Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Weekend of Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish saying and means ‘to repair the world’. But can one person really make a difference? According to Rabbi Tarfon, a sage of the first century AD, “it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Maybe we can’t stop global warming, but we do have to make a start. And I have.

For me, baking bread is a political act to take back control over what my family eats. So I prepared for Shabbat by baking a challah, running back and forth from the kitchen to my home office, as the bread rose.

Each week during the summer I’ve made the egg bread, and each week I’ve switched recipes because sometimes the darn thing doesn’t rise enough, even with well proofed yeast.

This Friday night’s version rose (hooray) and had good taste but could have been less dry. Next week I’ll read King Arthur Flour’s baking tips to figure out the moisture problem.

The electric bill came on Friday too, for joy for joy. I tore it open like a college acceptance envelope before the advent of email. We’ve been sweating for weeks as part of what seems to be a national, grassroots crusade to turn off the AC. Was it all going to be worth it? Had I let go of the grid even a few fingers full?

And the envelope please…yes, the news was good! We’d cut our daily kilowatts by 2/3 from last year and nearly ¾ from the year before.

Now, just a little transparency. In 2006, there were 6 people living in my house over the summer months. For family reasons, my parents had joined the 4 of us. Last year it was more like 3½ persons, since the oldest was working many hours, as a good college sophomore should do, helping her poor suffering parents with the tuition bill just a wee bit.

This summer we’re practicing empty nesters: one kid in Boston, the other at camp. Come mid-August, we’ll have a Perfect Heat Wave – both kids back, ready to see if hot air really does rise to the second floor bedrooms. Those savings will go right back to SoCal Edison, I’m sure. But we’ll be watching our kWh’s again come September.

Last week I discovered a new recycling option. The Agoura Hills Library recycles used batteries. We had 3 cups full of AAs and AAAs that I’d been saving for just such a find. I packed them in the car to be deposited along the way on my (new) weekly trip to the Farmers’ Market in Old Town Calabasas, a 20 mile round trip. Our Oak Park Farmers’ Market will be opened once the powers that be agree about parking. I hope that’s soon. A three mile round trip will save time and gas.

I’m still learning my way around the produce stalls, having only gone the last three weekends. Should I buy right away or check out everyone’s prices? Will the fruit from each tomato vendor taste differently? I can’t say I’m having the level of ‘Bill McKibben-Deep Economy-build community' conversations yet, but I am learning more about how food from the ground is supposed to look.

And today I happened upon a video of a Pat Murphy lecture that made me feel hopeful about the future. Pat is the executive director of Community Solutions and the author of Plan C-Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change.

He doesn’t think all the technological changes we’re hoping will save us will actually work. He believes we’ll have to change how we live and who we are.

Of course that means we all have to get on the bus to make it work and that will take leadership and vision to convince everyone to get onboard. But it means that every individual's effort has meaning.

Yes I can ... repair the world one recycled battery, loaf of bread and red, yellow or orange tomato at a time. And I’ve already started.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

My Kingdom for a Cup of Agua

In the late 70’s a friend of mine, a NYC ex-pat, used to laugh at how our local news shows would lead with the weather every time it rained, like it was the end of the world as we knew it. People could be starving in Bangladesh but perky weather people were always screaming: We Have Weather! News at 11!

She didn’t understand how we could be so obsessed with water. You crazy Angelenos, petrified by a few drops of moisture. What would you do if it snowed, she’d gloat. And you huddle in your homes with a bad case of Driver’s Ed Amnesia, like this didn’t happen every year, the same slip sliding away on Pacific Coast Highway. She thought this tempest-in-an-umbrella was just a hoot.

I think of her whenever it rains and her gentle ribbing of our amusing cultural ticks. But I like her a lot so I’ve had to invent new ways to remember her. These days, I’d forget my own name if I had to count on the snowmelt in the Sierra Nevadas as a tickler file.

Which brings me to today’s Los Angeles Times Opinion section and an article that might be scarier than the Jack Nicholson nose-slicing scene from "Chinatown". According to Cary Lowe, a land-use lawyer and urban planning consultant, California’s continuing water crisis may mean the end of the state as we know it. Is growth over for the Golden State?

Earlier this year the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California reduced deliveries to agricultural customers by 30%. Those farmers are a big part of our economy, not to mention that they’re growing much of the food we all need to survive.

The agency has set up a contingency plan for similar cutbacks for urban consumers and rate hikes of up to 20%. No AC, no water, what next?

Fewer places to live, that’s what. Six years ago a law went into effect that requires water agencies to document enough long-term water supplies to support large developments. No H2O, no housing, no vacancies. Forget a border between the US and Mexico. We may have to build a border between California and the rest of the Union.

You see, it’s not raining very much anymore. We’ve gone virtually all season, November through March, year after year, with nada, rien, nothing. Last year I recall just one evening of a typical rainstorm. I don’t know what scared me more, the sound of the constant rain that doesn’t stop for hours on end, or that I had forgotten what a downpour sounded like. It doesn’t rain in California, and it doesn’t pour anymore, Lord, either.

So read the whole drought-ridden tale yourself and laugh at us California-crazies if you must. Only do it from your own living room, not on the Twentieth Century Limited to the Coast.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gray Hair Versus Dead Baby Penguins

This afternoon my hairdresser, in the middle of coiffing me, asked if I’d be willing to pony up more greenbacks for environmentally friendly hair dye. Would I be willing to save not only the earth but my scalp too, for nearly twice as much money as I’m currently paying for a cut and color?

Well, this is not an easy question to answer.

I know that I can’t possible be doing good things to my skin with the hair dye I’ve been applying for the last 2 decades. Just spending 3 hours in the salon gives me a headache. For the sake of a few gray hairs and really mousey, blah hair, I’m destroying my scalp, my lungs and the few decent brain cells I have left.

I snip out the gray hairs after every color job anyway. Jeez, they’re so resilient that the dye doesn’t take. So which is it – mousey versus money versus Russian roulette with Golden Locks #4?

I told her to keep me posted. Maybe sign up everyone in the salon and do a Wall-Mart volume number to bring the price down and get back to me.

True, it’s exciting to think that everywhere you turn, people are talking about saving the earth from their own little corner of the world. But I want to save money too. If anyone ever told me I’d get brain cancer from this goop, I’d just resign myself to Minnie Mousehood. For now, my next appointment is in 12 weeks.

Which makes me want to revisit the L’Oreal tagline - do I not think I’m worth it? Like I said, not an easy question to answer.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Name is Bobbi and I’m a Paperholic

I must have been a papyrus maker in another life. The smell, the touch, the feel – I must have paper in my life. Books, yellow lined pads on thick cardboard, stationery with my logo on it – and paper towels.

I know I’m not alone. So many of you have confessed to the siren call of the countertop roll-holder. But I knew that the guilt every time I tore off a sheet was not assuaged by using one of those tear off only as much as you need versions. And until I start wiping, how the heck do I know how much I’ll need?

So last month’s start of my new green life included figuring out ways to cut back on paper towels. I can’t stand messy counters and I didn’t want to use sponges and spread bacteria around. Then I realized we had lots of rags in the garage. I decided to use those.

Three weeks in my husband noticed. He said he was concerned about using cleaning/dog mess rags on the counter, no matter how much I washed them. But he didn’t say stop, bless his heart. Instead he came up with a solution/negotiated marital compromise. He suggested finding some cheap hand towels that were a color besides white so we could tell them apart and he’d be onboard with cutting back on paper towels. Later in the day he actually picked up a stack for me at Costco’s. I’m sure they were made in some country I can’t spell but we can’t fix everything at once.

As for drying my hands or wiping them off as I cook, we’ve instituted another eco-frugal solution. We’re using the small towels I bought for the bathrooms to fold over the bath towels I also hang there. (I was Miss Martha in another life too.) Now I’m all for less elegance in the loo, less paper in the trash. The colors even work for the kitchen. And the already in place kitchen towels have been relegated to dish drying only.

I can’t give up Mr. Brawny altogether just yet, so I guess a small package of recyclables is better than nothing. I mean, what do I dry my peaches off with? How will I clean the gunk off the tops of tomato sauce cans before I open them? What will I use to absorb the oil from the latkes I make from scratch every couple of Hanukkahs?

I can see that this will be a bigger commitment than using public transportation, should we ever get enough of it out here in my lifetime.

But we are definitely on a roll.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Napkins to Wipe My Brow

I’m sitting at the computer with sweat dripping off of me. It’s 10 pm and the downstairs thermostat says 80°. I can see that the little degree symbol and I will become close buddies this summer. Whoever said that air conditioning was a crime against humanity has not had to chat up newspaper editors in a home office with the door kept shut because the dog barks at phantoms and the window is only partially open to minimize the sound from the neighbor’s gardener’s mower.

I’m hoping the money we save on AC electricity will put the kids through college. Or this water weight loss will show up on the scale tomorrow. I checked my face in the mirror and I swear the wrinkles have smoothed out after years of near-desert living. I’m glowing like an Irish lass. Or else I’m reliving my childhood in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, when we only had a window fan and I tossed and turned on the bed searching for a cool section of sheet. Actually I think I’ll go for the weight loss.

As I sink into a puddle on the floor, let me quickly share today’s eco moment - my morning rummage through the fabric box in search of scraps big enough to make cloth napkins. I’ve been wondering if the family would tolerate a shift away from paper. I’m a heavy, mindless user. I grab clumps of them at a time to wipe up coffee spills.

My husband isn't too keen on the recycled brand I bought last time. Then I remembered the fabric scrap box. I also remembered how last year, in a fit of purge, I gave away yards of material and old curtains. But we won’t go there.

I found some swatches large enough to be cut into, let’s be kind and call them ‘breakfast napkins’. Small but I counted 30. This weekend I’ll crank up the old Singer and edge them to ward off complaints about tackiness. I’ll sneak them into a basket on the counter and see if anyone notices. Dinner napkins and anything for company will have to be bigger and made out of something besides leftover kiddie fabric. But we’re taking baby steps.

Now I must stick my head in the freezer before I haul myself upstairs, where more hot air is waiting to enfold me, to check the temperature of the sheets.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Journey One Month In

It’s been one month since sticker shock overcame me while gassing up my little Honda. I’ve since recovered and launched this blog on local living to catalogue my journey. The next few posts will be an update on the changes I’ve made so far.

First, this new path fits me like a glove.

I like the idea of frugal living. I’ve never been one to live at the top of my paycheck. The Anti-Material Girl. Now from my blog reading, I see that it’s becoming cool. The In Crowd at last!

I like living in my house. Maybe it’s the years of running around with the kids, the hours on the freeway back and forth to work or the grind that LA traffic has become nearly round the clock, but I no longer like driving. Closer is better. My house is nest-able.

I already know how to cook, sew, manage a household. I wasn’t raised with the McDonald’s Convenience Syndrome and the thought of making my own cheese or butter is intriguing.

I work from home so I don’t have to drive much anyway and the kids are beyond the schlepping to softball and piano lesson stage.

My most favorite activity in the world is to curl up with a book. I’ve yet to actually curl up with my laptop but with the Internet, the world comes to me. And with a wide open topic like living local, I have lots of room to roam.

So I don’t feel deprived one bit. In fact, I feel the stirrings of a liberated consumer casting aside the chains of media manipulation.

Now for the changes:

Electricity – I’ve become fanatic about shutting off lights whenever I leave a room. Unfortunately our humble abode is so dark I have to have lights on all day in whatever room I’m in. No 'Good Morning, Sunshine' for me in this house. But we’ve cut way down on AC usage. In my mind I’m conserving now for when we hit those weeks of 95° and above that will start pounding us in August. Sweat has become a virtue.

Recycling - We’ve had recycling in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years. So the habit of separating out glass, newspaper, metal and plastic has become well entrenched. But turning over every conceivable plastic container to check for that little rounded triangle symbol has become an obsession. I’m finding new things to recycle like junk mail, office paper, toilet rolls, cereal boxes and yogurt containers. I scrutinize every plastic bag. The plastic bag for potting soil for cactuses was recyclable but the bag for the organic super soil mix wasn’t. Go figure.

Water – A few years ago we needed a new washer and dryer. We bought a non-Maytag, breaking a longstanding family tradition. We purchased Fisher & Paykel energy saver machines. The washer senses how much water it needs so I can do smaller loads without wasting water. I was washing the shrinkables in cold water for years anyway. Now I run practically everything that way. Plus it spins the water out of them like nobody’s business so the clothes spend less time in the dryer. And during the summer I’ll be rack drying most of our clothes in that warm California sun.

More in the next post about my gas diary, the paper towel challenge and smiling at shopkeepers.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

We’ll Always Have Poli Sci 101

I’ve never been one for local politics. I majored in political science at UCLA when Kissinger was Secretary of State. It was one of his books that got me hooked on international relations. Since then, I’ve become more interested in national politics, especially the last 8 years. But local somehow just didn’t have the same panache.

Oak Park is unincorporated. I’d always thought of us as kind of like flour than hasn’t been mixed well into the batter. But it refers to government, not baking. It means we’re not part of any municipality. We’re governed by Ventura County.

We do have a Municipal Advisory Council. Residents elect five members who serve as representatives of the community, advising Supervisor Linda Parks, our go-to person, who is elected to the County Board of Supervisors from District 2.

For years I saw signs announcing MAC meetings. Last week I went to my first one because I needed to start at the very beginning. Since we don’t have a home owners association in our development, MAC was my political center.

What went on in these get-togethers? Was it like a CSPAN broadcast from the House of Representatives with the Gentle Man from Florida handing off his speaking time to the Gentle Lady from California?

What could go wrong in our idyllic little corner of the world? I had no requests that needed to be brought before the king’s representative. What could they do for me? I sat there wondering why I’d come and if I’d admit to myself to being just a teeny bit bored.

  • Then I saw that people cared and there were issues at the beginning of the political food chain:

  • Water, its quality, where it came from, who owned it, gray water recycling

  • Building cell phone towers in the middle of housing developments and the effects of radio waves

  • Land use and how to protect against development of our open spaces when the law that controls it expires. (Who knew it could expire?)

  • Reports on ambulance response times

  • Oversized vehicles parking all night

  • Landscaping

  • Sanitation

  • Adequately reviewing the parking for a Farmers Market set to open in the area

And that was just one meeting. The chair ran a tight ship, courteous, listening to and acknowledging everyone’s comments. He was civil, which according to the Random House Webster’s Dictionary means:

  • Of citizens

  • Of the ordinary life of citizens

  • Civilized

  • Polite

Like we’re all in this together so maybe we should just get along.

Two seats on the MAC will be up for election in November. In the past, I’d either checked off a random name I might have recognized or skipped the local section completely. Now that I know what MAC means, I’ll not only be watching the races at the national level, but reading what The Acorn and the Ventura County Star, our local weekly and daily newspapers respectively, have to say about the candidates.

So Henry, don’t take it personally. I haven’t really given up on geopolitics. The effects of American international relations, or lack thereof, are with me every time I get in the car. It’s just that your political theories are destroying my world. But we’ll always have Westwood.