Thursday, March 2, 2017

What I've Been Reading: "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway

Have you ever loved a book so much that you try to write a blog post about it not once, not twice, but three times over the course of two years but you can’t even get started because you love the book so much that there’s too much to say?

(Not that I’ve ever done that, of course.)

The book is, as you may have guessed from the title, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by the late Toby Hemenway. I read it for the first time last year and recently finished a second read-through, but there is so much to say, and I love the book so much, that I can’t write anything less than a gushy review. So, here it is.

I had read books about permaculture before, but for whatever reason, none of them clicked in my head. They discussed edges and sectors and guilds and edible forest layers, but my eyes glazed over, and all I really took from those books is that you should create a garden that’s like a diverse ecosystem rather than neat rows of monocrops. This sounded cool, but I was left with no idea of how to actually do this. (It didn’t help that, since permaculture originated in Australia, all the plants and animals mentioned were foreign to me— although I did find it amusing that they discussed different methods for keeping the kangaroos out of your vegetables.) 

Determined to find a book that made sense to me, I noticed Gaia’s Garden in several bibliographies, so I decided to check it out. And as I read it, I started to truly understand permaculture for the first time.

Permaculture isn’t just a method of gardening— it’s a new way of viewing the world. It takes its cue from nature, showing that connections between elements are just as important as the elements themselves. The goal of a permaculture garden is to choose the most multifunctional elements and place them in the most effective relationships. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Like nature, a permaculture garden is mostly perennial, self-sustaining, and deeply interconnected. It works with nature rather than against it. 

Gaia’s Garden begins by laying the groundwork of permaculture theory. In the other books, this is where my eyes glazed over, but Hemenway writes in a way that makes sense, giving practical examples to show what he means when introducing a new term. He describes the mechanics of natural processes like decomposition in a beautiful way (I had never been so interested in reading about earthworms and bacteria before), and explains the basic design theories/elements of a permaculture garden and why they’re so important. 

In the next part of the book, the chapters discuss the basic elements in turn: soil, water, plants, animals/insects. How do you build soil, keep water on-site, choose plants, attract and integrate beneficial animals? These chapters hold the answers.

The utilitarian in me loves the idea that in a permaculture garden, everything has multiple uses (“stacking functions”). I think of plants as being pretty or being food, and sometimes both, but Hemenway opened my mind to other possibilities: habitat for animals, shade/climate control, nitrogen fixing (a symbiotic relationship some plants have with bacteria that essentially make them create their own fertilizer), nutrient accumulation (plants like dandelions dredge nutrients from the subsoil, making it available to their neighbors), mulch, windbreak, building materials, chicken forage, gentle tilling, beneficial insect attraction, and more.

Part three moves into even more practical terms: how can a gardener assemble an ecosystem of tightly-connected plant groups in the most effective way? This section discusses both design and implementation, giving specific suggestions and multiple techniques for creating islands of plant colonies, called guilds, that eventually merge into an unbroken paradise. 

Although most of the suggestions would work better in a typical suburban-sized lot, there are many things I can still put into practice in my small backyard and front yard. (I just got a copy of Hemenway’s follow-up book, The Permaculture City, and I’m excited to read it!)

The book ends with a conclusion about the ultimate goal of a permaculture garden: a self-feeding ecosystem that is a delight for all who visit, be they human, animal, or insect. This is followed by several appendixes with include exhaustive lists of useful plants, seed companies, books for further reading, organizations, and so on.

It would not be understatement to say that this book changed my life. It taught me to see plants, gardens, wild lands, ecosystems, even intangible connections in myself and my community, in a new way. Instead of seeing a lawn with a few patches of weeds, I see a prairie landscape struggling to break up the hard clay with nutrient accumulators because it really wants to be a forest (despite my constant sabotage with a lawnmower). I see clumps of clover and dandelions as nature’s way of patching over bare earth, eliminating erosion, filtering toxins, conserving water. I see cottonwood trees and marvel that they create their own microclimates, even their own rain and fertilizer— aided by birds, insects, and the underground presence of miles of mycelia.

In short, everyone interested in gardening or ecology should read this book. I’m excited to start integrating some of the ideas into my garden, in hopes that someday the plain stretches of grass will be transformed into a dynamic ecosystem where birds, insects, humans and plants can find a place to live in harmony.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

San Francisco

San Francisco and I have an interesting relationship. I visited for the first time in early 2010, after a crisis of losing two friends at once, and I was in despair for pretty much the entire week there. Despite that, I loved the city from the moment my sister Mary and I emerged from the subway, and although I sleepwalked through most everything we did, I can still look back at the pictures and smile. 

2010: "I am the most depressed I've ever been in my life!"
The second time I visited San Fran, I was headed up to Portland to visit my boyfriend (who just happened to be Zach). I was super happy about it, but at the time my oldest brother had complications with appendicitis and nearly died, so that kind of cast a shadow over everything, too. 

2011: "My brother nearly died on an operating table yesterday!"
2017: "I literally took no pictures of myself during this trip!"
Third time’s the charm, as they say, and this was it (despite the head cold I contracted and the dehydration headaches since there are no water fountains in California). Zach and I visited Mary, who now lives there, for a couple of days, and had a blast walking around the city. We hit up some of our old favorites— the waterfront, North Beach, Chinatown— and she also introduced us to Land’s End, a strip of wild land along San Fran’s western side. We walked along the beach (I hadn’t seen the ocean in two and a half years!), hiked up along the coastline, and explored the remains of a huge bathhouse, then trekked into a foggy forest that reminded me of a botanical garden. Huge lilies popped up from the thickets of blackberries and nasturtiums, with exotic trees towering overhead. Sometimes the fog was so thick, we couldn’t see the shore line below.

It's the Golden Gate Bridge! ...I swear!
Ruins of the Sutro Baths, and the backside of the Cliff House
Mary and ruins, looking epic as usual

Golden Gate Park

Grandma Kathy and Grandpa Ray met us at Mary’s place, and took us out to the Cliff House, a historical restaurant right on the ocean. We got a great seat and ate burgers while watching gulls wheel over the receding tide. 

View from the Cliff House

Although we only had a few days in San Fran, I was glad for a chance to visit the city again and enjoy it without any crises looming in the back of my head. But still, crises or not, it truly is a magical place.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Vineyards, I think.

Although we spent a solid week in California, I don’t actually have too many stories to tell. We weren’t there for the tourism; we were there to visit family. In Sacramento, I split my time between editing papers like a maniac and watching TV with Grandma Kathy and Zach. We soaked up the green landscapes all around (and eyed the orange and lemon trees in people’s backyards enviously), not knowing that we’d be returning home to sunnier, warmer weather than California.

Carli often visited me when I was working. She didn't want to be petted, only to gaze regally out the window.

Me when I was 20, in
Sac'to for the first time
I fell in love with Sacramento the first time I visited, in early 2010. After almost a month of palm trees, beach vistas, and tropical flowers, the deciduous trees and Sacramento River made me feel more at home. I stayed at a really cool hostel in downtown, visited the capitol building, and felt, for the first time that trip, that life would go on after a heartbreak. I had no idea then that I would end up marrying someone born in this city, this last stop on my second big solo trip.

This time visiting, we didn’t actually go downtown, heading instead to the outskirts to visit the spillways that have been opened to keep the Sacramento River from flooding the whole city. Grandpa Ray drove us around the farmland, sometimes edging over water that skimmed over the pothole-filled roads, and we visited a wetlands preserve (which was very, very wet) to spot snowy egrets, black-necked stilts, and a huge flock of snow geese. 

If you get a chance to visit Sacramento, I highly recommend it: the city has an 1800s charm to it, and is very walkable. Although it’s not as tropical as SoCal, it’s still full of flowers and greenery in the winter, making it a nice relief from a St. Louis winter— well, a typical St. Louis winter, anyway.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

This Week (in which the Traveling Mandolin actually Travels)

Last week, instead of blogging, I was hanging out in a place filled with warm weather and lots of flooding— which, surprisingly, wasn’t Missouri. See if you can guess where I was:

If you guessed “California,” you’re correct! Zach and I spent the week at his grandparents’ house in Sacramento, and also popped over to San Francisco for a couple days to visit my sister Mary. I have more pictures and stories to share, which I’ll be posting over the next several days. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the best photo from the trip, in which Mary is a model and I am a mustache model.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Recipe: Winter Salad with Chickpeas, Apple, and Blue Cheese

Guess what? I came up with a recipe! This happened last Monday, when I was throwing together some food for a monthly potluck and trying to give myself some good options so I wouldn’t feel deprived with all my grainlessness. I began putting elements together in a way I thought would taste good, and before I knew it, I had assembled the hands-down most delicious salad I’ve ever eaten. I was kind of stunned.

Sure, I’ve kind of come up with recipes before— a basic white sauce with kale, for instance— but this was the first one that was truly creative, not just adapting a technique I’d learned from someone else. The balance of tastes (sour, tangy, sweet, vinegary, pungent) and textures is exquisite.

This salad has a lot of components, but the essential four elements are the chickpeas, green apple, blue cheese, and vinaigrette. Everything else adds texture and taste, but if you’re a minimalist, just use those four.

Here is the recipe:

Winter Salad with Chickpeas, Apple, and Blue Cheese


Roasted sweet potatoes and beets— Use about twice as many sweet potatoes, by volume, than beets. Cut them into 1/2-inch dice and coat the pieces in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, paprika, etc. Bake them on a sheet at 450 degrees for about twenty minutes, then check for softness. You should be able to easily poke a piece with a knife. Bake until tender. These keep for several days in the fridge, so make them ahead of time.

Salad greens— I used romaine and bok choy, cut into small pieces, but pretty much any salad green would be good. I also shredded some carrot into the greens.

Chickpeas— Canned chickpeas will work, but they’re better made from scratch. Try this Crockpot recipe. After they’re cooked, sautee them in a little butter and season with salt, pepper, and a couple shakes of parmesan. 

Green apple, such as Granny Smith, diced

Blue cheese

A few chunks of avocado, seasoned with salt and pepper

Vinaigrette— Make this super-simple homemade vinaigrette: pour a couple tablespoons of red wine vinegar (or apple cider or balsamic vinegar or lemon juice) into a jar, and add a shake of salt and pepper and a couple crushed garlic gloves or some garlic powder. Stir in a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and shake or stir. Then add olive oil— two to three times as much as the vinegar— and shake thoroughly. May be stored at room temperature for several weeks.

To assemble: Put the warm root vegetables at the bottom of your bowl, then top with salad greens, chickpeas, apple, and blue cheese in whatever quantities you like. Pour the dressing over the top and enjoy!


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

How to Donate Blood (a real-life, non-candy-coated guide)

Me after my first successful donation in 2015.
When Zach first urged me to try donating blood, I balked. A lot. First of all, I have a fear of needles. It’s not severe by any means— not like my friends who grow woozy at the mere thought— but noticeable enough that I can’t watch other people get stuck, and I start sweating and my heart races a bit when I know a needle’s going in me. I guess I’d categorize it as a moderate fear. 

Secondly, I was afraid of the process in general. What would the nurses be like? What would they do? How would it feel? I anxiously looked through the Red Cross’s website, looking for information, but I was suspicious of all the cheerful chatter about how caring the nurses are, how very little it hurts, and what an incredible glow you get after donating.

The first time I tried to donate blood, I got as far as the hemoglobin test, where they give you a tiny pinprick in the finger. The nurse didn’t warn me I was getting stuck, and I had a miniature panic attack. I was not able to donate that time.

The next time, trying to gather my courage, I attempted again. I learned that day that I have tiny veins (as has been confirmed by several nurses and one anesthesiologist), and it took forever to draw a pint. I had a huge bruise and a really sore arm, but honestly, it wasn’t that painful.

My second donation went swimmingly, with virtually no pain, a quick draw, and a removal of the needle so subtle that I didn’t even feel it. 

On my third donation, yesterday, my blood vessels were just not having it. The nurse couldn’t even find a vein on my left arm, and barely managed to tease out one on my right. The needle going in hurt a lot for a second. Things were going okay until a few minutes in, when my carb-deprivation caught up with me and I nearly blacked out. They leaned my chair back and my vision cleared, and I was able to successfully finish the donation. I felt shaky, upset, and pretty darn exhausted afterward, and cried in the car. Nevertheless, I’m determined to go and donate again once my blood iron recovers.

So what am I saying here? This: if you, like me, are a healthy heterosexual with a moderate fear of needles, you should try to give blood at least once.

The reasons are numerous. You know the obvious ones: that whole saving people’s lives thing. Blood has a short shelf life, so it’s constantly in demand. Also, the more people who donate, the cheaper blood is for patients to buy at hospitals. 

I have personal reasons for donating blood. Whenever I waffle in my commitment, I think about my mom a few years ago: lying in the hospital bed, her skin the color of ash, as someone else’s blood dripped through an IV in her arm. I’m sure you know someone who has required blood at some point. My mom, after a month of being constantly stuck with needles, is traumatized and could never donate. Because she can’t, I will. Someone has to. I encourage you to make that someone you.

So, here is my completely honest explanation of how to donate blood. Again, if you have normal-sized veins, you’ll probably have much less trouble donating than I do, so keep that in mind.

Find a donation buddy. I’ll be honest: if Zach hadn’t dragged me to the Red Cross center, I never would’ve donated blood. You need someone to hold you accountable, to provide moral support, and to be a person you can encourage as well. (Zach is a blood-giving champion! He donates platelets, which is a two- to three-hour process involving two needles and often a significant amount of pain. He has saved so many lives.)

Go to the Red Cross website and see if you’re eligible to donate. If you are, take a moment to find a donation center and set up an appointment. If you can donate mid-week, that’s better, since a lot of people donate on weekends.

Prepare for the appointment. Make sure you get enough iron in the days leading up to your appointment, and see these guidelines for more details.

On the day of the appointment, drink a ton of water and get some exercise. A bit of weight-lifting wouldn’t hurt either, if you’re into that. My dad also suggested to me putting a heating pad on my arm while I’m in the waiting room, to allow my veins to bulge more. I’m hoping to try this next time.

Understand what you need for the best experience. For me, being stuck without warning is my biggest fear, so I ask the nurses to give me a countdown before inserting the needle (even the tiny needle for the hemoglobin test). Although the Red Cross website assures you that all the nurses are compassionate and understanding, you’ll sometimes run into the “you volunteered to do this so suck it up” type, so be prepared to stand up for yourself and ask for exactly what you need, whether that’s a countdown, a pause to center yourself before donating, etc. (I’m not dissing these nurses— if I worked with needles as often as they do, I’m sure I’d be desensitized, too. They don’t want to spend their time coddling— they want to get the life-saving blood as quickly as possible.)

Show up on time and sign in. When you’re called, the nurse will take you to a private room and have you answer a series of questions on the computer, mostly asking about your virus history, trips to Europe, and sexual contact. After you’ve completed these, the nurse will take your vitals. They will also test your hemoglobin by zapping you with a tiny needle in the finger and scraping the blood off. (Kinda freaky, but only as painful as pricking your finger on a rose thorn.)

Now it’s time to donate. They’ll get you set up on a comfy chair, wrap up your arm to create pressure, draw a line on the inside of your elbow where the most promising vein is, then scrub and sterilize that patch of skin. Then comes the needle insert. Again, my experiences with this moment have been varied: the first two times it didn’t really hurt, just kind of felt weird and uncomfortable (“Ouch, that was a needle. Wait, why is there a thing inside my arm now?... That’s weird”), but yesterday’s was more of a “Holy cow I just got stabbed in the arm!” and I yelped quite loudly. (Fortunately my nurse was sympathetic.) As upsetting as that was, though, it only lasted for two seconds. I hate pain, and I suck at dealing with it, but once the needle’s actually in, it’s not active pain. Again, just that uncomfortable pressure and feeling of something being in your body where it’s not supposed to be.

Bring something to distract you. I usually scroll through tumblr or something to keep my mind off it. If your blood flow is good, the actual blood-drawing process only takes about ten minutes. Be sure to let the nurses know if it starts to hurt, because it’s not supposed to.

Take some time to recover. Usually the needle being pulled out doesn’t hurt, although that may vary, but again, you’re only looking at a split second of pain. If you’re not feeling dizzy, walk over to the snack table for some Cheez-its and cranberry juice. Yay! You did it!

Encourage other people to donate. If everyone eligible person gave blood just once a year, it would make a huge difference. 

To some, this article may seem like it’s discouraging donation rather than encouraging it. However, I would much rather come in expecting the correct level of pain rather than thinking things are going to be better than they are. And here’s another way of thinking about it: can you endure literally three seconds of pain and ten minutes of discomfort if it meant saving three people’s lives? I can. And I believe you can, too. 


Saturday, January 28, 2017

This Week (Birdwatching, Veggie Cooking, and Being)

My brothers-in-law, hitting the water with sticks, because this is the best thing ever. See the flock of swans in the distance?

Last week was full. Not busy, but full. I am reminded again of why I’m so stingy with my commitments, why I always leave huge chunks of blank space on my calendar: I get overwhelmed easily, and I like to create space. This week has felt kind of breathless, even though I haven’t been doing that much.

Last Saturday we spent an afternoon at the Riverlands Audubon Center with Zach’s two youngest brothers, Calvin and Preston, where we admired a rescued great horned owl, hiked around through the grasslands, picked our way through piles of dead fish on the lake shore, and looked for bald eagles (we didn’t see any, but we did watch a flock of trumpeter swans, which I had never seen in the wild before). Climbing a dead log was the highlight for Calvin and Preston. Rediscovering my love of birdwatching was mine. The next day as I took a walk in the nearby park, I spotted all sorts of birds— downy woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, even a huge pileated woodpecker— and resolved to start carrying my binoculars with me from now on.

A big chunk of this week has been taken up with cooking: Zach and I have decided to do a two-week sugar detox, avoiding sweeteners, fruit, and (alas!) grain. It’s alarming how many vegetables you blade through when you don’t have tortillas or bread or pasta to give them substance; we can hardly keep up. I know that eating a more nutrient-dense diet is good for a while, but I’m happy to announce that I’m not going permanently low-carb any time soon. I love my grains!

In the meantime, I’ve been working on student papers, as well as draft three of my PCT memoir (I’m calling it “the hack n’ slash version”), and I’m probably going to start work on writing some grants for the Historic Frenchtown Association, a skill I’m eager to learn. 

Shredded carrots and beet greens with eggs and curry powder.
Actually delicious.
Right now there’s a bit more on my plate than I would like, but I’m trying to be intentional about slowing down and creating breathing space. I’ve mostly stayed off Facebook, and have been taking time to read, notably a reread of Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. (I love love love this book— it’s the first book that made permaculture make sense to me, and I’m getting so much more out of it this time through). I’ll post a proper review when I’m done with it.

May we all continue to weather the winter gracefully! I hope today that you’ll fix yourself some tea and create space to just be.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mix n' Match Meatless Mexican-Inspired Meals

(A bit too much alliteration in the title?)

At our house, we eat a lot of burritos. A lot. We consider them the perfect food: cheap, quick, easily vegetarian, and made with items we almost always have on hand. I set out to make a list of the versions of Mexican-inspired meals we usually eat (burritos, quesadillas, tacos, nachos, enchiladas, fajitas, etc.), but the list soon became unwieldy. So instead, here is a mix-and-match recipe generator, based on some of my favorite combinations. It’s like going to Qdoba or Chipotle, except cheap. (These are all vegetarian or pescatarian, so if you add meat the options get even more diverse.)

Lettuce, refried beans, chili, cheddar, guac, sour cream, Cholula
Choose a base:
Flour or corn tortillas
Taco shells
Tortilla chips
Brown or white rice
Shredded lettuce
Cabbage or other hardy green, steamed

Choose a filling:
Refried beans, cheddar cheese, chopped jalapenos
Refried beans, avocado mashed with lime juice, salt, pepper, and chile powder
Cheese and chile powder
Beans, sauteed greens, diced tomato or salsa and a fried egg
Beans, cheese, peppers, and mole sauce
Beans, cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream
Beans with sauteed slices of onion and pepper
Sauteed kale or chard with garlic, black beans, and tomatoes
Chili, slightly drained
Black beans, roasted sweet potatoes, and avocado
Black-eyed peas, roasted sweet potatoes, sauteed greens, lime juice, hot sauce
Tuna, salsa (drained), and cheddar
Shredded fish, shredded cabbage, hot sauce

Refried beans, cheddar, pickled jalapenos, habanero sauce
Choose toppings:
Sour cream
More cheese
Hot sauce
Chile powder, cumin, salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder
Chopped onions
Chopped tomatoes

I like to cook burritos and quesadillas on my panini maker. Toaster ovens work well for most everything else (or a regular oven). If you can only heat up something in the microwave (or the stove), only heat the filling, and warm up the tortillas on a dry pan for several seconds.

What are your favorite combinations?


Thursday, January 19, 2017

What I've Been Reading: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

After years of hearing real foodies revere Michael Pollan’s name, I finally decided to pick up one of his books. I had resisted for a long time; maybe it’s the hipster in me that doesn’t want to jump on popular bandwagons, or maybe it’s the fact that so many real foodies use CAPITAL LETTERS in conjunction with discussing Pollan’s books, during which they warn me about all those ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS that Michael Pollan says are so bad for you and by the way the “cellulose” in parmesan is actually SAWDUST AND I AM USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS TO TRY TO SCARE YOU INTO THINKING THAT THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER.

So I must admit, I expected Michael Pollan to be a bit like the capital-letter-using bloggers: inflammatory, overly nostalgic, and not particularly scientific. I was wrong.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals is one of the most fascinating and challenging books I’ve ever read. Pollan’s writing is vivid, thoroughly researched, full of breadth and depth, and quite entertaining. Also, he doesn’t use caps lock at all.

The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” refers to a struggle unique to animals that can eat a wide variety of foods: on one hand, they are resilient and can survive in many different situations. On the other, they have to expend an enormous amount of brain space to figure out what to eat and whether or not it will poison them. Pollan argues that throughout most of history, humans have had established cultures of food to help them avoid the omnivore’s dilemma. But with the modern-day jumble of new foods and food substances and a lack of food culture (especially in the US), the omnivore’s dilemma is back, stronger than ever.

So, how do we decide what to eat? The book sets out to answer the question by delving into the structure of three distinct food systems: conventional processed food, organic and alternative food, and wild foods. 

The first several chapters are about corn, the basis of all modern convenience food. It discusses such questions as, “Why on earth do we grow so much corn? Why is corn in absolutely everything? Why can conventional farmers only make money by growing increasingly large amounts of corn?” It shows the how and why of industrial agriculture in a vivid way. 

This section— discussing food politics, government policy, and animal cruelty, can be hard to read at times because it’s exposing a part of the food chain that I have been consciously ignoring for many years. I can’t look at a McDonald’s hamburger the same way again. I don’t see a cheap beef patty, I see a water-guzzling cow raised in California during a water crisis, shipped to a feedlot where it’s fed an unnatural diet simply because there’s a surplus of corn, slaughtered with a ramrod in its forehead and pulverized by machines that are impossible to keep clean. It’s difficult to keep looking at these threads that wind through so many deeply broken systems— much less understand what my place is in reforming them— but if I want what’s on my plate to align with my values, I can’t look away.

The second section is structured around Pollan’s experience volunteering for a week at Polyface Farms, run by local-foods farmer Joel Salatin. Pollan describes the science of rotated grazing, symbiotic pasturing, and local food systems, as well as narrating the experience of slaughtering/butchering chickens. He also discusses the recent wave of industrial organic agriculture— an oxymoron at heart— and its complexities, vs. a local, small-scale system. He doesn’t present easy answers, encouraging the readers to ask questions of their own.

The third section talks about his adventures in trying to make a meal entirely from food that he hunted, gathered, or grew himself. His description of hunting wild pig, searching for mushrooms, and trying (unsuccessfully) to distill salt are all fascinating. He discusses humans’ original diet, the paleolithic origins of most of our food cravings for sugar and fat. (And no, he doesn’t advocate the paleo diet— he wisely points out that there is no way to sustain a population of any size on hunting and gathering.)

Although the dust jacket would lead you to believe that he finishes the book with clear answers about how and what we should eat, that’s not the case. He presents evidence and editorial, tells stories and discusses his own struggles, but he ultimately shows that the omnivore’s dilemma is just that— a dilemma. But for anyone trying to work through this tangle of questions for themselves, Pollan’s book is a great place to start.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Big-Screen TVs and My Fantasy Self

In the middle of December, Zach, Francis and I pooled our money to buy a big-screen TV. It currently sits in our living room, dominating a wall, propped atop two plastic storage bins. 

For a while, I hated it.

I resisted buying it in the first place, allegedly due to concerns about money. Zach pointed out that his Walmart holiday discount coupled with Francis’s offer to pay half made it very affordable (both in general and for us specifically). We watch TV shows pretty frequently, Francis loves Netflix, and Zach wanted to play the video games he loved as a teen. Inasmuch as an entertainment object can be practical, it definitely was.

Still I resisted. When we bought it, I felt self-conscious having a huge TV in our shopping cart. When we set it up, I retreated to my room to pretend that it didn’t exist. When we watched our first show on it, I felt tense the whole time.

Why on earth would I react to an inanimate object with such revulsion?

The answer, in short, is pride.

I didn’t want a big-screen TV because in my mind, only materialistic people buy a big-screen TV, and I am most definitely not materialistic, darn it! Yes, this means that in my life I have been automatically judging anyone who owns a big-ticket item like this, and was afraid of other people applying this judgement to me. Talk about one of those “greater self awareness” moments. It’s part of my constant struggle to avoid finding my identity in the act of not having things.

There are countless big-ticket purchases that don’t seem materialistic to me— our canoe, Zach’s bike, a trip to Pennsylvania— even though they are more expensive by orders of magnitude. But I had trouble with this purchase because it bumped up against my fantasy self, a strange version of how I want reality to be: and in that reality, Lisa and Zach do not own a TV because they are too busy taking walks and playing piano and doing meaningful things with their time, every night, always.

One night I sat for a while and watched Zach play Call of Duty: Black Ops with his two brothers, the three of them rapt as they guided their avatars around the map, alternately yelling at each other and laughing maniacally.

The next night, Zach and Francis and I squished together on the couch, munching on snacks, and watched Frasier together on Netflix. I love the sound of Zach’s laughter.

One night Zach and I spent hours playing Beatles Rock Band, singing into the microphones and trying to get the notes perfect so we could win a “Double Fab” score.

Gradually, I began to let go of the fantasy, and embrace the reality.

Yes, some nights Zach bakes a loaf of artisan bread while I compose songs on the piano, and afterward we take a walk and stop by to chat with my family.

Other nights we sit and veg out in front of the TV.

This is our reality. This is okay. This is nothing to judge myself for, and certainly nothing to judge other people for.

As is the case with so many life lessons over the past few months, the goal is the same: let go. Let go of the pride, the judgement, the fantasy world. 

And belt out those notes. I have a lot of Double Fabs left to catch.