Monday, January 29, 2007

A horse is a 14-year-old girl is a Joe Montana

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro has been euthanized due to some progressively deteriorating health issues. Barbaro was known as a gifted race horse, but eight months ago suffered a mid-race "breakdown" of some kind that, as it turns out, was the beginning of the end. Since that time, Barbaro has endured surgeries, complications, painful recovery, and, now, death.

As you might deduce from the general lack of detail or nuance in the previous paragraph, I'm not much of a horse racing fan. But I had heard of Barbaro. I knew he was considered phenomenal. I read about it when he broke down, and, like many, assumed death-by-needle was merely hours away. I was vaguely aware that he was instead treated to the best in horse medicine and encouraged to fight back. That was eight months ago. Just enough time had gone by that my mind had wandered onto greener pastures.

Roy Jackson, one of Barbaro's "owners", said of the decision to euthanize the horse, "We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain." When I read this, two things came to mind: middle-aged men with fused spinal vertabrae, and limber 14-year-old girls.

I recently read a story about the pain endured by former football stars in the post-retirement years. Football players place enormous pressure on their bodies for a few years of their lives. They are injured every single time they play. They undergo treatments that are something like placing layer upon layer of spackle over an ever-widening hole in a wall. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed 30 retired NFL players and found that 20 of them cope with severe chronic pain, 3 have had joint replacements, and 9 have been told they will need joint replacements in the future. The men are in their 40s and 50s now. (See the original article, and my previous commentary on it.)

The football players were grown men when they played. Although they may have begun playing at a young age, these players reached the height of their careers as adults. They were old enough to choose their paths. So I have few problems with the choices of the adult individual athlete, even if they regret their choices 25 years later. In fact, I admire many of them. I nevertheless feel somewhat uncomfortable with the system that pushes these men to push themselves beyond reasonable limits in order to sell diet Pepsi.

I am even less comfortable with those sports whose star athletes hit retirement before they are old enough to hit the bars. Last weekend, I watched a women's (more accurately girls') figure-skating championship while holding my sick and napping (and thus far non-athletic) four-year-old. At one point, just before breaking for commercials, they showed an old home video of one of the competitors at age three, skating to a full-scale routine in full-scale costume through an act reminiscent of JonBenet Ramsey.

The figure-skaters are 14-17 years old now, high-school age, gangly and awkward as they wave to the cameras and mumble through interviews. Yet they skate, many of them, beautifully, sliding onto the ice with grace. I have great respect for their abilities. And I have great fear for their futures.

In an extract from 'In defense of Animals' (a longer portion can be found here), Peter Singer explains:

The animal liberation movement [. . .] is saying that where animals and humans have similar interests - we might take the interest in avoiding physical pain as an example, for it is an interest that humans clearly share with other animals - those interests are to be counted equally, with no automatic discount just because one of the beings is not human. A simple point, no doubt, hut nevertheless part of a far-reaching ethical revolution.

I'm not suggesting we euthanize retired or injured athletes, that we judge that their quality of life is as unacceptable as Barbaro's was. What I am suggesting is that in the area of certain (profitable) sports, humans and animals already receive similar treatment: they are groomed, prodded, pushed to the limit, then left to languish with deconstructed joints and brittle bones. While the feats and abilities of the star athlete are admirable, there is a point at which public admiration of them is pushed into the realm of exploitation and commercialization. Both horse and human deserve better.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tyra Banks: Normal is the new fat

The story goes that Tyra Banks googled her name plus the word fat. Try it. Results include this and this. Tyra was hurt. Tyra, it turns out, is not a cold-hearted superbitch who dances through a broken shoe heel, screws her head back on straight, spews out a self-righteous lecture, then spouts a speech nearly identical to the one that came the week before while shattering the dreams of America's Next Most Forgettable Personality.

Nope. Apparently, Tyra is not only the architect of a successful budding empire; she also has feelings, and those feelings are understandably offended by the cruelty of those who are gleefully peddling the image of "fat"-Tyra-in-a-swimsuit, and word that Tyra's weight is out of control since her "retirement" last year.

In her supermodel heydays, Tyra looked something like this. She weighed in the 120s. Now, her weight is fluctuating, but Tyra says her top weight has been around 161 pounds.

Let's put this in perspective: At 5'10", that weight places Tyra's Body Mass Index (BMI) within the normal range. In fact, according to this BMI calculator, Tyra's top weight is in the 36th percentile for other women her age and height. In other words, approximately 36 percent of women her age and height weigh less. Again, this means Tyra weighs less than average at her top, post-retirement weight. At her lowest post-retirement weight, around 140, she is in the 11th percentile, and also in the normal range. If she weighed 120 now, she would be underweight, and under the 2nd percentile.

I'm not sure how sorry to feel for Tyra. I think she looks great for an android. (Sure, she is not wearing a swimsuit in this photo. Raise your hand if you are over 30 and think you look good in a swimsuit.) Though I am not Tyra's biggest fan, I respect her. It takes a strong person to withstand the kind of criticism she is getting without racing to the toilet. But I watch ANTM. I've watched her tell countless young model-hopefuls with a dab of belly fat that they need to lose weight to compete. This may be reality, but I wonder if she could do more than perpetuate the status quo from her influential position.

It is the rest of us, however, that allow the reality to exist. We may rail against the fashion and modeling industries for their treatment of women's sizing and body weight. We may lament the epidemic of eating disorders among young girls. Yet when a fashion and modeling industry icon "balloons" to a normal and healthy weight, she is widely ridiculed. Those of us who think this is ridiculous need to speak up louder than the image-peddlers if we want to be heard.

An Inconvenient Inconvenient Truth

An after-school screening of "An Inconvenient Truth", the Al Gore documentary on global warming, by Yakima, Washington's Eisenhower High School Ecology Club has been put off--at least temporarily--per school policy that requires, basically, that both sides of all issues be presented to students. Check out the Yakima local paper's editorial on the issue, which makes many good points on what "presenting both sides" should mean.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A different kind of compact, Plus: Disposing of your clothing just got easier!

It's called the Compact Sit-Down Shopping Cart, and it's an update on the old granny cart: a small cart on wheels, with a redesigned push bar resembling those you find on a stroller. But the biggest upgrade is in the seat, which folds down over the basket to give the shopper an instant place to rest.

Clearly, this cart could be a great tool for many people, including the elderly, the disabled, and anyone who walks to the grocery store. But marketers of the gadget seem to have something else in mind. The photo of the cart includes a rather attractive and nicely-dressed woman lounging on it. Sure, she could have an "invisible illness", or be an eco-conscious consumer eliminating the need for plastic bags while grabbing a few essentials at the grocery store on her way home from the office. My impression is more that the company would like to market this as a great mall shopping tool. Shop 'til you drop...right onto our cushy Compact Sit-Down Shopping Cart. Then, shop some more!

I mention the shopping cart here because I find it especially ironic that it showed up on my email alerts for The Compact.

And speaking of The Compact and shopping: Occasionally, on the Compact email list, someone asks what would happen if everyone suddenly started compacting. Wouldn't our used stuff supplies dry up if no one bought anything new? The short answer is, yes, and that would be great. The idea of the Compact is to live off of the overabundance of disposable consumerism (and, ideally, to reduce our consumption of all things both new and used). For example, a portion of our society chooses to repeatedly buy more clothing than they need and then discard the excess at Goodwill. The Compact encourages us to balance out such overconsumption by dressing ourselves in their disposals. If "disposable" clothing consumption did not exist there might be fewer good sources of used material, but also less need for it.

It turns out, though, that some manufacturers are "solving" the problem of disposable consumerism in another way: by making clothing truly disposable. Gizmodo recently noted two new clothing products. First, a "dissolvable" dress, that partially dissolves into a recyclable substance when wet. And second, disposable underwear. I'll set aside my differences with Gizmodo (see here, and here) for a moment to suggest that you check out their commentary on the underwear, which is right on (less so, alas, for their comments on the dress).

Friday, January 26, 2007

Are PC commitment ceremonies in our future?

At face value, appropriate response to the following news seems to be a somber shake of the head: 65% of Americans recently surveyed say they spend more time with their personal computers than they spend with their significant others. What a sad commentary on the state of our society and our marriages, yes?

Not so fast. The vision the stat gives me is of people holed up alone in their dens for the hours between work and bed. But though it is quite possible that, at least on weekdays, I spend more time on the couch with my laptop than with my husband, there is no holing up in a den at our house. What does spending more time with a PC than a partner really mean?

PCs are, for many people, an invaluable tool for their jobs. People may spend the eight to ten hours of their work day largely tied to a desk, which generally also means they are tied to a computer. That in itself may seem like a sad fate, one that keeps the nation's occupational therapists occupied. Do we lament the fact that people may spend more waking hours at their jobs than at home? Well, maybe. But the growing number of American work hours is a larger problem, and the number of work hours spent with a PC is merely a byproduct of that.

When it comes to ranking the relative importance of ones spouse and PC, it seems the real question is, how much of your free time is spent with each? And is time with your PC taking away from time with your spouse? At our house, my husband brings his work laptop home most evenings, so it is not uncommon to find my husband and I sitting side by side on the couch, each working or playing on our own computer. Sometimes this is taking away from conversation; sometimes it is contributing to it. Sometimes it is not much different than sitting together while watching television or a movie. Sometimes it is more like sitting together while each of us is lost in a different book. And when we are not together, sometimes our computers keep us connected where we otherwise wouldn't be, through midday emails and quick chats.

I am as skeptical and fearful of the infringement of technology on our personal freedoms and relationships as anyone (well, as anyone who isn't wearing an tin foil hat), but as with any technology, it is not the technology itself, or the time we spend with it, that makes it a threat to our selves, our societies, or our families. Sure, it is nice to spend time together without PCs--or television, for that matter. Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but if we are to be concerned about numbers, I would be more troubled by news that Americans spend, on average, more than 28 hours a week (the equivalent of two straight months per year or 9 years of a 65 year life) watching television.

P.S. Thanks to my husband (a.k.a. my worthy adversary), who emailed me the link to this story while sitting next to me on our couch.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

We're onto you, McDonald's

Advertising is a powerful thing. I've done well for some time now eating food almost exclusively made from scratch, and cutting out especially sugary or processed items. All without overwhelming cravings. Incidentally, when I watch television it is usually recorded on my DVR, and I skip the commercials. Coincidence? This morning I was reminded of how powerful commercials can be when I watched a few minutes of something live and caught an Oreo commercial. Suddenly, I found myself thinking, Mmmm...Oreos. Wait...what!? Where the hell did that come from?

DVR was the reason I wanted cable. It's like suddenly all your favorite shows are on PBS. No surprise that advertisers are not happy with the DVR situation. And television networds can't be thrilled, either--I haven't watched any new shows this year, simply because I don't see the commercials and therefore don't know about them or feel that I am missing them. And not just the new shows. I'm not a great American Idol fan, but in the past seeing the commercials made me feel that maybe I should be, just as that Oreo commercial made me feel that downing some milk and a bag of cookies would make me feel really good.

Now we have proof that television shows and advertisers are teaming up to thwart the commercial-skipping powers of the DVR. This video, posted on YouTube, shows a frame-by-frame view of a Food Network show with a single frame McDonald's ad embedded in it. I have seen our future, and it is frequent, inexplicable french fry cravings.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Calculus, coffee, cars, and cleavage

In the past two days, Salon's Broadsheet has covered two instances of businesses using sex to sell their wares. Yesterday, they covered the edifying combination of sex and tutoring in Hong Kong, where one of the largest tutoring competitors boasts it has the sexiest (female) tutors around. And today, honorable mention was given to a delicious Seattle story about a coffee shop where a very scantily clad woman works it while steaming milk.

So I read this story with compounded disgust: A Bay Area Lexus dealer has settled a lawsuit alleging that at least five women were not only treated to the usual in sexual harrassment, but generally forced to use their sex appeal to sell cars, encouraged to show cleavage during sales, and, in one case, subjected to having a skirt pulled down during a pitch in front of a customer.

Apart from the combination of sex and sales, the third story is significantly different from the others. The sexy barista is shaking while she stirs of her own accord, presumably because she finds it helps to bring in customers. And I guess the tutors know about the Hong Kong company's ad strategy when they take the job. Perhaps a few pretty (and I hope smart) women sought the job because they knew they had the bodies for it and could make decent money.

The women employed by the car dealer, on the other hand, were subjected to expectations and treatment beyond their own desires. But the three stories make me equally uncomfortable, and seem somehow related. Women in all three are encouraged by the prospect of increased sales (or by men who are enticed by the prospect of increased sales) to use their bodies to sell. Say what you will about a striptease empowering women; to me, these stories provide a cautionary tale, for both women and the men seduced into spending by them. Not that individual women who are objectified deserve to be, or that individual men who objectify women are not responsible for their behavior, but that, on a larger scale, if we as a society take frequent advantage of the fact that objectification sells--on either the buying or selling end of the deal--I fear that we must be saddened but not too surprised when the objectification slips out of our control.

Return of the Jungle Girl?

The parents of a girl who went missing 19 years ago at the age of eight in Cambodia are celebrating what they say is her return. A young woman, being called a "jungle-girl", was found in the forest scavenging for food. Though some are skeptical, a family has claimed her, and they are undergoing DNA tests to prove she is their daughter.

One strange piece in the reunion story is that the woman does not speak. An eight-year-old would have acquired the family's language before disappearing. But if she has indeed been living in the jungle for 19 years, it would not be terribly surprising if she undergoes some language and culture shock as she reenters village life. A psychologist is travelling to the remote village to assess the unusual--and potentially research-worthy--situation.

No hits, no fits, yes nits!

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View (California), would like to fine or jail Californians who spank their children. Under her proposed legislation, people who spank children under the age of 4 would be subject to a maximum one year jail term and up to 1,000 fine.

Lieber is quoted in the article on SFGate (link above) as saying, "Under current law, parents can beat their children to a reasonable degree. I just think that that's plain wrong and we ought to ban any sort of physical attack on children who are not old enough to defend themselves."

Beating kids is not good. Agreed. But in fact, abusive attacks are already banned, not to mention strongly discouraged by child development experts. The difficulty is in determining where abuse begins. As
Lois Weithorn, of UC's Hastings College of the Law, notes in the aforementioned article, it can be hard to distinguish a spank from a pat. And it is hard to draw the line between a spank and a thrash, or a thrash and a some point it becomes a game of semantics. We may know bad discipline when we see it, but how do we put that on paper? Lieber's proposed law adds nothing to our current ability to sort out the true abuse from the one-time haggard-parent outburst, the occasional spank as relatively painless discipline strategy or even the loving tap on the baby's bottom. And for a relatively minor violation, is the treat of jailing a parent--and therefore separating mother or father from the child for up to a year--the best thing for the child?

So when do discipline and behavioral issues become someone else's purview?

Yesterday, the story broke of a family of three who were kicked off of a plane when they had difficulty getting their tantruming three-year-old to sit in her seat for take-off. When I first read this story (again, on SFGate), I wasn't sure what to make of it. I have a four-year-old, and I traveled with him when he was three, so I was at first thinking some combination of those-airline-Nazi's-did-what-now? and there-but-for-the-grace-of-the-Buddha-went-I. The article I read made it seem it unclear just how much time the child was given to calm down--they were 15 minutes late taking off, but were all of those 15 minutes spent waiting for the child to stop crying?--and the parents said they felt sure with a bit more time and understanding they could have managed. Still, a couple of hundred other passengers were waiting, and the airline got the family on another flight, reimbursed them the fare, and offered them three additional tickets. A pretty generous compensation package--certainly more generous than the ones routinely offered to people who wear T-shirts with words on them.

But then I read this Worcester Telegram article (provided in a comment by whatchoodo on SFGate's parenting blog, The Poop). It provides a more complete angle on the story as the child's parents see it. First, it heightens my own parenting fears, as the parents say their child is normally a dream and had not had a problem on previous flights. Hey--my child is normally well-behaved and flies well, too. God, maybe this could happen to me.

They say out of nowhere, when they boarded their flight home, their child threw a tantrum, perhaps out of fear because her ears had hurt on the descent of their previous flight. Who knows what goes through the minds of those little darling-monsters? Then, according to the parents, via the Worcester Telegram:

“I was trying to console her and the stewardess came over and said, ‘Did you buy that seat for her?’ remembers Ms. Kulesza, 31, who is four months pregnant. “I said yes, and she told me my daughter needs to sit in it. I told her I was trying.”

Moments later, an AirTran Airways employee armed with a walkie-talkie addressed Mr. Kulesza.

“Sir, you need to get her under control,” she said.

“We’re trying,” Mr. Kulesza noted.

The passengers, meanwhile, were quite understanding and one of them offered the toddler a lollipop, which she rejected. Then the walkie-talkie woman returned to the Kuleszas’ aisle and displayed the raw tact and diplomacy of Donald Trump.

“Sir, you need to get off the plane,” she announced.

“What?” a stunned Mr. Kulesza asked. “Are you serious?”

“Sir, you need to get off the plane now.”

They got off the plane, while their luggage and car seat flew on to Boston. In the terminal they were directed to an AirTran supervisor, who told the couple that the stewardess was uncomfortable “because you have an unruly child who struck a woman on board.”

Mr. Kulesza was incredulous. “That was her mother,” he explained. “She hit her on the arm. Lady, this is a 3-year-old child we’re talking about.”

“Sir, we don’t differentiate between 3 and 33,” the AirTran supervisor replied. Mr. Kulesza said the woman proceeded to lecture him about child discipline, and how she would never tolerate her children behaving in such a manner, at which point Mr. Kulesza said, “You really need to stop talking now.”

The couple were also told that, since they had been ejected from the plane, they were banned from flying with AirTran for 24 hours.

OK, so a family gets kicked off for holding up a flight. Sure. Makes me fear for my own future travel plans, but I kind of get it, particularly if the airline was apologetic and helpful later. But a family is kicked off because a three-year-old slapped her mother during a tantrum? Forcing them to spend 24 extra hours away from home, and forcing the father to miss a day of work? And--the real kicker--the supervisor proceeds to lecture the parents about discipline? I don't care who you are. If the parents' story is true, this is one of those it-could-happen-to-any-parent situations. The child is three, was in an unusual setting, was scared, and was being asked to sit and be strapped into a seat. What would the supervisor suggest parents do in this situation? Spank the child?

The scorecard so far: parents may soon have a right to be thrown in jail if they spank their three-year-olds, and they may be thrown off of flights and scolded if they don't put the fear of God in them.

Meanwhile, those nasty critters children sometimes bring home with them are getting a break. In Oakland, the school district is no longer enforcing a 'no nit' policy. While children were once sent directly home at the first sign of lice infestation, the district now reasons that lice are relatively harmless creatures, that their presence is not in fact a sign of bad hygiene, and that the policy of sending kids with lice home causes more trouble than their potential spread, such as missed days of school for infested kids and work for parents. Good points, but...ick. This is where we decide to butt out?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Please leave your political views at the security checkpoint

A man has been kicked off of a flight for wearing a T-shirt with some words on it. The man hoped to be a passenger on an Australian Qantas airline flight, but was removed because his shirt read "World's number 1 Terrorist," under a picture of our beloved George W. Bush.

He is the most recent victim of a strange phenomenon: would-be passengers removed from or denied access to a flight because of the words or images they wear. In some cases, passengers were removed for offending other passengers, or for their potential to do so. For example, in August 2004, a young man was kicked off an American Airlines flight for refusing to take off a T-shirt with a depiction of bare breast on it. This case is not unlike a more recent incident in which a woman was kicked off a Delta flight for breastfeeding her child. Sure, in the latter case the passenger was not wearing an image of a breast but using an actual breast to feed a child, but it would seem there was no chance of either a nursing mother's breast or the image of a breast causing an actual security risk.

In most cases, however, people who are grounded for their attire are expressing views against the current U.S. administration, or having something to do with terrorism. In October 2005, a woman was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for wearing a shirt with pictures of Bush, Cheney, and Rice, and the line, "Meet the Fuckers." Here, of course, the shirt contains both a statement against Bush and potentially offensive language. But in another case, a man was booted from a British Airways flight in 2003 for a button that read, "Suspected Terrorist". Strangely, it seems he was removed not because the airline took the button's line literally (if only terrorists were so easy to spot), but because of the word, 'terrorist'; the man reported that when he asked if it would be OK to wear a button that read "Terrorism is Evil" he was told that this would also get him kicked off.

The strangest case of all is that of an Iraqi man who was refused entry on a Jet Blue flight in August of 2006 until he removed a shirt with some Arabic writing on it. Although the shirt read simply, in both Arabic and English, "We Will Not Be Silent", the airline reported that some passengers were uncomfortable with the Arabic writing, which, you know, could have said anything.

Incidentally, it is not the law that kept these people from flying, but the airlines' vague policies, which seem to either prohibit certain language (apparently regardless of context, and especially if worn by an Iraqi citizen), or accommodate other passengers' potential or actual discomfort.

At least some of the offending ticket holders surely meant to engage in a peaceful protest, to express their views and sensibilities through the words they wore. Perhaps not all passengers could be expected to stand alongside the shirt-wearers' views, but it is a sad time when people feel they are entitled to fly without being subjected to other peoples' views and sensibilities. And it is an even sadder time when simple words are routinely mistaken for threats, offense, or action.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Would you like biodegradable plastic or canvas?

The need to transfer all our stuff from one place to another seems to pose one of the great dilemmas of our time-- a fact brought on, in part, by the fact that we have and acquire so much stuff to transfer. It is a dilemma for cities as well, as city sanitation systems must deal with the overflow of packaging discarded from residents' homes. San Francisco is making an effort, in cooperation with grocery stores, to reduce the number of plastic grocery bags used each year by 10 million. As part of this effort, the city is asking grocery stores to voluntarily submit data on their customers' use of plastic grocery bags last year. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting today that three grocery store chains in the city have submitted their 2006 data. No word yet on what the data show, or on how to track what their customers are doing with the bags--taking them home to reuse them, recycling them (which can be done at many grocery stores), or throwing them straight in the garbage, the practice my friend from Safeway favors.

Of course, we have to eat, which means, for most of us, that we have to transfer food from the grocery store to our homes. Bags are the obvious choice for carrying food, but we can encourage people to use and reuse their own bags by offering discounts to those who bring their own bags or by charging people for store bags (the latter approach is taken in many countries, while the former is common in the US). We could at least go back to using paper, which I find a somewhat less objectionable option than plastic for many reasons, particularly when they are sturdy and easy to reuse.

San Francisco's approach is to start thinking about requiring stores to use biodegradable plastic, a second-best option that seems to acknowledge the difficulty of forcing other people to change their behavior. On the plus side, replacing plastic bags with biodegradable plastic bags will require nothing of consumers. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastic may be the same sort of solution to our packaging needs that recycling is--that is, probably better than doing nothing, but not better than reducing our use to begin with. Any kind of plastic still requires enormous energy and material to produce, and, as Planet Ark notes, the biodegradability of biodegradable bags is still in question. Here's hoping that a shift to biodegradable is accompanied with a clear message that "bring your own bag" is still the best move.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Water, water, everywhere

SFGate (the SF Chronicle's website) is in the midst of a series of articles by David Lazarus on bottled water. On Wednesday, Lazarus introduced the phenomenon and big business of bottled water; today, he discusses the sources of bottled water. The series will continue at least through Sunday.

Yes, people drink an enormous amount of bottled water, and spend a lot of money on it. Businesses spend a lot of money advertising it, and the water itself is often just filtered tap water with a few minerals added for taste. None of this seems particularly newsworthy. But it is always interesting to be reminded of the phenomenon, particularly of all those taste tests showing that people can't actually tell the difference between most municipal tap water and their favorite bottled water brands.

I'm mainly concerned with the use of tons of plastic containers to carry the water. Apparently, the American public drinks more bottled water than milk, coffee, or beer. This seems astounding, though it is difficult to imagine exactly what 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water last year means in terms of large scale waste in America. If you've ever been impressed by the amount of beer bottles you set at the curb after just a small gathering, imagine the volume generated by your block, city, or country every day, week, or year. The coffeehouse coffee phenomenon alone generates a significant amount of waste, as people use disposable and discardable cups for their daily--sometimes multiple times daily--fix.

A Starbucks "Green Team" memo quoted in the March-April 2004 Utne Reader cites the following staggering statistics: First, if just 50 customers in each store used their own mug for coffee each day, the store (and the planet) would save 150,000 disposable paper cups each day. Second, those 150,000 paper cups saved would have weighed 1.7 million pounds.

It is hard to wrap my mind around the level of waste that could be avoided by the small actions of just 50 Starbucks customers per store per day, much less to conceive of the amount of waste generated each day, in Starbucks stores alone, by all the people who do not use their own mugs.

The Starbucks memo was meant, I think, to encourage stores to encourage their customers to use their own coffee mugs in exchange for a $0.10 discount on their coffee. This saves paper, but also, of course, saves Starbucks a lot of money. This program, along with the disposable coffee and bottled water phenomena and statistics have inspired the following grand idea: What if we encouraged people to carry their own plastic water bottles or cups around with them? We could then place some kind of water dispenser into stores, restaurants, homes, and workplaces, and give consumers a good price on the water used to fill these bottles and cups.

Seriously, though, if people want to pay for water, let them. If people just want their water filtered--and this is something I can understand--wouldn't it be more cost-effective to offer filtered tap water dispensed into reusable cups than to buy and/or sell overpriced filtered water in possibly toxic and difficult to recycle containers? Unfortunately, the convenience factor of picking up, drinking, then tossing, seems to outweigh other concerns. We've been conditioned to think that plastic bottle disposal is harmless, particularly if we recycle, and the disposable water industry has no interest in encouraging us to think about the inconvenient truths of bottled water waste.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Tale of Two Fruit Receptacles

I am about to share a story that is completely embarrassing to me now. If I had said it out loud I would probably have been embarrassed when I was living it, too. But I share it because I imagine I'm not the only one to have been caught up in such an insidious product obsession.

Once upon a time, I blissfully kept my fruit in an old ceramic bowl on the counter. Until one day, while thumbing through a Smith and Hawken catalogue, I saw a three-tiered rustic wire fruit stand. I knew I didn't need it, and wasn't going to buy it. But it sure looked nice. Suddenly, my perfectly adequate old ceramic bowl seemed boring. Not to mention that it sometimes didn't hold all of the produce I wanted to put in it, and bananas and oranges ended up spilling out directly onto the counter. I imagined they would fit nicely and in an aesthetically pleasing way into the three tiers of the Smith and Hawken rustic wire fruit stand.

A few months later, I received a gift certificate for Smith and Hawken for my birthday. I went to the local store to use it, but the three-tiered, rustic wire fruit stand was not there! I thought about buying something else, but I couldn't give up so easily. Instead, I went home to look at the Smith and Hawken website. There it was: three-tiered, rustic,wire-y...and out of stock!

For a while after that, as my gift certificate sat untouched in a drawer, I periodically searched for the fruit stand. I found it listed online through another retailer, but didn't have a gift certificate for another retailer, and some sane part of me still knew this was not really important enough to spend my money on. I held out hope that more of them would appear on the shelves soon. I saw and considered buying other fruit stands, but none of them were as nice, and, again, I wasn't sure I could bring myself to spend money on such a silly thing, especially if it was not a three-tiered rustic wire silly thing. Yet I felt strangely compelled to keep looking for it and thinking about it.

When I joined The Compact last July, the fruit stand search ended. I took a deep breath and resigned myself to continuing to use the small ceramic bowl I already owned. I haven't thought about it (much) in the last seven months. But a few days ago I went to a salvage shop (selling used Compact-friendly stuff) in my town. I was looking for a toy for my son--something electronic with lots of buttons to distract him from his habit of punching (and often breaking) buttons on my phone, remote controls, computer, and anything else he can get his hands on. After discovering a great old $3 clunky calculator, I also found and bought a $5 huge ceramic bowl that I'm using as my new fruit bowl. It's nice, useful, big enough to hold all my fruit. And buying it forced me to revisit that strange time in my life when I searched in vain for another fruit receptacle. I wonder now how many hours I spent thinking about this, how much energy I used searching for it, and I'm glad any need that might have been there is officially filled.

To think that my search began with a glance at a catalogue I never asked to receive. My husband told me once of an experience he had watching a couple at a store agonize over which of a dozen decorative and nearly identical statuettes to buy. It was easy to laugh at this, but I'm wondering now how many items, particularly those that are less clearly unnecessary, but unnecessary nonetheless, are soaking up time and energy that might be better spent on almost anything else. And I'm aware that even the search for used products, though Compact-friendly, can eat into our lives. Though buying used helps stem the tide of disposable consumerism, it is the compulsion to collect and consume, to create needs where there were none before, that I would like to avoid.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Viewer advisory: Woman in shirt

The Parents Television Council has taken up arms over the broadcast (video here) during a recent NFL playoffs game of a young woman in the stands wearing a T-shirt that said "Fuck da Eagles" on it. Executive Director Tim Winter issued a statement claiming, "There is no doubt that this was an intentional airing of patently offensive language on the public airwaves." To which I respond: There is no doubt that this is a paranoid issuing of a patently meritless statement by a man who is clogging our public airwaves and internet tubes with a red herring "threat" to our children. I mean, really, is it not possible that the producers and camera operators scanning the crowd were looking at something other than the words on the woman's shirt when they trained the lens on her? And how much damage did the few seconds of coverage cause? Of those who were even paying attention, how many were children, how many of those who were children could read the T-shirt, and how many of those children who could read the T-shirt didn't already know the word? I find the overtrumped outrage here disingenuous and distracting.

Silicone, paint, and yards of double-sided tape...

That's what celebrities are made of.

Award season is in full swing. Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards, and the various Guild Awards are enough to keep fancy clothing designers and acceptance speech writers (if only there were such a thing) in business. But these awards and their ceremonies are a mere prelude to the most spectacular of all awards show spectacles: the Oscars. I watch the Oscars every year for two reasons: first, because I like movies, and, though every year has its Titanically tragic missteps, the Academy Awards are genuinely the most important awards in Hollywood. And second, of course, I watch for the glitz and glamour, the auditorium packed full of fabulosity. In short, for the front row view on a universe that seems to run parallel to my own.

It’s like this: at some point on each of the greatest television shows of our time, a character comes dangerously close to missing prom. Perhaps their dream date ditches them, or they mistakenly believe that it is unimportant that they go to prom, like because prom is just so establishment and a stupid ritual that forces people to spend way too much money on clothes and conform to someone else's ideal of beauty. Fortunately, a true friend helps them to see that if they miss prom they will regret it, soon and for the rest of their lives. A few less fortunate television-souls realize too late just how horrible missing prom is, and their losses are healed only when a belated prom is thrown for them in their living rooms. We’ve all seen that episode (unless we are this guy).

I watch these shows, and I think, Seriously?!

I did not go to prom. I was one of those characters who just didn't get why it would be interesting. Except I'm still waiting to feel sad about it. Maybe I should keep a disco ball and some old tunes in the closet and a therapist on speed-dial in case that ever happens. But I’m pretty sure there are two types of people in this world: those who believe they will be unhappy if they miss prom, and those who know they will be never really miss prom. And I am reasonably sure I am one of the latter.

I have sometimes felt it would be nice to be a fly on the wall at such an event, though—dressed in jeans and invisible, taking in the ritual as a non-participant observer. Apart from the golden statue idolatry, this is approximately what watching the Oscars is like for me. I am mesmerized by the people who, like those of my high school classmates who breathed for prom for weeks, seem to sincerely regard this evening as Significant and Worthy of all the time, resources, and concern they’ve put into it, the ones completely horrified at anyone who makes a fashion blunder, or whose appearance reveals a cavalier attitude toward the Event. Personally, as I watch all those important people navigate the red carpet interviews, I try to spot the ones who are there just for the punch. For example, I think I caught a bit of (slightly self-congratulatory) perspective shining through George Clooney's award night make-up last year.

Part of my confusion and awe stems from the weirdly heightened image-consciousness of these special occasions. We expect that, come prom night, that acne-encrusted, greasy-haired kid that sits in the front row of math class will be buffed and combed just a little, that hairy legs will be shaved, mascara will be there where it wasn’t and thicker where it was. Here, our greatest overpaid actors have it rough. Our starting vision of them is as flawless, airbrushed, scripted, reshot beauties, and they must show up to the Oscars as prommed-up versions of that, trying like hell to hide the fact that they, also, are real, blemished, wrinkled, sometimes inarticulate people.

This is a lot of pressure. A recent story on uncovers the incredible technology and art behind Oscar glam: silicone breast enhancers and nipple covers, tape, spray-on muscle-contoured tans, more tape, hair extensions, and even more tape, tape, tape. It takes hours and hours of overtime for make-up artists make a few people look, if a little stiff, like reasonably close facsimiles of their on-screen selves as they shimmer and sparkle and tell people who they are wearing.

Normally, the resolution of our television screens helps keep these measures secret, smoothing the edges and hiding the tape and fake tan lines. With the spread of HDTV, however, lines of all kinds are emerging. That’s right—the high definition of high definition television reveals not just incredible detail in the hairs on a zebra’s ass, but more than a few human pimples. I haven’t experienced this for myself, but if you’ve ever seen a Charlie Rose interview and realized, Wow, Robert Redford really is in his 70s, I imagine it’s something like that.

So here’s where things get a little weird. The response to the HDTV effect has been…an increased demand for plastic surgery. Obviously. Which makes me wonder at what point technology will reveal so much reality that these poor actors will stop trying to hide that reality with more technology (and tape). I'm not sure whether they go it for themselves or their audience, and maybe I’m too oblivious to understand, but it seems absurd to demand of our stars that they not reveal their or reflect our own aging realities. A 40-year-old woman can look like she has the skin of a 20-year-old on-screen. Great. But shouldn’t we all know on some level that there are a few wrinkles underneath, just as we knew what was hidden under our classmates’ cakey prom make-up? Come Oscar night, I have no real problem with stars covering up their blackheads and thinning hair, but it should be done with a bit of a wink. We should realize that, when actors return home from the after-parties their Oscar gowns may fall to the floor to reveal a few stretch marks and sagging bellies. And if we all know and accept this, at some point the amount of plastic and silicone used to maintain the "secret" seems just a little ridiculous.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Two roads diverged in a Safeway

A few days ago, I walked to the grocery store for a few dinner items with a paper bag I planned to reuse. Taking along a bag was especially important to me as I was going to a store that seems to keep its paper bags in a vault while handing out plastic bags like water. I’ve even seen the baggers at this store double-bag a single gallon of milk.

When I reached my turn at the counter, the cashier was busy chatting with a co-worker, her back turned as she absentmindedly rang up my 5 or so items and began throwing them into 7 or so plastic bags. I tried several times to get her attention to let her know I had brought my own. Finally she turned to me and laughed, graciously pulling my items back and handing them to me to bag.

“Boy,” she commiserated, “you’ve got to be careful. Those plastic bags can take over your home if you don’t watch it.”

I agreed. And then she continued: “Last time I moved, I think I found more plastic bags in my house than anything else. That’s why now, as soon as I get home I throw my plastic bags straight into the garbage.”

Friday, January 12, 2007

Seriously, Gizmodo...

Stop. You're going to hurt yourselves.

There are mature adults who are interested in gadgets. I would guess most would prefer not to wade through the adolescence on your site to get to the good stuff. Really, you do some good work, so I say this with love if not total respect: if you would ever again like to see the shape of a breast in your home (perhaps even one not made of plastic and metal), grow up already. Believe it or not, not all bloggers need self-cleaning underwear.

(Apologies to all for sounding crude, but it may be the only way to get Gizmodo to listen.)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

On resourcefulness amid overabundance

I am often impressed (or depressed) by the level of waste and abundance found in developed countries. But the overabundance of my life hit me especially hard a few weeks ago, while watching a recent addition to the Discovery Channel's "Survivor Friday" line-up. The unfortunately titled "Man vs. Wild" stars Bear Grylls, a British survivalist, climber, sky diver, former member of the British Special Air Forces, and more, who, in each week's episode, parachutes into the wilderness, then shows the audience how to survive under such conditions while finding your way back to civilization. I'd be concerned about revealing a bit of a crush on this impressive man, but I think my husband is just as captivated by him; see for yourself here. (My husband would want me to mention here that Grylls is married, with two children, and that he has no intention of leaving me for Grylls.)

There is an absurdity to the situations Grylls finds himself in. Few people are likely to be faced with these circumstances, though in each episode Grylls recounts stories of people who unexpectedly have been. And the recent tragic deaths in Oregon of CNET editor James Kim and hiker Kelly James, and the presumed deaths of Kelly James' fellow hikers Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke remind us that no amount of technology and innovation can shield us from the force of nature. But Grylls doesn't just jump into the middle of nowhere and find his way out. He falls off of cliffs (voluntarily, while tied to his parachute) or jumps into freezing cold ponds to show his viewers what you would want to do if you were to find yourself (involuntarily, I assume) in a similar position. He places his urine-soaked t-shirt on his head to cool off in the desert, and drinks the liquid from fresh elephant dung to demonstrate what can and should be done to survive the most dire circumstances.

The show is a real lesson in not only survivalism but the fundamentals of necessity and resourcefulness. Grylls typically lands on the ground (or water, or tree) with the materials of his parachute, a knife, a canteen, and the clothes he is wearing (the garb varies depending on his destination). It is not that Grylls finds joy in torturing himself through extreme deprivation. Though he knows how to survive with very little, and to forage for what he needs, he is often heard pining for a cup of tea or other bastion of civility. But just as often he finds extreme pleasure in something as simple as a fire, a meal of fresh fish (as in, just plucked by hand out of the water), or a flat and safe place to sleep.

On one recent episode, Grylls stranded himself on a desert island. After a few days apparently enjoying the island life--climbing coconut trees for the food and natural protection from sun and wind the coconut oil provides, fashioning fishing lines and spears from local plant life to catch his dinner--Grylls decided to turn his attention toward building a raft to get himself off of the island and, hopefully, rescued at sea. Grylls excels at making rafts; he has quickly fastened a few logs together on more than one previous episode to speed his return to civilization, as he says a river is generally the fastest way home. But this time he wisely took his time, building a rather elaborate raft and sail from what he could find on the island.

He also took some time to collect a few items to help ensure his survival on the ocean. (Of course, he had a camera crew there, and the show's rule--that the crew will interfere only in a matter of life or death--is both what lends fascinating realism to this show and what allows Grylls to take such insane risks.) The most basic necessity, of course, is water; Grylls needed plenty of water to survive even a few days waiting for rescue. How to hold such water? Well, this is where Grylls got lucky. You might think unbelievably so, unless you've been to a beach recently and started collecting the trash that washes onto the shore: he found an empty plastic gallon container, a little dented by its journey, but still able to hold a decent amount of the rainwater Grylls had been collecting.

Yes, what impressed me here, and has continued to come to mind each time I toss an item into the trash or recycling, is this plastic jug. This is the kind of item we routinely buy with the intention of using its contents and throwing it into the garbage or recycling bin (or, apparently, the ocean), but that could have significant use left in it. Likewise, as I am inundated with junk mail, flyers, and unsolicited offers each day, I am most likely to be so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of junk in my mailbox that I choose to toss it straight into the recycling. I know, however, that besides adding to the garbage collection or recycling flow, each of which takes up space and precious energy, there are other possible uses for the many items that enter my home each day. The paper could be used to make more handmade paper, or to create paper beads, or the blank parts used to make envelopes or as scratch paper for my son.

There are many reasons to get junk mail, plastic jugs, and other packaging out of your house as quickly as possible, and many reasons not to keep such items around for continued use, including time constraints and maintaining sanity, general cleanliness and order. But this is precisely the point. My grandmother used to have a pink embroidered bird on white cloth framed and hanging on the bedroom wall. The cloth was a scrap, and the thread used for embroidery was unraveled from another scrap, a project undertaken by a great-grandmother while she was pregnant on a farm somewhere in Kansas. My grandmother also kept a small jar on her windowsill, in which she kept a collection of the red plastic and wire closures that came with saltine crackers, and a small container in her pantry, into which she stuffed assorted plastic bags. On top of this, my grandmother collected the possessions of the generation that preceded hers, which included the possessions of the generations before that, as they passed away, and stored these possessions in hutches, closets, cupboards, and drawers. Yet, compared to many homes today, hers was relatively bare; the vast majority of stuff in her home was valuable or useful. Her plastic bag and red saltine wrapper collections were of reasonable size because she brought home a reasonable amount of plastic bags and saltine crackers, and because, like island-stranded Grylls and his plastic jug, she made good use of what she had.

These days there are entire televisions shows devoted to helping people rid themselves of boxes of fabric and jars of red saltine wrappers. And with good reason. A person who saves even a small portion of the useful bits and pieces that come into the average home could quickly be overrun. A single trip to the grocery store might yield enough packaging to fill your garbage or recycling bin; a run to Target or the mall might overstuff your closet, then send you running back to Target for some organizational tools.

For me, Grylls' plastic jug serves as a both a reminder of absurd overabundance and a challenge to think more carefully about the resources I bring into my home. It does not suggest to me that we should all strand ourselves from civilization and survive off the land and the garbage that floats our way. Rather, it suggests to me that, beyond reducing general consumerism, we should be conscious of the overabundance of resources afforded by even a simple lifestyle, of the disposable scraps we pick up each day even when not over-consuming, and that this simple consciousness might inspire powerful change. Stick around as, in the next few days, I develop this challenge into my next personal project.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Are Gizmodo's Boys baiting the feminists?

Or are they really this lame?

Back in 2006, the Gizmodo Blogger Boys compiled a charming end-of-year list, entitled "Pictorial: Top 10 Blogger Babes of 2006".

Reaction to the post was, shall we say, informative. I scrolled to the bottom of the page, looking forward to a little justified outrage in the comments, but what I found were comments generally along these lines: "Veronica Belmont should do something with that hair" (posted by "Vagitarian") and "Didn't know there were sexy women bloggers -drools-[...]Xiaxue and Veronica Belmont are the top two of the bunch, but Xiaxue has that... certain (insert-french-phrases-here) about her, shes hawtness personified" (posted by "Deviant Spawn").

OK, so at least some of the readers of Gizmodo are also idiots. Outside of their own creepy following, though, Gizmodo's Blogger Babes hit the blogosphere with gusto, spawning reactions from, among others, Feministing, who dubbed this the "[p]uke-inducing post of the day", and Broadsheet, who summed up the post most simply and poetically: "blech".

I should say I don't read Gizmodo, a "gadget guide"/blog. My more gadget-inclined husband does, or did until recently, and he likes to share the most egregious posts with me. So it is mainly because of him that I've been tracking the Boys' continuing strange representations of femaledom from their MacWorld/CES coverage, and I'm rounding up the best/worst here:

First, there is something a little creepy about the body-part-by-body-part angles in this video, shot on a cell phone at some party they were clearly excited go to, and even more excited to get kicked out of (for shooting said video). There's a breast-view-first shot of a head here, a leather-heeled foot shot there, a Look!--off in the distance is a woman in a dress about to crouch shot, a quick shot of a cute guy, then back to more breast shots. Let me tell you, Blogger Boys, you can make fun of the party now if you want to, but getting kicked out of a techie party for shooting video of women you wouldn't be in the same room with otherwise is not that cool.

Second, something equally sad about this post, in which Matt and Charlie check out a Sharp/Nascar venture. An actual woman plays a rather superfluous role in the beginning of the video, and gets honorable mention in the synopsis, as the "cute Sharp girl", as if to say, Look, a cute woman employed by the company running the booth is talking to us!!

Third: I just have nothing whatsoever to say about this post.

And finally, and most recently, a very strange entry. The title, "The World's Sweetest Boothbabe" had me unsure whether to be ready to "stir up the chicks", as my husband (ironically, I think) calls it, or ohhh and ahhh over a cute baby picture. Then I saw the picture, which at first appears to be an abandoned baby face-down on a table, and was disturbed. Next I realized the "baby" is in fact a doll, and wondered why the Blogger Boys bothered to take, much less post, a photo of it. And, finally, I read the post, which recounts a strange exchange with an actual Booth Babe, who assumes the geeks with a camera want a picture of her. In the end, I can't tell whether this is another I-talked-to-a-woman! post, or whether, perhaps, the boys mean to point out the irony and general ickiness of the Booth Babe phenomenon (for good discussion of such, visit Salon's Broadsheet here and here).

Blogger Boys of Gizmodo, I don't know you. Maybe some of you are well-rounded and kind individuals. But I sense that some of you would benefit from some positive attention through real interaction with some real females, the kind that may be hard to come by through computers, video games, and visits with the Babes of Boothland. Good luck with that.

Monday, January 08, 2007

WWJE (Who would Jesus execute?): Thoughts on a new kind of public hanging

Early on the morning of December 30, Baghdad time, Saddam Hussein was hanged as punishment for his role in the 1982 Dujail massacre. We watched the unfolding story on television as it occurred, Friday evening our time. I think the coverage on CNN is best described as flashy and overproduced rubbernecking. I was overcome with a feeling of empathy upon considering the impending death of a fellow human being and the mental and physical suffering that might come to him. I sensed the appropriate reaction, as to any human suffering, was to give him a moment of silence. I sensed also that the graphics-driven and competitive atmosphere of 24 hour television news would not allow that sort of respect for the passing of human life.

One could argue that Hussein did not deserve our empathy and respect at the end of his life. Perhaps he was an evil man; he certainly committed and ordered evil acts. Perhaps because of his own actions while living he deserved nothing while dying but death itself. Perhaps he even deserved in some sense a slow and painful death. I certainly understand if others did not feel the empathy I felt. But the underlying question here, I think, is this: What is the purpose of state or government execution? Does a government take a human life out of a sense of justice, punishment, or revenge?

In the United States, at least, there is an almost institutionalized sense that Blind Justice takes the life of a criminal who the legal system deems has given up his or her right to life by committing a capital crime. It seems there is a long history of shielding the identity and limiting the agency of the executioner, such that, symbolically at least, rather than a person being given the authority to take another human being's life, the criminal's life is ceremoniously taken, as if the indifferent hand of Justice herself turns the switch off on the life of a criminal. This is all the more true as states have moved from more overtly violent and bloody forms of execution, such as death by firing squad, hanging, or electric chair, toward forms of execution, such as lethal injection, that theoretically increase the dignity of and executioner's distance from the execution (though California and Florida have recently called the humanity of lethal injection into question as well).

I am an opponent of the death penalty in general; it has been outlawed in most democratic countries, and should be outlawed in the United States as well. It is most difficult for me to accept execution carried out not as Blind Justice, but in the midst of unfettered and unconcealed rage. The method of Saddam's execution is one of the more violent, as it often takes a matter of minutes for death to be complete (though in Saddam's case it was apparently mercifully swift). But what made Saddam's death an overt act of revenge, what robbed his execution, if not Saddam himself, of dignity in death, were the taunts and angry outbursts, and the general atmosphere of hatred that filled the room as the noose was tightened and the gallows dropped.

In the immediate aftermath of the execution, the big story seemed to be the investigation and prosecution of guards who surreptitiously recorded, and subsequently broadcast, unsanctioned video of the the hanging. That is, the problem being focused on was not the lack of dignity with which Saddam was executed, but the fact that it is possible for anyone to watch the hanging without interpretation or editing. It seems there are those who would like to conceal the bare facts of this historically significant event, facts which appear to make even George W. Bush uncomfortable.

Saddam's death seems in many ways to be the culmination of the United States' invasion of Iraq. It is something that many (though clearly not all) Iraqis wanted long before the invasion, or were not unhappy to see occur. It is an official and final end to a dark era. But it was precipitated by the United States' invasion, and, for all the initial talk of weapons of mass destruction, bringing down Saddam seems to me to have been on the agenda of Bush and company when they led the call to invade. Saddam's downfall, dignified or not, may be welcome to Bush and others, but if we applaud these ends, we must also accept both the means used to get us there, and all the additional outcomes, including over 3,000 US soldiers who will not be returning home.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

My compact resolutions for 2007, Part 2: The months ahead

Quick summary: In July 2006, I joined The Compact. Yesterday, I gave some thought to my challenges so far. My initial pledge would take me only through July 2007, but I've decided to renew my pledge for the full year 2007, with some additional pledges, as well as some foreseeable exceptions. In what follows, I'll put my thoughts on the coming year's pledge into writing.

So, here it is: I will not buy new products for myself for the year 2007, except food and basic health and safety items and other compact allowables (e.g., stuff necessary for work). This is the basic compact, with the addition of 'for myself'. More about that part below. Also may allow myself a "Jubilee Day" in July, as some original members who want to continue for another year have allowed themselves a day to buy items they've needed or missed before renewing their pledge.

In a sense, the basic pledge is easy to get around or to justify your way through. I've bought things in the past six months that I didn't include on yesterday's list--mostly toiletries and the like, but also things like a new car seat for my son (actually a gift from my in-laws, but I was there when it was purchased and asked for it to be purchased as our Christmas gift, so I think this counts). This is clearly a safety item and a basic necessity, or considered to be so in our society. Our Destroyer outgrew the old seat and needed a new one, period. I made an attempt to buy or receive a freecycled used one. But there are many arguments out there against the use of "pre-owned" car seats. (In fact, some "helpful" local emailed me after my freecycle wanted post went out to sanctimoniously warn me about used seats. Thanks so much to all those who police others' parenting choices.) In any case, I was unable to get my hands on a used one. Plus, once we went to the store and had our son test-ride a few, the one that fit our and his needs the best was a brand-new, just-released model. I did, however, buy (or have my in-laws buy) the seat from a wonderful locally-owned shop.

No qualms about this exception, but you can see that it's a slippery slope. I've actually thought of some other exceptions I made since yesterday. One, a new notebook. I write, a lot, and preferably off of the computer as much as on it. My journal was full and I bought a new one, from a local business. Justifiable as an occupation-related expense? Maybe. But I had other blank notebooks at home. Just not the type I normally use for journals. And, two, an inflatable mattress. We had company coming, and our old mattress has some sort of unrepairable hole in it. So many things wrong with this purchase, and I just made it without exception at the time, from Target of all places, without trying to find a used or freecycled one. But if I wanted to...I guess it could be seen as a health expense, since we gave up our bed for company and I have a bad back, so needed a comfortable place to sleep. So that one is OK. Right??

The power of the compact pledge, even for those of us who are not terribly strict about it, is in forcing members to consider their purchases more carefully. Even though I have not, strictly speaking, kept myself from buying anything but bare necessities for the past six months, I have (a) considered each of the purchases I have made carefully, usually before making them, and (b) made exceptions, in most cases, consciously, and in many cases in tandem with my non-compacting partner and/or son (meaning some of my new purchases were unavoidable unless I strongarmed my family into compacting). Thinking is a positive thing. I think it is probably not a sustainable strategy to not buy anything new, ever, for the rest of your life, if you are to be a relatively normal and functioning member of this society. There are two ways to approach compacting: one, as a temporary pledge, knowing that you will be able to buy new things when the year is over, and that not buying anything new at all is just an exercise of sorts; and, two, as a beginning to a long-term change. I'd like this to be the beginning of a long-term change for me, but I'd also like to be a little more strict about my purchases in the coming months than in the past six. I'd like to avoid another inflatable mattress or pill dispenser purchase. Ultimately, the goal is decrease the amount of time I think about being a consumer.

So, here are my thoughts on anticipating exceptions for the next year. I don't want to give myself permission to brush off the pledge when it becomes inconvenient, but to anticipate those things that are likely to pose a compact-conundrum for me:

1. Exceptions as purchases-in-tandem: As I discovered when listing my new purchases in yesterday's post, most of the exceptions I made were things I bought with my husband or son, or for my husband, son or others. I suggested that it is probably not appropriate to force others into compact choices. Apparently, my sweet husband agrees. I pledge to continue to make compact-friendly suggestions when making joint purchases, but to not force my husband into anything (as if that would be possible). Joint purchases won't count against my pledge, but I also won't use that fact to justify buying things I lust after as a couple.

But what of my son? I began giving my son an allowance not long after I joined the compact, in anticipation of the fact that he might want things that I would not want to buy him. But, in fact, I have quite a lot of influence over his purchasing decisions, because (a) he's four, and probably less focused on products than the average four-year-old, as we've been pretty careful about the kinds of ads and things he's exposed to, and also because he's just a really great kid (apart from all that destruction), and (b) he totally adores me (my husband might say too much), and would probably do anything I ask him to do at this point purchase-wise. I'll aim to buy his necessities used, but I can't say I won't buy him any new clothing in the next year, and I will likely buy or allow him to buy basic art supplies if he runs low. I will also make sure he knows of alternatives to buying new stuff, and will continue to drag him along on hikes and other compact-friendly endeavors. As for gifts, I will buy consumables, make gifts, or at the very least buy eco-friendly products at local stores (e.g., I bought my son a Sigg water bottle for his birthday this year--a good product, and no more need for disposable water bottles on our hikes ). I also might buy some new books and/or music for people as gifts; see below.

2. Exceptions for work and serious hobbies: I will be writing this year, so what of stuff needed for writing, such as a printer and printer-related gear, notebooks, pens, a computer, etc.? And what of hobby supplies, for photography, crocheting, drawing and painting, and anything new I want to take up? In truth, I think I have most of what I would need to write: a computer, printer, and lots of notebooks and pens, even if not the type I most like using. We have been talking about buying a new computer in the next year, because the one we have is my small, memory-challenged laptop, which is currently bending under the weight of the thousands of photos we take of our son and on our hikes (and literally bending from a few Destroyer-induced topples from the coffee table). This will be a tandem purchase, so see above. I know buying used in this case will not be acceptable to my wonderful husband. As for hobbies and other supplies, I'll pledge to use what I have or can get used as much as possible, even if that decision determines the things I am able to make. I'll go with that. If I really feel I need something new for work or a project, I will buy from a local store, and as eco-friendly as reasonably possible. One last thing: I really want a sewing machine. I have no idea how to use one, but I'd like to learn, using used materials to make alterations, make new things from things that are falling apart, etc. I will attempt to find a used one, but if I can't find what I am looking for by the time my first year is up (in July), I may consider this a Jubilee Day purchase.

3. Exceptions to support the arts: I usually buy used books and music. But I do like supporting good artists and authors by buying new products. And I may be working up to writing about books that are new sometime in the next year. So, I will continue to buy used, but may buy a few new items, again locally, for myself or even for others as gifts.

These are my thoughts on things I am likely to be faced with buying new in the next year. And here are a few of the additional compact-related things I'd like to do this year beyond the basic pledge:

1. Food: I'll be continuing to work on reducing the packaging that I bring into my home from food. Also, I've been moving toward making as much as I can of my food from scratch, with a basic rule that I not buy anything (OK, much) with more than five ingredients (basic good sour cream has five ingredients, and I do like sour cream, so that's my cutoff). I'll also continue buying locally and/or organic from local stores and farmers markets, and in bulk. This will be my 16th year as a vegetarian; I'm eating eggs, milk and dairy products, but will buy local and organic as much as possible. It's difficult to get good local cheese. [Update: my husband claims there is lots of good local cheese available; getting it, however, would still require a special trip to a specialty store a few miles from stores I normally frequent. I'll probably generally stick to cheese from my general part of the country that's available at stores I already go to. I haven't made the 100-mile diet pledge. Yet.]

2. Health items: I've been reassessing my need for certain "basic" health items, and will continue to do so. The Compact email list has introduced me to all sorts of homemade health and cleaning product options. I'll use these, and buy earth friendly products when I buy products.

3. Garbage and the other things I bring into and send out of my home: I'll continue my ongoing attempts to reduce the amount of garbage I have through recycling and reuse. My goal is to compost more, and to reuse at least once things that I might have otherwise thrown away or recycled. If I can't reuse it myself, I'll collect and freecycle. (Related to exception (1), above: I will not force or nag my husband into joining me here, though I may quietly appreciate it if he does so of his own volition.)

4. Organization and clutter: Like many people, we have more stuff in our house than we need. But I think the decluttering fad can go too far. I plan to declutter by degrees by cutting down on the stuff I bring into my home. I also plan to organize the things we have better, so I can better use up the items we have and avoid buying more. I don't like the idea of throwing a bunch of unused crap into a bag and dumping it at Out of the Closet just to purge, but I will freecycle or otherwise place into a good home some of the things we have that others could get better use from.

5. Buying used stuff, and especially clothes: In the beginning, I bought quite a bit of used stuff as a way of weaning myself from buying new stuff. I wasn't a shopaholic, but had certainly been buying more than necessary, and had taken to shopping as a way to get out of the house on a rainy day now and then. Even doing this once a month or so can lead to excess. It's too easy to convince yourself that you deserve to buy a new pair of shoes, or a t-shirt in this season's color, when you are hypnotised by Gap-culture. I haven't felt the urge to do this in some time, but in case I get sucked back in and start turning to thrift stores to fill the need, I pledge to buy no more than twelve items of clothing or shoes for myself this year. This comes to one item per month, and should be more than enough to satisfy any consumer-culture-driven cravings. I'm also saying right now that, once July 2007 passes, I might allow myself to buy one pair of pants new. If and only if one of my basics falls apart, and if and only if I can't find a replacement used. I have trouble finding pants that fit well, even new. No shoes, though. I lust over good, sturdy shoes, the kind my mother and most of the people I went to high school with would roll their eyes at. They are practical, tough to find used, and some compact members count them as a health item. But even if one of my pairs falls apart, I should have enough to back them up for the rest of the year. As for other used stuff, I'll try to be judicious in these purchases. I don't lust after much. Might buy some cooking stuff, since I'm cooking a lot more since joining The Compact and making my from-scratch-when-possible pledge.

That's my pledge for 2007. But one more thought before I go. My husband has suggested to me, in private and in a comment on yesterday's post, that one way to circumvent the compact is to get him or other people to buy stuff for me when compacting is inconvenient. He has a point. I, for example, asked for a couple of items for Christmas that I wanted, and had trouble finding used (a mala, or Buddhist meditation bracelet, and a garlic press). This is certainly cheating, though it seemed like a good idea at the time. I will plan not to do that in the coming year. And, of course, I'll be keeping a list of issues that come up as I go--both things I buy and things I don't buy--and will blog about those that are the most interesting (to me).

Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

My compact resolutions for 2007, Part 1: An evaluation of the past six months

Having joined The Compact in July 2006, my initial pledge will be up in July 2007. However, I've decided to extend my pledge through the year 2007. This seems, therefore, like a good time to reflect on the exceptions I have made in the last few months and to consider how I might deal with similar or other foreseeable issues in the next year. It is also a good time to put into writing and share the ways in which I would like to extend the compact pledge into other areas of my life--things that seem to extend from or relate to the initial pledge to not buy new things, but which are not strictly required by the basic pledge.

Here are the exceptions I have made so far. Below, I've broken them into categories and provided commentary and/or justification (at least what I told myself at the time) for them: a washing machine, a tank for our toilet, a fake Christmas tree, a few books and CDs I bought as gifts, clothes for my son, art and craft supplies, a wind-up radio/flashlight, some food containers, a pill dispenser, and some rechargeable batteries.

A. Things I bought with my husband (who has not joined The Compact). This list includes only items we bought together; he bought a few things on his own as well, mostly purchases that did not benefit me in any way and that I did not influence in any way, but also, for example, my Christmas gift (thanks again!):
1. A washing machine. This fell into the realm of decisions I needed to make with my husband. Our old washing machine was a small apartment-dweller's machine, the kind on wheels that hooks up to a sink. We were doing more than one load a day to keep up with three people in this machine, and not because our use of washables is unreasonably large for a family of three that includes a young child. It began leaking uncontrollably in September, and posed my first real compact dilemma. W had three choices: 1) try to get the old machine fixed; 2) get rid of the old machine and replace it with a used machine; or 3) get rid of the old machine and replace it with a new machine. We decided to freecycle the old machine to someone who could fix it (thanks, Richard!) in favor of a larger machine, and decided on a new machine because it was the easiest way to get delivery and to find a relatively energy-efficient machine.
2. A tank for our toilet. Our toilet tank cracked (thanks to our son The Destroyer) and was leaking. Again, could have gone used here, as we did when The Destroyer broke the lid to the tank a few months ago, but my husband preferred to get this new.
3. A new fake Christmas tree. Again, we wanted a Christmas tree this year, and I left the fake versus real decision up to my husband. Perhaps this was a copout, me not wanting to take the responsibility for either buying a new plastic product or buying a recently slaughtered tree. I've been known to deflect a decision or two.

B. Things I bought for other people and/or supplies for making things:
4. A few books and CDs I bought as gifts. I didn't plan far enough ahead in my gift-making. I did make a few gifts, but also purchased some--I decided it was acceptable to me to buy CDs and books along with consumables as gifts, since music and books are things I want to support.
5. Clothes for my son. I didn't join the compact on my son's behalf, so like the purchases I made with my husband this is perhaps a not-quite-exception. Still, I could have bought used clothing for him. I decided not to because he grew overnight and suddenly had literally no long-sleeved shirts that fit him on a cold day, and I knew it would be faster and take less consumer-energy to just go to one store and get a few shirts. Here's the bad sign, though: My Destroyer was very excited about clothes shopping. He had a blast picking out colors and was ready to strip down in the aisles to try things on. He may already need some shopper deprogramming. Or maybe he just sees the store as the biggest dress-up box ever. Yeah, that's probably it. Did I mention he's four?
6. Art and craft supplies. Mainly yarn for Christmas gifts and art supplies for my son, also his Christmas gift. Strictly speaking, it is allowable by the compact for professionals or talented amateurs to buy supplies for making things within reason, and I probably qualify as a moderately talented amateur. Not sure about my son, though. My positive opinion of his drawings-of-large-numbers series probably doesn't count for much.

C. Things I justified as food, health and/or safety items and other stuff:
7. A wind-up radio/flashlight. Something we didn't have and could be seen as a safety item for use in an emergency. Also something I got with my husband.
8. Some food containers. Two things here: First, I found our lunch-sized containers missing entirely or missing lids and was packing my son's lunch in Ziploc bags. Not really acceptable to me, so I purchased some nice rectangular containers at a local store that fit perfectly in his box and that have space for me to decorate with his name. No more lost containers so far. Second, I've been buying a lot of bulk food as part of my effort to cook things from scratch (more on that later), and bought a few containers at the same time to store the bulk items. Justified this as a sort of food-related item and a better option than throwing away Ziploc bags.
9. Pill dispenser. Really not necessary. Got caught up while waiting for a prescription last month. OK, yes, I take medication daily for pain, and it is useful to be able to portion out the medication so there are no did-I-already-take-this? moments, so I justified this as health-related, but it was obviously not a necessity.
10. Some rechargeable batteries. I've been moving toward rechargeable batteries for some time, buying rechargeable to replace any batteries that die down. I gave this some thought, as it was my first post-compact non-food purchase. I think buying batteries would only truly be compact-friendly if the batteries are to run a necessary health or safety item, such as a flashlight or radio (already covered by (7)). In this case, I was buying batteries to run one of my son's very few battery-operated toys. Since I had already chosen not to force my son into the compact I decided not to deny him batteries for a favorite toy because his mom went nuts and joined a no-shopping cult. How's that for therapy-fodder?

So, 10 exceptions in six months, some quite justifiable, some not. I think the main dilemma that jumps out here is the issue of whether or not to extend the compact so far that it impacts other people, i.e., should I attempt to force my husband and son into compact choices and buy only compact-friendly items for others. I know what my husband would say to that question. Nearly all of the exceptions I made relate to this issue. I should note that, when faced with my husband's suggestion that we buy something, I have nearly always suggested not buying or used buying as an alternative. This includes during the washing machine and toilet tank purchase. Sometimes it has worked, sometimes not. Sometimes (as with the washing machine and probably toilet tank) he has had quite a legitimate reason for preferring to buy new for something that was a relatively basic need.

In the next installment, I will consider how to apply what I have learned to my next year. Stay tuned.