Friday, September 14, 2007


Sometimes it's hard not to be carried away by strong currents. Two of the the strongest local currents around here, unaffordable housing and an unforgiving employment market, are presently threatening to sweep my husband and I away. How so? We learned about a week ago that the owner of our rental house needs to sell. Our lease is up soon anyway, so, although we don't relish the idea of finding other housing, we were at least somewhat mentally prepared to conduct another housing search soon. As it turns out, we only have about a month to find another place and get ourselves moved. No, the owner hasn't sold the place already. It's not listed yet. But I learned that, as tenants, we will very soon be expected to have work crews in the house at all hours, will have to keep the place extremely clean on a DAILY basis, so that it can be shown at any time, and that we'll have to keep our house rabbit, who currently enjoys the better part of a room to herself, confined to her cage for days at a time, so that she doesn't "disrupt" the staging of the house. We will not be compensated in any way for our trouble, however. It's just the way it goes.

In all candor, I think that sucks. In three days I'll resume what is, to me, a very stressful job, whose most demanding season falls between late September and early December. If last year was any indication, my evenings will soon be comprised of me hiding out, choosing not to answer the phone, and trying hard to insulate myself from the world. I'm an introvert who happens to work with very demanding, needy people who are frequently in some throes of a crisis. I don't begrudge my clients their difficulties. Not at all. I just happen to really need a lot of downtime in order to recover from being in an intense, people-centered mode for most of the day. My husband is in a similar situation, only he has to talk to people about money, so, his conversations are arguably even more intense than mine.

There is absolutely no way that either of us will be able to devote time every day to making the house spotless for potential buyers. It's not going to happen. I also don't have time during my day to check my home voice mail for messages from real estate agents wishing to show the house. Finally, I don't really need to have people rifling through my (admittedly rented) closets and drawers. As tenants we have very few rights in this matter. Given our limited power we have both decided to just move as soon as we can to avoid as much of this chaos as possible.

Unfortunately, finding housing in a college town with one of the few remaining inflated real estate markets is truly challenging. Since we can't afford to buy anything we'll be competing with students for a roof over our heads. Rental properties around here are, by and large, poorly maintained, dismal structures that seldom allow pets and not infrequently involve weekend telephone calls to the police. We were very fortunate to find this place and don't kid ourselves that we'll find anything else as nice that we can afford. To be brutally honest, I nearly end up in tears every time I think about this housing current that keeps us in a very uncomfortable (metaphorical and often literal) place.

I should mention that both my husband and I have "good" jobs. We work in higher education. But our combined salaries are not enough for us to own a home and rents on properties that are barely decent are on the rise. We've been trying to leave the area for more than a year now, but nothing ever seems to pan out. We're stuck. It sucks.

I can't help but feel that if we had a local community land trust in our area, and if the real estate were owned by people who actually intended to make their homes here (instead of speculating with the property), we might have a shot at staying here and making a life for ourselves. As it is, that is unlikely to happen. And frankly, not having a stable home life is tearing both of us up inside. We're one part of the ugly side of speculation. What about people who don't have jobs that even come close to paying a living wage? Imagine what our truly poor neighbors are up against. No one should have to struggle to keep a safe, reasonable roof over their heads. It's shameful.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to put both of my blogs on hiatus until we can sort out our living situation. I'll be back when I can be.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Loosen MSG's Hazardous Hold By Eating Local

Photo by gardngrl

MSG. Most of us are already aware that the stuff isn't good for us. Few of us are probably fully aware of just how health-damaging it really is, though. MSG is a popular food additive, used to enhance or improve the flavor of a food. But glutamate is also a neurotransmitter. MSG is classified as an "excitotoxin" because it excites the glutamate neurotransmitters in the brain into electrical and cellular activity, much of which is destructive (see for a much more detailed explanation). It is believed that glutamate (mono-sodium and others) and aspartate (found in some artificial sweeteners) are behind numerous chronic neurodegenerative diseases.

Unfortunately, mammals don't just have glutamate receptors in our brains. We have them in every major system of our bodies, including the cardiac, endocrine, and digestive systems. Excitotoxicity from glutamate has been linked to infertility, cancer, diabetes (especially in children), obesity, fatal and near fatal heart arrhythmia, migraines, and a host of other serious illnesses that plague modern societies. Our bodies are wired to respond to MSG, and we suffer for it.

Most of us would like to avoid consuming MSG, but how many of us know where to look for it? Each of us can begin by looking at our supermarkets. The shelves are literally stacked with MSG-filled foods. It permeates the processed food supply. The next time you're doing your grocery shopping scan the labels on your favorite foods and see if you read any of the following ingredients: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, gelatin, yeast extract or autolyzed yeast extract, malted barley, rice syrup, or brown rice syrup. All of these ingredients contain MSG. Many labels come right out and list MSG as an ingredient, which is helpful. For those that do not, the odds are good that most processed foods will contain one of the aforementioned ingredients.

Once you've taken a closer look at your pantry or at the grocery store shelves, try not to panic. MSG, as well as a number of other commodities-based food additives are ubiquitous by design (more on that in an upcoming post) and they go hand-in-hand with processed food. And it makes sense. Food that has been highly processed seldom retains the same flavors, colors or textures as its unrefined counterparts. It's meant to last, often for a very long time. It's meant to be shipped around the globe. So the food industry tries to fortify the food with vitamins, minerals and agents intended to make this less-perishable food more palatable. And is it ever! We love MSG. On a molecular level, the excitotoxins in MSG create pleasure while exacting their physiological toll. If these foods didn't taste at least pretty good we would have stopped buying them a long time ago. Instead, we fill our carts with processed foods at unprecedented levels. And we're paying the price in preventable chronic illness and premature death.

In order to free ourselves from the grip of MSG we are going to have to reacquaint ourselves with fresh foods. Most likely a lot of the fresh foods we'll need to begin eating will be best procured locally. Why? Fruits, vegetables and meats procured from sources thousands of miles away aren't going to taste very good by the time they reach us. They also aren't going to have retained a lot of their beneficial nutrients. The fact is, locally-raised, minimally processed foods are extremely unlikely to contain MSG in any of its forms. And if you're not sure about everything that goes into the making of the product, with local foods you're likely to have the opportunity to ask someone about the food who actually knows the answer. Highly processed foods, on the other hand, often pass through so many different hands before they reach you that it's nearly impossible to trace the ingredients' origins. Ask yourself the following questions. Which food supply is more secure? Which is least likely to undermine my health? With local foods we have the opportunity to improve our health by steering clear of MSG and other harmful additives.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Ultimately, Our Problem is Consumption..."

"Sustainability." The term used to mean what it implies: balanced stewardship of resources whereby materials are procured in ways that enable their availability in perpetuity. Truly sustainably managed resources are never taken at a rate greater than replacement. This is what ensures long-term viability. Sustainability. Yet this term has been co-opted by marketing and all manner of industry because corporations know that people, when given the choice, very often want to do the right thing. And they're willing to pay for it. So the great corporate-sponsored greenwash is unleashed, and a lot of people, to0 busy with their own hectic lives, fail to notice the lack of substance, and the very unsustainable practices behind the hype. Shame on them. And shame on us.

While I don't intend to discuss sustainable consumer goods in this post, I do think it's important to pause and think about the meaning of sustainability. Why? Because even a locally-produced, sustainably-managed product won't make the world a better place if we--and by "we" I'm referring to citizens of industrialized countries--don't bring our consumption in line with total available resources. As Eamon O'Hara recently wrote in a BBC News post, "The modern Western lifestyle...has an inbuilt dependency on the cheap resources and low carbon footprint of developing countries, which has compounded global injustice...The world simply does not have the resources, renewable or otherwise, to sustain Western lifestyles across the globe." In the aggregate, our consumption is creating misery, injustice and global instability, as well as environmental devastation. This is a huge problem, and we, the ones using up more than our share, have to be the ones to begin solving it.

One way for industrialized societies to begin to address their global footprint (carbon, political, human suffering, etc.) is to begin relocalizing their economies and learning to live with what's available around them. Now, obviously, this would not be a simple undertaking, even if you do happen to live in a beautiful place with many wonderful natural resources close at hand. Not only do many people live in places that are just completely unable to support the population (Arizona comes to mind), but the poorest of the world's poor, the people's whose resources we're exploiting, have also become dependent on a system we've imposed upon them. Simply removing that system won't necessarily help them and will likely even hurt them in the short-run. It's a daunting and massive undertaking that is bound to spawn greater suffering, whether perceived (Westerners learning to live much more simply) or real (poor countries losing foreign investment dollars). But what other ethical choice is there? In the short-run we're destroying the future potential of the world's poor. The long-run? Well, the long-run looks a lot like our poor behavior catching up with us. Fast. Shall we be proactive or reactive? Shall we do the right thing now or wait for our collective debts to come due?

There are organizations around the world doing the work of re-introducing displaced peoples to lands and practices that used to comprise their ways of life, before empire and corporate multinationalism moved in. Heifer International ( is one organization addressing ways to relocalize food security on nearly every corner of the globe. We, too, are displaced, in many senses. The multitudinous skills of our ancestors have been replaced by service and expert economies in which most of us really only hone one skill and have to pay someone else to perform the other services we need to live. Trying to re-learn all of these skills may not be possible, but we can re-learn how to produce food, building materials and clothing, for a start. Food, shelter and clothing. That's more than a lot of the world's people have. And, collectively, I'm confident that a community can re-learn a whole lot more than just the basics. We'll just have to get comfortable with sharing what we know.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Prodigal Blogger

Photo by Kate Downing

I have something to confess. This summer I'm struggling to find my way. This is true professionally, personally, and it's certainly true of my relationship to this blog. The reasons I started this blog are legion, but I do believe I was guided by my own passionate belief in the transformational power of relocalization. I am an earnest person with solid convictions and I believe--almost above all else--that most of us are going to need to fix our gazes and focus our efforts on our immediate surroundings if we're going to thrive. It was my intention to create a mostly upbeat space to promote relocalization by fostering discussion and providing real life examples, as well as counter-examples, of what a local focus has to offer. I also hoped to educate others, as well as myself, about the complexities of our current situation.

But I now think that I have to admit to something else. I started this blog because I feel profoundly disconnected from most of the people around me, and I believe it's difficult to begin discussions of relocalization with others. I'm an introvert. I may be able to hold my own in one-on-one conversations, but I still feel awkward. Group discussions are even more challenging. So, for someone like me to begin asking other people to think about how much their quality of life might improve if Wal-Mart folded, if we looked to ourselves and our neighbors for a lot of the products and services we currently buy, and if we ate only what was in season and locally or regionally available, is, well, a really tough assignment. In this country, people like their choices to be nearly infinite. We expect it. But as good as it feels (temporarily) to get what we want when we want it, the psychological as well as cultural and environmental consequences of such entitlement are real and damaging. I guess I have the hope that through this blog I can connect with a few kindred spirits out there, but also contribute in some small way to cultural healing.

This is a tall order. Perhaps it would be easier and feel better for me to carry out this work if other aspects of my life were in better order. I recently had the privilege and delight of marrying the person with whom I want to spend the rest of my days. My relationship provides a supportive foundation where much else is shaky. It is a gift for which I am most grateful. But like everyone else, I have a lot of struggles with which to contend: health, family, and the depression that comes with work that is an un-fulfilling necessity. Most days I would trade a kidney for a stable, affordable living situation. Like most people, I am struggling so much with getting by when I'd much rather be going about the business of living. Modestly and happily. Building community and creating thriving local economies. But I can't do it alone. And right now, a few months into this blog experiment, that's how I feel. Alone.

I want to continue to build this blog and to fill it with ideas. I want to share it with you and I hope you'll share something of yourselves and your ideas in return. The Prodigal Blogger is limping along, but she's back.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Local Bounty, Forgotten Harvest

Earlier today I went for a walk into the hills south of my house. In addition to my comfortable walking shoes I was armed with one of my cameras and a sharp eye, intent on capturing some images for my daily photo blog. With my senses tuned to notice some of the details that I ordinarily filter out, I wanted to see and document my surroundings. What I saw, over and over again, was an incredible bounty. Beautiful, ripened fruit hung from trees all around me. More than half of the properties I passed had trees bearing some kind of orchard fruits, many of them cherry and apple, some of them pear. With so much fruit ready to be picked and enjoyed I wondered for a moment why nobody seemed to be harvesting from their own trees. Why would a person waste what's free and easily accessible? Then I remembered that as a group, humans-- particularly those in "developed" countries--choose what must be purchased over what is plentiful, and they do it frequently. We squander. Why?

Is it that we're used to the presence of bounty and so it has long since failed to merit our attentiveness? I believe this is part of the reason. I can't imagine that humans living through subsistence in a less forgiving climate would allow ripe, edible and delicious food to go to waste. But in this country, where the majority of us buy our food from grocery stores--buildings that house and categorize a remarkable number of ostensibly "edible" options from around the globe--we fail to see the local bounty all around us.

I believe, too, that we've become so pressed for time that we prioritize exchanging hard-earned currency for cherries picked, washed and packaged by the hands of another over spending a couple of hours twice a week for a month or so to pick the cherries growing in our yards. It's much more expedient, after all. I know this is how it is for many of us. I see this as a problem. And not just because it wastes food. But I'm only covering the scope of things related to our forgotten harvest today, so I will let the time issue lie for now.

Additionally, there is the problem of harvesting equipment. Most of us with orchard fruit trees of any maturity are going to need ladders in order to harvest the fruit. Do you have a ladder? I'm a renter and not a homeowner, and I don't have a ladder. I know a few homeowners in the area who are also without ladders. We're all hard-pressed to gather the fruit without a little something to stand on. But how many of us know our neighbors or someone who would lend us a ladder? Do you see where I'm going with this? The logistics of harvesting fruit from trees becomes complicated rather quickly. I think that we've witnessed some fundamental cultural shifts in the last several decades that have put us into this predicament. I have to imagine that the original property owners who planted all of these trees did so for more than ornamental purposes. They must have done so with the realization that they would need ladders. And while ladders are commonly owned by homeowners, I imagine that a few decades back more people knew their neighbors and could depend on them for the use of equipment from time to time.

I also assume that earlier generations of folks were much more accustomed to the physical labor required to pick. There is ample evidence that as we continue to invent and acquire labor-saving devices, as more and more of our paid work takes place from a seated position or within a narrow range of motion, we're all becoming more physically dysfunctional. Muscles and joints that, in our grandmothers and grandfathers, were sufficiently developed through a wide range of physical activities, are, in us, losing functionality and leaving us very susceptible to chronic pain and injury. A dear friend of mine recently spent about 3 hours picking berries in her yard and her back bothered her for almost a week afterwards. I should also point out that this friend would be widely regarded as "fit" and "active.

It's this person's opinion that we've misplaced an awful lot of priorities in recent decades. In this state, where hunger coexists with ridiculous excess, we're wasting what I would estimate to be tens of thousands of pounds of fresh, edible, and in many cases organic food, growing in people's yards. And those of us that would like to change this find no shortage of obstacles in our paths. I recently moved into a rental house that has two giant cherry trees, now burdened with lots of ripe fruit. Because I can't find a ladder to use I am left to watch, helplessly, as the fruit drops to the ground and rots. We need neighborhood equipment exchanges. We need willing and healthy bodies. We need to care about and invest in our local food security. We need to find the time to feed our neighbors and ourselves. Anybody got any bright ideas?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Re-localization: An Answer to The End of Suburban Sprawl

Ah, the suburbs. Safe, quiet, green. Every American's dream, right? A soothing retreat from the workaday world. A place to proudly inhabit one's home/castle. A gentle setting for raising one's kids. The impulse that drove the development of the suburbs seems reasonable or at least easy to understand. But the fact remains that suburban America was built on numerous unhealthy, un-neighborly and unsustainable assumptions. Kids who live in suburban housing developments--many of which do not even have sidewalks--cannot safely bike or walk places and so must be driven instead. Often housing is located at a distance too remote to other daily necessities for it to be practical to do anything other than drive. Indirectly the development of suburbs has led to disconnected children with poor fitness. Likewise, the tendency for suburban families to inhabit their cars when they are not inhabiting their homes means that they miss opportunities to connect with neighbors and others who live nearby. Finally, the car culture that is fostered in suburban settings contributes to pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, road congestion, auto fatalities (there are more people on the road, right?) and numerous other negative, unintended consequences.

If you believe that we've reached Peak Oil on this planet--and there is a lot of scientific/geologic evidence out there suggesting that we have--then you have to imagine that systems dependent on petroleum are going to eventually break down. Suburban development has been made possible by access to cheap and apparently limitless fossil fuel energy. We wouldn't, after all, consider commuting 30 or 40 miles each day if gasoline was $15.00/gallon. We wouldn't consider building 2,500+ square foot homes if it cost us at least as much in dollars each month to heat them. Folks, the fact is, life in the suburbs cannot be sustained. Biofuels--which, by the way, have to be grown and therefore displace food production--can't fill our gas tanks, keep our computers running, heat our homes and power our lights. Why do we assume limitlessness when our resources are finite? We need to re-group and re-localize. And we need to do it now.

An interesting essay linking the current housing crisis and peak oil can be found at:

I need to devote more time and attention to generating ideas that support local developments and local economies. One way that I do that is with this blog. I hope some of you will share your ideas on ways to embrace re-localization as an answer to our very fragile and unsustainable way of life. For other ideas you might visit:

As one nearby neighborhood sign noted: "We're All In This Together."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Reasons to Support Your Local Musicians

Okay. It's been a long day. And, yes, these photos of a band that hasn't existed in more than a decade are rather old. What can I say? My stock of music photography is rather meager.

A few weeks ago my friend Rob pointed me to a fun site listing 13 reasons to support local bands. The site is I used to be a big supporter of local music, back when I used to go out more. I have to figure out how to keep supporting (and enjoying) local music, without staying out too late and regretting it later (can I help it if I need a minimum of 8 hours of shut-eye?).

I hope you'll visit the site. Better yet, I hope you'll go see a band in your area. Support your local artists. As Suff is quick to point out, local music is a "much better value."