December 31, 2009

2009: Our Year of Not Buying Alcohol

Today Linda and I mark one year of not buying anything with alcohol in it. It has been an interesting, and occasionally challenging experiment. Time to raise a glass of apple juice and toast our self-control, not to mention the hundreds of dollars we saved.

I used to enjoy drinking more than I have lately. When I went to university the hot 'n sweaty booze-fests at the Students' Union were a fire-code-busting right of passage. Hoisting a couple with friends on a hot summer day is a pleasant way to pass the time. But is it the booze, or is it the friends?

I think it is more about recovering from work and our fast pace, than having fun. I noticed over the past year that the time I felt most like buying alcohol was when I was working the most. I also felt that this was when I most "deserved" a drink. Driving home after a long, hot day of grounds keeping was the worst - cold beer called, beckoned, promising instant body/mind liquid relaxation. I kept driving.

Still, set a cold beer in front of me and my reflex will be to drool and reach for it. Is it any better than a cold lemonade, or is that just drink industry propaganda? Somehow you are more adult and happening if you drink alcohol. It is strange that part of the reason I started drinking as a teen was to be rebellious, and now, 34 years later, quitting is the rebellious act.

Is it possible to enjoy life without alcohol? Advertisers will tell you that you can't. Is history on their side? Can 10 000 years of beer consumption be wrong? Beer has been around longer than bread. That must count for something.

A WHO report found that in 1998-99 twenty-two percent of Canadians were non-drinkers, including 17.8% of men, and 26.1% of women. Compare this with Egypt at 99.5%, Cambodia at 85%, and India at about 50%. Are all these people having less fun than drinkers? If my past year is any indication, I would have to say no. Drinking non-alcoholic beverages when socializing made things no less special or enjoyable. Decaffeinated coffee, green tea or water sufficed nicely.

A few years ago we quit buying alcohol at the liquor store in order to trim our budget. We started to brew beer and wine at the local U-Brew establishment. It was an educational, enjoyable process, and the product was acceptable to us. It was a fraction of the cost of store-bought beer and wine.

Then around this time last year we discussed not buying any alcohol in 2009, and decided to go for it. We knew it would be a challenge socially - almost everyone we know drinks. Gradually we came to more or less forget all about drinking. Reading about the weekly car accidents in our community due to drinking made it easier to stay away.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, in 2004 alcohol was responsible for 4.6 percent of global death and disability, causing 2.5 million deaths, including 320,000 deaths among young people between the ages of 15 and 29.(1, 2) When WHO compared the burden of disease from alcohol, tobacco and 24 other risk factors in 2000, alcohol ranked just below tobacco in its impact on global health and had a greater share of the global burden of disease than unsafe water and sanitation, cholesterol or obesity.

Will we buy any alcohol next year? No. We have broken our habit. We are not buying the whole "have to drink to have fun" myth perpetuated by advertising. Life is fun without it - we still get silly with the best of them, and no hangover or empty wallet. And if work and life are so busy that you "need" a drink to get you through, I recommend slowing down and working less, not drinking more.

Happy New Year.

December 26, 2009

Private Sector Doesn't Do Affordable, Sustainable Housing

What does a guy have to do to get an affordable, efficient, tiny house around here? Something about the size of the average two car garage, say, 400 to 500 sq. ft. It would be nice to have some space outside for a large garden, a few solar panels, a compost pile, and a bit of nature. Somewhere to escape the crushing burden of rent or mortgage payments and live a simple low-impact life.

I dream of a home that is different from the ubiquitous boxes that cloak our landscape as monuments to the dinosaur of for-profit housing. These McHomes may not be energy efficient, or have room for a garden, or encourage community, but they sure do maximize profits for developers, builders and realtors.

Why is a gargantuan mortgage the only option for securing shelter? Shackling yourself to the Big Banks for 35 to 40 years is not my idea of freedom. What if you don't want a 3000 sq.ft. cookie-cutter house in a prestigious neighbourhood with a front double garage and postage stamp yard? What happened to reasonable sized houses? What is wrong with tiny homes?

Across the land where the average size of new homes is growing (currently about 2500 sq. ft.), you will find it is illegal to build a house smaller than about 15oo sq. ft. Architectural restrictions in your enclave ensure any individuality is banned along with outdoor laundry lines.

We know that monocultures are very susceptible to disruption. Diversity is the key to survival. But you will not find that in your regular development.

No orientation for maximum solar gain, no solar water heaters, no straw bale, no grey water systems, no wind turbines, no tiny homes. No, you are not going to see any alternative, forward-thinking innovations here, because these homes and developments are about one thing, and one thing only - maximum profit.

Don't look for answers from the private sector. They are unwilling to provide affordable housing, and are not concerned with providing solutions to our environmental challenges.

A local developer recently quoted in the Sooke News Mirror said, "the imposition of affordable housing makes our business unsuccessful."

It is time to set aside self-interest and think instead about our survival. Securing shelter, a basic human need, should not make one a slave to the bank for half a lifetime. And those with cash on hand should have more of a choice than the unimaginative, expensive, inefficient wastes of space currently offered.

If the private sector can't, or won't, provide affordable housing, then the government should. If they refuse, then they should let the people organize and support their efforts, because the people CAN provide affordable, sustainable housing when profit is not the number one motivating factor.

All I want is my little hobbit house, in a cooperative community of forward thinking individuals willing to show that housing for all is not just a dream. It is attainable if we stand together and work toward that goal without greed in our hearts.

The imposition of unaffordable, inefficient housing makes us, and our planet, unsuccessful.

December 22, 2009

Frugal Sushi Solstice Celebration

This year we started a new tradition. We celebrated the solstice with a big plate of sushi, crispy sesame crackers, and a hot pot of green tea. 45 pieces of mouth-watering, wasabi-laden, homemade sushi. Perfect for the frugal sushi lover.

Good friends introduced us to the intricacies of preparing this amazing Japanese burrito, and we haven't looked back since. Technically we are making makizushi, which is sushi rice and fillings wrapped in a sheet of nori (dried seaweed).

Because we are making frugal sushi, we do not buy special ingredients. Everything we need is already a basic part of our kitchen except for wasabi. We use ordinary vinegar instead of rice vinegar, short-grain brown rice instead of sushi rice, and ordinary mayonnaise.

Sushi is tasty, creative food art. It is as pleasing to the eye as to the stomach. What goes inside your sushi is only limited by your culinary imagination and what is in your fridge. The fillings we used this time were thinly cut strips of: red pepper, cucumber, green onion, tofu, avocado, imitation crab, and carrots.

We added one teaspoon sugar, a pinch of salt, and a tablespoon of vinegar to 5 cups of sticky rice to make a reasonable sushi rice.

The basic steps to making sushi are:
  1. Make rice ahead of time and allow to cool. You will need about 1 cup of cooked rice per roll.
  2. After rice has cooled add sugar, salt, and vinegar.
  3. Cut fresh ingredients.
  4. Lay nori on sushi mat (or use a cloth napkin).
  5. With wet fingers press thin layer of rice on nori, leaving 2 cm at the top.
  6. Place fillings across bottom of rice, like filling a burrito. Include mayo here.
  7. Use mat or cloth to begin rolling from bottom to top. Press tightly as you roll. Ends remain open.
  8. At the top use your finger to wet the nori and finish rolling to seal shut.
  9. Use a sharp knife to cut roll into individual pieces (6 - 8/roll)
Serve with soy sauce and wasabi on the side in a shallow bowl. Complement with sesame crackers and a pot of green tea.

Working with basic ingredients that you have on hand will result in amazing frugal sushi. Ingredients for a meal for four might cost you 10 dollars, probably less. Have fun creating your own sushi for your own discriminating palette. Share with friends. Celebrate.

Happy Solstice.

December 21, 2009

The Gift of Being Present

The bestseller Remember Be Here Now by Ram Dass was a gift my dad gave my mom Christmas of 1971. I felt like an elementary school beginner hippie/mystic, reading it in our home in Eugene, Oregon. I would get one of my father's ties and wear it as a headband while thumbing through the natural looking brown unbleached pages. Not far away, on campus, U of O students vigorously demonstrated against the Vietnam War, occasionally with small explosive devices.

Ram Dass introduced me to eastern thought early. Coming to fully embrace that "everyone is a manifestation of God and that every moment is of infinite significance" has been a goal since.

Many people spend less than 1% of their time living in the present. Our fast pace and busy minds have us dwelling in memories of the past, or anticipating future events. But the present is where everything is happening. It is where you can be the authentic you and experience life at its fullest, unencumbered by regret or anticipation.

When we observe our thoughts we can see by their content which time frame we are living in. Living fully now is the goal. Always gently bring yourself back to the moment. When washing the dishes, wash the dishes. Being mindful of the moment has many benefits.

Time slows down, and you feel calm. You are sharp, clear, and ready for any scenario. You are open and energetic. As a good friend says, "Life is fun."

There is more. You become less responsive to emotional triggers, and feel in control of yourself. You connect easily with others. Your interactions are meaningful and sincere. You respond to situations in a logical, fair manner. You have confidence. You are you, genuine and unafraid.

First we have to recognize we are trapped. Then we can work on becoming free. When you live in the moment, everything changes.


Be here now.

December 16, 2009

A Holiday Meditation on Death

A brief candle; both ends burning
An endless mile; a bus wheel turning
A friend to share the lonesome times
A handshake and a sip of wine
So say it loud and let it ring
We are all a part of everything
The future, present and the past
Fly on proud bird
You're free at last.

Written by Charlie Daniels en route to the funeral for Ronnie Van Zant.

I had a brush with death the other day, and it was scary. Am I prepared for my own death?

The elderly neighbour that lives in the unit above us had been going through chemotherapy for several months. Her last days were a struggle with weakness and blackened, painful fingers.

We were home when her relative came by to do a regular check. The relative discovered that our neighbour had passed on. Her little dog was at her side. The relative was overcome with an immediate wave of shock and grief. She sobbed the woman's, and the dog's, names over and over.

Later, I thought of my death. I looked at Linda and imagined life without her after 22 years of being best friends. I thought of my friend who is dealing with the loss of his dog Willy. A couple nights later we watched Marley and Me. Everything we hold and love and cherish will be taken away.

I was forced to consider non-attachment, and how difficult it is in a world full of material possibilities and instant gratification.

The Dalai Lama recommends meditating on death for a short while every day. This prepares us for the inevitable, and helps us to be mindful in the joy of life.

My neighbour's death was a powerful reminder of the fate that awaits us all. Her passing has reminded me to squeeze the bubbles of the past and the future into the bubble of the present, and enjoy the magic moment we are existing in. All we have is the here and now, and each moment is a precious jewel.

I am going to enjoy as many of them as possible. I want to come to terms with death so I can live. Life is uncertain - do not hesitate.

While making your living, don't forget to live.

December 11, 2009

Are Conspicuous Consumers The Next Smokers?

At one time an individual's choice to smoke in public was based on purely personal considerations. Either you felt like having a smoke or not. Not so much any more. Taking into consideration the greater effects of public smoking, many jurisdictions have created laws restricting it. Attitudes are changing, and it is considered socially unacceptable to light up indiscriminately in public. Is conspicuous consumption next on the list?

The unintended effects of one billion people consuming 35 times more everything than the rest of the planet are monumental. We are living in the second hand smoke of our smoldering scorched earth lifestyles. We are destroying everything the enemy can use, and the enemy seems to be the very planet itself.

Not only do we see that there ARE limits to what nature can provide us, but we are nearing some of those limits. We are witnessing the limits of atmosphere and ocean, forest and farmland, flora and fauna. On a finite planet with an ever-increasing population, I can only see this going one way, and it is not a vision of excess.

There are current examples of consumption laws. Some are health related such as restrictions on consuming cigarettes in public, while others deal with resource depletion such as rationing water in a drought. My own community has water rationing every summer during the dry season and it is the main limiting factor in the development of this area.

Fines are associated with breaking consumption laws, and when we opt to hit people in the pocketbook you know we mean business. Society reminds us in this way that our decisions are no longer bound by purely personal whims, and the greater good will be preserved. Such "extreme measures" become ingrained in our lives and before long we adapt, and perhaps even wonder how things could have been the way they were previously. It is what happens when you choose to live with less - you wonder what all that stuff you used to have was for. You don't miss it. You welcome the empty space it has left behind.

According to the law of diminishing utility increasing consumption does not translate into increased happiness past a certain critical point. It is possible that the less we consume, the happier we will become. Will we need further laws to help us overcome the initial fear as we move toward a sustainable existence?

Our current high-consumption lifestyle is leading to obesity, chronic stress, climate change, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Are we going to limit our own self-destructive behaviour, or will we need to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing? It's not just personal anymore. We all share the same planet.

December 9, 2009

Tis The Season For Hibernation

Living simply allows me to live at my own pace. Cast out the clocks and calenders and experience rubber time - a bendy and flexible way of living that allows you to ebb and flow with personal and seasonal cycles. Circadian rhythms. Sunrise, sunset. Tide coming in, going out. Moon phases. Length of day.

We are just a few days shy of winter solstice. It is prime hibernation season, a time of introspection. Temperatures are plummeting, and we are retreating to our caves to rest and look within. It is time to regenerate as we move from the frenetic pace and growth of summer into a recovery/assessment phase. Now is a good time to treat yourself. Do less, rest more. Conserve energy. Ask yourself, "How am I doing? Am I achieving my special purpose? Am I becoming a better person?"

The Sun is getting thin and lethargic, and so are you. By 4:20pm it has disappeared completely. Plunged into the cold dark of the winter night we naturally seek shelter and rich foods. A hot bowl of soup, warm fresh bread, and a friend to keep you warm.

It is essential to let yourself slow down and think any time, but especially now. Where are we all going? What is the overall plan, and are we manifesting it effectively? Are we improving life on Earth? These are things I can think about as I rest and recover.

Then it is time to just stop. The puffy warmth of that 30 cm thick down comforter never looked so good. A good nap or solid nights rest is wholesome, healthful, and mother nature-approved.

The simple life provides time to rest, assess, and recharge so that come spring we are ready to cash in on the fecundity of nature and our own creativity while the cycle continues.

Good night. It is time to channel my inner bear. Zzzzzz...

December 3, 2009

10 Steps Toward Mindful Consumption

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming." - Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist monk

Unmindful consumption has created many problems. Even if I don't consume a lot, I am still consuming. All of my purchases have repercussions throughout the supply chain. Are my hands clean? How can I become a more mindful consumer?

We are questioning our purchasing habits. As we become aware of the externalities involved in the things we buy, we can choose products and companies that cultivate personal, environmental and social well-being.

The following are 10 tips I use to become more mindful in my consumption habits:
  1. Don't panic. Many purchases are unplanned and based on emotions. Pause. Think. Then buy, or not. Often by the end of a waiting period we have ceased to desire the item altogether.
  2. Beware of emotional foreplay. Don't be seduced by consumer culture advertising/programming that appeals to lower brain functions and promotes reflexive behaviours. Beware of PPD (premature purchase disorder).
  3. Do research to increase awareness. Consumers can increasingly access information that will assist in making ethical purchasing decisions. Webs sites such as GoodGuide, SkinDeep, and EnvironmentalHealthNews offer a wealth of information for the concerned consumer. Also, check labels on products to find information such as point of origin, potentially dangerous ingredients such as unhealthy fats, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, diacetyl, suspected carcinogens etc.
  4. Support Fair Trade and Organic Certified products. Fair trade products promote equity and well-being throughout the system by helping consumers make ethical choices. Entire cities are designating themselves fair trade zones.
  5. Be aware of the lifespan of products. 90% of a laptop computer's impact is when it is made and disposed of. Vinyl shower curtains off-gas in landfills for decades. Plan for the entire life cycle of things you buy.
  6. Choose non-toxic alternatives. If there are aren't any, ask why.
  7. Buy local. If there is a local, healthy alternative, support your community.
  8. Plan ahead and make a list. Know what you need and limit yourself to those things.
  9. Buy quality and make things last. With proper use and maintenance quality products can be made to last, reducing the overall price per use while saving resources.
  10. Question your desires and promote good health when desires are met. Being aware of what motivates your consumption habits will make you more mindful when making purchases. You will be doing the least amount of harm possible, and that in itself promotes personal health.