An Early Resolution

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Last night I wrote a rant against disposable coffee cups, aka to-go cups. I didn’t post it this morning because I didn’t feel good about it. It was too negative, and worse, I was projecting. My rant went into some detail about the fraudulent idea of “disposability”, and how this idea degraded both our environment and our culture.

And this is true. A to-go cup is not particularly recyclable, despite its pretenses. Many (most?) communities don’t find it worthwhile to recycle dirty paper cups. And by culture, I mean that is far more civil, not to mention communal, to share beverages from a common pot. To sit together and drink, instead of run and gulp alone. I said that is important to share a communal drink, leaving aside your own preferences for this happy wholeness and communality– i.e. your choices comes down to “cream or sugar?” rather than a whole menu blackboard full of incremental and ultimately insignificant customization options. I find that in the case of coffee, individualism is a lonely business.

At any rate, I realized I was spending too much time on my high horse (her name is Princess and she has a pink mane) when I am a frequent enough user of disposable cups. True, I don’t work in the office, so I’m not lining up at Starbuck’s twice a day, and I often carry a travel mug, but I don’t say no to hot beverages when I’m at meetings and gatherings, or when I’m on the road, and these almost always come in disposable cups.

If I try to imagine how many disposable cups I’ve used in my life–say the earth (justly) vomited them all back at my feet–how high would the pile be? As big as my house?

So I’m making a resolution. Instead of berating others, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on to-go cups–all disposable cups for both hot and cold drinks, actually, because why not? I banned plastic water bottles from my life long ago. Why it took so long for me to eschew the cups, I don’t know. I guess I was always able to mutter, “Well, at least they’re paper.” Denial is a beautiful thing! But it’s time to face facts. They’re just as bad as the bottles.

Thus the resolution: no more disposable cups personally, and I also vow to help groups/organizations I belong to wean themselves from disposables, even if that means me doing a lot of dishes in random bathroom sinks. Oh yes, I’m going to be that person.

One hopeful note: in researching I discovered that use of personal mugs at Starbucks  is up by 22% in one year:

In 2013 customers brought their own tumblers into our stores 46.9 million times, up from 35.8 million in 2012, saving more than 1.4 million pounds of paper from landfills. As more customers brought in their personal tumblers over the previous year, the percentage of customers choosing reusable mugs saw a 22% increase over the prior year from 1.5% to 1.84%.  (Starbucks blog)

Okay, so it’s not even 2% of their customers, but those few kept 1.4 million pounds of paper from the landfill, and that’s significant. Individual choices do matter.

A few more thoughts:

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To-go cups c. 1963, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. See? Not so hard.

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Bitter intelligence agents share a nice pot of tea. Also from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. (I just watched it, so I noticed the cups.)

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A Tea Lady in Britain keeps the war workers well-caffeinated, without the use of disposables.

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This is so common, and yet so very unappealing. The plastic stir sticks! The creamers! Seriously, does anyone approach this situation with any more enthusiasm than you would a port-a-potty when you really have to go? Meaning, it’s there to fulfill a basic need, not to give anyone joy. Photo credit Colin Harris

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Guess how old this coffee mug is. Guess. This mug was made in China 4000 to 4500 years ago. Humans have appreciated a good brew in a good mug for a long time. Let’s get back to that.

Talking About the Weather

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We have an informal rule around the Root Simple offices: never talk about the weather. Why? Most of our readers are not local and the weather here in Los Angeles is boring and predictable. Usually it’s sunny and mild.

Severe drought makes our weather newsworthy. California grows a lot of food. In an essay about talking about the weather, Samuel Johnson reminds us that “it is the present state of the skies and of the earth, on which plenty and famine are suspended, on which millions depend for the necessaries of life.”

Due to the increasing weirdness of our weather I nervously check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecasts with greater frequency than I used to. You would think that those NOAA forecasts would be devoid of humor. You would be wrong. As befits anyone who has to wrestle with a complex system, NOAA’s writings have a personal voice, especially when you click on the “Forecast Discussion” link to read a kind of raw discussion between NOAA scientists. Here’s a recent all-caps missive from a NOAA forecast discussion:

WOULD LOVE TO REPORT THAT THE LONG RANGE MDLS HAVE COME INTO GOOD AGREEMENT AND THAT THERE IS SOME SORT OF CONFIDENCE IN THE LONG TERM FORECAST. THAT…HOWEVER…IS NOT THE CASE. EC TOOK A TURN FOR THE WEIRD AND DELAYS THE STORM TO TUESDAY. GFS SEEMS A LITTLE SLOWER TOO. SO RIGHT NOW FEEL PRETTY CONFIDENT THAT RAIN CHANCES WILL BE LIMITS TO THE CENTRAL COAST ON SUNDAY. RAIN MIGHT DEVELOP MONDAY OR IT MIGHT HOLD OFF UNTIL TUESDAY OR IF THE NEW EC IS CORRECT TUESDAY NIGHT. REALLY GOING TO HAVE TO MAKE LIKE RAY GUY AND PUNT THIS FCST INTO TOMORROW AND HOPE FOR SOME KIND OF AGREEMENT. FOR NOW JUST CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY THAT MONDAY AND/OR TUESDAY WILL BE WET. BOTH EC AND GFS CONTINUE TO ADVERTISE A 6 HOUR PERIOD OF DECENT RAIN JUST NO IDEA WHEN.

Not sure what “MAKE LIKE RAY GUY” means. Maybe it’s a typo? “Rain Guy” maybe? And I haven’t figured out the acronyms yet, but I love that the “EC TOOK A TURN FOR THE WEIRD.”

Dr. Johnson’s essay ends with a plea to take a stoic approach to unpredictable forces like the weather, “Every man, however he may distrust himself in the extremes of good or evil, might at least struggle against the tyranny of the climate, and refuse to enslave his virtue or his reasons to the most variable of all variations, the change of the weather.” Given that the weather here over the past few years has been oppressively hot, it may be time to start sewing up that caftan.

In the interest of breaking the Root Simple taboo about weather talk, where are you and what’s the weather like?

Three lessons about life

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I’m home with a cold while Erik is off getting himself all worked into a tizzy at the state beekeeping convention.

In my couch-potato-ing, I ran across this delicate piece of wisdom while watching a video of a lecture by Matthew Fox. During the lecture, he tells the story of how he saw the poet Mary Oliver at a reading in San Francisco. At that time, she was 84 years old and she said to the crowd (as paraphrased by Fox), “I’m getting old and I want to leave you young people these three lessons I’ve learned about life. Everything else is details.”:

  1. Pay Attention
  2. Be Astonished
  3. Share your astonishment

“Interstellar”: Leaving the farm for the stars

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Erik: Every once in awhile I like to see a big budget Hollywood movie, especially when I think it might be a window into the cultural episteme. I had a hunch Interstellar might touch on some themes related to this blog so I suggested we go.

Kelly: And I went for the popcorn.

Erik: I wasn’t disappointed, at least with the epistemological bits.  The movie itself was a mess.

Kelly: You and your big words. We should tell people who don’t know that this is a science fiction film set in a near-ish future, in the wake of Something Bad happening which causes massive depopulation of the Earth. I think the food supply failed.

Now, everyone left is a farmer, and working hard to keep failing monocrops going. We seem to be living on an all-corn diet. There are no animals to be seen, anywhere. Not even a cat. I’m assuming we ate them. There seems to be plenty of gas left, perhaps because there are so few people. At any rate, things aren’t good–there are constant dust storms and disease threatening the crops. It seems that humanity isn’t out of hot water quite yet.  And our hero, Cooper, who is a ex-NASA pilot forced to play farmer, discovers that NASA still exists, in skeletal form, in an underground bunker. (For Angelinos: The NASA bunker is the Bonaventure Hotel!!!!)  From there the plot turns to “How can we get all of us off this sorry rock before humanity expires?” aka “Space will save us.”

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Kelly’s photo of the Bonaventure Hotel: the set for underground NASA.

Erik: Two more big words for you: eschatological panic. To me that’s what the movie is about. That panic is intertwined with, as you note, a profound disrespect for Mother Earth. We screwed up the source of all life, but thankfully we can shoot ourselves up into heaven (through the Bonaventure!). Anyone who thinks otherwise (like the school bureaucrats depicted in an early parent/teacher meeting scene) are cranks.

Kelly:  I think we should spell out that scene with the teachers which Erik is referring to, because it is important to what I’ll have to say later.  In this scene, the hero/pilot, Cooper, goes to a parent teacher conference where his son’s high-school teacher blithely states that the Apollo landings were all a brilliant CIA hoax designed to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. She believes this as absolute truth, and shows him that it is written into all the revised textbooks. Cooper is horrified. Somehow he has missed the re-education program that came after the big die-off.

This is important to me because it is a good example of the typical, lazy — and typically lazy– thinking about science and nature and philosophy which goes on in popular culture. There is a central narrative which tells us that science will save us, and that science must be protected at all costs from backward thinking nutjobs–whether these be religious zealots or brain dead bureaucrats.

In the world of Interstellar it seems a new sort of political correctness has been developed which privileges some very narrow band of ag studies over all other kinds of learning, and downplays the achievements of science in the past. There are hints that this may be because the failures of science are what got them into their predicament to begin with– this is not clear.

But what is clear is that the only hope for humanity, both physically and spiritually, is abandoning the planet.  We see this played out in Cooper’s adult children: one is a farmer, one is a scientist. The farmer is blind, blind even to the suffering of his own family, while the scientist literally saves mankind.

This dualistic set-up–Science vs. Farming or really, as the story plays out, Science vs. Earth is a very bad model, yet it is the one we are presented with over and over again. You’ve heard the quote attributed to Einstein that says something along the lines of “We’re not going to solve our problems by using the same thinking we used to get into trouble”?  I feel like we are swimming deep in those problematic waters, and this false duality is an example of it.

Erik: Interstellar, like most Hollywood movies, takes the techo-utopian side of that dualism. So does Richard Branson with his plans to sell expensive eschatological roller coaster rides. On the other side of that dualism you have pseudo-science and a kind of rainbows and unicorns denial of the physical plane.

Two things really bug me about Interstellar: first it’s the ultimate expression of suburban flight. We screwed things up here, but thankfully a wormhole has opened and we can (spoiler alert) repopulate a new planet that looks like Joshua Tree. It’s dry but there’s some great rock climbing!

Secondly Interstellar’s denial of the sanctity and beauty of Earth. And, I want to be clear that I’m not misanthropic: I believe in human civilization. I’m saying that there is something special about this planet and that it is our place in the universe. And, practically speaking, the rest of this solar system is inhospitable to life and the stars are so remote we’ll never reach them. We really need to tell different stories than this one.

Kelly: Yup. And to be clear, neither of us is anti-science — we just want to look a little more closely at the stories we tell ourselves in this culture.

For instance, why can’t we see a story which tells about people rebuilding after the Bad Thing happens, and being happier than they were before?

Instead, the story is always apocalyptic. In Interstellar they make passing reference to the greed and blindness of the before-times, but the present reality for the survivors is grim. Everyone is “stuck on the farm” and Cooper’s farm house needs a paint job real bad and there’s not much to do except watch for dust storms. Leaving the planet becomes our manifest destiny.  As Cooper says at one point, “I was born on Earth–I wasn’t meant to die here.”

Here’s a different story. In the wake of the bad times, people awaken to their true humanity? What if we let go of materialism and greed  and fear and live in more cohesive communities? We develop a positive, living spirituality and a deep bond with nature,  to which we are now devoted to healing?

What if we celebrated the role of the caretaker as much as we do the explorer?

I know, I know, that would be a boring movie because it would have no spaceships or explosions.

Erik: I can think of some positive examples from science fiction with both spaceship and explosions. First, Frank Herbert’s Dune which values human abilities over machines. Then there’s Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, among other ideas, explores what happens when we become detached from nature. And in some ways Gravity is the inverse of Interstellar. Gravity celebrates humanity and culture (Remember the radio conversation? See the short the director’s son made about the other side of that conversation with the Inuit man–very worth watching) with a plot about how inhospitable space actually is and how good it is to be standing on the living earth.

Kelly:  All true. But my obsession right now is not with SciFi but with real life. I’m tired of our culture’s hostile and dismissive attitude toward nature. I’m more than tired of narratives which have already given up on nature. This includes the “Let’s get off this rock” narrative of this movie, but it also includes the “Don’t worry, the Rapture is coming” narrative and the “It’s too late to do anything, the planet is doomed anyway” narrative and the related “Humans are doomed for X Y or Z reason and the planet will be glad to see us go” and the most pernicious narrative of all, “It won’t happen in my lifetime, so why should I care?”

I want new narratives. We deserve more. Our children deserve more. Our planet deserves more.

Is the Detroit Urban Farm Revolution Over?

David and Sky Brown’s house.

It appears that a young couple, David and Sky Brown, who bought a $2,000 house in Detroit last May ran afoul of an Animal Control officer on Wednesday. The couple’s goats and chickens were seized over the tearful pleas of their owners. There’s more on the story here. The Browns have asked for help on their blog.

If any Detroit area readers know more about this story please leave a comment.

Update: there’s a petition.

Leaf Blower Lobbyists

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At the risk of becoming an anti-leaf blower blog, I wanted to follow up on one of Emily Green’s points in the podcast I posted yesterday. Leaf blowers do indeed have lobbyists who work out of a swanky office near Washington D.C.: the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI).

If your city tries to enact a ban on leaf blowers the OPEI will orchestrate a campaign to stop the measure. I’m not against outdoor tools (chainsaws, in the right hands, are very useful). But landscapes that depend on and are shaped by machines need to go. And let’s sweep away the leaf blower lobbyists while we’re at it.

This reminds me of the work of an artist friend of mine, Steve Rowell, who has a project called Parallelograms that maps the physical landscape and architecture of lobbying that surrounds this nation’s capitol. So Steve, you can add the OPEI offices to your list . . .

Behind the Scenes at Root Simple is a World of Big Pumpkins, Pomegranate Catapults and Man Crates

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In case you were wondering what the Root Simple offices look like, I included the image above. On the left is our blogging control panel. In the center you can see Kelly and I overseeing our team of Thoughtstyling™ testers. To the right is our garden.

Our main task each day is monitoring the incoming stream of press releases and spam comments. In the interest of giving you a behind the scenes glimpse into the thrilling life of a blogger, I thought I’d reproduce some of the better press releases verbatim, just like real journalists do.

HALF MOON BAY’S WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF MONSTER GOURDS COMING UP OCTOBER 13
$30,000 MEGA-PRIZE OFFERED FOR NEW WORLD RECORD PUMPKIN

HALF MOON BAY, CALIFORNIA (October 1, 2014) –– Will this be the year the world pumpkin heavyweight record is squashed in Half Moon Bay, California? The intrigue is building as Superstar Gourd Growing Greats and their astonishing, mind-boggling, Volkswagen-sized orange orbs gather on the morning of Monday, October 13 for the 41st Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off –– in the World Pumpkin Capital of Half Moon Bay, California –– the kick-off to Half Moon Bay’s world-famous Art & Pumpkin Festival which takes place October 18-19. . . . Using forklifts and harnesses, the monster gourds will be carefully placed on a 5-ton capacity digital scale under the watchful eye of officials from the San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office of Weights, Sealers, and Measures.

If only we were closer and could hang out in the green room with those Office of Weights, Sealers, and Measures officials. And does “intrigue” imply that these same officials can be persuaded with a cash donation? Can monster pumpkin enthusiasts have people killed?

Madera hosts 4th annual Madera Pomegranate Festival

Madera, CA. – In Madera, the Heart of Pomegranate Country, preparations are well underway for the fourth annual Madera Pomegranate Festival, which takes place Saturday, November 1, 2014, at Madera Municipal Airport. The event is organized by the Madera Tourism Alliance, a committee of the Madera Chamber of Commerce.

“On behalf of the Madera Chamber, I would like to invite everyone to come out and join us for this fun-filled event,” Eugene Bell, Chairman of the Board of Directors, stated. “The Tourism Alliance Committee and Chamber staff are working hard to bring another great event to our community this year.”

A favorite part of the lineup according to event producers is the Pomegranate Grenade Launch. Dreamed up by the committee and brothers Brian and Nick Davis of Twin Pomegranates Winery, the Pomegranate Grenade Launch is a massive slingshot that launches pomegranates at a target some distance away.

Organizers say Madera Municipal Airport provides ample space for vendors and displays. That, along with ample parking for attendees, make the airport an ideal location for this annual event. “The available space and the City’s help in making the event happen really creates the perfect environment for the Pomegranate Festival,” Debi Bray, president and CEO of the Madera Chamber of Commerce says.

Returning to this year’s lineup is a display for various aircraft as well as skydivers from Madera Parachute Center.

New to this year’s festival will be a children’s stage featuring local dance, karate and other talents from our young Maderans, a Jelly Belly attraction with samples and games and a Fossil Dig hosted by the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County.  Other attractions include a presentation from the Fresno Chaffee Zoomobile, art classes from the Madera County Arts Council, kids’ games from the Madera Parks Department, numerous cooking demos from local chefs, live music by the Marie Wilson Band, plus everything pomegranate.

“We’ll have vendors selling the fruit itself, plus pomegranate trees, pomegranate-scented candles, jellies and anything else you could think of involving pomegranate, and probably some things you didn’t know could incorporate the fruit,” Bray mentions.

Will they aim the pomegranate trébuchet at the skydivers?  Or does the Geneva Convention prohibit that?

Hello Kelly and Erik!

My name is Alexandra, and I’m the community manager for Man Crates. We’re a new company that ships awesome gifts for men in custom wooden crates that he has to open with a crowbar! At Man Crates, it is our mission to end the difficulties that have long been associated with buying gifts for men. I’m emailing you because I think you would be a perfect fit for our “ManCave Makeover” campaign.

The man cave… a ritualistic spot where men retreat to in order to watch football with friends, spill beer, shout at the TV, and tell the same 8 stories over and over again. Man caves come in all sorts of interesting shapes and spaces, be it in a basement, a garage or the classic shed. However, as original as these spaces are, when it comes to decor they tend to all look the same. A cheap neon beer sign (or beer mirror), a dart board and of course a mini fridge. I don’t like to use the word dull but I suppose they are called caves for a reason!

We are looking for bloggers like yourself to help us end these man cave decorating woes by creating a post highlighting some items you would gift to a guy who is looking to decorate his new man cave. Replace that bar cart with a fancy new whiskey set, change the neon sign to hanging lamp, and for goodness sakes buy a new arm chair!

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, let me know and I can send over more details.

Just in time, I completed my own ManCave Makeover:

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I can hardly wait to crowbar open that crate and launch a few pomegranate grenades.

Stoicism Today

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We’re honored to have an essay in a new book, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings.

From Stoic ethics to emotions, from Stoic mayors and mindfulness to practical philosophy, parenting, psychotherapy and prisons, from Star Trek and Socrates to Stoic lawyers, literature and living in general, this book brings together a wide-ranging collection of reflections on living the Stoic life today. You’ll read advice on coping with adversity, reflections on happiness and the good life and powerful personal testimonies of putting Stoicism into practise. But you’ll also read about the links between Stoicism and psychotherapy, Stoicism and mindfulness meditation and the unexpected places Stoicism can pop up in modern culture. This book will be of interest to both academics and non-academics alike and is about the varied ways in which the 2,300 year old philosophy as a way of life remains relevant to the concerns and needs of the present day.

The book is available as a paperback and Kindle e-book.

The Stoicism Today website also has a free handbook and online course, well worth checking out.