29 October 2008

Talking to kids about the end of the world as we know it

A disclaimer: I would not take parenting advice from me if I were you. The object of my parenting efforts for the last 12 years is not a typical child and the results are not yet in.

I spent my childhood in Kingston, Ontario, known as the limestone city. Because of its geology, even though it was on Lake Ontario, there were no good beaches. But there was an artificial sand beach. This beach was on property owned by DuPont, adjacent to the nylon carpet fibre plant. Only plant employees and their families could use this beach, so it was an exciting thing to be invited by a friend to go swimming at DuPont. I felt very privileged to be allowed access to such a place. The actual experience did not quite live up to my expectations, however – the sand portion of the beach was crowded with people and the water, while not suffering from overcrowding, had a disturbing number of dead fish floating in the yellow foam that covered much of the surface. The sand did not extend into the water so the bottom consisted of green slime covered rocks. The one positive feature of the water was that it was not nearly as cold as Lake Ontario water normally is.

It took a few years for my critical thinking skills to develop to the point where I could override the neighbourhood adults’ cheerful acceptance of the DuPont beach and figure out for myself that allowing children to swim within spitting distance of a factory outflow isn’t good. Even allowing for misremembered details. I suppose the moms on the beach were comfortable with the situation because, after all, this beach was provided as a benefit of employment by the DuPont company. One word: sheeple.

If I was presented with the opportunity to bring my daughter to the DuPont beach of the seventies, today, I would not allow her to swim in the polluted water even if everyone else was doing it, and I would explain to her exactly why (of course, she’d very likely have figured it out completely on her own). The idea that a large corporation could be so indifferent to human health would of course be disturbing. But no less true for that. So what about the myriad other inconvenient truths out there? How do you handle those without damaging the fragile mental health of your offspring? Especially when it appears that everyone else is blissfully splashing around in the murky water.

Now, before I get to that, let me remind you that this is a problem of privilege. People have been dealing with difficult, dangerous, and demoralizing situations throughout history and across the planet and parents have figured out how to handle it with their kids. In North America in the last fifty years, parents have not had to exercise this muscle very much, except perhaps to break the bad news that Tickle Me Elmo is on backorder at Wal-Mart. Oh, and there was the Cold War. Perhaps as a kid I was incurious, but I don’t remember discussing “mutually assured destruction” with my parents. I know I was aware of the concept, but it seemed like a vague, if pretty serious, threat. I think I mentally filed it in the same spot as the religious concepts which I was assured by adults were true but couldn’t possibly be. (I had a Calvinist education so in addition to the usual virgin birth and resurrection absurdities, my salvation was contingent on having memorized the Heidelberg Catechism which includes the old favourite: Whence knowest thou thy misery?) Maybe years of the minister preaching (with no regard for my mental health) hell’s inevitability given my moral weaknesses inoculated me against feeling too much anxiety over mere nuclear annihilation.

But I digress; any parents who have followed me this far are not in possession of children with this kind of training. Our kids are going to be disappointed to learn that civilization is as doomed as that goldfish prize they won at the cheesy Wal-Mart parking lot fair. But not too many parents are willing to sit their kids down and inform them that if they survive to adulthood without resorting to cannibalism, they’re still going to be faced with certain unpleasantness, what with the stone age conditions and lack of internet. And most parents are not willing to connect the dots of financial collapse, climate change, peak oil, food insecurity, globalization and runaway consumption and arrive at that picture for themselves either. I try to gently explain things as they come up but just as there’s no point in telling a two year old if he hasn’t asked, that the meat in his hamburger comes from the same kind of animal as the moo moo cow in his favourite book, it’s hard to avoid when the same child at four demands to know the details. Young kids are good at accepting difficult truths – they don’t have much choice. I would suggest that long term, more damage is done to children by feeding unrealistic expectations and feelings of entitlement than knowing about global inequality. And teaching a kid to make her own decisions about whether to swim near the factory outflow regardless of what everyone else is doing will make for a healthier life. I’ve long felt that the best antidote to general anxiety is telling yourself that no matter what happens, you can and will just deal with it. It may not be a bad idea to remind kids of that from time to time as well. Of course, kids take their emotional cues from the adults in their life and keeping calm in the face of world events is the best, if challenging at times, thing to do. After all, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

26 October 2008

And a partridge in a pear tree...

Actually, there were three of these ruffed grouse in the crabapple tree outside the second floor windows today. They looked a little awkward walking on the narrow branches to reach the apples, but there were no mishaps.

25 October 2008

Idle riot

Since I retired, almost four months ago, I’ve often been asked what I do all day. After I respond with the perfectly true answer “whatever I want”, there’s usually silence and I’m forced to come up with some concrete examples of how I spend my days. I feel a little like I did at work when composing my weekly activity report.

The truth is, due to a quirk of personality, I’m perfectly content to be rather than to do. I think I reasonably capably handle most of the cooking, cleaning, planning, budgeting and all the rest required to keep the household running smoothly, but beyond that, most of what I do cannot actually be detected by the human eye. You might see me sitting in front of the computer occasionally typing, wandering in the woods, sitting in a chair with a book, or standing in the garden.

I’m not working on money-making schemes, planning to run for office, fantasizing about trips to the Caribbean, or inventing perpetual motion machines. I do not spend time trying to figure out how to improve my career, or have a nicer house, or achieve something great.

What I am doing, is committing an act of rebellion. I’m rebelling against societal norms in which being busy is being good. Where idleness is regarded with suspicion and fear. Where goals should be measurable and results count. I’m a rebel without a cause or a daytimer. One of my pleasures is walking the labyrinth on our property. Unlike a maze, which presents the walker with choices and dead ends, the labyrinth guides you to the centre, and then back out. You end where you started. You went nowhere. Hopefully you enjoyed the walk, because it was the journey, not the end that was the point.

22 October 2008

Finding myself on the wrong side of the peasant revolt

Most Canadians have some passing familiarity with the classic “Roughing It in the Bush” by Susanna Moodie. If you haven’t actually read it, you are likely aware of the gist of the memoir which documents the travails of a British upper class family who emigrate to Upper Canada in the 1830s. They were educated, but basically moneyless due to Mr. Moodie’s unfortunate status as a younger son. Mrs. Moodie complains throughout the book about the indignities of being forced to live in almost the same conditions as the working class Irish, the difficulty in finding good help, and how ill prepared they were to actually perform the endless backbreaking work required of pioneers.

My first inclination, on reading this book, was to feel smugly superior to her. Because there’s something satisfying about witnessing rich people getting knocked down a peg. Susanna’s big problem is that she was educated to believe that she was entitled to a life of relative comfort while not actually having the resources to do so.

Things are a little different now. We’ve educated the rich to keep their voices down when complaining about saucy servants. But who are the rich? Most of us don’t have to climb too far up the family tree to find very modest circumstances - but most of us possess a car and at least one bathroom, not to mention feelings of entitlement - so globally speaking, we are rich. But here’s the catch: we’re the younger son kind of rich. The kind that have all the expectations but not the inheritance. Unfortunately, our inheritance is tied up in the stock market and locked up in tar sands and tethered to the biodiversity of the planet. Our financial resources have vaporized as the last bubble has burst, we’ve squandered our supplies of cheap energy and we’re losing uncountable species every day.

No one pities the rich when they’re revealed to be skint. The population of the planet has far exceeded its capacity to provide a rich existence for everyone. In the not too distant future, some of us may well find that our expectations can no longer be met and the rest of the world is not feeling sorry for us. So if I’m ever faced with an angry mob of impoverished world citizens, I won’t look over my shoulder for the investment banker escaping in his BMW, because the target is just as likely to be me.

17 October 2008

Dear me

This morning we were graced with the presence of this beautiful deer and her two young. They stayed in the yard long enough for us to thoroughly admire them.

Later, when I went out to the garden, I saw what they had been up to. They ate the carrot tops, all the swiss chard and this beautiful Chinese cabbage I'd been keeping my eye on for supper.

Luckily, most of the garden is under row covers right now, and they haven't figured out how to get under those. A deer fence is now on the to do list for spring.

16 October 2008

Fun with fermentation

I made some sauerkraut yesterday using a recipe from Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, a book about traditional food preservation methods. There is a recipe for 70 cabbages in a wooden barrel but I thought I'd try the recipe for 1 cabbage in jars first. Lactic fermentation has beneficial effects on food's nutritional value and digestibility not to mention the bacteria that make the cabbage really alive.

The lactic microbial organisms convert the vegetable's natural sugars into lactic acid which causes the environment to become too acidic for the nasty organisms to multiply. Considering the process involves simply submerging vegetables in a brine, it's a remarkable method of storing vegetables for long periods of time without using a lot of energy.

I enjoy commercial sauerkraut but it is generally pasteurized and sometimes contains preservatives, which completely negates any health advantage. I hope my homemade sauerkraut is palatable, because I really love the idea of it.

Another great resource for making sauerkraut and other fermented foods is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, who calls himself a fermentation fetishist, and appears to know what he's talking about. The next batch I make will probably be this recipe, from his web site.

09 October 2008

Election Party Game

Play the Toronto Star's Election Party Game and see if you actually support who you think you support. Now, if only the Bloc was running a candidate in Carleton - Mississippi Mills.

08 October 2008

September word cloud

The Toronto Star is publishing these clouds of political candidate's speeches. Barf. I went to the TagCrowd site and entered the text from my September posts. I tried entering the blog url, but that didn't seem to work, so I did some cut and paste.

This is pretty self indulgent stuff, but I really like it. It seems to capture my blog entries fairly well. It's a good thing I don't have a dynamically updated word cloud on my forehead.


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