Monday, April 6, 2009

From Seeds to Cezanne

Last night my husband came in from tennis and said he’d convinced our neighbor, his doubles partner, to plant a vegetable garden on the side of the house. All I could think is: wow. My husband has gone along with most of my green efforts, especially when they include saving money, like changing to CFS light bulbs, using cloth napkins and wipes and shutting off the lights with a vengeance. But it isn’t his crusade.

In fact while we both want to grow some veggies, he’s acting out of fun while I see it as a political act, ever the poli sci major, I guess. So when I heard he’d been urging our neighbor to join us in a victory garden, I knew we were on to something.

I immediately envisioned conversations over the backyard wall, the sharing of extra basil, the sharing of extra zucchini, the sharing of a beer and a barbecue. The whole 50s thing.

Maybe this is what it’s all about. Baking bread, eating a meal with family and friends, growing something - from agriculture to cities to culture. From seeds to Cezanne.

The Economist ran an article recently, What’s Cooking, about the first of five reports from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science where they look at the evolutionary role of cookery.

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. But Richard Wrangham, of Harvard University, believes that this is true in a more profound sense than the one implied by the old proverb. It is not just you who are what you eat, but the entire human species. And with Homo sapiens, what makes the species unique in Dr Wrangham’s opinion is that its food is so often cooked.

Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.

So stay tuned. We’ve been tearing up our yard, planting seeds inside and laying out the plan. Our neighbor already has a plum tree. How about a bushel of plums for a basket of tomatoes? And don’t forget the beer and the hot dogs. It’s going to be a long hot summer.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April In Paris

I am relearning my French, digging through the morass of my oldish brain for vocab learned long ago and having the best time. Can you say pure joy? Much safer than a hormone pill, less sweaty than 30 minutes at my kickboxing studio and way more sexy. Can you say Sarkhozy and Carla? I’m online listening to a jazz radio station from Belgium and watching French talking heads deliver the news. The Middle East situation is ever so much more amusant in French.

What I do for love, this pure hobby moment has no money in it, that’s for sure. Living in SoCal I’d be much better off learning Spanish from scratch than picking up wherever I left off after 9 years of French. In fact I debated for years what to do when the kids were older and I supposedly had more time. I have no time but who cares.

So what if I could actually use Hispanic rather than mes études français in my day job as publicist to the non-stars, and therefore at least get a write-off. Who cares if no one around me speaks French, except my 17 year old daughter, et seulement un peu, but who wants to speak French avec votre mere ou avec ta teenage fille? The Internet has brought all things français to my door and it’s a wonderful world we live in.

I’ve found blogs, podcasts and websites, et aussi des livres d’enfants pas trop cher from the library book sale to help get me up to speed, which could take who knows how long but who cares. My Corsican French teacher from 7th grade who played the flugelhorn, had recorded an album and gave us so much homework by winter break the parents were protesting? Or my German French teacher from 10th and 11th grade who zapped us with quizzes as punishment when we couldn’t answer her early morning grillings? Or perhaps the 12th grade American French teacher who explained her flying lessons to us completment en français and never spoke a word of English all that year. Talk about your stress headaches. Will I ever have time for that kind of immersion again?

So I make do but with as much flair as possible. With my morning café au lait I read women stylists/photographers blogs, sometimes even in French, while I sit in my jeans, struggling with my own digital efforts to eke quaintness out of photos of big box stores and strip malls. C’est dommage mais we have no pâtisseries ici.

The BBC is my new best friend because it allows me to lire, écouter et parler in incremental lessons. And j’adore all those intense French men with the narrow glasses, spiky hair and well tied scarves posed in existential angst leaning over balconies with a Galois hanging from their sensuous lips. Bien sûr I’m married but I’m a woman d’un certain âge so I can turn to fantasy when necessary.

I found a lovely photographer-watercolorist who blogs about pastries, chocolates, elegant shops and Parisians with well-tied scarves around their neck. Paris Breakfasts. It’s like a tour bus ride without the fumes.

And then there’s the French Corner, this super everything about French blog with all sorts of links. I love links. It’s where I found the Belgium jazz. I think. I need to remember to bookmark immediately or else I’m lost in the forest without a baguette-crumb trail to lead me back.

And then, on a blog from an excellent writer, La Belette Rouge, who wishes she lived and wrote in Paris, don’t we all, I found a book, Tune Up Your French, to help me learn street French and the right body language which will help me sound like the real thing. Even as I write this post I’m practicing moving my shoulders in a je ne sais quoi kind of way. I can feel my accent improving with each shrug.

After an hour of parlez-vous’ing myself into a total flow moment I have to control myself from wishing the bank tellers ‘bon jour’. I feel so connected to the world, so cosmopolitan as I run errands with a long scarf draped artfully around my neck. Okay, so I’m living in an uber-suburb. Can you say let’s pretend?

So what is the photo of a torn, well loved petit larrouse at the top of the post you ask? That’s my French dictionary from elementary school. I needed a new one, très triste, because this poor bébé crumbles a little more every time je le bouge. See below. No patina. I need to take it to a café and spill a little coffee on it to break it in.

Now, excusez-moi while I conjugate a few verbs before I run errands and throw smoldering glances at my favorite bank teller. À bientôt.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Buy Local

A few weeks ago banners went up on one of the main streets, not main as in 'filled with shops and a joy to browse through' but main as in 'long and boring and filled with houses and empty sidewalks California suburban wasteland' main. They announced that we should buy local.

Did that mean run to the local branch of Costco, Barnes & Noble and Staples or the mom and pop beauty supply, chocolatier, alterations lady or the library Saturday book sale?

Or does it mean go to the Yard Sale! as the flyer stuck under my car's windshield wiper demanded? Someone had plastered every car in the lot with a waving piece of white paper. I dare you to pull it off and throw it in the back seat - not on the ground, shame on you for littering - without glancing at it to see what someone is selling you.

And whoever was hosting this visit to their driveway was offering up an entire house. We're talking power tools, appliances, office furniture, paintings. I looked for evidence that it was an estate sale or maybe 'we're moving because we can't stand the traffic jams on the 101 in the middle of the night'.

No, this was a yuppie dumping their stuff. My first thought was - The Economy.

Check out this list:

Appliances - stainless steel small fridge, side-by-side refrigerator with ice and water dispenser, toaster oven (stainless steel), coffee maker (black/stainless steel) bread maker (white), waffle maker (stainless steel), panini sandwich grill (silver), electric juicer (white), 10 cup rice cooker (black/stainless steel)

But wait, there's more!

Circular saw, power drill, tile saw, table saw, RotoZip saw, power sander, jig saw and don't forget the electric group: lawn mover, weed whacker, hedge trimmer, chain saw.

There's even more but you get the picture. When you get rid of the gimmicky appliances - rice maker? I use a pot and a cover - it can only mean you need the cash. That you would have had if you hadn't spent the money in the first place. Perhaps you lost your job or your house is in foreclosure and you need to vacate immediately. This is California we're talking about. Big numbers in unemployment and foreclosures.

These people are selling off both a ceramic hair curler AND a ceramic hair flat iron. If you have curly hair you want it straight. If you have straight hair, you long for the curls. We are a nation of never satisfied people. We are consumers.

Call me a looky-lu but I have to swing by and see who this is.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tikkun Olam Fridays – Repairing the World One Step at a Time

Another Friday, another post on tikkun olam – to repair the world. Remember, you don’t have to finish the job, but it is your responsibility to start.

What action did you take this week, big or little, to make a difference?

Here’s an update on my post about the MN Adamov Fund that helps talented blind people in Russia and was started by a couple out of a spare bedroom in Boston.

Why did the Sussmans start this journey? Because Svetlana wanted to honor her father who she was very close to. He'd recently died and on the way back from the funeral on the plane she came up with a way to do that. The Fund supplies canes, computers and other objects to people in Russia, a country and culture that doesn't seem to help their citizens in quite the same way that we make an effort to do here.

The update: the Bay State Council of the Blind has just named Svetlana and Harris Sussman to receive the Outstanding Service Award of the year, for people who make a difference in the lives of blind people. The award will be given at the annual convention on March 28, 2009 at the Marriott in Natick, Massachusetts.

Catch Svetlana and Harris on YouTube talking about their work with the MN Adamov Memorial Fund. See how reaching out and helping takes no special skill or knowledge, necessarily, just a whole lot of effort and heart.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nourishing Wednesdays

Last week A Mighty Appetite with Kim O’Donnel, the Washington Post food blog, ran a challenge to only eat from whatever was already in the pantry – Eating Down the Fridge. Instead of running to the store for last minute entrees, the goal was to eat from what was already in the house. I happened upon the post as I always do, by some trail through the food, simplicity, sustainability, We’re-in-the-Dark-Ages-II blogs that I read every morning along with HuffPost and LAObserved. It seemed like a fun idea so I jumped in mid-week.

We have a collection of condiments, my husband and younger daughter are the king and queen of condiments. They never met a jar of honey horseradish stone ground caper-packed mustard that didn’t have their name on it. If there’s a pretzel to dip in it, so much the better.

I, on the other hand, crave flours, grains, vinegars and oils. I never met a ground up piece of bark I didn’t want to try. And how many ways can you preserve milk? Condensed, evaporated, dry, coconut?

Then our oldest daughter has two friends who work at the local tea shop and have gifted us with little bags. On her trip to Edinburgh, she brought back Scottish Breakfast, to go with our English and Irish. The fact that I seem to have collected over a dozen teapots (I’m a coffee hound; how did this happen?) probably has probably been influential in why we can whip out an array of Teas from Across the Continents at our dinner parties.

The gastronomic challenge of not schlepping to the local market seemed like a plan. How much sunk money did I have in the freezer? And how old was the mystery meat hidden in the back corner?

So Friday night I made chili with pinto and kidney beans, threw in a can of green chilis and a pound of medium firm tofu. Tossed in one of the dozen cans of most-have diced tomatoes from Costco and crumbled in at least six spices, some of which were impulse purchases from intriguing ethnic market that caught my eye that I’m trying to use down. Then there was the salad with on-the-way-to-wilt iceberg, Chinese cabbage, spinach with a package of frozen corn and carrots all tossed with a choice of at least 4 salad dressings. For dessert, a fruit salad with cans of pineapples, Mandarin oranges, a mix of apples and a handful of frozen blueberries and strawberries.

Saturday morning the urge and time to bake melded. I know that whole wheat flour doesn’t last as long as white. The expiration date on the container was a distant memory. The quart of buttermilk needed to be mixed into something. I pulled out the Moosewood Cookbook, also something that has sat on the shelf for, well, decades. Ah, a quick bread. I threw in a handful of wheatberries (Note to self: next time cook them a little first for better ease of chewing). Brunch and tea snack. Delish.

Saturday dinner was meatloaf. Ground meat, grated carrots and celery. Bread crumbs made from frozen rye bread heavy with caraway seeds that I toasted and pulverized in my 25 year-old taped-up Cuisinart. And more herbs and spices.

Sunday morning I decided to make granola bars for school lunches. Oatmeal, wheat flour, wheat germ, dried cherries, 2 almost empty jars of eucalyptus and avocado honey, sesame seeds, almonds, eggs, and the requisite ground spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves.

Look out. She’s on a roll. Next up? That box of cake flour. Does anyone know the shelf life for cupcake sprinkles?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today is my birthday and that’s as good a reason as Jan 1st to review how far I’ve come on my sustainable, living local journey.

One thing I’ve learned is that I’m not going to save the world, nor am I going to be perfect in my attempts to live as greenly as possible. I may not join any local green groups. They seem to be all twentysomethings and single and I’m not. My synagogue green team may fizzle, at least for the moment.

Since starting my blog last summer and reading and bookmarking way too many other blogs about the subject, I realized that there are some things I’m just not going to do. Oh well.

I will wear make-up, I won’t stop using shampoo and gel. So far I plan on continuing to dye my hair and those products aren’t the least toxic, I’m sure, and the greener stuff is too expensive. And don’t even bring up the concept of a Diva Cup. The dishwasher and refrigerator stay. Ditto the nasty cleaning solutions, at least for this year. I will never bike anywhere; my balance sucks.

But here’s what I have done:
  1. used cloth napkins
  2. used face towels instead of paper towels for clean-ups
  3. shut off lights
  4. kept the AC and heater off as much as possible
  5. washed clothes with cold water in an energy efficient washer/dryer
  6. rack dried several loads a week
  7. used less soap when I washed clothes
  8. used recycled tissues and toilet paper
  9. used recycled paper towels, but only to wipe off vegetables and fruits
  10. showered in the downstairs bathroom because the water heats up way faster than the upstairs bath
  11. recycled voraciously meaning I pull misplaced cardboard boxes and toilet paper rolls from wastebaskets
  12. printed less from the computer
  13. screwed in CFS lights throughout most of the house
  14. took re-useable bags to the market including hemp produce bags
  15. worked from home – both me and my husband
  16. planted a garden (this weekend we went beyond a few pots and the side yard and dug up the backyard, more on that in future posts)
  17. cooked from scratch (new efforts to do it as much as possible means less packaging, less chemicals, less money spent - my personal political statement)
  18. baked bread, cakes, muffins
  19. baked challah every week, almost
  20. cooked fearlessly knowing it’s only food and everything is an experiment
  21. lived more fearlessly, life is an experiment and there’s no constants, only variables
  22. bypassed non-local food when possible which is easy enough in CA
  23. shopped at non-chain stores or at least engaged sales clerks from chain stores in conversation (it’s not their fault they work for The Man)
  24. supported green political measures, helped elect Obama with calls and driving to Nevada to knock on doors
  25. attended local and county-wide meetings on issues
  26. attended city meetings to hear the issues, so what if it’s boring at least someone cares
  27. read my hometown city newsletter website
  28. composted every single onion, carrot and potato peel. I will personally build more topsoil on my little nano acre of California countryside
  29. flushed less, since I live in California, where it never rains, nor pours anymore either
  30. monitored our errands so driving is efficient
  31. carpooled to lectures and theaters
  32. rented movies or used the library stacks
  33. bought books from library sales or borrowed from within the county system
  34. supported bloggers who help get the word out by commenting on their posts
  35. kickboxed at my local, non-chain gym
  36. used re-useable water bottle
  37. took my drive-time coffee in a re-useable mug
  38. shopped from my closet and accessorize from my stash
  39. made some charity donations
  40. put in some volunteer time
  41. read about other cultures
  42. read something besides the LA Times and the NY Times, like the Financial Times, to get another perspective
  43. shot photos of other cultures, buildings, anything
  44. signed up on Facebook, yawn, at least that’s my thought
  45. learned more techie stuff, but there’s always more, more, more
  46. smiled at people, looked them in the eye, listened when they talk
  47. reconnected with lost relatives and friends
  48. and said please
  49. thank you
  50. I’m sorry – lots more

… and that was just ten months. Not that I want to brag – not that I ever do - but that looks pretty damn good when you number it. I’ve boiled my goals down to community and creativity. Oh and earning money too, but that’s only my day job. To which I must now return. But only a half day, as it is my b’day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Building Community One Conversation At A Time

What a great communal, supportive day I had today! It just goes to show ya that even in the wide open spaces of SoCal suburbs, a person can say hello, give a little verbal hug and make somebody’s day.

After schlepping all the way to the OC for a business meeting, leaving at 6:30 a.m., and then schlepping back, in my least favorite mode of transport – the LA freeway system, it was all I could do to straighten my desk and check my emails. After putting in a few hours in my sleep-deprived state, I decided to pack it in and run some errands.

I went to the dry cleaners to drop off our visiting oldest daughter’s raincoat which had been dragged through the snows and rains of Boston and Germany for 3 years. It looked like what I imagine a raincoat would look like if it actually saw duty as stormy weather wear. Remember, we are having a Big D drought in my neck of the woods. The shop owner gave me a big welcoming smile, asked where I’d been and typed my name into the computer without me reminding her.

Then I went to the tiny Middle Eastern market next to the dry cleaners. I hadn’t been in there since they opened last year. The owner explained to me, in halting English, how to cook the farina I bought. Then another sales person offered me some of the tea they were about to brew but I had to leave for the bank before it closed. When I asked about whether he sold homemade hummus, the shop owner said next time, just give him a few minutes and he would make some special for me. You can bet when I come back for the raincoat, I’ll drop in for some hummus and pita.

At the bank, formerly known as WaMu, (they should have known that the goofy name was going to lead them down the road to disintegration), all the tellers and bankers have been trained to smile and greet everyone, several times over. They’ve really ramped up the friendliness. But I love it. If you can’t give me more than .01% interest, at least look me in the eye and say hello like you remember me.

One of the teller supervisors asked me how my day had been. I told her I’d done a new business pitch with a group via a Webinar for the first time and she said, “That must have been nerve wracking.” Wow, she was right, it was. How empathetic. It actually made me feel good. And I waved to everyone on my way out and they waved back.

Then, after guiltily hitting the office for awhile, I went off to kickboxing at my local, small karate studio that I’ve been going to for almost 3 years except for the last 3 months when I just ran out of steam. What do you mean that's an excuse?! So I went back to it last week and I know my body will start thanking me eventually. But the happy part is when I walked in last Thursday, people came up to me, virtually slapping me on the back, calling me by name, welcoming me back. The place where everyone not only knows your name, they know your body mass index but they don’t care. They encourage you to kick harder anyway. I love it!

So what does all this Day in the Life of a Formerly More In Shape Publicist mean? It’s not like I don’t talk with my friends or colleagues all day long. It’s the quality of today’s interactions that tells me that focused conversations among folks as they go about their day can build community. That if I can get to know the tellers at my bank in the middle of a Great Recession, for goodness sakes, well, there’s hope that we can build something more, one pleasant conversation at a time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Channeling My Inner Churchill

What is it about the British? What is it with our ongoing fascination, or at least mine?

Some of my favorite quotes are from dear old Winnie – Never, never, never give up. Or what about, If you are going through hell, keep going. That has helped me through the last three years of sandwich generation purgatory with my elderly parents.

And knowing that Churchill governed his nation through a war while suffering bouts of depression?! No wonder he’s my patron saint. No drama Obama? Nah, how about a cigar and a jigger of Scotch?

Now that we get to not only sound like our parents but relive their lives – aka The Greater Depression – we need a soundtrack and a mantra to get us through. Not that we don’t have our own great photos of bread lines and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to fall back on. But it all sounds so much more civilized through the prism of the Queen’s English and a cuppa. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory – World War II poster – do read the article on the BBC site. Or like my English friend says, “You Americans whine too much.” Oh. I thought I was sharing. You mean I really am neurotic.

Perhaps it’s the gray, rainy weather we’re having in SoCal and that I get to use the blue EU umbrella my daughter gave me and that I schlepped home from Germany on the plane (No room for my restless legs but plenty for an umbrella during the greatest drought in a century) that brings out the English in me.

Or maybe it’s the Beatles album, yes, vinyl album, that the other daughter bought at a swap meet yesterday. “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.” I pointed to one of the two tickets on the cover and said, “I went to that concert,” where upon she immediately called her fellow swap meeter and said, minus a hello, “My mom went to that concert.” Who said your children won’t ever think you’re cool? Hah!

Or the tons of English lit I’ve consumed since “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory in 9th grade followed by Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and her gothic copycats and reams more historical fiction from Roman Britain all the way through to Bridget Jones. Anyone for a little Emma Thompson?

In any case, I need something to calm my nerves because I’ll never be able to retire, take another vacation, turn on the AC or the heater (yes, we do use a heater in SoCal) or sell the house and move to the walkable city of my dreams, but I will indeed end up eating dog food just before I starve to death while trying to make dresses, à la Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, from the floral café curtains in the kitchen.

I’ll be found hunched over the computer, emailing an editor equally as gray and decrepit as me, begging her to schedule a 15 minute interview with my very unique, very topical client who will be the very kernel of a fantastically useful and informative story that will generate oodles of praise from grateful readers.

I’ve stocked up on tins of tuna fish. Sounds ever so much more manageable than a can of beans.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tikkun Olam Fridays – Repairing the World One Step at a Time

Another Friday, another post on tikkun olam – to repair the world. Remember, you don’t have to finish the job, but it is your responsibility to start.

What action did you take this week, big or little, to make a difference?

Sometimes we need to be reminded why we ever thought it was important to work on improving the world. We’ve forgotten why we care and need help remembering the reasons we got into this Save A Piece of the World business in the first place.

That’s why I like reading blogs like Have Fun Do Good – A Blog for People Who Want to Make the World a Better Place and Have Fun! Britt Bravo does a solid job covering the nonprofit/social activism arena, interviewing people who have made a difference in the world, writing about change organizations and teaching her readers how to use social media for repairing the world.

You can see why I enjoy catching her posts. Yesterday’s, Interviews with 38 Social Changemakers: 3rd Anniversary of the Big Vision Podcast, is a good example of why reading her ideas helps me clarify what I’m doing. I’m encouraged by what others are doing whether it’s working to change our distribution food system, increase literacy, solve health issues, attack poverty, redesign cities, create recycling programs, well you get the idea.

In fact, you never know where you’re going to get a good idea or meet someone offline who’s doing good just because and can be that catalyst that we all need to stay in the game.

In November 2007 I took a trip to Boston to visit our oldest daughter in college and stayed at a B&B in Somerville. The lovely couple, who offered up extra bedrooms to visiting professors on speaking tours and parents attending college graduations, had started a personal nonprofit from the ground up. Personal in that it was inspired by the woman’s father, a Russian physics professor who became blind in childhood from measles but continued to live a full, successful and rewarding life.

Svetlana and Harris Sussman started the M.N. Adamov Fund, in memory of her father, to help talented visually impaired Russians get access to canes, computers and other kinds of support. They speak around the country, travel to Russia, specifically to St. Petersburg where Prof. Adamov lived, to deliver what people have donated and generally get the word out that blind people in Russia need help.

The Adamov Fund is a nonprofit organization registered in Massachusetts. Here’s their December email report, updating friends and supporters about their efforts for 2008. Also check their website, to see what can happen from a spare bedroom.

Dear Friends,

In 2008, we continued to help talented blind people in Russia through the MN Adamov Memorial Fund, which we started in 2005 in the name of Svetlana's father. We are still the only project in the US dedicated to doing this. We help people on an individual basis through personal contacts.

In various ways we were able to assist over 150 blind people in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Essentuki, Volokolamsk, Novosibirsk, Sergiev Posad. We did not go to Russia this year. We plan to go to St. Petersburg at the end of January 2009 and look forward to meeting with many old and new friends.

Thanks to donations to the Fund, we provided folding white canes to 50 more people this year, digital voice recorders to several dozen students, magnifiers to visually impaired people, some used laptop computers, toys to a teacher of blind children, educational materials to a group of expressive therapy teachers, a talking Braille watch, copies of a guide to English Braille.

We were able to find a number of people going to Russia who agreed to be couriers for us--a woman from New Jersey, a tourist from Cambridge, four business travelers from Boston, a professor from Dartmouth, several students from local colleges. We always need more couriers to take things in their suitcases.

We arranged for 6 undergraduate students from Duke University to spend two months volunteering with a rehabilitation center for the blind in St. Petersburg over the summer.

We were invited to speak at the national conference of the Russian American Medical Association in Boston in October.

We spoke at the regional meeting of Young Professionals for International Cooperation in Boston in October.

We were on an IDEAS competition team at MIT that won an award for a Braille Pencil concept in April. We were advisors to an MIT class project that designed a Braille labeler in December.

We attended the Unite for Sight conference at Yale in April.

An article about the Adamov Fund was published in the newsletter of the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England.

We maintained and updated the web site

We stay in touch with people in Russia through email, Skype chat, phone calls. We monitor the situation in Russia and learn about things we can help with.

We are ending the year with a few hundred dollars in the Fund's account. We need financial support to continue. We have requests for many more canes--they cost us $30 each--and for more digital voice recorders which cost $40 each.

For various reasons we decided not to apply for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. We will continue to operate as a nonprofit corporation registered in Massachusetts.

Donations to the Fund are tax-deductible through the continued assistance of the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass.

Thank you for your support.

Svetlana Adamova Sussman

Harris Sussman

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy Monday!

Today I’m taking the day off. No clients, no community organizing, no straightening the house, bill paying, elderly mother managing. And no nagging the youngest about web searching for our college tour come spring. I’m gonna play.

You heard me right. I’m doing nothing but fun stuff today. Some writing, some blog straightening, some photo organizing – doing the creativity resolution. Then I’ll grab a cup of coffee with a friend – another one of my new year’s resolutions that – don’t hate me because I’m perfect – I’m keeping!

Which means I’m having a guilt-free day. Let’s see, when was the last time that happened? Age 6?

And why is this okay? Because I read it in the paper! “Buying Happiness”, LA Times, today. Seems that experiences will make you happier than material things. Duh. So what should you do with the change in your pocket? Have fun.

I’ve got a loop of photos running as a screensaver from our recent Freiburg trip to visit our oldest on her junior year abroad. This was money well spent. I’ll repeat that, because I’m cheap, haven’t traveled much and the daughter of Depression-era parents who had no credit record to buy their house in 1964 because they paid cash for everything. (They did get the house but, as I recall, they had to sign-up for a credit card to do it.)

This vacation was exceptionally wonderful because we stayed in one place and WALKED EVERYWHERE and spent lots and lots of time just being with our kids. Sometimes that meant crawling up in a ball covered by my pea coat in the kid’s messy dorm room as I napped, my husband made chicken after figuring out the Celsius conversion and the kids watched Sponge Bob in German on the telly.

The only souvenirs I have are the empty mulled wine cups from the Christmas Market and a striped pashmina (9 Euros, not bad) that goes with everything and warm feelings every time I catch a photo of a castle or a streetcar or the kids mugging in front of a snow-filled backdrop.

Of course this not-new-news came from a study that said experiences tend to make people feel more alive. Their suggestion? Buy experiences. Mine? Buy them cheap – coffee and window shopping at the new Nordstrom’s. Or take the opportunity when it arises, if you can, and spend it with family you love.

Happy Monday!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In the Middle of Nowhere

How do you build community when you live in a bedroom community in the middle of the exburbs? Urbanist Joel Kotkin says, in The City: A Global History, that all cities need the same elements to function: political, economic and spiritual. Security, commerce and a soul. There is a universality to the urban experience whether it’s New York or Beijing. And a sterile sameness to the suburbs that were supposed to save us whether it’s in Las Vegas or the Conejo Valley where I live. So how do you build community?

I live in the middle of nowhere. It’s very pretty, filled with open spaces, undeveloped mountains and good school systems.

And that’s it. No markets, drug stores, gas stations, book stores, movies. Nada.

Now those of you who know Oak Park or live here may say that’s not true. Why just 2 miles up Kanan Road we have markets and fancy hair salons and coffee shops. And just 2 miles down Kanan we have more markets and drug stores and shoe repair shops and alteration ladies.

But they’re not technically in Oak Park and you can’t really walk to them on a regular basis. And you can’t take a street car or bus. To the Costco or the Michael’s or the Staples. And you wouldn’t want to. How could you shop? My God! We’ve built ourselves into a corner with nothing but big box stores and miles of roads and houses.

We do have an Episcopalian church and a Chabad house. And you can go to the dentist, both adult and kids, and a pediatrician. Those I can actually walk to. How medically useful.

And I suppose the Starbucks strip mall technically is in Oak Park. But the movies are about 3 miles away. Wait, I just remembered we have a library we could walk to. It’s small but we’ll count it. Only not in the summer when it’s 100 degrees and it’s uphill all the way.

But the Macy’s, Barnes & Nobles, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, well I don’t think you can take a bus from anywhere near my house to get to them. Theatres, a university, a shoe store? Who am I kidding? Why do I torture myself?

I’ve just been to two local transportation meetings for Ventura County and talked with a lovely woman from the City of Thousand Oaks. I now know our problem - we don’t have density. And we’re an affluent area that skews young. The immediate needs seem to be the elderly and the low income folks.

I have no qualms with helping them out. Their needs are real. I would be happy to pay extra sales tax to build a transportation system that helps all of us. We are one county that doesn’t have that. Shame on us.

I hear that San Luis Obispo has good bus service and I know that Ventura, the city, is rebuilding its downtown and seems to have more transportation and walkability. They are compact. I should check them out just to see if Southern/Central California can even envision something besides a car.

Today I tried to hook up the City of Thousand Oaks Youth & Aging Services lady with the Oak Park online newsletter editor, both well meaning people who obviously love their towns. The TO lady was born here and the Oak Park guy does the newsletter and website for free.

I thought the newsletter could help publicize two upcoming meetings on soliciting information about what people want regarding housing, transportation and other services. While the morning meeting is expecting a nice turnout, the evening meeting only had one RSVP even with all the PR they’d done. They needed to get the word out. I believe Kanan Road runs through Agoura Hills, Oak Park, Westlake Village and maybe even Thousand Oaks. Our suburbs bleed into each other. Remember, I can’t get a quart of milk in my town. You’d think transportation would be high on everyone’s needs list after last spring’s $4.75/gallon gas prices.

So did the newsletter editor help publicize the city lady’s meeting? No. Only Oak Park events in the newsletter. As if we were all separate villages surrounded by forests and meadows instead of the sprawl we actually are. As if we weren’t all in this together. But then Agoura Hills didn’t ask my input about the new freeway overpass that impacted the surrounding communities for miles around. I understand the newsletter's limits, but I should have known.

Pending business meetings or family emergencies I will go to that transportation meeting. I will drive to this meeting. Maybe some of the same people will be there from the other two meetings. I’ll smile and say hello. I’ll put my secret plan into action. I’ll build my community one hi at a time.

They want Boomers’ input. I can tell them my dream. Maybe they share it. I can get to know fellow citizens who want to make the system work and talk about LA and the Valley and the Conejo – all sections of Southern California where I’ve lived for over 40 years and would stay if we had buses on the streets instead of coyotes. We’ll commiserate about the drought that was only dented by last week’s rain and the record string of 80 degree days in January and the state budget that finally passed before my teacher friends got IOUs as paychecks.

I don’t want bikes. That’s a bandaid and besides, I have bad balance with a helmet on. I want buses. I want to walk to the market. I want a city with a soul and a streetcar.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nourishing Wednesdays – Building Community From the Ground Up

Old MacDonald had a farm …

Sunday’s New York Times Business section had this headline “Farm Life, Subsidized By a Job Elsewhere”. This is a piece of good news. The Agriculture Department’s just released Census of Agriculture, which comes out every five years, said that the number of farms increased by 4 percent from 2002 to 2007. Most of the new farms were small and part-time farmers. Since the last one, female farmers grew nearly 30 percent. Read the article here.

Last week’s the Jewish Journal, Feb 6-12 issue, included “Farming the Land, Torah in Hand”, about Jewish farmers – young North American Jews who are learning to farm and do it Jewishly. They’re part of a larger and growing group of environmental and food activists who come out of new Jewish farm-education initiatives. Hazon, an advocacy organization that promotes sustainable environmental practices and sponsors an annual Jewish food conference, is one such organization. They’ve got a great blog, The Jew & the Carrot, which I recommend for recipes and discussions of food issues.

Today’s Boston Globe talked about joining a CSA, community supported agriculture, to help support those growing number of small farms. You buy a stake in a farm and share the risk, and the bounty, with the farmer.

This long term suburban girl wants to know where this fascination with farms is coming from. Perhaps I was an eggplant in another life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Nourishing Wednesdays – Building Community From the Ground Up

Could I become a vegetarian?

Last fall when I was reading Farm Sanctuary by Gene Bauer and Prop 2, the humane treatment for animals bill, was on the California ballot, I wondered if I could become a vegetarian. I was really disturbed by what our food system had come to. But did I care enough about animals to take that final step?

Then I read a blog post by Rabbi Julian Sinclair from the Jewish Climate Initiative about being present at the kosher slaughtering of a turkey at the Hazon Food Conference in December. Hazon is all about knowing where your food, whether from animals or plants, comes from. Facing the truth.

Gulp. I have no qualms about hacking a homegrown tomato with a serrated-edged knife, but did I really want to test my green commitment in this extreme manner?

I care about the CO₂levels from meat production. We’ve just come off the longest January heat wave in SoCal since 1983. The weather folks keep promising us rain. My president has asked for my service, my continued political involvement. Could simply ending my meat eating be my statement?

Could I become a vegetarian?

Probably not. I like my meat moments too much to make the switch. Yet, the challenge continues to call out to me. Why? The truth? Well, my cholesterol is a tad high.

Yeah, it all comes down to money and pain. Like all the newly frugal, it’s not till it hits you in your own face that you change your evil ways.

So I’ve pulled out all my cookbooks checking for the recipes, stocked up on grains like bulgur, buckwheat groats and millet in bulk. I’m researching reusable bags for grains and nuts and surfed the Web to make sure I know how to combine my foods so my vitamin levels are AOK. And I found this nifty little Vegetarian Starter Kit, from Vegetarian Times.

But I’m not a convert yet!

The plan is more veggies, more grains, more nuts, and just smaller meat portions and more meatless meals. I know I can do this because this is our family food pattern anyway, only I guess the protein portions must have been on the too big side for my aging Boomer Body.

Plus I want to try something that Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist came up with: eat breakfast and lunch as a vegan and dinner the regular way. Or as he calls it, ‘Vegan till 6’. Check out his new book, Food Matters or a video from his book tour.

And supposedly I’ll lose weight too. Save money, the planet and my waistline? Okay, I’m in.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

To Travel Global is to Live Their Local

I’ve been too busy traveling, working, re-learning French and just generally living - okay, we’ll cut the euphemistic BS - procrastinating - to blog. Why write when you can walk the streets of Freiburg, Germany, one of the most sustainable cities in Europe? Yes, in December I was a citizen of the world.

With a daughter studying abroad for a year, we thought: who cares about the economy, our carbon footprint and the ever shrinking retirement fund? Better to grab every opportunity to see the world before my bunions and creaking knees make walking impossible.

So the family spent the entire winter break in Freiburg with side trips to the Alsace region in France and Basel, Switzerland. Just writing that sentence makes me shiver – with excitement though it was butt-ass cold for this SoCal resident. (Note to self: spring for the long underwear next time!)

Our lovely daughter was the tour guide, translator and cultural instructor and even my husband’s ‘kitchen German’ kept us from getting lost and well fed. What an immersion in a culture. While Freiburg looked like a small, walkable, charming contemporary city - which I would immediately move to because the street cars were amazing, with people that looked just like me - every time anyone opened their mouth, German came out! And I had 9 years of French and 2 of German and it still shocks me to hear people speaking something other than English without thinking: will the bell ring before the homework assignment.

Now let me ramble on about the transportation. They have it. And I as I walked out of the train station after our trip south from the Frankfort airport, I fell in love. Where can I find this city in the states and how quickly after the younger daughter graduates can we sell the house and move? The streetcars were amazing. Is there a statute of limitations for the jerks who pulled out the Red Cars in Los Angeles in the 50s? What have we been doing for the last 30 years transportation-wise? Bupkis! That’s Yiddish for nada, rien, nicht anything!

So I got my dream trip of staying in one place, eating at the same cafes, walking the same streets until I got the feel of the place. I can’t say I knew how to get around after 2 weeks. It annoyed my family (Note to Other Mothers of Girls: Everything you do annoys them.) that I never learned those winding, charming European streets. I did remember each little area, just could never link up the neighborhoods. So I had to be led home to our bed & breakfast hotel each time. (Note to Self: get excellent city map and cram a few phrases into crumbling brain before arriving.)

So before I sign off, what was the best part of the trip, you’re asking. The Christmas Market was fun with its chestnuts and spiced wine. The Munster in the center of the city was inspiring, the snow was cold and the light, even on a sunny day, was so much less than California’s standard glare. The fireworks on the Schlossberg (large hill overlooking the city) and throughout the city on New Year’s Eve, that went on for hours as the church bells rang, were loud, amazing and legal. The shop owner my daughter knew from passing his store everyday on her way to school chatted with us about his twin brother and then gave us a free candle as a thank you after we bought several pashminas. The two-hour breakfasts sharing sausage, cheese, croissants and pots of coffee as a family were precious.

The older Alsatian couple with the vineyard where we spent hours hearing about the Americans being “only 3 kilometers away and sharing chewing gum with us” at the end of The War and taking pictures of each other as we wished each other a good year were better than an excerpt from a history book. The three-mile mad dash back from the castle ruins on the hill in Heidelberg to the train station in under an hour was heart stopping. The books I read, Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern and The European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin while surrounded by, well, Germans, was enlightening.
But the best moments were connecting with others. I needed to. You see, I went to Germany as an American after eight years of everyone hating us – and as a Jew – to finally visit the country that has impacted my life/our life – from my dad’s stories about hearing of FDR’s death while riding on a train filled with fellow soldiers through Czechoslovakia to my father-in-law’s escape from Austria to Israel on a boat through the Dardanelles during Kristalnacht.

I touched the buildings – 60% of Freiburg was destroyed during the war. I wondered: if energy never disappears, are there molecules from World War II still floating around me? I looked at elderly gray- haired women and wondered, I admit, were they Nazis? When the train conductor checked our tickets, scenes from old black and white movies ran through my head. Papers? Where are your papers?

So did I come up with an answer on where to place Germany in my thoughts? Certainly I have new images to add to the old. But no, I have no complete answers to the German Question. And when I told my friends we were going to Germany or my mother told the people in the assisted living home that her daughter was going to Germany, well, everyone looked askance. Why, was the question in their eyes.

We went to visit the new generation who’s reaching out, my daughter and the other kids in the university program. I came away asking if we can’t forgive or forget and we’re still making war movies, what happens to the generations since. I don’t have an answer but since returning home I have asked the question of others. So far it’s not encouraging. Except from the next generations.

Yeah, it was about more than the great beer and pastries …