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Nina's Blog

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gender, service and the economy

WYPR's business commentator, Anirban Basu, reported today that there were really two economies in this recession: one for men and one for women. That is, whereas men have lost 700,000 jobs recently, women have gained 300,000 jobs. He goes on to explain that the jobs most vulnerable now are the ones men traditionally occupy: manufacturing and construction, while the job sectors that are growing are the ones that women traditionally occupy: teaching and healthcare.

While Basu couched this insight in gender terms, it is so much more than that. It is, if we allow it to be, the opening insight into the necessity of redesigning the definition of a vibrant economy. That is, instead of building a successful economy on paying more and more people to make more and more things (and encouraging the consumer to buy more and more things), we can build an economy on paying more and more people to do more and more things, like service -oriented jobs, healthcare, homecare, childcare, eldercare, teaching, coaching, protecting, training.

Maryland began to experiment with this changed view of the economy when it suggested taxing computer services. I am not here engaging in the debate of whether that particular effort was right or wrong. What I want to stress is that it opened up for the general public an awareness, whether conscious or not, that services are also a "good" produced by society. Why, it seemed to ask us, do we distinguish between the two in the tax code? If we tax the one (goods), would we not tax the other (services)?

(I am sure this is a topic that has been hotly debated among economists for a while. And I would bet this sounds naive to the finance cognoscenti. Indeed, I would love to hear economists weigh in on this subject and teach the rest of us benighted folks what the state-of-the-art thinking is on the status of goods and services. But I write as one of the public - not an economist.)

Truth be told, I never thought of that before. I never wondered why we pay 6% more for the stuff we buy but not for the things people do for us. The divide between things we buy, which incur a sales tax, versus services we buy, which do not, create a psychological divide in our mind between the two. Again, I am not arguing about whether sales taxes are good, or whether we should tax services. I am only arguing that the way we structure our tax system indicates different attitudes toward services and goods, and thus the economic value we attach to them.

The good news about Basu's report is that gender issues are now so mainstream that one cannot look at society without viewing it through a gender-sensitive lens. The challenge we learn with Basu's report is that we have to now make the environment as ever-present and sensitive a lens through which to read economic trends. For with such a green lens on, we can read these same figures as trending toward a healthier, more futuristic, sustainable economy - reducing our reliance on the creation of unnecessary "stuff" to keep the economic wheels greased (thereby bringing manufacturing more in line with the needs and rhythms of the earth) and increasing our output and investment in service, a marketplace with never-ending demand.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Of a wooded evening

The porch on this log cabin faces east, thus so do we on this glorious spring evening, sitting on our silently gliding chairs, gazing at the gentle back-side of the sun’s rays. Shielded by the shade of the house and the chubby canopy above, we take in the sounds and senses of the close of day.

From the north, a neighbor and his guitar pick out chords, tunes and words to serenade the bustling animal life, and one or two friends, in the last flurry of outdoor activity before darkness settles comfortably on these woods. Actually, “settles” doesn’t quite describe it. Once the sun sets behind the ridge, the light seems to be slowly absorbed by the trees, gently and slowly sucked in, tucked away, and sipped on all night til the light of next day’s sun brings them a new batch of liquid light to drink.

A woodpecker astonishes with his jack-hammering the hollow trunk of a nearby tree whose fallen limbs will provide us with a week’s worth of fire wood next winter. The hollowness of the tree, the power of the woodpecker and the proximity to the house create the loudest noise we hear in these woods, louder even than the rifleshots of not-so-distant hunters.

This woodpecker is enormous – or so he seems to us. It appears to be a pileated woodpecker (a local taught us that a while back): brilliant red crown, black body with white stripes toward the tips of its black wings that we could only see when it sailed toward its target in the last moments of flight. It hops on the ground and around the tree trunk as much as it flies. All these things a city girl never learned. Thankfully, it is never too late.

And before we abandon the porch and retire to our books and lamps and cozy chairs for the night, we get again (it happened last night too!) a whiff of coolness whooshed up from the ravine beside us. With it comes a hint of sweetness, a bouquet of some plant or unseen blossom that perfumes the air just as long as the coolness lingers. It is reminiscent of a peace from childhood, when your mother, dressed for the evening in her favorite perfume, comes to your bedroom to tuck you in. And as she bends to kiss you goodnight, her scent embraces you too. When she leaves, a piece of her stays, or so you imagine. This then is the scent of day in the evening, preparing to leave for some fancy engagement. But at least it leaves us with a kiss, a memento, and a promise to come back before long.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Restoration

I write in a house darkened by the diurnal turn of time, the room illumined only by the glow of my computer screen, serenaded by the on-again off-again hum of the refrigerator. (It is on the on-cycle now.) "House" this technically is, but to give you a better sense of the ambiance and peace in which I write, I should mention that this "house" is a log-cabin. The ceiling, walls and floor are raw, aged wood, with their knots and stress and nature showing. No dry wall or sheet rock conceal the majesty that nature made that holds a roof above my head and insulates me - better than most fillers - from the hot and cold of the weather outside.

No pictures or weavings or paintings hang on these walls. The woods provide the decoration and aesthetics of the room. To place a work of art on these walls feels like putting make-up on a child.

The cabin sits at the crest of five hilly acres, bounded on one side by a swiftly flowing stream, if the season has been a wet one. It is engulfed by trees, and some countless wooded acres owned by distant neighbors.

I came here to be restored by nature and solitude. The cabin doesn't fail me. I spend my time reading Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, about the major currents driving one of the most remarkable band of men in history; and The Sound of Mountain Water by Wallace Stegner, one of America's most gifted nature essayists. The pairing is not so odd as it may seem. Each book is inspiring: with explorations of blithe nature and self-conscious actors, the enduring affect things and people can have on those around them and after them, and the majesty in both being moved by and moving events of the world.

What a rich life indeed - moment to moment - to tend so carefully to the legacy of one's deeds, to see so much in the rush of rain down a mountainside. How much less would we spend on pedicures and ribbons if we lived our lives at that edge of awareness, how much fuller our days and how much better this world?

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Friday, May 23, 2008

the chosen generation

Memorial Day weekend is a good time to think about causes and values that transcend our quotidian lives and that pull us, or compel us, or drag us to engage in Life writ large.

The people we honor and remember today - as we go off to celebrate our group playtime and the beginning of summertime (despite what the calendar and weatherfolks say) - gave their lives both to create and preserve a society that gives us the opportunities and blessings we enjoy today.

We, too, in this interstitial generation, are being called to do remarkable things.

If humankind is lucky, if we do the right thing, the 20th century will go down in history as the one and only era of non-sustainability. It will be studied as a time of great discovery; blind innocence; gaping, gasping degradation; and delayed awakening. Historians and plain folk alike will marvel at our ignorance and impudence, building as if we lived in a one-way, dead-end system, as if we could extract precious resources from the earth, fiddle with them, use them, and throw them away. And that we could, with impunity, casually and blamelessly toss into the ocean, the land, and the air all the gunk and detritus that we spew out when making the marvels of our civilization.

If we are lucky, and do the right thing, all the centuries before us, and all the centuries after us, will model the one true way of being: living well today while enabling our children, and their children, and their children, to live well after us.

We occupy that rare and historic moment in time; we are the chosen generation which has to make this change in vision, value and style. We are in the midst of creating the second industrial revolution, where our energy, our production design, and our waste all are part of the sustainability equation, where the process is as critical as the product.

We - as consumers, scientists, inventors, policy makers, investors - are called to carry our civilization over the revolutionary hump. We must prod and push and celebrate our advances, and we must tend well to those who are displaced, disoriented and otherwise harmed by both society's inactions and actions.

This is grand and unsettling time. But no revolution is easy. We are the founders of the next great society. It is not easy, but it is invigorating, it is necessary and at the end of the day, it is right.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

a close encounter

Returning from my early morning walk today, I cut through the woods behind my home. This is by-pass, thoroughfare and otherwise recreation area for our local herd of deer. So human and woodland creatures often encounter each other here. We eye one another for a few seconds, each determining the other means no harm, and continue on our respective ways.

This morning, however, something new occurred. As I emerged from the wooded area onto my recovering back yard (it has a fuzz of ground cover on it this year - recovering from the abuse of construction and heavy equipment and then mounds of leaf litter burying it for a few years), I found myself being greeted by the two smallest, most adorable, undoubtedly relatively new-born fawns I have ever seen. These two tiny creatures came no higher than my knees. Their legs were still wobbly, their spots large and prominent. While that was a delightful discovery, I somewhat quickly was horrified to realize that I could not see any adult deer around. I imagined they had to be there - these little things couldn't survive long without them. But I couldn't see them (hurray for camouflage and the cover of scrub). Clearly, while I was there, they were going to pretend they weren't. Except for these innocent playful babies.

I determined to hurry home, to let the adults come out of hiding and reclaim their endangered children. Alas, since I was the only big animal they could see, and the babies were so very young and inexperienced, they began to follow me home! One seemed to catch on after just a few steps, and amidst my imploring, turned to go back into the woods. The other, sadly, continued to imagine that I was family and the leader of the herd. Gently, without wanting to scare the little one, I argued, pointed, explained, that I was not its mother. To no avail. This little one clearly would not understand me! (Who was being more obtuse in this scenario I leave for you to decide!)

This soon became all too much for the little guy. It was quite exhausted at being rebuffed and apparently was becoming anxious at not having a loving mom to cuddle it and nurse it. Its legs began to wobble and give way. So right at the edge of my garage, it decided to make its last stand, or last lie, and plopped down. It was so very petite, bones and breathing quite evident.

Alarmed that still no parent showed up, and that this little one was in distress, I ran inside and with the help of my son, brought out two tins, one of milk and one of water. We didn't know which would be better; and we didn't even know if this baby could even drink from anything that a mother's breast. (Any advice about what to do if this happens again is most welcome!)

Sadly, it appeared even too weak to lift its head.

At this point, I had to take my son to school. And as we were getting into the car, we saw the whole herd bounding away across the street, away from the little baby we too were now leaving behind. It wasn't clear to us that this deer would even survive till I returned, it looked so distressed and weak and alone. We drove away with a sense of loss and doom.

I am happy to report however, that upon my return, not 20 minutes later, the baby deer was no longer prostrate alongside the corner of my garage. In fact, it was no longer in sight. My hope is that its mother retraced her steps, followed the scent and rescued this pitiful, lost but beautiful and trusting animal. Although we do have foxes in our neighborhood too.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Seventh Year

This past week's parashah offers one of Torah's most soaring texts on seeking the ideal of political, social and economic equity. And it all focuses on the ownership of land.

It teaches us the humility and freedom of ownerlessness: "When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest."

For six years, we can act as if the land is ours; its produce is ours and the wealth and status that it affords us is ours. Such is the concession to our quotidian impulses. But the seventh year, like the seventh day, calls us to transcend coarse reality and enter the realm of the ideal. For in the seventh year, all boundaries fall; all private property reverts to its primordial state: being the possession of God, gifted to all humanity.

That which was ours last year (and will be ours again the following year) is nonetheless not ours this year. It belongs to everyone equally. And we are levelled - socially, economically, and therefore, politically - with everyone else. There can be no hoarding; no merchandising; no lender and no borrower. Everything is shared. It is a return to Eden; to the manna-fed, ownerless existence of the wilderness.

For six years, we live in reality. In the seventh year, we are reminded, through our acts, the opening of all fields, and the sharing of all food that the earth produces on its own accord, of our common humanity. Ideally, we take some of those lessons, those humbling thoughts and feelings, and carry them with us across the threshold from the seventh year, to the return to year one of a new cycle of seven.

Imagine if we applied some of these lessons today. What might that look like?

Perhaps it would mean we would empty out our off-site storage bins every seven years. Fling open the doors and make all our excess available to those who need. Or perhaps it would mean that we didn't buy anything new - except the utmost necessities - in the seventh year. We would manage with last year's wardrobe and shoes and articles and stuff. Perhaps it would mean we set aside a larger portion of our income to do the good work of enabling others to earn a living for themselves.

We are in the midst of the Seventh Year. The count continues to this very day. In the waning months of the year, perhaps we can each imagine a contemporary application of this age-old teaching. And see what it feels like to live a little closer to our ideal.

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

19.7 cubic feet

Try as I might, I could not muster the time or energy to blog over Passover. Much like our ancestors, my experience of the holiday began with the food preparations and consumed me until now.

Thursday before the holiday was devoted to purchasing food stuffs, which often felt more like hunting and scavenging. I went from store to store to find all that I needed for the three day opening onslaught (Shabbat and the first two days, including the two seders). My seemingly, out-of-character, apparently indulgent - not to mention expensive - food shopping spree so alarmed my credit card company that they froze my card temporarily, not for lack of funds but for suspicious activity.

Thursday night was devoted to the final marathon cleaning, putting hametz dishes away and bringing down the passover ware.

Friday was devoted to cooking. And more cooking.

Friday night, we were off and running.

Between exhaustion, guests, work and the incessant cycle of cooking/cleaning/cooking/cleaning, there was little time to blog. For the reality of a home that that is the hub of Passover is that for a whole week, every morsel of food that we eat has to be prepared from scratch, by hand in one's kitchen that very week (unless you are really good and either transform your kitchen weeks earlier or have the indulgent luxury of a separate kitchen. Or I supposed you could hire someone to cook for you, but now we trespass in the territory of make-believe.) No eating out, no buying prepared food, no dipping into the freezer for food you cooked weeks earlier for such an occasion. The constancy of the kitchen, for those of us who ordinarily spend as little time as possible there, is humbling.

But that is not the point of this blog. Just an explanation for the blog blackout period.

The point of the blog is this: a month before Passover, I disconnected our second refrigerator/freezer. It has become de rigueur in the burbs to have two, sometimes three, refrigerators and freezers. But that appliance is one of the greediest power eaters in our homes. A 20 cubic feet refrigerator/freezer (roughly the one I have and most likely you too) uses 2700 KW a year. That annual usage is exceeded in most typical homes only by the water heater and air conditioner. (For a fascinating glimpse at typical home appliance consumption rates, go to http://www.oksolar.com/technical/consumption.html)

We too have two r/fs. And that was perhaps, maybe, somewhat defensible when my children were smaller and thus the household larger. But today, there are three of us in this large home. So a month before Passover, I determined, by fiat, that we were going to reduce our cold food storage to what we could fit into one unit, our 19.7 cubic foot refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen. It took us a while to eat down our stock. We buy less at a time now, but amazingly don't find we are going to the store more often. We just have less stashed away at any one time. And the bright side is that our freezer food is fresher, not having stayed in the cold recesses of climate-controlled cave for months, courtesy of abundant frozen space.

But I write about this now because for Passover, I needed to return to two fully functioning units. What with feeding 20 people at a seder and 6-8 at most subsequent meals. So now once again, after stocking up my two units, I need to cull and trim and get back into one unit. Despite my previous wrestling with this storage space diet, 19.7 cubic feet still looks so very small. And yet I realize that is probably larger than most home refrigeration units in most of the world. The whole closet - for that is what it is, just cold - is almost as big as a twin bed. And we are back to three people in my household. So why do I need more space; and why does my refrigerator feel so small? What grand level of luxury and abundance has become the norm in our lives so that I feel like I am now shoving my life's food stock into a handbag? Maybe I should line the back wall with mylar or mirrors to make it feel twice as big?

Old habits of abundance, even excess, are hard to break. But I am now off to consolidate, bringing the residue of holiday foods from the second r/f into the neighborhood of the kitchen r/f. It almost feels like crossing the railroad tracks; merging two classes, two cultures. I hope everybody plays nicely in the dark.

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