Friday, July 29, 2011

Teach the Children Well

Many years ago, when my teenaged daughter was preschool-aged, the worst two words in her vocabulary were, "I want ...." Those two words were usually followed by the name of some toy or gadget or thing she'd seen advertised on television.

At first, I just tried to limit how much and what she saw, but even the channels/programs that catered to children were riddled with ads for one thing or another. Yes, even PBS had their share of "sponsor identification spots", and those two words still remained part of her vocabulary.

The point of advertising is to get us to want a particular item or service, and when I really started to watch commercials, to pay attention to what they were really saying, it started to bother me, a little, especially when I caught myself thinking, "Oh, that would be cool to have." According to television commercials, my life can only be fulfilled if I have A, B, or C product.

But I know, from bitter experience, that even with A, B, or C product, sometimes one's life doesn't get any better.

The commercials that market to children are even worse than the ones that market to adults (which have to be slightly more subtle in their approach ... but only slightly). The more I started to pay attention to the message of the commercial, the more they bothered me, and I reached a point at which I simply could not watch them any more. I mean, I actually had to get up and leave the room, or change the channel. They angered me in ways that nothing should. I was angry at the manipulative tactics, at the pandering to our baser natures. I was angry at being treated so disrepectfully as to be told, I'm worthless, because I don't use this credit card, or I'm not interesting, because I don't wear those jeans, or I'm not desirable, because I don't wear that perfume ... or worse, I'm stinky, because I don't use that deordorant, or my family won't enjoy my cooking if I don't use that ingredient.

The last few times I watched commercials, I actually felt my skin crawling - an experience that was painfully repeated when I walked through Times Square in late June 2011, and realized that in New York City the primary objective in life is to get someone else to give you money. That's it, and there's nothing more. At least from my view on the street, because everyone I met had a hand out to receive my tourist dollars. I started to feel a little sick about that, too. It was good to come home.

Unfortunately, it seems like there will be one fewer safe havens for our children from the insidiousness of our consumer culture. Local school boards across the country (even here in Maine) have approved or are considering approval of the selling advertising space on the sides of school buses. The rational is that by selling this space to advertisers, the schools can afford to keep more programs available, keep teachers on the payrolls, and pay for things like maintenance on the schools.

In my book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, on Day 18, I talk about schooling, and how our schools are too big, and too expensive, and that they will fail, because we can't afford to support them.

School administrators are getting really creative in an attempt to prevent this from happening, but I haven't heard of a solution that will really do the job. Instead of trying to find ways to really cut spending AND to teach our students some really valuable skills (and not just more of the college prep, which only 25% of the students need/want/succeed at), they just keep looking for ways to make more money.

They truly have started to sell our schools to the highest bidder. It's a little sad to me, and I wonder how long before, like our representatives in government, our children's educations will be guided, not by a desire to teach kids lessons that will serve them through life but rather, by who was willing to pay the most to get his/her agenda presented in the classroom.

In his latest post, John Michael Greer asserts that the future of our children's education is homeschooling. I don't know what the future will be, but I hope to never see a school building that looks like Times Square ... I wouldn't be surprised, though, as it seems we're headed in that direction.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summer Bread

When I was kid, eating out was a treat - even something like going to a fast-food restaurant was a particular adventure for us. Fast food restaurnts weren't as prolific back then, as they are now, and even at those kinds of places, home-cooked meals were still cheaper. So, it was rare ... and perhaps, my mother knew something about the quality (or lack there of) of food most fast-food places served.

As I got older and fast-food restaurants became part of the American food experience, it ceased to be a treat in the same way, and rather, became a reward. Eating out became a status symbol of my ability to be able to afford a "restaurant" meal. There were times when I stubbornly convinced myself that it was my *right* to drive-thru McDonalds. I deserved it, because I worked hard to earn my money, and I could damn well spend it however I wished ... by God!!!

It took a lot of reconvincing to change my attitude. It started with reading some books about what they're really serving us (although I can remember, as a kid, joking that McDonald's burgers were "soy burgers", as if "soy" were some really nasty ingredient that was normally inedible to human beings - most of us kids didn't really know what "soy" was, except that it wasn't "meat", which is what the burgers were supposed to be made of).

And, then, Deus Ex Machina and I really changed our diet and started trying to eat all local food.

Slowly, as I ate more fresh, local food, things started to change in my body, and I found that I couldn't really tolerate the 'junk' food at fast-food restaurants. I couldn't handle some of the preservatives in soft drinks. Even the iceberg lettuce made my tummy hurt.

I still thought I deserved an occasional take-out meal, though.

But then, as I started feeling worse every time I ate the stuff, I started to wonder why I was holding fast to these inaccuracies in my mind, why I was continuing to torture myself by putting substances in my body that just made me feel bad. I felt better when I cooked from home with whole, fresh, local food.

And that's when the lightbulb really went off - the "AHA! Moment" Oprah Winfrey used to talk about.

It's not a treat to eat fastfood if I end up feeling sick afterward. Having a soda is not a treat if it gives me a headache and makes me nauseous. The "treat" is that I don't have to cook, or do the dishes, but if I feel sick in the process, what good has it done me?

I don't like cooking all that much, and I really hate doing the dishes, and the worst is trying to cook in my tiny kitchen when there are dirty dishes cluttering up the counter.

Still, its way better than anything I might pay someone else to cook for me - and I can have a quiet dinner, in my own home, and stay at the table as long as I want, and have it prepared EXACTLY the way I want.

I decided that the ultimate treat was not having to wait for someone else to bring me what I wanted, when I could do it just as well, for a whole lot less with fresher, perhaps healthier ingredients.

The result is that we have a lot fewer stomach aches (food poisoning is the number one cause of what we call the "stomach virus") and overall, we're much healthier, and our pocketbook weighs a little more, too ;).

Of course, when it's hot out, there's a real temptation to let someone else do the cooking, especially for things like bread, which my daughters love (and now that there's a local farmer who is growing and grinding wheat, it's also now a local food ;). To remedy that situation, I found some bread alternatives that I can cook without turning on the oven.

One of my family's favorites is English muffins, and for the longest time, they fell into that category of "mysterious prepared foods" that I thought needed some special ingredient or preparation. I mean, it's bread, but it's not like bread. And my grandma made biscuits, but they're not buscuits either. It's different.

I found this recipe online and tried them awhile back, cooking them on the woodstove.

And if I can cook it on the woodstove, I can cook it on the stovetop, and things cooked on the stovetop don't heat up the house as much (or take as much energy) as using the oven.

Today, that's what I did. I made English muffins.

It doesn't take any longer than making a conventional loaf, and we'll have bread for sandwiches for a couple of days.

Plus, there was some extra dough that's in the fridge (to keep it from rising more), and I can make that into Naan - another "bread" that doesn't bake in the oven :).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's All Relative

It's funny what we grow accustomed to. Right now, it's 75°, and I just heard my daughter say, "It's cold outside." ;)

Temperatures here in Maine have been usually hot for the past week or two with the mercury rising above 100° on at least one day recently. On the hottest of recent days, I was doing a few errands, and as I pulled out of the bank parking lot, I realized I had a flat tire.

So, I backed back into the parking lot to take a look. Yep. Flat.

As I assembled all of the tools I'd need to change the flat, a young man came out of the bank to ask if I needed a phone. Who would I call? I thought, and said that I could probably handle it, and that there was no one I could call anyway. He looked at the tire iron and jack I was holding, and mumbled something about not being car savvy. He offered the girls some ice cream and said they could wait inside the lobby of the bank, which was air conditioned.

The digital read out on the bank's sign said it was 103°.

After I changed the tire, I went into the bank to get my girls. One of the tellers showed me to the bathroom so that I could wash my hands and splash some cold water on my beet-red face. She told me that I'd done much better than she would have. She'd have waited for Triple A. The problem is that I don't have Triple A, as I refuse to pay for a service that I *might* use once every five years. It just doesn't seem like a good use of my money.

On the New Society forums Dmitry Orlov is discussing his recently re-released book, Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, and one Professor has asked for advice on how he should invest the small excess he has each month. Dmitry says "Gamble." I say, learn to be self-sufficient.

In the long-run, being self-sufficient pays dividends that can never be earned through any other investments, and unlike other investments, no matter what happens, self-sufficiency is always there.

Sure, I could have been sitting in the air conditioning eating Choco-Tacos while some guy changed my tire for me, but he would have walked away with all of the cash that I'd just deposited. As it turns out, my daughters got free ice cream, I got a free workout changing the tire, and my money is still in the bank.

The next morning, I asked Deus Ex Machina why he wasn't impressed that I could change my own tire (and just FYI, I drive a Suzuki XL-7 SUV, and not some tiny, little compact car - it's a little more of a challenge to jack up an SUV than it is a Honda Civic ;), and he said that changing a tire is something we should all be able to do. It's the very least he would expect from me or anyone else, and the fact that I have learned a skill that everyone should have isn't all that impressive.

Not to him, maybe, but I think I'm probably a celebrity at my local bank - the little woman who single-handedly jacked up an SUV and changed the tire ... in full sun ... on blacktop ... when the temperature was over 100°.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Growing Time

In spite of all of the innovative gardening techniques I keep seeing, I'm still impressed by how creative people can be when it comes to growing food. Like these guys in Vancouver, who've devised a way to grow food on a wall. Sure, there are people who are doing living walls already, but this one is outside, and with the express purpose of expanding the food production areas. I like it.

The caretaker of my town's "Memorial Park" has done some amazing things with growing food - right under the noses of the visitors and citizens of the town. Tucked in among the ornamentals throughout the park are food plants. In fact, there was one red cabbage that was so pretty and so perfect, I had a hard time not snatching it up and taking it home for sauerkraut. His efforts are proof that planting food does not mean that aesthetics need be sacrificed. The gardens are beautiful ... amazing!

I spoke with him a few days ago, and we talked about growing edibles instead of ornamentals. Around the memorial, he told me, "they" wanted a vining plant, and so he planted cucumbers ;). I had to grin at his good choice of plant. Beans would have been good, too ... scarlet runner beans, in particular, which have a beautiful (edible) red flower that produces a yummy, buttery bean. He's planning to plant a grape vine on the tennis court fence, which will be awesome, and maybe he knows, maybe he doesn't, but having the plants vining up the fence will also make the court cooler for the players. I hope they will appreciate his efforts.

I told him that he should host a dinner at the end of the season for the Town leaders to show them what's possible with regard to a community "food" garden that could be planted throughout the Town on all of the public land. He said they wouldn't care or appreciate what he's done. In fact, he seemed to be trying very hard not to say that they might even be a little annoyed.

I think what he's doing is incredible, and it will be people, like him, who guide us into this new world into which we are headed ... fast. If food security and food scarcity are going to be issues, my town's gardener will be the kind of person who shows us the solution ... something as simple as tucking a cabbage in among the hostas or growing a tomato plant on the fence between the black-eyed susans and coleus.

For the kids' Summer Reading Program this year, I helped the kids plant a garden at the library. The gardener who tends Memorial Park has been watering our garden, too. The soil we used was donated, and after we planted our garden, there was a lot leftover. The gardener planted another, little food garden near ours. The radishes he planted were ready to harvest, and his peas are thriving (and delicious!).

When I talked to the librarian about what to plant in our Kids' garden, I suggested a Three Sisters garden. She thought that was a grand idea, and so we did.

But I also planted the Three Sisters at home. This is my 5' x 5' Three Sisters garden.

Colored popcorn, pie pumpkins and black beans. It looks crazy and overgrown, but the beauty of it is that each plant has different needs, and so they can be planted all bunched together, but they don't compete for nutrients or space ... and they help each other. Plus, planting so close means less work for me, because there really aren't very many weeds to worry about.

We've already counted ten pie pumpkins (I think there are only three pumpkin plants), and there are tiny beans already, too. The corn is almost as tall as I am. It's beautiful. Someone I talked to described the garden configuration as "symbiotic."

I can hardly wait to see how much food comes out of that 5' x 5' bed.

In his book, Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki author Kerry Hardy includes a diagram that shows what the natives in my part of the country ate through the year. Most of their diet was wild foraged, and when they could get it fresh, they ate it fresh. During the coldest months, though, like February, when there's a lot of snow on the ground and moving around is difficult, they ate their stored food - beans, corn and pumpkin - the Three Sisters.

I think the Three Sisters is symbiotic for us, too, and if I had to choose from the vast array of possible crops we have available to us the absolute best for a survival garden, I'd pick those three - corn, beans and pumpkin (or Hubbard Squash ;), because they're long keepers, they're nutrient rich, they're easy to grow, and they're versatile.

And they're good for growing in small spaces, too ;).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ethics of Eating

For the record, I was a vegetarian for several years, many years ago, but I was never a don't-eat-anything-with-a-face vegetarian, because I don't think it's wrong for people to eat meat. In fact, physiologically, I really do believe that people were built to eat meat ... and plants. Our teeth are incisors in the front for cutting, canines on the sides for ripping and molars in the back for chewing. Check out the teeth of carnivores vs. herbivores vs. omnivores, and it's pretty clear that nature intended us to be the latter.

I was a vegetarian, because the meat to which I had access at that time was prepared in such a way that was unappetizing to me, and when I stopped eating meat, I felt better. So, I just kept not eating meat for a while. It got really interesting when I would tell people that I was a vegetarian, because I think, in general, vegetarians get a bad rap.

Of course, more and more, and the more vegetarians I meet, the more I'm thinking that perhaps it's not entirely undeserved.

Like recently. I came under fire from a vegetarian for raising rabbits for meat. I know that it's not common, here in the United States, to consider rabbits as meat. I knew that when we got our first rabbits thirteen years ago, which is why we don't talk a lot about it, but I also know that it's a cultural thing, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with whether or not rabbits should be considered a meat animal.

Two arguments against eating meat were posed. The first had to do with the morality of killing the animal that is highly intelligent and sensitive. Having raised rabbits for thirteen years, I know what wonderful animals they are. I think, because I chose to raise them not as just pets, that people might misunderstand and believe that I have a callous attitude about them, perhaps labeling them as just a food source. That would be grossly untrue.

It would be impossible to raise an animal in as intimate a setting as my tiny yard, with my children constantly present, without a huge degree of concern for the well-being of that animal. It would be impossible to have an apathetic attitude about them, and see them as merely objects. They aren't. They're living, thinking, feeling beings, and I am acutely aware of that fact.

Unlike the person who has only experienced meat as a cellophane-wrapped package of anemic-looking pink goo they label "meat" at the grocery store, I have an emotional connection to my food, and the hardest thing I ever had to do was to put aside my middle-class, suburban primness and grab the knife. I came to feel that if I wanted to eat meat, then I needed to be willing to, at least, raise it, knowing that it would, someday, end up on my plate. Yes, I have butchered a rabbit. No, I did not enjoy it. No, I do not have any delusions that the rabbit happily or willingly gave his life so that I could eat. Yes, it is a very humbling and discomfiting experience. No, I don't think everyone should have to do it, but I do think, if we're going to be eaters, we need to understand where our food comes from, and that place is not "the grocery store."

Raising food is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of guts to look at a thing, knowing that some day you will, literally, swallow its essence, and that it will cease to exist except as a part of you.

Ever harvest a potato? It's the root. In order to get to the root, I have to kill the plant. When I eat the potato, I destroy the plant, but I also destroy any hope that plant might have of reproducing and growing next year.

I believe plants feel - not in a way that we can understand, but they do feel. In her book, Behaving as if the God in All Life Mattered Machaelle Small Wright explores the belief that plants have feelings. Really, she explores the idea that all things contain that eternal spark that is in all of us - that all of life contains a piece of the creator.

Likewise, in Shamanic/Native/Indigenous philosophies, if one wants to learn about a plant, for instance, what its properties are, one must ask, and then, be willing to accept the notion that the plant will provide an answer. Herbal healing courses often work on this philosophy, and the idea is that it's not enough to simply look up a plant, its properties, and its uses, but in order to really be able to use the plant for healing purposes, one must know the plant, and the only way to know the plant is to believe that the plant is a living creature.

In all of the native cultures with which I have had contact, it is wrong to harvest a plant without thanking it for the gift of life it is giving with its death. Maybe not willingly giving, but giving nonetheless and in saying thank you, we're voicing our understanding.

If we believe that god is in all things, in all life, then we can no longer argue that it's okay to eat plants, but not animals based on some idea that animal lives are more valuable than plants.

Thus, for me, to argue that it's not okay to eat my rabbits, because they can feel, makes me want to counter with the question of whether it is okay to eat the potatoes I planted, then, as they feel, too. At least there are as many learned and thoughtful people in this world who believe so as there are people who believe we shouldn't be eating animals.

Of course, for many, that argument is a little too out there, and I get it. It would be way too far a stretch to believe that plants talk to us, if we only listen.

But that's when the fun starts, because while I would be very reluctant to talk about the spirit of a plant, I can debunk the moral superiority of a lacto-ovo vegetarian who thinks it's wrong to eat meat with just a couple of questions.

The first question is: Can a cow give milk without having a baby?

The answer, of course, is no. Like most mammals - like us - in order to give milk, the female must be impregnated, because a cow's milk is food for her baby.

On a dairy farm in this country - even a small dairy - the cow will be impregnated by artificial insemination. After the calf is born, it is removed from its mother and it will be fed using a pail with an udder-shaped nipple until it's old enough to be put on forage, and then, it will be fed hay or whatever that dairy farm feeds its cows.

If it's a female calf, it might end up being a dairy cow, later, when it grows up. But if it's a male calf, it will be castrated and raised ... for beef. We all knew it, but we knew it in an abstract, cows-have-to-have-babies-to-give-milk-and-ohh-aren't-the-little-baby-cows-so-cute kind of way, never considering that those baby cows grow up to be big cows, and something has to happen to them, right?

Some might suggest that we could just pasture the bulls, but let's look at some numbers. The average family drinks about a gallon of milk per week. There are approximately 119 million households in the US. That means that about half a million boy calves are born each year - if half the calves are boys. That's a lot of boy cows hanging out with nothing to do - half a million, every year. The life expectancy of a cow is twenty-two years. Approximately two acres of pasture is needed per cow. At the twenty-two year mark, when the oldest bulls were dying, there would be 12 million bulls and they'd need 24 million acres. For reference, the State of Kansas is just over 52 million acres.

If we're going to keep drinking milk and using other dairy products at the rate we are currently using them, we will have to do something with the baby calves, and if those baby calves are boys, they will become meat.

Perhaps the lacto-ovo vegetarian isn't eating the meat, but given the fact that a baby calf must be born to make milk and cheese and yogurt and ice cream and sour cream and whipped cream and cream ... cream, that vegetarian is as cupable in the death of that animal as I am. The difference is that I am willing to accept that fact (and the responsibility) that as an eater, things will die so that I can live.

Eating eggs is no less murderous - unless one is raising one's own chickens ... and then, eventually, there will be the issue of what to do with all of those chickens that aren't really laying eggs anymore, which happens when a chicken reaches the tender age of three. At some point, there will be a lot of chickens and not so many eggs. On farms where chickens are kept for eggs, those non-laying hens are culled, which is a nice way of saying they're killed.

If one eats eggs purchased from a grocery store, at some point, one will need to accept responsibility for the fact that the chickens who lay eggs will some day be killed and replaced with other chickens who will continue to lay eggs.

So, when a lacto-ovo vegetarian hops up on her soapbox and deigns to preach to me the immorality of my choice to raise rabbits, I like to ask, what happens to the baby cows and the chickens who no longer lay? And to let them know that they may not eat the meat, but they are no less culpable than I am for the death of an animal to get that food on their table.

The other argument I hear is with regard to the superior health benefits of a vegetarian diet vs. a diet that includes meat, and this one makes me laugh (because our teeth, apparently aren't enough evidence to prove that we need at least some meat, righ?)

The fact is that there are several nutrients that are only available through animal products. B12 is one. There is no reliable plant source for B12, and for those who eschew all animal products, B12 deficiency is a serious issue.

Vitamins D and iron are also limited in their availability in plant foods. There are some plants that do contain these nutrients, but iron, for instance, is more easily absorbed from animal sources. Further, there is some good deal of research to suggest that not all nutrients are created equal. For instance, the iron found in plants isn't exactly the same as the iron found in meat, and our bodies will process them differently.

Let's not talk about supplements, either, because if the argument is that a vegetarian/vegan diet is so much healthier, then one would be able to procure all of one's dietary needs from the food and wouldn't need the supplements, right?

I like looking things up, and I was curious. How do vegetarian cultures compare to non-vegetarian cultures around the world, health wise?

France is one of the heart-healthiest countries in the world, which really surprised everyone, especially the researchers, because the French make no sacrifices when it comes to rich foods. The life expectancy of a French person is 84 years. Only 2% of the French consider themselves vegetarians and when one looks at the causes of death, only 9% of the French are stricken by heart-related illnesses.

    An aside - France is the largest exporter of rabbit meat in the world, and rabbit is a staple in much of French cuisine. For those suffering from diet-related illnesses (heart disease, diabetes), the absolute best meat, pound-for-pound, is rabbit, as it's incredibly lean and has the highest protein content of any of the most common livestock animals - maybe there's no correlation between French health and eating rabbit, but there could be.

In India, 40% of the population is vegetarian. The life expectancy of someone living in India is 64 years, and we might want to argue that their lower life expectancy has nothing to do with their diet, until one considers that 38% of the population dies from heart-related illnesses.

Maybe there is no correlation between their strict vegetarian diet versus the French's eat-everything-as-long-as-it-has-cream attitude and the longer life expectancy and healthier hearts, but maybe there is.

The country with the healthiest diet in the world is Japan. They are not vegetarians. In fact, there is a lot of information on the Internet about how difficult it is to be a strict vegetarian in Japan, because so many of their dishes contain fish or a fish-broth.

And, I'm sorry, but fish are animals, and fish have feelings and intelligence, just as much as my bunnies. Ask my daughter, who raises Betas about how smart and sensitive and interactive they are. If one eats fish, one can not call oneself a "vegetarian."

We can't live (for very long) without food, and eating requires killing something. Really, it's just that simple. As such, arguments that demonize the eating of meat on ethical grounds are a bit naive, in my opinion.

Further, if our first concern is being completely ethical when it comes to our food, our only choice is to forage and/or hunt all of our food. That way, the plants and animals we consume have an equal chance against us.

Unfortunately, no one’s going to do that, and so the next best option for ethical eating is a diet that consists of local, seasonal foods. Without knowing our food, where our food comes from, who grew that food, and what had to happen for that food to get to us, it’s too easy to ignore the fact that everything we eat was once a living thing, and if one is unwilling to admit that he/she has killed to have that meal, then one really has no right to make a moral or ethical stand against me for raising rabbits for meat.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Selling Our Schools

I was disturbed by this headline: Public Schools Woo Foreign Students to Boost Ranks.

According to the article, the latest money-making ploy by our public schools is to recruit foreign students who pay $13000/year for tuition to attend our fine public institutions.

This bothers me - a lot.

What bothers me the most, though, is that no one will stand up and cry foul, because to do so would be to come out as being against the public school system, and how can anyone be against educating our children, right?

I'm not against educating our children. It's just that I don't agree that our schools are doing such a great job of it. When compared with other "developed" nations, the US falls in lower 50% in both math and science, and barely skims the mid-range in reading. Those comedy shows that pick fun at how stupid Americans are, are not funny to me. I don't understand how any American can find them funny rather than disturbing. "Hey, it's you! They're showing you!" At least, from the perspective of someone who has never been to America, when they see something like that will believe that those Americans are representative of us as a society ... and are they not?

The point of having these foreign students attend American schools is to increase enrollment in aging communities where the student body is decreasing. It's certainly not to "educate" them, as Singapore actually scored better than the US on the PISA tests - and Singapore is significantly closer to China than the US. If I were a Chinese parent, who could afford an overseas education for my child, I'd be more inclined to send him/her to Singapore for an education than all the way to Millinocket, Maine, but that's really beside the point ...

... which is, this, recruiting foriegn students is just another ploy to get more money, because, afterall, it's not that our school system is flawed and unsustainable, but rather that we haven't, yet, thrown enough money at it. Right? With more money, our schools can do so much more. Never mind that my community already pays as much per kid for nine months of education than a person working full-time at minimum wage will earn over a full years' time (Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, and if a person working full-time works 51 weeks of the year at minimum wage his yearly earnings will be just under $15,000 fot the year).

When I was teaching, I received a very fast and very eye-opening education on how the school systems work, and it's all about the money ... and making sure they can get more of it.

Schools get the money they use to operate in several different ways. The first is from the local community property taxes. Then, the State will provide funds based on the number of kids that are enrolled in the school (which is why Millinocket and other towns are looking to increase their enrollment). Finally, the Federal government will provide educational funds to States, which will allot a certain amount to municipalities based on test scores, enrollment, and special needs. He who has the most of each will get the biggest cut.

Unfortunately, when schools only wish to keep warm bodies in the seats, nothing good ever comes of it. When I was teaching, I discovered first-hand that schools are often loath to dismiss students who have no business being in the school. Our school was very small (graduating class was twenty-three), and every single beating heart counted toward the funds the school was to receive. The community was largely a farming community. The number one source of income was Social Security and the largest employer in the town was the school. There was no way they were going to lose even one kid, before his sixteenth birthday.

The result was the retention of kids who were not just disruptive in the classrooms (making learning for the other kids difficult, if not impossible), but who were also often violent, in an insidious, daily torturing kind of way. They did beat up a few kids, but mostly it was small things, things that got them a slap on the wrist, like walking up to a kid and elbowing him in the kidneys as they passed, or dumping a lunch tray on another kid's lap, or knocking books out of another student's hands as he was rushing to class, or throwing spitballs into a girl's hair, or tossing a year's worth of teaching aides and worksheets from a teacher's classroom filing cabinet while they were supposed to be watching Julius Caesar. These things were never taken as a whole, but rather as isolated incidents, but it made the school environment incredibly hostile for both the teachers and the other students.

But the administration wouldn't kick them out of the school. No way! That warm body ... cha-ching ... cha-ching.

What's worse is that some of the most disruptice kids perform satisfactorily on an academic level, and some of them even perform superiorly, which makes it even more difficult for the school system to contemplate kicking them out, because smart kids boost test scores, which brings in more money.

But at what cost to the emotional and physical well-being of the rest of the kids in the school?

There's one common denominator in the money the schools receive. It all comes from the same place. We think of it as local money and State money and Federal money, but the bottom line is that it's all OUR money. *We*, the PEOPLE, are paying for our schools.

So, basically, we have an educational system that uses 50% of a community's financial resources to pay for less than 15% of the population (to which none of those who most benefit even contribute), that subjects some portion of its population to continued abuse just so that it doesn't lose any funding due to decreased population, and that teaches, primarily, to improve test scores - and all of it is about the money. None of it is about educating our children.

This latest ploy to attract Chinese students into our schools so that we can get their tuition money is not about making our schools better - or even about giving those Chinese kids an education. It's about the money ... the money ... the money, and nothing but the money.

What's most amusing to me, though, is that my local school budget is $42,000,000 for eleven schools that house about 3000 kids. It works out to $14,000 per kid. So, if we were to attract any of those Chinese kids, we'd actually be paying $1000 to have them here.

Seems pretty typical. When the bottom line is the dollar sign, there is a marked failure to see the bigger picture. Corporate America was short-sighted when they sent all of the manufacturing jobs overseas. Now, we have an economy, not based on something we make and sell to others, but on the shuffling of pieces of paper that represent money. Maybe for a couple of years selling all of our jobs overseas seemed like a good idea, but now, we're kind of in a bad spot.

Bigger is not better, and the bigger something gets, the more likely it is to suffer and die. There is a mid point at which a thing has grown as large as it needs to get in order to thrive, and beyond that, disease sets in.

Corporate America is discovering this fact. One hundred and sixteen major corporations declared bankruptcy in 2009, and there are dozens more that have or will face a similar fate.

I predict, as our schools try harder and harder to keep being what obviously doesn't work, they will become like the corporations they have tried to emulate. In fact, we're already seeing school closures, and at least one brand, spanking new school (at a a cost of $105 million to build) won't be opening its doors, because the town it's in can't afford to operate it.

Of course, I would be remiss if I offered only criticism and no solutions. So, instead of trying to bandaid the problem of our schools by bringing in foreign students in the hopes that we can get a few dollars from them to help keep the schools' doors open, how about if we completely rethink what we have?

In colonial America, the literacy rate was above 90%. Nearly everyone could read and write, but there were no schools. Unthinkable! Our country was founded by a bunch of guys who never went to kindergarten or first grade, and in fact, likely didn't even start formal educational training until they were nine or ten, if ever. And, yet, somehow these individuals are lauded as the greatest thinkers in our nation's history.

I'm not anti-school. I, afterall, am a product of our public school system, and I like to think that I'm intelligent and thoughtful. I also trained to be a teacher, and taught in the public school system, but even as I was doing those things, I thought, perhaps, there was a better way.

For my children, I have chosen homeschooling, but I recognize that this is not the best option for everyone, but the fact remains that we need to cut costs and so I propose the following:

  • Compulsory attendance requires children be in school from the age of 7 to the age of 17, and indeed, there is no evidence (except in extreme circumstances) to support the supposition that early childhood education increases a child's chances of future academic success. We could significantly reduce the schools' budget by eliminating services for children who are younger than seven or older than seventeen.

  • Or better, what if we reduced the full-time school day to those kids between the ages of seven and thirteen? Here in Maine former Governor Angus King pioneered the laptop program in which every child (in the public school system - which excludes kids in private schools and homeschoolers) who is in the eighth grade is given a laptop computer. At one point, Deus Ex Machina and I figured out that for about one-tenth of what our town spends on our schools per year, we could buy every kid in the town a laptop, pay someone to link each home in the community to a LAN, and then have one full-time teacher per grade level and one per subject level at the upper grades to provide Virtual lessons and to be on-site to provide one-on-one assistance for those kids who needed face-time with the teacher. I realize that younger children might not do so well in a virtual classroom, but why not allow high school kids - at least those who are over sixteen (we trust them to drive, right?) to do virtual school rather than having to report to a classroom every day, six hours per day, five days per week, 180 days per year. Virtual school is way cheaper than maintaining a building big enough to house hundreds of kids for a few hours per day.

  • And if, we were to move to a virtual program or to only providing "free" public education for those kids who fall within the compulsory age range, we could go the extra step to reduce the overall school day, which would allow us to reduce the physical size of our buildings. What if we only needed ONE school building for all grade levels, and what if the school day was staggered so that little kids were in the building from 7:00 to noon, and older kids were in the building from noon to 4:00?

An unwillingness to change is what will make our schools fail, and anyone who can't see that our schools are in some deep doody is not paying attention. Even the teachers know the schools are in trouble.

Our school system is no longer fully concentrating on educating our kids. It's all about the money, and this newest trick of recruiting foreign students to bring in dollars to dying school systems is just another misguided attempt to prop up the stinking corpse of our educational institution. Better to let it die, and allow us to rise from the ashes with something new, something more suited to our present.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Not the Reality Show - Review of Survivors

The other day, Deus Ex Machina and I found the BBC television show Survivors as an instant view on Netflix, and so we watched a few of the episodes.

The program is based on the premise that there has been a worldwide viral pandemic. At first, it's just that everyone is getting sick, but because so many people are sick, services (like electricity and mass transit) are disrupted. Then, officials realize that the disease is a bit worse than they first thought and people start dying. Those who either had a natural immunity, or who, somehow, kicked the virus, are the Survivors, and they begin to find each other - with mixed results.

It's a very interesting program. It focuses on a particular group of seven unlikely companions and their adventures in the post-virus world. One survivor, Greg, is encouraged to join the group when he collides with another survivor as they are both speeding down the deserted highways, and Abby, thinking there is no one else, runs a stop sign. Of all of them, Greg is the most logical about the situation, and his original plan is to travel as far as he can into the "country", find a place and begin living a subsistence life.

As the show progresses, they all talk, again and again, of the need to begin raising their own food. They understand, pretty quickly, that the stuff in stores won't last very long, but with the exception of getting a few laying hens, they make very little progress in this endeavor.

Another concern I have is with regard to their attitude about books. Although one of them says, "You can learn a lot from books", they don't really spend much time perusing bookstores. They find a man who has been injured and go to a bookstore to look up some drugs they can use to help with preventing infection, but they don't take the book with them. In fact, there are very few times during the program when using books to find answers to their many problems happens. Instead, they continue to run around, looting stores and breaking into private homes to find the supplies they need. There seems to be very little effort made to learn survival skills.

The most egregious mistake they make (aside from not trying to learn survival skills from the get-go), in my opinion, is their use of resources. Instead of being careful with the fuel they have and using it for things like powering a chainsaw for chopping wood for the coming winter season, they are constantly driving all over the place, scrounging for food and bottled water. I guess it's just a little disconcerting to me to be watching this program in which 90% of the population has been wiped out, and yet, these people are still heavily dependent on cars, and don't seem to be making any effort to change that habit.

Of course, the whole looking for bottled water thing just makes me cringe. They are in the UK, and my guess is there's plenty of water without having to find Poland Spring in plastic. They might have to boil and treat the water, but it would be better than fighting (literally) other survivors for the few bottles of water that are left in the stores.

Or better, yet, how about if they used some of those resources to secure water? I'm sure there are hardware stores in the UK that carry all manner of tools, like a hand auger that could be used to drill for water. Or worstcase, how about a good, old fashioned shovel?

And food, too. If the UK is anything like the US, there is a veritable grocery of wild edibles available for the taking. In fact, even though the human population hasn't been decimated by a viral plague, Deus Ex Machina and I went in search of wild blueberries this evening ... and we found them. We also found sarsaparilla with berries. The whole plant is edible, and we're planning to harvest the berries to make wine.

The woods, fields, and even parks are full of food, and while the rest of the survivors are scavenging for the last few morsels left in the stores, a group of wild foragers would be full and sated ... and off the radar screen of the other survivors who are willing to shoot first and ask questions later. No one is going to be paying much attention to the crazy lady who's gathering plants along the roadside ... at least, not initially.

Eventually, the looters will run out of things to scavenge, and then, they may come looking for the forager survivors, but by then, the survivors would have an intimate knowledge of their habitat, and finding them, if they didn't want to be found, might be a very difficult thing for people who've only explored the remnants of civilization.

Of course, I know that a show about a bunch of people learning primitive survival skills, including foraging, after a worldwide plague has killed 90% of the population, isn't nearly as exciting as guns and kidnappings and crazy, Fagin-like men who send children out to collect stuff for him in exchange for the privilege of a place to sleep and some video games, but if I had to end up in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, I'd rather be hanging out with someone like Steve Brill or Ray Mears (or the amazing, talented, smart, and incredibly gorgeous Deus Ex Machina), than running through Macy's and stealing designer coats.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Celebrate ... With Flowers That You Can Eat

Our neighbor is having a birthday today. She's an amazing woman - so sweet and generous. My girls adore her, and she and her husband adore my girls. So when these special days come around, we like to acknowledge them.

The girls went out in the garden and picked flowers. We don't have a "cut flower" garden, though, and so seeing some of what we have to offer as being in a bouquet might be a challenge.

The bouquet included things like tiny yellow flowers that are indicative of cool-weather loving plants getting too hot (and the fact that I need to start the subsequent planting ... but the bees like the flowers and so I'm letting them go for just a bit longer - per Deus Ex Machina's request ;).

And we included some of the wispy asparagus that's also gone past. It makes a nice addition for the different texture it provides.

We had one day lily in bloom and that made it into the bouquet, along with fragrant milkweed and bee balm flowers. We also snipped some yarrow, red clover and catnip flowers.

What's remarkable, I think, is that we were able to create this beautiful arrangement of flowers - all of which are edible perennials - and for me, it just supports the fact, that even a food garden has some aesthetic qualities. A garden can be both functional and ornamental. It's not an either/or thing.

And my neighbor loves it. She said it made her heart warm to see the girls standing there with the bouquet.

Although the 1/2 pint of freshly picked, black raspberries probably contributed to the warm fuzzies ;).

Monday, July 11, 2011


A friend of mine turned me on to this awesome video series.

Imagine, in 2012, due to resource depletion, the US government has decided to discontinue services to six States, including Maine. Three years later, a documentary film crew from Boston travels into what has become the Unincorporated Territory of Maine or the UTM to complete a six-month film project on the people who stayed behind, playfully self-described as "Vacationlanders."

There are two episodes available online. It views a lot like The Blair Witch Project, only it's a much more realistic and plausible story line, and it's what I write about in my book ...

... answer the question, What if ...?

Although I never considered that the government would simply jettison a few States to save resources for the other States. It's no secret how I feel about what's going on in our world and the government's ability to "save us." I don't think "they" can, or will - at least not all of us. This film brings a whole new realm of possibility to the forefront - that the government will be selective of where they decide to concentrate their assistance efforts, and where *you* are might not be that place, espcially if you live in a sparsely populated State with very little industry and only a couple of representatives in Congress.

Personally, I'm thinking there's not really a lot of "bad" here - no more tourists, no more taxes, and off-grid living, even in the suburbs ;). I'm still looking for the downside to the scenario.

Perhaps the film makers will reveal it in a future clip, but from what they've shown so far, and from reading their synopsis, I would by happy to be a Vacationlander ... although I probably wouldn't shoot at a passing car ... or steal a guy's shoes ;).

Friday, July 8, 2011

{this moment}

A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment to pause, savor and remember.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pack Light

From my secret buddy's list of "10 Things I Learned in NYC": #10 - Only use props that can be folded into a 4x4 INCH square.

We arrived at the bus station. There were twenty-five of us traveling from Portland, Maine to New York, New York with a transfer in Boston's South Station. Twenty-five people, suitcases, costumes and props. It was a lot of stuff.

Deus Ex Machina and I don't own any "real" suitcases - mostly because we simply don't travel that often. We have one soft-sided bag that could be best described as a "carry-on", which Deus Ex Machina uses when he travels for business or classes, but that's it. What we have are backpacks, and a lot of those.

Having spent a good portion of my life traveling hither and yon, I've had a few experiences that have since dictated the way I pack for traveling.

I know about running through airports trying to make connecting flights.

I know about lost luggage.

I know about bags ripping in the middle of my trip and about the struggle to keep from leaving a "trail-'o-my-stuff" in my wake.

I know about trying to carry more than my weight, because I thought I needed all of that stuff.

I know about herding two toddlers and all of their stuff, by myself, inculding a car seat that I've strapped to my backpack so that I look like a kangaroo-turtle - with the carseat on my back and the baby in a sling on my front.

It was with these experiences in mind that I packed for this trip with the goal packing everything I would need in one backpack and one shoulder bag.

When we got to the bus station, I watched my fellow travelers struggling with their bags. I was thankful for my one backpack in which I had stuffed five days worth of clothes, toiletries, and my laptop (with cords), and one shoulder bag with things like my wallet, a book for reading on the bus, and my camera. I also had a reusable grocery bag stuffed with snacks for the trip, and of all of the pieces of "luggage" I carried, that was the most cumbersome, and also the most easily jettisoned.

Little Fire Faery had one backpack that contained her clothes, a garment bag with her costumes, and her "dance" bag that contained her practice leotards and dance shoes. Big Little Sister had gone a bit overboard and hadn't packed very well. She struggled with her bags - giving me one more reason to be thankful that I'd packed so lightly, because I could help her carry her stuff.

We were only going from our homes, to a bus station, to a hotel, and so it really wasn't that big of an issue that there were large suitcases, as we wouldn't really be be carrying our belongnigs for very long, but as the bus made its way from Boston to New York, and I gazed out the windows at the passing countryside, my thoughts drifted to stories I'd read, like Dies the Fire. What would we do, we travelers, if the bus suddenly stopped running ... if all of the cars and trucks that were speeding down the Interstate with us just stopped, like that (*snap*)?

I did a quick mental inventory, of the things in my bag, what would I keep and what would I leave? Ironically, my laptop was on the keep list, even though I know that in those stories, any (and all) electrical devices would be rendered immediately and forever useless. I had my "survival kit" with me, which includes a few matches and a magnesium firestarter. I had a small sewing kit. The only knife I had was a Girl Scout pocket knife. It would have to do.

I realized that I would leave most of the food I'd brought. I'd probably bring the trail mix, but package it differently, in smaller portions so that the girls could each carry some. But I would leave the popcorn - as much as I love popcorn - because it was a really big, bulky bag and it would be a pain to carry. Plus, once I opened it, it would go stale quickly. Granola bars, granola, and tea bags would come with ... the potato chips would stay. The girls would need to eat the few pieces of fruit before we headed out, because we wouldn't be taking it with us.

Plant identification at 70 mph is a fun exercise. It's tough to really make out some of the smaller plants, but I identified several tree varieties, maples and oaks, and I saw lots of cattail and there were plenty of grasses.

I know that it's silly to think like that, and it must seem as if I'm always thinking in these doomsday scenarios. The reality is that we made it all the way to New York City, spent a week there and made it all the way back without any incident, and for all of my paranoid delusions about what if, I didn't need to have worried - which is usually the case. Usually nothing happens.

The problem is that when something does happen, it's big, and it's very, very bad. Knowing how I could respond if my ridiculous fears had manifested, is a rather comforting thought-exercise.

And I guess that's why the whole survivalist/prepper movement is becoming so popular - because it gives us something to do, and it empowers us to be ready - just in case.

Things like the 9/11 tragedy are anomalies and don't happen to most of us. Scenarios like that described in Dies the Fire and in the one of the books I am reading right now, Lucifer's Hammer, are so far-fetched (but way too close to the realm of possibility for comfort's sake) as to be almost laughable ...,

... but the idea that it could happen is enough to prickle my spine with a touch of fear.

When I packed for our trip to New York City, it was with the knowledge that we would be transferring bus lines and that we would be responsible for carrying our luggage by ourselves. It wasn't in fear that we might have had to carry our stuff back to Maine when the world ended and stranded us far from home.

But if I had been forced to walk back, most of the things that started the trip with me would arrive back in Maine. If I had a regular suitcase with little wheels, I am absolutely positive that I could not make the same assertion.

I guess the one burning question, though, would be is there anything I would do differently, and the answer is "of course." Anyone who goes through life without ever learning anything from his/her experiences is not living. Next time, I will bring my water bottle, and I will carry it in my shoulder bag every where I go ...except, maybe, the theatre ;).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Great Place to Visit - Glad Not to Live There, But ...

On Monday, June 27, I hopped on a bus with two of my young daughters for a week long trip to the City That Never Sleeps for a national dance competition with their competition dance team. I had many opportunities to do a little bit of exploring, and I talked with a lot of people while I was there (in fact, my daughters were a bit surprised by the fact that I would strike up a conversation with just about anyone who would make eye contact ;), and I learned a great deal.

I have a lot to say about the trip, about things I saw, about things I learned, but that's for another day.

In the meantime, if you're on Facebook, I've posted some of my observations here.

One of the fun things that the girls' dance teacher orchestrated while they were there was to have each girl be a "secret buddy" to one of her team mates. Each day the secret buddy would give a gift, on the sly, and the object was to try to guess who was one's secret buddy.

A couple of the dance moms got into the spirit and gave some little something to each of the other dance moms. The day we left, my secret buddy gave me an "I ♥ New York" button and postcard and a list of "Ten Things I Learned in NYC." My favorite one is 7. There are good people and bad people. It is your choice which ones effect your life.

I would add to the list, A smile and a kind word are free. I can give and give and give and never run out. And most of the people I met in NYC dispelled the myth of the rude and obnoxious New Yorker. Most of them were very kind and were just as happy to receive my smile as they were to offer one back.