Sunday, 11 November 2012

These are trying times...

I've been reading a book called All Consuming by Neal Lawson. The screamer is 'How shopping got us into this mess and how we can find our way out. So obviously cheerful from the start.

But the thing that I continue to ruminate over as I read chapter after chapter is that I can't actually fathom that there are people out there that fit the descriptions of people in this book. The sorts of people who actually make sure that their babies have completely new everything - clothes, shoes, toys, furniture, doo-dads, bottles, etc. The kind of people that REALLY throw away a kettle or a microwave because it was 'out of date after a few years' (Journal of Consumer Policy 27, 421-49). The sort of people who don't ever reuse, recycle, etc. People who never think, when they buy that cheap item of clothing/whatever, about what that cheapness may mean to the person, somewhere, who made that cheap thing so that it could be purchased in a nice, clean, spacious, western store.

I'm honest about the fact that I love (LOVE) IKEA. I do. I'm a HUGE fan of organizational furniture, and IKEA is exactly that. PLUS, they've got organizational units that can be used in CONJUNCTION with their organizational furniture. Bliss, right? And I have some of their furniture in my home.

But I also have furniture in my home that has been handed down through three generations, bought at an auction house, brought home as a hand-me-down, scooped up from a dumpster or skip on the side of the road. I'm surrounded by items purchased in charity shops and second-hand stores. I wear dead people's clothing (Thanks, Kinky Friedman).  And I buy old clothes, and I create new things out of them - bags, pillows, stuffed animals.

My children have both slept in a cot acquired from Freecycle. We've bought a new mattress for each kid because cleanliness and health can be an issue. But the cot itself has had at LEAST four other kids sleep in it, and if I've got anything to do with it, I'll pass it along to someone else who'll need a cot soon for their kid. My kids have also worn clothes that have been passed around between groups of friends who've all had kids on a rotating schedule. We see pictures of our kids, and know what year it is by the clothes they're wearing. And we've rotated toys, pushchairs, car seats, foldable buggies, bottles, cups, sleeping bags, swimming suits, etc.

I know people who've spent over 4000 GPB on their children between birth and two years old, not including child care costs. I think that I may have spent about 400 GBP on BOTH my children between birth and two years old.

And I'm sitting here, in a chair I got from Freecycle, and had recovered, with my feet on a footstool (that my mother-in-law recovered for me) that I acquired when I moved into the first house I bought. I have my coffee cup sitting on a coffee table given to my by a friend who had to move his dad out of the family house and into care. And the basket holding my firewood was salvaged out of a dumpster - in perfect condition. Two out of my four lamps in this room are hand-me-downs.

My slippers, yoga trousers and t-shirt pre-date my oldest child. There's a pillow on my chair made out of a t-shirt that had a D-train (Bronx to Brooklyn) logo on it. And I just sewed up a hole in some school tights for my daughter to wear to school tomorrow, instead of binning them.

Are you seeing a link here? It's not that I'm cheap (although I CAN be; it's in my genes). It's because I somehow also inherited the philosophy that it's actually OK to 'make do and mend', as they say here in the UK. My grandparents all went through the Depression, and then through the post-war years of penny-pinching that was necessary. And I remember thinking how silly it was when my Grandma used to scrape every last bit of chocolate brownie dough out of the mixing bowl with the spatula. But now, of course, I realize that by doing so, you get ONE MORE BROWNIE. It's that simple.

By sewing up that pair of tights, maybe there's one less thing that gets chucked into landfill. And while I know that IKEA provides jobs to so many people, maybe by my having a hand-me-down coffee table instead of a flat-pack one, I get to have something that's been around for a long time, meant something to someone once, and maybe saved one tree out there, somewhere. And maybe it also saved a tiny bit of petrol, and a tiny bit of energy in not having to move that one extra flat-pack coffee table to my local IKEA warehouse.

When I do buy something new, I'm going to continue to see if I can't find it made by someone local, or someone who might be trying to start a new business, or maybe from a local auction house, so that someone's memories don't get thrown into the huge container marked 'Wood and Timber' at the local recycling centre. With the holiday season fast approaching, and shops gearing up for that major consumer outpouring of professed love and affection-based spending, I don't think I'm going to participate that much this year. I'd rather check out my local craft fair, and buy something that someone actually made, by someone who lives within 20 miles of where I live. (NB: I KNOW that there are people who buy the lovely shawls made by Nepalese women who need to make money, and resell them on to people here - I respect that. But I need to support people out there who are making things closer to home).

A few other things to think about: Libraries. Local post offices (if there are any left!). Local INDEPENDENT shops. Just because you've got a WHSmith to hand, doesn't mean you have to go there. Use your local library instead. Between 1987 and 1997, almost 90 per cent of local councils in the UK reduced access to their public library services (Sheffield University's Centre for the Public Library in the Information Society, 1999). Use your local post office. They sell stamps, but they also sell lots of other things - greeting cards, wrapping paper, bits and pieces you always need; the people who work at your local post office know more than you could ever believe. USE THEM. And use the local indie shops. Buy your magazines from the local newsagent - not the chain supermarket. And consider the local deli, sandwich shop, jewellery store, knitting shop, butcher, breakfast joint, frame store. These are the places, and people, who make your community unique, and wonderful. By supporting them, you're keeping your money in the community, and you're helping the village or town you live in thrive. And that says a lot.

I know Mr Tesco and Mr Sainsbury need to make their shareholders happy, but maybe instead it would be OK to shop at the Coop, or Waitrose. I'll bet you never knew that Waitrose was employee-owned, did you? Don't give in to the hype that it always has to be bigger, or better, or newer, or shinier. I'm proud of my old, slightly beat-up car. And I'm proud that I sew up holes in tights, have a compost bin, grow veggies, sew costumes for my kids, knit baby blankets.

Surely I'm not alone?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Waiting Game, Part 2

Just a fast few thoughts tonight.

Glad the election is over, and I'm glad that President Obama has been reelected. There are some seriously grouchy people out there who are being very vocal about the election result, and some comments are funny, and some are disturbing. At this moment, I'm not quite sure how to respond, or if a response is even necessary.

There is much work ahead for the POTUS - I found it rather telling to see how grey he has become, when comparing pictures from yesterday and today with pictures from 2008. The job is obviously one that takes its toll. I applaud the tenacity of ANY POTUS in the last 60 years.

There is much thinking to do on my part. What role to I play in my country's place in the world? As an American abroad, I have always felt the need to defend my country to those I encounter through my days and years living in Europe. There have been times when my voice has been smaller than it is today - previous incarnations of the POTUS have not induced me to be explicit about the glories of the US; perhaps, with another four years of Obama ahead, I may choose to raise my volume level, albeit slightly.

I recently made it about halfway through Democracy in America, which seems an important book to read in order to come close to understanding the inner workings of how the American government was set up. Let me be understood, however, that it is NOT about how the American government necessarily works NOW. The educated men who set up the three branches of the American government would only catch a glimpse of what they started 200+ years ago; intrinsically, it still exists, but only in the same way that the cornerstone of an immense skyscraper is visible to those who take the time to seek it, away from the captivating heights of the uppermost floors.

Otherwise, American politics has succumbed to the same tactics used by the reality-type, shock-value media that so many people seem to think is normal. And I'm guilty, to an extent, of buying into it. I had to engage in a forcible shut-down last night, in order to stop re-reading the same announcements (disguised as 'news') from pundits the world over, each continuing to inform me about 'how close the race was', and how 'Romney was a clear leader' in the election. I finally got tired of the sameness of the message, and went to bed.

Perhaps that may be part of the problem - the sameness of the message. The sameness of every message, every day.

I remember reading a book many years ago - something to do with finding happiness. It was a small book - the kind you find on the back of the toilet in the bathroom - with small, single, easily consumed tit-bits on each page about how to be happy. And the one I remember the most is the one suggesting a 'news fast.'

What a brilliant idea. Considering the bombardment that's possible, via any number of methods, of the constant messaging of what we are 'told' is newsworthy, it's a wonder to me that so few of us lose our marbles. And while I understand that so many people use FB because it's where they feel they'll be heard, I applaud the friend of mine who so eloquently said, 'Just when I thought I had hid enough feed....whether you are happy or upset this morning, if you are nasty about it I can't take it.'

I'm not suggesting we all hide our heads in the sand. That's irresponsible. But what I do suggest is aiming for at least one day a week where a news fast is the order of the day. And it's OK to post something on FB that's NOT about politics, or people being nasty to other people, or people doing something horrible to (fill in the blank), etc.

I recently read a story about a guy who came out of a shopping centre to find a note on his windscreen from a stranger - a note that read 'Noticed you need new tires. Take this receipt to the tire store down the street and get some. It's all paid for. Pass it on.'

Things like this DO happen. And that's news.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Waiting Game

So tonight is Election Eve. There are so many things flying around the internets, and everyone has a video they want you to see, to prove some sort of point about one POTUS candidate or the other. Each camp has their good, and their not-so-good points. I know how I feel, and I know how I voted. But here's something I don't understand:

Somehow, the separation of Church and State has suddenly become not separate. I watched (albeit over someone's shoulder) a video of a preacher in a church welcoming a Cambridge-graduate Theologian (who also holds a degree from Harvard) as a guest speaker. And the preacher says to his audience that they need to tune out the rhetoric and the mainstream media, and that they need to VOTE WITH THEIR BIBLES.

Now, you can call me a leftist Commie pinko, or a radical Marxist Socialist Terrorist (the latter is what my uncle calls President Obama), but I thought that politics was supposed to be a separate institution from religion, and that people WEREN'T supposed to vote (or make policy) with their Bible.

There are so many things about American politics that drive me crazy, but using religion as a basis for why (or why not) policy should (or should not) be put into place, or turned into law, takes the cake. The number of people who think that American domestic political issues should be discussed and decisions about those issues made on the basis of how a religious text is SUBJECTIVELY interpreted are the SAME people who get all fired up about the dangers of America being overrun by The Infidel/The Arab/The Terrorist/The FOREIGNER.

I am closely related to people who actually think that the current POTUS harbours a secret agenda to try to make Islam the established religion in America. In reality, there is, and never WILL be, an established official religion in America. Because the founding fathers guaranteed that one of the main criteria for America to succeed as a free nation was that all its citizens had to enjoy the freedom to practice whatever religion they chose. It was the religious persecution that drove the first immigrants to seek America's shores back in the 17th century.

So now there are people who want to establish rules and regulations about who can practice what religion, about who can do what to their bodies, and when, about what can be taught in schools, and what can't. And these rules and regulations stem from a subjective interpretation of a religious text.

And these same Americans can't see their similarity to the tiny percentage of The Other (who've given Muslims the world over a bad name) who have also made decisions affecting others that are based on subjective interpretations of a religious text. These Americans don't notice their own reactionary methods and statements. And they don't see that they are in danger of becoming the same sort of society that those immigrants who sought freedom from persecution chose to leave all those hundreds of years ago.

While there will never be a world that is completely free of a fear of The Other, there have been moments in time where The Other has been seen as different, but not Different; as something perhaps to be investigated and discovered, not vilified and persecuted.

So I voted. And I believe in my heart that I voted for the candidate who chooses to help the American people move forward within the global community, and within their own country. I voted for the candidate whose campaign speeches don't ring with promises to exclude, restrict, deny, forbid. I voted for the candidate who seems to represent policy that includes, engages, offers, and allows.

Good luck, Mr. President. I'm with you.