Friday, 14 May 2010

Being Different

In a world of 6.5 billion people, how will you distinguish yourself? How do you justify your life?

Let's start with the numbers: 6.5 billion. How many of us can really conceive such a number? I, for one, certainly can't. Even coming to terms with a million stretches me.

A while back I found an article about single use plastic water bottles, which followed a common "what if" scenario. Somehow you find yourself in a place with a newly finished water bottle, and no sign of recycling around. You have places to go, errands to run. Do you throw it out?

If you are a relatively green-minded person, you might find yourself justifying this one action. You might think "I line dry my clothes. I compost food scraps. I telecommute when I can. I recycle at home. I do not over water my lawn. I eat locally and low on the food chain. I am usually very diligent, so this one water bottle won't make much difference."

This reasoning is something probably even the greenest of us might do (although with recent campaigns, using a single-use water bottle in the first place might not be an issue for you now--if so, you can substitute any similar situation).

Now imagine if just 1% of the world thought this way once a year. 6.5 billion people, times 1%.

Or perhaps you might consider that it's more a western urban sort of behaviour (though I have no basis for making this random assumption). Let's take it a step further and narrow it down to just Canadians for now. If 1% of all Canadians (and I'll use a low estimate of 30 million for our current population) trashed a plastic water bottle once a year, that would be 300 000 water bottles a year.

Plastic is generally not readily biodegradable. It takes a great deal of energy to produce, and the product comes from petroleum. It takes a person only a few minutes to consume the water that it holds, which is usually either just municipally treated water, or spring water that by law requires no safety testing.

People have been around for tens of thousands of years. Only in the last couple of decades have we seen fit to package water in single-use containers. Surely we can do better.

What we need to remember here is that the water bottle scenario is pretty limited; yet the mindset of entitlement, in which we expect "our fair share" (however unfair that might turn out to be in reality) is pervasive. How many times do we think this way: I used/wasted less doing x so I don't have to feel bad about y?

6.5 billion people.

What difference can any one person have in a world with so many?

Never underestimate your importance. In a world where so few negative acts accumulate rapidly, remember that the same can be said for positive acts.

Tree planting, composting, recycling, buying local, buying less--they all count, and have achieved mainstream status in recent years. You have influence over your friends and family; even if they are not impressed at the outset, you may find that not only do they begin to follow your example, but also help that example reach others.
Everything counts.

Corn and other Food Staples

I'm working on a new page/section of my website that is all about corn. This interesting food is present in some form in a large portion of the items available in your local grocery store, yet was unknown to Europeans until a few hundred years ago. On my corn pages I'll be looking at its history, traditional uses, modern uses, crafts, recipes and controversies in terms of farming and also in terms of products and their effects on health.

There are other food staples that have also become important to people, including rice, wheat and potatoes. At this point I have no plans to expand on those, although that could change over time.

In thinking of food staples though, I was reminded of an activity we did as a family a few months back about food, food staples and cooking. The idea is this: make a list of food items your family keeps on hand, particularly those that do not require refrigeration--the unperishables. Now, without straying from that list, make a list of recipes/meals you could make from that list. How well did you do? Do you want to add any items to your food list? How pleasant would the cooking and eating of these meals be for you?

Now lets think about what foods are most useful to you and your family that store well, cook easily, and provide high nutritional value. Why do this? I think it is a valuable lesson for kids (and adults) to be able to put together a nutritional meal from a few ingredients, particularly when conveniences such as fast food restaurants and grocery stores full of processed foods might not be available, such as in an emergency situation or natural disaster.
It's also a good exercise to be able to cook from a set list, to put together a nutritional meal, and to be able to improvise where necessary. In North America, healthy eating doesn't have to be expensive, and it doesn't have to come processed or from a freezer either.

Depending on your cooking habits and personal preferences, your list may be quite different from ours. Here is what we came up with:

Whole wheat flour
Sunflower seeds (raw, hulled)
Raw popcorn
Corn Meal
Corn starch
dried instant potatoes
raw brown rice
dried kidney beans, navy beans and garbanzo beans
dried peas/lentils
Unsweetened Cocoa powder
OLIVE/&Vegetable Oil
baking soda
baking powder
DRY mustard
maple syrup
assorted dried nuts
chili powder/cumin
dried basil and oregano
garlic powder
onion powder
tomato paste/preserves/sundried tomatoes
dried fruit (apples, bananas, peaches, blueberries, raisins, cranberries, etc.)
sugar and/or honey
whole wheat pasta
powdered milk
powdered eggs
we usually also have TVP (textured vegetable protein, used by vegetarians in a similar way others might use ground meats), but since that isn't something the average person has hanging around, I didn't include it in this activity.

These items require cold storage, but not necessarily full refrigeration for short-term use: Onions, Potatoes, carrots, peanut butter (natural, with no hydrogenated oils)

What my kids came up with from the above list:
Pasta and sauce
Baked beans
Rice casserole
Lentil casserole
Lentils and rice
Garlic bread
Pb and raisin sandwich
Sunflower seed and raisin chocolate snack bars
Scrambled eggs
Popcorn peanutbutter balls
Bean chili
Oatmeal cereal (with raisins, seeds, salt and maple syrup)
Veggie roast
Onion gravy
Jam (using the dried fruit)
Oatmeal Cookies
Maple fudge
Mashed potatoes
Peanut butter cookies
Apple crisp
Barley, onion and carrot casserole
Barley and tomato casserole

I was pleased they did so well, but have to admit that there are several things on this list that my youngest (a notorious picky eater) would turn his nose up at.

How did you do with your list? I'd love to hear back!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Forgotten Luxuries

Sometimes we miss some of the joys of life that don't carry large price tags, and in our daily rush forget what we are missing.

Take for example the luxury of line-dried bedding. When was the last time you treated yourself to this? Can you remember the pure smell of nature's perfume as you drift off to a peaceful slumber? Fabric softener companies know about it, but nothing they can concoct comes close to mimicking this small taste of paradise.

Crunchy towels are another luxury--nothing absorbs water better, and they transform almost magically from stiff and crunchy to soft and supple the moment they meet moisture.

How about taking a sunset walk after dinner with a loved one? Climbing a hill to stargaze away from city lights? Cuddling your child to sleep and watching them long afterward?

Watch a child glory in a golden field of dandelions, then make a wish, a wish for not only the future, but for the now that is so easy to miss in the rush of our daily lives.

Could you place a price tag on any of these things? Would you ever want to?

Monday, 10 May 2010

Natural Playgrounds

What do you picture when you hear the word "playground"? Do you think of sports fields? Swings? Industrial-sized Little Tykes climbers?

If you grew up way back in the 70's you might envision tractor tires and oil drums cleaned and hollowed out, concrete tubes and wooden teeter-totters.

I read a few years ago about some playgrounds in Britain in which there were modular materials--2x4s, tires, and other "interesting stuff" that the kids could use and change around to suit their playing purposes. Which do you think brings more play and learning value--a prefab generic "safe" playground, or something that can be built, changed and experimented with?

Here is a link to a photo journal about playgrounds that shows what I'm talking about:

As you may have guessed, I lean towards the latter option.

Let's take this a step further. How about truly natural areas? Wouldn't some large climbing trees, bushes, a small creek, tall grasses, etc. make for even greater imaginative play? Maybe I'm making you nervous now though, especially with the water, tree climbing and possibility of encountering wildlife.

I am going to go "out on a limb" here and suggest that allowing children to face and experiment with risks such as these will actually help keep them safer in the long run. Children need to learn their limits, not limits artificially placed upon them (except in extremes--playing tag in a parking lot is just a very bad idea; going without a pfd, not wearing a seatbelt or a bike helmet are unnecessary risks that bring no benefit to anyone). In order to develop good judgment and self confidence, children need to be allowed to take a few risks.

This doesn't mean you leave them completely to their own devices. It's always a good idea to talk about risks involved in activities. But the conversation needs to be two-sided, and you need to allow for the child to come up with suggestions and solutions.

For example, my eldest loves to climb trees. He is a talented climber, and light-weight, so he is able to go further than his friends. I expressed several concerns about his climbing--dead branches that could snap, slipping, and copycat behaviours from younger or less climbing-savvy friends. He suggested that we see which branches had live leaves and no signs of insect infestations, that only running shoes with treads be worn climbing, and that he not do this in front of younger kids. I added a suggestion that he make sure it is ok with the adult in charge first if that happens to be someone other than myself.

Are there still dangers involved? You bet there are, and sometimes I have to sit on my hands and bite my lips. But there are dangers involved in absolutely everything we do, and what it comes down to is evaluating which risks are worth taking. We have had similar conversations about flash flooding on rivers, creeks and waterways, about approaching wildlife, about public transit (which I still haven't sent him on alone--soon though!), and other "risky" activities.

The idea here is that rather than taking the lazy road and completely banning all activities that appear to hold risks (and by doing so create and artificial "padded room" sort of existence), instead help the children develop the skills and judgment necessary to decrease the risks and allow them to participate in the activity so they can learn and grow. It is true that as an adult we have access to a wider range of experiences and may see risks that aren't apparent to children; it is our job to teach our children about these and help them develop the necessary skills, tools and judgment in order to proceed.

Sometimes we forget the really big risks we take for granted--like driving in automobiles, for example. Certainly this holds a great deal more risk than tree climbing, lake and river romping, and pretty much most other activities that are of great value to children's play. Other risks that pop into mind are overexposure to media, overindulgence in "screen time" and routine consumption of processed food products. Since the dangers of these things are less immediate, we tend to disregard them and focus on those that get the parental adrenaline flowing. There is no denying that seeing your child at the top of a 40' tree can cause parental anxiety, and that for some kids it would be a truly poor choice (like me, for example). But you need to remember to look at each child individually and assess their needs and abilities before taking over the decision making.

I battle with the social issues as well. Aside from bullying, physical or emotional violence or other hurtful actions, I think adults tend to step in a little too quickly to sort out their children's squabbles.
We need to teach them the basics--be kind to others, consider everyone's feelings, take turns listening, apologize when needed, forgive each other, etc. but then we need to step back and let them try it all out. We need to let them make mistakes and learn from them first-hand. It's better to be shunned for a day from a group when you're 7 or 8 because you made a social faux pas than to make similar mistakes as an adult and never quite understand other people's reactions. We need to let our kids take risks socially as well, and to keep the channels of communication open without interfering.
It's a fine line, and a difficult one to keep from crossing when we see our children struggling. But these are the years in which our children develop their sense of identity, so it is especially important that we give them a balance of freedom and support in order to truly learn and grow.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

To everyone who is or has a mother, Happy Mother's Day!

Do any of you ever feel pressured by "manufactured" holidays such as this? I know I do--even when on the receiving end of things.

Like Earth Day and Father's Day, it feels like there should be something more than the usual amount of caring shown. So it becomes a challenge, and each year the expectations (even if they're just imagined) grow. There is also the social aspect of it--"my kids did X", or "I did Y for my mom". No matter what we do, it sometimes seems like it just isn't enough, or that we don't deserve it.
It's like our favourite bedtime game:
"I love you THIS much!"
"Yeah, well, I love you INFINITY!"
"Yeah, well, I love you INFINITY to the power of INFINITY!" And so on.

What would I like for Mother's Day? From my family, I'd like my kids to forgive me now for the things I get wrong as a parent, and to let me know that they know I'm trying my best--you know, help allay some of that horrible "mommy guilt" that tends to build up over time. I also wouldn't mind a family game of Catan, esp. one free of arguments!

From the world I would like for us mothers to support each other a little more. We often fight each other in ideological ways--stay at home vs. work outside the home, religious ideology, political ideology, etc. when we could all better benefit each other and especially our kids by focusing on our love for our kids instead of our differences. The kids could only benefit from such acceptance and support.