Friday, December 28, 2012

xmas wrap up

I had this fab plan to wrap all of our xmas presents in newspaper this year.  Wouldn't it be great? I reveled in how we'd avoid that mountain of wasteful shiny, non recyclable paper that always depresses me so much in late December. 

I announced my plan with unbridled enthusiasm, as if I were declaring "double presents for everyone!" But immediately, I sensed dissension in the ranks. 

Nobody actually said anything, but Steve wrapped A LOT of presents before I could get to them.  He scampered around like a squirrel before winter, stashing everything under cover of one very under average Santa-faced green paper that we had leftover from last year. I didn't complain. I understood that all that paper was headed for the dump anyway, no matter what path it took, so why not let it detour under our tree?

Steve wasn't the only dissenter.  Gareth, in typical teen detachment, didn't even know about my plan until Christmas eve when he reacted with a simple and somewhat disdainful, "What?!"

Olivia, on the other hand, knew from the beginning, and like her father, held her tongue.  When faced with the curled and oblong remnants of paper discarded by her father, she quietly took a piece of newspaper from the pile I had so happily provided.  Can you see me? I'm sitting with hands folded, watching with beaming anticipation to see what she'll create.  As I looked on expectantly, she rolled her father's new Redskins hat up in grey print, scribbled a haphazard purple heart on one side, then tossed the mediocre results carelessly under the tree.

Did I sense an element of resentment there?

Sometimes I really feel like the Grinch, tap tap tapping my long and greedy nails on the table top as I think up new ways to rob my innocent little Whos of their cherished Christmas traditions.  I can hear Olivia-Lou-who now, "Mommy why, why are you taking our wrapping paper, WHY?"

Why?  Well, I just cannot take things at their surface value alone.  I like this about myself, but I know that it sometimes makes me a really annoying person to be around.  I regularly ruin movies while we're still in the middle of watching them, and you know I'm a nightmare on a shopping trip.  It doesn't stop there.  For example: we saw a lit up polar bear in someone's yard the other day. It looked something like this one:

Olivia said, "Awww.  How cute!  Look at the polar bear!" 

Since it was Christmas eve, I figured it was my turn to hold my tongue, but truth be told, I didn't see "cute," I saw this:

And I thought: "Wait.  We're burning fossil fuels to light up a plastic polar bear at a time when the burning of fossil fuels has caused warming dramatic enough to have drowned baby polar bears at a rate of approximately 45% because the sea ice that allows them to rest and feed during long swims has melted due to the burning of carbon-emitting fossil fuels used to (we're coming around full circle here) light up things like this stupid plastic polar bear that, instead of speaking to us about how to save the baby bears, delivers a 'Merry Christmas!' message during a holiday season that's supposed to be centered around the hope of new birth?" 

Yes, I can't stop this paradoxical rant from prattling around in my head as I drive with my family over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house for dinner on Christmas eve.  No matter how you light him up, a polar bear is a polar bear, and I just cannot turn that off. 

So sure, flashy presents look beautiful and festive under the tree.  But to see that, and only that, you have to ignore the trashy truth beneath: that most wrapping paper cannot be recycled, that half of the paper Americans use in a year goes to wrapping gifts, and that household waste increases by 25% between Thanksgiving and New Years with trash from wrapping, packaging and shopping bags, food waste, bows and ribbons creating 1 million extra tons of trash per week (source).   The Carnegie Mellon Green Practices Initiative claims that "if every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields."

Forty-five thousand football fields? You had me at "one." 

Since I cannot unlearn stuff like that, I persisted with Grinching up Christmas for my poor little Who family.  I hoped that perhaps I would inspire them with my "beautiful" recyclable creations. 

I felt intent on my purpose, but I didn't expect to have so much fun carrying it out.  I've said before that I break into a sweat at the word "craft," and nothing can clear me out of a room faster than the three letters DIY.  In a doltish sort of way, however, I always enjoyed coloring as a child.  How lucky that wrapping with newspaper turned out to be just that sort of job--but with the added interest of words

Since an article about drone strikes doesn't make good packaging, I found myself searching the Style section and the Sports page for fun headlines and pictures, then coloring them in for what my mother would call, "a little zing." 

Ensconced in our bedroom on the afternoon of Christmas eve, I lost myself in the task.  Steve came looking for me at least an hour later and found me sitting on the bed like a child, surrounded by cut up newspapers, a mountain of broken crayons, and an array of green and red markers.  I actually felt embarrassed.

"What have you been doing in here?" he asked with exasperation.

"Coloring," I said sheepishly, putting down my crayon.

I'm no artist, but I was proud of my creations anyway.  And since the fam knew I worked so hard on them, no one complained about the newspaper under the tree. I think (hope) they appreciated the effort, if not the cause.

Some results:

this gift for steve featured a Redskin returning a ball for a touch down.
no, i have no idea who he is, but steve knew, which is all that mattered.

the front of the post featured
 this mystical wintry picture of reindeer pulling a sled.
i admit i didn't read the article.  i hope it wasn't about something
dreadful like disappearing ice

an advertisement
offered a rare full page of solid red - a gold mine!
(i glued the picture of notes & shopping bags to the front for Olivia, our musician)

this picture of blinds made for some cool horizontal lines
on this masculine package for Gareth - and the ad even said "warm wishes"
Other packages featured Gareth's favorite Maryland Terps scoring a basket, a sports headline about "getting the ball rolling" on a package that contained juggling balls, and a color picture of a sustainably powered house (appropriate, right?). 

the lot of them
In the end, as I began to grow tired, I slapped a random paper onto a gift for Olivia without really looking at the articles. When I turned it over, only two words of the bold-faced headline had wrapped around to the front: "gratitude" and "unite." I couldn't help myself: I took it as a sign. 

"Gratitude" - a reminder to be grateful for what we have, of course.  But since the word appeared just as I finished wrapping, I also took it as a thank you for my recycled wrapping job. 

And "Unite" -  the inspiration to write this post and ask others to unite in using recycled or reusable packaging for gifts.  I really don't know if we can save the polar bears, but I do know that together we can at least save 45,000 football fields worth of paper.  That has to be worth something.

And what of my tortured little Whos?  Of course you know that Christmas "CAME."  "Somehow or other, it came just the same!"

The holidays are winding down, but it's not too late to get started.  Here are some alternatives to wrapping paper we can experiment with throughout the year.

 - old maps
 - old newspapers/comics/magazines
 - recycled and/or recyclable wrapping paper
 - if you can sew, DIY cloth gift bags (thanks for the link thalassa!)
 - purchasable cloth gift bags/decorative boxes (I'll let you google it rather than tell you what to buy)
 - reusable tins
 - cloth ribbons and bows
 - twine
 - recycled gift wrap and bags that you salvage from gifts you are given

Feel free to share if you have other ideas!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

second hand christmas

Do you have to spend a lot of money on a present to make it meaningful?  I know the easy answer: of course not!  So let me rephrase: Do you have to spend any money on a gift to make it meaningful? And what if you got the gift second hand?  Does that fly?

Gareth asked for a rebounding soccer goal (a net that will bounce the ball back to you) this year.  We were so happy to have some kind of fun and concrete suggestion for him that departed from the typical gift card teensanity that dominates gift giving for kids these days.

Until we discovered that a good rebounding goal comes at a hefty price tag - from $250-$450.  Egad.  Who's having "fun" now? Sure there are cheaper ones, but this is a 15 year old monster soccer player who could probably rocket a ball through the walls of our house if he set his mind to it.  A cheap net wouldn't make it through the end of the year. 

Just for grins, Steve looked it up on Craig's list...and found a high quality net that we couldn't have afforded new, for free.  Needless to say, we jumped on it like black Friday shoppers at Wal-mart. 

But once the deed was done, we got to thinking:

Free?  Did spending $0 take away from the value of the gift? 

It didn't help that we knew we couldn't pull it off as new in a million years.  "Beautifully worn net, antiqued base with a patina of naturally aged rust, and a frame bent with the character childhood play" doesn't quite persuade.

Sure it'd be nice to have, but as a gift?

We didn't know.

It's regulation size, way sturdy and completely functional.  Also, Steve paid in thought and time what he didn't pay in dollars.  He found it, worked miracles to get the way-longer-than-a-car crossbar sort of into the van and sort of safe for the highway.  Then he took it to a handy friend who rebuilt part of the broken frame so that Steve could easily assemble it in the cold one afternoon when Gareth wasn't home.  When he finished, we hid it in the neighbor's yard for a week, then set it up in the wet and the dark at midnight on Christmas eve.  Steve even made a big "Merry Christmas" sign that he covered in tape to protect it from the drizzle until morning.  

Those are the things that count, right?

When we told Gareth to "please take out the compost" right in the middle of gift giving on Christmas morning, his shift from an outraged, "are you KIDDING me?!" to a dawning, "OH, you've hidden something in the back yard!" made the day.   

Honestly, I didn't have much trouble with this choice between giving a used expensive thing for free and not giving it at all.  But it got me to thinking about both our impulse to buy new when we give gifts and our tendency to measure the value of a gift in dollars.

Would we have given Gareth this recycled free gift if we could have afforded a new one?  I doubt it.  And here I was just lecturing to you about the story of stuff.  How disappointing!

Now that we've done it, however, I'd say we're far more likely to do it again.  Not only did we recycle something and save a lot of money, we added personality to the gift by avoiding the now-familiar digital shopping cart scenario.  This gift comes with the story of the find: how Steve had to beat out another taker to make the claim.  It also comes with a dramatic and heroic tale of repair: how our good friend first snapped the pole tragically in half before he magically created a new piece of pipe and saved our Christmas.  Hooray!

I know Steve, who revels in recounting tales of adversity and triumph, will regale us with these dramas for at least the life of the soccer goal.  While I'm sure we'll eventually roll our eyes in the telling, that's just part of the fun.

Oh - and did I mention that Gareth loves it?  He just shrugged off it's somewhat tattered look and pounded a ball into the corner of the far post. 

So as I'm fantasizing about thrift store shopping and regifting next year, I'm wondering, is a white elephant under the tree just another elephant in the room? or is it ok to give a recycled gift and a story instead of a shiny new gift and a receipt?

And if it's not OK, shouldn't we make it so?

Friday, December 21, 2012

solar lights: what the season can afford

image from
We bought ours from
They didn't have good pictures!

In my quest for a green Christmas, we bought solar powered lights for the house last month.  I'd never heard of them until a blogger friend, thalassa, suggested it last year in response to my post on a smaller christmas.

I really did not know what to expect from them.  They earned rave reviews the caliber of "they last all night long!" on Amazon, but I took that with a grain of salt.  As it turns out, I should have taken it with the whole shaker because I'd say they only last for about an hour or two a night.  If you want to stop by for some Christmas cheer, you better do so around dusk.  It's pretty much lights out after that!

I could complain and say they weren't worth the $70 we paid for them, but you know I'm not going to do that. 

First, how cool that we have solar panels (no matter how small) in our yard!  I feel so liberated by that.  Turning on lights without plugging them in feels a little like biking downtown without the fetters of a car.  I love that feeling of being unattached.  Plus, I so appreciate having this technology around for the kids.  We've taken something abstract and futuristic and made it tangible--possible--real.

Except for this pesky problem that they don't work very well. 


Here's the thing, however:  no one seems to be very disappointed by that.  Sure, it'd be nice if the lights gave us just an hour or two more, but we don't seem to want that badly enough to switch back to electric.

I don't know about the rest of the family, but our solar lights have grown on me in part because they aren't faulty.  They would work perfectly well if the sun wasn't so shy at this time of year.  It cloaks itself with a thick winter blanket of clouds and fog, leaving us out in the cold and dark at a time when we need it's warming rays the most.  It has only shown itself for one day since we put the lights up, and even then it turned its face bashfully toward the horizon the entire time. 

Such cowering would never happen mid-summer when the sun's lofty perch emboldens it to stare directly at us with a sometimes punishing gaze.  I know we would have no problem capturing that look and shining it back "all night long" if it were July. 

But it's not July.  And that, my friends, is one of the points of Christmas lights to begin with, isn't it?

December leads us, no matter what our faith, into darkness.  Think, in ancient times, how despairing people must have felt as the sun sunk lower and lower in the sky.   What better way to ward off this despair than with festivals of food and light?  From the yule log, to the menorah, to the star of Bethlehem, to the candles of Kwanzaa, we can find light at the center of faith traditions in December.  Festivals bring hope and cheer in the face of despair.  And there is reason to hope because, once you've come to the shortest day of the year, you know the next day will be longer.  In that sense, the solstice marks a corner of hope for everyone in December. 

To use solar lights as part of our celebration, however, presents us with a paradox.  We need the lights to cheer is in our winter darkness, but that darkness dims the lights.  On the surface, it doesn't have the makings of a great plan! 

Yet the lights inspire.  More than symbolic, they literally reflect the power and light of the sun back to us.  They can only give us what they've received, and in so doing, they manage to extend our shortest days for a few lovely hours before their flicker turns to fade.  In contrast, the ultra bright lights that do shine "all night long" feel almost obscene--like a display of excess during a time of scarcity. 

Earlier in the month, I envied those excessive displays, but over time, I've come to appreciate our meager showing for its seasonal rhythm and its lessatarian leanings.  It offers only what the season's light can afford. 

And we've discovered that's enough.

Monday, December 17, 2012

sandy hook: no words

I dropped Olivia off at her elementary school this morning, watched her walk tentatively through the front doors that usually find her bouncing, and sobbed.

I have not posted about the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School because there are no words.  Even as I moved through the motions of our weekend, I heard very little conversation about it.  It seems we are shrouded in a devastating, but quiet grief.

However, when Olivia's school counselor told me they would not be addressing this terrible tragedy, even with the sixth graders, at school today, I was surprised.  I got to thinking about the difference between quiet and silence.

Quiet feels like something given.  With it, we get time and space to absorb, reflect, mourn.    

Silence  feels like something imposed.  It is absolute and feels like denial.

Finding a balance between quiet and silence can be very difficult after such a tragedy.  As a nation, we need to turn inward, to heal in the quiet of our hearts and minds.  We also need to give the victims' families, and the residents of Newtown the quiet they need to grieve.  At the same time, however, we need to speak our condolences; they need to tell their stories, and we all need address pertinent topics such as gun control and mental health care.

We need to be quiet.  Be we can't be silent.

I don't always know how to do that. 

Over the weekend, kids across the country used social media to spread the word to dress today in either yellow and blue, the colors of Newtown High School, or green and white, the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I appreciated and admired this show of support and grief for its quiet, but also for its voice. 

On a day where I didn't know what to do because as a nation, we have failed to protect our children, what a bittersweet irony that it was the children who found a way through the day. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

the return of the cheeto and "the story of stuff"

Have you seen The Story of Stuff?  It's a must-see from 2007, so if you haven't, I'd say there's no time like the present! It's way more engaging than anything I might say, and you can always come back to finish reading another day (at least I hope you will!).


Daunted by the 21 minute time tag?  I'll sum it up (but watch it later!).  The gist:  we approach our need for "stuff" with a linear mindset.  That means we make it, use it, throw it away, and then repeat.  Each time we repeat, we extract new raw materials from the earth.  The problem:  using a linear process on a circular (finite) planet means we will eventually run out of both natural resources to make stuff and spaces to discard stuff. 

We know this already, right!?  I know for myself that watching something like The Story of Stuff gets me all fired up with purpose and urgency.  I start marching around, banging my drum of outrage, and ranting at the kids about change. 

Then I find out that while I was watching this 21 minute video, the dog missed her dinner and threw up on the carpet; Olivia didn't dress for a swim practice that started five minutes ago, and Gareth has been standing in front of his school for 10 minutes, wondering why I haven't picked him up from basketball. 

So I put down my drum and hop in my car (yes, burning fossil fuels with dog vomit still drying on the carpet--so much for green waste disposal).

It's so easy to lose our sense of urgency.  But guess what? The infinite creation of trash in a finite space means, in the crudest sense, that we are shitting where we eat. 

Why can't we keep that nasty reality up front and center? I think we all know the answer to that too:  the circle is too big.   When we put our trash by the curb, a truck lumbers up and hauls it away.  Out of sight, out of mind. 

I thought about this after throwing away a half-eaten bag of Cheetos that Gareth left on the counter the other day.  I begrudgingly humor his habit of walking to 7-11 for the junk food I refuse to buy, but did he really expect me to clean up his leftovers and save them neatly for another day? No siree.  I snatched up that offending package and made for the counter compost.  Just as the nuclear looking contents began to topple in with the apple peels and pistachio shells, however, I paused.

"What's in these things?" I wondered.  "And whatever it is, do I really want it in my compost?" 

You see, with the compost, we really feel the circle.  For whatever reason , the squash seeds that we put in there survive the year of bubbling and seething to sprout up in our garden (where we eventually spread our compost).   We eat that squash and throw the rinds and seeds back into the compost.  Circle!  We literally eat what we throw away!

We eat other stuff from my garden as well.  Check this out:

this one looks like it belongs in my post about "collard balls"

It's a horseradish root, not alien testicles from a Stephen King novel.  I made what I hope will be a year's worth of horseradish sauce out of it, and I admit, I take great pride in its Cheeto-free qualities. 

Yes, I know that my foolish son put those neon orange bits of puffed up styrofood directly into his mouth over the weekend.  That is his choice, however, not mine.  As I stood with the bag poised over my compost, I saw clearly that composting the Cheetos would invite "yellow 6" into my circle where it would fester and mingle with my smattering of squash, my "beautiful" horseradish, and my herbs.

Since composting the Cheetos felt only a small step away from eating them, I reverted to linear mode and dumped the rest with their bag into the trash. 

As if that would be better! 

The trashcan gave me room to pretend I had put the Cheetos (and their bag) out of my circle. 

But I had not. 

Realizing this, I took a good hard look in the kitchen trash.  I imagined that instead of disappearing at the curb, all that stuff would go into my yard.  I felt a little ill.  Seriously.  I challenge you to try it.  If you don't have a yard, then look into your trash and imagine it will go into your community common area (with everyone else's trash), or into your local park. 

Now imagine that you will also grow your food in that space.

Would we be inclined to buy a new shower curtan if we knew we'd have to throw the old moldy one into our backyard tomato patch?  Perhaps we'd check the internet for a method to clean the old one instead.  If we did, we'd discover that baking soda and vinegar work great!

And what about all that individually wrapped food?  Do we really want little 100-calorie snack packages poking up for eternity from our rows of beans?

As consumers, we have tremendous power.  Instead of buying new stuff, we can wear out what we have, refurbish and reuse what others have, and repair what is broken.  We have thrift stores, Ebay, Craig's List and Free-Cycle to buy and trade our old stuff.  And when we do shop for new, (especially at the grocery store), we can let packaging and biodegradability influence our decisions.  We can buy in bulk, carry reusable bags, bypass the plastic in the produce aisle, and support the efforts of companies that invest in green practices.

I know the kids are crying, the deadline is looming, and the dog is throwing up on the carpet.  But if we don't want to expire under the great irony that we were too busy with living to save ourselves, then we need to maintain our sense of urgency.  We need to look in the trash can for the return of the Cheeto and get fired up!
That is the circle that binds us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

the bear and the fly: a tale of xmas cards and newspapers

the kids in "the valley" with names and schools scrubbed out
to protect the innocent

Last year I wrote a post called Philosophy of a Smaller Christmas about how I wish we could all celebrate Christmas in a smaller, simpler, greener way.  The holidays are very earth centered for me, so I get very scroogy feeling when our celebration creates a lot of waste and trash.  

Last year, I laid out a wish list of things I’d like to see get smaller.  This year, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is. 

One of my suggestions was to cut our holiday card list by excluding local people who we see or talk to regularly.  I thought we would use less paper/stamps and mail truck energy while freeing up time to write personal notes to more distant friends.

I feel sort of embarrassed to admit we have 77 people on our holiday card list.  And it usually grows by a few every year. 

How did someone with one high school friend end up with 77 families on her holiday card list?  She has a lot of cousins and she married a very likable guy (not a bad thing).

I wonder if you think 77 is a lot?  I know other people who have well over 100.   I also know people who have 25. 

Could we have 25?  I went through our list and cut out all of our super local friends.  These are good friends who we see often.  They will understand when I explain that it’s all in the name of a tree. That got me to 67. 

Then I considered some real “cuts.” You know the folks: we’re never in touch, or we never seem to have the right address, or…it starts to feel not very holidayish to go on.  That got me 7 more names.  We were at 60. 

60 is not 25, but it also isn’t 77.  I reassured myself that it was OK because I also planned to order cards on recycled paper. 
Then all my grand plans were dashed when I discovered we had to order the cards in increments of 25.  I would have to get the list to 50, or we were back to 75. 

Well…have you figured out yet that Steve goes along with all of my green ideas to a point?  Think of him like a bear sleeping contentedly in his den, tolerating this fly that he let in years ago and hasn’t been able to get rid of since.  The fly is always buzzing around taking things away, making things smaller, getting into the honey jar, so to speak.

Sometimes the fly goes too far.

Cutting the holiday cards from 60 to 50 was one of those moments. 

Do you need to know the details of what transpired between the bear and the fly? Or do you just need to know that we ordered 75 cards. 


I’m feeling all pouty and frustrated and not green about this when Steve reminds me of something that happened earlier in the week.

We decided to cancel our paper.  I felt really terrible about this decision because I want to support our local journalists.  I want there to be a paper even if I don’t buy it (so selfish!).   Despite our reservations, however, we decided to do it because the thing is huge (with way more content than we read); it comes in a plastic bag; it operates as a gateway for inordinate amounts of advertising on wasteful glossy paper, and of course, we now get so much of our news online.

Canceling sounds so reasonable, but I tell you, it’s hard!!  When I went online to do the deed, I discovered something insidious about those newspaper guys.  They know that we’ve grown all sad and nostalgic about our ritualized way of wrestling those papers into submission every morning, so in a last ditch effort to save themselves, they make it harder for us to pull the trigger: they make us call.

I couldn’t do it.  Instead, I called Steve and told him: “I can’t do it.”  Relatively indifferent, the bear just twitched his ear, hoping the fly would go away.

Later, after the holiday card incident had occurred, the bear had a question.  “How come we can keep the 25lb newspaper that comes to our door every morning, but the biosphere will collapse if we send 25 extra Christmas cards this year?” 

“Oh.” Says the fly. 

So I got on the phone.  I hoped I would be able to navigate the automated system so that I could jump ship by simply pressing “2” in the quiet and shameful anonymity of my kitchen.  But when I selected the option for canceling, the nice robot told me to “wait for the next available service representative to assist you.”

Darn.  They were going to make me say it out loud.

When I told the nice lady on the other end that I wanted to cancel my subscription, she said, “Oh,” with her voice falling: “I’m very sorry to hear that.” 

Do they train them to do that? My stomach just dropped.  Showing my will of steel, I immediately compromised and agreed to a weekend subscription.  By the end of the conversation, I felt like we were old friends.

In the end, we traded 4 newspapers per week for 25 extra Christmas cards per year.

Miraculously, I think the bear, the fly and the earth will all have a very happy holiday.   It is the season of wonders after all.  J