Sunday, February 22, 2009

Nursing home

Stop it. Stop putting this off. Just get in the car and go on over there.

So, I get in the car and go on over to The Gardens. Trying not to be so distracted on the way that I wreck my car, I focus on driving, which I can still do. I think of everything like that now. I think, "Wow! I can still do this! I can type. Wow! I can see. I recognize letters and I can spell."

I arrive and walk unassisted into the building after entering the code (which I remember) at the front door. I turn left at the hall 10 and walk down to my mother's room. I knock and enter. It's dark. She keeps the blinds closed all the time. I hate that. Why do old people keep things all closed up? She used to always open the drapes and curtains in the morning. Not anymore.

The rooms smell funny. It's hard to describe, hard to characterize. I hate that smell. I look around for what might be causing it but can't find anything obvious. It's just, maybe it's just the way old people smell.

She's always there. She's either asleep on the couch under the down comforter (she's always cold, she says), or in the little kitchen or in the bedroom trying to do something that she can't really do. Her hair is never combed anymore. She always looks like she just woke up. I try to comb it but it's winter and the static electricity just makes it impossible to manage. It just flies out in fine, straight flight from her little head. She is really skinny now, like she was when I was a little girl. Probably 95 pounds, if that; 5 feet tall. Very petite.

We chat a little while and then I start looking around for what needs to be done. There are always lots of things all messed up. There are clothes in the wrong places -- dirty clothes in the trash can or laying on the chair, rarely in the clothes hamper. There are clothes in the bottom of the closet. She can't hang things up anymore. She's got little snacks that she can't open so I put some of the contents out on a plate for her by the couch. I water her plant, the one the church sent over for Great Grandma George back in 1956 when she had a stroke. I check to see that the bed linens and towels are clean. I straighten the rug; straighten the paintings; arrange the chair, the basket, the side table.

I check to see that the clothes she has on are right for the weather; that they are right-side out; front in the front, that they are clean; that she's had her shower; no scratches or bruises. If necessary, I help her get her shower or get her into clean clothes. It's almost always a very frustrating struggle. She hates to be confronted with what she can't do, even obliquely.

We chat a bit. I tell her some news. She tells me some news. I hear the complaints; I hear about what she's given up on lately because she doesn't care about it anymore. The truth is usually that she can't do it anymore. I love her so much. I love who she is, what she's been through, that she's a survivor, a teacher, pragmatic. But I hate this.

"I'm ready to go. I would like to walk out in the parking lot and be hit by a car," she says.

"Mother, what are you talking about?"

"I don't really like it here. I wish I could just die. I'm ready to die."

"But Mother..."

"You don't know what it's like to have no hope that anything good will happen to you."

I just stare at her, incredulous. "But Mother, you are dead. We both are. We're waiting for next life."

"Oh, I didn't realize that," she says with a smile, that "oh, now it makes sense" knowing smile.

"Well, you used to realize it. You just forgot."


"It's so cold here," she says again, her voice trailing off.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Politics, economics and lightbulbs

Nearly finished with Friedman's Flat, Hot and Crowded, and I was amazed to see that near the end he actually says that we need to be China for a day, so that we can dictate certain things (like China dictated an end to thin-film plastic bags) and then be America the next day to implement and enforce our China-esque dictates. He is just as pessimistic as I am about the effect of the entrenched dirty fuels industries on our ability to do what needs doing -- those things will take many decades, rather than many years. We may not have many decades to make the changes we need to make.

I also reread Law, Economics and Torture, by James Boyd White, soon to be released as a book, along with the other conference proceedings with which it was presented about 2 years ago in Ann Arbor. It is an excellent and very thought-provoking essay. Although he doesn't talk in terms of Congressional inability to get things done that are clearly and unambiguously in the public interest (like ameliorating the worst effects of a global melt-down), he identifies handing over of governmental power to "the market," that is, to market actors, these same entrenched legacy dirty fuels industries who will slow down our dealing with the problems described in Friedman's book, as fundamentally undermining democracy. Lessig would say, "you think?"

These two men present interesting perspectives from which to consider the debates this weekend over the competing versions of the stimulus package making its way towards signature by the President in a little over a week (if he gets his wish). The House version does not profess the current wisdom: that government is the enemy; that tax cuts (ie, disempowering the government) are the answer to everything; that businesses given more money to do what they do best will "save" the economy and our country from this current economic crisis. Of course, those who firmly, sincerely believe this, do not accept that these ideas are responsible for getting us into this mess to begin with and cannot get us out of it.

The Senate version is cleaned out of all manner of spending and beefed up with tax cuts to take spending's place, but it will get the 60 votes needed to pass without a filibuster. And we all presume there would be a filibuster if there were not 60 votes. Some, maybe many, Republican Senators would be more than happy to use whatever power they have to push their belief that government spending is bad. McCain, having been beaten badly in the Presidential election, nevertheless unabashedly introduced a 400 billion dollar alternative, more than likely mostly comprised of tax cuts, which Republicans unanimously endorsed. Nothing more clearly demonstrates the battle of ideas that is going on in Washington this weekend. How can it be that not a single Republican has the slightest doubt in the truth of their vision when their policy choices (diminishing government as much as possible; handing over as much control as possible to the economic sphere, to executives who have no responsibility to do anything other than show a good next quarter) are so heavily implicated in our current debacle? White might suggest that the reason is that they are the direct beneficiaries, each and every one of them, of that transfer of power to economic actors. It has or soon will make every one of them very, very rich. And rich is the height of achievement in America now.

Well, there's little I can do about my old-school Republican Senators, Hutchison and Cornyn. I've sent emails to both of them. They are quite vocally opposed to the plan. So, not to shift gears too quickly, but, back at the casita, in a tiny effort to walk the walk, I signed up for Austin's GreenChoice energy plan, increasing demand for renewables and locking in a voluntarily higher price for our fuel for electricity for the next 5 years. Should have gone for 10 but I had a hard time explaining even 5 to my husband (D: "Can we get out of it?" G: "I don't want to get out of it!" D: "Did you even see a contract?"...), who, as our fiscal conservative, sees any additional expenditure (no matter how much of an "investment" it is) as a bad thing when we, along with everyone else, are nervous about our financial futures.

And I bought 20 new compact flourescents to change out the bulbs we use the most. I didn't change them all out yet because I wanted to experiment with the soft-bright-daylight varieties of bulbs. Each of these gives a different "color" of light and a different amount of lumens at the same watts, so they are not interchangeable. I want to test them out for a week or so and see which works best for overhead, for reading, and for indirect room lighting. Then I'll buy more and finish the job. I got a great deal on them. At Home Depot they were all on sale, on average a little over $2.00 each (buying 4 and 2 to a package, depending on the watt size), but with City of Austin rebates for EnergyStar items, the price for 20 came down to just under $1.50 each, including tax.

Already I'm finding that the "soft white" is the best for just about everything. I don't like daylight (very blue, very weird looking). I don't know about the one in the middle yet (bright white). I am trying it in a lamp beside the kitchen table where I do some, but not much, reading. At 60 watts equivalent, it may be too little for reading, but the color is not as weird as the daylight variety.

Next, on to the big-ticket items: AC, heating and laundry.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Try being conscious for one whole day... it's harder than you think

I am reading Flat, Hot and Crowded, by Thomas Friedman, his follow-up to The World is Flat. I'm reading it on a Kindle, as an experiment, and I posted a little review of that experience on Scholar's Space. I'm only 1/3 of the way through it, but the book already has me fired up. It focuses on the relationship between our politics, our addiction to oil and the environmental consequences. It's as much a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth as to his own World is Flat. It's probably less effective than Truth in that it's a book, not a movie, it's Friedman not Gore, and Gore already settled the issue of whether we can afford to act like there's a debate over the reality of climate change (we can't). But it's quite effective for me personally, because it makes clear that policy change at the highest levels is job one -- individual action alone will never pull us out of this tailspin. And besides, I think the heart of the book is yet to come, in his proposals for what to do about it all, which Truth didn't really tackle.

Policy change and political leadership is vital. I'm on board. Obama makes me hopeful that the world has a chance. But individual and small group (one might say fringe group) action has been the only option for decades now and there's no reason to slack off. Tree-huggers and recyclers (when recycling wasn't a curb service), vegetarians and natural and organic foods producers, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, etc., all have played their parts in bringing the nature of the environment consequences of our actions to public attention. So have lawsuits to stop ill-advised governmental action. But the time for environmentalism as the opposition has long passed. Friedman believes that national, international, indeed global environmentalism is the only way we're going to save everything else -- our religions, our politics, our economies, our philosophies, in other words, ourselves -- because we're quickly approaching the point where the changes we've already set in motion will become unmanageable. Adapting to the magnitude of change we'll see will be impossible, not just for polar bears, but for us, the masters of adaptation.

But governments usually won't act when action requires tough choices that will not go over with an electorate, because getting re-elected is the politicians' job one. So, is failure "baked into the system" as Friedman describes inevitabilities? Wouldn't a benign king be better able to reorient the American people than a democratically elected government? Perhaps. But it's also true that if the governed themselves demand the actions and are willing to do what's necessary, because they understand the consequences of failure to do so, not just for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren, there's hope.

At this point, in month two of my extremely cool year off, I can easily devote a day to environmental consciousness, to see what it means to be unconscious about energy use and the consequence of my choices for the environment. I can note all the ways my choices waste resources, exacerbate environmental degradation, ignore my responsibility to future generations. I can see where I don't even have choices to be responsible. I think you have know where you are before you can map your route to somewhere else.

So that's what I did yesterday.

I'm still reeling from what I learned. I should have held a clicker and clicked every time I noted that something I did could have been done more consciously or not at all. The number would have shocked. And I think of myself as fairly aware and conscientious. I'm almost ashamed to put this stuff down on paper, er, I mean, in digits (ah, digits instead of paper -- another unconscious choice?). But I will.
  • Lights on when there's plenty of natural light in my house.
  • Lights left on when no one is in the room.
  • Blow-drying my hair when it dries just fine by itself.
  • Devices left on when I'm not using them (Kindle, for example).
  • Charging a device longer than it needs to be charged.
  • Backing up my MacBook every hour instead of every day or even every week. Is anything I do that important that it needs backing up every hour?
  • Leaving the heat on for my cat when I leave to go to work.
  • Going to work.
Ok. I need to explain that last one. I telecommute most of the time. Everything I do for the Libraries, just about, can be done remotely. I only work 10 hours a week. But I think it's important to go to the office at least once each week for 4 or 5 (ie, almost half) of my hours. Here are the extra things I consumed because I did not work at home:

Approximately 1 hour spent in the bathroom and bedroom getting ready (lights, hot water, extra heat), 8 mile commute in car that gets 24 miles/gallon, parking on campus (increasing demand for land used for parking), turning on 3 lights in my interior, windowless office, 8 mile commute back home, opening and closing electric garage door. We could quibble about some of these things, around the margins, but really, I wouldn't have done most of this if I had just thrown on some clothes, come downstairs and sat down at my computer and did the same thing I did in the office. I would have dressed warmly and kept the heat at the same temp I left it at while I was gone (65). On the other hand, I got to see people I attended a meeting at the iSchool; I bought some Girl Scout Cookies; I went up and down 4 flights of stairs about 6 times (I did not take the elevator!!!). Face to face is a good thing. But it costs a lot and we don't think much about that.

Things I wondered about as the day wore on, but don't know the answers to: What kind of fuel was Austin Energy (and UT?) burning to give me my electricity? Where did it come from? Do I have a choice to ask for clean energy? Can I pay more for it if it costs more to produce and deliver? Is eating a Lean Cuisine for lunch more or less destructive than heating a can of soup or making a salad of veggies from California, Mexico and Florida? What about my breakfast? How is my yogurt made? My granola? My honey? Where did my computer come from? Where will it go when I don't want it anymore? What about our new "single stream" recycling service? Is it really recycling everything we put in that nice big blue recycling can?

Enough consciousness for one day. Now it's day two. I decided to continue for the whole week, maybe the whole month. That will give me time to investigate the answers to some of the questions my actions raised yesterday.

It's so fabulous to have a year off. It gives me time to start small in the search for an effective use of my time. There is an awful lot I don't know about environmental conservation and how it fits into the global economy, and into domestic and international politics. Friedman's book makes clear that we need action at the highest levels, but I know in my bones that you can't expect support for that action from people who have no idea what you're talking about. We don't understand how or why we use energy, or even why we should care. I'll focus on that this month.

Trying to change the way our government thinks about our willingness to make sacrifices for the children of the future or trying to change the way we think about those sacrifices so that we can elect people who will make the tough choices -- it's all indirect. Everything is indirect. There is no direct path to environmental salvation. The political web is like the environmental web - extremely complex. No matter what I do over the next 20 years, it's only going to be a small thing, a tiny thing, but so long as I am engaged, that's the most I can do."Every difference makes a difference." I just don't want to be a part of the problem. Or, I want to minimize the extent to which I am a part of the problem.