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.

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.

"Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least."*

So it’s election time again. On Tuesday a friend had a dinner party to discuss the ballot. I think discussing politics in intentional and respectful ways is generally a good thing anyway, but in California I find that these sorts of gatherings are almost essential if you’re going to manage to vote with any degree of information. There’s simply too much on the ballot to process and think through all of it on your own. This year we have nine state-wide propositions and five of them are constitutional amendments. FIVE!!! Having grown up in a state where you mostly voted for people, bond measures, and sometimes a referendum or two, a ballot that includes nine big issues plus people (including a whole pack of judicial appointments) is just overwhelming.

So I’m writing up my take on the issues. This isn’t how I think you should vote. It’s just how I’m thinking about the issues and planning on voting as of right now, though I’m open to further discussion and could change my mind. I’m only going to cover the propositions and not the people because frankly I don’t have much of interest to say about the people. I think I’m probably voting a straight democratic ticket. In some cases this is because I like the candidate (Bowen, Chiang). In some cases this is because I really dislike the Republican candidate (Whitman, Fiorina). In most cases, though, it’s because after spending so much time on the issues I can’t really spare the mental bandwidth to figure out who would make a good insurance commissioner.

As a philosophical point I should note that I think the ability for the populace to get pretty much anything on the ballot strikes me as sort of absurd. I would much rather elect representatives who are going to focus their attention on the issues and then make decisions with the big picture in mind. Granted that’s not a perfect system, and the results are often frustrating. However, I really dislike being asked to make budget and tax decisions and vote on laws given that I don’t really know how everything fits together. As a result my default vote on propositions is no. From there I work out what I think the consequences of something will be and whether I’m going to vote yes. In all cases the task is to convince me a proposition is a good idea. Otherwise it’s a no. I could abstain on anything I’m unsure about, but since I’m sort of philosophically opposed to the very nature of the California ballot I prefer to vote no change on anything where I’m left with questions.

So, without further ado, the issues.
Continue reading “"Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least."*”

One of the only certain things

Lately the first few lines of Alice Walker’s “How Poems are Made: A Discredited View” have been floating around in my head.

Letting go
in order to hold on
I gradually understand
how poems are made.

This poem (full text available via google books) is one that has been with me for as long as I have read poetry. It was one of the first to really capture my imagination (there was an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that inspired me before I fell into Walker’s work, but since I don’t remember what it was, it obviously did not stick).

I have been making reasonable progress on my poetry goal for October. I have written or revised 24 things so far, putting me only two days behind. I have been frustrated, though, by the loops I find my creative brain caught in. One of the loops I predicted. It’s no less frustrating for that. I still can’t capture the images I want to capture. I still can’t make the emotions I feel make sense on the page. It is a new loop, though, and while I’m mildly annoyed that my brain is quite so caught in it, my frustrations have less to do with being caught in the loop itself than they do with the fact that the poems I have been producing from that piece of inspiration are utter crap, trite and pointless.

The other loop is what brings me back to Walker’s poems. It is a loop that I think, to varying degrees, I have found myself caught in every October for the past seven years. Indeed I wonder now if I was starting to fall into it last year when I conceived of the idea of dedicating my October to poetry. And it is weird, perhaps, to find myself so melancholy still over a friendship that ended more years ago than it lasted (by a factor of two at this point) but I do. More often, frankly, than I’d often care to admit.
Continue reading “One of the only certain things”

More Alert

My day-to-day life doesn’t always involve a lot of in-person, meaningful interactions with other people. Neither work project requires that I talk to anyone but the project heads and that often happens via email. Two days a week I work from home. The other three I’m in an office that I share with one other person, with whom I exchange pleasantries and not much else. I do have various online outlets that provide a level of conversation that’s deep enough to keep me from going completely batty. Nonetheless, some weeks the world starts to take on an unreal sort of cast.

This is one of those weeks. Brad is working on a project that had him out of the house until late three nights this week. I had dinner with an old college friend Monday night, but other than that I’ve had minimal contact with real live people. Meanwhile I’ve had my head buried in data, trying to sort out inconsistencies and finalize some things. This involves an iterative process running a piece of code that takes a little while, staring at some results, tweaking some piece of the code, rinse, repeat. While I wait for things to run I typically read a bit, or maybe I write something. This week those moments of down time have been filled with poetry. I sit in my office surrounded by piles of reports I’m trying to make sense of, listening to music on headphones, jotting down lines of poetry, while I watch new numbers tumble across the screen in front of me. And the day stretches forward in a way that is pleasant but feels somehow disconnected from time and space (that my office has no windows makes it even easier for my to disconnect and just move into the cave of my brain). It probably doesn’t help matters that the plant life on the westside is apparently conspiring to kill me, so my ears are a bit swimmy and the inside of my skull itches (along with my eyes and nose). This is after the Sudafed, too.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant. Holy shit does that woman manage to take some seriously brutal subject matter and make it … beautiful is the wrong word, but moving. Her treatment of a childhood full of abusive alcoholic horror is honest and raw. And chilling.

So let’s recap the state of things by the time was driving to work this morning. My sinuses are a mess. I’m on the edge of what may very well be an ear infection. I’ve been on close to the max daily psuedophedrine dose for two or three days. I’ve had actual conversation with exactly two people so far this week. I’ve spent the better part of yesterday reading poems about child abuse. And my brain is tethered to the real world by only a shiny ribbon.

Then I see the amber alert: child abduction, suspect driving a silver dodge van with a dent on the right side. Or something to that effect. On the one hand I suppose that is a more useful description to post a freeway sign than the normal alert that includes a license plate number. I mean what are you supposed to do with that as you’re hurtling down the freeway? I know some people have better short-term memory than I do but I have a hard time believing that most people can actually process a sign like that and remember enough of the plate number for it to be useful. I know I can’t. As an experiment I’ve tried memorizing those while driving. Inevitably, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it, I’ve forgotten most of it by the time I even get to the next sign. On the other hand, aren’t there a whole lot of silver dodge vans around? Is that really enough information to be anywhere close to useful? (As it turns out there are apparently fewer than I thought given that I didn’t actually see any silver dodge vans during the rest of my drive to campus; and I saw a whole lot of cars). Given that one of the big California news stories this week has been about the guy in Sacramento who actually managed to apprehend a child abductor based on info from a newscast, I would tend to suspect that people right now might be a bit more inclined toward acts of attempted heroism than usual. So that really vague electronic freeway sign worried me.
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What's fair. And when does it matter?

I have a horrible confession to make. I am addicted to the comments on articles and blog posts on the LA Times website (and note that more and more of the coverage linked off the main page is in the form of blog posts). I fully recognize that these comments are not a representative collection of the opinions of LA Times readers, but they are a fascinating glimpse into the sort of things that get people angry enough to post and how some people think about social issues (hint: posts about immigration get lots of comments).

One tidbit that’s got a lot of commentary last week is a What do you think blog post titled “Should L.A. ban food trucks from parking on city streets? Tell us what you think.”. The post itself doesn’t offer much info on the proposed bans. The only real information is contained in this paragraph:

One proposal from Councilman Tom LaBonge asks city staff to study what other cities have done and to look into prohibiting trucks from parking at metered spaces in commercially zoned areas. The other calls for a report on the creation of specially designated catering-truck parking zones.

One of the repeating themes in the comments against food trucks is that food trucks are unfair competition for brick and mortar restaurants because they don’t have to pay rents. Another theme of the comments is that food trucks are a major public health problem because they’re unregulated. In theory this latter point is simply inaccurate and irrelevant because food trucks are permitted and inspected by the county public health department. In reality there almost certainly are a fair number of trucks out there that aren’t inspected so it’s not actually a crazy concern. However, I believe that food trucks display their permit so spotting an unpermitted one should be doable.

The fairness theme, though, is a fascinating one to me. The argument seems to be that it’s unfair to established restaurants in an area that the food trucks come in and lure away customers. On the surface–assuming that the trucks do follow the same food safety procedures as restaurants–the fairness critique strikes me as almost comically misguided. If I open a restaurant and am doing well until another restaurant opens down the street is that unfair? Of course not, it’s business. It may be personally tragic if my restaurant fails because the new one lures away my customers but at no point would it actually be reasonable for me to argue that all new restaurants should be banned because their competition is “unfair.”
Continue reading “What's fair. And when does it matter?”

Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)

I know it’s said that nobody walks in LA (or alternatively, only nobodies walk in LA). If that were true I’d probably be a great deal happier given that one of the main things that irks me about living in LA is how oblivious people seem to be to other people. This is true, too, when people are enclosed in their little plastic, glass, and metal boxes, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me much then. On foot, though, it drives me crazy, leaves me seething.

I went to college in Madison, WI, which has a huge pedestrian population. It is, however, also very orderly. In fact, as a sophomore I wrote an argument for anarchy in my political theory class that basically made the case that centralized government wasn’t really necessary because social norms (and their accompanying societal sanctions) could achieve the same ends. I cited as examples the orderly progression of students up and down Bascom Hill (which has two main sidewalks and is incredibly crowded but mostly avoids pandemonium because on both sidewalks there’s two streams of students who avoid colliding by keeping right) and dorm elevator behavior (don’t you dare take the elevator to the 3rd floor unless you’re crippled or sick to the point of near death). The point was less that these were important examples than it was that these were totally self-organizing example. It was sort of a silly, simplistic political argument, but for a 19 year old who was absolutely NOT an anarchist, I think I made a reasonably solid case, particularly given that this class was my first experience in arguing for things I didn’t actually have an emotional attachment to. I have since realized, however, that the argument worked only because I was a sophomore at UW. Had I been a UCLA sophomore I couldn’t have possibly argued that self-organization leads to outcomes nearly as orderly as rules imposed from the outside, no way, no how.

I really do love a lot of things about LA but I spend a lot of time out in public grumbling to myself “why don’t these people get out of the way. One could argue that this is merely the shock of moving from a small midwestern city to a large over-crowded metropolis. And I’m sure that to some extent that is an explanation. However, in Madison I lived in the extremely dense downtown area and I’d hazard a guess that my daily experiences there actually brought me into the presence of way more people than my daily life in LA does. Even Target on the weekend can’t really hold a candle to the UW campus between classes. The truth is I think the difference is cultural. I think people in LA simply don’t pay attention. I think many people here think they’re entitled to walk through life without taking into account other people’s needs. In short, I think people here are RUDE! And it annoys me. A lot.

Take for instance one morning last week when I walked into the office kitchen to rinse out my coffee cup in the sink. The kitchen was crowded with a group of people waiting for the conference room to open up. Our kitchen has a large table in the middle and to get to the sink requires walking around the table. A woman was standing at the table directly in front of the sink. “Excuse me,” I said. Rather than scooting down the empty table far enough that I could stand fully in front of the sink, she shifted slightly to her right. “Oh well, at least I can now reach the handle on the faucet” I sighed to myself and set to washing my cup, while leaning slightly to actually be holding my cup over the sink (and then leaning more dramatically to reach the pile of paper towels to dry it). Then I turned to leave, only to discover that another woman had filed in behind the table such that my way out was completely blocked. Fortunately the table is just far enough from the wall that two people can pass comfortably. That is, they can if one of them makes an effort not to be standing directly in the middle of the available space. I walked toward the woman. “Excuse me” I said as I reached the point where I had to pass her. And she responded by swaying ever so slightly forward. She did not move her feet to step forward so I could pass. She did not step around the end of the table so that I could pass without even having to turn sideways to do so. Simply put, she did not get out of the way. I squeezed behind her as best I could, thinking the whole time “really? really you feel so entitled that you cannot bother to step forward six inches to make someone else’s life easier?” One might argue that she was so engrossed in her conversation that she did not hear my “excuse me.” I would respond to that by pointing out that a) being so absorbed in your own stuff that you don’t notice your effect on other people is itself rude, rude, rude* and b) she did respond, ever so slightly, to my entreaty, just not by getting out of my way.

(* yes, of course, I also find myself frequently in situations where I have lost track of my surroundings and accidentally put myself in the way. It’s an unavoidable thing in a crowded world. The difference, though, is that I realize it when the other person gets within excusing distance, at which point I apologize and I MOVE)

If this were an isolated sort of incident I would not make sweeping indictments about the courtesy levels of my fellow Angelenos. However, the days I work in the office, I walk about four blocks from where I park my car to the office. That’s 4 blocks, twice per day, 3 days per week (plus a walking to lunch on days when I don’t bring my own or go to the burrito place half a block away). The sidewalks in Westwood are wide but have many trees. This means that practically speaking much of the sidewalk is only two people wide. As result I find myself frequently stepping aside when I get to tree because I am being approached by people walking two abreast who show no sign of dropping back to single file so that I can pass without being knocked aside into the break in the sidewalk where the tree is. Never is this met with an “excuse me,” a “thank you,” or even a simple smile. It is as if it is perfectly natural to people that I would stop walking, and step aside to accommodate their passage. I can forgive this for tired mamas wrangling strollers and toddlers. But hear me, self-absorbed twenty-somethings walking with friends: you do not get a pass. You are simply being rude.

Continue reading “Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)”

Don't like it? Leave it? Lump it? Change it?

I have to admit that living in California (and working for a university in the UC system) these days leaves me wondering why I’m in this handbasket, and where exactly it is we’re all going. The nice Christians who periodically knock on my door to evangelize seem to be capitalizing on this theme. Unfortunately, my own theology doesn’t include a diety who intercedes in the lives and fortunes of individuals*, so their messages are not places where I find hope.

*(As an aside I have to note that any such figure who responds to personal pleas for aid that I could fathom would probably spend all his time shouting “if you children don’t stop your whining and bickering, I swear I’m going to turn this universe around. I mean it!”)

My hope, then, comes from my faith in humanity. Which is to say, people got us into this mess so people are going to have to get us out. It’s small hope indeed but I maintain it by willfully not thinking too much about the messes we make and instead focusing on the good and the beautiful. I studied inequality and poverty long enough that I’d be an ugly person to be around if I didn’t compartmentalize my knowledge of human ability to build ugly hierarchies into a neat little box with a label reading “really not our best quality but not the sole defining bit of human nature.”

And so, this brings us to lunch. Whatever horrible things you may be able to blame on humanity, you have to admit that the invention of the burrito makes up for it just a little. And so I sat with my burrito at my normal lunch hangout when a Spanish-language version of “Unchained Melody” began playing on the radio. This lead the gentleman at the next table, who I mentally refer to as Westwood Local Crazy Dude, began regalling the women at the table in front of me with the story of how the song was written about Chino prison. WLCD works for a local small store–if one of the previous rants of his I overheard is to be believed, I haven’t taken to fact checking–and is fond of harping on the negative aspects of current U.S. society and economy. Today was no exception and his lecture on “Unchained Melody” soon devolved into commentary on incarceration rates in the U.S. (higher than any other industrialized country and many fascist regimes as well), the ranking of California schools compared to other states (last, according to him) and divorce rates (68%, again according to WLCD). Fortunately, since I was sitting behind WLCD I could giggle to myself at his ramblings (none of which ever really strike me as patently false, just inappropriate for the setting) without getting drug into engaging with him. Meanwhile his audience just wanted to get back to their lunch but he continued on his tyrade on the ills of America. One of the women pointed out “well if you don’t like it, you can leave.” This lead him into a line of criticism beginning with “no one else wants us” and ending in some horrible world in which 1/3 of American teenagers are drug addicts.

Meanwhile it lead me to thinking about the “if you don’t like it you’re free to leave” response to political criticism. While I think it is perhaps a perfectly reasonable answer to negative diatribes from a neighboring table while one is lunching, it isn’t typically a reasonable answer in real discussions. Of course there are situations where leaving really is the right response to unhappiness with a system. But too often both the directive “if you don’t like it leave” or the threat “Screw you guys, I’m going home” are used to block–or in the case of the threat to avoid the effort of making–actual constructive criticism.

And so my thinking circles back to California and the question of where exactly it is this hand basket is heading. The current state of the budget, paired with other doomsday thinking (like how long can we survive on borrowed water), does have me wondering about how badly I really want to stay here. I think in at least the short term B. and I are committed to staying. If nothing else, home ownership makes the prospects of leaving more complicated. The current state of the state, though, has me wondering if I shouldn’t be giving some serious thought to where else I might be happy. At the same time, though, if I feel so strongly that “if you don’t like it leave” isn’t the right answer to criticism, does that perhaps suggest that there might be better ways to respond to my fears about the state’s future than looking elsewhere. A thought to consider, I suppose, as I continue to ask myself what I want to be when I grow up.

p.s. I’m getting over a nasty cold. To help fight off some remaining congestion (primarily in my ears, which is worrying me since it feels much like the early stages of an ear infection) I took some Sudafed this morning. Of course because I am otherwise thinking of myself as no longer “sick” I consumed exactly as much caffeine as I normally do on work days (2 to 3 cups of coffee in the morning and a diet coke with lunch). The combo has left me a touch, uh, wired. So if this post is touch flippant and scattered it’s because … oooh, shiny!

This is cool, but …

The LA Times has a photo spread today on the burgeoning roof garden at Blue on Blue. This is a really cool idea and I do sometimes have fantasies of a restaurant or cafe with fresh garden food from right outside the back door (but before I let that fantasy take up too much head space I need to manage to get my cooking and growing well enough linked that we’re eating significant quantities of garden food from the back yard). Container gardening with earthboxes (or homemade equivalents) in an otherwise unused area (like a roof) makes great sense. The thing that disheartened me, though, was the caption on photo 4, which ends “To start, he planted seedlings that lend themselves to garnishes — mache, basil and mint.” They also talk about arugula. Though the story doesn’t specify that this was also grown from seedlings, I suspect it was. Ok people, mint from seedlings is fine (mint can also easily be started from cuttings so if you have healthy mint and just want another container of it that’s an option). But why, oh why, would you not grow basil, mache, and arugula from seed? They’re all easy to grow, and particularly in the case of basil there are so many more varieties available in seed form than in seedling form. Seriously, if you’re intrigued by the idea of fresh herbs, consider starting some of the easy ones from seed. Then you can be like me and own something like eight different varieties of basil seed. Collect them all!