Do it yourself together



(click image to enlarge)


A group has pooled its tools and skills, thus enhancing the potential capacities for everyone. The weaver’s loom, the potter’s wheel and kiln are here, as well as the equipment for shoemaking and the ordinary range of carpentry and household repair gear. The community has not forgotten the outside world: posters are being printed by silk-screen. The message is that possibilities of do-it-yourself are greatly extended if you do it yourselves together.

From “Visions: 6 drawings by Cliff Harper. Commentary by Colin Ward,” in Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society, Vernon Richards (ed). London: Aldgate Press, 1983.

All I want to do is bake bread and practice yoga

When I was in college I tried out a couple of classes at a yoga studio in my neighborhood, and one day a girl in the class mentioned that all she had done that day was bake bread and practice yoga, and that in her perfect world that’s all she would do all day, every day: bake bread and practice yoga. That’s all? God, what a horrible, useless drain on society she would be, I scoffed (in my head). That’s kind of what I was like in my early twenties; I bought into a whole program of ideas about what success and societal participation look like.

That was more than ten years ago. Last night and this morning, I signed up to teach several classes at the soon-to-open Trade School Geneva, a center for learning and sharing in all sorts of subjects and activities, where instead of paying for classes with money, students pay the teacher with bartered items or services.

Anyone can propose to teach whatever they want, and for a while I mulled over what my contribution could be. What am I good for? What do I know relatively a lot about that I would like to share with others? What kinds of things are people looking to learn?

In the end, I proposed classes in bread baking and yoga. The irony!

More links + call for submissions

To read: Work and Idleness in the Age of the Great Recession – a special issue of Periscope


Essays on Frugal Abundance: Degrowth: Misinterpretations and Controversies, part 1 of 4 (Serge Latouche, via the Simplicity Collective)


Urban Backyard Food Production as a Strategy for Food Security in Melbourne, Australia (Permaculture Research Institute)

Also, veering quite a bit off topic but it’s via a friend and the context of the journal is interesting: a call for submissions to Project Freerange


Heraclitus, the old pre-Socratic philosopher, said that you cannot step into the same river twice.

Sensuous and fluid yet powerful, raging and unforgiving – from Styx to bottled water, from great lake to babbling brook, from poetic vessel to trade route, water exists in a myriad of states and is characterized by its many forms and expressions, its imaginative potential and raw impact upon life on earth. Its changeable nature and ability to hold contradictions (it is both life-sustainer, provider of food and abundance yet bearer of disease and destruction) has leant water to art, metaphor, songs, philosophy, literature, science and a myriad of other disciplines. Revered in religious and cultural practice, yet continually degraded by industry and human activities, water has a symbiotic relationship with cities, politics and of course, pirates.

Freerange thought it was time to pay tribute to the most abundant substance on earth, the universal solvent. Water shapes landscape; it creates and reflects history. It defines where civilisations have established themselves and has forced them to move (whether through diversions, dams or rising sea levels). It has appealed to pilgrims, explorers, scientists, philosophers, weather forecasters, town planners and swimmers. And now with rising sea levels, pollution, increasing reports of natural disasters, water criminals, water degradation and privatisation, water is set to be the definitive resource of time to come.

So we are calling for submissions on the big issue for our next issue: Freerange Vol. 9: The Wet Issue.  We want to hear your thoughts, experiences and artistic expressions on water: from holy water to mythical flood, from ice cap to desert, from Moby Dick to naiads, from Atlantis to Venice, from resource to privatisation.

Some things to think about: Poseidon, armadas, treasures, foreshore and seabed, watery graves, climate change refugees, erosion, purification, Old Man and the Sea, astrology, battles on it and battles for it, tropical storms and big snows, river highways, irrigation, tears, Shackleton…..

Please send your abstract of 100-200 words by April 1 .

Thoreau Thursday: Idleness, from Walden

in “Sounds” (p. 72-73 in the Dover edition):

I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest. My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for to-morrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.




Thoughts about fibers

My mother and I finally had post-Madrona Skype talk 1 on Sunday (we only had an hour to talk so there’s still more to tell — she and I have an otherworldly endurance for conversation) and so I’m here with some of the info she shared. Madrona is a yearly retreat in Tacoma, Washington, for people who are into knitting, crocheting, spinning, weaving, etc. She got back last week but her yarn won’t get back for a few weeks, since she bought so much that she had to ship it ground delivery. That’s my Ma.

One of her biggest finds at the retreat was the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius (whose blog I can’t find, so I suppose she doesn’t have one, but Mom said she writes for Hobby Farms and Mother Earth News). The sourcebook is on the many different animals that give us their wool for yarn, and while my mother doesn’t raise animals (one neighbor in particular would have a fit, I’ll tell you that), she picked up the book because of all the information to be had in it on the provenance of the yarn she buys. I’m not about to get into animal husbandry just yet. (Read about my turbulent relationship with crochet here, here, and here, for starters. I am not ready for sheep.) Even so, I was glad for the reference because it lead me to Deborah’s blog, and the Hobby Farms website.

I don’t know anyone else in my pre-PhD program whose mother provides them with research references. +1 My Mom.

Other fibers have been on my mind since yesterday, because yesterday I started more seriously considering the question of what sort of pretty dress I’m going to wear for my wedding. (That’s the first mention of “wedding” I’ve made on this blog. Kind of lackluster, no? How about if I put a smiley in there? 🙂 )

Melanie (who hates smileys 🙂 ) said yes when I asked if she would make my dress for me, and she might be regretting her answer now. I like to think that I’m not being high maintenance about the whole thing, but I do have some preferences for how we do it. The top two priorities are that it’s something I will wear again many times, and that it has a big swingy skirt that spins out when I dance. Unfortunately these two priorities don’t fit together very well, because the sticker is that I’d also rather not use synthetic (ie petroleum-based) fabric, which is exactly the kind of fabric that spins nicely while dancing. The only natural cloth that I can think of that will spin when I dance is silk, which costs, I learned yesterday, about 60 Swiss francs per meter, and using silk will also most likely lead to me never wearing the dress again because the dress will require dry cleaning. I don’t do dry cleaning.

(In case you were wondering, yes, I’m kind of folding the making of my wedding dress into my research.)

So one of my priorities will have to go. I’m leaning toward nixing the swingy skirt, as much as it kills me to do so. I think the last time I had a swingy skirt was back when I was but a spry three-year-old dancing at my dad’s summer office party. Kate at 32.75 years old would really love a swingy skirt, but more important is that all Melanie’s hard work and the work of whoever made the materials isn’t going to get stored in a box after one day of use.

Speaking of the influence of princess dreams on grown-up desires, I saw this on Facebook this morning (posted by the page Buy Nothing New for a Year):

(One more 🙂 for Mel)

Catching up on some reading & whatnot

I’m working my way through all the articles big and small (plus some videos) that I let linger during crazy week last week…

Also this weekend I discovered the work of the New Zealand-based artist Xin Cheng. Sounds like my kind of stuff. I shall follow up. After coffee #3.

Thoughts about socks

Something I read yesterday:

The survival of skills (and the skills of survival) depend on a lineage of teaching and learning which has traditionally taken place in the private sphere, in the home. … Increased specialization of skills, consumerism, and a greater division of labor have … contributed to a general loss of widely practiced everyday survival and craft skills, and a concomitant estrangement from unmediated sense experience. Under such conditions, these traditional “hand skills” are increasingly and inappropriately fetishized, and nostalgic sentiments are woven about them, which again separates them from everyday life. (Faith Wilding, “Monstrous Domesticity,” in M/E/A/N/I/N/G Nov. 1995.)

Which made me think of the Pablo Neruda poem “Ode to My Socks”:

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.


(me modeling my new socks, Christmas morning 2013)


Saturday morning cartoons

Two animated shorts that I think are super. Both deal with the idea of a person’s impulse to protect what he sees as his private property, to the point of using violence. And to which circle of hell does violence lead us? I think we both know the answer to that question.

The first is Fioritures (1987), by the Russian animator Garri Bardin.

The second is Neighbours (1952), by the Canadian Norman McLaren.


Progress in the development of my avocado tree plantation

Progress in the development of my avocado tree plantation

I’d seen this a million times before but for some reason I can’t believe it’s working. Guacamole party at my place in six years!

How to Be Useful and Contribute to Society

I put down Debt a little while ago, at the precise time that I’d told myself I would stop reading and come over here to my desk and force myself to write something. After a few seconds of staring at the screen I googled “What makes someone useful to society?”

If you happen to know the answer to this question, do tell. In the meantime, while you’re thinking it over, you might consider consulting the wikiHow “How to Be Useful and Contribute to Society.”

This wikiHow’s potential as mockery target aside, I find it fascinating to consider the wider meaning of small, disposable cultural artifacts like this. Step 1 is wrought with youthful angst:


Step 1. The feeling of being useless can come from deep psychological mechanisms. Simply being useful may not stop the feeling of being useless. In contrast, not contributing to society (leeching society’s benefits) may create or amplify many negative feelings.


What was immediately interesting to me was that whoever wrote this at first used “being useful” and “being productive” pretty much interchangeably (before redefining usefulness in completely different terms, as we shall see). In Step 2 the author defined “human productivity” as “taking one kind of good and turning it into another kind.” Explaining that:

In order to make some output, you need input. Take some thing or material, move it to a more useful place, or combine it with other materials to make something. Not all of us have access to the best inputs. There are no free inputs, but forward-thinking individuals have created things like the internet, which can be the next best thing to free inputs. Your local library is another source of cheap or free inputs. It may seem counter-intuitive when you intend to create something out of yourself, that the first thing you need to do is take some things in. But the truth is that in order to be a producer, you must first be a consumer. You cannot be productive based on a blank slate.

On my first reading I shuddered at the suggestion that being useful was defined as just making objects, but after I read the rest I went back and reread this step and tried to see it in a different, overly analytical light. Don’t read this as (e.g.) to “Be a producer of Consumer Electronics” you must “Consume unsustainably mined minerals from a Developing Country.” Read it as: “To produce thought, art, poetry, critique, you must consume these same things.” And “You can start by going to your local library.” Thus with one mighty blow, Step 2 has defended the public library as an invaluable institution, as well as dispelled the myths of uniqueness and single authorship by reminding us that all our creations are part of a web of creation and innovation that influences us and that helps us influence others. I’m very okay with that. If you think I’m being a little pollyannaish and reading into this with my rose-colored hippie spectacles, read on, friend, read on.

Step 3 invites us to consider the impacts our actions have on others (paired with an illustration of a guy playing idly with his iPhone while his poor spouse is slaving away dusting the living room; his look says, “Babe, I am not at all bothered by this unbalanced division of labor”) and Step 4 continues that we should be kind and smile to everyone. Step 5 says “Give more than you take (think karma)” and Step 6 is to be a good listener. Step 7 is to give a Snickers bar to the homeless guy on the corner (?).

Step 8 calls on us all to stand up against injustices and — !!!!!to be whistleblowers against corporate corruption.

Step 9 says “Give blood.” Step 10: “Don’t discriminate.” Step 11: “Protect the weak.”

Step 12: “Join a charity. Raise money and awareness for a cause.”

Step 13: Be a stem cell donor (to save people from leukemia).

Are you confused? I’m confused. I know I shouldn’t be — I think wikiHows are written by 14 year olds anyway, right? Which, actually, makes me even more confused because (weirdly specific examples of giving away blood and Snickers bars aside) these ideas about “how to be useful” are by and large ideas of communism. So this was written by a 14 year old communist?

I don’t mean communism in the Communist Party sense. (Tangent: The other night I had a dream that my mother was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.) Those are two different ideas, one being social and moral and the other being a political structure. To explain, how about I cite directly from Debt:

Starting … from the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” allows us to look past the question of individual or private ownership (which is often little more than formal legality anyway) and at much more immediate and practical questions of who has access to what sorts of things and under what conditions. Whenever it is the operative principle, even if it’s just two people who are interacting, we can say we are in the presence of a sort of communism. (p. 95)

As I understand communism as an abstract idea, as a system of relations (not of exchange), it’s about seeing the needs of one’s neighbors as one’s own needs, which translates into the free sharing of essential goods as well as standing up for wrongs done to others as though wrongs had been done to us. It’s about seeing communities as they should be seen, not as geographic groupings of isolated household units, but as groups of people sharing resources and know-how in order to collectively prosper.

This 13-step how-to on being a useful member of society has unexpectedly made me slightly more optimistic about humanity’s future. I thought I lived in a world where being relevant to one’s community was all but tied up in obligations to earn money and participate in a market economy — if you are not a buyer nor seller, you do not exist. But if ever one of my fellow humans finds him or herself in existential doubt about the point of it all, and asks the Google Gods the answer to the meaning of life, they, like me, will discover that the answer is: Be Kind and Share with Your Neighbors.