Friday, April 13, 2007


Yesterday saw a pile of current conversations that wound up freezing me in their headlines. Too many things to comment on!

No Impact Man was focusing on "work", or perhaps "chores"; and simultaneously this article on sun-dried laundry appeared in the NYT.

Hanging Out

Lots of overlap in the two, if you read carefully. I made a comment on NIM, so you can take a look there if you want. The NYT article really set me off; every other paragraph stimulating book-chapter long "amen, and furthermore" responses, in my head. I'll restrain myself, a little anyway.

Ms. Hughes launches her article with "AS a child, I helped my mother hang laundry in our backyard..."

Stopped me right there.

It makes a HUGE difference how you experience the world as a child. Truly vast. I really don't want to be a constant sourpuss - the Governator's "temperance preacher at a fraternity party" - but making the changes in lifestyle that the planet clearly needs may be next to impossible for many of today's children.

Raised in a world where they not only don't have to lift a finger, but where the whole world seems (to them) to be desperately concerned that they should be "getting" everything they "need"- it may be literally inconceivable to them that they should, must, change their self-absorbed lives. It's a great deal like asking someone raised as a good southern Baptist to suddenly convert to Hinduism. You're going to have trouble there.

The advantages of being raised in a sustainably oriented household are many; and not least of them is that true "need" is much easier to see, and understand. SOMEBODY does have to "take the compost out" - or it will stink, and breed flies, and everyone's life will be miserable. Somebody has to go get firewood from the pile, or the house will get cold. In a very short time, the child can see much further- if someone doesn't MAKE a firewood pile, the family will freeze- and die. Really.

There are two advantages to this. The child understands real need. Necessity - REAL necessity - is a concept most children from the 1st world have no real grasp of. We are now facing a world where necessity must be attended to, by all.

AND- the child learns, immediately, that he/she can HELP the family. They learn that what they do matters, and that they are truly a help, to their parents, and the family.

Feeling useful is unbelievably important. Personally, I'm convinced that its opposite; knowing you are useless, is the chief cause of alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, and suicide.

I'll state this here, for what may be the first time anywhere; as a behavioral scientist, I think it's possible the human primate has a "self destruct" function hardwired in. If you are truly useless to the tribe- then you are a threat to the survival of your relatives; and the best thing you can do for them might be - to self destruct. One way or another.

Ok, see what I mean about boggling? This is what the first line triggered. Dismal thoughts!

The upside is: living sustainably does provide multiple antidotes. This is not just my opinion; you can read about it in "Time, Soil, and Children—Conversations with the Second Generation of Sustainable Farm Families in Minnesota", a beautifully hopeful book by Beth Waterhouse.

Children raised with their eyes open - see. Hang on to that.

Chapter 2 came here; "That simple decision to hang a clothesline, however, catapults me into the laundry underground. Clotheslines are banned or restricted by many of the roughly 300,000 homeowners’ associations..."

Sigh. There are legal barriers to a lot of sustainable stuff- some of them based on health concerns, some of them based on nothing at all but a warped sense of propriety. Like green mowed lawns. Ok, maybe a couple chapters... I won't go there right now.

Chapter 3 - "Not only that. Heading outside to the clothesline and hanging each load takes about 7 minutes — 6 minutes and 30 seconds longer than it takes to stuff everything into the dryer."

Oh, no!! Not 6 minutes and 30 seconds!!! I've talked several times about "saving" time- and wasting it; sure I'll talk a lot more eventually.

Chapter 4 - "But the rope lines started to sag, allowing the sheets and heavy wet towels to drag in the dirt. The wooden clothespins soon became weathered and fell apart."

There's the other one I want to get into today. We've FORGOTTEN the technology and skills we need for many sustainable activities - like living without a household refrigerator, like using the sun to dry laundry, like living without endless just-turn-the-tap hot water.

If the writer had had her mother available- or the universally longed for Grandma - those mistakes would not have been made in the first place. The fact that the "store" labels this rope as "clothesline" means nothing at all. Several different kinds of rope will work, depending on different situations- but it's not a trivial choice. The job the rope has to do is quite a demanding one, and success requires considerable knowledge about the behaviors of different kinds of rope. (I'll toss out three factoids here; never try to use nylon; it stretches; polypropylene, it develops slivers; and, what I prefer for clothesline is plastic covered steel wire.)

Likewise with the clothespins. Some on the market are junk; but all of them should come in out of the rain when not in use. The sun eats everything. Grandma had a pin bag, that traveled along the line; pins went in, and out, at need, and the bag sheltered them from the weather when they weren't in use. My Grandma took the pin bag inside, between wash days.

This kind of lost information is extremely common; and it's going to be a problem as people try to recover what they see as "simple" practices from the past. They remember Grandma and Grandpa doing these things, and with the simpler eyes and expectations of childhood, they think all those chores were SIMPLE - because Gram and Gramps did them so easily.

They WEREN'T simple. They required quite a lot of training, knowledge, and learned skills. But getting folks to understand that can be quite difficult. And it's very discouraging for many people to attempt what Grandpa did so easily- and fail completely.

As we get further into the sustainable green world we must have, we need to regenerate also our genuine respect for the "elders" - and the priceless knowledge they have.

We need them. And we need to relearn what they know, before we lose them. SOMEBODY (not me!) needs to launch an "Urban Foxfire Book". Seriously. There are still Grams and Gramps about who remember living in an apartment with no refrigerator; even with an outhouse. No airconditioner. Limited electricity. No hot water. Etc. This would be an absolutely fabulous project for kids to undertake; just as the original Foxfire books were.

So? I'm looking at YOU.


There were more "chapters" this article kicked off for me, but I think we're approaching overload here, so we'll leave them for now.


Unknown said...

I'm endlessly amused by the idea that it's more work to dry things than toss them in the dryer. I don't have a closeline, my tiny little apartment would look horrible. What I do have is dozens (ok like 10) bookshelves, and lots of hangers. I pull things out of the wash and they go straight onto hanger (cept the things that are lay flat to dry anyway) and then hang off the book shelves. It's a humidifyer, clothes dryer, and I don't have to hang them up later. It's easier and plus I don't have to pay for the electricity of the dryer (which I only use for some things and always sans heat, very few things need 2 hours of searing hot air, most are good in 50 minutes of regular air.)

(Oh and drying your clothes in the sun isn't always a good idea the bleaching effects are a killer on some things, yet another reason for the zero work of indoor drying.)

Greenpa said...

Yep, exactly! I like the fact you're aware of the humidifier aspect/benefit. And that sun is not good for everything. All these details are important- we have to get folks to EXPECT that there will be details they need to acquire before they'll be able to enjoy these "green" practices. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

We live a semi-homesteading off-grid life in the high desert. It's usually dusty and breezy outside, a bad combination for clotheslines (and deydrating food, but that's another story). But with 620 watts of PV and a modest capacity inverter, we couldn't run a dryer even if we wanted one. Besides, two people living in less than 400 square feet doesn't leave much room for unnecessary appliances. So, we have an indoor clothesline that runs most of the length of the bedroom. We have some more racks and rods in the bathroom. That's usually enough for one or even two loads to dry at a time. Then, if we MUST do more laundry while the other is still wet, I also have a foldable free-standing dryer rack. There is no rocket science needed (though as you say, the wrong kind of rope can make a difference).

Anyway, I love your lifestyle, Greenpa, thanks for sharing it with us!

Sue in the Western Great Basin

Christy said...

I had a long conversation with my sister yesterday about the feeling useful thing. I told her I thought not feeling useful, not having a purpose was the cause of many problems in children and in dogs. Most dogs have behavior problems in this culture, I believe because they no longer have a purpose. I think we are seeing the same thing in kids. I'm trying to find ways to make sure my son knows he has a real purpose in our family.

Robbyn said...

Just found your blog...what a wonderful find!

You're exactly right about the orientation of today's children, or even adults. I have wonderful memories of my grandma ALWAYS hanging her laundry out to dry...and how wonderful the sheets smelled drying in the wind. Not all of the clothesline was in the direct sun, and yes she had that hanging bag to put the pins in. The same day every week was wash day, and not only did she wash things, but she ironed them, too...even the sheets.

I find it frustrating that city covenants and such ban clotheslines and other useful "items of independence" in favor of worries over property values. In the end, the property may be more "valuable" than the lifestyles they perpetuate.

I decided a long time ago that my daughter would have a daily chore or fact each of us does. Any children who spend the night or visit us for the weekend do, gives folks a sense of belonging. Maybe it's better that home be full of "family" rather than "guests" in that way.

Come for dinner! You make the salad while I finish up the entree..We'll all have fun washing up afterwards! (that's my philosophy)

Thanks for a great this blog~!

Anonymous said...

greenpa - first off, love the blog. Have been reading it since almost day one.

We're trying to take one step at a time away from the "conveniences" of modern life. Some of the surprises we've encountered are the simple reality of ironing our own clothes instead of depending upon the cleaners. To your point about saved time etc. I've discovered, ironing everything I wear now, that while my clothes are not as crisp when I go to the currently inevitable office, while the crease in my pants may be a little weaker, there is a deeper and more profound connection with the act itself and I find myself incrementally more useful than before. So we're going more self-sufficient every day. This week we're replacing the power mower with a manual mower so we can hear the birds chirp while we cut the grass.

Keep up the posts. There are more ears listening than you can know.

willow said...

I don't have a dryer and line dry all laundry for my family of four outside all year round. Admittedly we don't have long cold winters but we do get a fair amount of rain in the UK. As you said, people who have regularly used dryers think line drying will be a chore. It may take 6 min 30 seconds to hang out a load but most days its a good excuse to get out in the garden in the morning, and yes, for a lot of the year it does have to be the morning, no good deciding to hang a load of laundry after lunch, from October to March you need it out for most of daylight hours. So a bit more planning and a bit of honing your weather prediction skills but not really hard work.
Another myth is that a fine sunny day is needed, actually a breeze is good and temperature has little effect in fact cold air can dry very efficiently.
Of course there will be people for whom line drying is not an option but for those of us that can it is an easy way of reducing energy use and taking a bit of time to watch the weather, the position of the sun and the changing seasons.

I'm really enjoying your blog.

Survival's Daughter said...

My grandmother doesnt own a dryer, and in all my life she never has. My mother hung clothes on the line. I grew up with stiff towels. I love them. I hate towels from the dryer. I hate the feel of the slimy-ness of the fabric softener on my skin, and how the water doesnt absorb into the towel. I notice my neighbor has a clothesline, in her "backyard" a few brownstones down in Hoboken, NJ. I cannot wait until I can have a clothesline. To honor my grandmother, my mother and my planet. The smell of freshly dried sheets is such a vivid and perfect childhood memory. The only negative side of the clothesline is that growing up my right arm was always stronger than my left, from pulling the line in when the clothes were dry. I have so much more to say about this, but I won't. Thank you!

Greenpa said...

Many thanks for all the solid comments here. You guys are adding a lot to the conversation and thinking, I know.

I particularly like the details from different regions- they're really important, and this is a place beginners often get stuck; they read something, try it, fail- and never realize the reason they failed was the advice was good only for a particular place, or season.

It's a very human thing, too, once you ARE successful at something, to kind of proselytize about it- "Do this, it works, I know!" - when in fact your personal experience may NOT be universal truth. More reasons not to poo-poo other folks choices.


Anonymous said...

AND- the child learns, immediately, that he/she can HELP the family. They learn that what they do matters, and that they are truly a help, to their parents, and the family.

Feeling useful is unbelievably important. Personally, I'm convinced that its opposite; knowing you are useless, is the chief cause of alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, and suicide.

I'll state this here, for what may be the first time anywhere; as a behavioral scientist, I think it's possible the human primate has a "self destruct" function hardwired in. If you are truly useless to the tribe- then you are a threat to the survival of your relatives; and the best thing you can do for them might be - to self destruct. One way or another.

You strike a nerve with me here. I can't think of a better way to describe what happened to my generation (Gen-Xers, in our 30's), as well as the next two, which have been progressively more depressed and disaffected. I'm grateful to hear you say this, as I think the older generations are unfairly harsh to ours, labeling us "spoiled" -- as if anyone wants to grow up spoiled and without useful skills.

My own history is mixed. I had to start working outside the house at 12, just for money to buy my own clothes, and continued through middle school, high school and college. My family wasn't poor, but went through a very bad patch economically in the 80's. Everyone had to pitch in. Five nights a week I cooked the family dinner. I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back. That's annoying and not my point. I've been on both sides -- I've been both useful and useless. I just remember the feeling of self-worth I got from making tangible contributions to my family, supporting myself, and demonstrating value to my employers.

So, you'd think I was innoculated against the problem you describe. But at college, all the incentives push you towards becoming a useless parasite again. Your job is to keep your grades up and build a resume, often with unpaid volunteer work or internships that give "exposure", but where you are clearly contributing nothing worth paying a salary for. I couldn't understand the malaise that plagued me and so many of my friends, until I once again joined the workforce in a job I had concrete skills for, and where I was clearly adding something useful. I finally felt like a human being again.

There's nothing more soul-deadening than the feeling you get in high school and college of being a pampered trained poodle. You perform complex, impressive tricks for other people to judge and grade, but that benefit no-one you can see -- and that you can't even really understand, because you've lived in this performance bubble all your life, separated from the real needs of the people around you. Of course there's the theoretical work you will do with this education later, after college or grad school -- but what an unbearably long time to wait to become a full member of your community. I'm depressed when parents don't understand this, and think they're doing their kids a favor by "sparing" them work and responsibility.

In terms of mental illness and addiction: some people are obviously more vulnerable for other reasons, no matter what century or country you live in. But rates of all these problems have skyrocketed in teenagers and young adults, and it's not just a measuring artifact. I believe this 22-year life stage of extended, forced uselessness is a huge factor.

The worst part is that older generations think we have it so good, they look at all this collective misery and blame us for it. Yet we are the first generations that have grown up without the essential social structures that have been shown to make humans happy, and there needs to be some recognition of this reality. Suburbs, media culture, and chain stores have shattered the complex relationships that used to hold together a town and an extended family, where you could see your place in the community from the very beginning.

Christy said...

I wanted to talk more about having a purpose and feeling useful. I have a 7 year old that I homeschool so I spend a lot of time with him. I've noticed he's been pretty unhappy lately and we've talked about it a lot. I think much of his unhappiness stems from not feeling like he has a purpose. I'm trying to change that but I feel like most of the jobs I've been giving him are just token jobs, not things that really need to be done. I think he feels it too. I'm wondering what types of things I can give a 7 year old to do that will truly make him feel he is making a contribution.

We live in a suburban neighborhood so we don't have livestock or gardens to tend to. We do hope to move to a farm in the next year, but I don't want to wait until we move for him to feel he has a purpose.

Beelar said...

Well, what needs to be done in your household? A smart 7-year-old can handle quite a bit. Do you need to do laundry, or cook dinner or take out the trash? These things do actually _need_ to be done in most places. I'm aware, though, that this stuff can certainly feel like busywork (even to adults who know it needs to be done!). So, do you need to repaint anything or do any small refurbishments to the house before you sell it and move to the farm? These kinds of things, though they may take more training, are more easily associated with real value in a kid's (and an adult's) mind, I think. It doesn't even have to be that he paints the den by himself; just being involved (perhaps as the "leader") in the planning and execution can be enough. That's what I think anyway.

Anonymous said...

christy said:

I think much of his unhappiness stems from not feeling like he has a purpose. I'm trying to change that but I feel like most of the jobs I've been giving him are just token jobs, not things that really need to be done.

I know exactly what you mean. I think you're right, it's really tricky finding ways for kids to do useful things that don't feel made up. If the job feels made up, you lose your motivation to do it, and also may start to resent the person assigning the task for putting you through purposeless chores just to improve you. Adults don't respond well to that, and kids don't either.

I wonder if this is why wealthy kids are so often sulky when they're given chores. I don't think they're inherently any lazier than other kids. It's just obvious to them and everyone that the household is running fine and doesn't really need their input, so it just becomes a power struggle. Kids in poorer households can at least see the dirty floors no-one has the time to clean, etc., and may have more of an immediate motivation to step up when given a push. That's how it was for me -- there was always a long back-log of undone chores, and a lot of genuine gratitude if they got done!

Not saying you should leave the floors unwashed so a seven year-old can clean them. I have no good ideas...

One thing kids do often respond to is having living things that grow and depend on their care. A pet is a bit much for a seven year-old, but for some kids a vegetable garden works really well. As long as it's really theirs to plan, very modest in scale, and will grow or die depending on what they do. But some boys might find this too girly.

Christy said...

Thanks for the ideas. I like the idea of having him help with fixing up the house, there is plenty of that that needs to be done. He can help me with painting and going through things and deciding what to get rid of.

He has been helping me cook more and unloading the dishwasher. We are going to have a vegetable garden in containers this year so he can help with that. So far, no watering has been necessary, but when the time comes he can help with that. We are also starting to compost and he is looking forward to putting stuff into the bin.

Greenpa said...

Christy- looks like you're on a good track with your 7 year old. A couple RULES. (I'm being humorous.)

1) Kids are always capable of FAR more than you think they are. 2) Kids are always capable of far more than THEY think they are. 3) They are uniformly ecstatic to find that out. 4) Alas- each dang kid is different. What worked for one may not for another- parenting needs to be hands on, eyes open.

Something specific I'd suggest- it's much easier to get kids interested first in a SPECIAL event than in a daily forever-after chore. (You can spring the chore on them after you've got them hooked.) For example, if you've already got your 7 year old helping with the cooking- how excited would he be if the two of you started planning a special meal- where he did ALL the cooking? Maybe as a Father's Day surprise?

My guess is he'd be wildly enthusiastic. Then- your big job is to make sure he doesn't fail at it. You could teach him planning- shopping - cook one dish at a time in other meals- rehearse; and get him ready to go. And maybe you could hover a little during the actual event, and gently head off any disasters.

I'll bet my shirt he'd love it; the others involved would love it; he'd be very proud of his success. Then- get him interested in entirely cooking a meal that includes..... company. Wow.

When plain daily cooking needs to be done in the future- he KNOWS he's "a cook" - and will be eager to prove it.

The danger is, he'll turn into a chef. Not that there's anything wrong with that. :-)

Similar ploys with other chores will work. Painting? His job is that ROOM- all of it; himself.


Christy said...

Greenpa, thank you! I think I've been underestimating what he can handle, he is certainly eager at this point. I also find myself doing it myself because it is quicker, I know this is undermining his abilities. Lots to think about here!

Alison Peters said...

Dear Greenpa,

You are right- we need to be led by people who have done it all before and have those tiny bits of knowledge that make these daily changes work.

In other words, I do need a Grandperson of some sort, and you sound like just the man for the job.

My Nonna lived sustainably until last year without ever having heard the word. It was just 'what you do'. It grew out of a lean childhood, not a particular concern for the environment, but it was more than that. Even when she had the means to live differently, she didn't because it didn't seem 'right' to her.

It involved keeping every scrap of fabric to reuse or remake, being frugal with power and water, composting, buying in bulk and freezing, and never ever buying anything she didn't actually need.

I thought I was doing ok until I made a conscious decision to lower my consumption and simplify earlier this year. Boy, the things it didn't know! Unfortunately Nonna isn't around anymore to ask... she would have been chuffed to have me so interested too.

I've just discovered your blog and will return regularly. It is just what I need to keep the information and new ideas coming.

historicstitcher said...

I know I'm way behind on the current postings, but I was reading older posts and trying to catch up, and decided I just had to weigh in on the conversation regarding children and chores.

I, too, have a 7-yr old boy, and he has had active responsibilities since he able to start pulling things off the shelves. At nine months old he had to help put toys away at the end of the day. At two, he had to put them all away himself at the end fo the day. By four he could tidy his room and put everything away by himself in the labelled containers and shelves. Now, at seven, he actively contributes to our household- he feeds and waters the cats every day, feeds his fish tank (with multiple critter types in it), takes out the compost, collects the recycling from the kitchen bin and takes it to the bigger basement bin, brings in the trash can from the road (only need to put out a can once a month or so...), makes his own bed every morning, tidies up in the evening, helps with the dishes, helps cook when he wants to, puts away his own laundry...the list goes on. Often he packs his own lunch for school, makes his own breakfast, waters the garden, etc.

I've had other mothers comment on how much "work" I "make" him do, but it's not like that. He is a contributing member of the household. He and his cooperation are needed to keep the house running smoothly. It's something we talk about, and make decisions as a family, sometimes even choosing to clean instead of play tonight so we can have all day tomorrow to play...

I grew up with chores and responsibilities, and want my child to do the same. We often talk about living sustainably, how we can make less waste, how to "make less pollution".

I see my son's playmates, many of whom do not have regular chores, but will get yelled at to "clean up that mess you made". In my opinion, in my observations, the children with mothers who do too much, both for them and around them, are the unhappy, whiny, and spoiled children. They think they are "excess", they make unwelcome messes, and they "get in the way". I almost always have a simple "favor" to ask of them when they're over, giving me a chance to show them their usefulness, thank them for a job well done, and boost their sagging egos.

I don't say any of this to congratulate myself, but rather to show Christy that children want to help. Have him sort the laundry into colors while you're washing. Have him dry the dishes while you wash. Don't sit and watch him work, always be busy at some chore at the same time, preferably something related to what he is doing. After a while, he'll want to work alone. But don't forget that some of the best memories are from working in parallel: hanging laundry with mother/grandmother, building something with dad/granddad, fixing something together. It's not the easiest, nor the fastest way to get things done, but that's not what sustainability is about, is it?

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm commenting on a post 3/4 of a year after it was published, but it really touched on a lot of things that I've been thinking about. I'm living on my own in a foreign country trying (and failing much of the time) to be earth friendly. I wish that I had been raised learning the skills needed, especially having to do with food - most my food had to be defrosted growing up, and most of my meals had directions on the side of the packaging and could be made in under 15 minutes, with minimal effort. Now I'm buying things for myself, and usually give in to convenience because I don't have the basic skills. Laundry is different, though, as hanging clothes on drying racks in my house has become a necessity more than a choice over the past few years so by now it seems normal. I hope never to own a dryer in my future, but I'm not sure I could do without a refrigerator. I did for about a month and a half but made up for that by eating fast food all the time, which I felt was the worst of two evils. I keep wishing I could live "simply" like my grandparents in the depression on a farm with 9 kids, but first I need to learn how to cook. It's sad that that basic skill I'm pants at!