost for the same product?

But for some reason recently I have accepted the inescapable morality of my food choices, and begun to try to buy not only organic, but local. The United States has 5% of the world's population, but produces 21% of the carbon emissions. A quarter of our emissions come from our agricultural system, including transporting our food, while ironically, global climate change is projected to put an additional 75 to 125 million people at risk of chronic hunger, due to drought and other disruptions to food production systems. (Citations for these factoids available upon request.)

I happen to live in a place where I could more or less eat locally produced vegetables all year. Granted, if I wanted to be a purist about it, I'd be eating onions and cabbage and beets in the winter, but hey, that's pretty much just going back to my ethnic roots. It would be much tougher in the Midwest.

So lately I have been trying to at least reduce the travel distance of my produce, buying things grown in Washington or even Oregon and BC whenever possible. I can't bring myself to give up peppers, bananas or coffee, which will always have high transport costs, and citrus fruit would be a tough one too. It's not just produce, either - our sojourn in Italy gave us a love of Italian cheeses, and I have yet to find the perfect local artisan pecorino. But I'll keep trying.

I've found that this approach has changed the way I shop and cook. I have in fact become more European, stopping by the store every couple of days and picking my meals based on what looks good at the store. Self-help books on reducing your cost of living will tell you this is a terrible way to live - you should plan your menus out a week in advance, so you can know where to shop cheaply and buy just what you need. I've always been overwhelmed by this advice, and I went through a long period of hating the grocery store. But I have been enjoying myself, selecting the best-looking, most local organic produce I can find, and then figuring out what to do with it while it's still fresh. I've developed an absolute love for collard greens and savoy cabbage!