Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reclaiming the Community We Always Wanted

I remember my father telling me that when he was growing up, his family—that had emigrated en masse from Hungary—grew a lot of their own food on their small lot on Washington Street in Boonton, New Jersey. They had fruit trees, they had trellises of grapes from which they made their own wine and they grew vegetables and herbs. Some of their neighbors had chickens. They kept pigeons, which apparently were good eating. They also had a root cellar for storing some of their crops for the winter. And it was a big day when the outhouse was replaced by indoor plumbing.
Dad's old homestead courtesy of Google Maps Street View.

My father said that he and his friends once got in trouble because they were caught overturning outhouses on Mischief Night before Halloween. There was no television, so people in the community used to get together for dances and socialize. He said that everyone truly wished the best for everyone else because getting by was so hard. I used to think that all of his tales of life before and during the Depression were all so strange and old-fashioned. Not anymore.

When I was very young, my father, like most people, walked every day to his local job. When the car became the norm, people ceased walking and drove to their jobs and everywhere else. They no longer needed a community. Or so they thought. Now I don’t want to upset anyone with predictions of doom. Things are happening in this country, but gradually, so there is plenty of time to make adjustments if you should choose to do so. Here are a few things you may want to consider.

“This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”–Dwight D. Eisenhower


If you follow the news, you may have noticed a corn drought in the U.S. Corn is an essential staple in our country because it is used for animal feed. The prices of corn have skyrocketed since there is so little of it, so farmers who would normally grow other crops, such as wheat and soybeans, are switching to corn to make more money, thus causing shortages of other crops. Frankly, I have no use for corn, whether it is for human consumption or fed to the livestock we eat, because most of it in this country is genetically engineered (GMO), but that is another blog altogether [click here to read about that]. The point is, that due to that drought, produce and livestock food prices will be going up.


I can only remember one or two blackouts all the years I was growing up. It was a rare event. In the past few years, power outages have occurred with disturbing frequency. When the power goes out, so does the heat, hot water, light and cable internet/television/telephone. You can sit in the cold dark and twiddle your thumbs. Last October, when it was 50 degrees, our power was out for a week. Not cold enough to freeze to death, but not all that comfortable either and a lot of our freezer/fridge food went bad.


Like so many Americans, my husband and I have jobs where there are no vacation days or holidays. I am a freelance writer and he works as a retail manager for a locally owned business. If we get sick or otherwise can’t work, we don’t get paid. So how do we afford things when our budget gets lean?

Finding Alternative Ways to Live

Our garden features high deer fence, foot-deep groundhog deterrent.
So with food and energy sources being threatened, and jobs being moved overseas, what can the average person do? Well, it’s not easy to find affordable alternatives, but a few of them are out there.

We buy most of our produce from a local organic community-supported farm. To find one in your area, go to In exchange for buying a share of the farm in installments, we get whatever the farmer produces that year. So no matter how scarce food may be in the parched Midwest or how high transport costs are for food grown overseas, we have a supply of produce throughout the year from a local source. We also built a critter-proof (we hope) garden in our backyard this year where we will try to grow as much food as we can using non-GMO heritage seeds. We also plan to learn canning although, sorry Grandma, that may have to wait for next year. We can only handle so much transition at a time.

Meet our alternative to expensive oil heat.
“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”—Mitch Albom

We cannot afford solar or wind energy. Right now, they are not priced for the average person. We decided, instead, to get a wood-burning stove to provide us with heat when the power inevitably goes out and to lower our insane oil bills. We chose a wood-burning stove over a pellet stove because pellet stoves require electricity to work. We chose cast-iron over steel because most reviews I read by users favored it for radiant heat that was not too overpowering. You can also put a tea kettle on top of it for hot water. I hope we can learn to properly use the damned thing so that our house doesn’t fill up with smoke or burn down. Wish us luck.

I joined a nearby time bank where you can exchange your skills or talents for other people’s services to save money on, say, home repairs or pet sitting or learning how to can food. See for one in your area. Also, we ask our family, friends and neighbors for help when we need it, something we were too proud to do in the past (not sure why). We intend to help them as well if they ask for anything. That's what community is all about.

I used to think that survivalists were crackpots. Not any more. Our government is corrupt and our economy has been hijacked by crooks in the financial industry and by the multinational corporate mafia. People like the Koch brothers (Google them) call the shots in Washington and elsewhere. They are not great humanitarians.

One of my old high school friends who migrated to California posted a manifesto on Facebook with advice (see poster above). It may not be all that far off.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I think if the average person bands together with their family, friends and neighbors—as they did when my father was young—we can definitely learn from each other, survive quite well and rekindle the sense of community that has long been lost from our society. Maybe, in the long run, our world could end up being a better place.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Terracotta—More Than Just Cookware

Terracotta warrior stands guard over the museum.
More than 2,000 years ago, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, decided to build a necropolis filled with life-sized minions so he would have subjects to protect him and rule over after he died (a necessity for any self-respecting despot). As the most powerful man in China, he had the clout and resources to create this city of the dead, which included more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 670 horses and a throng of obsequious civilian officials, acrobats, strong men and musicians.

Today, the clay army in that tomb is known as the Terracotta Warriors and fortunately, an exhibit of them is currently on loan to a museum in New York City. Steve and I decided to visit that venue, the Discovery Times Square Museum, to see this unparalleled expression of funerary art.

Mr. Ed's ancestor warily watches passing tourists.
Emperor Qin ascended to the throne when he was 13 years old and, no doubt tapping on his adolescent angst, proved to be a powerful leader. Within the space of his lifetime, he unified seven warring states into the seed of what is now known as China. 

As the story goes, the emperor was afraid of death and constantly trying magic elixirs to achieve immortality. Eventually, around 210 BCE, he died anyway at the age of 49, most likely from the mercury contained in some of those potions. But before he passed on to legend, he ordered some 16,000 workers (700,000 according to ancient historian Sim Qian, perhaps exaggerating a tad) to create his necropolis where he was buried.

Drums meant charge, and bells, like
the one above, sounded retreat.
The emperor died while touring his vast kingdom. His Prime Minister, Li Si, who was traveling with him, decided it would be dangerous to let people know he was dead because it might trigger a general uprising in the Empire. (Apparently, not everyone was a fan of his unification project.)

Unfortunately, the emperor and his entourage were two months away from the capital when he expired, so only some subtle ingenuity would cover up that fact in the sweltering heat of summer. Most of the imperial entourage was not told of the emperor's death. Only a younger son, a trusted eunuch, Li Si and five or six other carefully chosen confidants knew.

I swear this warrior's eyes kept following me.
Li Si ordered that two carts loaded with rotten fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor. What better way to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the wagon of the emperor, where his corpse was happily decomposing in the summer heat? A shade was drawn on the emperor’s wagon, so no one could see his face. They also changed his clothes daily (must have been a fun job), brought food and conferred with him on important issues. (This may be an early competitor for the Vacations from Hell competitions held annually by certain travel websites.)

Smaller warriors from a later emperor.
Interestingly, a year before the emperor died, a large meteor is said to have landed in a province near the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it, an unknown and perhaps hostile soothsayer inscribed the words "The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.” Unfortunately, this got back to the emperor who was none too happy about it. He sent an imperial secretary to investigate this prophecy and when no one in the area would own up to having etched it on the stone, everyone living nearby was put to death (thus proving that old realtor adage of “location, location, location”). The stone was then burned and pulverized. Sadly for the emperor, this precaution was ineffective. He died the next year and through some treachery, his younger  son became the next emperor. The son proved to be a rather incompetent ruler and the prophecy came true.
Barbie-sized warriors from a later dynasty.

According to historian Sim Qian, who lived from 145–90 BCE, the second emperor of China decided that after his father died, it was time to do some housecleaning:

The Second Emperor said: ‘It is inappropriate for the wives of the late emperor who have no sons to be free,’ ordered that they be put to death, and many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the tomb and knew of its secrets were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, immediately trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape.” Basically, it may have been good to BE the emperor, but not necessarily to marry or work for him.

Lanterns light the way at the Chelsea Market.
The tomb was planted over with vegetation, so it would resemble a nonassuming hill. As a result, it lay undiscovered for more than two millennia until a local farmer, digging a well, found it in 1974.

After wending through this fascinating exhibit, Steve and I capped off the day by having a late lunch at The Green Table at the Chelsea Market—great organic, locally grown food—and then we sat in a park and watched a man create really big bubbles. 

Nothing says New York like bubbles in the park.
Such was our foray into the city. First we spent the better part of the morning peering more than two thousand years into the past. Then we whiled away an hour watching mammoth bubbles float up into the air, pop and vanish. All in all, a day layered with the essence and absurdity of transience.