Priorities, Compromise and The Privilege of Doing Good

Thursday’s post on Fair Trade was a soap box, no two ways around it. This whole Quiet Riot is going to involve a lot of soap boxing. Worse, because we are (most of us) inescapably consumers, a lot of living more responsibly involves spending more money. Let me assure you, as a born cheap-skate, it seriously disturbs my soul to be up here, looking down beneficently at my gathered crowd, telling you all to go out and spend more money.

A woman commented on the Bank Transfer post the other day wondering how to choose priorities from the endlessly long list of things a person really ought to do. Especially when responsible choices often cost more and, in the real world of limited incomes, conflict with her highest priority of staying home to raise her kids.

I can word out a few seemingly sensible soap box responses to this, like– ‘well, what kind of world do you want to be left for those children to live in’ and ‘don’t you want to set the example to your children that you do the right thing, no matter how hard?’ Etc, etc. But as convenient as that kind of black and white thinking is, I know full well about the incredible gulf of gray between.

I suspect everyone reading this blog cares deeply and honestly about the future of our world, and is doing what they can. But the devil is in the details, ‘doing what we can’ is a tricky statement. We could all do more, no doubt. We could probably survive with less sleep, spending those precious kid-less hours gardening by headlamp. We could certainly do with quite a lot less food and more ruthless austerity. We could… And those of us with overactive guilt complexes instilled by Catholic/Jewish/Baptist/privilegedwhitepeople backgrounds are sometimes consumed by that needling ‘could.’

But what value do we place on living a joyful life as a part of our particular community of humans? How much margin do we allow ourselves in that ongoing effort to be a part of our world, while also trying to change that world for the better?

Fair trade is a perfect set for this confusion. All jokes aside, coffee, tea and chocolate are far from necessary to our actual survival. A person could afford to buy ethical luxury items simply by treating them as luxuries, which is to say reserving them for special occasions. You can have a chocolate cake on your birthday, the other 364 days of the year you can eat a second helping of locally grown vegetables for desert. And haven’t you heard of roasting the dandelion roots you weed out of your garden for a local, sustainable coffee substitute?

I lived that way for a handful of years in my rugged youth. We ate plain oatmeal for breakfast, beans, rice and foraged greens for dinner. No sweeteners, no butter, and hell no coffee. We were austere, in the first degree. After a year or so, I started finding reason to go visit our neighbors strangely often. Who, coincidentally, would always offer me a cup of coffee. And, if I was lucky, a piece of pie. I am quite certain that better people than me are capable of maintaining a hard core rebellion against the western world’s interpretation of luxury as standard, without becoming neighbor junkies. Those years proved that I am not.

This is a theme I want to explore over the course of this Riot. How to keep doing the hard thing when everyone around you does the easy thing. How to maintain a poverty standard in a world of flagrant excess. How to feel okay about holding your children to that ethic. Not that I have any answers, understand, only a sticky ball of questions and personal failures.

After accepting that I didn’t have what it takes to live the ascetic life, it boiled down to a matter of priorities and consequently compromise. Which is the quagmire I have been slogging in ever since. To get back to that original comment– how do we choose the most important things to do with our limited energy, time and funds? How do we balance ethical (read: expensive) consumption with our decidedly low family incomes? I think the answer is intensely personal. I don’t mean personal as in emotionally yours, though that is also true, but so completely based on every particular situation and family that there’s hardly any generalized objective truth.

It seems to me that we mostly choose our battles based on what we’re good at and what we want to do anyway. And when you think about it, isn’t that the best way after all? We all have our inborn talents, our callings in life. We will work hardest, most passionately, most effectively doing what we are drawn to do. Hopefully the community at large will cover the rest, right? Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, and so between the all of us, we’ll lick the platter clean.

As you all know, my calling in life is food. I work very hard at it, and if I may say so myself, have fair natural talent. I’m also really good with systems, which I think is an extraordinarily helpful skill to keeping a home. I do hope that this blog lends a hand with some specifics of Sustainable Housewifery on the Cheap, because if we can’t do it on the cheap then most of us simply can’t do it.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room.

Privilege.

Privilege comes in all sizes and shapes, but for now let’s talk about economic privilege. Neither My Man or I were born into money, but his folks have made a goodly stash in their mature years, and are very generous with us. Sometimes so generous that my teeth hurt. Many years ago they took out the mortgage for us on our house back in Alaska. We are slowly buying it from them as they buy it from the bank. All very convuluded, more than you can even imagine. At present, they are loaning us more than half of the money we burn through here in New Orleans, while I stay sweetly home to watch my angels grow up and nobly shop at Whole Foods (the other half is student loans, we didn’t have any savings at all). They also loaned us their car to use during our 3 year stint here, so we do not have car payments. They gift us big, nice, useful presents at Christmas and birthdays. Just about everything we own either came off the side of the road or was given us by My Man’s folks. It’s a motley collection.

Admitting this all, in print, to the wide world, is nothing short of excruciating for me. I grew up with hippie parents who scraped together $12-15,000 year, total. We lived extremely frugally and always by the skin of our teeth. I was endowed with a fierce spirit of individualist pride. Doing it yourself. Never accepting, or even deigning to need, help from anyone.

I have come around, intellectually, as an adult. Even before I married accidentally into money (hey, he was living in a moldy plywood tipi at the time, how could I have known?) I was beginning to realize the importance of interdependence, of accepting help and yes, even needing each other. I see now that family is meant to help. Our situation looks new and fancy, but the bones of it are ancient– parents establishing themselves, passing on what they can to their kids as they take out into the world.

Another important kind of privilege is less tangible– knowledge, attitude and expectations. I didn’t get any economic privilege growing up, but those anti-materialist DIY hippie parents gave me all kinds of essential mental tools to pursue this life. They also encouraged me to skip college and debt, and I spent those formative years instead learning more specific homesteading skills, living without butter, and hanging out in moldy tipis with suspect young men.

I don’t reference tv much and I’m not about to start a regular thing of it, but I did see a good Michael Moore interview on the Colbert Report a few months back. Colbert had quipped something about him “making bank” and that his sweat pants and ball cap didn’t fool us. Moore blushed deeply but countered with, “Yeah, you’re right. And that’s exactly why I think it’s our responsibility to do something with ourselves.”

I certainly wouldn’t say My Man and I have made bank– we live on about $40,000/year. We are very frugal in some ways. I rarely buy clothes at all, and always second hand. I don’t buy any kind of lady potions, handbags, or other female paraphernalia. We don’t drive much, so save quite a lot on gas. My money sink is food, both quality and ethics. On one hand you could say I make it my priority, I scrimp in other ways to pay for better groceries. I make everything I can at home, I work hard in the kitchen. I brew my fair trade coffee one cup at a time so that none is ever wasted, and I drink one or two perfect cups a day instead of a whole pot of mediocre cheap coffee.

On the other hand, I know plenty of you do the same and still can’t afford to spend $16/lb on goddamned coffee. I know I am lucky, very lucky to be able to be home with my kids and spend my few spare hours blathering on about responsible consumerism. It is a privilege to be able to ponder what is right, a privilege to be able to do it.

We all know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to one another. Do what you’re passionate about, push yourself as often as you can, ease up when you need to. Feel good. But in case that old dog comparison creeps around in the dark of night– don’t ever forget that, for the most part, those of us standing around on soap boxes had a boost up.

Related Posts: 
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?
Why We Do What We Do
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

Bank Transfer Day

I am sorry not to have written about this sooner, Bank Transfer Day is just two days off, November 5th. The idea is to close your account with Big Evil Bank and move your money (meager though it may be) to a local credit union. There are 37,000 “likes” on the Facebook Page, and I read somewhere that 68,000 are planning to switch.

I heard on the news yesterday that both Bank of America and Wells Fargo have withdrawn their threat of monthly debit card fees, which apparently is what started all this. Although it’s undoubtedly exciting that the People spoke and the Man listened, I myself am disappointed that this has become all about the fee issue. I hope those 68,000 people do the switch anyway. The real problem is not the fees, but the underlying greed and overwhelming power, right?

Credit unions are non-profit, cooperative financial institutions, functioning at a local level. Sounds perfect. I’m not sure what the catch is, except that local means you can only go to your bank to make a deposit when in your hometown. They appear to have ATM and debit cards available so you can spend money everywhere, just like the big boys.

Strangely, the woman who started this set the date for a Saturday, apparently in connection with the date that Guy Fawkes was captured. Cool but, seriously? I guess the idea is that November 5th is supposed to be the deadline, not the change day. I am hoping to get the deed done tomorrow. It’s always helpful to have a deadline, but of course this is just a good thing to do, any day you can find the time. We have one account with Wells Fargo and one with an Alaskan bank. Our hometown of Cordova, which we will be returning to in May, doesn’t have a credit union so we are going to have to hold onto the Alaskan bank. But WF can go.

Honestly, this whole bank thing has been very difficult for me to grasp. I am still functioning on the apparently antiquated idea that corporations are The Man. What, banks are The Man now? When did this happen? And how will I ever, ever be able to understand it???? The whole Wall Street business is so far over my head. I have tried, on numerous occasions to get even a glimmer of what the hell goes on there, and every time it’s like sliding down a steep slope. I get just a lick of possible understanding, then whoosh!

Of course, that’s how it works, why it works. If we can’t understand it, we feel like we have no right to fight it. Certainly no way to fight it. Corporations were too obvious, too easy I guess. Too intellectually tackle-able by your average person. The Man had to get a new rig.

We watched Inside Job recently, and it did help. Mostly I felt that same old sliding feeling, but I did come away with a bit of understanding. Primarily that it’s even more straight forward than I’d thought how all the money made on Wall Street, and the ever rising arrow, are stolen from everyone else.

How do you fight something too big too understand? You camp out on the lawn. You say, “I don’t know what the fuck you are doing, but stop it.” You remember that, backwards as it may seem, you are holding the cards.

You and 5 billion other people.