What we say to each other

I’ve never used the N-word other than to talk about the N-word. 

 We’ve probably never heard it as much as we have in the past couple of weeks. 
I’m not going to talk about Saline County Commissioner Jim Gile … much. I’m pretty much with Jesus on this one, who, when a woman was caught in adultery, said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). 
I think it’s healthy to have the discussions we’ve been having. But, since I’m not black, I don’t think I have the right to say whether Gile should resign or not. I don’t think we haolis (Hawaiian for whites) can feel the full weight of hurt or humiliation that comes from that term. 
I’ve certainly put my foot firmly in my mouth over the years. I’ve said things that were hurtful and insensitive, things I regret. 
My parents would never in a million years use the N-word. But my dad did use a phrase with dubious origins. He used to say, once in a great while, if one of us kids had our hand in the cookie jar or some other off-limits place, “Get your cotton-pickin’ hands out of there!” 
A couple of years ago, my son and I were talking about racial epithets; I don’t remember why. He told me he heard my dad use that phrase, and Kris told him, “Grandpa, you can’t say that!” 
I asked why. 
“Because it refers to slaves!” Kris said, looking at me incredulously. 
It had never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, it was a random group of syllables that meant Dad really wanted me to get away from whatever I was into, immediately. The literal meaning of the words had never entered my conscious thought process. 
So, there but for the grace of God go I. 
One of my friends said that white folks picked cotton, too, of course. But the point is that it refers to people who are perhaps lower on the totem pole, to use an American Indian term. … It’s hard to get away from those racial references, isn’t it? 
I went online to look up racial slurs. Wow. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Seems we’ve been actively putting each other down for a long, long time. 
And it’s confusing, if you don’t keep up with political correctness. When I first heard the term “black” referring to those we called “Negroes” or “colored” at the time, I thought it sounded course. It reminded me of Black Panthers, who were rather militant. 
Now, “black” is preferred, “colored people” is antiquated, but “people of color” is fine. 
And then, there’s the word “niggardly,” which, etymologically speaking, is completely unrelated to the N-word. But because it sounds similar, people have gotten fired for using the term, which means “stingy” or “miserly.” Best to stay away from that one, although people at the Saline County Commission meeting Tuesday tried to put a version of the less-offensive word in Gile’s mouth. He, admirably, declined to revise history. 
For my generation, one of the most common slurs, although not racial, is “retarded.” It’s been used for all kinds of things, not just people: This test is retarded, this car is retarded, these shoes are retarded. When it gets to that point, it loses its original meaning altogether, but it still is hurtful for those who are sensitive to it. 
But everybody says, “You’re crazy,” or “That’s insane.” As far as I know, those aren’t considered slurs, are they? 
Personally, throughout middle school and high school, I was called “Shorty,” “Pint-size” and “Snoid.” Then, Randy Newman wrote a song about short people. Some of the lyrics: 
“Short people got no reason to live 
They got little hands, little eyes 
They walk around tellin’ great big lies 
They got little noses and tiny little teeth 
They wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet 
Well, I don’t want no short people … ’round here.” 
Thanks a lot, Mr. Newman; that really helped my self-esteem. 
It turns out, Newman says he meant the song to point out prejudice, not expand it. Based on all the additional ribbing I got when the song came out, I don’t think it worked. And of course I know this is nowhere near as offensive as being called the N-word. 
Back to the situation here, according to our story in the April 6 edition, “In addition to building Habitat homes, Gile has been involved with CAPS, DVACK, the Food Bank, Salvation Army and Salina Rescue Mission, and he helped start Hunger Barrel, Souper Bowl and Project Salina. 
“In 1989, Gile was awarded the J.C. Penney Golden Rule award for his volunteer work and he was given the Salina Award for Outstanding Citizen in 2009.” 
I’ve never volunteered enough to garner even an honorable mention. I give money to charity, but it takes a special kind of person to go out the door, get your hands dirty and give up your time. 
If Gile is willing to embrace sensitivity training (along with everyone else in the meeting who snickered at his ultra faux pas), should he be given a second chance? I don’t know. 
One friend of mine said that righteous indignation drives the wedge between us even deeper. 
“We’re all trying to learn and grow,” she said. “He could become the greatest advocate for this kind of sensitivity.” 
But I said I wouldn’t talk about Gile … much. 

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on April 20, 2013.

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Wedding bells for pool and me

I love my pool.

I love my pool so much I want to marry it. (I know, this is what you were afraid of when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage — pretty soon people would want to marry their dogs and cats, trees and pools.)
My pool is so good to me, once we’ve gotten past its annual funk, when I wake it from its long winter slumber.
Some years are better than others when it comes to opening the pool. This year was interesting. I bought a new winter cover last year that was “meshy,” meant to allow the melted snow and rain from the winter to pass through into the pool while keeping stray leaves and bugs and stems and small shrubs out. 
When I took the cover off in  late May, the pool water was dark green (I keep about half the water in the pool over the winter). By the time I got the water level up to where I could run the pump and filter, it was a lighter shade of green, but I still couldn’t see the bottom. No worries, said the meshy pool cover seller, just “shock” the heck out of it (use lots of chlorine) and run that pump a lot.
Two weeks later, after running the pump 24 hours a day and putting in copious amounts of chlorine, anti-algaecide and clarifier, the water was cloudy white, but I still couldn’t see the bottom. 
Hmmm, I thought. Time to get out the vacuum. Within about a minute of running the pool vacuum, the catch basket filled up with a foul sludge of decomposed leaves, bugs and seeds. I could see that this job was quickly going to become unpleasant. 
Turn off the pump, unhook the vacuum, close up the intake and output openings and empty the catch basket.
The catch basket is vacuum-sealed, so it takes some muscle to get the lid off, empty it of sludge and put the lid back on. Then open the intake and output, hook up the vacuum, turn on the pump, run it for about a minute, and repeat the whole process. 
Every year around this time, I think to myself, “I’m too old for this crap,” and I think about selling my house and giving up all the pool problems and yard work. 
But I continued with a few rounds of this and soon decided it was time to rent a sump pump so I could bypass the catch basket and make the process move along faster. That’s when my, shall we say, “pool boy,” went out and bought a big ol’ honkin’ gas-powered pump. Within 24 hours, the pool was nearly empty, with me in the middle mopping every bit of foul-smelling sludge toward the pump’s hose, my two dogs running around in the muddy yard, one of them occasionally rolling in the expunged, wet goo. 
Four days and 9,000 gallons of hose-filling later (I don’t want to see my next water bill), my pool was sparkling with crystal-clear water, and a couple of days after that, it was warm enough to swim in. June 20 is the latest I’ve had my pool opening day, but from that very first swim of the season, I’m in love again. 
Some days, if I happen to wake up extra early (admittedly, it doesn’t happen often), I’ll watch the sun rise from the pool, listening to the crickets’ chirping fade away and the birds starting to wake up. 
Sometimes I swim in the middle of the day and laugh at the sweltering sun. 
Sometimes I’ll swim late at night and watch the moon rise over the trees. There’s the drone of the traffic from the interstate highways in the distance. You can’t hear it during the day when the regular activities of the neighborhood are humming, but at night, when everyone’s gone to bed, the distant rumble of the interstates is more pronounced. Over the past weekend, when we had our “super moon” show, one night it was almost as bright as day; the next night, you couldn’t see a star in the sky, just a fuzzy, warm, undulating blanket of clouds lit from behind, horizon to horizon. 
Swimming is such good exercise, even in an 18-foot round pool. I go into a zone — stretching and pulling, going round and round, back and forth, facing up, facing down, breathing, moving, thinking, not thinking — for about 40 minutes a day.
I think of women all over the world swimming, bathing or washing clothes in their local pools, lakes or rivers, and I feel a kinship with them.
Swimming is our first mode of transportation … it’s so primal, gliding through the water as it both envelops you and magically holds you up. I like to let go of all my thoughts and just linger in my reptilian brain, where it’s all about observing without naming, without using any words. 
Of course, this is impossible at public pools, with people everywhere and incessant music playing. 
That’s why I love my pool, where it’s just me and the crickets and birds and the wind in the trees and the moon in the sky.
Swimming isn’t something I do, it’s somewhere I go; a place where I’m graceful and strong and all is right with the world.


This column first appeared in the June 29, 2013, edition of the Salina Journal.

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Do we really have a prayer?

I’ve always felt squeamish when people have asked me to pray for them or a family member — even when I was a Christian. 

It felt like a big responsibility. What if I don’t pray hard enough or long enough or the right way? What if, because I fail at praying with enough desire or belief or persuasion, the person doesn’t improve? What if it’s up to me? 
These days, I don’t believe in that sort of thinking. I can’t imagine a loving God being so capricious that he would withhold healing from the millions of people who are prayed for each day because people don’t quite measure up in their prayerful efforts. 
I think prayers “get answered” based on innumerable factors, seen and unseen, and a certain amount of randomness. 
Certainly, many people have prayed for healing for whom healing hasn’t come; people have prayed that storms would pass them by, yet their homes have been sucked up off their foundations. That doesn’t seem to deter anyone from continuing to pray and believe and ask others to pray for them and their loved ones. 
It would be interesting to see statistics detailing the success of prayers to make storms blow another way. But, of course, you’d never know how many people had actually prayed. 
I remember when Star Jones, one of the former commentators on “The View,” talked about how God was so good because he spared her life during the horrific tsunami the day after Christmas 2004 in Sri Lanka and Indonesia (while more than 200,000 others died). Yeah, that was nice of God to spare her. 
In news stories, we read about so many people praising God and giving thanks because they survived various weather events. I’m all for being thankful and glad, but it seems strange to me to not equally curse God for all the deaths that do occur in the midst of horrendous devastation. I guess we like feel-good stories and they’ve-got-it-worse-than-we-do stories. It makes us glad to be safe at home. Makes us want to write checks and donate money to help those who’ve been struck. 
Maybe I just don’t get it. 
I do understand that people want support. They want to know that we’re thinking about them, that we care, that we are hoping the very best for them, and that, if we could, we’d make things better. 
And if things don’t go well, we’ve invested our hopes and wishes into the effort, and those hopes and wishes draw us closer together; they help those who’ve asked for the prayers feel supported and cared for and not alone. 
I’ve definitely had times of sobbing and blubbering on my knees seeking healing, answers, solutions to various crises. When you’re dealing with matters beyond your control, praying at least gives you something to do. 
What drives me nuts, though, is the idea that it is up to us to get God to act — by praying harder (whatever that means) or longer (how long is long enough?) or with more desire or just the right kind of faith. When prayers aren’t answered, the disappointment and disillusionment with the prayer system (and with God) can be devastating. But, of course, we’re told at that point that God had other plans and we can’t know what those plans are, but they’re always for the best. 
In Philadelphia, another child has died because his parents believed God would heal him through their prayers (and without medical intervention). This was the second child these parents allowed to die rather than get medical attention. 
The parents, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, are being held on murder charges after their 8-month-old son, Brandon, died of pneumonia in April. In 2009, their 2-year-old son, Kent, died of the same disease. Prosecutors say both boys were sick for nearly two weeks. 
The couple belong to a small fundamentalist Christian church in Philadelphia. Their seven other children have been put in foster care. 
It’s a form of magical thinking. In children, we encourage, or at least overlook, this kind of thinking: belief in Santa Claus, talking animals, fairies and invisible friends. 
But when a child dies because parents refuse to take him to a hospital, thinking God will surely intervene, it’s criminal — it’s taking that magical thinking too far. 
The vast majority of Christians, of course, would never withhold medical treatment, despite their belief that prayer works. 
There’s a long continuum from having absolute faith that God will act on one’s behalf to believing that things on Earth happen randomly and there’s no God there to listen, let alone act. 
We all fall somewhere on that long, fuzzy line. It’s interesting to ponder where we fall and why, when life brings us to our knees.

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on June 15, 2013.

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Heavenly hedge from hell

Don’t we love this time of year, with everything in bloom, all the colors deep and radiant? And we’ve been having such glorious weather … between storms. 

 While we mourn for all of our fellow Americans who have been through devastating weather events recently, we’ve been enjoying some of the most beautiful days ever in Salina. 
Outside my house, the Japanese honeysuckle is in full bloom. The heavenly fragrance when I open the door, front or back, fills me with joy. 
This hardy, reasonably attractive shrub runs from one end of my property to the other. Draped over my neighbor’s front chain-link fence, it creeps over into my driveway so that I have to cut it back periodically, or run it over. 
When I do trim it, I bring the mesmerizing fragrance into the house with me, wrangling the oddly shaped, contorted stems into vases of water. 
That’s the good part. 
The bad part is that it’s trying to consume my privacy fence all along the west side of my property. The fence is groaning under the heavy profusion from my neighbor’s side, and one of the fence posts has broken at the bottom. It’s eaten some large structure in my neighbor’s backyard; I’m not sure what it is — a boat? 
It climbs trees and twists around shrubs; like an insecure geisha, it seems to be jealous of any other flora and tries to smother its competition. 
The strangest thing is that it’s scaling its way inside a treehouse in my backyard. The plant has flung a suckling branch across a 2- or 3-foot span in mid-air to grab hold of the roof’s support plank. How did it do that? 
Have you seen those programs on NOVA and Discovery that show plants scaling walls, sparring and even seeming to play? It’s extraordinary. We think of plants as being stationary, stuck where they are, but they’re really moving, grasping, hooking and clinging with finger- and toe-like appendages. When we can see them filmed with time-lapse photography, we discover that they’re very much like animals — only moving imperceptibly slowly. 
It reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Earth laughs in flowers.” 
I went online to see what other people do with their bountiful, or should I say invasive, Japanese honeysuckles. Diligence is key, I’ve read. Cut, cut, cut, then apply chemicals, then keep cutting and poisoning for the rest of your life because it puts out runners 10, 20, some say 30 feet long and will surely outlive you. As Anton Chekhov has said, “Only entropy comes easy.” 
My next-door neighbor whacked her side of the bounty/infestation once. Underneath all the pretty white and yellow flowers and abundant foliage were thick, tangled, gnarly branches. It was frighteningly grotesque. 
But not to worry, because it came back the next year with a glorious vengeance. 
So much pleasure, so much consternation from one species. As in a spicy romance, one minute I want to embrace this honey-boy, and the next, I want to send him packing. 

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on June 8, 2013.

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Bring me your crippled

Just as I was leaving for vacation, I hurt my thumb. I remember unlocking the front door to run in and grab one more thing, and a sharp, intense pain ran from the joint of my thumb up my arm. Three weeks later, it still hurts. 

Thinking it was “jammed,” I kept pulling on my thumb, hard, to unjam it. That didn’t help. 
A week later, I Googled “what to do for a jammed thumb” and read that I should wrap it in bandages to protect it and let it rest. 
Doh! I should have been protecting it, not continuing to use it and certainly not yanking on it! 
Now, I know that having a jammed thumb is nothing compared to, say, losing a thumb or arm or leg. 
It’s pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But I still notice the pain — every time I brush my teeth or my hair, get dressed in the morning and undressed at night, eat with a spoon or fork, lock or unlock the front door, open or close windows, tie my shoes, start my car and put it in gear, write a note, unscrew a bottle cap, clean my glasses, open my mail and wash dishes. Other than that, it’s nothing. 
And, unfortunately for you, I can still type without discomfort. 
I’ve taken up a different grip for my toothbrush and eating utensils, and I open doors and windows with my left hand as much as possible. Other than that, I just try to be as gentle with my thumb as I can. I’m eschewing bandages and braces. 
For as long as we’ve had wars, soldiers have come home missing appendages and must learn to manage with mechanical versions of limbs, or do without. 
Traumatic brain injury is incapacitating thousands, and though that kind of injury can’t be seen, losing the ability to think clearly has got to be extremely difficult to deal with. 
Farmers and ranchers notoriously lose fingers from time to time as they work with dangerous equipment. 
And diabetes and cancer claim body parts sometimes. 
My good friend Willow lost a limb to cancer when she was a teenager. Went in for exploratory surgery; came out with her leg gone, all the way up to the hip. Can you imagine? 
I’ve seen her, as an adult, go hiking and swimming and raise children just like any other active woman. I love hearing her tell the story about when she was injured doing taekwondo when “the prosthesis buckled from underneath me and I fell backward catching myself with both arms and fracturing both wrists.” 
Her husband was working in western Kansas at the time, so she was essentially a single mom with 8-year-old twins and a 5-year-old at home. 
“I couldn’t bathe myself, as I had to wrap both wrists up in plastic, and it was painful to do turning motions like turning on the water faucet,” Willow told me. “I couldn’t don my prosthesis, so friends needed to come over to help me put my leg on … which is a very simple process for me, the amputee, because I can feel subtle pressures and know how to manipulate my residual limb, but for someone not living in my body and therefore not able to feel those kinds of pressures … oh, my goodness! It was definitely a challenge and provided us with some comic relief!” 
She couldn’t do laundry, cook, wash dishes or do other household cleaning tasks for about a month and said she was forever grateful to one of our friends for helping her manage the finer details of using the bathroom. 
Salina police officer Chuck Huen has surprised us all with his nonchalant attitude toward losing an eye during an incident in September that involved a 19-year-old man who fired multiple shots from a basement after Huen and other officers entered the house in question. 
“I don’t know why, maybe I’m just dumb,” Huen told Journal reporter Erin Mathews in a May 3 story, “but the whole getting-shot part never has really bothered me.” 
Huen, who resumed full-time duties with the police department April 20, has a prosthetic eye that’s so natural-looking it’s hard to tell which one is which. 
Dealing with my gimpy thumb the past few weeks has got me wondering about how people cope with more extreme injuries, such as losing a limb, or like Huen, an eye. 
So if you have a story, would you like to share it? 
What did you lose, and how? When did it happen? How have you coped with the loss? 
I’d love to share your stories here. 
Let’s honor our nature to overcome obstacles, meet challenges and pull through because you just have to. 
It seems that when we lose something, we gain an opportunity to be richer for it by learning to adapt. 
And maybe losing a body part helps clarify what’s important in life. As Officer Huen said earlier this month, “I realized you might not have another chancetomorrow.” 
And as my dad used to say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on

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Quick trip to Earthships

This gallery contains 25 photos.

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Taos, N.M., to visit the Earthship headquarters and Greater World Community of Earthship Biotecture. A month or so ago, I wrote about a workshop I attended in Denver to learn more about … Continue reading

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What if we were supreme?

Raymond Pachta, in his April 26 letter to the editor, asked what letter writers Wesley Koehler and Gerald Martin and I would do about hell if we were God.   

 I find the question impossible to answer because I don’t think of God as an individual being. Here’s my take: Whatever was before the Big Bang, whatever spun the universe into existence, that’s what I call God. 
I think of God as love (here’s where I agree wholeheartedly with the Bible). I also think of God as reality (whatever is true) and universal intelligence (the sort of wisdom that seems to direct evolution toward ever greater complexity) and energy (like the energy that makes our hearts beat, our lungs breathe and our digestive systems digest without us doing anything). I would say that every atom in the universe vibrates with the love of God. In that sense, since I am made of atoms, I already am God. So are you. 
And I am free to let my definition of God evolve as we discover more about the nature of the universe. I don’t need to know or understand everything now, or ever. 
But I will address the idea of heaven and hell. Mr. Pachta, you ask, Could a child who has continually ignored or rebelled against God (as heavenly father) expect an inheritance? The question doesn’t fit because, far from ignoring this God, I stand in awe and wonder. And I don’t expect a heavenly reward any more than I expect to see hell. I’ve already got my inheritance; it’s called life. 
I expect, after I take my last breath, that I’ll essentially cease to exist. And I’m fine with that. My driver’s license indicates that I want my organs to be harvested for research or donated to people who need them. Whatever’s left, I want it to be put in the ground without a casket so that my body can be used for food for underground creatures in the vicinity, enriching the soil and completing the great circle of life. 
This attitude prods me to live my life with humility and gratitude and fullness now, rather than wait for a better life to come. 
As you noted, “the existence of hell is difficult to accept alongside the acceptance of a loving God.” I agree. In fact, I find the concept of hell not only difficult to accept — it’s impossible. 

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on April 30, 2013. 

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Finding an old best friend

I’ve been catching up with my former best friend for the past couple of weeks. Thanks, Facebook! 

 How we lost contact, I’m not sure, but I do remember thinking, the last time I saw her in Minnesota, that she was going in a direction I didn’t want to go in. And the next thing I knew, about 20 years had passed. 
Mary and I were best friends during the late ’60s and early ’70s, but mostly during the summers. We went to different schools and she was a year older than me, so we didn’t hang out as often during the school year. Her family was Catholic, like most of the families in our neighborhood, and Mary went to an all-girl Catholic school, while I went to public schools. 
But during the summer, she was always getting grounded for one thing or another — smoking cigarettes or staying out past curfew or being generally incorrigible. Not wanting to leave their daughter completely isolated for weeks on end, I became the designated company-keeper. I guess her parents thought I was a good influence on her. 
Mary and I played piano on the upright in her basement — I was into Bach, she was into Bacharach. We played thousands of games of Hearts and Spades. We spent hundreds of hours playing Ping-Pong in the garage, where the neighborhood boys might find us. 
We were about the same height and weight, same long brown hair, wore similar clothes. Once we bought identical tan, maxi raincoats and floppy brown suede hats, so if you were walking behind us, you’d think you were walking behind twins. 
And when we finally moved out of our respective homes, we lived together for a year or so in an apartment just a few blocks from our parents, where we got into lots of young adult mischief. 
We loved our second-story apartment. We decorated it in flower-child fashion. We had a large front screened-in porch, where we’d watch the traffic go by on the popular, artsy street in a college neighborhood. 
She had two cats whose litter box was usually overflowing with pooh, and I had a puppy who was constantly escaping from his poopy backyard. 
We had parties and listened to the Beatles, Jethro Tull and Crosby, Stills and Nash. We were hippies; we were happy … or broken-hearted and filled with angst. Depended on the day. 
About a year ago, I thought about Mary and decided to look her up on Facebook. I tried to “friend” her, tried to send her a message. But she had her privacy settings configured so that she didn’t accept messages from people other than her friends. So I sent a message to her sister through Facebook. 
Now, if people who aren’t your Facebook friends send you messages through the site, the messages go to an “Other” folder, which most people never check. You may have many messages from long-lost friends who are trying to reach you in your Other folder. So every once in awhile, it’s a good idea to check it. 
(In December, Facebook said it was testing a service that would charge people $1 to send messages directly to people they are not connected to. As far as I can tell, it’s still testing, and the service is not yet available.) 
Thus, my message to Mary’s sister Kathy languished in her Other folder for almost a year. 
A couple of weeks ago, Kathy sent me a note: “Oh, hello; I just found this,” she wrote. “I’ll send it on to Mary.” 
Within a couple of hours, Mary had “friended” me. 
And 20 years pretty much melted away, after we asked about each other’s families. My mom and dad have died; her dad has Alzheimer’s but her mom is sharp and healthy. Mary and Jack have been married 32 years; I’ve been married 24 years, if you add them all together. She runs a group home now and prepares dinner for eight every night; I don’t think I’ve ever prepared a dinner for eight. 
“You have beautiful grandchildren,” I wrote, after looking at her Facebook photos. “You look happy, like your life suits you.” 
“We still look alike, wear the same kind of clothes, have the same hair style and seem to have the same views,” she wrote, after perusing my Facebook timeline. “The similarities are interesting.” 
They are indeed. 
Whatever dark road I thought she was going down 20 years ago, she seems to have found a fine life path. I guess I’ve done the same. 
It’s nice to find an old best friend. Maybe we’ll do better this time keeping in touch.

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on April 27, 2013.

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Home, sweet Earthship

A couple of months ago, I hosted a couch-surfer who was on her way from Austin to Denver to begin training for AmeriCorps. While we talked, Bethany told me she grew up in an Earthship. I’d never heard of that, so I Googled it that night and was fascinated by what I found. 

Earthships are homes that require no infrastructure for heat, cooling, water or sewage. Their inventor calls them SAFE: Sustainable Autonomy for Everyone. 
Bethany’s dad began building their Earthship when she was 2, and it took him eight years to complete their 4,000-square-foot home. 
“I absolutely love living in an Earthship,” Bethany said. “After living in an Earthship, staying in a conventional house feels a bit like living in a cardboard box, totally exposed and at the mercy of the elements, rather than an ally to the elements.” 
When I learned there was going to be an Earthship workshop in Denver, I decided to go, despite the fact that I have no land nor money to buy land, nor the strong young back needed to build an Earthship myself. 
During the workshop last weekend, Mike Reynolds, the architect who has been working on the concept for the past 40 years, went over the history, physics, biology and thermodynamics involved in Earthship “biotecture,” a term he coined. 
Reynolds’ effort started as an attempt to recycle on a large scale. 
He began using steel beverage cans in the ’70s (before beverages were put in aluminum cans) creating a “brick” from six empty cans wired together. They were then covered with concrete and layers of plaster. From there, he moved on to using glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastic water bottles and tires, which are ubiquitous around the world. Who needs a landfill, when you can use all this junk, now worldwide natural resources, to build houses? 
Earthships now are generally constructed with the whole north side and curving around to the east and west sides of the building with tires packed solid with dirt, hence the back-breaking effort. This gives you a 3-foot-wide wall of mass. The south side of the structure is all glass, then about 6 feet of space before another wall of glass, so you have what amounts to a greenhouse for growing your food. In photo after photo, we saw banana trees growing, even when there might be 2 feet of snow outside, as well as tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, beets, mushrooms, melons, cucumbers, grapes, peppers, eggplant, various greens and even chocolate. Some houses have birds, bees, frogs and butterflies. 
“We’re putting rainforests back into the world,” Reynolds said. Indoor rainforests, right in your home. 
And if you want protein, some Earthships feature pools in the greenhouse area where talapia and other seafood are raised. 
The most ingenious aspect of the homes is the water and sewage system. Rain (or melting snow) is directed from the roof into a cistern, where it’s filtered for the shower and sinks. From the shower, the water goes to the plants; from the plants, it goes to the toilet, and from the toilet, it goes to outdoor foliage. Many photos documented lush plants and trees and flowers in the middle of the desert surrounding Earthship homes. 
The bananas I bought this week at Dillons came from Ecuador. In an Earthship, you pick your bananas from right outside your kitchen — free food with no carbon footprint. 
Outside, the temperature might range from 30 below to 120 above, but inside an Earthship, the temperature ranges from 65 to 75 degrees all year long, with no additional heating or cooling necessary. 
Solar panels on the roof provide the energy for the pumps that move and filter the water, as well as all the electricity needed to power your refrigerator, computer and lights, etc. The home, instead of being just a building, is almost a living system, using “the nuclear power plant in the sky,” Reynolds said. There’s no power company between you and survival. You provide trash and human waste, and the home provides food, year-round comfortable shelter and waste management. 
The thought of getting off the grid and growing your own food on your front porch is certainly motivational, but Reynolds’ humanitarian work is also inspirational. He’s taken crews to Sierra Leone to help build an Earthship school; and to India, where the tsunami hit in December 2004; and to Haiti, after the devastating 2010 earthquake there, to build simple, well-ventilated, cool, safe, sanitary shelters that are virtually earthquake-, tsunami- and hurricane-proof. 
These homes have been built all over the world in every kind of climate using the recyclables (or land-fillables) in the area. After 40 years of trial and error and continuing refinements, Reynolds has a stable product — the architectural plans and systems for various sizes and configurations of Earthships, strong young backs not included (although you can hire graduates from Earthship Academy to pound your tires and offer expertise). 
You can find Earthships for sale online — and if you’re imagining that homes made of garbage probably look like dumps, you’ll be amazed that many of them are absolutely gorgeous works of art — some funky, some traditional — complete with all the modern amenities and with price tags often topping a million dollars. 
Of course, you can build one yourself for very little money with the plans he sells, since tires and other building materials he suggests are free or very cheap. If you’re interested, visit earthship.com
I’m completely inspired. I want to live in an Earthship!

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on March 30, 2013.

Posted in Sustainability, Travel | Comments Off

More mottos and maxims

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about things we say to ourselves to get through life. In it, I asked for more mottos and maxims, and I got quite a few. Thanks for sharing! 

From Steve Bressler, of Salina: “It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice”; and, “Blessed is the man, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.” 
From Barbara Krug, of Russell: “Worry is interest paid on borrowed trouble before it comes due.” 
My friend Brice Gilbert, of Salina, sent this note: “Grandpa Gilbert used to say, ‘If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.’ “ 
Also: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency for me.” Gilbert said the inmates (where he used to work) didn’t like to hear that one. He also included this one, attributed to Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” 
Jean Hamilton (no town given) sent this gem: “Blessed are the quilters for they shall blanket the earth.” 
Gwyn Johnson sent me a nice note: “We all have some adages that we live by, especially ones that come from our respected elders. (Husband) Mike’s grandmother, Margaret Tobin Johnson, had two that I have adopted: ‘Take tarts when tarts are passed,’ (appreciate the good things); and, ‘What difference will it make in 100 years?’ Some things do make a difference in 100 years, many do not. She was a wise lady, and I like these two adages of hers.” 
Thanks, Gwyn! 
“Sayings favored by one who talks too much,” Wesley Koehler wrote in an email to me: 
“A buddha is always teaching. When asked, he teaches by word of mouth. At all other times, he teaches by example.” — Buddhist saying 
“He who says doesn’t know. He who knows doesn’t say.” — Buddhist proverb 
“Our little systems have their day 
They have their day, and cease to be 
They are but broken lights of thee 
And thou, O Lord, are more than they.” — Alfred, Lord Tennyson 
Keith and Dee Howe, of Russell, sent me pages of favorite quotes. Here are a few: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” — Martin Luther King Jr. 
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” — Will Rogers 
“I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” — Cyrus Ching 
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” — Winston Churchill 
“When will we ever learn?” — from a Pete Seeger song. 
One anonymous email writer said, “If you, as you have stated in your article, ‘What we say to ourselves’ still don’t believe in hell … I can tell you on the Divine Authority of the Sovereign LORD of the Universe, you will, little Missy. You will.” 
The writer said his or her favorite motto is this: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28 
Ominous words indeed, and a Scripture I’m familiar with. People write to me thinking, I guess, that if I read just one more Scripture on the topic of hell, then I’ll finally come to my senses. I assure you, I’ve read all the Scriptures on hell, and I still believe what I believe. 
After all, it’s impossible for one to believe what one doesn’t believe. It’s ironic, too, that Scriptures say that faith itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8, John 6:37, John 6:65). 
The above writer said he’d be praying for me. That seems logical, because if God hasn’t given faith to me yet, it’s certainly not for a lack of seeking on my part. But many think I haven’t sought the truth long enough — because I haven’t come to their way of thinking. 
I’ll take the prayers, though. They’re so much nicer and certainly more productive than name-calling or personal attacks. 
I like what James Thurber says about the afterlife: “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.” 
While I was driving back and forth to Denver a couple of times in the past few weeks, I saw lots of signs that said things like, “Every abortion stops a beating heart.” I always think to myself, “Every hamburger stops a beating heart, too.” 
This reminds me that “Wherever you go, there you are,” which, besides being a great quote about how we take all our troubles (or inner peace) with us, is also the name of a book on mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. 
And that reminds me of spending time with my 93-year-old dad just before he died. Every time an aide adjusted his pillow or gave him his meds, she’d say, “There you go, Mr. Morton.” 
He didn’t like the ubiquitous use of that term. Every time someone said it, he’d lift his long, skinny arm and point his long, bony finger out to some imaginary far-away place and say, mockingly, “There I go … .” 
And there you go, until next time. 

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on April 13, 2013.

Posted in Family, Kansas, Optimism, Peace | Comments Off