Slimy Veggies

This wasn’t the work of ghosts, but it sure looked like it.  I snapped on the kitchen lights at 3:00 a.m. to find one of the counters dripping with slime.  It looked like the basement of the New York Public Library.  As I grabbed a damp rag and a roll of paper towels, I thought about Ghostbusters and fresh produce.  The slime, you see, came from a burst freezer pack.  During the pandemic we’ve been using Misfits, a service that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to your door.  Early on, back in March and April, it looked like various shortages, apart from toilet paper, were here to stay.   Every couple of weeks we’d get a Misfits box, so we’d at least have that.

Since fruits and vegetables are perishable, and since there is a time lag involved, they are packed with freezer bags.  These cold-pack bags are reusable and we began sticking them in our ice-box.  We have no free-standing freezer, so the unit atop our fridge was getting full.  The last week’s pack had begun to leak in transit, and, being too busy, I’d set it aside until I could figure out how to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.  We don’t generate a huge amount of trash.  We compost our food scraps, and being vegan we don’t have smelly animal byproducts to toss.  And we recycle all that we can.  I guess just “throwing it out” has become a kind of last resort.  In the dark, the freezer bag made the decision for me and so I found myself mopping in the middle of the night.

It’s a small price to pay, really, to try to help save the environment.  The past four years have contributed unconscionably to global warming.  We tend not to care because those who’ll bear the brunt of it in the short-term are the poor.  Industrialists can afford vacation homes in the mountains.  Our lifestyles have an impact everywhere.  We need to learn to think differently about things.  Of course, that leaky freezer pack did cause quite a mess.  The gooey slime was everywhere, but it was everywhere with a conscience.  I have to wonder what happens to the world when leaders lack conscience.  Unfortunately I don’t have to wonder long since I have the headlines to read.  No, this wasn’t the work of ghosts, but unless we change our ways it could well be.  And when those treating you like enemies are your leaders, who you gonna call?

Extra Baggage

So, I’m packing.  Have been, on and off, since January.  One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets.  You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets?  We have no danger of that.  Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff.  Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours.  Our closets have led full lives.  It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating.  We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?”  Then I came upon it.  The layer of SBL tote bags.  Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.

If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean.  Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy.  Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books.  (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.)  But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags.  I’ve been attending SBL since 1991.  Do the math.  I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda.  And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.

Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets.  What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already?  Reduce, reuse, recycle they say.  At least half of my totes have never been reused.  Zippers?  Who thought of that?  Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors.  I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that?  (San Francisco, 2011.)  The black leather edition—remember that one?  (SBL, n.d.)  The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale.  You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance.  Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs.  From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail.  I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana.  I’m sure that’s just me.  Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery.  I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.

Divisive Devices

In some kind of vague attempt at spring cleaning—yes, I know it’s late for that; I’m always running behind—I’ve been taking some old electronics for recycling. You know the pattern: you replace a piece of equipment and set the old one aside and next thing you know it’s become a handy horizontal surface upon which you can stack other things you don’t have time to deal with right now. House-cleaning day should be a national holiday in a country of inveterate consumers. In any case, this exercise in household archaeology has revealed quite a bit about just how much we owe to our technological overlords. I’m still of the mindset that anything over $20 is expensive. When it comes to any piece of electronic hardware, my wife and I have a serious tête-à-tête as to whether we really need it or not. I mean, we both grew up with pen and paper.

Everything’s electronic these days. During my vernal excavations I’ve come across more than one device that I can’t identify. “What this thing?” I ask. I don’t remember buying it, although there must have been some serious discussion first, and I’m not even sure what it does. At the time of purchase, I know, it felt pretty urgent. So we are led like sheep to the hardware. Is your house cluttered with old photos? Digitize them! Too many CDs? Thousands of MP3 files fit onto this device! But what about when devices clutter up your house? Who even uses an iPod anymore? Or a digital camera? We still have a few rolls of actual film sitting around, waiting to be developed.

My grandmother lived from the first heavier-than-air flight to Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon. As someone pointed out the other day, kids these days can’t figure out how to use a rotary-dial phone. I won’t find one of those tucked in the closet anyway, because they were owned by the phone company. I’m not sure who actually owned this dial-up modem in front of me—if that’s what it is, but chances are that Verizon won’t have any use for it anymore. These are strange days when you feel nostalgic for a wide-ruled tablet and a pencil freshly sharpened from a hand-cranked device bolted to the wall by the classroom door. And I think it’s still spring.

Too Much Stuff

The informal name for economics, rightly, is “the dismal science.” When I recently learned about The Story of Stuff (storyofstuff.org), I found myself again shaking my head in dismay. I have no problem admitting that I’m a liberal pretty much through and through. I believe what I believe is right. Statistics show that the older we grow the more conservative we become, but in my case the opposite trend seems to be in effect. I grew up in a conservative backwater and I saw first-hand what it did to those who adhere to it most religiously. Rouseville, the town where I spent my teens, was an industrial armpit, dominated by a large Pennzoil refinery, now derelict. The town smelled bad despite the pristine woods that surrounded it, and pollution was everywhere evident. People didn’t move away because they couldn’t. Drugs were a rampant problem and I never felt safe going out at night, even though it was a town of less than a thousand souls.

Growing up I often wondered about this. When you live close to the edge, you hang on. The existence of the working class is precarious. Living in a cancer factory like that, you needed your job more than you needed food. If you were to survive, you had to work. Pennzoil was the only game in town. Local pride at being near the fountain head of the oil industry helped only a little. I turned to spirituality to cope. I’m now told that’s naive. I’m told that meaning is found in consuming. The most disheartening part of The Story of Stuff was learning that this was all intentional. Victor Lebow’s 1955 assessment of where our dismal science must go chills me:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.”

Our spiritual satisfaction in buying? And what is more, this advice has been heeded as gospel by the government. Is it any wonder that one percent tell the rest of us what to do? It is time for civilization to grow up. Our infantile need for more stuff has poisoned the very well from which we drink. It may cost you some sleep, but take a look at the Story of Stuff. What you lose in sleep you may gain in peace of mind. And soul.

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Recycle This

Like nearly all unfortunate white collar workers, the computer provided for me at my job is a PC. I don’t know the brand—that’s not important. When I want to delete a document, I’m asked if I want to move it to the “recycle bin.” Okay, I’ve been an environmentalist since I was a teenager. Growing up in a small town, recycling was a foreign concept, vaguely communistic even, but I could understand that limited resources would run out. Living paycheck to paycheck, that was perfectly clear. The town where I grew up still doesn’t offer recycling, but having a recycling bin on a computer screen? Are the electrons from my documents indeed being recycled, or is this just a way to make me feel good about throwing away something somebody spent hours putting together? It seems such a tautology to me.

This recycled world can be a scary place. I was a victim of identity theft once. Thankfully I hardly have enough to steal that the thief got away with very little before the credit card company found him. It meant having to go a few weeks without purchasing power, and a possible stain on my ratings. One merchant didn’t want to refund the charges, although it was clear that they were illegally made. So we recycle our sensitive material with the greatest care. It has to be shredded first. We had one of those home shredders that took hours of time to feed in “up to six sheets” at a time (two was the actual limit), and before you knew it the weekend was over and you had bags full of bird nesting and you still had to take them to the recycling place. So our local community, we learned, participates in a shredding drive. My wife and I went a few weekends ago and it was so popular that we were turned away at the gate. The line was too long and the trucks were almost full.

This past weekend I tried again. I had to drive to a new location where, I kid you not, the traffic pattern had to be changed to accommodate all the shredders. I was kind of glad in an impatient sort of way. I’d brought a book to read, anticipating such a wait. I was a bit anxious, however, with a police officer watching. I mean I had a book to my face in traffic, after all. At least it wasn’t a cell phone. The line crept along until I was finally admitted. I had six bags of confidential stuff in the trunk, and I was glad to have the chance to have my personal life obliterated by the huge, roaring trucks. As I inched to the front of the line, the check-in lady asked me what town I was from, and in response gave me a handful of papers that I would only have to recycle. I thought of my recycle bin on my desktop at work. There seems to be no end to disposing of the information that defines our lives. Some would call it a tautology.

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Epiphany Perception

Our local parks and recreation department has a Christmas tree recycling program. While trees are biodegradable, it always seems crass to me to take such a symbol of joy, hope, and anticipation and have it just thrown in the landfill. The local trees are recycled into mulch, and those who own their homes are free to help themselves to the giant pile of finely chipped pine that smells like the north woods just minutes from Manhattan. The strange part is transporting a dried, outdated tree through town to the drop-off point. Pedestrians and other drivers stare at a car with a tree strapped to the top a few weeks too late for anyone’s holiday. They may find it just a little disorienting: why would someone be taking a dead tree out for a drive? It is not how we’re accustomed to seeing it done.

Perceptions, even if entirely artificial, see us through each day. Some continue to argue that perceptions are indeed reality. When we see something mildly disconcerting, we might ask what is happening. A familiar character in an unfamiliar costume is a trivial sort of dissonance, but it is enough to raise perception to a conscious level. We all know the accepted color scheme, so what (other than bad photoshopping) is going on when the Enterprise crew swaps shirts?

The issue is, however, a serious one. Many of the troubles we experience in society are based on fictitious certitudes. It is a strange human trait that me may not know why we believe something, but of that belief we are dead certain. From an absolute perspective, we have no way to determine which way space is oriented. If we see a globe facing “the wrong way” the dissonance drives us to correct that misperception. North, south, east, and west are relative terms. They are models that we overlay on our universe. Which way that universe actually tilts is anybody’s guess. Freshly hewn pine trees atop cars are common in December. When such things transpire in January, many people, to guess from the stares, believe their world has somehow gone askew.

Which way is really up?