I am infatuated with alternatives. Alternatives to fossil fuels. Alternatives to plastic.  Alternatives to waste “disposal”.  Alternative food systems. Alternative housing.  Alternatives to work. Alternatives to marriage. Alternatives to divorce.

Alternatives to war.

In so many cases there is a different, less wasteful, more respectful way to approach our problems.  In alternatives I find comfort. In alternatives I find hope.

But within this very source of optimism lies an unfortunate truth, a collection of thumbtacks hidden in fluffy warm bedding.  One of the most detrimental, and often baffling, things about humankind is just how well we can understand a problem and formulate solutions and yet continue to engage in exactly the same, damaging behaviors.  The knowledge of a better way does not necessarily lead to the it’s pursuit.

Still there are dedicated people willing to abandon short-term comfort and approval in the quest for a better way.  And I have decided that the best thing any of us can do is embrace the belief that we have it in us to become one of them.




A tribute to life as a family of four in 580 square feet

My parents are coming to visit in just a few weeks.  I generally look forward to this time, grateful for the chance to foster the inter generational relationship.  But family is a complicated matter and our interactions aren’t without their challenges.  The tension usually starts the moment my father steps foot into our apartment.  It took me a while to understand why he got so anxious and upset but it was easy to see that the longer the visit, the deeper his depression.

And then I finally understood.

My father comes from a very modest background and, growing up in a big city (Rome), space was not something he had in abundance.  He is proud of the life that he has built in the US, which includes a nice and spacious home.  And it makes him terribly sad to see his daughter return to the very place he came from, living in a small and modest apartment.

I, however, adore our apartment.

G and I moved here from a tiny studio just blocks away when g was an infant because we desperately wanted a separation – a barrier that would allow us the freedom to continue living and breathing inside even when the baby was (miraculously!) sleeping.  We wanted to stay in the neighborhood, close to public transportation and walking distance from all of our basic needs.  We didn’t want to spend too much money.  And we wanted a door.

This apartment met all of our criteria and more.  It even has a fabulous south-facing picture window, a mature lemon tree and is situated just across the street from a wonderful public park.  It is only 580 square feet but it didn’t feel too small to us.  It felt like enough.

And over time, though we’ve added a fourth human to the mix, I’ve come to appreciate it even more.  The low rent has allowed us to live comfortably on one small income (we don’t qualify for reduced school lunches in our community but we only barely miss the cut-off).  This apartment has granted me my time. It has also secured us access to all of the things that are important to us: great schools, wonderful parks and libraries, excellent fresh food and, most of all, a wonderful community of neighbors.  We never struggle to make it to the end of the month and never feel like we are unable to afford any of the things that we need. This little apartment has made us rich.

I did my best to explain this to my father on his last visit.  There is one very fundamental thing that separates us from the poverty that so upsets you, I told him, choice.  Our apartment is too large to qualify as “tiny” but, philosophically, we have a lot in common with the tiny house movement.  The concept is quite simple. By needing less you gain tremendously.  By living well within your means, you buy your freedom.

I am aware of the cultural implications of our choices.  Although I don’t place a high value on social status the way my father does, I know that most people don’t see things quite the way we do.  And, despite my awareness of the problems of over-consumption, I’m not on a mission to convert everyone to my way of life.  In writing this, I’m not attempting to make a statement about American greed or the excess of your McMansion.  I really only want to make a simple point, the same one that I think my father now understands.

You have a choice.

An argument in favor of elevating a little-known holiday


Chances are that you didn’t even notice the passing of a minor federal holiday in the US a few weeks ago, unless it happened to affect you personally. Some people had the day off. Some schools were closed. There was no mail delivery.

Officially, October 12 is Columbus Day, a holiday commemorating the landing of Columbus in the new world. Since Columbus was Italian, Italian-Americans have seized the day as an opportunity to manifest pride of origin. Because G happens to work for the Italian Government, he has the day off every year.

g also had the day off. School, however, was not closed to celebrate the triumph of Columbus’ discovery of America but rather to mark Indigenous People’s Day, an effort to recognize the profound affects this event had on the indigenous peoples for whom this world was anything but ‘new’. As someone who spends more time than is healthy fretting about the exploitation of peoples and resources throughout the world, I truly appreciate the important message in this rebranding. But I think that we are missing something by simply reducing the discussion to historical winners and losers.
With a little help from my imagination I can imagine myself in Columbus’ shoes, peering out at the vast blue waters of the Mediterranean and contemplating an epic voyage into completely unknown territory, a few simple wooden vessels at the mercy of the winds – no fossil fuels, no satellite information or gps, no communication equipment or rescue helicopters, not even a stash of MREs. And I see myself high-tailing it back to Isabella to promptly return her money. Bad idea after all.

But Columbus set sail. I picture him as a kind of latter day Richard Branson, all bravado and oversized ambition, a testament to a deep human drive to explore and expand. And I have a difficult time setting aside my respect for this side of the human condition, even if it so often has negative consequences. I also have a hard time ignoring the fact that my community, the same one that first designated October 12 as Indigenous People’s Day, is characterized by a push toward new frontiers that bears a much stronger resemblance to Cristoforo than to the Indigenous Peoples he encountered.

I say this not to shame my neighbors but rather to hold all of us to a higher standard. In reality, the exploitation of peoples and resources continues unabated to this day, aided by ever greater use of fossil fuels and technological sophistication. But most of us living in the developed world occupy a hazy place in between, both exploiters and, increasing, exploited.
What I am proposing is that this day might serve as a very appropriate opportunity to recognize this uncomfortable position and therefore open it up to the kind of scrutiny that every day life doesn’t easily permit. If it sounds a bit unlikely that an official holiday in the world’s dominant power would be set aside to contemplate the pitfalls of dominance, I have to agree. But then again, I might find it rather unlikely that a small group of humans would navigate vast stretches of ocean inside simple wooden scaffolding with bedsheets.

About all that time…..

In my mind I’ve spent the weeks since the boys started school (6+ of them) fighting the battle against both the pressure to collect too many commitments and the risk of squandering precious opportunities to be productive.

In reality, I’ve spent several mornings battling the ants in my kitchen.

Which is to say that life hasn’t actually changed all that much.  If anything, it feels healthier, closer to my personal ideal of slower and simpler.  And I continue to be grateful for my ability to perform the function of the flexible rod, capable of shifting and bending when necessary to absorb the impact of constant fluctuations in the system.

I am content in this place. But work is very much on my mind. I continue to try and carve out a viable space for myself in a job that I began last winter.  It’s unpredictable and undefined, which is fitting for a job in the agricultural sector.  When there is work to be done, it consumes every last one of those wide-open hours.  And when there isn’t it just simmers on the back burner, allowing me to make slow progress toward finally getting my fall garden planted and my closet organized.

Financial demands dictate that I increase the time that I dedicate to the kind of work that comes with a paycheck.  And I’m ok with that.  But I really hope it doesn’t mean that I’ll have to give up this time completely.  Because I’ve already become very very attached.

The honeymoon phase


All of this balance is going to my head.

The boys bound off to school each morning, barely pausing to acknowledge my long line of postscripts.  Are you sure you have your sweatshirt?  Don’t forget the extra snack I put in your backpack!  One last kiss? Have a great day at school!

I marvel at the fact that that they are both so well adjusted.  And it makes me squirm a little to acknowledge that they are so much better off without me, at least for a significant part of the day.  I see in myself the plight of the wavering partner who, once rejected, discovers a passion that has never burned so hot.  And so I  smother them with my sloppy sentiments every chance I get.

And then there are all of those hours.  Glorious, wide-open hours full of promise and the intimidating challenge of learning to build with a precious material that I’ve never been able to afford.

Things will change soon.  They always do.  But for now, I’m delirious.

Copy of IMG_5232

L’isola che non c’è*

This article was an inspiration to me.  It’s subject is the Greek island of Ikaria, a designated Blue Zone where the inhabitants are surprisingly long-lived.  The narrative is constructed around the sensational tale of a Greek man who, living in the United States, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  The story goes that instead of pursuing traditional treatment in the US, he chose to go back to his home on the island of Ikaria to die in peace.  Except that he didn’t die. And at the time of publication 3 years ago, was a cancer-free 97 year-old.

The article describes Ikaria as an isolated place where people live a spartan life focused on family and community, eating simple food, much of which they grow or forage themselves, getting around on foot, and routinely drinking, talking and dancing the night away.  In the subtext lies the pressing question of exactly which practice provides the magical elixir for longevity.

But the article’s impact on me was not a testament to my burning desire to live to be a healthy 100, though that would be nice.  In it’s description of Ikaria I found a clear image of the picture that I had been fumbling to illustrate.  There it was – the lifestyle that I was trying to convey with my silly blog moniker.  And not only did it exist, but it also offered what I consider to be superb proof of it’s own validity: long, healthy lives.

I realized that while so many people around me are admirably following their ambitions toward career success and economic advancement, I am aspiring to Ikaria.

I have never been to the island of Ikaria and yet I think that I know her.  Many of the images that I have of her come from our trips to other Greek islands.  But there are so many details about the Ikarian lifestyle that I think I’ve witnessed much closer to home.  Images that remind me of my paternal grandfather’s village in the Italian region of Ciocaria. Or G’s family town in Sicily.  And even, strange though it may sound, of my maternal grandparents enclave of Little Italy in Cleveland, a culture whose remnants filtered down to me growing up in the city.

It is, I suspect, what much of the Mediterranean looked like before the Industrial North conquered the globe, a cultural victory so sweeping and complete that it is impossible to imagine the world any other way.  Though Ikarians were heavily impacted by the war and the German occupation,  it’s likely that its notoriously rough waters played a decisive part in preserving it’s culture in the years that followed.

I think of her now as the Germans and Greeks skirmish over Greece’s place in the Eurozone, both justly questioning whether Greece can ever really learn to play the game nearly perfected by Europe’s economic engine.  And I sympathize deeply with her as hungry migrants, escaping the brutal chaos to the east, land on her rough shores.

And I think that I understand her as I make a batch of cheese in my tiny Bay Area kitchen, knowing that my own aspirations carry all the appeal that she engenders in her worn housecoat and woolly upper lip in the eyes of my own neighbors, bedecked in their sleek new portables and trendy messenger bags.

I know that this notion that maybe all those nonagenarians on Ikaria prove that cultivating health and social ties is the best way to move towards old-age is tinged with nostalgia.  And I can’t close my eyes to the countless ways that we all benefit from the success and prosperity of our technologically savvy neighbors every day.

Intelligent people know that sound investments and access to the latest technologies are the road to the good life.  And, if you play it right, you can vacation in Ikaria – as long as the wifi is reliable.  I understand the rules of the game.  But as I listen to the deafening sounds of the Dow going up and down in the background, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s worth playing.

*Translated from Italian.  Words and music by Edoardo Bennato

The island that isn’t

Second star to the right,
Points the way
And then head straight until morning
It’s a road that you must find for yourself
It takes you to the island that isn’t

This may sound strange to you
But perhaps reason has led you astray
And now you’re almost convinced that
there can’t really be an island that isn’t

And to think about it, what madness,
It’s a fairytale, a mere fantasy
And he who is wise, who is mature knows:
It couldn’t possibly exist in reality!

And I agree,
There can not be a place
Where there are neither heroes nor saints.
And if there are no thieves,
If there is no war,
It can only be an island that isn’t

But it’s not an invention,
Not a play on words,
To believe is enough
Then you’ll find the road yourself.

And I agree,
No thieves or police,
Then what kind of island is it?
No hate or violence
soldiers nor weapons,
Then it can only be the island
That’s isn’t.

Second star to the right,
Points the way
And then head straight until morning
You can’t make a mistake because
It takes you to the island that isn’t

And they will mock you
If you continue to look for it,
But don’t surrender
Because it’s possible that those who have already given in
And are laughing behind your back,
Are even crazier than you

The values of education

I remember listening to heated debates over public school curriculum when I was younger and failing to understand what the ruckus was all about.  Who were these people who thought that they could control what kids believe? Did anybody really think that lectures on the power of abstinence or sterile explanations of sperm meets egg forms zygote were going to have any effect on the adolescent urge to get into his classmate’s pants?  And didn’t those parent’s fighting for high quality sex ed know that the best place to learn about sex is, cough, outside the classroom? 

But now that I’ve moved from the ranks of smug teenager to concerned parent, I understand.  There is no better reflection of a person’s true values than the need to pass them on to the next generation.  Talk to anybody who is seriously searching for solutions to a human problem and they will tell you that their best hope lies in education. No less is at stake than our dreams for the future, the better world that we envision.  And this is determined entirely by how we happen to see the world in the present.

And it’s complicated.

I was a runny mess this time last year.  As g prepared to enter Kindergarten, I nourished all the usual fears.  Will he adapt?  Will he make friends?  Will they take care of him?  But there was more to it.  The memories that I have of my own education, though faded, tell conflicting stories of the joy of learning and the tyranny of institution. And yet I knew that unless I was ready to take over the job of schooling my children, I needed to support their schools.  I hoped I was up to the task.

In the end, g did just fine.  And I learned a lot about education from the perspective of the parent.  I learned that, as I had suspected, it is the community that drives the culture of the school.  And, for all it’s quirks, I have a lot of faith in my community.  When we moved into our current apartment, g was just barely crawling and yet I was immensely proud to be just down the street from this amazing place.  Last year as g’s teacher put tremendous work into introducing the kids to tough issues like race and non-conforming sexual identity, I understood what is meant by “it takes a village”.  I felt the deep comfort of knowing that I am not in this alone.

But this year, as g glides into his new first grade classroom, I feel uneasy.  I felt it just after the first drop-off, walking to my car with another mom, a recent transplant to the area.  She was talking openly about her hopes for the school year and, though she was as friendly as she was put together, her words stirred my concern.   As she pulled away in her new Mercedes SUV, I began to identify the source of my fears.

My community is changing fast.  The SF tech boom has exploded to surrounding areas. Homes only rarely sell for under 1 million dollars in my neighborhood. While discussions about these changes almost always focus on the economic aspects, I think that they are more symptom than cause.  This has truly been a place with the spirit and drive to “change the world”.   But the world, it appears, is changing it.

Values are shifting. If we are even still here in a few years, I doubt that I will have the influence to counter the shiny appeal of the new messages: technology, money, power.  I wonder who would actually listen to statements on the importance of simple living and soil stewardship  from a woman whose house is so small that she can’t even entertain playdates.  I imagine my wimpy arms giving their all in a cultural tug-of-war in the schoolyard.

And I see her, smug adolescent that she is, laughing her ass off.

Looking forward

I am not good at balance.

If I take the long view I can divide my life into many phases, each with a different primary focus – work, play, athletics, friendship, romance – that together make-up something of a meta-balance. But I have rarely managed to successfully combine many layers at once.  And the latest phase has been blindingly monotone.

When g was born I lost the ability to locate my own boundaries, becoming completely submerged in the briny deep of parenting.  For several years my ambitions could be summed up in a single word: sleep.

I received counsel. You’ve got to take time for yourself. But knowledge and action don’t always play well together.  I had stellar examples. I knew many women who juggled like masters, at times tirelessly clawing their way toward their own desires.  But I just didn’t have it in me.  It was a failure that I accepted matter of factly, in the same way that I accept my imperfect proportions or my poor sense of direction.

And I’ve come to understand that there are cultural implications to my shortcomings.  I was born in the US but am, for better and worse, a Mediterranean whose values lean closer to interdependence than autonomy.  Growing up in a large Italian family I learned the skills of twisting and stretching when living as part of a unit. I can even embrace the good in this way of life as long as I continue to look forward – a simple glance downward sheds light on that dizzying labyrinth that is gender politics.

But exactly a year ago my perspective began to shift.  It sneaked up on me. g was about to enter Kindergarten and Mr D was beginning a toddler program 3 mornings a week.  12 childfree hours a week! All of a sudden I was performing a mental sprint toward those interred dreams. I began to fantasize about work possibilities, self-care, intellectual pursuits, hobbies.

Reality, it turns out, is a honey badger.  Mr D struggled for months to adapt to his “school” and g spent the bulk of winter in recovery. My grand ambitions were grossly downsized. But they weren’t forgotten.  Looking back I realize that my life changed dramatically.  I formulated my dream job and then took very concrete steps toward making it a reality.  I began reading again.  I expanded my gardening space.  I even started blogging again!

These final weeks of summer have been lovely.  I have been enjoying unstructured time with the boys- trips to the park and library, lots of play with friends and neighbors, bushels of tomatoes. But in just 10 days I will again have precious time for myself as g enters first grade a Mr D takes on preschool. I now know that even this intense phase of parenting comes to an end. And I am really looking forward to the next one.