Welcome

I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Imagining a Life Without Libraries

October 4th, 2011

Some may describe it as stuffy and obsolete, but I think of a library as a captivating window to the future as well as the past and present. I cannot imagine life without; I fear that I soon may have to.

When I was a teenage student, my mom would take me to the library to keep my brain alive during the summer break. As a young adult, my local library gave me access to knowledge and entertainment .... access that I could not afford otherwise. Today, I consider the library a source of truth, far more credible than the hodgepodge of Internet websites that intertwine fact with myth, marketing, and hearsay.

A Child at the Library

I have fond memories as a child when Mom would take me to the Northampton Public Library. I loved the smell. I loved the way voices sounded in a whisper. I was fascinated by the quantity of book spines, lined up like soldiers on a shelf.

At the library, I was allowed to go off on my own to the section where I could understand the words. There I could select three books. I don't remember the stories – I probably didn't read them all -- but I do remember the crinkling sound of the plastic covers as I crept open the books to peak inside.

My brother would go with us too, and thankfully he liked a different section. It was one place we could go without bickering ... we were both too busy getting lost in a world of books.

After our selections were made and I found my mom, we would line up at the counter by the door. I would wonder about the thickness of the books Mom had chosen. How could she read all that in just two weeks? One-by-one we would slide our pile across the smooth wooden surface to the librarian. With little effort, she would flip over the books, crack open a back cover, pull out a card, and slip it into a machine that would stamp a date onto it with a sound so loud everyone in the place knew someone was checking out.

When my turn was up, she would smile as she took my pile. One. Two. Three. I loved the sound of that stamp machine. Then, with the dated cards securely tucked back into their pockets, she pushed the pile back to me ... mine for two whole weeks.

I did other things at the library too. I participated in art programs where I glued macaroni or beans to paper to make a picture. Sometimes the librarian would read a book out loud as if to turn it into a radio show. It was a place that was fun without the pomp and pageantry.

And I felt like just being there could make me smarter. Reading required focus and patience my young mind just didn't have. I wanted to run outside and make my own experiences, not read about accounts from others in a book. But the books gave me something to do when it rained, when it was dark, or when I was sick. And because they were there, I read them. It made me feel grown up to sit and read, just like my mom.


A Window to the Future

Northampton's library was downhill from its junior and senior high schools. As I got older, I became aware that the library was a place where I -- not the teacher -- could decide the subject.

Later in life, I sat in the passenger seat as my older sister dropped her own stack of thick books into the slot at her local Palmerton library. After I moved away, I would visit the Upper Merion Library where I would read the community announcements and say hello to my neighbors before getting lost among the books. As an adult writer, I depend on the library for its reference material, periodicals, online databases, and more. Through every phase of my life, the library has been there.

Hope for Our Libraries' Survival

I'll admit, there were times when I forgot about my library, too. When life got hectic. When the Internet became available in my home. When I spent my days working in a secure but draining job and was too tired to read at the end of the day.

Others have forgotten too, and now our libraries are in trouble. In Philadelphia, the mayor closed libraries to balance the budget. My local Upper Perkiomen Valley Library seems to be shrinking before my very eyes.

Nearby, the Indian Valley Public Library just made this announcement:

"Souderton Area School District has decided to cut its library appropriation in half -- from $440,000 to $220,000 in 2012. And, it will be eliminated altogether in 2013. For over 25 years, the library worked with the school district by providing resources and services for students (and all residents) during after school hours, evenings, Saturdays, Sundays. Lifelong learning, as provided by the vast resources of the library, was a cherished goal. This news from the school district comes after two straight years of cuts in state aid for public libraries."

Meanwhile, residents are fleeing the Souderton school district due to the taxes that have resulted from building a brand new school...one that seems to overreach the need. School officials have redirected taxpayer money toward a place that will serve kids for a few high-school years and away from one that would serve them all life long.

In Philadelphia, I heard firsthand from one mother who depended on the library -- one closed by the mayor -- to keep her son focused, entertained, and inspired. She said she was not alone. It was a busy place.

To say that today's library has become obsolete is to admit you've lost touch. It means you've forgotten that there is a way to read voraciously -- or even occasionally -- without having to break out the credit card. It means that you've forgotten there is a place to go where you can ask a human being a question and get honest-to-goodness advice on where to find the answer. It means you've forgotten that not everyone can afford to maintain a fully functioning computer at home. And it means that, with all the world's problems, you've forgotten there is no better armor than knowledge.

This jailhouse library in Jim Thorpe, PA offered refuge and reform to men and women who needed it.

We can tout the virtues of educating every child, but the fancy technology and marble hallways in our brand new schools are for kings. Libraries are for everyone. Visit, use, support, donate, and speak out in favor of your local library. The stamp machine I loved so much may have grown obsolete, but a place where knowledge is shared with everyone never will.

Addiction at its Flashpoint

September 27th, 2011

"The Internet is bad," said the voice in my head as I scrambled to the door. So much for leaving early. This scene was playing out too many times now: I was late again because I let myself get sucked into cyberspace. If I wasn't careful, the computer was going to tarnish my on-time reputation.

The morning started OK. I had no pressing deadlines and had been tackling the pile of unaddressed paper and details and mini-tasks that had been crowding my desk space for far too long.

Then I launched my browser to look up an event date. That lead me to another Website which I had to read. While connected, I thought I'd quickly check my email after which I found myself drafting an indepth reply. Suddenly "plenty of time" became "Oh shit, I'm late."


Other Bad Things

Waiting for the traffic light to change, I tapped my finger madly on the steering wheel. I thought about the World Wide Web and the voice's declaration. What other things in life had I labeled as bad?

Drugs are bad.

Lying stinks.

Greed is awful.

Fast food is terrible.

The signal changed from red to green and my frustration redirected to the clock. Why was it moving so damn fast?

I arrived to the meeting with one minute to spare. Instead of portraying confidence and poise, I flew in rushed and frustrated. After it was over, I walked out as if I was a women with a hangover, pledging never to drink again.

{This light trail from a sparkler represents my brain during frenzied internet use.]


A Change in Direction

I thought about my earlier analogy as I breezed through every light on my way back home. The clock was moving at the same old speed; only my perspective had changed.

It was time to recognize that the Internet is engrained in a life which I control. Likewise are drugs. They aren't bad; they save lives. It's their abuse that's bad.

Or like wine: it will not give me a hangover if I don't drink too much.

It's all about my choices as I partake in life's experience. I have the power to make good decisions online, just as I do about lying, greed, and fast food, offline.

For instance:

Honesty and Authenticity. Sometimes it requires courage to remain true to yourself, but lying can hurt the liar more than the fool being betrayed. Whether anonymously hiding behind a computer screen or standing on a public stage, I must avoid any temptation to lie or tell a half-truth because doing otherwise will destroy my credibility.

Contentment. With so much at our fingertips, it can be hard to recognize when information collection becomes information gluttony. Greed is a desire for more even though there is already enough, and it can apply to details and social connections just as it does money. Where in the past a phone call from a friend or an intriguing new discovery would sustain me for an entire day, now I want a new message in my inbox every minute. However, contemplation and reflection breeds contentment better than excessive interruptions ever could.

Deliberateness. Like fast food, shoving in empty calories does nothing to nourish the body. When I skim over a multitude of Web pages, I never focus on actually reading and retaining any of it. When I speed through all my emails at once, I neglect to carefully read what the senders wrote. When I try to investigate every link and lead, I lose track. It is when I slow down that I can truly ingest the information.

[A multi-course breakfast eaten during vacation serves an example of the fulfilled feeling that can come from a good, slow meal.]


My New Declaration

Back at home, I logged on with a fresh attitude. I am a user. I must prevent addiction. I must remain authentic. I must know when I've had enough. I must avoid junk and senseless temptation. And I must respect the clock and the day's goals.

Only then can I say, "the Internet is good." The computer was never going to be responsible for my success or my reputation anyway. I was.

How do you keep your computer under control?

Hammering Away at Organization

September 20th, 2011

During my career as an office management consultant, I would meet with disorganized professionals to talk about the clutter in their office.

Amidst piles of paper piles, scattered post-it notes, and dusty gadgets, I'd ask the person what they wanted most ... what they envisioned for themselves. More often than not, they responded with statements like, "I guess I need bins and better shelves," or "I want labels," or "I need you to help me figure out what kind of filing cabinet I should buy."

Organization is a habit, a mind-set, and a skill set, but all they could picture were the tools. If they truly wanted to address the chaos, they first had to recognize that organization can't be bought at the office supply store.

Read more in the latest SOS Signal newsletter.

Reflecting on Sacred Ground

September 14th, 2011

This past Sunday, America stopped for a moment to remember a terrible day: 9/11/01. 2,973 people are gone, each connected to one of the three places where they were tragically attacked that morning. For those left behind, each crash site serves as a cosmic telephone booth -- a place to go to talk to the loved one they miss so dearly. The three memorials -- The World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Shanksville -- remind us all what was lost and what was learned.

Like Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, and Valley Forge, these American places are now sacred. Manhattan is the most symbolic of the three terrorist attack sites due to the sheer volume of witnesses, victims, heroics, and suffering. We envision the 9/11 Memorial and Museum remaining for eternity; we hope our great children will never have to fight to keep it from turning into a parking lot.

America declared, "We Will Never Forget," and promised that the slaughter would be "Never Forgotten." Most people can tell you exactly where they were when the attack began. However with 10 years passed, a decade's worth of newborns exist now ... infants and children who were not alive to witness the experience. And while the emotions are still intense for some, on average it takes only two years until a tragic memory fades to point where we are less likely to change our habits in response. As time marches on, it becomes more and more difficult to keep our remembrance promise.

We are not alone. There are others who once suffered as we have. Around the world, every culture has a story, each one passionate, painful, and reflective. Other sacred sites commemorate events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago, but time has not diluted their importance. These places are where memory transcends generations.

A person cannot grasp the enormity of another's struggle until he has lived through a similar one. From tragedy comes understanding. As I think back to 9/11, I hope that the heart of America will now open to each grandchild who is fighting to maintain a connection to those he wants "never forgotten."

For instance, the tribes that followed and loved Sitting Bull and Chief Big Foot must fight for remembrance of the Wounded Knee Massacre. May we offer them, and many others like them, our support and understanding as we heal from our own wounds. May we accept that they are as deeply connected to their sacred places as we are to ours.

[Photo Note: Places like Valley Forge remain so that we remember.]

Here are additional links if you'd like to learn more:

Wounded Knee Museum Blog

US Forest Service opens Sacred Sites Report for Public Comment

How high is the water now (part four)?

September 8th, 2011

If you're just joining in, we've been talking about water conservation. Today's is a long, final post in this series.

As I'm writing, it's still raining. It's been raining here for days, one week after hurricane Irene dumped six inches in a few hours. I recently put a lot of flooding pictures into my iPhoto library (some of which were taken at the home of a friend). That fact does not make this conversation any less relevant. Too much rain is as bad for clean water as drought.

Flood waters that overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and wash away stored oil tanks cause troubles that we can't see, but take generations to go away. We can't stop the floods, but we can reduce the impact -- a topic for another day. For now, the presence of nonstop rain does not excuse me from this water-conservation discussion. While Pennsylvania is swamped, Texas is thirsty and burning. Because the Earth's water supply is the result of a global, ongoing cycle, water conservation is a year-round topic -- whether the picture outside my window is dry and dusty or wet and soggy.

Part 2 and Part 3 of this series prompted some fantastic comments. If you haven't checked back to read them, I suggest you do. I don't expect you to pick up every suggestion. I do, however, hope you'll join us as we work to change America's water attitude. Together, we'll expose the absurdity of using this life-dependent resource for nonsensical stuff.

It's not like the call to save water hasn't been shouted before. You may have read popular lists like this:

• Don't let the water run while brushing your teeth.

• Don't let your garden sprinklers rain on the driveway or sidewalk.

• Install low-flow shower heads.

• If something leaks, fix it.

As worthwhile and frequent as these campaigns are, simple lists like this seem to miss the big picture: they don't ask us to adjust our lifestyle. Educators try to keep things simple so that everyday people are more likely to participate. That approach can work, but what's out there for those of us who want more?

Another reason you won't find some water-saving ideas on public service announcements is the fear of litigation. If the suggestion might, in any way possible, encourage disease or other side effects, it'll be dropped. For instance, during an extremely severe drought, I captured the water draining from my washing machine into buckets to water a special tree. Then I learned that the government was warning against this because germs in laundry water could make me sick. This is just one reason why there are limits to what you'll read on any "save water" poster.

There is also little sense of urgency. It's natural to assume that water is plentiful when we see flowing rivers and full reservoirs. It's also commonplace to throw a lot of money around when cash is abundant, but that doesn't mean it's not necessary to invest and save. Unless there's a dramatic event (like 9/11), change comes slowly in society. When the rivers slow to a trickle and the reservoirs begin to dry up, it will be too late. Hardships like imposed water restrictions and inadequate supplies don't have to happen, but we won't be able to prevent them until we change our ways.

Despite my concerns, I too waste water. I live in the same world you do. I also know that the more others around me display positive habits, the more good habits I will develop and follow. Thus this conversation.

Some of the commenters already covered things I do on a regular basis to save water. Here are few more:

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The Kitchen
I honestly do not know which uses more water: washing dishes by hand or by an efficient machine. I suppose it depends. I do know that I can significantly reduce the amount of water I use by simply paying attention. First, I scrape my dishes before I involve any water at all. Then, while hand washing, dirty dishes get showered below the clean one as I rinse off the soap.

I also...

• make sure the water never runs without being used -- a point that applies to all water use.

• don't dump out an unconsumed glass of water without putting it to use if possible. I used to give it to my dog. I water a house plant with it. I pour it into a dirty dish to soak or use it to rinse out the sink.

• pay attention to my grocery list. Water was consumed to create every package at the store. Water helped to grow every piece of produce. I do my best to resist temptation to buy more than I'll eat because overbuying not only wastes money, it wastes water.

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The Bathroom
We've taken "clean" too far. Our ancestors used to bath once a week and, even then, they would share the water. Unless we reverse trends, the average person will soon be showering more often then they brush their teeth. We need to change our go-to-the-office-smelling-like-fresh-soap attitude. An old fashioned bowl bath is often all that's needed (especially in the winter). Instead, we shower because it's what's expected ... not because we need one.

Also, nobody wants to talk about bodily fluid, but we can't ignore the fact that it doesn't take 3 1/2 gallons of water to flush away one cup of urine. It's true that new toilets to use only 1 1/2 gallons per flush, but some work better than others, and replacing everyone's toilet is not the only answer.

Because I have an old one, whenever I host a big party, guests will find a sign that says, "please be kind to our septic system; flush only when necessary." It takes courage every time to hang it because never do I want my house to appear clean and tidy more than when visitors are coming. However, the sign does as much to relieve the stigma from those who question the need to flush as it does to raise awareness for those who haven't thought about it before. It also really does help my onsite septic system.

Meanwhile, there is no denying that toilets across America are senselessly flushing away an excessive amount of clean water all day long.

I placed a full gallon jug in the water reservoir of my old toilet years ago to reduce the amount of water required to fill the tank. One gallon per flush over ten years -- that adds up to a lot of water!

Commenter Jerry raised a great point about composting toilets. These need to be considered more often so we can stop chopping down our forests to install septic systems, especially at remote cabins in pristine areas. The days of the outhouse are not over. Sure, sanitation has brought us a long way in preventing the spread of disease, but we've also got to admit that a full-blown septic system is overkill in some cases.

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The Yard
Excessive water use for landscaping has always infuriated me -- especially in the rural environment.

It's admirable to want to have a nice home, and I agree that the yard can be the best part of ownership. But plants, by their very nature, work within the natural system because natural plants are a part of nature. If you truly want nature in your backyard, then let nature have a say in what's there.

Understand your location, your conditions, your yard's natural affinity to natural things.

If you're going to manipulate what grows there, then take the time to educate yourself responsibly so that you get the desired results without putting an excessive burden on the environment.

I see little difference between planting grass in a desert and hanging plastic ferns on a front porch. They may look nice on the surface, but both are fake. At least the fern doesn't need any water.

My yard is no showpiece and there are things I'd like to do to make it prettier. But NOTHING will ever get watered here except new plantings, the herb garden, and the vegetable garden. If it can't survive on its own, it means that it's just not right for this location. There are PLENTY of other lovely plants that would love to take it's place.

Sure, extreme droughts (like the one in which I watered a favorite dogwood tree with my laundry water) may call for extreme measures. But anything that requires regular, artificial means to keep it alive, is not planted here. Measures include fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicides, too. When I need inspiration, I visit a wilderness area and sit for a while. I look at how beautiful beauty can be when we stop manipulating it. I seek advice when needed ... and not from Sears, Walmart, Lowes, or Home Depot.

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I will NEVER chop down trees to make way for a lawn I'm never going to use. Enough is enough with this American favorite. Most water-saving tips are centered around lawn maintenance. News flash: you don't have to water the woods or meadows.

I'm not asking that we all give up our backyard spaces where the kids can play and we can enjoy time in the sun. I'm asking for a change in the perception that large, weed-free expanses of boring, two-inch tall grass signifies some kind of wealth or class status.

Studies show that heavily compacted turf soils are virtually impermeable. In short, there's little difference between turf and concrete. At least if these lawns were paved, we wouldn't have to mow them.

(Again, I encourage you to read the past comments for more ideas.)

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Other
I now recognize hydroponic farming as a viable means of feeding people. I wrote an article about Butter Valley Harvest (a hydroponic farm in Bally, PA) a few years ago and struggled with conflicting opinions about the practice.

Basically, plants are grown in a soil free, greenhouse environment in trays of circulating water. The only water consumed is that which the plants take up; the rest rolls down to a collection tank and is recirculated. Nutrients are added to the water to feed the plants. Bugs and pests are kept out of the garden, diseases are prevented by maintaining a near sterile environment, and climate conditions are controlled by the farmer.

The conflict lies in that the plants have no connection to the Earth. There is no such thing as organic hydroponic produce because certifiers have concluded that, without soil, the process cannot be organic. I have to agree. However, the technique has obvious applications. As the world population continues to expand, hydroponics can offer a real solution to hunger issues, particularly in dry locations.

Some also question the nutritional value when compared to conventional produce, however, the additives do deliver basic nutrients.

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I almost never buy bottled water. Purchasing it sends a message that I'm happy with the fact that someone else is depleting my resource and selling it back to me. For what? Convenience? There are occasions when bottled water is necessary. My childhood home had a contaminated well and filtration systems were not an option back then. Bottled drinking water kept my family from getting sick. Also, when I'm thirsty at the movie theater, I don't want to drink soda, so it's nice to have the option to buy a bottle of water instead. Aside from than that, I wonder about the amount of water the industry bottles but doesn't sell. I think about the water used for the creation (and recycling) of the disposable plastic bottle.

Nearby my home, an urban neighborhood gets 675 gallons of municipal tap water for the price of one gallon of bottled water. My home is served by a well -- I will continue to get an unlimited amount of water for the price the original owner paid to drill the well ...

assuming, that is, that I am careful to conserve it, whether it's raining outside or not.