I recently started to focus on buying organic food. Since reading Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser while on vacation in 2005 (totally not a vacation book, by the way), I’ve been worried about the hormones injected into our food by the mega-farms to hasten the growth process of the animals we eat. While driving through Nebraska once, I saw many meat cattle farms in which hundreds of cows were penned up together to walk in their own manure because there was nowhere else for them to move. The farms smelled horrible. For miles before and after, even. I worried about the quality of the meat in these pens where they couldn’t move. It had an effect on me that brought me to read Fast Food Nation in the first place.

For the most part, though, I’ve been pretty lazy about following through with buying organic. It’s expensive. It’s hard to find. There are less choices with brands and less diversity of selection (ie, if you’re looking for a particular flavor). Thus is the problem with trying to eat more healthy in this nation: the better food is practically inaccessible to the average person, especially in the Midwest. But I can’t say that I ever stopped thinking about what I learned in Fast Food Nation. Nor could I get the image of that penned up cattle out of my head.

I did make a step to reduce the demand on meat: I made an effort to reduce how much of it I personally ate. Most days, I only eat meat at one meal (usually dinner).  About once or twice a week, I manage to go an entire day by deliberately choosing to not eat meat. I know I’m just one small person. But I guess in the case of trying to conserve our planet’s resources, I have to just comfort myself with the fact that maybe I’m not helping to contribute to the overall problem because I’ve reduced the overall demand by reducing my personal demand.

I try to preach these values to other friends without being too pushy. I can only hope that others also made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of meat they eat. It’s the same concept as how I feel when I trade two or three days a week of my commute to work by car with a bike in the summer. If everyone did that, just think about how much gas would be saved. And it’s not a huge sacrifice–I’m not saying give up your car, nor stop eating meat. I’m just saying reduce how much you consume. I know that realistically if I’m the only person taking these steps to reduce the demand, I’m not really changing anything. Much like my deliberate boycott of Wal-Mart, which my parents are quick to point out, Sam Walton’s kin could care less about since I’m just one person. But at least I’m not contributing to their wealth and seedy business practices.

I don’t want to become obsessed. It’s just that when you look at the high occurrences of obesity, cancer, diabetes, asthma, and other illnesses in our society, you have to start to ask yourself just what we’re doing wrong. There has to be a cause. I’m completely convinced that our obesity and diabetes rates can be tied to mega-farms and their hormone-injected food (which also accounts for incredibly early onset of puberty for women these days) as well as our over-sweetened food. I am starting to suspect some of the pollution and other irritants in our environment are leading to more cases of asthma. Other illnesses may be tied to high exposure to other things in the products we use every day that are simply not healthy.  I just don’t know what all this means. I’m not a scientist. I can’t conduct experiments with controls. I’m just saying, though, that my mind is starting to shift a little… I’m asking questions.

I guess my biggest moment of revelation happened a few weeks ago when, after having only eaten Kashi shredded wheat (Island Vanilla) for breakfast for about a month, I switched back to my old favorite Post Shredded Wheat (because it was on sale). I was about halfway through my morning bowl of cereal (dry with peanuts added in) that I suddenly thought, “This is way too sweet for my morning meal!” Kashi’s cereal is much less sweet. I guess I got used to it. And it occurred me at that moment why a lot of people I’ve known from outside the US complain that our food is too sweet.

This notion was further confirmed when Crow was looking for a can of diced tomatoes that he was going to use in fajitas he was making for dinner. The ingredients listing for most of the cans revealed that high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar had been added. Why?! Do you pull a tomato off of a vine and pour sugar on it in order to eat it? Um… no!! Tomatoes have their own natural, wonderful sweetness to them; they don’t need additional sweetness! It made me wonder just how healthy the food I’m eating is even when I’m trying to eat healthy. How much of the food I eat every day for a meal contains extra sugar in it?

I started using the application for the iPhone called Good Guide. You can scan products in the store and Good Guide rates the product based on its healthiness, its impact on the environment, and the company’s ethical practices. Questionable ingredients are flagged and noted by the degree of concern. Good Guide also suggests other products of the same type with better ratings that you might consider using instead.  The guide is rated by a group of scientists and environmentalists with no affiliation to said products. Check out the video on their website–it’s really interesting.

I realize that this whole thing sounds probably a bit wacky to my friends and family who have known me a long time. It probably looks like I’m starting to embark down the road to a type of fanaticism that inspires a lot of eye-rolling. Who has preached to me this crazy new age religion of purity in food and products? How have they managed to convert me? What’s going to happen next? Will you be raising chickens in your back yard? Oh, no!

Never fear. As I found myself scanning products into Good Guide on my last grocery trip, I started to wonder about myself too. I think this is how it started with some of my friends who I consider a bit on the fanatical side. You buy some natural, handmade soap, then shampoo and conditioner. Then you use henna on your hair instead of chemical dyes. Then you’re scanning the toothpaste isle for something that doesn’t contain fluoride.  And the next thing you know, you start only eating products with ingredients you can identify. It’s a downward spiral into a crazy land where you can only understand and communicate with the other inhabitants. And everyone thinks you’ve jumped off the deep end so they avoid discussing food or ecology with you. Then you’re labeled the family hippie and it’s all over.

There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that I ate a dish composed completely of organic products, though. Or that I’ve chosen a healthier product over one that is questionable. I still think if I wisely reduce the amount of chemicals I willingly expose my body to, I’m going a long way to a healthier lifestyle. I know it doesn’t erase all the variables–people still get ill for random reasons. But maybe I can eliminate some potential problems that are proven risks (ie, the hormone-injected cattle, food with unnecessary sugar additives). It certainly doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t eat the food I’m being served at a friend’s house because I can’t trust its source. I still like to eat at restaurants, after all (though places like the Mustard Seed Cafe become more appealing choices). And I’m really not rude.

I think if everyone took the time to take a look at the ingredients listing on the products they buy, they’d really start asking questions too. I wish I had a solution to overpopulation and the demand that requires hasty production of goods and food. I guess like with my choice to eat less meat, I just have to hope that other people are making like choices to decrease the demand on the food and goods that are not healthily produced. I have hope. More stores like Mustard Seed Market, Earth Fare, Whole Foods are making their way into Northeast Ohio than there were here just ten years ago. More organic options are appearing in regular grocery stores as well. If companies are made more aware that people are seeking better options, the less healthy ones will go away. (Which, of course, brings that demand problem back. Why can’t you people stop having babies? Just kidding!)

Anyway, I guess I am becoming that hippie relative everyone mocks. Oh well. I have my reusable grocery bags and I’m happy. (SAY NO TO PLASTIC!) Talk to me if you want to know more. Talk to me if you want to tell me more. I’m all mouth and ears.

ABC Cleans Up

I recently took charge of my bike club’s Adopt-a-Highway responsibility. We “own” a section of Route 303 between Country Maid and the outskirts of Peninsula. It’s great publicity having our name on the signs bordering this segment. I always notice the names of the groups who take ownership of segments of highway (Century Cycles has the segment after us which goes through Peninsula; a Boy Scout troop has the segment after that, which goes in front of Camp Manatoc; the Sierra Club of “Portage Trail” has a segment of Akron-Peninsula Road in the Valley).

When the responsibility of running the twice-a-year cleanup was handed over to me, I wasn’t given any instruction, really. It was also given to me when our certificate was about to expire and I had only weeks to figure out the paperwork to reapply to keep the segment. I wasn’t told other things, like that I needed to call the state to let them know what day I was cleaning up the highway so that they could give us “Shoulder Work Ahead” signs at the borders of our segment. I wasn’t told that Country Maid would like advance notice of when we’re going to be there. I sometimes feel like I was deliberately set up to fail because the people who had it before me had fallen out of sort with some people in my club (and I may have been one of the offenders). Or maybe they just didn’t care, but I still feel responsible.

So it’s been a bit experimental at first. After the first time I did it, all I heard from other people was, “Well the [former organizer] did it this way…” and “The [former organizer] used to do this…” Being the kind of person I am–headstrong, opinionated, determined to do things my own way–I was kind of offended by these comments even though the speaker was just trying to offer help. I wanted to say, “Well, new administration, new ideas. Get over it.” Of course, I didn’t. I’m much more diplomatic than that. I did listen to the advice people gave me, though, and I’m trying to incorporate those thoughts. And, also, as I said, I wasn’t really given any instruction on what needed to be done for this job.

My biggest fear in taking over this position has been that no one would want to take the time out of their busy cycling schedule to come out and help. That’s why the “former administration” used to include a short bike ride with the activity. I’m of the opinion that people should just come out and do something and not expect to ride, but I’ve been trying to work with this since a bike ride does seem to lure more people to want to do something tedious like picking up trash along a state route while drivers treat us as well as they do when we’re on our bikes (which is to say, they don’t move over any more for pedestrians than they do cyclists).

I guess I needn’t have worried about people not showing up, for last Saturday–the scheduled fall cleanup–we had a full fifteen smiling ABCers ready to help. I actually ran out of those trash poking sticks. And, to top it off, the weather was completely iffy. I had brought Beau, prepared to ride on wet streets, in case anyone wanted to ride. I’d even planned an informal route down in the Valley and back up an easier hill in case I had people who were normally just “in the Valley” riders. It started to drizzle a few times while we cleaned up, though, and so ultimately no one felt like riding. Which kind of stunk because I was slightly geared to ride now that I was out of the house, properly dressed in my winter tights, and warmed up after walking. Oh well. Maybe in the spring.

I’ve got some ideas for the future of this event. I want to give out little prizes for the weirdest things people find on the side of the road. During our spring clean up, the strangest item found was a wig. Immediately, I imagined it belonged to a cross-dressing man who was coming back from a gig somewhere and he had to toss the evidence of his exploits so his unsuspecting wife wouldn’t find out. Hey, there’s a story in everything, right?

This time, we didn’t find anything too weird. Just a mudflap with an old school Cadillac emblem on it. It didn’t impress me much but the guys tried to convince me it was quite a find. I’ll take their word for it.

I really enjoy running the Adopt-a-Highway responsibilities for our club. It just feels like the right thing for me to do. It’s not a lot of work and I feel like it’s important to help keep our environment nice. Peninsula and the surrounding communities have been giving us cyclists a lot of crap lately, ticketing cyclists unnecessarily in some cases (allegedly a member got ticketed for obstructing traffic because he was climbing Oak Hill on his bike and two cars were backed up behind him because the road is so steep they couldn’t see around to pass). It’s good for us to show an image of responsible individuals who care about the environment of these communities. I think we should all wear ABC clothes to this even when possible.

Will it help give us a better image? I don’t know. I think the best thing we can do to improve our image is to be a little more sensitive to traffic patterns and respect the fact that vehicles weigh a few tons more than we do. In other words, we shouldn’t hog the whole lane so that cars can get around. I’m doing my part to respect cars. I just wish I could get everyone else to follow suit.

Anyway, we had a successful cleanup this past Saturday. I’m proud of my group for being so environmentally conscientious. I have no desire to give up this position yet. But, in the future when I do, I will write thorough instructions on all the things a person must do in order to organize this event so that they don’t have to learn by doing as I did…

It’s electric… boogie woogie woogie

The other morning on the way to work, I was listening to a podcast of the Diane Rehm show–my favorite NPR broadcast next to the Prairie Home Companion–and they were talking about the new Chevy Volt. Has anyone heard of this? It really, really sounds cool. They give it some abitrary 230 mile/gallon rating, which really has more to do with a guest-a-mate based on the fact that you could recharge this baby every night and drive up to 40 miles during the day before needing to go to the “gas reserves.” I was pretty impressed. In the typical Diane Rehm fashion, they had people on all sides, not just GM sales/marketing people, talking about this car and I feel I got enough of a perspective that I’m going to look further into this vehicle.

My current car, a 2003 Acura RSX, is nearing 130K miles. I was starting to look around for a new vehicle but not yet committed to going back to having car payments. However, the Volt is due out in November 2010. It won’t go into general release of consumers until 2011 some time. I realize, like all hybrid cars, there will be a long waiting list to purchase one. But since I don’t need a car at this particular moment–mine’s still running well enough–maybe I have the time and patience to wait. So I think I need to do further investigation here. I’d certainly like to be more environmentally-friendly.

My only concern is a lack of trunk space. I have a thing against bike racks. Mainly, I don’t like watching my bike bounce on them from my rear view mirror as I plug along at 60–okay, let’s be real, 80mphon the highway. I’m always afraid it’s going to fall off. And I won’t even get into the fact that I know if I had a roof rack, I’d inevitably end up driving into my garage, forgetting that my bike is still on there, and therefore cause the end to my bike myself. So, anyway, I always put my bike in the trunk. My Acura is a hatchback so there’s plenty of room. I know that these hybrid vehicles tend to have huge batteries that suck up all the space in the back. Previously, I’d been considering getting a Honda Fit for my excessive use of car space for all of my crazy activities (my telescope needs a lot of room in the trunk too).

I also know that the Volt will come with a huge price tag (the GM sales/marketing dude on the Diane Rehm show danced around with the lingo “in the high 30s” and another guy later piped in that it would cost 40K). Which I know is high. And probably doesn’t really outweigh the fact that you’re not buying as much gas or you get a government rebate. I wasn’t thinking of spending that much on a car this time around (since my Acura cost about half that); I wanted to buy in the 12-13K range since vehicles lose their value so fast and I’m a very bad driver that dings my vehicles constantly so that they look like junk when they’re still young.

But maybe I should put my money where my liberal mouth is. I mean, if I’m being gentle to the environment and not using up precious natural resources in the process, then maybe it’s worth the price tag. Although, I do have to ask myself what natural resources are used to create electricity. Am I just trading overuse of one natural resource for another?

Well, it’s something to think about anyway. And I’ve still got time. But I think it’s neat what the human mind can come up with when put under pressure. And you just know that GM is doing this because of the failed economy and their failure in the marketplace. They want to appeal to an audience with a vehicle that Americans might want. Finally. At least they are finally getting the picture that Honda and Toyota already figured out long ago. Even if you aren’t an environmentalist, not spending a lot of money on gas appeals to liberals and conservatives alike.

The Ugly Goslings

These little critters were strutting behind their mothers (fathers?) with a self-assured sense of entitlement as they obstructed traffic into and out of the parking lot outside of the building where I work. Even the young ones have learned already that cars will stop and wait for them to pass, despite the fact that a car could so easily mow them down (is it illegal to hit a goose?). Soon they too will be pooping all over the place and hissing at the weary post-lunch walker. But right now, they’re so ugly they’re cute (unlike their parents) so maybe they can still get away with their self-assured entitlement.

It’s kind of sad that they use a puddle in the parking lot (right in front of several spaces) to bathe… I don’t think it’s a bi-product of civilization. I think these little garbage pickers would bathe in any sess pool as long as it was wet… and if the waters were pristine before they came along, the water would soon be polluted.

Maybe we’re like geese–mucking things up where-ever we go and strutting around the planet with a sense of entitlement. Which is why we hate them so much.

Or maybe I just needed excuse to post picture of geese and their goslings.

I can’t change the world

And what am I to do
Just tell me what am I supposed to say
I can’t change the world
But I can change the world in me
— U2, Rejoice

When you’re a thinking, compassionate person like me, it’s easy to let the weight of the world’s problems bog you down. On the way to work today, Edward Norton (one of my favorite actors) was speaking on the Opie and Anthony show about a show he narrated on PBS called Strange Day on Planet Earth. So, of course, the discussion went to the environment, on today, Earth Day. And once again, my mind was filled with worries about the state of the planet and what we as human beings are doing to it. A lot of people think global warming (or “global climate change”) is a myth, as though it were a matter of believing in something or not believing in it, like faith.

You’d have to be a fool to not understand the huge affect we have on the environment. Yes, there are planetary processes and phases involved that we don’t understand. But there are also some things we do understand. And it’s so obvious that we are causing harm to our environment. Don’t get me wrong; the planet will live on, the planet will always live on (it was here for millions of years before us, it will certainly outlive us). However, we, humans, are fragile and there’s only a narrow band of climate in which we can exist. If we destroy that, we kill ourselves. Can we afford to sit back and watch as we waste away the only biosphere in which humanity can exist?

We will run out of oil. There are limited resources there. We need to stop coasting in this hedonistic attitude that makes us procrastinate in finding a better, more environmentally friendly solution. Now, you think, would be the time, as gas prices are seriously getting to the point where they are crunching people like me who make decent money. The price of oil going up affects many things: the cost of products that use oil in their creation (i.e., vinyl), the cost of airline tickets (they have to pay for the fuel somehow), transportation prices for food. We can easily become price-crunched in the next couple of years on even the basics because it all trickles down to the most common of items.

I’m a novice scientist when it comes to explaining all the environmental problems. Yes, I have been tainted by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Yeah, I think it was mostly propaganda with a slice of environmentalism. It made me think, though. He’s not the only one explaining the numbers crunched by scientists. This is not a simple matter of faith: it’s a truth we’re avoiding because we don’t want to look at or contemplate what it all means.

I understand avoidance. I spend my days avoiding the problems of the world that my mind wanders to on occasion. I want to put my rose-colored glasses on and focus only on the road in front of me because my own life, though middle-class and pretty easy in comparison with someone, say, living in South Africa, is hard enough to deal with. I spent six years mourning the loss of someone I loved. It was hard enough to see beyond that pain. In dealing with depression issues of my own, life for me can sometimes be a daily struggle to keep my head above water, to look at what I have and praise it instead of see only the negative.

Thank God I was born in a country where women are not just sex objects for men to barter and own.

Thank God I managed to live 33 years in relative safety, never once fearing for my life (except for the one time when I spun out on the highway during a snow storm).

Thank God I don’t wake up every morning to the sound of mortar fire and the smell of burnt human flesh.

Damn, I am lucky. Of all the people on this planet to whom I could have been born, I was lucky enough to be born to a middle-class couple with good values in a safe nation in an era in which women are less repressed than they have been in the past. I’ve thought about it before. I could be anywhere but here, and my life could be miserable.

But not everyone is so lucky. And, again, my thoughts drift to these people every once in awhile. What are we going to do about them? How do we stop all the senseless killing and genocide and oppression? I can’t even ask this question without a tinge of guilt, for men and women from my own country are right now battling on some foreign ground of which I can’t even imagine the appearance except by what is told to me in the news. We are adding to the violence. And I don’t really understand why. Oh, people on the street will give you a bunch of reasons:

“It’s to stop terrorism so that we don’t have to fight it on our own turf.”

Ask the Europeans about this one; they’ve been fighting terrorism on their own turf for decades. We are lucky to be separated on our own island from the rest of the civilized world.

“We will get control of the oil.”

Oh yeah? How come I’m paying 3.50/gallon with the future looking towards $4? If it was for oil, I want my gas price at .50/gallon. Hell, I’d gladly take 1.50/gallon at this point.

Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Where? Give me the proof. I think we all know that there were no weapons. I’m tired of the discussion of WMDs.

My head aches with the circular nature of this discussion. I’m so confused–by the media, the talking heads, the President–and I don’t even know if there was a legitimate reason for any of this anymore. I’m not even sure our people on top remember why we’re there. It reminds of me of the book 1984. Was it newspeak, they called it? That untruth given to sedate the masses, confound us to the point where we really don’t know what exactly was said and, by the time we’re done tumbling it around in our big brains, we no longer care.

I’m so tired of arguing with people about politics, the environment, the war. No one listens to what anyone has to say, for real, anyway. Our minds are made up and we’re not budging. We’re blinded by our own interpretations of reality and we won’t let go of that for two seconds to consider another point of view. You can get lost in points-of-view anyway. At the end of the day, you just end up arguing with each other and still getting nothing done. Our big brains are a burden. Lions don’t debate about whether they should kill the gazelle for food–they just do it. Could we stop sitting here debating whether or not global warming is a reality caused by humans, and just agree that we do need to be better stewards of this planet, regardless of what we think the ultimate consequence is? Don’t we pick up litter on the side of the road? Don’t we keep our houses clean? The Earth is one big house to humanity; do we not owe it to ourselves, for the sake of neatness, to keep this big ecological house clean?

I try to put everything out of my head by consoling myself with the fact that I can’t do anything about anything. All I can do is affect my immediate environment. I can reduce my own carbon footprint on the planet. I can love my neighbors, treat my fellow man with the respect and dignity he/she deserves. I can reach out, volunteer, work to make the small microcosm of the world I inhabit better. I can vote for the people I think will do the best job of stewarding my country, state, city; though, I have to ask myself if what they do really makes a difference anywhere.

How does a person just shut out the screams of the rest of the world? How can I live with the fact that much of the world lives in a state of poverty that I’ve never known? How can I deal with the responsibility of being what is considered wealthy to people in other nations of the world? How do I not feel the guilt of their hate and jealousy of my lucky situation?

Again, I reiterate: I’m just frakking lucky. It’s not predestination. My soul is not here, in the U.S., because God loves me better than he loves the people in third world countries. It’s not because I was raised Christian, making me an associated member of an elite club of the saved. It’s not because I did something right in a former life. Or that my parents are good people. My soul just happened to draw the lucky straw. And here I am. And there all the unlucky ones are, hating me because of my lucky draw.

I’m a peace-loving hippy. I just wish we all could get along. I wish I could help create a world in which everyone lives with the equal opportunity to earn the means that I have. I wish I could erase all prejudice and chauvinism and hatred from the face of the earth. I wish we could all learn to see the inner beauty in every person. I wish we could all hold hands and sing the highest praises of love for life. I wish we could all fulfill our dreams and find our passions.

My dad always says, “Wish in one hand and shit in other. Tell me which one fills up first.”

Yeah, that’s my problem. I’m a dreamer. And dreamers, at the end of the day, find themselves just grasping shit because it’s more real than a dream or a wish. My dad has it right–you can’t spend your life hoping for things that cannot happen. You need to focus on the physical things, the stuff you can actually do.

Still, the wistful person within me dreams of a day in which humanity finds a way to rise above itself and its baser instincts. I like to think that we’re still in our childhood, a race of rash teenagers still rebelling against our parents and focused selfishly on ourselves. I want to think that at some point we’ll realize that there’s a goal to achieve that’s grander than ourselves out there, a higher purpose and understanding just beyond the horizon to which we can some day sail.

But it’s hard to think that we’ll transcend ourselves when you look at what we’ve got going on here right now. We’ve made such a mess of things. We’re consuming at rates with which the planet can’t keep up to renew the resources. We, a valuable part of nature, are using poor excuses to blow each other up with bombs and guns.

Despite all these lofty thoughts, I’m just a human being myself–no better and no worse than anyone else. I have my own selfish needs which desire fulfillment. I’m just trying to live my life and achieve my goals. I want to give into the short-sightedness of everyone around me so that I can live out my life without further traumatic disruption. Maybe that’s the problem. If everyone thinks like that, no wonder we get nothing done.

Yet, I look at the mess I’m just handing to the next generation without regard for its impact on them. I don’t have kids, but my friends do. What kind of world am I leaving for them? And what if I desire someday to actually have kids of my own? How can I bring them into this mess to deal with the mess I’ve contributed to? How can I have kids and not feel guilty about the world I’m sending them into?

“Someone will fix it,” you may say.

Well, fixing it involves a community. I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone (if you agree with me that it needs to be done). We need to band together to change things. We need to stop being so lazy and commit. Or else we’re handing the next generation a dismal future.

In Girl Scouts I learned to leave a location in a better state than I found it in. I think the Boy Scouts have a similar saying. Don’t we owe it to our future generations–if not God, who allegedly gave us this wonderful world-garden–to leave the Earth in a better shape than how we found it?