The Story of Stuff and Other Gleanings

Somehow I missed The Story of Stuff, but found it today thanks to a right-wing blog’s annual roundup, which says it was “created…to promote Marxism.”  I watched it carefully, and failed to see anything vaguely socialist, or even anti-market, unless you count as socialist the idea of including the externalized costs of pollution, resource destruction, healthcare, and waste disposal in the price of something.  Take 20 minutes and watch it; it isn’t Michael Moore angry – it just covers the whole consumer cycle and its bad effects on our health and happiness understandably.

Isaiah said

Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?

Pope John Paul II said (in 1991)

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.

All world religions agree with this point of view, and research has shown that, world-wide, there is a rather low level of income, between $10,000 and $15,000 US, beyond which we are not happier. Once we have enough for food, shelter, health care, more money doesn’t make us happier. Americans have not gotten significantly happier since the 1970s, years in which we have been accumulating more, bigger, more complicated stuff, eating more and fancier, spending more on health care.

American Happiness

The Happiness Trend Line: Barely a Ripple

This Pew study comes to the conclusion that the largest predictor of happiness is health; so perhaps it is true that if you have your health you have everything. But so much research these days also shows that what you believe and how stressed you are affects your health. Perhaps 2010 will be the year that Americans in large numbers realize that our desire creates our unhappiness, and feeding the desire with things will not decrease it.

The “disagreeableness” that has arisen is merely a mental attitude of aversion, coagulating around a particular feeling of displeasure, which co-arises with the cognizing of a particular sensory object. The attitude is a product of one’s dispositions, which are themselves nothing more than patterns of learned responses that have built up during a lifetime (or more) of acting and reacting in the world.

Such a breakthrough in understanding allows for a dramatic and immediate liberation of the mind from the coercion of desire–both the desire to hold on to what is deemed agreeable and the desire to push away what is disagreeable. When one realizes that the arising feeling is one thing, while the attitude generated in response to it is something else entirely, the chain of compulsive causation is broken and a moment of freedom is born.

One can now choose to respond differently, and the agreeable/disagreeable attitude that forms the warp and woof of our suffering can be replaced by something capable of embracing both pleasure and pain without reaction. Serene, yet radically intimate with experience, we can, like the Buddha, abide in any moment with the hint of a smile on our lips.

(“In the Blink of an Eye”, from the Daily Dharma that popped into my mailbox this morning)

And here is our patio Buddha, always serene with a hint of a smile, even in the snowBuddha in the Snow.

Homemaking and Economics

Last month I read a keynote address by the Archbishop of Canterbury at an economics conference held by the Trades Union Congress. It begins:

‘Economy’ is simply the Greek word for ‘housekeeping’. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in.

He goes on to say

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home – a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings – people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.

Human Well-Being and Economic Decision-Making

Later, I ran across a great post by Sharon Astyk: Moloch’s Children: Do Climate Skeptics and Climate Change Activists Need to Agree?. She is speaking about climate change, but what she says applies to all our ideological battles.

I’ve watched the battles of left and right, the old enlightenment political battles go on my whole life, quite literally, and mostly, I’ve watched scorched earth that left no one happy or satisfied. Both sides have had their victories and defeats, some good and some bad has come out of this. But the fixation on means here, rather than ends – that is, the fixation on alliances with political parties and traditional battles has done more harm than good, and cost us many good ends. And in fixating on the scorched earth battles, we’ve built up barriers of anger and contempt, a fixation on fights lost and battles [won], to the radical loss of both common ground and perspective about what matters the most.

…what we need now is a place to stand and build. I get angry when I see someone believe passionately in something I think is deeply wrong – but I am adult enough to know that what matters is not that you believe as I do, but that we find a way to live and go forward into our common center.

She describes the “children of Moloch” as

the great mass of Americans and other rich world denizens whose central ideology is technological progress and consumption – Moloch is their god, the overarching center of their world is the urge for more and more comfort, more and more possessions, more and more wealth, more and more technology in complete disregard of the fact that these things are not possible….At the center of their value system is something empty and deeply wrong, and that emptiness stretches out and empties their world. They do not know what is missing from their lives, so they seek out more to fill the empty space.

and the “People of the Center” as

anyone who has something other than Moloch at the center of their world, a hope for the future, an investment in the past, the love of a G-d, the love of humanity in general, an ethical paradigm that actually trumps the desire for more – and thus perceives, sometimes instinctively, sometimes after long study, that we cannot go on this way, and must find something else.

She also points out that both categories cross all political, cultural, and religious lines.

It strikes me that what all of us, of all faiths and political persuasions, are ultimately looking for is a home – a place where, as Robert Frost famously said “When you have to go there, they have to take you in” – a house, a neighborhood, a town where we feel we belong, where our needs are met, where we feel at home. Sometimes we believe that we can buy that comfort and happiness with food, with things, with plastic surgery, with alcohol, drugs, nutritional supplements, and all other kinds of interventions.  And all of those inevitably cost money, so we have to work longer and harder, and have side-effects, from obesity and ill-health to poisoning the environment to poisoning ourselves.

The saying is not “Home is where the stuff is.”  This winter I’m going to continue exploring the meaning of home, its relation to economics and politics, and what I should be doing about it.

More on Henry II

Thoughts from Bozo Sapiens on Henry II and Thomas Becket, before The Lion in Winter.

We’re just back from our second trip to the Pittsburgh airport in two days.  Daughter left Sunday; Son had a 6 a.m. flight this morning, so we went up Monday evening and spent the night in a motel, so we could get up at 4 rather than 2 a.m. , especially since it was snowing and we weren’t sure how bad it would get.

The check-in and security lines at 5 a.m. were huge – at least twice as long as they had been at 5 p.m. Sunday.

My brother’s SO, Suzanne, has me on her blog today.

Open House

My mother almost always did homemade presents, sewn or knit.  She and my Aunt Elizabeth had a competition going for crafty decorations, Christmas and otherwise.  One year they made dozens of sets between them of Wise Men made from cone-shaped industrial thread spools, scrap fabric, and old jewelry.  There were wreaths, swags, dried arrangements, mostly from found materials, not made in China from a big box craft store. For a year or two there were “snow” candles, covered with paraffin snow whipped with a hand mixer.

Starting before I was born, my mother made dozens of kinds of candies, cookies, and fruitcake each year at Christmas.  These were carefully arranged on painted tin trays or in tin boxes. When the cooking and baking, started before Thanksgiving with the fruitcakes, was done, the dining table became an assembly line for filling the trays and tins.  My mother’s fellow teachers and the church choir all got one, and one Christmas Eve we would drive around town distributing them to friends, relatives, and shut-ins.

I had been married only one Christmas when my parents were killed in a car wreck.  I inherited the recipes, and the idea that Christmas was made by all this special food.  We lived far away, and didn’t have as many co-workers, choir members, shut-ins, and friends and relatives handy.  We did pack up tins and travel with them on our holiday trips to West Virginia and North Carolina, but that didn’t use up nearly enough.  The Hungarian Christmas cookies alone make 12 dozen, and somehow cutting the recipe, which says to mix them in a dishpan (a mixing bowl not being large enough), seemed against tradition.  So we started having a Christmas Open House, usually a Sunday or two before Christmas.  I had also inherited my mother’s Fostoria crystal punch bowl and cups (and Robert had come with an inherited set of his own) and various matching cake plates, platters and trays, so they needed to be used occasionally. Robert is half Norwegian, where there is a tradition of gløgg, and so we have always served mulled wine, and mulled cranberry juice for the non-alcohol drinkers.

We skipped the last few years for various reasons, and I discovered that yes, indeed, it is still Christmas without a single cookie.  This year we had one for our new neighbors and friends, and our newly-close relatives, the day after Christmas.  After discussion, we decided just to do the few things that at least one of us loves: Julekage, which my husband always makes from his grandmother’s recipe, the Hungarian Christmas cookies, sand tarts, and springerle. Our son and daughter wanted to add ginger snaps, and Robert wanted sugar cookies to revisit his family tradition and use the cookie cutters we have collected.  And we made a big batch of party mix, which I then eat for lunch long after the holidays.

Everyone agreed that the sugarplum strawberries, a 1960s Good Housekeeping recipe, were fun to make, cute to look at, but ultimately disgusting. (If you are interested, Google for “coconut strawberries” – there are videos.)

Yet Another Miracle Cure

We have another study that shows that “calorie restriction” (scientific for eating less) lengthens life.

They found that the normal cells lived longer, and many of the precancerous cells died, when given less glucose.

So, the recommendation is that we eat less to live longer and prevent cancer, right? Well, not exactly.

“Western science is on the cusp of developing a pharmaceutical fountain of youth” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “This study confirms that we are on the path to persuading human cells to let us to live longer, and perhaps cancer-free, lives.”

From Calorie Restriction: Scientists Take Important Step Toward ‘Fountain of Youth’

Apparently, instead of just eating less, we will all be able to continue pigging out, and also take a drug to counteract the effects. And no doubt covered by our health insurance.

But, hey, selling the food and selling the drug will raise the GDP, right? I have another idea: if we could just train all drivers to always drive with the emergency brake on, we would increase employment for mechanics, brake manufacturers, and income for the oil companies, another big rise for the GDP.

Joy, Peace, and Love, Now and in the New Year

May all beings be happy and at their ease.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All beings, omitting none, whether weak or strong; small or great; in high, middle or low realms of existence; near or far away; visible or invisible; born or to-be born.

May all beings be happy and at their ease.
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.
Let none wish harm to another.
But even as a mother loves , watches over, and protects her child, her only child; so may all with a boundless mind cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world without limit.
May we cultivate a boundless goodwill, free from ill-will or enmity, and maintain the sublime abiding of this recollection.

Metta Sutra of the Buddha

The Big Storm

Here’s Robert on the front walk, with snow up to his knees.

With 18 inches of snow, a once-in-a-decade storm, we shoveled just enough from the driveway to get the car out of the garage, and a path from the street to the front door.  The front sidewalk from the driveway to the house is along the street, and gets covered by the plow every time it goes by.  So getting from the house to the car requires walking in the street.

We would have admired the snow from inside, but both our children flew into Pittsburgh Sunday, from Dallas and Chicago.  The streets in town were snowy, including Route 50, but once we got on the interstate, the road was clear.  There was much less snow further north; Pittsburgh had less than 6 inches.

Southern West Virginia, which didn’t seem to have gotten much more snow than we have, has major power outages.  I suspect the difference is the effort their power company has put into maintaining their lines.

Making Your Bed (2)

I started out a while back to talk about mindfulness in homemaking, and never got past the layers and nuances of the bed.  I’ll finish with the rest of the room and then back to mindfulness in making the bed in another post.

We have a black walnut chest of drawers with hand-carved pineapple pulls that my Aunt Elizabeth bought us in Tennessee years ago.  We were looking for something to use as a changing table for our first baby, but Elizabeth saw that this was perfect with the bed, which had been her grandmother’s and had been in the guest room at her mother’s house when she was growing up.  There is a wood-back love seat inherited from Robert’s parents that I reupholstered in grey and black stripes decades ago, and their carved armchair I redid in white. (I had my doubts, with cats and kids, but 15 years and many catnaps later, it still looks fine.) They bought both of these at auctions, and I remember them in their Florida living room the first time Robert took me to visit.

Above the chest is an old oval mirror with a strange history.  I had a friend in Huntington who showed up at 3 one morning, rousing the household, for desperate purposes I won’t go into.  The next day, by way of apology, he showed up with this mirror, apparently obtained from his parents’ attic.  It hung in the bathroom in that apartment, and has been somewhere in all my places ever since.  It is getting a bit battered, but still serves.

Last spring I replaced the plastic roller blinds with unbleached muslin trimmed with crocheted lace, and hung a single panel of my old living room lace curtains at each window.  A red and white striped rag rug at Ikea I had picked up just because (it was cotton, cheap, and cheery), a red down throw from a few Christmases back, a black and white check wrap I have used as a kilt and as a throw. Our old wall lamp is brass with a cheery red shade.

Last year when I started thinking about how to arrange and decorate this house, we talked about paring everything down.  I looked at hundreds of pictures of Scandinavian, especially Norwegian, interiors, old and new. The bedroom is very spare and functional, but also, bright, cheery, and comfortable, even on a gray day on December.  I smile now whenever I walk in.

Have you heard the one about selling freezers to Eskimos?

I was feeling sorry for the huge number of people in southern West Virginia who are without power after the snow storm, some of them for several days.  Then I read this – name and place removed – from a WV MetroNews report:

“Our freezer and our refrigerator, we’re losing everything we’ve got. Nothing you can do about it.”

Have we become so dependent on technology and detached from nature that it no longer occurs to us that you don’t need electricity to keep food frozen if it is below freezing outside? Apparently the reporter and editor didn’t get it, either.

Then there is the off-duty police officer who drew his gun in a snowball fight.


Dave Bonta, of Via Negativa and the wonderful Morning Porch, and a neighbor to the north along the ridges, posted his  workspace, prompted by Clive Hicks-Jenkins’s post on his studio.  Dave’s post reminded me of the commentary on our bedroom that I wandered into here.  It was my workspace until this summer, when I moved the computer into the dining room, for the even better view.

Dave works in a knit hat (of the sort I call a toboggan, which my kids think is ridiculous) and fingerless gloves.  I think we keep the furnace a little higher, but I have a cut-velvet cap which makes me feel romantically medieval, and keeps in much of the 60% of body-heat that escapes from your head.  There is also much to be said for fleece-lined robes and long underwear.

Maybe more important than seeing me in my workspace, is what I see.