The great Walmart debate

Let’s start with a confession. I am not unequivocally anti-Walmart.

I expect this comes as a surprise to some of my friends. My politics are pretty left-leaning. I garden and compost. I’m the sort of person who entertains myself making jam, pickles, and chicken broth from scratch. I drive a Civic Hybrid. Indeed, were it not for the fact that I’m allergic to patchouli, I might be in danger of being mistaken for a dirty hippie. Add to that the fact that I grew up in rural Wisconsin, where the nearest town got its Walmart in the late 80s.

It was recently announced that Walmart is intending to open one of their neighborhood markets (a smaller scale store selling only groceries) within walking distance of my house. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the comments on altadenablog (for example here and here). It seems to be basically a done deal, but some members of the community are mobilizing against Walmart anyway.

I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of things another grocery two blocks from the existing Super King is probably not exactly what the neighborhood needs. On the other hand, the site is a building that’s been abandoned the entire seven years I’ve been visiting/living in the neighborhood. At a certain point I think you can make an argument that anything in the space is more productive than nothing.

Of course the Walmart opponents don’t agree. At the same time, though, the opponents don’t seem to recognize the difficulties involved with economic development on the west side of Altadena. One of the organizers is quoted as saying “I don’t think that no one else wants [the building] — if you look at yourself as the ghetto, that’s what you’ll be.” Let’s ignore for a moment the invocation of the G-word, which strikes me as incredibly problematic (but also par for the course when discussing this side of town). I have to wonder where all the someone elses that might want that building, that corner, have been for the past three quarters of a decade.

I’m relatively new to the neighborhood. I’ve only lived here for five years. In that time, though, I’ve watched unfolding drama surrounding the Lincoln Crossing development, just South of the proposed Walmart site. Phase one of the project was to house a 24 Hour Fitness, a Bank of America Branch, a grocery, and an assortment of local businesses. The local businesses have had a hard time of it. The first grocery store closed and was replaced with the Super King, which has been quite successful (but is not an Altadena-based business) Phase two of the project was supposed to be built across the street, but seems like it will never materialize. That history makes it pretty clear that filling in the vacancies along Lincoln with local businesses is a bit easier said than done.
Continue reading “The great Walmart debate”


When the Zombies Come We'll Eat Quinoa and Jam

This post started out as a poem with the same title.  The poem failed to survive the birthing process.  It happens sometimes.  I was taken with the line, though, so I ended up with this instead.

Years ago I made some comment to my mother about my friends with survivalist bents. She–who in her early 30s moved to the country, grew vegetables, and raised chickens–scoffed that anyone thought they had much chance in the case of major permanent supply-disrupting catostrophe. “When society breaks down,” she said, “you won’t be able to get rings to seal your canning jars.” Her point was, perhaps, not that I should learn to pickle. I live, after all, in a climate with no hope of rain 40% of the year (and only a very small chance of rain for another 25% of it). When civilization collapses my throat will turn to dust nearly as quickly as the first generations of Lactobacillus, crucial for turning cabbage to sauerkraut, begin to reproduce. Still, as I play more with food and learn more about fermentation, I think often of this conversation. Of course if I can just magic up some water when the end-times come, I won’t need to worry about keeping food since, with enough irrigation, you can grow something in LA in pretty much any season. And one of the things I find fascinating about living here is that I know so many people who grow something, even if it’s just one fruit tree’s worth. It is strange to me to live in so urban an environment but yet have gardening be an entirely normal thing among my friends (obviously this is, in part, because I select friends who garden; but enough coworker’s grow things too that I don’t think it’s entirely selection).

My experiments in food preservation actually have nothing to do with disaster preparedness (I will even go so far as to confess that though I have pretty much all the trappings of an earthquake kit, they aren’t all gathered in one place; and, indeed, some of the useful camping equipment is in the garage, which is inaccessible without electricity). I think I am more motivated by curiousity than anything else. I would like to understand what food might have looked like before trucks shipped water-logged tasteless tomatoes in February, a time when vegetables weren’t seasonless and locationless. This curiousity probably explains my tendency to sometimes attempt jams that require no commercially prepared pectin (but they typically require lots of citrus which, if you’re attempting to eat local, results in a recipe that’s pretty narrowly geographically appropriate).

My obsession with jam is probably really rooted in our kumquat tree. It grows in a square patch of dirt surrounded by concrete patio. I don’t water it more than a handful of times through the summer. I fertilize it sometimes. When I remember in spring time. And I mulch the soil with the fallen camelia flowers from the other side of the patio (because it is faster to sweep them into the square around the kumquat tree than it is to gather them for the compost pile). For this paltry effort I am rewarded with nearly infinite kumquats. Ignoring them seems wasteful, but when you can pick until you’re bored to tears and still not have made a dent in the supply, what are you supposed to do? My answer to this question is marmalade. This turns out to be a terribly labor intensive answer. However, this problem has a solution, too. I set up a cutting board on the coffee table and chop endlessly while filling my brain with stupid TV (my soap opera of choice lately is Grey’s Anatomy; somehow in less than a year I have watched through the first 7 seaons and by fall I’ll be watching it in real time). I’m pretty sure this was not my foremothers’ solution. On the other hand they probably recruited their older children to help with the cutting. Also, my foremothers were midwesterners so they didn’t have infinite kumquats to contend with (nor did they have day jobs and long commutes to suck up the time that could otherwise be used for canning). And so, winter before last, when I discovered that I could turn some of the infinite kumquats into something tasty that is pretty much impossible to buy at the supermarket I was hooked.

What I’m saying is that I cook and preserve food because I find it fun and interesting, and because I enjoy producing something that’s different (and often better) than what I could grab off a shelf somewhere. I don’t do it as a hedge against economic troubles. I don’t even really do it because I think it’s healthier than other alternatives (but it often likely is). I just do it because I enjoy it. Thus, I have become the kind of woman who regularly roasts a chicken on the weekend and then turns the carcass into soup to eat for lunch during the week (soup often crammed full of local organic veggies). The fact that I have a lot of friends who share my joy at making interesting food means that I often find myself with new sources of inspiration and new obsessions. Obsessions like shrub (also known sometimes as drinking vinegars). Fruit+sugar+vinegar=shrub. Add this sweet and tart syrup to soda water and it’s magical. (Also, I might add, a good thing to do with infinite kumquats).

I’ll admit, though, that I hoard food. You would never know, looking at my cupboard, that I don’t think of myself as hero material, that I know that I’m going to be bitten by a zombie at the beginning of the movie, and that I accept this. If you look at my cupboards you’ll think that I’ve stocked up and am prepared to fight to the end. The truth is my collection of non-perishables is not a concious insurance against anything. Or rather it is, but it’s a protection against having to go grocery shopping when I don’t want to (or having to eat something other than what I decided on before walking into the kitchen) not an attempt to stretch my money further or prepare myself for societal collapse. Somehow I go through these phases of buying lots of things I don’t want to run out of (note that this is not helped by the fact that he who does most of the grocery shopping in our household does this too).

Lately I’ve been stocking up on quinoa. I like quinoa a lot, a fact I frequently forget. So then I don’t cook it much and then I don’t buy it much and then I run out. And then I’ll go through a phase of buying it and cooking it a lot because I remember that I like it. Somehow, in the span of a month or two, I managed to forget I just bought quinoa enough times to end up with something close to four pounds of quinoa (which is about 40 servings worth). So no, I’m not planning for the apocalypse, but if the zombies come I think I’ll be able to survive on quinoa and jam for quite awhile, which is interestingly at the same time a stereotypically Californian and stereotypically Midwestern situation to be in.


As a general rule I scoff a bit at New Year’s resolutions. There’s something so arbitrary to me about declaring one point of the year the one where you make changes. I’d rather assess and address as I go along in life. Plus, so much of my life has been governed by the rhythms of academic years that it is only recently that I can recognize any newness to January. Previously it was always September that felt new and that first day of new classes always felt like the time to be someone different. (Of course by the end of the time I was in school it was that pounding hope that I could make this quarter different, better, that wore me down too far to even really enjoy the opportunity of learning that had once been the whole glorious point of those new beginnings).

Nonetheless, I woke on January 1 and began writing a poem that I meant to be about the arbitrary nature of calendars and resolutions but instead became about letting go, change, and entropy. And I ended the day with bits of Alice Walker’s “How Poems are Made: A Discredited View” running through my head:

Letting go
In order to hold one
I gradually understand
How poems are made.

There is a place the loss must go.
There is a place the gain must go.
The leftover love.

(from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful, which I’ve posted a link to before, I know.)

And I have to confess, once I’d started down that road of contemplation, of thinking through change, resolutions seemed just one step behind that.  This is not the only time during the year that I ask myself “who do you want to be going forward?”  And I don’t think there’s anything inherent about now that lends itself particularly to these contemplations, but I don’t see much point in denying myself the opportunity to think about change now just because lots of other people are also doing so.

And, thus, I have been thinking of some things that I would like to focus on.

1. Be kinder to myself

I have been working on this, but still sometimes I forget to accept that the foibles and failings of day-to-day life are just part of being human.  I own my mistakes, my insecurities, my weaknesses but there is no point to letting those things define me or control me.

2. Cultivate my strength

I mean this both literally and figuratively.  I need to inhabit my body more and get back to a point where I can comfortably do active things.  This means, of course, the New Year cliche of getting back to the gym.  But beyond that it means focusing on the fact that I am not a brain in a jar.

Even further, though, beyond the physical is reminding myself that I can be brave, that I can be fierce, that I can navigate the world even when it scares me.  The picture I paint of myself these days (both in the ways I speak of myself internally and in the things I portray for others’ benefit) is of meekness.  If you ask me to describe my past, though, the person I used to be, I will focus instead on the bravery, on the things in my life that were the result of hard work, of determination, of risk-taking.  Somewhere along the line I lost that sense of myself as fierce and brave.  I think it comes, in part, from some rough years fighting depression and anxiety.  For the last few years of grad school and a chunk of the time after, I felt like I had failed–and worse that I had failed because I was not strong enough to overcome that anxiety–and it is too easy sometimes to focus on the failure and the fear rather than noting that when I was miserable and floundering I turned off a path I had been on for most of my adult life and started looking for some other way to live.  The change I made wasn’t, in the end, all that drastic.  Professionally what I am doing now is not all that different from what the academic path was leading me toward but I still had to step off into the unknown to get here.  There’s bravery, I think, in recognizing when you’re unhappy and taking the steps (sometimes even just the small ones) to figure out how to be less unhappy.

3. Make real connections

There are so many pieces to this and it connects to that notion of letting go.  My life is brimming with wonderful people, but to a certain extent these are people that I keep at arm’s length, mostly without even meaning to do so.  Those depressed years, those anxious years, those years during which I stopped feeling brave, weren’t just years that felt like failures academically.  They felt like failures socially, emotionally, too.  I’ve always been solitary, been the sort of person to have a small list of close confidants.  And those relationships are often transitory.  Brad and I have been together for just under seven years.   What is striking about that fact is not that it is my longest romantic relationship but that it is also my longest non-familial emotionally intimate relationship of any kind.  So yes, I have always been solitary and transitory but there was a point when  I had two relationships (one quasi-romantic, one purely platonic) go wrong in similar ways in a short period of time.  Those relationships were, at the time, the bulk of my support.  There was a time, during all of that, where I thought maybe my heart might be so broken it couldn’t be fixed.

I was wrong.  It turned out the pieces could be reassembled, but the cracks do still show.  Those losses made me cautious.  They made me want to be my own support.  They made me scared and sad and slow to trust.  I have spent recent years trying to work my way out of that, trying to figure out which of the walls I built are load-bearing and which are just fundamentally in the way of leading the life I want to live.  I’ve made progress but it’s been slow and I am realizing that I need to work hard on finding ways to let go, finding ways to heal the damage.

3a. Let people know how much I appreciate them

This turns out to be hard and scary sometimes.  You’d think it’d be easy to say to someone “you’re awesome” but I find it surprisingly hard.  Looking back, though, on my relationships that have gone badly I realize that one of the things I regret most is holding onto my caring, hiding it in the folds of my heart, because I was afraid, because I didn’t want to seem like I was asking for reciprocation, maybe even because I didn’t feel I deserved reciprocation.  It is hard too, because many of the people I have loved over the years are people who are not used to having caring expressed.  Pair that with me not being particularly used to expressing it and things get awkward.  Still, practice makes perfect and I’ve been blessed lately with some good role-models in the realm of telling people they’re awesome.

3b. Reach out for hands that are reaching back

I have spent a lot of my recent years building my social life around other people’s invitations.  I stopped reaching out to people to do things because I feared rejection, because I had been flaked on a lot, because I was tired and broken and didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.  I’ve tried to be better about this, but I am still much too unlikely to reach out to people I’d like to spend more time with and say “hey you wanna do something.”  If you never reach out it greatly reduces your risk of being rejected but it’s also pretty lonely.  Last winter I tried to re-cultivate the connection with one of the two people who had been my support pillars that crumbled.  It went, to put it mildly, poorly.  And I found myself tempted to slam all my walls back up, to draw a little circle around the few people I had started to trust and declare “these people I will trust and no more.”  I resisted that urge.  Perhaps I slowed at tearing down walls, but I did not reconstruct my fortress.  Instead I reminded myself that the problem isn’t reaching, the problem is reaching in the direction of hands that aren’t reaching back.  And so, now, I will re-remind myself of that April resolution.  Reach for hands that are reaching back.

On the nature of “cool”

So what is cool?

If you’ve ever met me (or, for that matter, know anything about me) it’s probably pretty obvious that I was not one of the cool kids growing up. For the most part this is something I’ve come to terms with and I go about my life doing the things I enjoy without too much worry about whether or not I’m a giant dork. But it’s hard to completely shake the childhood feelings of isolation, the worrying about fitting in. And some days I still find myself feeling totally awkward, lame, and just hopelessly uncool. I had one of those days last week. The feeling mostly passed, but it left me thinking about what cool even is, and wondering exactly how I want to relate to the idea.

This weekend I’ll be seeing a bunch of my classmates from high school for our class reunion. I’m pretty happy with where I am in life, but there’s still something intimidating about the notion of seeing people I haven’t seen in fifteen years. And I keep finding myself thinking that the awesome aspects of my life just don’t translate well (the problem of translation is one that actually goes both ways, and I may yet write an entirely separate post about that). Sure, it shouldn’t really matter whether other people value the things that I value, as long as I’m happy (and not hurting anyone else). Still, there’s part of me that wants to be the girl with the life everyone else wants. It’s not rational. And I can’t even quite explain it in a coherent way. But there’s a part of me that still, even after all these years, wants to be cool just for the sake of being cool. And, more to the point, still believes I’m not. Then last week I happened to have a conversation that revealed to me exactly how ridiculous this notion of cool and the way it works in my head actually is.

I happened to discover that someone at work I don’t really know also goes to Burning Man. This shouldn’t surprise me. It’s not like it’s some underground thing that nobody’s heard of. Or even like it’s been that kind of underground thing anytime in the last ten years. But I work in an academic research environment and don’t necessarily get the sense that many of the faculty are the kinds of interesting people I might want to hang out with outside of the office. I’ll admit there’s probably an element of projection there. Since I was pretty sure that doing what I needed to do to have a successful academic career would have been all-consuming for me, and would have largely prevented interesting hobbies, I have a tendency to assume that’s true for everyone else. Realistically I know it isn’t. But I was still a bit surprised a couple of weeks ago when I realized that the phone conversation I was overhearing (from someone who seems to have managed the succesful academic career quite handily) was about burning man plans.

Continue reading “On the nature of “cool””

Infrastructure note

You fix one thing you break another. So it goes.

A month or two ago I updated the very old SQL database on my host to a newer version that would actually let me update wordpress (thus making it less prone to hacking). The process didn’t go as smoothly as I might have hoped and I introduced a bunch of ugly characters into things. Hand wave, unicode, mumble, mumble. I couldn’t figure out a terribly easy way to fix that, so I just exported the blog, did a series of search and replace on the resulting xml to clean up the mess, deleted all the posts, and imported the cleaned up xml file. This mostly seems to have worked. Except it deleted all the categories on all my posts. Presumably I could work out a way to fix up the xml file to keep that from happening and re-import it. More likely I’ll just slowly go back through and categorize posts. Sometimes computers (or possibly just the people who use them) are dumb.


The fourth of July, Independence Day, is not my favorite holiday (ok fine, I’m a curmudgeon who doesn’t care much for holidays in general, but I have more problems with July fourth than most). At a certain level I understand patriotism. Loving the place you’re from, or the place you’ve chosen to live, makes some sense to me. But the history of this country, the history of freedom, isn’t one that leaves me entirely comfortable waving a flag and cheering. Of course, it would be absurd to argue that if a country isn’t perfect you can’t celebrate it. Still, the particular flavor of patriotism that seems to be the norm today is something I have difficulty swallowing.

As a pacifist I also balk at the strong militarism that seems to come out in these celebrations. Sure, the celebration is related to war in a certain sense. But it should, if it’s a celebration of war at all, be a celebration of the end of the war that brought our independence from the English. In my mind, though, ideally one would see it more of a celebration of philosophy, of the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. I’m not entirely sure how the jets that seem to fly over any municipal celebration of any size play into that.

I’m also, I’ll admit, not big on explosions. I like professional fireworks displays well enough, I suppose. Shiny things in the sky are pretty. But the number of people setting off stuff in my neighborhood makes me nervous. I suppose if I were the sort of person who watered every square inch of my landscape multiple times a week (which is, by the way, a violation of current water restrictions) I’d be a bit less nervous about fire. Even then, though, there’s still a fire risk. Not to mention the fact that all the noise keeps freaking out the cats.

Since I’m so not fond of the holiday, it’s an interesting twist that I made one of the biggest decisions of my adult life on July fourth, 2007. I woke that morning and worked some on the outline for my dissertation proposal. From my department’s perspective I was already way behind schedule and was in danger of being asked to leave the program if I didn’t get my proposal written and approved by fall. I’d been spinning my wheels for a long time, but had finally gotten much of my anxiety under control to the point where I was convinced that I could actually write a dissertation, that I could get my proposal finished in time to not get kicked out.

Later that afternoon I went to a barbecue at a friend’s house. Sitting in her backyard with her family and some mutual friends I found myself wishing that my life had more down-time. I found myself wishing that I had more time for people, for hobbies. I thought “I wish I didn’t have to write a dissertation.” And, slowly, I realized that I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I realized, sitting there with a beer and watching the conversation fly by, that I didn’t have to be an academic. Even if I wanted to do research, I didn’t have to be the primary investigator. Moreover, I realized that I didn’t really want those things. And if I didn’t want to be on the career path that a PhD would take me down, why get one? It was a surprisingly fast decision. Almost as soon as the thought of leaving the program entered my head, I was sure it was what I wanted to do.

Looking back I’m convinced that I’m happier than I would have been had I finished grad school. I do sometimes get a bit wistful. There are things I might like to do career-wise that the lack of a doctorate makes more difficult or impossible. On the whole, though, I’d characterize leaving grad school as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Right up there with going to grad school in the first place. And so, even if I’m not particularly keen on fireworks (and am particularly unkeen on the chaos in my neighborhood right now) today is still a day of personal celebration for me.

Let’s hear it for the pursuit of happiness!

As if.

Early in 2011 I ran into this blog post on the concept of “living as if.” In a nutshell, the premise is that if you want to be something, behave as if you are. It is, at a certain level, a simplistic notion. Just do it, as it were. But there is a power to that simplicity. And there is a power to the idea that if you want to be a good person you must merely act as if you are.

Since reading that I’ve tried to implement the idea a bit. I am trying to live as if I am a person who actually attends to her correspondence. And it seems to be mostly working, in that I only have one lingering email at the moment that I really should answer. And miraculously, by behaving as if I am the sort of person who does things like paying her car registration immediately upon receiving the notice, for the first time in nine years of owning my car I got (and put on) my new tags in March, though my registration didn’t expire until May. I mean really this was a major accomplishment. There’s a reason all my reoccurring bills automatically get charged to a credit card. I’ve never managed to be flaky enough to get any utilities shut off but for someone who fronts as all responsible and adult-like I’m astoundingly bad at things like paperwork and bill paying. I would do well to incorporate some other responsible adult behaviors. Things like scheduling dentist appointments and a check-up with my doctor. I wish behaving as if I were a person who exercises regularly didn’t require the actual exercise part. But that too, I should work on.

For right now, though, I merely would like to be a writer. You know, the sort of person who writes on a regular basis.

And so here we are. I haven’t been writing as much as I would like to be in any form. I’m going to try to move toward a habit of writing something (blog, poem, journal entry, real email, letter, whatever) daily. I have in the past couple of years moved back toward writing poetry, but it is not yet second nature enough that I find myself doing it without setting aside time to do it (perhaps this is just a reflection on how my time is spent now compared to when I was younger and writing easily and often).

Unrelated to all of that, today I discovered that one of the passion fruit vines I started from seed is blooming. I have a plant that I bought from Henry Fields, which flowers prolifically and produces a bit of fruit here and there since last year. But it’s primarily a decorative variety. The fruit is edible but not as good as other varieties. Finding plants is hard, though. So I ended up starting a couple from seed. They’re slow to germinate and a bit finicky (well, really, I’m just not very trustworthy when it comes to taking care of delicate new seedlings). But I’ve got two big vines. I’m not entirely sure which plants are which but they are some combination of purple passion fruit and/or fragrant granadilla. And for the first time, one of the two vines started from seed is flowering. I literally jumped for joy and clapped my hands when I saw it.

The Revolution* will not be trademarked

There’s been a bit of a hubbub online lately about the Dervais Institute’s trademarking of the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” and their subsequent attempts to get bloggers and organizations to stop using these general terms. This would be totally laughable were it not for the fact that they succeeded in getting the facebook pages of organizations using the words in their titles pulled. They’ve also apparently sent a letter to google contesting (presumably in the inclusion of search results) an amazon author page that includes the book The Urban Homestead. The book was published in June, 2008. Dervaes Institute filed their trademark registration for “urban homestead” in September, 2008. Unsurprisingly, this sort of behavior has led to a rather large backlash against the family and their urban homesteading blog.

On their blog they claim that they did not actually send out cease and desist letters. However, the letter that they show clearly states that if you’re referring to them and their services on your blog you should add the trademark symbol and link to their website. And if you aren’t? Well then you it’s “proper,” they say, to use a more general term. One example of a more general phrase they give is “modern homesteading.” The problem, though, is that urban homesteading is a general term that predates any of their published work. Mother Earth News, for instance, used the term in the 1970s. (As a side note they don’t advertise on their website so I have no problem with sending plenty of traffic their way. People should read what they’re actually saying and they won’t make any money off it).

This would be nothing more than a somewhat amusing case of a business entity trying to enforce rights their trademark doesn’t actually give them were it not for the reasons that the Dervaes family gives for having pursued the trademarks in the first place. On the faq on their website they note their concern at big business using the phrases “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” in green-washing campaigns. They claim that they trademarked the phrases for the good of the movement, to prevent big businesses from taking ownership of the phrases and taking them from the people. I wonder if the people they had in mind would include the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland? Their facebook page was shut down because the Dervaes family complained and claimed it was a violation of their trademark. Arguably, given that the institute is giving classes and such they are in direct competition with the Pasadena-based Dervaes Institute. However, trademarking a term as general as urban homesteading, which was used frequently before you even began writing about it, and then going after others writing about it in the same way is pretty much akin to a business that serves pizza trademarking “pizza parlour” and then going after everyone else using that as part of their name.

The LA Weekly blog has a nice discussion of the whole thing. Ultimately what it comes down to in my mind is the fact that strategies involved with being a savvy business person are very often directly at odds with the strategies involved with widely promoting a social movement. This, by the way, is why I laugh at people who trot out Google’s old “don’t be evil” motto. Evil has nothing to do with it. The very point of publicly-traded corporations is to make money for their share-holders. And the way the rules are currently set up, often doing things that will maximize profit look evil. That strikes me more as an indictment of the system than it is of the corporations within it. On the other hand, insisting that you’re trying to promote a social movement and stand up for the little people when you’re behaving like a savvy, but blood-thirsty business person? It may not be evil, but it’s certainly hypocritical.

The other thing that jumps out at me about this situation is that Facebook’s policy seems to be act now ask questions later. So even if none of the organizations that have had their page pulled were actually infringing on the trademark in any way that would hold up in court, their pages are still down. The lesson here, seems to me to be that if you’re running a business and need to communicate online for said business, make sure you’re doing so someplace that you host and have more control over. Sure, have a facebook page but don’t make that be the primary place that you’re publicizing.

*I’ll note as an aside that I’m a gardener. I’m not urban homesteading (or suburban homesteading given that I live in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County). I grow a little bit of food because I enjoy it. I don’t necessarily think that personal food-production is the revolution we need for food security (or any of the other food-related social problems that exist or may exist in the future). It’s not my movement but as someone interested in gardening and food and what local people are up to, I happened to follow the Dervaes facebook page (since removed) and came upon the controversy. Whatever I may happen to think of the politics of urban homesteading as a movement for social change, I still recognize it as a movement largely independent of what the Dervaes family has accomplished on their Pasadena lot (which is, undoubtedly, impressive; but then again if I had four adults working full-time on my yard it would be a paradise too). As for revolution, if it’s trademarked and/or a major source of profit, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it probably doesn’t fit my definition of revolution.

I guess that explains it

Earlier today I thought to myself: In retrospect, perhaps opening a box clearly marked “property of Pandora” because I was looking for hope was not the best strategy.

The reason I had that thought is not the point of this post. What’s done is done and I’m pretty well at peace with the consequences of having opened an emotional Pandora’s box. Indeed, I feel as if I am a great deal more at peace with my emotions now than I was before I went digging about for hope. I stand by my choices.

However, after thinking that, and considering writing it down somewhere, I went and looked at the Pandora’s box entry on wikipedia. I had no particular reason for doing so other than the fact that I was waiting for some analysis to run and had pretty much exactly enough time to read a wikipedia entry. The thing that struck me was this sentence “Many interpretations of the story overlook the fact that Pandora’s Box contained all things evil that would plague mankind and Hope was inside this box, thus completely missing this second lesson of the Myth.”

I don’t think I’d ever heard that interpretation of the myth. I’m not saying I buy it (as either an interpretation of the Pandora’s box story or as a truth about life). But it did make me pause for a moment and go “Oh!”

The ice cream of happiness

I have been suffering lately from a bit of a case of BADD (that’s Being an Adult Dysphoric Disorder for those of you who don’t regularly make up maladies and their acronyms). I’ve transitioned to full-time at work, which is great except it means driving across town five days a week instead of only three. I’m also working on two new projects, which brings the stress of figuring out new data and new bosses and all of that. I’ll get the hang of it all eventually but right now I’m just exhausted and feel like I have no time because not only am I spending more time in the car, my time at work feels terribly unproductive some days because I’m still getting up to speed on the new projects and am re-learning different statistical tools with which I am not as efficient. Pour on top of that a generous helping of emotional malaise surrounding a situation that falls squarely into the “things I cannot change” category and you get a cranky, melancholy Sarahliz who becomes prone to trying to come up with cute names for what’s wrong.

Last night on the way home I detoured to cash some checks and stop at Trader Joe’s for bread. Of course when I got to the Credit Union I discovered that I had not actually put the envelope with the checks in my purse (meaning I still have to make a special trip to take care of that). Then as I was walking the aisles at TJs I started doing the mental “so what am I going to eat tonight.” It was already late and I didn’t feel like making anything. Plus, as per usual for the past couple of weeks, I was cranky. So I bought some frozen gnocchi, figuring I’d heat that up and have it with salad. I also bought coffee ice cream because I’ve been taking my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad and have generally been feeling pretty virtuous in my food choices. (Yes, it’s possible that the super crankiness is also influenced by the fact that I’m trying to lose a few pounds and save some money so have been bringing my lunch to work pretty regularly and eating a lot of salad).

Ok. We all see where this is going, right?

Yeah. I ended up having a HUGE bowl of ice cream for dinner. While taking a hot bath. It was awesome. And I woke up a great deal more cheerful and relaxed. Apparently I stumbled onto a fairly effective treatment for BADD. It helped a little with the feeling of being overwhelmed by work since part of my bath time was spent reading a work-related article that proved helpful. And I woke this morning with the sudden conviction that I actually will be able to accept the thing I cannot change with a modicum of adult grace.

That emotional malaise and the anxiety of facing a thing I cannot change has resulted in images from Alice Walker’s poem “Did this Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot” tugging at my brain. Of course as they were tugging I could remember which poem it actually was. I remembered the bit about weeds coming up through the cracks. And I remembered the gist of the last two stanzas:

Whoever he is, he is not worth all this.
Don’t you agree?

And I will never
unclench my teeth long enough
to tell him so.

That was, after all, pretty much exactly what I was feeling as I hopped into the tub with a huge bowl of ice cream at my side.

So this morning I went looking for the full poem, with the hope of giving the rattling in my brain a little more form. While looking for it I found this article, an interview with Alice Walker’s daughter Rebecca. I think I had encountered things to suggest that the Walker mother-daughter relationship was strained. I just hadn’t read anything that really made clear how strained, or why.

It was striking to me to read this article today because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how one balances a desire to change the world with a desire to live a happy life full of strong relationships. They obviously aren’t goals that have to be at odds, but fighting for change is hard work. Even just figuring out what issues one might tackle, what solutions might be best, is more than I seem to be able to manage. I can’t imagine the time and effort involved with actually going to rallies or doing things that might directly cause change (I’ll confess I find rallies and protests and civil disobedience perplexing at times because it is so hard to trace out what they actually do).

Lately I’ll admit I’ve been judging myself through eyes that aren’t my own. And those eyes have been judging me very harshly indeed for my lack of real action in the world. It is perhaps the case that, in channeling that judgment, I am actually judging myself much more harshly that said person would. Still, even knowing that, I was deeply troubled for awhile. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how to find more time, exactly what to give up, and exactly where to focus some world-improving energies. The truth is that I fully know that I need to do more to make the world look like I want it to. But, as I thought about it more and more, I realized that though I respect the person whose voice I was internally channeling a great deal, I have no desire to emulate his life. I have no desire to structure my relationships the way it appears to me that he has structured his. In short, after scribbling my way through circles of angst in my pen-and-paper journal, it suddenly dawned on me that my relationships to the people around me are more important to me than grander notions of social justice. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am selfish and think my life more important than others (though perhaps I am, and perhaps I do). I mean, rather, that if I focus all my energies on saving the world only to fail to feed and sustain my closest relationships, then I have failed. In doing so I would have undermined not only my world, but the worlds of those people close to me as well. I would, in short, have contributed to the circle of society closest to me to not looking like my ideal.

One could argue, of course, that the good that Alice Walker has done in the world–the positive effects she has had on people, myself included, through her writing–outweighs whatever negativity comes from neglecting her relationship with her child. I recognize that argument and recognize how, for some people, it is enough to justify consuming focus on activism. For me, though, it’s not the way I want to live. It’s not who I want to be when I judge myself through my own eyes rather than focusing anxiously on the judgment of others. I still feel guilty about not doing more, for remaining so inwardly focused. But ultimately I am slowly forming a better picture of who I want to be and how I want to live. And that picture involves a lot more focusing on real meaningful relationships than it does marching in the street.