Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Small Town, Big Inspiration.

The worst thing that can happen when you give something to someone is that they blatantly don't like it. Actually, scratch that, the real worst thing is when you give and they are indifferent about it. Like, “Eh, nice to have I guess, but it doesn't really do a lot for me”. This is why people stress about gift giving, because they want to give something that is meaningful. This feeling is multiplied by about a thousand when you are talking about giving of your time. You can give diamonds (conflict-free I would hope), you can give gift cards, you can even give engraved items that are especially personal, but what could possibly be a more valuable gift than of your time?

I've been giving my time in various ways throughout these travels. Sometimes its been in exchange for a place to sleep at night (whether it be a private cabin or airy loft space), other times its been in exchange for food (and endless garden goodies), but I have also given just to give because it was something that I wanted to do.

Volunteering though can be a tricky thing though, as most Volunteer Coordinators will tell you. First the task has to be something that the volunteer can actually do, then it should be something that they want to do and oh ya, it should also be something that actually needs to be done. This may sound like an easy 3 point checklist, but it can be really complicated and when it doesn't work out it can be disastrous! If the right combination isn't reached, the volunteer may actually cause more work then there was to begin with, or can do something that they realize is basically pointless and can leave discouraged and disgruntled. Nothing is worse than feeling like an underused, idle volunteer, it might be The Ultimate Worst Waste of Time. I've had a few of these moments myself in the past few months, and I wouldn't wish them on anyone. They definitely don't help the spirit of giving (or traveling), and they linger longer than the hours you were even supposed to be working. Thankfully though, this week has been full of not only meaningful work, but also work that is much needed.



Greensburg, KS was hit by a massive tornado in May 2007 that devastated this small town in the center of the state. Remarkably, I'm sure in some part to the siren wailing for 20 minutes that Friday night, only 11 people were killed in the storm. When the other 1,000+ residents came up from their shelters though, what they saw was a scene that many are still trying to emotionally digest. Everything that was Greensburg, KS had basically been blown away...pieces of it landing more than 3 miles in all directions. Midwesterners aren't really known for their laziness though, so it doesn't come as a huge surprise that these spirited (and spiritual) Americans were going to “rebuild!”. There is a surprising part though, they decided to not only rebuild Greensburg, but to rebuild it to be even Green-er.


More than two years after the storm, I've spent my time this week on the construction site of the Silo Home, a Green residence right in the middle of town. (Aptly named for its shape, and also poinant since the corn silo in town was one of the few buildings that survived the storm). It has a solar panel in the back yard, recycled cabinets in the kitchen, eco-friendlier paint all over and even a device that turns the humidity in the air into drinking water. There are numerous city buildings that are the highest qualifying level of Green, and then some residences have just a few green highlights - sustainable materials, newfangled heating systems, etc. You can find out all about it at Greenburg, Greenstown, the nonprofit who is leading the way in the town's green rebuilding efforts. The best part about all of this for me though is that I get to spend my time doing something that is 1. awesome 2. interesting 3. needed! I know without a doubt that every nail I hammer and doorframe I paint will be helping this organization not only rebuild their town, but also show everyone around the world that if a teeny tiny town in the middle of rural America can go above and beyond in their efforts to be a better community (and better world), then the rest of us have no excuses.

There are no cutting edge sustainable suppliers within miles of this town; there is no resident architect that already knew how to do all this new green building, but they made the effort to research and figure it out simply because they cared enough to try. Not to mention that they made this decision to give a damn under incredibly dramatic and tramatizing circumstances. The residents of Greensburg, and all those who have been helping them, are a true inspiration to the rest of the world. Things aren't known to be complicated in the Midwest so the simplest way to put it is, if they can do it, the rest of us in the world can too.

Check out these tips for getting your green in Day to Day Life & Building

Friday, October 30, 2009

Yay for Kitchens!

One of the things that I've been missing most lately is a kitchen. A real kitchen that has everything you need- all your favorite spices, the right size bowls and pans, hell, some days I'd be appreciative of any pan. In keeping our wallet and health in mind while traveling, I've been trying to cook instead of getting food on the go, but without some essential tools or even a stove at times, it can be a challenge. (Not to mention that we are both basically vegan and Tau is allergic to gluten so no McDonald drive thrus on this roadtrip!) 

However, through the generosity of a church in Greensburg, KS, this week I have a fully stocked kitchen at my disposal (actually, they even have one of those, which in the past I would've been excited about, but now I much prefer a compost). Anyhow, this huge kitchen is in the church hall and is used for all sorts of large gatherings so there are tools of every size and shape, even a pizza pan! Just as I was beginning to get really excited about all the fabulous things I was going to cook...I went to the "grocery store".

Greensburg is the city that was devastated by a tornado a few years ago and although they are rebuilding, it is slow going and even then, its a small town so certain things are limited. I found out that lots of these “certain things” are things I like to eat. No soy anything (not even frozen pods!), no vegetarian-geared anything, I got a blank stare “and a What kind of star?” when I asked if they carried Morning Star and the produce "section" is 5 feet long with most of the things labeled "product of New Zealand". (Funny side note: the entire town is decorated in pumpkins and gourds of every shape and color, but there is not one edible squash in the store!)
OK, I can deal with this. I've watched enough Top Chefs to know that great chefs improvise and experiment, so that's what I've been doing. Due to the ingredients available however, what I've made this week are very simple things, not wildly experimental. However, for me its been new and exciting dishes every night this week, so I thought I would share a yummy idea if you're in a tiny town in winter and want to eat something other than the cattle that are roaming around (or if you just need a new idea for Tuesday night's dinner).


Polenta Pizza


As I just typed the title of this dish, I realized that this is already cheating because I had the Polenta mix in my car when I got here, but I had never made this before so it counts for this blog, and you also may be able to find corn grits in a tiny town surrounded by corn (or in your local Publix or Whole Foods). This idea is definitely not original, it of course came from online somewhere, but I've changed it, so here's my version.


You need:



  • Dry Polenta (corn grits). Not the refrigerated tube o' slice and bake kind. That stuff may work, but it would be complicated, so just get the dry stuff.
  • Whatever you like on pizza-veggies, sauces, etc. (I highly recommend caramelized onions.)
  • Something that will work as a mold that is at least 1 inch thick - shape doesn't matter as long as you can easily remove polenta from it. Large baking dish or skillet will do.
  • Pizza pan or cookie sheet (maybe not needed, read below for details)
  • Oven
  • Skillet and/or pan and whatever you may need to precook your toppings
  • Imagination
  1. Turn on your boiler and be really thankful that you have an oven to use. :)
  2. Mix the Polenta as directed, its basically “add water and stir”, but follow the package for how much and how long. Be sure to stir often and not have the heat up too high because this stuff definitely can burn and stick. Its kinda fun because when its cooking its pops and burps like a science experiment. It takes about 30 minutes to cook so I hope you have comfortable shoes on and maybe music playing.
  3. When its a delightfully thick concoction, dump it into a mold of some kind that will allow you to spread it as thick as you'd like your crust. I would recommend at least 1 inch as that gives it enough depth to get crispy on both sides, but is still creamy polenta in the middle. You can use a skillet or large baking dish or deep cookie sheet. Let the polenta sit in the mold about 10 minutes.
  4. Either flip it onto a sheet pan of sorts or use your mold pan and put it under the broiler until its golden brown with crispy edges. (I used a large skillet as my mold pan so i could build up sides, but then I flipped it onto a flat pizza pan to cook.) Broil the crust on each side about 7-10 minutes depending on how crispy you want it. While this is cooking you can get your veggies ready, precooking anything that needs it because they will barely be in the oven once they're on the crust.
  5. Once both sides have been browned, take it out and reset your oven to 450 as you prep the next steps.
  6. Like the fun of all homemade pizza, the toppings are entirely up to you! I chose to do mine as “let's clean out the veggie drawer night” so I used a can of artichokes, leftover steamed garlic broccoli, caramelized onions, fresh tomatoes and sauteed mushrooms. (Notice that I precooked some of the veggies as noted in #4). You can really get creative with this part, so don't feel obligated to pull out the jar of tomato sauce. Tau wanted BBQ sauce instead of tomato on his half and I went sauceless, and neither one of us had cheese*, so do it up as you like. (Non-dairy note: the polenta is kinda “creamy” on the inside, so you don't really miss the cheese on this unless you truly think of it as pizza, which it really isn't, but it gives you a good visual and I couldn't think of another name.)
  7. Once the crust is topped with your favorites, put it back in the oven at 450 for another 7 minutes so that all the flavors meld together.
  8. Cut in slices and enjoy!
 *this version is of course good for gluten free and dairy free folks

Monday, October 19, 2009

Happy 5 Month Anniversary to My Travels!

I'm currently in St. Louis staying with my cousins right in the heart of the city. Last night I discovered a great passage in one of his favorite books; I randomly opened it up and this was the page I landed on. I agree with it wholeheartedly and found it to be quite inspirational so of course I wanted to share with whoever it is that takes the time out of their busy lives to read a little bit about mine.

I drove out of Ft. Lauderdale exactly 5 months ago, so I thought this would be an appropriate way to honor the occasion.

So, from Robert Fulghum's “Words I Wish I Wrote”, I present his thoughts on Praxis:

The older I get, the less attention I pay less attention to what people say or think or hope. I notice what they do, how they live, and what they work for.
There is an unresolved argument in the arts and in politics over one's words are to be judged with regard to one's life. I come down on the side of integrity: The life validates the words.
Oratory is empty if it has not be field-tested on the battlefield of experience. And I have little use for those who white beautifully and live sordidly; or those who withdraw from the world and issue instructions for how to live in it; or priesthoods that deny the realities of the flesh but wish to control the appetites and activities of those who live as whole human beings. If you don't play the game, you cant know enough to make the rules. If you are not engaged in the sweaty work of the world, you should not be in charge of the deodorant concession. And if you cannot find a way to aid progress of human affairs, then know that the smirking cynicism of the sideline critic is a form of the plague – and to be one of those is to be a carrier of death instead of preserver of life.
Strong words? Yes, and deeply felt.
The closest I ever come to angry violence is in the presence of someone who says he will not even bother to vote because it doesn't make any difference. I saw a bumper sticker on the back of an old Buick: “If voting really changed anything, it would be illegal.” I felt like giving the driver a bumper bang from behind.
He's so typical of those who have a shallow view of history- those who don't understand that nobody has the right to ride on the bus without making some contribution to the cost of the journey. They don't respect the fact that somebody else paid the price to build the vehicle of civilization in the first place. They owe. We owe. Its a moral obligation to participate in the work of society. If you take from the pot, you must put back into the pot. Even those who have no money can sing and keep the driver awake and hopeful.
It has been said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. And I say the moral crisis of the times is continuous. Knowing and understanding and being are not enough. One must do. To gain the world and give nothing is to lose your soul.
In the words of Norman Cousins, “The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.”

I realize that is is not my role to transform either the world or man; I have neither sufficient virtue nor insight for that. But it may be to serve, in my place, those few values without which even a transformed world would not be worth living in, and man, even if “new” would not deserve to be respected.
-Albert Camus

Friday, October 16, 2009

Freezing, but fun times in Chitown

Sometimes things just really work it out. You can attribute it to luck or resourcefulness, but I think its a bit of both with a dash of optimism thrown in. I arrived back in Chicago two days ago after a brief visit to Ft. Lauderdale and was happy to be back traveling, while also incredibly sad after yet another goodbye to family and friends. However, I'm choosing to be on this adventure, and you have to take the bad with the good, so although the bad this week was tearful goodbyes, the good is stacking up quite nicely.

I made plans to stay with a CouchSurfer for 3 nights in Chicago and, yet again, I couldn't have asked for a better situation. Anya and her mom live on the south side of the city (literally in Obama's neighborhood) and welcomed me into their home by offering me my own bedroom bathroom for all three nights in their beautiful townhome. Add free street side parking and I have had an ideal home for a few nights.

As for what to do while I was in town, all it took was a few clicks online, including a “what should I do in Chicago?” post on Facebook, and I had 2 days of fun, and mostly free, activities planned. Everything worked out perfectly, so my two days in the city included:

  • Chicago Architecture Foundation's River Cruise – 90 minutes of cruising while enjoying the city's skyline and learning about how it came to be. I decided to do this despite the gray skies and 42 degree weather because really, being buried in 6 layers of clothing is just as much a part of the whole Chicago experience as the architecture is. The cruise was fun even though I don't know much about architecture. My favorite building is The Aqua, which I liked even more when I realized it was the only female architect metioned during the entire cruise.


  • Downtown-I walked around downtown with my car safe and free in a nearby garage thanks to validation by the River Cruise. Chicago is a great walking city because you have the fun cultural elements of a bustling downtown, but you don't suffocate because there is the wonderful green (and orange and yellow) elements of Grant Park and the lake right next to the skyscrapers.


  • Veggie Bingo-yes, you read that right, veggie bingo is how I spent my first night in Chicago. Part happy hour, part fundraisier, but all fun my friends. The Hideout, a local bar in Lincoln Park, hosted this event where profits from my $1 bingo cards go to a local food organization and bingo round prizes included locally made yummies such as honey, cider, and bags of farm fresh veggies. Games? Fun people? Local Food? Hell ya for a Wednesday night! Did I mention they were grilling hot dogs (regular and veggie) all night long? Did I also mention the dogs were free with your $1 bingo card? With its hole in the wall appearance the Hideout may look like a bit of a dive bar, but its really a cool spot and it has my vote for coolest little bar in Chicago.


  • Museum of Industry and Science- a perfect rainy day activity which was much needed since it rained all of Day #2. This museum is free weekdays during October and has a new exhibit, You! The Experiece, that is entirely interactive focusing on mind, body and spirit connection. This exhibit included a game that tested my relaxation skills versus another visitor by being hooked up to electrodes of some kind and another where I explored how advertising tricks us all into buying bottled water through psychological hints in commercials. They also had other interesting exhibits about some insane technology of the future (like this awesome guy) and a completely biased FarmTech demonstration that I'm convinced must've been fully sponsored by Monsanto or one of their friends as it advocated many evil industrial farm practices. For example, there was a lot of information about cows, dairy and meat, and all the posted literature talked about how important it is for cows to eat corn, which they aren't even built to eat! (Its amazing how this food policy stuff is continuing to creep into my daily life).


  • Adler Planatarium-this wouldn't necessarily have been on the top of my list of things to do in Chicago, but they were having a free nighttime event where all the exhibits and shows were open from 6-10pm, and since it was still raining, I couldn't resist. I was incredibly impressed with their ridiculously friendly staff and the event was a lot of fun as it had not only their regular spacey exhibits but also some interactive stuff. Many museums do these free nighttime activities to attract the yuppy-ish crowd, so I highly suggest checking out your local museums to see if they do this sort of thing as its a great way to go for free. The Adler had a DJ spinning and good food and drinks, which make 3D star movies narrated by Robert Redford even more enjoyable. (Although to be honest, the people and winter clothes watching was as much, if not more, fun than the star shows.)

I'm glad I came to Chicago; despite the cold and the rain, I had a great time. I had nothing planned just 3 days ago and yet I kept my budget low and experienced some uniquely Chicago things. A lot of people ask me how I manage to travel like I have been doing - on a low budget with not a lot planned ahead of time and really all you need is the optimism...and the internet!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I Love Surfing!

I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale right next to the ocean, but the waves were not so great so I'm not talking about surfing that requires a board, I'm talking about the kind that requires a couch, or a guestroom, and a bit of faith in humanity. CouchSurfing (CS) “is an international non-profit that is a network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world.” Through its website, CS connects members with each other when they need a place to sleep while traveling. People from all over the world use CS to travel on a budget and to meet fellow traveling souls. Some use it while they are on vacation and don't want to stay at hotels; this way you get a place to stay and a local tour guide of sorts. Others use it when they are traveling for business, perfect for an overnighter for a job interview or meeting, and others still use it before they move to a city so they can stay with a local who knows the neighborhoods for a night or two.

I joined CouchSurfing before the start of this recent traveling adventure, and the concept of sleeping on a stranger's couch (or guestroom) was just as foreign to me as it is to everyone who first learns about it. But now, as the recipient of amazing hospitality in cities from Gainesville, FL to Buffalo, NY, I am a true believer and last week I had a great CS experience:

Tau and I were camping in the beautiful Adirondack mountains in upstate NY for a week. We had a small tent under the stars and were very content on our air mattress for several days. On the last night though, the rain came. And kept coming. Around 9pm we discovered that Tau's 10 year old tent had lost all of its waterproofing ability and needless to explain it was quite the soggy night. He made a valiant effort that included garbage bags, tape and towels, and I helped as much as I could while hysterically laughing at the entire situation. The next day, still a bit damp and tired, I logged onto CouchSurfing and found the profile of a local CSer, Jack. Jack is a young guy in his 20's and lives in his family's 200 year old farmhouse in Chestertown, NY. His many acres includes several barns, a small vegetable garden and he spends his time “attempting to create a sustainable practice with it while honing the ability to live off the land by gaining experience in organic gardening, woodlot management, animal stewardship, food preservation, and resource conservation.” Less than an hour after contacting him requesting to stay the night, we got a call back saying “Sure, come on over! I'm also hosting 4 German travelers tonight, so the more the merrier! I'm cooking dinner right now so be sure you get here in time for that...”. Couchsurfing provided a warm place to sleep, an amazing (veggie-friendly) home cooked meal, and great conversation with an international flare. Even with 7 of us there, we had plenty of space as his house is huge (7 bedrooms) and is part history museum (think floral wallpaper and antique furniture) and part bachelor pad (drum set is in the middle of one of the living rooms). Jack couldn't have been a better host and I'll forever be grateful for taking us in out of the rain. Instead of spending another night in a wet tent, we spent it with a group of CouchSurfers in a warm, dry, safe house.

Some people have 7 bedrooms to share, others just a couch in the living room. Some want to spend the time to show you around town, others need you out by 9am because they need to be at work. Couchsurfers are young and old, hippie and conservative and since there are over 1 million participants, they may have more not in common than in common, except for one thing: faith in humanity. They open their homes and their lives to give a stranger a place to lay their head. They like meeting new people, exchanging ideas and learning about the neighbors we share the planet with. I'd highly recommend you to sign up on CS. Its free and easy to use and its a great way to widen your world.

ps. some of the German girls who were also staying with Jack were traveling to NYC the next day and needed a place to stay for a night. Tau's friend in the city recently joined CS after learning about it when we stayed with him last month. One phone call later the girls had a great place to stay in the city. Voila! The magic continues...

Monday, August 31, 2009

"Uncle!"

When I was younger I learned that you are supposed to say “uncle!” when you are roughhousing with your friend, brother, or dad, and you find yourself in a position where either you:
  • A. can't seem to get yourself freed
  • B. are so uncomfortable that its no longer fun
  • C. don't feel like playing/trying/struggling anymore
  • D. all of the above

I'm not sure of the history of this, but somewhere along the line, “uncle” became the universal safe word for “ok, that's it! I'm done!”. This past week I called “uncle”, but in my case it was “hotel!” because I was d. all of the above.

As of last week I had been living on a farm for a month, then I drove 8 hours, camped in the mountains, drove 8 more hours, then slept at a friend of a friend's house. The farm was fantastic, the camping was beautiful, and Tau's friend was the best possible hostess anyone could ask for. But I was just tired. The day after the friend's house we were supposed to maybe move on to the next town, but also maybe go back into the mountains to camp and catch up on work and it became a domino row of a day continuing to tumble downward by the minute. There was rushing and planning and rushing to plan and planning to rush and just when we pulled back into yet another gigantic grocery store (which themselves seem overwhelming lately), I was done. We needed camping food and supplies for several days and a storm was rolling in and it was getting late and I needed to run some errands in town and on and on and on and I got out of my car and yelled “HOTEL!”.

I've been traveling for just over 3 months and besides one night in Virginia for a family wedding I have not once stayed in a hotel. I've been in lovely guest rooms, cozy campsites, open air loft spaces, and even had my own cabin on the Vermont farm. Sometimes though, you just need a bit of space, your own space, and its even better if that space comes with a hot shower, non-inflatable bed and light that doesn't require batteries.

I'm not the most hardcore traveler by any means, I have a car full of amenities; but I'm certainly not a princess traveler either as I did perfect the art of washing my hair in a bathtub instead of a shower for 4 weeks. I've met travelers along the way who travel with no money (although some consider stealing an acceptable means of food shopping) and others who require a 27 foot RV, so I feel pretty comfortable in my middle of the road traveling needs. Regardless of any pre-made plans though, happiness is an absolute priority, and its good to know when to say when and to ask for and seek out what you need. I needed a hotel and a great shower (the big fluffy bed was an added bonus that I also thoroughly enjoyed).

The next night after the hotel I was happily camping in the Adirondacks and with the sky filled with stars and the pines swaying overhead, I wouldn't change it for the Microtel at all. At the time though, it was just what I needed and its always great to be able to have just what you need to keep on smiling along the way.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Feature: Email Updates!

Hi there loyal blog readers,

First of all, thank you so much for reading! This adventure has been fantastic so far and I love being able to share it with all of you and hear your thoughts and comments.

By popular demand, I just added a fun new feature to the site - you can now enter your email address below on the left and you'll receive an email when I've posted a new blog. I know my postings have been a bit infrequent lately and I'm sure you can understand that its hard to keep up between harvesting brocoli 3 times a week and swinging from the tree tops in Vermont. I'm trying to catch up though, so there will be lots of new posts and photos in the next few days!

With the new Email Updates feature you don't have to worry about checking the blog, you will automatically get an update in your email box instead! If you use a Reader, you can also do a subscription through that by using the "Subscribe to me in your Reader" link to the left.

Thanks again for reading and let me know if there are any other features that you think I should add...

Thanks,
Monica

Tree Climbing in Vermont

I'm lucky enough to be traveling with someone who when seeing a brochure that says “Learn How to Tree Climb”, he grabs it and says, “Oh yea! We are definitely doing this!” Less than a week later I found myself sixty feet up, enjoying the view from my self-made seat of ropes and carabiners.

Let me first introduce you to our host, Allen Manning. Allen is Canadian by birth, American by dual
citizenship, and all around crazy ass fun guy by self-made retirement. He and his wife Brenda lived in Montreal for many years, both working in the corporate IT world. You would never guess that he was city born and raised though, as he's standing in front of you with his “2007 Tree Climbing Competition” shirt on. If you would've asked him 10 years ago what his retirement plan was, he would've said “a condo in Montreal will be just right” with all certainty. Thankfully, some friends talked Allen into buying some land in Danville, a small town in Northern Vermont. The land was heavily treed, had lots of uneven ground and would take a lot of work to turn into a home. But it did have a trout creek running through it, and just when he was about to decline, he visited one last time and literally heard a voice tell him that this is where he and Brenda were meant to be.

Fast forward to today and the Manning's house is like a retirement playground, and I'm sure his grandkids feel the same way! They built a beautiful home in the middle of the land, with a gorgeous view of the valley below. Surrounding the home though are still acres of trees, with miles of trails cut out for exploring. Allen has also built an awesome tree house, complete with wood burning stove, quick escape fire pole and fully functioning bathroom! This, the big house, and multiple barns and buildings on the property are all made from trees from his land. There are piles of lumber everywhere, just waiting for whatever his imagination is going to think of next. My favorite thing though is the 230ft zip line. Allen will laugh when he reads that this is my favorite, remembering that I had to count to 10, not 3, before I jumped off; but as I was screaming like I was going to die, I was having the time of my life! We all should zip line more often.

Allen picked up tree climbing as a hobby when he was clearing his land. He uses all types of techniques, but all of them respect the trees (no spikes) and are very safe (there are safety knots upon knots upon knots). We learned what is known as the Double Rope Technique which in a nutshell means you take one piece of rope, throw one end up over a tree branch and then pull that end down so you have both ends at the bottom with you. (This makes it sound much easier as it is, as it sometimes takes hours to set up the rope, and can require the use of the massive slingshot) This technique is an extremely safe way to climb since you never have to take the rope out of your harness. Ok, enough with the technicalities, here is the important stuff that I learned:

  1. No one feels sexy in a tree climbing harness. Regardless of gender or size, its just a funny contraption that pulls up where things shouldn't pull up. However, I would gladly wear one everyday if it means you get to climb trees and fly down zip lines!
  2. Cool knots are really useful, but you have to practice them at least daily to remember how to tie a “B53” or “Prusik”.
  3. Before climbing, always remember to do your B.A.C.K Safety Check:

    - Belt: is this thing tight enough so that I won't die?
    - Anchor: is this branch strong enough so that I won't die?
    - Carabiner: is this tiny piece of metal correctly clicking so that I won't die?
    - Knots: is this tied correctly so that I won't die?

The Double Rope Technique is easy to learn and a good way to climb a tree if you were ever so inclined. It doesn't require massive upper body strength, you just push down with one leg, and up with the other arm. (Again, I'm simplifying a bit, the next day I had sore muscles where I didn't even know I had muscles, but you get the idea that this is possible for us average folk) Tree Climbing was amazingly fun and I'd encourage everyone to try it if you have the opportunity. It may not be the most useful of all the technical skills to know, but its a good workout and a a great time!

Photos

Vermont Tree Climbing

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just Keep Driving, Just Keep Driving

After the whole border ordeal, Sherbrooke ended up being a lame city. Its industrial looking and feeling, its full of closed up businesses and really, its just plain ugly. Yes, there is a big cathedral in the middle, and a few mildly interesting buildings, but interesting just because they are really old. Eh, not good enough. Apparently there are some pretty gardens, but when you are currently living amongst the trees, you didn't drive an hour and go through that whole ordeal to see a garden! And I like gardens! I took over 400 photos of flowers in Quito when I had been stuck in the city just for a few days.

After a few hours of fruitless wandering, I got back on the highway to head south. I was debating whether I should just write Canada off and head home, or stop somewhere else to try to find something interesting. Thankfully, I followed my adventurous gut and drove on to Magog, a much smaller dot on the map and one that I was planning on passing over when I had originally thought the bigger dot of Sherbrooke would produce a fun filled day. (Sherbrooke wasn't a total loss, I did find a yummy quiche at a farmer's market and took a nap under a tree; could've been worse.) Anyway, I exited at Magog wondering if I was going to find anything fun, but then I passed a Wal-Mart. Damnit, another shitastic town?! “No”, said my gut, “just keep driving, just keep driving”. (This message was of course set to Dora's famously optimistic tune of “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” as an Nemo fan would know.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a decorative light post with a planter full of flowers hanging from it. As most travelers know, cute light posts with hanging plants typically mean one thing: fun downtown area! By time I had thought that thought I was already in it - Rue Principale - a long street with not only restaurants and shops, but also droves of people enjoying the gorgeous day. When I had first arrived in Sherbrooke, that was one of the signs that it was going to be a bust, there was hardly anyone walking around the entire city. This was the exact opposite, there were so many people that I wondered where they had all come from, and for what? I instantly parked the car and began exploring. I wandered in and out of several shops filled with a variety of things – nice smelling soaps, colorful Indian clothing, and handmade trinkets from around the world. I've grown pretty good at not collecting things that I don't need (and can't fit in the car), even if they are beautiful, however, I have several loved ones' birthdays coming up, so I always have an eye out for fun presents to mail south.

It was interesting to be surrounded by a crowd of people and not really hearing anything, they were all speaking of course, surely interesting conversations of all sorts were going on around me, but it was all in French. Magog is located right in the heart of Quebec, so although I heard some Fren-glish from time to time, it mostly undecipherable. I find that when you are surrounded by a foreign language, at first all you hear is noise and then that eventually just turns to white noise and you just hear nothing. If you are around it for long enough you go backwards and start recognizing words, but I don't know a word of French, so it was just buzzing everywhere that eventually just became quietness.

I walked down to the end of Principale and ended up on Rue Merry, “How could this not also be a fun street?” the adventurous gut said quite simply. As I looked around I discovered that the droves of people were coming from a fairly wooded area close to a riverbank. There were a few small white tents peaking out through the green. Just like pretty light posts mean cute downtown, white tents usually mean street festival. Score! I happily walked over, thanking my adventurous gut for telling me to continue on and thinking about what a lucky wanderer I was to find not only an entertaining first street, but also some kind of outdoor entertainment on the second street. I was so excited that I was practically skipping; Canada was no longer a waste of a gorgeous day.

There were tents full of paintings, crafts, jewelry and gourmet foods. There was music playing on two different stages, games for kids and frozen drinks for adults. For awhile I had no idea where I was or what this was all about, I just continued to contently wander. There were official looking signs everywhere that said “Traverse” and a logo of a swimmer, so I looked for a cute, possibly English-speaking, guy to ask. (If you're going to ask for information, it might as well be coming from a good looking Quebecian). The bleachers full of cheering fans next to the river helped solve the puzzle though; apparently I was at some sort of swimming competition that Magog was hosting in conjunction with the festival for the fans and locals. Sounds good to me! A loud speaker suddenly came on announcing “french, french, french, Gabrielle!, french, french!” and I joined everyone applauding and cheering for a Micheal Phelps look-alike coming down the home stretch in the water.

The rest of my evening in Magog was definitely enjoyable. I wandered through the festival, watched some swimmers, wandered down other interesting streets, had dinner watching the sun set behind the mountains on the riverside and even snuck in a load of laundry at a local laundromat (when in the city one must appreciate such luxuries!).

The festival ended with a U2 cover band and they closed by belting out the lyrics to “Beautiful Day”:

It was a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Beautiful day
Touch me
Take me to that other place
Reach me I know I'm not a hopeless case
What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
Don't need it now
Was a beautiful day

...and I danced along thinking that I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Welcome to Canada!"

Since I'm living about 30 minutes from the Canadian border, I decided to head north to cross over and check it out. There are two towns that are fairly close, Magog and Sherbrooke, so it seemed like a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday.

The morning was really misty and I couldn't see more than a few feet in front of my car, at one point I couldn't see anything but cloud on either side of the road either. I wasn't sure if there were trees there and the mist was just to dense to see them or if I was going over some huge bridge so there wasn't land on either side of the road to see. It was like driving trough the heavens.

It wasn't too long before I saw the border crossing, all big and official, just like in the movies, kinda like a toll booth on steroids. The Canadian flag flew overhead as I waited in the line of cars, and I was suddenly excited, Canada here I come! I've never driven across an American border, but looked simple enough from watching the line of cars in front of me: wait your turn, present your passport, "Welcome to Canada!" Well, it was simple enough...for them.

I pulled up to the window and a nice girl with insane looking teeth (socialized healthcare, eh? just kiiiiiiidding) said “Bon Jour!”(oh, how I love accents!). Then she asked me a few simple questions:
"How long was I planning on staying in Canada?"
"Just the day”
Where exactly are you going?"
“Sherbrooke and Magog"
"Were do you live?"
“Vermont, er, Florida, well, ya, Florida, but currently staying in Vermont”. Hmm, maybe that wasn't the best answer for the border patrol. Even regular people don't think like it when you cant answer “where do you live?”so the border patrol must really not like it, even when you follow it up with, “well I live in Florida, but I'm traveling right now, so I'm in Vermont for a few weeks working on a farm”.
“I see...and all these things I see in your car...?”, motioning to the mass amounts of crap piled in my backseat.
“Well, like I said, I'm traveling right now, so I have lots of things, but my main luggage is in Vermont on the farm”.
“ I see... Any firearms? Guns? Pepper spray? Knives? Weapons?”
“Actually, I do have some pepper spray in here soooomewhere,” I said looking around the car.
“Ok, here is your pasport, please take this piece of paper and pull over and come inside”.
Hmm, none of the other cars had pulled over and came inside. Greeeeeat.

Suddenly I was having flashbacks of a few months ago when May and I traveled to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos Islands. When we arrived in Panama City to change planes, they wouldn't let me back on the plane because Ecuador requires that all American passports be valid 6 months after you enter the country. Mine was going to expire in a month so no "Welcome to Ecuador!" for us. We had watched our plane take off to Quito as we headed to the American embassy to get a new “emergency issued” passport. It was a big hassle that all worked out in the end, but still the thought of more immigration officials is never a good one.

I get another friendly “Bon Jour!” as I approached the counter, but then the questions start again:
“Where are you from?”
“I live in Florida, but am currently traveling and staying in Vermont (I'm working on my succinctness)
“Why does your passport look so funny?”
“It was issued in Panama”
“Oh...thats why its only valid for one year”, as she examines, twists and turns the page with my photo.
“Yes”, (so thaaats the problem, weird passport!, I think to myself) “I needed to get a new one in Panama in order to travel to Ecuador in March”
“So...you travel often?”
“Yes”
“Do you own a home in Florida?”
“No, I was living at an apartment before I started traveling”
“How much cash do you have on you?”
I open my purse, get out my wallet and look, “$17.”
“And what about credit or debit cards?”
“Yes, I have one of each”
“And how much money can you access with your debit card?”
Well, thats kinda personal! I told them a few thousand dollars.
“Hmm. Ok, welllllll, we need to confiscate your pepper spray. You can pick it up when you come back.”
"Really? Pepper spray is illegal in Canada? Man! That is so great!” I thought back to Michael Moore's movies about how the US has a million guns and Canada has none, and apparently they don't even have pepper spray! I was genuinely impressed and amazed, but I don't think they knew what to make of my reaction.
“I just got it actually, its still in the package! My friends kept telling me that since I was traveling I should have some sort of defense thing, so I bought some in Vermont, I'll go get it.” I'm laughing to myself as I walk over to get the pepper spray out of my car. I can't wait to thank Tau for suggesting that I buy some! I come back in and happily hand over my vacuum sealed defense mechanism.
“Ok, we also need to search your vehicle.”
I handed over the key thinking how insane my car is right now. I keep trying to keep it clean, but there still is bags upon bags of all kinds of stuff.
“What can we expect to find in your car?”
I thought of the blog post with the photo with the bags and try to remember the labels – “first aid kit, air mattress, bag of books, bag of sweaters, cooler that I have no idea what's in at this point, clothes, boxes from recently purchased electronics, some trash, a sleeping bag, etc.”
“anything that can hurt us? Needles?”
“I think I have a sewing kit somewhere...”
The Canadian just frowned and walked outside.

I took a seat and watched the guy take everything out one by one by one by one, I would love to know whats going through his head! He came back in not too much later and was gathering my things and giving me a receipt for the pepper spray.

“Bring this back to us and we'll give you back your spray”
I smiled, “Thanks. Sorry its so crazy in there, I haven't reorganized in awhile, find anything fun?
“Well, the two plastic bags of dried leaves made me jump a bit, but then I saw the labels and figured out it was 'tea', something called “nettles, eh?”
"Oh, yaaaaaaah. It was a present from farmer in North Carolina!"
He handed over my key and passport, and finally, after everything said, “Welcome to Canada!”


Writing note: So I wrote the above while waiting for laundry to be done during my Canadian afternoon. I'll get into what actually went on during my day in next post tomorrow, but now that its the next morning, the above needed to be modified with the addition of the following:

Border Crossing Part 2: “Welcome Home!”
It was about 9:30pm when I headed south back “home” to Vermont. I had had a full Canadian day and was ready to be back on US soil. Again I saw the border patrol in the distance, this time I wasn't quite as excited since I knew I would have to go back and get my pepper spray from the Canadians and then go through the American side, but surely that would be simpler, after all, I have my Screaming Eagle passport, and I'm an Amerrrrican!

The Canadian check point is a few hundred yards north of the American one so I past that one first but I didn't see anywhere to pull over, so I ended up at the American gate figuring I could just pull over there and walk back to get my pepper spray. (This visual detail of location is important later). Thankfully there was no line of cars and a kind looking mustached man greeted me with an “Evenin' ma'am” when I pulled up. Yay for southern charm in northern Vermont.
“Hmm”, he said as he twisted and turned my passport. “Why is this so funny lookin'”
Oh shit, not again! “its an emergency passport, it was issued in Panama when I needed a new one a few months ago”
“Hmmm”, and then the all too familiar glance to the piles of stuff in the back seat.

I'd take you through the questions again, but you can just reread the list from the morning routine as it was basically identical. Eventually we got to the “could you please pull your car over and come inside” and the whole routine happened again: “how much money do you have, where did you go, where do you live”, the searching of the car, the finding of the tea, etc. This side of the border also did not understand the amount of stuff you need when traveling the country. Apparently this time I was thought to be Canadian in disguise trying to move to the States as opposed to in the morning when I was surely trying to move to Canada. There were a few new "American" questions:
"I don't understand, you only took $17 to Canada?"
"Yes sir. I don't spend much, I even have some change left" I said as I dropped a few Canadian dimes out of my wallet."
"You don't get paid to work on the farm? I don't understand! Why do you work there?"
"Because I want to learn about farming and they let me stay there in exchange for helping"
"Why? I don't understand."

(As these questions continued to get more ridiculous and "hard to understand", there was a kind looking man sitting at the back desk smiling at me. As Sergent Genius continued to ask about my travels, the man quietly said, almost to himself, "sounds amazing, are you having a great time?". He was so genuine and sincere. Sergent ignored him and kept on furiously typing, but I said, "absolutely, its a great country to see." We chatted in between absurd questions, and I told him about North Carolina and New York City. He suggested going to see the Amish in Ohio instead of Pennsyvania. I wrote down the name of the town and thanked him for the advice. I hope I never forget him, I don't know how he ended up in Border Patrol, he had the kindest smile.)

Finally after about 45 minutes I was released and welcomed “home”! But I still needed to pick up the stupid pepper spray! “You'll have to drive around and go through Canadian border patrol for that ma'am” said a different mustached man inside the building. Damnit! I rounded the American gate and u-turned to head back north to Canada.
"Bon Jour!" (Back at Canadian border patrol window)
“Yes 'Bon Jour', listen, I know my passport and car look funny, but I'm just here to pick up my pepper spray, here is the receipt from this morning.”
"Hmm" (twist and turn of the passport, review of the evil massively destructive pepper spray receipt.)
“Please come inside”
UGH! I drove around...
“Hello again, here is my passport, could I please have my pepper spray”
“Sure, please sign these 5 documents indicating that you are aware of the dangers”
“No problem!”
“Here ya go! Careful with that stuff!”

I got back in the car to go through US customs again, hoping for the same guy and sure enough, Mr. Mustache, now laughing at/with me greets me with a smile.
“Evening ma'am. I know we just did this, but I'm going to have to see that funny passport again”
“Shit! Shit!” I said as I was searching my bag. “The Canadian took it when I was getting my pepper spray and didn't give it back!”
“Are you kidding, ma'am?”
“Oh. My. God.”
“Back around you go ma'am, here, why don't I hold that spray for ya. Wouldn't want you get caught up again”

Yet another u-turn...

“Bon Jour! " ...again. (The accent had lost its charm at this point)
"I was just here picking up my pepper spray and the girl inside didn't give me my passport back.”
“Are you suuure?” suspiciously glancing at the backseat.
“Yes I'm (@#%$ sure!” (I didn't actually say "(@#%$", but in my head it was defintely there!)
“Ohhhh, actually, yep, here is it! Why is it so funny looking.........?"
"IT'S FROM PANANMA! Actually, while I'm here, could you stamp that damn thing! I was wondering why I didn't get a stamp this morning."
"We don't ususally stamp US passports"
"Well, I'd like a stamp if you don't mind, I really need an official souvenir of this border crossing"
The Canadian looked at me like I was asking him for a piece of the Crown Jewels, but said "Alrighty" *stamp* "Welcome to Canada!"
"Ya, ya, thanks a bunch."
I u-turned to America, got handed over my vacuum sealed evil spray from smiling Mr. Mustache and finally crossed the border close to midnight!
I drove back to the farm at such crazy speeds that I'm still surprised I made it at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cloud's Path Farm, Sheffield, Vermont

I've only been on the farm for a week, but it seems like I'm a million years away from riding the B train from china town to the upper west side. When you first get to the farm, you appreciate its beauty from afar, admiring the house that was made out of trees from the land and the rows of green crops that roll down the hill. But after a week, the real beauty of this place has surrounded me. The real beauty has roots far deeper than the tomato vines or maple trees and can be felt more than it can be seen. Simple, happy living is what makes Cloud's Path Farm one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to.

Many people talk, and write, about simplicity. “Living simply” is a theme of blogs, articles, books and discussions. I much prefer the living of it than the talking about it, but I'll try my best to share the genuine happiness that comes from this type of lifestyle. This farm life is truly a simple one and by simple I don't in any way mean easy, unimportant, unintelligent or lesser than anyone or anything. These are not “simple people”, they are intelligent, witty and charming. I mean simple as in there's no chatter, no drama, no trivial nonsense. There is no crap to get in the way of living. There's a blue sky, hard work, and fun everyday. There is a loving young family, friends down the road and dreams mixed in with daily life. There are shared meals made with “simple” ingredients of amazingly fresh food (on the farm, “fresh” means picked less than 5 minutes ago). There are two fantastic kids running around being just that, fantastic kids. They have dirty faces and genuine smiles, intelligence beyond belief and an endless supply of giggles. There is NPR and BBC on the morning radio and good books and DVDs at night. There are two of the bravest people I've ever met who built this place of beauty, and they don't even seem to realize how courageous they are, because they are just “simply” themselves, doing what they want to do.

The simple days start early, but not at dawn (no need for 6am gym schedules here). They start with roosters making their noise and sleepy eyes in the kitchen. Everyone makes something good, maybe a smoothie, or a freshly gathered egg, anything with a little protein to get you going in the morning. There is always a huge variety of fresh baked goods, a truly dangerous thing for someone with a carb-sweet weakness! After a relaxed breakfast, Sally and Sam each grab buckets and tend to their respective animals. There are chickens, goats, pigs and of course Dogarella and Sheba, the best farm dogs ever. The day's activities depend on the day of the week, but there is always a wide variety of work to be done. Sally may be pounding bread dough in the kitchen, making over 50 loaves each week to sell at the farmer's markets. In between the white, wheat and sour dough creations, there are also cinnamon rolls, blueberry scones, ultimate chocolate chunk cookies and maybe even a whoopie pie or two. Meanwhile Sam is probably in the fields, obsessively examining swiss chard , pulling down trees, rotatilling new beds for planting or chopping firewood for winter. There's always weeding to be done and something delicious to be pulled or planted, and that's where I come in. Some days I'll be with Sally in the kitchen attempting to control the dough balls, but other days I'm trying to find the carrots under the “weed pressure” or slicing off fresh broccoli heads. There is corn to be hoed, firewood to be stacked, and bread to be rolled and patted. If its hot enough, a swim in the quarry feels amazing in the afternoon, (the Romans would be seriously jealous of this marble pool). After a good day's work, its back to the main house for a fresh dinner, one night it was .38's soup, another it was stirfry with locally made seitan and snow peas and greens from the lower garden. After the kitchen is cleaned all of the stars come out soon, and I mean ALL of them, and really all you want to do is curl up with that awesome book you've been reading to find out what's going to happen next. There are fun things to do in town, the occasional dance party, neighboring places to explore or a Bread & Puppet Show (blog coming soon), so don't even think that I'm anywhere close to bored yet. The days are filled with fun and new things to learn and figure out, and yet somehow they are “simple”. There's not a lot of crap, there's not a lot of noise; there is just work and fun and damn good food in between.

I'm not on any timetable to be here or to move on, I'm just here for awhile. I had decided to do some farm work to learn about growing food, but in this effort to live simply, I've discovered that I'm simply living.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I am so damn proud of you.

Usually when one person says, “I'm so proud of you” to another person its being said from a parent to a child, or a teacher to a student; its typically from a person of higher authority to an underling of sorts. Not often enough to we say these words to our counterparts, our family, our friends; but today I feel like shouting it from the empire state building. I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by truly inspiring people, and today I was literally beaming with pride as I watched one of them in her glory. (I was smiling so much at on point that my face hurt!)

This morning I found myself sitting in a classroom of a historic NYC high school. There were TV cameras and reporters milling about, anxious for the press conference to start, and audience members chatting about what an exciting morning it was for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). For a bit of context, the NYCLU is the local chapter of the ACLU and it “defends and promotes the fundamental principles and values embodied in the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the New York Constitution.” This morning's press conference was to announce the release of a report “documenting the successes of six New York City public high schools in maintaining safe, nurturing educational environments without using metal detectors, aggressive policing and harsh disciplinary policies”. And guess who co-wrote this amazing study about how we can treat students as people, not rabid animals? My college roommate and lifelong friend!

I can't even describe how exciting it was to open the first glossy page and see her name listed (third from the top!) as a co-author. I was so thrilled to be in town to see her standing proudly in front of the cameras as a host of fellow civil right-defenders discussed the importance of this report. I am so damn proud of her. Not everyone's friends are fantastically smart, and not everyone's friends do truly important work, not important like “I'm going to make a million dollars on this deal” important, more like “improving public education for generations to come” type of important. But my friend does! She spends hours upon hours in her downtown office fighting the fight for students who don't even know who they should be fighting against to protect their right to go to school and not be greeted by “machines instead of hugs” as one Principal referred to metal detectors today. The students should be concentrating on passing Algebra and who the new cute kid in class is, not trying to figure out how to get the Dept. of Ed. to not install surveillance cameras in their bathrooms. And lucky for them, they don't have to worry about any of this ridiculous policy because she does their worrying and fighting for them.

Proud doesn't seem like a big enough word to describe how I felt this morning, but its all I got. (Maybe an adverb would help). I'm overwhelmingly proud of my friend, the New York civil liberties lawyer, who isn't in it for the fancy gold leaf lobbies (although who doesn't love being greeted by marble in the morning), she's in it to truly be an advocate for those who need her, and the city of New York is lucky to have her fighting on their behalf.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

As American as Central Park

New York City was a great place to be for the Fourth of July. It wasn't because of the fireworks (which I hardly saw any of), or the great rooftop parties (even though I went a fabulous one), it was the people, specifically the people in The Park. I spent Saturday afternoon strolling through America, via Central Park.

For the first Saturday in weeks, the sun was shining, the sky was bright blue and New Yorkers were soaking up every second of it. The park was bustling with energy and there were tons of people walking/biking/strollering the paths, but not to the point that you felt like you were at Disney on Memorial Day weekend. The people were all shapes and sizes, shades and styles- young couples holding hands walked the paths, groups of friends picniced on the great lawn, musicians shared their talent at each intersection and kids and dogs chased balls and frisbees. I heard no less than 10 different languages being spoken, but they all shared the same tone: happiness. I don't know Croatian, Chinese, Japanese, German or French, but I know happiness when I hear it, and the park was teaming with it on the Fourth of July.

I can't even remember what I did last Forth of July, but this one I spent observing Americans in their finest. I heard a Chinese man playing Phantom on a beautiful string instrument, a jazz quartet singing classics to a small audience on a hill, and an interesting gypsy named Thoth belt out amazing opera while playing a violin and dancing in circles in a gold loin cloth (his performance alone could warrant an entire blog post). I saw a a graceful 65+ woman “rollerdancing” in black tights and pink gloves, a group of hip hop dancers pay tribute to Micheal Jackson and some reality TV stars who were out enjoying the park just like me. I may have very few things in common with the people that I saw in the park on Saturday, I can't speak Chinese and I don't play an instrument, but we all share one thing that's sometimes gets a really bad rap, we're all American and that means that Thoth can dance in a loin cloth if he wants to, and multi-ethnic hip hop dancers can be in the same routine, and I can wander the park and soak it all up just because I feel like it. Our country does some seriously idiotic things and hopefully we'll continue to grow and evolve in a positive way (Go, Obama, Go!), but in the meantime, I appreciate it for all the positives that it offers, like a beautiful green space amidst the cement jungle that I, and everyone else, can enjoy on a Saturday afternoon.

Central Park is this beautiful oasis in the middle of the chaotic city, a peaceful refuge from the madness and in a way such a perfect example of how people from every background can all be in one place and coexist, not only peacefully, but happily. Sure a pedestrian may accidentally cut off a cyclist, but they just smile and say “permiso/excuse me/scusi” and carry on their way. There's no need for nukes here, just an apology, some understanding and a positive outlook on humanity.
Happy Fourth of July from Central Park.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Uncle Joe*

Do you have an Uncle Joe?

Uncle Joe is a true character. He's one of those guys that script writers love to meet because the story about him basically writes itself. Joe lives in Texas. He makes his own bullets that he uses to shoot large African animals and tiny American ground hogs (both of which I highly disapprove of). His jeans hang low and his big salt and pepper stash is classic. Joe doesn't get excited easily and his big dog is always on his heels. He is 69 years old and still goes on cross country road trips on his motorcycle, you know, just for fun.
We all love when Joe comes to family reunions because you never really know what he'll say. Although he usually hangs back and wanders by himself, when he does socialize, you want to be there, because it will surely be entertaining!

I present the latest "Joe-isms":

A 6 year old approached Joe to say Happy Birthday:
Kid: Someone said you're 25 today
Joe: grunt
Kid: I don't think you're 25. You look ooooold. I think you're 56!
Joe: How old are you?
Kid: I'm 6!!
Joe: Wanna live to be 7? PISS OFF!!

Several family members are playing Scrabble, a reunion favorite:
Aunt: Want to play with us Joe?
Joe: nope
Cousin: Aw, c'mon Joe, it'll be fun, come play!
Joe: I don't think you'd like any of the words I'd try to put down. Ha. Ha.

I, the "nongolfer", was paired with Joe, "the golfer" (but not really), for a family golf game:
Me: Woohoo! I'm so excited to learn how to golf! I'm ready Uncle Joe! What club should I use?
Joe: grunt. What's your favorite number?
Me: I don't think that's what the club numbers are based on...

At a wedding, a male member of the newly married in family approaches Joe:
New Guy: Hey Joe! I heard you re the famous husband of that great dancing lady on the dance floor!
Joe: you dance with my wife again, I'll break your fucking legs.

I hope you all have an Uncle Joe. He's gruff, but he's so damn funny that you can't help but smile and hope that he always shows up.

*Names have of course been changed to keep everyone guessing. Joe likes his privacy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

At the Rivah

I apologize for yet another hiatus, but I'm currently on vacation at the Rivah in Virginia. Yes, even "purposeful hobos" as my uncle likes to describe me, go on vacation. See you in a few days...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Better World

Think about all the assholes you've met in your life, or even ever heard of. Everyone from that guy that cut you off in traffic for no reason to the bitchy mom who hits her kids. Think about the awful people that throw trash out the window and that kick dogs. I'm talking about the simply evil people that are unfortunately a part of our world, and your family's world. What if you had a piece of paper in your pocket that could clearly identify these assholes so that you didn't have to go anywhere near them. You could completely avoid them and not only save yourself the grief of dealing with them, but also not give them any of the attention that most assholes crave (and need to survive). Would you look at the list so that you could not ever have to deal with them, or would you ignore it and continue to be a part of their world?

Unfortunately I didn't find the book to avoid all asshole people, but I did find the book to guide you away from asshole companies. While perusing through Ten Thousand Villages the other day, I found something that you need to own.

The Better World Shopping Guide is a pocket sized book that makes you a more informed consumer; and an all around better person my opinion because it means that you care. Simply put, this book tells you who is evil and who is not. Which means it tells you who you should support (via your mighty dollar) and who you should shun and therefore contribute to the effort to make them go away (or change). There is a wealth of information and research that has been condensed into an easy to use categorized guide so that when you're deciding which car to get, which gas to pump or which soup to eat, you can refer to the book and learn some helpful information. Data has been collected over the past 20 years from a wide range of nonprofit sources on the social and environmental responsibility of more than 1000 companies (more details on the research at www.betterworldshopper.org).

Let's talk facts:
  • There is evidence that Altoids suppliers use child slave labor! Still want that mint? Just reach for a Newman's Own instead.
  • Clairol still tests on animals when there is positively no need to. Instead go for Aveda or Paul Mitchell.
  • Kraft has been awarded with the Greenwash Award for public deception, undermines overseas health standards and is the #1 contributor to Washington lobbyists. Wonder what they are buying with over $100 million that they "invest/donate" to lobbyists? FYI, Kraft owns tons of companies including Boca Burgers, Balance Bars, Chips A Hoy, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Ritz, Oreo, Maxwell House, and many more.
Speaking of Kraft, they make one of the book's Top 10 Lists.

The 10 Worst List:
  1. Exxon-Mobil
  2. Kraft
  3. Walmart
  4. Chevron-Texaco
  5. Pfizer
  6. Nestle
  7. General Electric
  8. Archer Daniels Midland (additives, corn products, oils, seeds, ethanol, etc.)
  9. General Motors
  10. Tyson Foods
Now, since you are never again going to purchase anything from those evil people again, who should you buy from?

The 10 Best List:
  1. Seventh Generation (green and clean cleaning products)
  2. Working Assets (mobile and long distance phone service and a credit card, .38 is way ahead of all us and uses their Credo phone service)
  3. Eden Foods (huge variety of food products from pasta to fruit, water and snacks)
  4. Organic Valley (dairy products)
  5. Clif Bar (energy and nutrition foods)
  6. Honest Tea (bottled ice tea)
  7. Patagonia (outdoor clothing)
  8. Tom's of Maine (natural personal care products, toothpaste, etc.)
  9. Ben & Jerry's (the ice cream guys from Vermont)
  10. Aveda (hair and skin care products)

Some of you may be thinking that this really seems like a lot of work, to not buy things from these massive and evil companies, but really, its not. I'm not saying your car has to run on recycled olive oil, just get your gas at BP instead of Exxon - not difficult. Buy Seventh Generation paper towels instead of Brawny. If you're like me, you have some brand loyalty and just get in the habit of picking up that certain brand of whatever. Sometimes its because its the cheapest, or maybe its the brand your mom bought so that's what you stuck to. But you're a big kid now and should be making big kid decisions, so why not base those buying decisions on some real facts instead of that you like the logo? The book recommends 10 areas of your life that you can easily shift to use your powerful dollar to support companies that care about you and your world.

The Top 10 Things to Change:

  1. Bank
  2. Gas
  3. Supermarket
  4. Retail Stores
  5. Car
  6. Seafood
  7. Chocolate
  8. Coffee
  9. Credit Cards
  10. Cleaning Products

When I read through some popular categories, I was shocked to learn that many products that I buy are evil corporate villains, so here are some of my changes:

No more:

  • Boca Burgers
  • Angel Soft toilet paper
  • Exxon, Mobil, Chevron or Texaco (I always want to avoid the worst ones, so now I know who they are)
  • GE
  • Revlon (animal testing!)
  • Chapstick (F rating!)
  • Marshall's, Dillard's (no code of conduct for sweatshops, refuses business practice disclosure!)
  • Starkist tuna (seafood in general may be getting nixed for me as its hard for me to remember which is good, and most is bad so I think its time.)
  • Any of the Kraft family, I'm working on knowing all the names, but usually a quick glance of packaging will do it.

More support of:

  • Seventh Generation (already one I love)
  • Eden Foods
  • BP Gas
  • Organic Valley
  • Luna (A+ Rating! vs Balance's F)
  • Amy's Foods
  • Dr. Bronner's (the almond scent is so yummy)

This book is the answer to not only "avoiding the assholes", but also not supporting them, which is even more powerful. Would you support someone who dumps their trash in the street outside your house or abuses the kids next door? Then don't give your money to these companies that do these kinds of awful things all over the world.

Buy the Book for $10 (free shipping!) / Check out the research, etc. on the website

What informed and caring decisions will you make?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Woolworth Discovery: Rhea Fitzgerald

In the middle of downtown Asheville, there is a building that once held Woolworth. Now it is the home of an old fashioned soda fountain cafe and displays over 100 local artists' creations. I found the following piece by Rhea Fitzgerald, and wanted to share as it made me smile about life in general, but especially about my life these days:

"I am a lover, a dreamer, a believer in magic. I bought the copyright on the fantasy of living happily ever after despite monumental efforts by those in the real world to protect me from myself.

I have taken every chance I have to learn to pay attention and wonder. Perhaps the wonder was simply, "Wonder why I do this?" or "Wonder when lunch is?", but mostly its been taking a big bite of the juiciness and letting it dribble down my chin kind of wondering.

I laugh longer, cry louder, and dream deeper than ever in my life and I wouldn't exchange a bit of it for the pain of a day of life inside the lines. "

-Rhea Fitzgerald (who I wish had a website!)
*photo courtesy of www.ashevilleartgallery.net

Weekend Recap: Asheville Adventures

I feel like since the moment I drove into the city Asheville greeted me with opened arms and then gave me a big hug and hasn't let go since. The overall warmth, generosity and soul of the city is felt when you walk the hilly sidewalks and chat with the friendly natives. There is such a strong sense of community, art, love, music, nature and health that its almost overwhelming. I can definitely see myself planted here for some time so that I can continue to soak up its goodness. Its like the mountains breathe fresh air into the city each day.

We drove into town on Saturday morning and I headed to Ten Thousand Villages to volunteer for the afternoon. This terrific organization "provides vital, fair trade income to developing countries by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America". Therr stores (and website) are filled with handmade fun that is really too awesome to resist. When you walk in you are instantly flown around the world to India, Bangldesh and Cambodia, with a quick stop in South Africa to liven things up. There are hand woven scarves, painted prayer flags, new toys, musical instraments, candles, chocolate, jewelry, bags, ceramics, books, wood works and more. There are even things that have been turned into other things, like this great bag that was originally chip bags! My task for the day was to work with the other 5 volunteers and unpack a big shipment that had just arrived from the artisans worldwide. It was fun to try to guess the country it was from - they work with over 35, so its quite a challenge! I had to laugh as I was unwrapping tiny toys wrapped in Chinese newspaper as it was the best wrapped of any of the items. It wasn't difficult work, but very satisfying and after my shift I wandered the store and saw many of the items displayed that had just arrived. The store is a nonprofit and buy from the same artists year after year to help them have sustainable longterm income. If a particular item isn't selling anymore, they even work with the artists to develop new products using their same skills. I couldn't resist picking up a few things, one of which i'm currently completely obsessed with, but that's an entire other blog, so hopefully I'll get to that tonight. Go shop!

After volunteering I met back up with Tau and we headed to Laughing Seed, a famous veggie restaurant that more than lived up to its name. A must-do is you're in town.

I had arranged for us to stay with a couchsurfer that night so called her to see when would be a good time to stop by to get settled. It turned out that she was out for the night, but said "Oh I'll just leave the porch door open for you; your room is the first one on the right upstairs". Really? Yep, no questions asked. We had never met this person, we hadn't even exchanged that many phone calls! Couchsurfing is doing exactly what I had hoped it would do, it restores your faith in humanity, and I hadn't even lost it! We drove to the east side of town and up the hill into a wonderfully charming neighborhood. The houses were well kept and had sprawling lawns and gardens carfully placed around the towering trees. We arrived at the address that Cara the Couchsurfer had given me and hoped that we were in the right place and weren't going to accidentally make ourselves at home in her neighbors house instead. Luckily there was a sweeet welcome note scribbed out for us on the door, so we knew we were in the right spot. We entered the house and were welcomed by classical music playing beautifully dimmed lights in several of the gigantic rooms. There was 2 living rooms, both filled with interesting decor, great paint colors and books galore. Welcome home! Cara has impreccable taste and her home welcomes you with warmth and great couches to snuggle into. If this wasn't enough of a "welcome to Asheville" on our first night, we ended up going downtown and hanging out with her and several friends, many of whom are in the tight knit Asheville Couchsurfing network. The friendliness of the town amazes me everyday - especially since I'm now staying with one of the girls that I met that night!

On Sunday, Cara, Katie (my current host) and I stolled through the River Arts District, a warehouse area that has been transformed into over 100 artist studios. There was art of all kinds, but a few really caught my attention so I'll share in case anyone is looking for a great gift. Michael Hofman creates porecilin pieces of every size and shape with the impression of lace in them. Since porecilin clay is so delicate, you can press any kind of lace into it and then fire and glaze it as usual and you get a really unique looking piece of pottery. These would be great gifts for someone who has a piece of lace (mother/grandmother's veil, baby dress, etc.) that they want to use to create an amazing piece of art that will last a lifetime, since the real thing may get a pretty gross from one generation to the next. The other noteworthy thing we saw was a machine that propels rubber chickens. Art? Sure, why not. There are tons of great artists in this area that sell their creations for reasonable prices, offer art classes, and open their studios on the weekends. Strolling through was a great way to spend an Asheville afternoon.

Sunday night Tau and I were invited to stay with our friends the Rayboys just outside of town in Marion, NC. Jordan and Jeska are a young couple who have a lifestyle that many dream of, and most don't do until maybe retirement, if ever. The Rayboys own a successful recruiting company and recently realized that they only need a phone and the internet to operate the business, so why not use a phone and internet all over the country instead of in an office in Plantation, FL? Three years later they are still criss crossing the country in their awesomely amazing Fleetwood RV. They put their work hours in during normal business hours, but they do it in North Carolina one month and Iowa the next. They get to run the business completly remotely, which allows them to explore on te nights and weekends whereever they happen to be at the time! They have had some amazing experiences and I hope that they can tackle documenting some of them in a way that others can hear the great stories that we got to listen to over Jeska's delicious eggplant lasagna that night.

Enjoying art, meeting new friends, and exploring the city made for a damn good weekend.