Friday, September 4, 2009

In praise of legwarmers, part 1 of 3

Okay, ladies, just forget Flashdance. Pretend you never cut the neck out of a sweatshirt so it would casually slip off your shoulder, exposing the straps of your jog bra. Delete from your memory the humiliating scrapbooked candids of you and your friends draped over benches, your legwarmers meticulously “slouched” down your calves. I’m being serious here. Legwarmers are back, hopefully to stay. So don’t avert your eyes…

It’s the first week of September, and finally, my father’s doubts that my Ivy League education was a colossal waste of money can be put to rest. I have become a crossing guard. Every Friday for thirty minutes before the school bell quaintly rings, I now heft my octagonal sign to protect dozens of distracted children from vehicular injury.

As I learn the ins and outs of my new job (big rush at 8:25, be prepared!), one of the things I’m realizing is that wardrobe is an issue. Our school is too small and the traffic too slow to necessitate the provision of a reflective orange vest, so my fashion choices are unimpeded by a uniform. The clothing issue centers more on temperature. Once the rain starts, it will be easy: dress warm. But this time of year, the last gasp of summer, it’s more complex. The days are hot (too hot, hotter than a few years ago? I always ask, I can’t help it), but the mornings are blanketed in a damp woolen marine layer. Were I simply dropping off the kids, a quick kiss and hug before jumping back into the car, I could get away with the thin cotton skirt, t-shirt, and flip-flops that will be de rigeur by pick-up time. But I have to stand unprotected in the crosswalk, covered by the long morning shadow of a scrub oak which prevents the sunrays beginning to break through the fog from reaching my goosepimpled legs.

If I were headed home after crosswalk duty, I’d just wear jeans and a sweatshirt, but I’ve got places to go (car needs maintenance), people to see (helping a friend edit a paper for school), and things to do (set up laptop at teahouse to write latest blog post), so I’m loathe to return to the house for a costume change. Plus, I’m recently single, so I’ve got a compulsive desire to look cute as I run my various errands. The answer to my problem lurks demurely in my sock drawer: legwarmers. Now, those of you who do not live in towns as hippified as mine will probably dispute my “cute” claims, but I SWEAR it worked: the skirt/tee/sandals, with an overlay of zip cardigan and, yes, what you were dreading, legwarmers. I was cozy as a kitten, hanging out in the crosswalk, and then somewhere between the oil change and the teahouse, the legwarmers slipped right off to reveal my appropriate-to-the-heat original outfit.

Now, I’m not usually one to offer up fashion advice to others, but in this one instance, I’m emboldened by the fact that my whole romance with legwarmers was started by Selena, my way way way hipper-than-me friend who gave me the purse I currently carry, which seriously, without fail, elicits a daily “what a cute purse! Where did you get it?” comment from a random stranger. A couple of years ago for Christmas, I talked Selena into bringing her kids over for our annual Christmas Eve dinner party. It was a basic cultural exchange: my kids came to her seder, hers came to our Noche Buena celebration. Despite my “no gifts” insistence, she showed up with a small package, which I opened after we were all stuffed with traditional Cuban holiday fare.

“Wow, thanks!” I politely said, holding up the navy blue ribbed legwarmers. Legwarmers??? Okay, whatever, I thought.

“Wait!” Selena interjected. “Are those legwarmers?”

“Looks like it.”

“Oh, shit, I thought they were tights. I’m SO SORRY,” she moaned.

“No, no, it’s cool. Legwarmers are great, really. I mean, um, I haven’t had a pair in a really long time.”

“Of course you haven’t. They went out of style about 20 years ago. I’m so sorry—I’ll take them back.”

I insisted on keeping them. I mean, what’s the point in having grown up in the south if you can’t insist on keeping a gift you don’t want. “Really, I love them. Thank you.”

And then they went into my sock drawer to languish for a while…

Coming soon: how legwarmers will SAVE THE PLANET, plus, how to build community through legwarmers. (I’m actually dead serious.) So stay tuned…

I really don't spank my kids, I swear

But if you want to read my theoretical reconsideration of that decision, pick up the current issue of Brain, Child (Fall, 2009).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer Vacation: Beech Creek

After the long baking walk across the drought-crisp field, the air of the creek greets us like, well, like a breath of fresh air. A deep inhalation of the water-cooled air on the shady creek bank suddenly makes those ubiquitous yoga t-shirts make sense: breathe. Ah, yes. The heat in the field has worked everyone into not just bodily sweat, but into anxious and cranky mindset, which instantly lifts under the cool sated trees. We savor one more gulp of calm, then plunge in, ankle-deep in clear cold ripples, mud clouds billowing up under our heels, minnows and crawdads shooting away from our footfalls.

My sons explore the creek with reckless little-boy abandon, not yet having internalized my stuffed-down maternal fears of snapping turtles and copperheads. They earnestly construct piles of stones and rotting leaves to dam off channels between platforms of rock, watching with fascination their own power to affect the water’s route. Sunlight, bright through summer’s lace of leaves, dances madly on the pebbles beneath the surface. A fish appears, slides into shadow. A pencil-thin snake shimmers red-brown against the long grass leaning down into the water. The boys splash after him, scaring him off in their attempts to get a closer look.

I grew up here, the creek my source of private sanctuary for the difficulties of childhood, a place to hide within deep banks, its calm coolness a balm to troubled mind or heart. I come back to this Tennessee valley now each year; each year I unexpectedly receive this healing again. The creek is still here. It has not run dry even with the overdevelopment of the surrounding former farmland, even with the hot dry summer after hot dry summer accumulating. The heron who astounded with his wide span floating between the close banks has gone, but look, the hawks are still perched on the dead trees in the fencerows above the banks. Deer tracks and raccoon prints draw a festive calligraphy along the water’s edge. My children will know this place the way I know it, from before memory begins. Their as yet unblemished faces expose a pure joy in connecting their bodies with this creek.

The creek does not cure my deep anxieties about the changed world my children will live in, but it does give me a moment to feel that it perhaps all is not lost. The small power that they discover today in seeing themselves change the water’s flow will grow with them, and I pray that power will be guided by the love of this place, of clean water and animal tracks and cool green shade. May the creek still be here for them to watch their children disappear around the next curve, curious and safe. May they seek sanctuary here, and breathe.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Once upon a time, a chicken was a chicken, and an egg was an egg, and the answer to which came first simply depended on whether you believed in evolution. Ah, the good old days. Nowadays, the chicken-and-egg business is awash in adjectives and hyphens; something as basic as an egg carton teems with descriptions pointing the unwitting consumer in all sorts of labyrinthine directions. When did everything get so complicated?

I suspect that at some point in the not-too-distant past, the word “natural” actually had a meaning shared by most of the population. In the new millennium, “natural” is a throwaway—you have to add “all-“ to wring any value at all from it, and it’s still pretty parched. As our choices have expanded, and sustainability in agriculture has begun to enter the popular consciousness, we are barraged by the marketing of “natural” foods, nowhere more apparent than in the egg aisle. But as more and more people want foods produced by humane and earth-friendly methods, the supply doesn’t seem to meet the demand. Those truly all-natural hens can’t lay fast enough. Enter the funhouse of the modifier.

There was always large, extra-large, and jumbo, the egg-producers having beat Starbucks in the race to label everything as superlative by several generations. And white or brown. That used to be the extent of it, two simple decisions, size and aesthetic preference. Now there are moral decisions to be hashed out as you choose between free-range, cage-free, Omega three, family-farmed, no-gmo, veggie-fed, hormone-free, organic, locally-owned, antibiotic-free, artisan-made, sweatshop-free…(oops, I think I got out of the egg cooler just there at the end). What with the large and fine print cluttering the egg cartons, it’s no wonder there’s usually a bottleneck right at the egg section of my local grocer, as my fellow bewildered customers try to figure out if Susie’s Family Farm or Paradise Organics is the right choice. Does Susie treat her workers well, we wonder? Has Paradise been bought out by some major evil corporation? Are ANY chickens ever given hormones, or are the egg folks just borrowing a bit of anxiety-calming rhetoric from the red-meat folks? And does any of it really make a difference to the chickens?

From an aesthetic and ethical standpoint, I want to buy eggs and meat from chickens that were raised the way I picture chickens in my mind, strolling about the farmyard magically unmolested by attentive herding dogs. These chickens populate my toddler’s cardboard books in plenty, pecking at the green tufts of grass with their chicks trailing behind. These chickens look happy, expressing their inner “chicken-ness” by partaking of the activities dictated by their natures: scratching, catching bugs, and whatever else a self-realized chicken does. In a real world, these enlightened chickens would even lay eggs with naturally high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and would be resistant to disease because they are healthy and unconfined, living out the picture that “free-range” produces in my mind.

I found some of these storybook chickens last summer at the farmer’s market set up in the parking lot of our town plaza. The fairytale farmer was youthfully handsome and idealistic, flaunting a notebook filled with photos of the hens wandering his acreage, basking in the sunshine and freedom of sustainable farming methods. I gushed with excitement: finally, food I could feel unreservedly good about feeding my children! I happily handed over an exorbitant $5 for a dozen guilt-free eggs and started to walk away, but was lured back by the perfect poultry in the pictures. “Do you happen to have any broilers?” I ventured. “Just one left,” he grinned. He hoisted the sole remaining chicken out of his freezer and looked at the label on it: “Four pounds, okay with you?” I returned his wide-open smile as I handed him a twenty, taking the chicken and dropping it into an old plastic bag as I joked, “Can’t you find a bigger one in there?” pointing to the now-empty freezer. There is an awkward pause after he pocketed the bill I had just given him and said, “Thanks. Hope to see you again.” I was still smiling politely, waiting for the change he did not seem to be getting for me. In my unsureness about how to handle the situation, my eyes scanned the booth, and only then did I actually read the little chalkboard which gave the prices of his various vegetables, listing at the end: chicken, $5/lb. Four pounds at five bucks a pound, shit, that’s TWENTY DOLLARS! I had just bought a twenty dollar chicken, and I was way too embarrassed to hand it back after I had been falling all over myself telling him about how great it was that he’s doing all the right things, how I wished more people were doing it like him. I grinned one last time to cover my confusion and regret, and turned away, swinging the bag with the $20 chicken from one hand.

Now bereft of cash, I wandered away from the produce stalls over toward the lawn where several families were picnicking. My own kids were clamoring around in the general mélange of children, and I stopped by to check on them and say hi to the other parents. At each blanket I held up the paltry-seeming bag and flatly announced, “I just bought a $20 chicken,” my shock temporarily trumping the embarrassment I would start to feel shortly.

The sheer indulgence of having spent twenty dollars on one scrawny chicken weighed on my stereotypically middle-class scale of guilt, but it was balanced by the fact that I realized it probably represents the true amount of money a chicken is worth in the world that I, with my liberal ideals, would wish into existence if I had the requisite power to do so. In a world where all workers are paid fair wages to ensure a decent standard of living, in a world where the chickens are outside of their efficient “cage-free” warehouses actually eating wild insects and acres of grass instead of processed chicken feed with its list of suspect ingredients, in a world where the farmer values sustaining the earth over profits, a chicken would cost at least $20. My $20 chicken would probably be in the bargain basement of such a world.

I had to admit, to my untrained palate, fed for years on plump “free-range” roasters that probably never saw sunlight, my $20 chicken tasted pretty bargain basement: rangy and a little tough. Probably, just as with grass-fed beef, truly free-range chicken requires we adjust our cooking methods as well as our taste buds. I’d be happy to make the adjustments, I’m just not sure I can afford it. The “right” solution here would probably be to do some math: figure out how much I spend on chicken and use the same amount to buy only this truly sustainable version. Which would mean less chicken, but less guilt. Or I could raise my own free-ranging fowl in my back yard, an option I considered only until I mentioned it to my city-bred partner, who laid down a clear line in the chicken scratch: if we got chickens, we could eat their eggs but not them. No neck-wringing chez nous. I made a half-hearted attempt to woo my partner into the possibility of setting up our own slaughter house. “Coq au vin,” I murmured seductively. “Poulet provencal.” No go. She usually swoons when I speak French to her, but somehow my murderous plot wasn’t having the same effect as romantic renderings of lines from Jules et Jim.

I loved that she gave me this out, since although chicken is my kids’ favorite meal, and I do want us to eat in the most sustainable way possible, I was already developing a sense of dread about the moment of killing itself. Wring or chop? Of course, my pint-sized barbarians would probably love the literal sight of the proverbial headless chicken. In one of my most vivid memories of my semi-agrarian childhood, the seeming impossibility of that flapping, running bird-sans-head provoked my older brother to a hurricane of laughter. I recall inching backwards, fascinated but afraid, even though the bird’s main weapon was lying still attached to the tiny head near our chopping block. So I’m not in denial that the meat we eat comes from creatures that once lived and breathed, it’s just that I’d rather outsource the slaughter function. Back to the butcher counter for me, where I’ll have to grapple with my conscience and my wallet both.

While I’ve been trying to figure out the chicken conundrum, we’re eating a lot of eggs, without reading a lot of fine print. I’ve recently discovered that I can buy eggs from a neighbor, cheaper than the market eggs, packaged in battered recycled cartons festooned with adjectives no longer tied to the particular eggs within. These eggs, with their irregular sizes, muted palette of blues, greens and tans, and bits of straw still stuck underneath, feel somehow more real than the grocery store version, those homogeneous soldiers lined up ready to march through USDA inspections. With the homegrown version, I don’t need a barrage of modifiers to soothe my maternal health concerns, my environmental anxiety, and my animal welfare fears--the chicken herself was underfoot as I climbed up the neighbor’s porch steps to see how many extras they had today, and she looked plenty happy and healthy to me.

I guess the only thing that could be better would be that family-run, collaboratively-built, no-slaughter, egg-only, recycled-materials, beyond-organic, fully guilt-free henhouse I haven’t given up planning. I’ve got some old boards behind the garage. But until I find the time for a construction project, you’ll find me and the kids walking down the road to the neighbor’s, bringing our empty egg cartons for a refill. And as we walk past fennel and blackberry, Queen Anne’s lace and wild mustard flowers, for a while, life seems simple again.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Prop 8 tidbit

You can read my response to the prop 8 brouha in this week's Northern California Bohemian.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fishing for answers

Um, it's been over a month since I posted the fish stories, and it only just now occurred to me that I had never posted the link to the list itself, which was kind of the whole point. Oooops. To be a totally righteous consumer of marine life, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium website where you can customize your list by what region you live in or hook into online versions accessible from one of those handheld devices everyone seems to have now... Oh, I guess I could have just added the link into the previous posts, but that really would have been pushing the limits of my techno-savvy, since I'm really a Luddite by inclination.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fish Story, part 2

BACK when I was a vegetarian full-time, eating out was all about pasta primavera. Usually offensively bland despite the fact that its preeminence on restaurant menus was entirely determined by its wimpy inability to offend, the ubiquitous “pasta of spring” made eating out a rather dull prospect in any season.

BOY, have times changed. My town is chock-full of recovering vegetarians gorging themselves on the local livestock. Here in northern California, folks are now as likely to request gluten-free choices as they are to require meatlessness. Trying to cover both bases, the Seafood House lists the new, improved pasta primavera: butternut squash risotto. Perhaps not manageable for vegans, but what self-respecting vegan would go eat at the Seafood House anyhow? Clearly, I’ll get the risotto.

NEVERTHELESS, I pull out The List, the one I carry around to help me make intelligent, informed choices if the boys ask for fish. (And they do! You have never seen children with such a yen for slabs of raw fish. They actually get offended when I order the kind lying atop a compact glob of sticky rice. “More fish! Less grains!” they beg, unaware of just how many hours I would have to work to pay for the meal they envision, in which they eat until sated “just the fish” with no belly-filling rice at all. Clearly, nature, in the form of a genetic predisposition to crave sushi, has come out once again the victor over nurture, since these little heathens are being raised by someone who has completely internalized the Aquarium’s anti-fish-consumption propaganda.) The List tells me which kinds of fish are being overfished, which contain the highest levels of PCBs and mercury, and which are farmed using ecodestructive methods. I’m fooling myself, but I’m thinking today may be the day I plunge back into the consumption of marine life. I’ve had a LOT of butternut squash risotto and ravioli in the past few years.

SUE, with her clear love for seafood, is not one to be intimidated by a piece of paper. Nor to be embarrassed by eating at the Seafood House with a clearly over-zealous dissector of menu options. Sue is all for The List, as long as she can still eat whatever she wants. “Tell me what it says about clams,” she proposes, with the added warning, “but don’t tell me that I can’t eat the crab.” We talk through the pros and cons of a few of the appetizers listed, before the server appears, pad and pen poised for our order.

“UM, hey, before we order, can I ask a few questions?” I sheepishly blurt. Our server lets the pen droop limp in her hand, raising one eyebrow as she glumly acquiesces to the inquisition. I’m comparing the menu and The List, looking at the Fish-n-Chips with nostalgia for a long-ago trip to England. The List says that I can have the Fish-n-Chips as long as the cod is from the Pacific, which happens the be the ocean conveniently located only 20 minutes from here, so I’m thinking this one will be easy. “So, um, can you tell me where your cod comes from? Please?”

THE server thins her lips into an approximation of a smile, thrusts her chin forward, and answers crisply, “The ocean. Ha ha ha.” The laugh forced out in a transparent attempt to pretend she is not just plain fed up with my kind. When I persist, matching her own forced laughter with a faked chortle of my own, her face twitches with what appears to be a willful effort not to roll her eyes. She exhales slowly before reciting the flat words: “The cod is Atlantic cod. Next question?”

WHAT’S a girl to do? Keep pressing on in the face of clear indifference, or even resistance? I don’t think I’m educating the server, or pressing the restaurant to offer more sustainable options at this point, I’m just proving to her that all this fuss about fish is annoying. I venture out once more, asking if the clams are farmed or wild-caught, and the server claims her moment of superiority with apparent glee: “ALL shellfish in restaurants are farmed, it’s the law,” she gloats, the subtext of “oh you think you’re such a smarty-pants with your List, don’t you, and you don’t even know something like that” shining through her now-genuine smirk. The List drops from my once-righteous hand into my purse, defeated for now. Sue orders her seafood pasta, satisfied that it’s at least partially List-approved.

THE risotto is delicious and almost (but not quite) too filling to allow me to order the beignets for dessert. Sue listens to my confessions of human weakness, slaps me back onto the straight and narrow path, and pays up as we look around and realize we’re the only people left besides the regulars gathered at the bar, a familial group entwining the server and the bartender into their midst. They barely nod our direction as we press the glass door open onto the grey-lit sidewalk. The Seafood House doesn’t really want us back again.

BUT knowing my boys, we’ll end up there sooner or later, and then The List, wielded by eco-mom in defense of her minnows, will prevail. “We’ll be back,” I murmur, as the door slams shut behind me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fish Story, part 1

SO Sue invites me out for dinner, or in the common parlance of the land where I come from, “supper.” This is a good thing, as I’m struggling with various ethical dilemmas and Sue somehow usually manages to be both nonjudgmental and hard-assed. I helped her with some editing she needed, so she’s both buying and listening. Not one to be particular (ha!), I suggest that she choose the restaurant. I figure this will allow her some control over how much she’s shelling out for my supper, especially since I always want dessert. She zings me an email: “Okay, see you at the Seafood House then, 8 o’clock.”

OF course it has to be the Seafood House. I don’t eat seafood.

I used to eat seafood, having gone so far as to opt out of true and legal vegetarianism for months after I (falsely) claimed the title, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of giving up sushi. Then one day, magically (or possibly having to do with my soy-fueled psyche), the fish-lust was gone. Kaput. Over. It’s not like I suddenly saw my own consciousness reflected in their little slimy faces and couldn’t bring myself to eat another sentient being, I just lost the taste for it. I became one of those people who likes to go “out for sushi” and orders a bunch of seaweed-wrapped vegetables having little to no resemblance to actual raw fish.

I remained a vegetarian for a decade, but since the turn of the millennium, my formerly righteous plant-based diet has been slowly replaced by a drop-in freezer full of local, organic, free-to-roam, grass-finished (and every other justifying adjective you can think of), but only tangentially plant-based food. Plant-based insofar as the cow and the pig in there ate the plants.

GIVEN the apparent completeness of my dietary backsliding, what kind of beef could I possibly have with seafood? Shouldn’t I be back at the sushi bar full-force? Well, I might be, were it not for an ill-timed stop into the movie room at the Aquarium when I thought it might be nice to sit and watch a movie for a while instead of standing and watching the fish. The movie room was a trap. And as a nonseafood eater, I was primed to take in the horrors of the documentary about bi-catch, over-fishing, and toxic metals without the defense mechanisms I assume would be standard equipment in someone who felt any need to justify the fish-n-chips they ate last night.

SO I bought it all, hook, line and sinker, if you will. And although I occasionally let the kids eat carefully selected seafood items (wild Alaskan salmon, farmed catfish, sardines), I’ve never reclaimed my long lost love for dining on marine life. It all just tastes a bit too, well, fishy to me.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2: Will Sue toss Kenna out on her ass for ranting too much about sustainable fisheries? Or will they make it through the evening without anyone going overboard? (couldn’t resist that last pun, sorry)

Friday, March 20, 2009

A million tiny things

If you're curious about the title of the blog, check out the genesis of my "milllion tiny things" mantra here (one installment from my "home eco-nomics" column in the now-defunct mamazine):

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eternal questions

Maybe my imagination is held captive by an entire childhood of Sunday mornings spent in linoleum-floored fluorescent-lit rooms, construction paper cutout arks plastering eggshell-painted drywall, well-meaning matrons reading from an illustrated book of Bible stories. But I like to think that it probably has more to do with the recurring template of editorial page cartoons: loopy black lines across the bottom of the frame, a cloudbank floor upon which perches a podium. Behind the podium, the parabolic downcurve of a barred gate swoops from misty towers of yet more clouds. Just two characters comprise the scene--a bushily white-bearded, berobed gentleman consults a ledger, while a supplicant beseeches him with tensely raised shoulders and desperate eyes. The punchline changes from politician to politician, but the basic set-up remains stable: judgment day.

Technically, I don’t believe in judgment day. I certainly don’t believe that some man standing in the sky will tally me up into black and red columns and come up with a final number that determines my eternity. I don’t even really believe in ‘karma’ the way it is generally understood by the people I hear using the word, that what-goes-around-comes-around. The way I see it, if bad people were always punished for bad acts, we wouldn’t need a criminal justice system. If good people were always rewarded for good acts, we’d all be out there dumping our wallets into the outstretched palms of the homeless man on the shoulder of the offramp, instead of averting our eyes and pulling our cars forward, craning our necks into oncoming traffic to move quickly past the question he asks us: are you kind, or stingy, or pretending to yourself that you gave at the office? His question lingers, despite my agnostic approach to the justice of fate, as if underneath what I think I believe there lurks Saint Peter, or perhaps just Santa, ticking off the columns, and asking each time: good or bad, which are you?

I know I’m asking myself this question a lot these days. Am I good because I don’t hit my kids when I’m at the end of my rope or bad because I growl viciously at them from between clenched teeth? Good for buying produce from a local farm or bad for succumbing to the temptation of shipped-from-Mexico bananas? Good for carpooling or bad for driving a 19-mpg minivan in the first place? Good for being aware of the environmental impacts of my decisions, or bad for continuing to live within the template of an unsustainable culture?

In the ledger of my self-esteem, the ‘bad’ column gets the most ink. I try to give myself credit for what I’m doing right, but the value of my stumbling stepwise efforts breaks down when I look at my daughter, just crossing the border between babyhood and girlhood. I think about her adulthood, and then I think about her children and the world they will inherit from me. I can see their questioning eyes settling onto myself, by then white-haired and obstinate, distilled into my purest form by time. They are wondering why we didn’t do more. In this scenario, the difficulty I have now in avoiding plastics, overly processed foods, and made-in-China non-essentials seems an indulgence, pure luxury, almost a bad joke--the irrationality of human behavior seen through the telescopic lens of hindsight, 40 years of climate change from now.

So I guess I do believe in judgment day, that day in the unseen future when I will have to look at my grandchildren and justify the choices I’m making today. I can already hear my excuses, my rationalizations, my attempts to explain to them how it all seemed kind of unreal, how we all thought that someone else was responsible, that some government scientist would fix it, that recycling and biofuels would be enough. They will not understand, they will point to the history books which tell them that all the information was available to us for so long, and so widely broadcast. They will tilt their curious heads and with heartbreaking innocence hang the word heavily on my guilty conscience: why? Why couldn’t you see? Why didn’t you act?

There are many answers to their questions. Denial, laziness, denial, inertia, and denial being a few. But there’s also the fact that in the now, without the clarity of hindsight, the proper course of action doesn’t always seem clear. Within a changing world, how do we know what is good and what is bad? Case in point: what should I do with my tax refund, put it aside in the solar panels fund or add it to the kids’ college savings? Will my kids need more education to prosper in a rapidly mutating culture (college fund), or does book-learning matter less on a frying planet (solar panels)? And shouldn’t I place the needs of everyone (solar panels) ahead of the needs of a few (college fund)? But won’t everyone need well-educated leaders to help through the transition (college fund)? Do we triage the immediate crisis of carbon emissions (solar panels) as more urgent than the potentially drug/alcohol/sex-wasted four years of the undergraduate experience? Where is the compass pointing toward “right?”

I have a great desire to be able to look into my grandchild’s face and say: we tried. We did what we could. We did our best. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to. This very morning I took a hot shower, quickly washed my hair and body, and then stood under the steaming stream of water--water pumped out of the ground by electricity and heated by burning natural gas. I stood there, the hot cascade pouring into my stiff shoulders, waiting for the ratio of pleasure to guilt to reach a tipping point which would make me crank the valves closed. I turned them off sooner than I wanted to, later than I should have.

My friends say to me, “You do a lot. Cut yourself some slack,” but I’m not so sure that I really do “a lot.” More than many, less than some; either way, probably not enough from my grandchildren’s perspective. How much is enough, and how do we know? I am haunted by one of the closing scenes in Schindler’s List, where Oscar Schindler looks at his car, his ring, all the things he kept, and regrets aloud how many more lives he could have saved had he given those things up. I ask myself: in what ways could I do more, sacrifice more; in what ways could I probably do more without even really sacrificing anything of importance to me? How much more would I have to do to get on the “good” list?

If I had a conclusion, I wouldn’t be writing this. I am living in this swamp of questions, searching for solid ground where my feet can rest, exhausted from kicking to keep my mouth above the murky surface. But when I reach my toes down, they simply encounter more slimy mud, sucking me down, down to where I’m afraid I won’t be able to breathe. I stay up by wriggling a constant compromise: put half the money into a socially and environmentally screened mutual fund for the future, half into savings for the solar upgrade. And in this way I keep swimming, my head just out of the muck, as I search for dry land, or at least water clear enough for me to know whether I am good, or bad, or pretending that what I’m doing is enough. I keep treading water in hopes that a bright sun will come out and shine on a newly posted sign, marking “this way” toward righteousness.