Nesting and Resting

Perhaps you are, like me, following the so far voluntary stay home recommendations except for essential re-supplying. I’m hearing from friends about all the projects they are tackling during this hiatus from normal life, and I have a few of my own. But mostly, I’m contented to nest and rest, mend, repair, read, write and watch shows I have missed until now. Which brings me to the opening episode of The Crown.  I might have anticipated being flooded with memories from a brief moment in my own childhood that is of particular relevance today. Here goes.

When I arrived in England in 1948 in time to enter convent boarding school, many of the wartime protocols were still in place along with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ culture that kept the country going in a dark time. The one law I found most difficult, was food rationing. No doubt this was because I had lately arrived from Burma (now Myanmar) where everyone, regardless of wealth or status, enjoyed a diet rich in tropical fruits and fresh vegetables as well as abundant rice, and where meat and fish were not the center of the plate, a subject I may address at another time.

The plan was that until school began and my mother could find her own living space (my father had remained at his post in Rangoon), we would live with her sister, Josie, and brother-in-law, Ken Birdsey, We had been issued ration books upon arrival that would enable us to get our weekly allotment from the various food stores: the greengrocer, bakery, fish monger, and butcher. Although sugar and eggs were severely limited, milk in glass bottles was still being delivered to the door.  I’ll admit to tremendous nostalgia for dairies and other independent purveyors!

The four of us were crammed into the Birdsey’s flat above a corner newspaper shop on The Square in Marika 1948Dunstable, Bedfordshire. We shared a single bathroom and took our main meal — high tea about 5:30 when they returned from work — in the tiny front parlor that overlooked the square. It was a lively spot and I never tired of looking out the window on all the comings and goings. Despite our limited quarters, my uncle managed to pursue his passion for photography and had a small dark room tucked into their warren of tiny rooms. This is a photograph of me, age 8,  he took and developed, that won Honorable Mention in a district contest and made me a local celebrity for a short while. He also used the photograph for their Christmas card that year, which suggests it was taken during the Christmas break after my first term at St. Francis de Sales in nearby Tring. My memories of the convent were straight out of Oliver Twist —  including the mandated surrender of my own ration book to the nuns — yet I look surprisingly well-nourished in Uncle Ken’s photo. This is likely due to the starchy meals, a lot of porridge and potatoes, with an egg and a very small, very fatty piece of bacon served on Sundays. I had sneaked a look into my ration book before school began, and someone of higher status in this new world of mine was clearly chowing down on my allotment of dairy and fresh fruit.

I didn’t dare rat out the nuns to my mother, even less to my aunt and uncle who were by now thoroughly entrained to accept wartime sacrifices with resilient good humor. In fact, we were all better off in some ways because Uncle Ken’s father and brother owned and ran a butcher shop. I also loved accompanying Aunt Josie on her rounds and observing her dimple up and flirt with the purveyors for extra nice piece of fish or bit more cheese. Until winter came, there was also the family victory garden that provided us with fresh tomatoes, greens, carrots and turnips, all easily turned into fresh eggs and even once, a chicken, via the barter system. I know these ideas seem positively quaint to many, but you can find versions of them alive and well today, see Transition Towns.

When I was home for school holidays, I loved a family high tea, all of us in hand-knit cardigans courtesy Aunt Josie, consisting of baked beans on toast, scones with marmalade (very sparingly spread), and countless cups of strong English tea sweetened with (also rare) condensed milk. I simply cannot imagine my beloved, long-gone elders, responding to a crisis by emptying meat cases and canned food shelves or stuffing their carts with toilet paper. As crowd scenes from The Crown depict, the love and pride the British felt for their country and for their leaders (Churchill and the royal family), ran deep. I believe this helped sustain them through their own existential crisis and it concerns me that we are coming up short in this regard.

We’ve been making extra effort to eat well and with more attention in my household, of late. And today, I had a reminder of how wonderful the plainest of foods can be from none other than Sam Sifton of NYT Cooking. Here’s a recipe with ingredients straight from your hurricane stockpile (fellow Floridians) for Simple Beans on Toast. I think, for the duration, you’ll be able to download all the Times recipes without a subscription. Actually, each day seems to bring new examples of altruism and generosity, for example, from museums and the entertainment industry, to cite two, that could help us keep our spirits up which is at least as important as not letting each other down. Let me know if I misspoke re: NYT Cooking. I’d be glad to copy/paste/post the recipe. Inside this grandmother is still that little girl in a flannel night gown, holding a candle.

Indies and Underdogs

I once lived over a bookstore. I know what you’re thinking, but this was in Manhattan and on the 11th Floor of the building that housed Barnes & Noble, then more famous as an academic book center that would buy back your books and sell you new ones. I doubt it had a cafe then (’88-90), or much motivation or room to permit private work nooks. But it was one of the greatest of indoor common spaces open late in the city to share with students of all ages, representing every race and culture. Melting Pot Manhattan.

B&N College division still operates nearly 800 stores at universities across the country. But the Barnes and Noble branch you may still have in your community if you’re lucky, is getting hammered by Amazon’s online advantage. But then again, who isn’t in the world of retail? True, the ‘big box’ discounter trend is nothing new. Sam Walton launched his first discount store in 1962. But Internet shopping, an answer to our addiction to convenience and speed, is the obvious accelerator. Driven by any darkened strip malls or once-thriving downtowns lately? I have, even in an upscale neighboring town. (Confession: although I’ve quit Prime and vowed only to use Amazon to read the free samples of books, then buy them used elsewhere, I do occasionally falter.)

That said, if you’re as hungry for any bit of good news these days as I am, you might be pleased to learn that independent book stores are making a comeback.  The Book Cellar in Lake Worth just south of me, is the perfect example of what an independent establishment can do for a community, beyond featuring books and hosting authors the old-fashioned way. With its cafe offering coffee, wine and light fare, including many vegan and gluten-free choices, this cozy, friendly corner spot on busy Lake Avenue has become a meeting place for a number of organizations. As long as you reserve in advance and use their food service, there’s no charge for the space. How many little mom-and-pop coffee houses and taverns in Philadelphia served as launch pads for the designers of the American Revolution? You might well ask.

BookCellarI’ve hosted a meeting at The Book Cellar with my spoken word troupe and Emergency Medical Assistance, preparing for last year’s show of monologues on abortion. The Palm Beach County Chapter of Women’s March meets there regularly, and so does the Jazz on J Street group, well-known for its encouragement of young performers. The Book Cellar is open late, so you can stop in after a movie at yet another local indie favorite, the Stonzek Cinema, now the only screen in my area you can find good indie films. These include well-made international films that remind you there’s a much bigger world out there. One of their bravest choices in subject matter for 2018 was First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke, about a pastor confronting not only his own dark night of the soul, but religious extremism, corporate domination, and environmental apocalypse. Maybe it was too dark to make the cut at Oscar time, though early reviewers were predicting ‘Best Picture.’

OK, eye-rolls for my nostalgia for little book stores or for Saunders Hardware in my New Jersey hometown (especially after a frustrating search at Home Depot). Or when I fondly recall the barber who cut my little boy’s hair; or the laundry that always remembered you liked light starch in the dress shirts; or the shoe or jewelry repair places. Does anyone fix anything, any more? We are not better off today with the homogenized culture that has overtaken us like a tsunami, or with social media becoming a license to mislead and inflame. Already, we’ve become less interesting and interested; less engaged with each other, socially and politically, and in real-time; less open-minded, more tribal, risk-averse, fearful. Not to mention grammar-challenged. But the bigger question is, what will happen as we become increasingly afraid to speak up or challenge authority; when the hand that feeds (houses, clothes, and entertains) us, holds a big stick? Or a gun?

Granted, compared to the challenges we as a species will be facing in the next decade(s) on a hotter planet, to push back against Big Box World and switch our allegiance to the small farmer, artisan and craftsperson, family-owned business and so on, is a drop in the ocean. But maybe it could improve our lives and our communities in ways that count but can’t necessarily be accounted for. That’s worth the candle.

Lin-Manuel Who?

Hamilton is playing at the Broward Center for the Arts and there are still a few tickets left as of today, Balcony Row M for $159. Of course, in New York City, the ‘cheap seats’ are going for $438, and Orchestra? If you have to ask …

Flashback to the summer of 2015. We’re in New York City —  in a borrowed apartment on the Upper West Side — when it was suggested to us that we get into an early morning line at the Richard Rogers Theater to score a couple of tickets at deep discount. Hamilton had opened at the Public Theater to critical acclaim, and now the Broadway run was just starting. Maybe I’d been away from the big city and annual theater subscriptions for too long. I just remember thinking something like Hamilton, Schamilton. Lin-Manuel who? For a grandson who had committed the Hamilton lyrics to heart, this may have been the moment he realized these grandparents were just human after all.

It’s human to regret the roads not taken, and perhaps there is an evolutionary purpose for wondering what might have been. Will having blown it with Hamilton be a regret I’ll carry to my grave? Not likely. For one thing, the movie will be here soon enough, and I’ll be able to hear and understand those rap lyrics better than I could in Row M. For another, the missteps and stumbles of life are a chance to re-do, re-set, carry on better.

We have lived for nearly a decade in a well-maintained townhouse community, remarkable for the reticence of its residents. True, a certain percentage of us are seasonal and others are in the 9-5 workforce. Whatever the reason, most residents keep to themselves, hidden by garages and patio walls. Just as co-housing is designed for connection and interaction, ours seems organized to keep people apart. As we learned last Fall, even if the HOA rules don’t forbid canvassing, such activity is unusual and not warmly received in our community. With a relatively small number of families with children, even Halloween here is pretty muted.

A young family in the next townhouse to ours was expecting their second child. We were on friendly terms with Lauren and Eric largely because our paths regularly crossed. They were often outside, playing on the grassy area with their little girl and puppy, while our routine includes daily walking or biking. We were the nonconformists, you might say. Eric worked from home, and you’d see him heading off for a run when Lauren came home for lunch from her nearby job. When Lauren’s pregnancy became evident, I made a mental note of her due date so I could bake some blueberry muffins and stop in when their new baby came home. No doubt I was remembering my New Jersey neighborhood, where every life event, even the sad ones,  occasioned an outpouring of baked goods and casseroles. Like an extremely inclusive church or temple.

The happy day arrived. Eric and Lauren’s home was swarming with grandparents and visitors, balloons and covered dishes, and somehow the moment for that extra measure of neighborliness passed. We spent more of that Summer away, and the next thing I knew, their baby boy was taking his first steps. And then, just as swiftly, their home was on the market and they were moving out of the area. To a larger place with a yard, they said. I wasn’t surprised, just sad for what might have been.

These days, I’m conscious of making an effort to greet and make eye contact with neighbors or the people I pass on my exercise route, whether regulars or not. Husky, right? Beautiful dog! Hey, great shot. Winter at last! Terrific haircut.

A quiet 40-something single man replaced the family next door with the trio of noisy dogs, and Italian-speaking nonna whose spaghetti sauce wafted into my kitchen (the silver lining). Our new neighbor apologized in advance for the ruckus of his renovations (which were extensive). In short order, we met his parents, exchanged coffee cakes, and stood chatting in each other’s space. I don’t want to overstate this, but it feels as if I took the right fork this time.

Solar is coming! Solar is Coming!

For my money, I would bet [Elon] Musk can upend a stodgy electricity business with little interest in innovation before it can beat out the behemoths who control the auto industry. – Daniel Sparks, The Motley Fool

Perhaps you’ve read about European utilities entering a ‘death spiral’ because they would rather go down fighting than switch to renewables like solar and wind? Expect something similar in the U.S. in the not too distant future. I’m with Daniel Sparks (quote above) that it’s billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk, along with partners like Google ($300 million in SolarCity) who will continue to give utility CEOs, and their legislative minions, agita in the years ahead and the rest of us, reason to hope and rejoice.

Could business-done-right leverage society into a new era of clean, affordable energy when government’s hands are tied? What if the innovative muscle and wealth of our most forward-thinking companies could reverse the damage of business as usual?

It’s energizing to think so, and there are plenty of signals that solar power will become inevitable when 1. Costs drop further and 2. The public demands it (that would be you and me).  So, I’m devoting this post to a series of annotated links in support of these possibilities. I urge you to learn all you can about solar power and how best to advocate for its adoption in your community. And if you have the wherewithal to do so, consider investing in solar, e.g. SCTY (Nasdaq).

Solar panel imageGenerating solar power isn’t difficult, especially where sunshine is abundant. Just remember, “Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.” (Source: National Geographic)  If 89-year-old Québécois, Claude Morency, can keep his kidney-shaped pool at a cozy 80°F year round with solar panels on his North Palm Beach home, so can anyone with $1,500 to invest in installation. Payback is between 1.5 to 7 years, according to Florida Solar Energy Center, a great source of cost-comparisons and other information. In fact, Morency is no newcomer to solar. As a full-time sailor, he powered his live/work sailboat with solar batteries for at least a decade.

The tricky part has been power storage for use when the sun isn’t shining (or the wind blowing, for that matter). But that’s about to change. At the moment, our condo (powered by renewables, courtesy Arcardia) also powers up our leased Nissan Leaf with a nightly plug-in. Apparently, power can flow the other way in an emergency, which is reassuring here in the hurricane belt. But it gets better, according to Elon Musk, who has announced that his company is within six months of producing a battery-pack for the home. Do I have your attention yet?

What would a Tesla home battery look like? The Toyota Mirai, which uses a hydrogen fuel cell, gives owners the option to remove the battery and use it to supply electrical power to their homes. That battery can reportedly power the average home for a week when fully charged. Employees at many big Silicon Valley tech companies already enjoy free charging stations at their office parking lot. Now imagine if they could use that juice to eliminate their home electric bill. A more practical application for your car would be a backup generator during emergencies, which is how Nissan pitches the battery in its Leaf. – The Verge

You may have heard that this revolution will be local. Actually, they usually start there.  So while Congress and state legislatures fiddle, some forward-thinking municipalities are showing us why a clean energy is the only future, and why it makes economic sense right now. See: Burlington, Vermont Becomes First U.S. City to Run on 100% Renewable Energy.

Now admittedly, Burlington, population 42,000, is probably an ideal sized city for such a bold move. Most small towns simply don’t have the financial muscle to kiss their utility goodbye and negotiate their own power sourcing. Wrap your mouth around this possible solution: community choice aggregation (CCA), a system that enables “cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis, but allowing consumers not wishing to participate to opt out.” (Wikipedia definition). Already happening in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Don’t hold your breath for Florida which is, I kid you not, attempting to ban the use of the phrase, ‘climate change.’

Not So Strange Bedfellows. Despite some pockets of open-mindedness (Go Solar Florida’s workshops, this Wednesday, March 11, 2015), one has to look beyond the Sunshine State for signs of intelligent life on this subject. And there is growing evidence the solar revolution may be fueled by people who don’t generally occupy the same meeting rooms, beginning to work together on common goals. At this moment, it matters not whether our motivation is to secure a future for our grandchildren via renewable energy, or we’re more driven by the right to choose based on our free market system. Maybe it’s time to shake hands with Debbie Dooley of the Green Tea Coalition and offer a high five to Barry Goldwater, Jr. of TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed).

The sun also rises in Africa. Good news for the family of Kenyan villager, David Lodio, whose single solar panel now generates enough power to enable his children to do their homework, and for the 585 million who currently have no access to electricity.  For rural Africa (which largely skipped the fossil-fueled industrial revolution), solar power will change everything for the better. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-31503424

Let me close this short chapter in an on-going solar success story with a news flash.  This morning, a solar-powered plane took off from Abu Dhabi for the first leg of what will be a round the world flight. The Wright Brothers II?  Up, up, and away!

Lots more information in the live links throughout and here:

36% of All New Electric Capacity in 2014 from Solar

Popular Mechanics on solar energy storage