Monday, March 1, 2010

Sustainability and the 'Hood: A Rant

I'm a fairly socially awkward person. I'll be the first to admit that this is largely because I'm a self-absorbed daydreamer. I might, for example, be nodding my head in feigned sympathy while you are busy describing your horrible root canal, but really I am thinking about something else entirely. The social awkwardness lies in the fact that I am not very good at disguising this. I have been known to burst out with inappropriate comments at inappropriate moments, as in this imagined re-enactment example:

You: "And then the dentist said, 'Oh, my god. I have never seen such an enormous cyst in all my years of practice! How will you ever survive this? There will be a hole in your jaw the size of a homing pigeon! We'll have to pack it with meringue to help you bear the pain.'"

Me: "Do you think that when the seed packet of snow peas says to plant as soon as the ground can be worked, that it means before the last frost has occurred?"

The other reason that I am socially awkward, however, is that I am really very shy. This often comes as a surprise to people when I tell them, since, unlike my inability to hide my lack of interest in your dental mayhem, I have gotten fairly good over the years at hiding my shyness. But it is true. I'd sooner have the root canal in your stead than introduce myself to a stranger. Small talk, the grease that moves us from total strangers to fast friends, is simply not one of the arrows in my social quiver of tricks. To mix a metaphor.

Given my druthers, I'm actually okay with this. I think I could live pretty happily as a hermit. And given some of my awkward, insensitive outbursts, other people might be happier for my doing so, too.

But just because I might prefer to be alone, completely unconcerned about about the otherwise distressing fact that I am  both self-absorbed and shy, it doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do.

What's all this got to do with sustainability and the 'hood? I'm coming to that.

Jan Huston Doble, of the venerable blog, "Thanks for Today" is gathering together a list of blog posts related to sustainability in preparation for the upcoming Earth Day on April 22nd. I've been thinking about what I'd like to contribute to the conversation for a couple weeks now, but kept coming up short. It wasn't that I don't try to practice sustainability--quite the opposite is true. Here on the Southern High Plains, where rainfall is often nothing more substantial than an idea, sustainability has long been been part of the lexicon for anyone with one eye on the level of the reservoir.

So I had a number of things I personally do that I could talk about, such as rainwater harvesting, or xeriscaping, or walking to work, or riding my bicycle to the grocery store (though not as often as I should), or my pathetic attempts at a victory garden, or buying locally and organically grown free-range meat...

But I've already talked about those things, and more to the point, I think others are also covering those topics nicely right now. Plus, I've been feeling a little cranky lately, and I just wasn't feeling the...oh, I don't know...the love.

Maybe it's the stalled polarization in Washington, maybe it's the political campaign ads on television right now with the "I'll represent the God-fearing people, cut taxes, reduce government waste, and give Washington the finger for you because we don't want anyone telling us what to do" meanness of them, maybe it's the current unsettling state of affairs in higher education, maybe it's that our LBB city council thinks the homeless ought just fend for themselves on winter nights, maybe it's that a few rabble-rousing drunken college students in the 'hood and their absentee-landlord parents can ruin a good thing for everyone pretty damn quickly--whatever it is, I've got a serious case of Weltschmerz. Got it bad. Got it schmeared all over my face. In fact, I look like I've been in a veritable Weltschmerz pie-eating contest.

The Black Dog of Weltschmerz. Yeah. That's where I am these days.

If you'll notice, though, there is a theme in that noxious list above, and it's the presence of "me-ness." (Well, except for the higher education bit. That's a whole 'nother story) A few days ago, Canadian garden blogger Doug Green put up this post about the main difference between our country and his. Boiled down, his premise is this: The US government is founded on the concept of individual rights, while the Canadian government is founded on that of the common good. I mostly daydreamed my way through poly sci and history in college, so I can't really say whether that is factually true. I can say, however, that here, in The Great State of You Are Not the Boss of Me, that cowbell rings with verity.

Nobody, I mean nobody, makes a bigger stink about individual rights than a Texan. As a friend and neighbor, artist Carol Flueckiger, reminds me, it's the myth of the lone cowboy. And that's right: We're so in love with the heroic idea of the Lone Cowboy riding plains, that we wouldn't jump on a "common good horse" if it could herd cattle from now 'til the Rapture. Unless, of course, it was a common good horse that was all about how you can't tell us what to do. And cutting taxes was involved.

Here's the thing that strikes me about all this individual rights stuff and the culture of the Lone Cowboy, however. There's an awful lot of "me-ness" in that trope. I mean, we kind of like taking advantage of all the common good that is currently available to us, like, say, for instance, police protection, and good roads, and meat inspection, and cheap drinking water that is free from toxins, and affordable higher education. We'd just rather not be told we have to make it available to anyone else. Or that we have to pay for it.

I'd like to pause here and talk a little about human developmental issues. Specifically, I'd like to point out that "me-ness" is a stage in early human development, as in children. It is, hopefully, something one will grow out of. Thinking beyond oneself and taking responsibility for others is a condition of later human development, as in grownup-hood. Just sayin'.

By the way, have you ever noticed how close the spelling of "me-ness" is to "meanness?" Again, just sayin'.

What's all this got to do with sustainability and the 'hood? I'm getting there.

So I'm thinking about all this Lone Cowboy stuff, and I'm thinking it's about time to throw that paradigm out. We need to outgrow it. It's time to saddle up that common good horse and climb on board. Vote whichever party you want, but let your representatives know that you are going to start voting for the common good. And while you're at it, tell them to shut the heck up about cutting taxes, because we all know that's just a lie they tell us to buy our votes. Tell them we no longer believe in the Santa Clause form of government, where we wake up every magical morning to a shiny new pair of cowboy boots under the tree, cost-free. Tell them we are grown up enough for the eat-your-broccoli form of government.

And now, sustainability. Here's the thing: It's entirely dependent on the common good. It has virtually nothing to do with "me-ness" or individual rights. In fact, individual rights are the enemy of sustainability. The Lone Cowboy is totally dependent on others not sucking the water hole dry, and he has a moral obligation not to do the same. The Lone Cowboy is not, in fact, alone on this prairie.

So I'm thinking about Jan's call for posts about what we personally are going to do to contribute to sustainability, and it hits me, what I'm going to do is invite the Lone Cowboy to join me on the wine patio. I'm going to step out of my social awkwardness shell and do my part to build a strong neighborhood, because I can set up rain barrels and prairie grass lawns until the cows come home, but it won't keep the watering hole from going dry if we are not all in it together. 

And lord knows, we can't depend on the hyper-nattering politicians to look up from their talking-points scripts long enough to be leaders and do it for us, so we might as well say, "Screw them. I'm turning to my neighbors."

This is, in fact, exactly what I had in mind when I built the wine patio:

In the olden days, houses had front porches and people could sit outside in nice weather and jaw at the neighbors as they walked by with their schnauzers. I'm too shy to have my neighbors over for dinner, since I tend to hyperventilate if I have to cook something for anyone other than Walu (fact), and I'm not going to invite them inside for tea and a box of cookies, since the house is almost always a wreck (fact). But nobody cares if the garden is a wreck, and it's a funny thing about fresh air--it tends to dissipate hyperventilation and social awkwardness. It even happens in the absence of wine.

I think you kind of need the chiminea, though.

There you go, then, my contribution this year to the cause of sustainability: my efforts to become part of a stronger, more cohesive 'hood. We'll chuck the paradigm together. And y'all are all invited to join us on the patio. Bring yer boots and we'll have ourselves a sustainability dance.

For more on Jan's project on sustainability, click this link:


  1. Hear! Hear! An excellent read and an important reframe to the discussion. gail

  2. *sigh* if only I lived closer to your wine patio.

    I had a similar discussion about food production with another blogger recently. We're both really worried about it, but differ in our opinions on whether society's too broken to fix the problem in time. I'm so glad you wrote this because I'm of the opinion we can fix things.

  3. Great rant, Susan, and I'm glad that I re-tweeted Doug's blog post... Crack open the wine and let's get started.

  4. Thank you, Susan, for voicing the crankiness that (lo and behold) I share with you! Let's call "me-ness" "selfishness" and maybe we'll remember that once upon a time we believed that it's not a nice (or even useful) way to behave. Some days I despair, but it's good to know that there's a wine patio higher ground to inhabit.

  5. Wow, I LOVE this rant! You did a great job of verbalizing a lot of what I've been feeling. And I think your wine patio solution is superb. I've been thinking a lot about me-ness and how we are not really separate, ever since I started taking meditation more seriously. We are in this together and that's how we'll solve our problems.

  6. Susan, I hear ya;) And we all know you are one of many folks already doing as much as you can to live sustainably. And, you're right that the holes will keep getting empty & the wells will run dry, unless the concept of we vs me becomes more important. If we don't do something to draw more people in, we might all be sitting with dry, empty wells. How to get out of this rut before the wells run dry? Perhaps you can run for office? Thank you for your contribution to this. I am taking it all in, as someone who is really just a novice with sustainable living ideas.

  7. AMEN!!! What a delightful & wise rant, Susan. Your blog is first on my computer read list every morning, and as I read there’s almost always a “yes!” in my West TX gardener’s soul, very frequently a good chuckle or four or five, and often something I need to “give a ponder,” as the late Grady Nutt would say. Today is certainly no exception. I love it -- you go, girl! And thanks!

  8. Susan, this is one of the most refreshing, honest, and inspired blog posts I have read in weeks. Maybe even months. Bravo! I'm so proud of you for your rant, and I wish I lived closer--I'd be there with a bottle of Blomidon Estates Seyval Blanc and my paddock boots just as quick as a flash.

  9. That is very generous of you to open your patio to the cowboy, and I am sure he may enjoy a glass. However, I think he has been in the saddle too long to give it up without a fight.

  10. Wow, this was creative, inspired and clearly written. Generous and gracious comes to mind, not cranky me-ness. The W.Tex. spirit of keeping dialog open and maybe getting folks to think. Madeline and I may just drop by soon with a bottle and try out the patio when it gets warmer. Who knows maybe a cowboy with some sense will show up and three of us could take any drunken frat rat. The Ant

  11. Yay! I loved this [and of course am dying for a real conversation about higher education at your wine patio - as someone let go from a program (with NSF funding, and doctoral students on NSF, EPA, NIH and Fulbright competitive fellowships...), along with other PhDs - while the only remaining person in the program is it's Director with three times our salary, no research, no courses that he teaches, no students that he mentors in research...geez...okay, I'm off topic, aren't I? But are Universities about education anymore??]. And it's familiar to me. I'm an environmental/marine microbiologist - with broad training in environmental sciences, and have avoided getting involved in public debates, etc, and more importantly - not helped the public understand science, what it is, what we do - and why it's important. So last weekend for the first time, I spoke to a group of middle and high school teachers (and was nervous!) and just loved it. So yeah - we need to get outside of our little worlds and interacte (heaven forbid!). Congrats to you! And while Les might have a point - maybe it'll just take more shop accordingly!

  12. Goodness, looks like I struck a nerve...

    VP--I wish you lived closer, too. We might be able solve the problems of the world on the wine patio. As to whether society's too broken, I've always said to my students, "Just because you can see the train coming, it's no reason to lie down on the tracks."

    Helen--I thought it was a provocative and thoughtful post, so I'm glad you re-tweeted it, too.

    Sherrie--Sometimes I despair, too. It helps to know, however, that others feel the same way about the situation.

    Jean--We have to come together in this country. Period.

    Jan--Thanks for the vote of confidence, but rest assured, I have no desire to run for office.

    Madeline--that's generous praise indeed!

    Jodi--come on down!

    Les--you could be right, but we have to try.

    Ant--You and I know that there's nobody nicer than a W. Texan; all we have to do is start the dialog among ourselves.

    Pam--Higher education is in terrible trouble.

  13. I enjoyed your rant, Susan, and I think your wine patio is great. You are right--it's easy to "just be" in the garden as opposed to in the house, where you might feel like you need to entertain.

  14. We are kindred spirits. I completely agree that to save the planet, we all have to work together and stop protesting that our property rights are being infringed upon. Ecosystems don't recognize political boundaries or property lines.

  15. Some very good ideas for our current age. And sustainability must be more than each person individually doing something for the earth. I like the image of us turning to each other in the absence of feeling comfortable turning to politicians.
    Like you, I am an introvert. So I applaud your desire to turn to others rather than inwards.

  16. Socially awakward? Who isn't. Especially in academia. But that's why you / I write, isn't it? It's fuel for the fire. My community is 75,216 words of a memoir currently out to agents--and let me tell you, it's more community than I could hope for. And what happens when a reader might pick it up in a store? Community galore, praise be. That's where it starts for. Oh, that and rainwater collection, etc.

  17. Pam--Fresh air makes everything better. t's a fact.

    MMD--You are so right about ecosystems not recognizing political boundaries. Now, if we could only get humans to do the same...

    Melinda--It's harder for us, but we have to step up.

    Benjamin--and a fine community you've written there, too. Good luck, and I hope the book finds a home.

  18. Well done! What I myself really don't get is that so many people I know are sooo wasteful with water, energy, what have you, all in the name of their children, who have to drive 100 miles to yet another soccer tournament every weekend.
    Hey, it's your kids who'll be around when we're running out, I want to say. But I've mostly learned to hold my tongue. Trying to live by example, that sort of thing...And hoping for the best.

  19. An excellent and heartfelt post, and right on target.

    It does seem to me that we need to recreate the (sharing, growing, feeding, etc) community in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities if we are to become even marginally more sustainable in the way we live.

    It's harder today than it was, but look at the remarkable ability of the blogosphere to inspire and connect - why not with our neighbors, too?

  20. omg, you are describing myself in those first paragraphs! I love the patio, it is beautiful.


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