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I’m at a point where I’m about ready to surrender to the circumstances that be and leave my growing menagerie of houseplants to their fate (which is to say, to an aggressive white mold, swarming fungus gnats, and possibly some type of mite). If it were up to me, I might just scrap it, toss everything and maybe eventually think about getting something new. Of course, it really isn’t up to me, because they aren’t solely my plants, and people who care about me have been generous to support my habit to its current point. Which leaves me with the option of dealing with it.

I first decided I wanted a plant in my dorm room (or I think this is why I wanted the first one) because I had enjoyed growing things in an outdoor garden, I had heard that certain types of plants could purify the air, and I liked the idea of adding some life to my dorm room (beside my roommate).

While I was at school, I’d say this remained the general idea, and it was relatively healthy. When I came home for the summer, though, the space available to me exploded, and my mom provided just enough tentative encouragement to push me to doing it more.

Buying plants, though, has become a replacement for buying stuff, which is not such a healthy habit. I’ve been doing my best to ignore the occasional bouts of gadget envy in the hope of saving money. However, because I had a plausible excuse – plants are beneficial, after all, right? – I was okay with buying more plants. If there’s any doubt that I’ve switched into a consuming mode, I needed only stop and actually listen to my thoughts. “If I could just have this plant and this one, I’ll be happy with my little collection.” And after I bought those plants, “If I could just get that new plant, then I will be happy.”

I recognize this line of thinking; it’s the reason I have an iPod I don’t use.

Now, the problem has been compounded (since otherwise, I could simply reign in my new habit and do my best to enjoy the plants I have) by the health problems of the plants themselves. The mold is, I’m fairly sure, not healthy for us to be around any more then it can be healthy for the plants. But there it is, on the surface of all the soil and now even on the terracotta pots after every watering.

So, fungicides are used, and I try to get the plants on some sort of watering schedule that lets them dry out more between waterings.

The fungus gnats, wherever they came from, buzz around our house, never in a swarm, but gnats will be gnats, and they are annoying as hell. Not to mention the list of potential damage they (or their larva) can do to the plants themselves (including, but not limited to, eating new roots or delaying the creation of roots in young plants).

Pesticide naturally follows, in increasing doses that correlate to just how frustrated I am feeling (and how many gnats I saw) the day I apply it.

Which leaves me, where, exactly? With a number of moldy, bug infested, and now also highly toxic plants (did I mention one of our oldest plants is a trusty basil plant, now soundly rendered inedible) and still the nagging feeling that a Fisiulera would make it all better.

You can see why I am frustrated.

However, as I said, surrender is no option. So what is? Well, for the time being, more fungicide and pesticide, plus any and all other semi-mythical cures we can concoct. Also, accepting the abandonment of any side projects (like our silent avocado pits), and the salvage of any of those project’s materials as possible (meaning, if the pots, but probably not the soil, can be considered anything but hazardous waste), all on the premise that less dirt should mean less problems.

I think the plants can probably pull through. I hope they can, because I am starting to get back to my original mindset, plants as pets, and (when I’m done feeling bad for myself) I feel awful for what I’ve let happen to them. Make no mistake, there is a decent chance still that we’ll lose more plants. I’ll have to hope thats not the case and look forward to the day (say in about three or four months) when the various toxic chemicals have been sufficiently flushed from the soil that I can once again play in the dirt, which was the whole point in the first place.

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I’d say I fall squarely in the Global-Climate-Change-is-real-and-we-need-to-do-something-about-it camp. I’m probably more of a pragmatic environmentalist, but I worry over wasting water, drive a tiny, gas-sipping Aveo, and want to make my garden bigger every year. I support renewable power, conservation, etc. I’m also smart enough to realize I could be wrong.

The climate change we’re experiencing (I do believe it’s real, but could be wrong there too) could be caused by any number of factors. Some might be beyond our control, some might reverse themselves shortly.

Who knows? Maybe its the end times, in which case I have bigger problems then my carbon footprint.

So what if I’m wrong?

The truth is, I wouldn’t feel too horrible about the things I’m changing.

Using less energy, or renewable energy, lessens our dependence on foreign oil and saves me money. Both, i think, are pretty well good without qualification.

Eating locally, or growing my own food, in addition to saving the use of tons of pesticide and lots of fuel to bring me bananas from Chile, means I eat better tasting and more nutritious food. Besides, gardening is just fun. Have you ever grown your own tomato and eaten it fresh off the vine, warmed by the sun? Try it, and trust me, you’ll come out of it not only with a more enlightened relationship to life and food, but seriously considering tearing up part of your lawn to plant a garden.

Walking or biking more (which is actually a necessity on my campus for non-environmental reasons) makes me more fit. I know everyone says that, but it’s true, at least anecdotally. I lose a solid ten-fifteen pounds every fall when i get back to school and put away my car keys.

Protecting wild lands has plenty of benefits besides any related to climate change. For starters, there are alternatives to oil. Biodiversity is a one off product, and I for one don’t want to have to wait for the millions of years it would take new species to evolve (disregard that if you must, in respect of your religious beliefs – if anything, not believing in evolution makes biodiversity that much more significant, since once we lose one of God’s creations, it never comes back). Many of the plant and animal species potentially hold new medicines or other scientific discoveries; again, once they’re gone, they’re gone. Besides, I feel a rich natural world, and more of it, makes the world a more beautiful and interesting place. (Then again, I love the Rewilding Project, which once suggested releasing wild African elephants into the southwestern US to replace the recently [10,000 years before present, give or take] lost large herbivores and solve some invasive species problems. Is that not awesome? Okay, almost no one agrees with me.)

If nothing else, most things people tell you to do to help the planet also help our communities. They create (sustainable) jobs, encourage community, and foster learning.

Is any of that so bad? And what is there to lose?

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It seems to be that all the most mature people I know have something in common: their parents treated them like adults even as children. (Exact details vary, and the changes show in the person, but this general theme holds.) This sort of trust is hard, no doubt. The world can be a dangerous place, though probably not as dangerous as the nightly news would have you think, and children are, well, children after all. However, a big part of growing up is making mistakes, and maybe getting hurt. The important thing to remember, though, is that these mistakes are typically more frightening then they are damaging.

Take the recently posted (and very controversial) story of Lenore Skenazy, who left her 9-year old son at Bloomingdale’s (in Manhattan) with a bus/subway map, twenty bucks, and a few quarters in case he needed to call home. People have been calling for her head, or at least for child abuse charges, but for nothing. Her son made it back fine, proud of himself and better prepared for life. I’ve made a similar trip before a bunch of times, and it is significantly less difficult then most things we ask young children to do. If you remember a few numbers and follow signs (both very useful things to teach children, especially in New York), it’s a piece of cake. From what I can gather in the story, here are a few key take-away lessons.

Prepare your child. Lenore didn’t just dump her child in the middle of nowhere. She gave him a reference point, a map, and more then enough cash to make the trip. I’m sure, as well, that she’s taught him a million little lessons on subway and bus navigation while they’ve traveled around New York. So he wasn’t really doing anything new, he was just doing it independently.

Realize you can’t always prepare your child. The world is simple too novel a place to account for every possibility. (Fun fact: linguists suggest that most sentences you ever utter are unique to your experience, and will probably not be uttered again.) At some point, you have to trust that, even if your children reach a point where they don’t know exactly what to do, they’ll be able to fake their way through it. After all, you probably do the same thing every day (who taught you how to deal with that customer service rep?).

You can’t always protect your child. As stated in the article, “The statistics show that [child abduction] is an incredibly rare event, and you can’t protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.” In fact, I would argue that being overly protective of children does more harm than good. It’s impossible to protect your children from everything, and odds are if someone really wants to hurt your child, they can and will. Instead, if something happens to your child, you should hope that they are independent enough to take car of themselves. Take little Ashlie Chumley, one of several amazing your children I’ve heard (but not very much) about recently.

Last year, 11-year-old Ashlie Chumley of Houston was abducted from the hallway of her church. Having seen Escape School on television a year earlier, she escaped from her abductor by waiting until his car slowed down, and then jumping out. She found her way back to the church by running more than a mile in the dark, following the glow of a steeple on a church that she remembered was next to her own. Within 45 minutes, she was back with her family.

True, it would be a traumatic experience for a child. Odds are, though, that law enforcement couldn’t have helped, at least not immediately. Instead, she got herself home, and is safely with family.

You don’t always need to protect your children. My favorite line in Lenore’s column is this:

I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Most important of all, recognize that being too protective is harmful to your child. Your child is not you, is not a pet, and sooner or later your child will be an independent person. Without letting them learn how to be that, you’re hurting their chances at being successful. So join Lenore’s new Free Range Kids movement, and give your kids the sort of childhood you probably remember having.

“Here’s your MetroCard, kid. Go.”

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I have this hopeful, nostalgic idea that, sometime before now, people were moved by common decency to treat others well. I believe – or really, really want to – that at some point before our litigious, pre-nup signing, anti-social, isolated society, people had manners and showed hospitality. If nothing else, I choose to believe that people really did fear Zeus in ancient Greece, and showed good xenia.

However, it just doesn’t seem to happen that often anymore, and I’m not sure why. Do we really want to live in a society where the laws tell you not to offer people assistance in an accident, because it makes you liable? For that matter, in a society where you would sue someone for trying to help?

Ironically, it’s not just that our society doesn’t promote treating people well; people are actually confused by it. I love doing little things for my friends. One common one that never seems to go over smoothly is paying for dinner. (I don’t mean a big tab either!) I suppose a certain amount of politeness is to try to decline, but I think it’s better if it goes both ways, rather then not go at all. Whats mines is yours, whats yours is mine (with a please and thank you, of course).

I shouldn’t say it never happens, of course. In fact, Julio Diaz is an amazing example; he convinced his mugger to take his coat, some cash, and have a free meal on him, in return for surrendering his knife. It’s an amazing story.

And in case you need a selfish reason to be nice to others, how about this: according to a study conducted by doctors from Columbia and Harvard, generosity makes you happy. I’m sure at least part of that is payback from enriching your environment.

The (admittedly hard) part about this is to teach yourself how to decide what is fair. People do it all the time, but most don’t do it very well. Instead of fairness, they think of entitlement. “Well, it’s only fair that you do this for me.” But fairness is always a two way street, and you must give to receive. True fairness lies in saying, “Well, it’s only fair that if your going to do this thing that is really important to me, I will do this other thing that is really important to you.” I know, compromising is hard, but it’s precisely that it is hard to do that makes it so effective at building close, productive, and supportive relationships.
Keep in mind the – admittedly cliche – saying, “Trash in, trash out.” Put out generosity and compassion in your environment, and expect the same in return.

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On Hereditary Disease

(It feels like it’s been too long at Step Lightly without me posting something that got my friends and family sending me worried e-mails. Thats a shame, because that’s half the fun of blogging. So here goes.)

My mom has been diagnosed with depression. She’s been fighting with it for years and has done incredibly well in my estimation.

I’ve been thinking about it lately. Though the evidence is mixed, it seems that depression is at least somewhat hereditary. Whether this is due to a biological cause or just the strong influence parents have on a child’s development is unclear, and probably some mixture of both is responsible. I’ve known that for a while, but somehow it never sunk in until recently that, like the big noses and receding hairlines that run on my father’s side, it might be down the road. This is a bizarre feeling.

Don’t get me wrong. I by no means think it is a forgone conclusion. The hereditary link with depression is not very clear; more like a gentle push in that direction. Nor do I feel particularly inclined to it. I’m one of the more chill people I know (I think thats a fair assessment), and I think a lot about how to make myself happier (you probably guessed that from the blog). Still, thats a bit like someone exercising and eating a low cholesterol diet to avoid their family’s heart disease, isn’t it?

The funny thing is, I haven’t been worrying about it so much as just contemplating it. It’s sort of like seeing a train way off in the distance and thinking, “hmm, I might just need to move.” I suppose this post isn’t so much about giving you all advice as wondering, how do other people deal with this sort of thing? If you’re in a similar situation, how do you feel about it? Would you rather know something like this was in your future, or live worry free?

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For a while now one of my favorite blogs has been No Impact Man, the ongoing writings of a liberal environmentalist who got sick of waiting for the world to change and decided to change himself. He set out over a year to drop his net environmental impact to zero (very little negative impact plus some positive impact), in the middle of New York no less. His journey is instructive for those looking to lower their impact (or save some money), but now that his year long experiment is over, he’s been doing a lot of reflection, trying to decide what restrictions to keep and which to let slide.

Interestingly, he’s found that he doesn’t want to give up a lot of the rules. True, it was difficult (especially with a small child) to avoid buying anything new, to eat local food, to go without power. However, he repeatedly found that with less stuff in the way, he was closer to his family. He appreciated his life more. Some of his posts on this subject have been incredibly touching. One recent post in particular caught my eye.

I have to feel bad for his wife. (I should say, the spouses of immersion journalists in general.) She has put up with a lot of hardship for his experiment. Still, it’s interesting how it has rubbed off on her. He recently described his most amazing No Impact Man moment yet.

He’s been composting (vermiposting, actually, I think), using a cheap, second-hand plastic bucket to hold food scraps, because the project rules forbid them from buying anything new. The project is over, so she wanted to go splurge on a shiny new metal container for the scraps. No sooner had they left the store the she stopped them.

“I want you to take it back. We can just wash out the plastic bucket and use it until we find a better trash can on the street or at the flea market… I think the consumer brainwashing has worn off.”

I suppose I’ve always believed to a certain extent that consumption doesn’t make one happy, but I’ve been surprised reading the No Impact Man experiment by how much reducing consumption has improved his life. He repeatedly says that the experiment has taught him that most people don’t really want more stuff – rather, stuff is a consolation prize – but more and closer relationships with their friends and family. A cleaner conscience about the environment (as well as, by extension, a more beautiful environment and typically a healthier body and bank account) certainly can’t hurt with happiness.

I wouldn’t say the No Impact Man lifestyle is for everyone, but I’ve found it interesting and rewarding to read through and try some of the easier measures.

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In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs mentioned a book called Radical Honesty, which, it turns out, is part of a larger site and organization. In the book, he quoted them on the thrill of being completely honest (worthy of an amusement park ride). I don’t have first hand experience with the level of truth telling they mean, but I’m sure they’re right. On top of that, honesty seems like it should be good for you in many ways; building more open relationships, less stress, avoiding the repercussions of being caught in a lie.

I’m currently in the middle of a secular Lent (fasting from fried food), but I’m considering giving up lying (as well as gossiping) for a while after Lent ends on the strength of Jacobs’ story. (Amazingly, I’ve gotten a handful of people to join me to varying degrees, but more on that closer to Easter.) However, as with my fried food fast, trying to remove something from my life raises a lot of questions, some of which Radical Honesty has tried to answer.

My first response when I started to consider the project was, “I don’t really lie that much,” but the more I think about it, the more I catch myself doing it. A.J. Jacobs had the same experience; once he had to stop, he found he did it constantly.

We are always telling some kind of story, building a case for ourselves and trying to put on a best face… in a nationwide survey titled “The Day America Told the Truth,” 93% of Americans admitted that they lie “regularly and habitually” at work and 35% admitted they have had or were currently having an affair which they were keeping secret from their mates. -Radical Honesty

What exactly then constitutes lying, for those of us who would like to quit? Radical Honesty takes a pretty extreme approach; they suggest more then just truthfully responding, but actively speaking your mind, even as far as telling an ugly person they are ugly. He suggests this is a chance to start a deeply open conversation, I suspect it’s a good way to get a black eye. Jacobs takes a less stringent approach, and one close to my own thoughts. Flat-out lying, big or small, is wrong. Lies of omission, when done to deliberately mislead, are wrong too (but no one will call you a lier if you forget a little detail of a story by accident or because it really doesn’t matter).

Of course, the important thing is the effects of being honest. Radical honesty promises a lot. Maybe they can deliver, I’m not sure. I do believe, though, that it can lead to better relationships (even when those relationships fail, but thats for another post), and a general sense of having done the right thing. Don’t most people feel at least some guilt when they lie? Besides, as Radical Honesty points out, the consequences of honesty are often less frightening then we imagine.

People can actually get furious at other people and get over it in 15 or 20 minutes. People can avoid being angry at someone else for 10 or 15 or 20 years, and if they actually got angry at them, they’d probably get over it in half an hour. -Radical Honesty

A friend of mine gave me similar advice about small children: it’s hard but sometimes you have to make them angry for their own good, but don’t worry, because they get over it. I think Radical Honesty has a point here. In the long run, it’s better to be honest and make them upset. If the relationship someone doesn’t mend, then it probably wouldn’t have been worth the effort of holding it together with a million white lies. At the same time, the possibility exists to have a much more open, beneficial, and ultimately strong relationship without the need to posture, exaggerate, and lie. And that seems like the sort of relationship that would make you pretty happy, at least most of the time.

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