Thursday, August 29, 2013

Things We Take for Granted

They've been paving the streets in my neighborhood. This is a welcome development, because riding a bike around here had started to become a bit like running an obstacle course what with all the potholes and cracks.

So today they were doing my street, and as I had my morning tea I watched them work outside my window. Holy Moly! That's quite an operation! I was amazed just by the sheer volume of physical material that it takes to pave a street. Just to cover one side of the street in front of my house took 4, yes FOUR giant truck loads of asphalt! 

Think about it... four loads of asphalt for the space in front of each house! And that doesn't even count the side streets that don't have any houses facing them. 

It sorta got me to thinking. What exactly is asphalt anyhow, and where does it come from? Well, according to Wikipedia it's a "...carefully refined residue from the distillation process of selected crude oils." Hmmmm... sobering thought, especially when you consider the reality of peak oil.

You know, when I think about my environmental footprint, my mind starts contemplating the resources I consume. How much gasoline, natural gas, electricity and water do I use? What resources were used in the creation and transport of the goods that I buy? How many trees did it take to build my house? But I don't tend to think about my share of our societal asphalt.

And that got me to thinking about all the other things that I take for granted. What about the cement in the sidewalks, alleys and bike paths?  How about all those telephone poles and wires, not to mention satellites that let me talk to CatMan on the phone several times per day? How about the pipes that carry water and gas to my home? What about the sewers that carry away my waste, and the storm sewers that drain our roads? The list goes on and on...

I once read that American society consumes such a vast quantity of resources, that even the carbon footprint of a homeless person here is beyond sustainable levels, simply by virtue of their share of the public resources. 

I'm not sure that I have any brilliant conclusions to offer on this topic, but it certainly has given me pause...

And I think I'm going to appreciate the smooth ride on those freshly paved streets, just a bit more than I otherwise would have!

Our Freshly Paved Street

So what other sorts of things do you think we take for granted in this society?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Zen of Riding Uphill

When I first started riding my bike again several years ago, the hardest part for me was dealing with the hills.

CatMan would tell me to just put it in a lower gear, but it didn't really seem to help. No matter what gear I was in, it just seemed like my legs would burn out as soon as I started climbing.

Then one day I had a bit of a revelation. I was riding up a steep hill, and for some reason there were a bunch of beetles crossing the bike path, and I didn't want to squash them. So instead of looking up at the top of the hill, I was looking down at the path to avoid the little critters.

I suddenly realized, that when I was looking up at the top of the hill that I had to climb, the task just seemed impossible. And no matter how hard I pedaled, it always felt like I wasn't going anywhere.

But when I looked down at the path, I could see my tires moving and watch as each block of cement rolled past. I could see that I actually was making progress, even though it might not be as fast as I wanted it to be.

It was a real epiphany of sorts. My hill problem wasn't really that I "just wasn't strong enough" to get to the top, the problem was that I was trying to get there all at once.

It sorta reminded me of something John Elway used to say. (Yes, I am a hopeless Bronco-maniac.) Elway used to say that one of the things that always got him in trouble was that he'd get too excited and try to win the whole game on the first play.

I think I've always had this problem. I'm not very patient, and when I can see the place that I want to get to, my first reaction is to get angry and frustrated that I'm not there yet. Then I try to will myself to get there all at once, and it just doesn't work that way.

In fact, when I was a little kid I was in great shape, and could run and play for hours on end without getting tired. But whenever we'd have races at school, like in field day or whatever, I'd always come in last.

It took many years, and one very observant friend to figure out what was going on. It turned out that I'd get so worked up about how I had to "run really fast" that I would actually hold my breath!

So, I've gotten a whole lot better at climbing hills recently, and ironically enough, I did it by slowing down and not trying so hard. Instead of gritting my teeth, holding my breath and pushing so hard that I'm burnt out after a minute or two, I'm learning to pace myself.

I have to tell myself to slow down, breathe, and settle in for a long climb. And whenever I start to feel like I'm not getting there quickly enough, I look down at my tires to remind myself that even though I may be moving slowly, I am still moving, and that's the important part!

I'm thinking that perhaps I should try to apply this lesson to other areas in my life!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Self Care is Not Selfish

OK... this is one of those posts that I'm writing because I figure maybe if I repeat it often enough it will sink into this thick skull of mine.

I haven't been taking terribly good care of myself lately. I fear the stress and uncertainty of having two sick kitties has been getting to me. Well, that plus a whole host of other stupid stuff...

Unfortunately, my response to stress isn't the healthiest. I tend to throw myself headlong into "fix everything" mode, which actually doesn't work too well when the situation you are trying to fix is completely out of your control.

But alas, this is a coping mechanism that I picked up very early in my childhood when my family fell apart at age 5 and the only person available to take care of me was, well... me. I guess somehow I decided that since nobody else was willing to take on any responsibility, it was all up to me.

Not surprisingly though, it's pretty hard for a 5 year old to fix the sort of things that needed fixing in my family. It did give me an illusion of control though, and it would appear that I instinctively head that direction whenever life throws me a few curveballs.

Of course, it never works. I exhaust myself trying to remedy situations that are really irremediable. Then I get angry... both angry that I'm in the situation in the first place and angry that I'm working myself to the bone trying to fix it.

Then I decide that since life has treated me so unfairly, I need to "treat myself" to something. This generally means that I start eating junk, staying up late, and drinking a few too many margaritas.

This of course makes me feel even more exhausted and overwhelmed, not to mention the headaches.... it's a vicious cycle!

So, I'm on a mission to take better care of myself... even if that means doing a bit less in the "fixing everything" department. And, in truth, the vast majority of my "fixing" is pure illusion anyway.

This means that I'm going to bed earlier. No more staying up until all hours just so I don't have to disturb a kitty to give him his medication. They're getting their meds when it's time for their meds, even if it means I have to wake them up to do it.

I've also decided that it's OK to allow myself to order most of my kitty necessities online instead of driving all over town each week to get what they need. I know that it's probably a bit less "eco friendly" and I'm not supporting the local business that I otherwise would be, but it's actually cheaper for me, and the sanity factor is HUGE. I even allowed myself to have the pharmacy deliver Sputnik's medication for $5 instead of driving across town to pick it up.

And I'm letting myself buy salad greens instead of trying to salvage the bug infested stuff from my garden. Maybe next year I'll find a way to keep the leaf miners off of my greens, but until then, I'm making it easier for myself to eat better.

And, last but not least, I've decided that I need to spend a bit less time cruising the blogosphere. It's not that I don't love all of my blogging buddies, but it gets to the point where it's just not healthy. Especially when I feel compelled to leave a comment on every post I read, just to "be supportive" even when I really don't have anything to say. But rest assured, I'm still out there even if I'm not leaving lengthy comments on all of your posts anymore.

So far, so good. I feel a LOT less stressed, angry and overwhelmed. And the truth is that I'm really not much good to my kitties or anyone else when I feel so crappy.

So here's to securing your own oxygen mask before you try to help anyone else.

So how about you? Do any of you ever feel like you need a reminder that putting yourself first now and then really is OK?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

In Defense of Messiness

I've gotta confess, sometimes reading the minimalist blogs gives me a bit of a complex. People post these pictures of their immaculate and orderly homes, and I can't help but feel a bit inferior.

It's not that I don't try, but let's just say that neatness has never really been one of my strengths.

But as I was perusing the interwebs this morning, I happened upon an article that gave me new perspective on the entire issue.

The article is about a study recently published in the Journal of Psychological Science where researchers found a link between messiness and creativity.

On some level this makes intuitive sense... you know, the creative genius has better things to do with his time than to worry about trivialities like tidiness.

But what I found most interesting was that they didn't just find a correlation between the two, they actually found that a messy environment stimulated out of the box thinking, while a neat and tidy environment tended to engender conformity and a need to "do the right thing."

Hmmmm... well, speaking as a person who has never really excelled at either order or conformity, I have to say that I find this idea refreshing.

I guess some part of me has always assumed that the neat and tidy crowd feels, well, neat and tidy inside. But the more I look at it, the more I question this assumption.

I mean, there have been times in my life when I have managed to create clean, uncluttered horizontal surfaces, but the truth is, surrounding myself with order didn't really make any of my internal chaos go away.

It did give me a bit of an illusion of control, but I'm not entirely sure that holding onto control is always a healthy thing.

When you really look at it, life is fundamentally an out of control experience. We're born, we live, and we die... and while there is much we can do to influence the direction of our lives, on some level we're really just along for the ride.

We get to choose what we do, but we don't get to choose what we feel or what things life throws at us.

The older I get, the more I realize that while we may get to control the rudders of our personal ships, the wind and the waves have a mind of their own.

And oftentimes having the ability to go with the flow, and the willingness to take a zig zag path will serve us much better than a hard fought battle against the tide.

So, perhaps my slovenly nature is not merely a symptom of hopeless inadequacy on my part after all. Maybe, just maybe there's a bit of a gift in there as well.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for having less stuff, and I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone go out and cultivate messiness for the sake of creativity. But I do think that perhaps we'd all be better served if we tried to make peace with our inner slobs.

Take That, neat freaks!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

July Grocery Challenge Review

Well folks, July was my "ethical foods" grocery challenge where I tried to see how difficult and/or expensive it would be to buy only foods that were either organic, local or salvage. I was hoping I could still stay within the "food stamp budget" ($137/month) but alas, I totally blew it and ended up spending $209.

I have to say that this was my most difficult challenge yet for a whole variety of reasons. And I do think that if numerous circumstances had been different I probably could have come a lot closer in terms of budget.

So here's the shakedown.

First and foremost, it was a hard month from the kitty-mom standpoint.

Sputnik's urinary symptoms came roaring back a few weeks after he had his antibiotic therapy back in June, so he had to be put back on Baytril for three weeks. He's tolerating it pretty well, and his symptoms are much improved, but that required several vet visits and it's one more medication to give each day.

Smoky continues to do better in terms of his edema (swelling) although he's still anemic and the doctors are pretty much at a loss to explain why. Thankfully he's now down to one med per day instead of three, and he at least seems stable. At this point they're not sure if he's got some sort of weird infection or an autoimmune disorder.

He's on doxycycline for another few weeks and we'll re-evaluate at that point. And, of course, just when I thought FeLV was off the table, the vet informed me yesterday that it's still possible that he's got it in his bone marrow even though he keeps testing negative for it in his blood. Goody gumdrops.

In a funny way the kitty thing sorta ended up cutting both ways with this challenge. I didn't have much time and/or energy to devote to my grocery bill, but on the plus side, I did have to drive around to various vets, pharmacies, and specialty pet food stores, and that did allow me to combine trips to some grocery stores that I wouldn't otherwise have visited.

And that brings me to one conclusion that this challenge made completely and totally clear for me. I HATE driving.

In general I've been very fortunate to have found ways to arrange my life to keep my need to be at the wheel down to a minimum. I've only owned one car in my adult life, which was a gift from my mother upon graduating from college. It was new then (1990 Honda Civic) and it now has a grand total of 86K miles on it. When you factor in several road trips across the country and one to Mexico that she's taken, you can see that my day to day driving has always been quite minimal!

However, since I stopped working 7 years ago, my need to drive has been reduced even further. And I find that the less I drive the less tolerance I have for the entire process. I mean, eee gads! Sitting in traffic, dealing with idiot drivers, trying to navigate unfamiliar territory, road construction and parking... It all just gives me a headache!

Throughout this month I kept thinking that I should drive out to the farmer's market, or the salvage grocery store, or the natural foods co-op, or the Costco... but honestly, I just couldn't make myself do it. So I ended up making do with what I could find at my local King Soopers (Kroger) and several stops at Whole Foods and Sprouts markets that weren't too far out of my way when I had to be out and about anyhow.

And that brings me to another topic: Availability.

I know I've griped about this before. Since I live in the "barrio" there really isn't much selection of organic foods at the stores in my neighborhood. I fear this lack of availability tended to throw me into a bit of an unhealthy "scarcity mentality".

I ended up buying some things that I really wasn't very interested in eating simply because they fit the rules of the challenge. And even worse, I managed to give myself hives a couple of times by trying to "push the limits" on my food allergies more than I should have. That was not only bad for my health, but it also meant that I ended up tossing some perfectly good food because I couldn't eat it.

The selection does improve vastly once you get into wealthier parts of town, but BOY did it push a lot of my buttons to shop in those areas.

First of all, I just couldn't get past the giant size of the stores in other neighborhoods. I mean, there's a King Soopers about 5 blocks from me, but the King Soopers stores in the trendier parts of town are literally 3-4 times the size of ours. They all have huge floral sections, giant delis full of ridiculously expensive imported meats and cheeses, and aisle after aisle of stuff that isn't even food!

I dunno... I just couldn't escape the feeling that I was helping to support an incredibly wasteful system. I mean just think of the amount of energy it takes to heat, cool and light one of those enormous places! And the bigger and fancier the store was, the less likely they were to have "salvage areas" selling things like day-old baked goods, stuff nearing its expiration dates and less than perfect produce. It leaves one to wonder if they just toss it out.

And don't EVEN get me started on Whole Foods. I have such incredibly mixed feelings about that place. I mean, part of me is really glad that they're taking organic foods and nutrition to the mainstream, but geez... it just seems to me that they're essentially a big corporation that's cashing in by playing on people's "food fears" and do-gooder instincts. I mean, the very same products at Whole Foods will generally cost at least 30-40 percent more than they do at King Soopers, and they do have some very questionable corporate policies.

Plus there's the whole issue of John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods. Talk about giving me mixed feelings! I mean the guy is a huge advocate for organic foods and animal welfare, and has done admirable things like reducing his own salary to $1/year, setting caps on executive pay, and setting up emergency funds for workers facing tough situations. BUT, he's one of these crazy libertarians who opposes unions, and health care reform, and while he's not a climate change denier, he basically thinks it's nothing to worry about.

But for me, the bigger issue with Whole Foods is how they've literally gobbled up virtually every other health food store around! As I was driving around town in service of my felines this month, I found myself thinking about all the little co-ops and small health food chains that have either been bought out by Whole Foods or simply couldn't compete with such a giant corporation.

Of course, buyouts just seem to be the way things are done these days. Sunflower Markets were recently purchased by Sprouts and they've gotten significantly more "trendy" since then. I dunno... it's not that I think that everything that's trendy is bad, I'm just left wondering if I'm really paying for better food or for a hipper, cooler shopping experience.

There is one small player left in the market though, and that's Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. They used to be just Vitamin Cottage and sold, you guessed it, vitamins! But they've expanded to include more food items in recent years. There is much to like about this company. They're locally owned, their stores all have small footprints - no shopping opulence here, and they are very environmentally responsible - they don't even offer disposable shopping bags, you have to either bring your own or hope that they have some boxes lying around.
That's where I was finally able to find some locally produced chicken by the Boulder Natural Meats company. Their chicken isn't organic, but it's antibiotic, hormone and steroid free and as close as you can get to humane (free range, no de-beaking, reasonable amount of space per-bird) without being actually pasture raised (which is virtually impossible to find here.) I also discovered in reading their web page that perhaps one of the reasons it's soooo hard to find pasture raised poultry here is that aside from Boulder Natural Meats, there are virtually NO poultry producers in Colorado. Not sure why that is, but it sorta explains the mystery of why it's so hard to find here.
Natural Grocers carries their chicken at $2.99/lb for bone-in thighs, which, while still significantly more expensive than factory farmed chicken, is much more reasonable than the $13.99/lb price at the farmer's market! Of course, other than the chicken I'm not so sure about the selection at Natural Grocers. They do carry mostly organic products, but their produce mostly seemed to come from other continents, and geez... $4.50 for a can of tuna?

I'm not entirely sure where I've landed on the entire question of "ethical" foods. Throughout this month I sort of felt like I was in a constant tug of war trying to choose between the lesser of a whole slew of evils.

Is it better to drive across town and spend 4-5 times as much money to buy organic food that has been flown in from half-way around the world from a giant corporation that has some very questionable policies, or is it better to walk down the street to the King Soopers where I can find a lot of locally grown (but not organic) produce for MUCH better prices... or what about the Save-a-Lot store where I can find food that isn't organic or local, but I'll be supporting an employee-owned company that's actively working to bring grocery stores into "food desert" areas? I dunno... it's all a tough call for me.

I guess in the end I'll probably just end up splitting the difference and trying to do the best I can within the confines of both my budget and my "driving intolerance syndrome." I do think there is great value in supporting the stores here in my neighborhood, and I think that if I make a point of buying organic and local options when they are available in those stores, it might encourage them to carry more of those types of products.

But I do think that this will be the end of my grocery challenges for a while. I'm sorta feeling like dealing with my kitty situation is enough of a challenge for me at this point. But I do think this entire thing has been a really amazing experience, and I've learned an incredible amount.

I've convinced myself that I am perfectly capable of living within a food stamp budget if I need to. I've also broadened my horizons quite a bit in terms of exploring new and different options for food acquisition. And while I haven't exactly been diligent in terms of keeping up my price book, paying closer attention to prices has been a very valuable learning experience that I will certainly try to carry forward.

And I actually did manage to eat my way through pretty much the entire contents of my chest freezer, which is currently empty, cleaned out and turned off. I think I'll wait until the garden harvest starts coming in to turn it on again.

But I'm curious to know what y'all think about my tug-of-war emotions in this department? Do any of you feel torn by these issues? How do you choose between all of the "evils" out there?