sustainability

Annoying Rules that Just Might Save Us

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On July 1, an ordinance that bans disposable bags from grocery stores took effect in my county. In the weeks leading up to the ban, I noticed numerous flyers designed to prepare us for this impending shift, and yet in spite of this ample warning, and in spite of the fact that I’ve had nearly a month to adjust, it seems that I’m always forgetting about my reusable bags (and I have many!) until the moment I’ve set foot in the grocery store.

This isn’t a calamity, because I still have options. A) I can try to heft my purchases with my bare arms, B) I can buy a reusable bag, or C) I can shell out five cents for a paper bag. Five cents means nearly nothing in the context of my grocery bill, but still it hurts my pride, and so in general I opt for A when I can. Yesterday, because I had a range of items too awkward to manage, I opted for B, and after asking the cashier to sell me a reusable bag, I tried to start a conversation.

“Has this bag ban been a pain for you?” I asked her. I’d been wondering this for a few weeks, imagining that the first week or two had yielded an endless stream of frazzled customers and a few choice tantrums. I expected her to simply confirm that, so I was surprised by her answer.

“I had to look for a new job,” she told me. “I can’t take it anymore.” Apparently, there have been more than a handful of tantrum-throwers; she reported that since the bag ban passed every line of customers includes at least one who’s ready to go ballistic, to raise his fist, make idle threats, and conclude “I’m never shopping here again!” (Of course, he’ll have to shop outside the county if he wants a free plastic bag.)

I was more bewildered than surprised to learn this about my fellow Thurston County citizens. It strikes me as quintessentially American that we’ve collectively decided that everyone is entitled to free bags as a part of our shopping experience. And not just that, but since this is a democracy, we need a choice: paper or plastic.

And I guess it’s just as American that we have to legislate an end to this waste, to mandate it rather than trusting in the fairness and responsibility of people’s choices. I mean look at me, Miss Bleeding Heart Liberal: week four of the bag ban and I’m still walking three paces into the grocery store before noticing my empty hands.

Apparently, this is the right tactic because some of us won’t get there on our own. Some of us (e.g. me) may want to keep plastics out of our land and waters, we may collect over a dozen reusable bags only to forget them when it matters and say “yes, please” when we’re offered a plastic bag for our three items. Sometimes it takes a rule to get us to do the right thing, and the disruption to routine is surprisingly noticeable. Apparently, that’s what progress feels like.

But it seems that if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to embrace the inconvenience of changing bad cultural habits. We can’t shout at every grocery clerk, proclaiming our god given right to plastic bags. We’ll need to recognize that saving our future will require a great many shifts; remembering to bring my own bag to the store is really just the tip of the iceberg—which, as you know, is melting as I am writing this.

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Hello, Bike

I bought this bike about six months before my partner and I decided to have a second child.

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It’s the only bike I’ve ever bought new and I quickly fell in love. It’s is a comfort hybrid, which sounds a little un-sexy, I know, like mom jeans. “Comfort hybrid” means that my bike is not designed for speed, which means that the moment I start to feel like a hotshot, pedaling for broke on a busy street downtown, someone on a road bike comes flying past me; it also means that that my bike won’t hold up to a rugged mountain trail. But it’s brown and sturdy and shiny, and it doesn’t tweak my back out. Comfortable, you know, like mom jeans.

I paid about $500 for this bike, and it was supposed to pay for itself in about two years since I rode it to work four days a week. Then I got pregnant. By the time my morning sickness had passed, I had grown a significant baby bump and riding felt like a risk. I reassured myself that I’d get back on the bike within a month after the baby was born.

That didn’t happen.

In fact, I didn’t ride my new bike for nearly two years.

Part of the problem was that, while I was pregnant, the tires lost most of their air and the frame gathered dust, and while I knew it would only take me about twenty minutes to clean, the chore was daunting. I could handle a little cleaning and I could handle a little exercise, but I couldn’t handle cleaning in preparation for exercise.

Probably every dry day after Stump was born I thought “Maybe I’ll take my bike out today.” And then I didn’t.

Instead, I just observed how time passed, and how often I had the thought about riding my bike, and how I still hadn’t done anything about it.

But then, about a month ago, I bought Smoke his first bike and he fell in love.

This is Smoke on his first day of bike ownership.

This is Smoke on his first day of bike ownership.

He rode back and forth on the flat road behind our house and cried out “This is amaaaaaaaaazzzziiiiiiiiiing!” And so finally, one sunny day while Stump napped, I pulled out my bike. I pumped the tires and wiped off the dust and the pollen.  It really did take twenty minutes. And I pulled out the bike trailer and cleaned that too so that Stump could ride along behind me. When Stump woke up, we caravanned to the park, cruising up and down gentle slopes, newly free and mobile.

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Last week, I bumped it up a notch by running errands on my bike and in doing so, I’ve been reminded of a few of the reasons why I love to ride.

1. The wind in my helmet. I live at the top of a big hill, so riding often begins with the rush of gravity and balance. At the bottom of the hill, I greet Puget Sound and ride alongside it for a stretch. When I’m on my bike, I feel like I’m part of the weather.

2. It’s work. When I ride home, I choose a gentler route, but it’s still a climb. I get to tune in to the rhythms of my breath, to tinker with the balance of gear and thigh muscle. I get to feel powerful, moving from point a to point b, my own body the only source of fuel.

3. The car stays at home. One of my parental pet peeves is the endless hauling in and out of car seats, the endless buckling, the parking, the closing of doors. Of course, our bikes come with their own set of accoutrements and rituals. Smoke now insists on wearing bicycling gloves, which often means he has to find them first. Still, the preparation for a ride feel less oppressive. I’d rather say “Put on your helmet” than “Get in your car seat.”

Oh, and just in case you need a pick-me-up…

The Sweet Bee

When people learn that we keep bees, they think we’re in it for the honey.

That may have once been our intention–a pantry filled with honey jars–but so far we’ve only harvested enough to sweeten the occasional pot of tea. As you know, the bees are fragile these days, weakened by pesticides, nosema, climate change, and so we let them keep their honey; when there’s extra, we share with weaker hives, hoping they might make it through the winter. Honey is sweet, it’s true, but we’ve learned the bees have other things to offer.
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When I was a child, insects existed for squashing, for running away from in fear, or for burning with the white-hot eye of a magnifying glass. I never learned to distinguish the bumble from the hornet. As far as I was concerned, bees were mean, and honey came from the store.

But Smoke, my five-year-old son, knows bees. On sunny days, he says excitedly: The honeybees are out! He knows to inspect their legs for pollen, and that busy bees are good news. Today was one of our first sunny spring days, and I watched him approach the hive, carefully, and drop a rock in their water tray so that they would have a place to rest as they drank. When he finds a dead bee on the ground, he picks it up and holds it tenderly.

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These bees have made their mark on me too, have helped me to appreciate the beauty of spring in a newly functional way: flowers are food. In our yard, plum and cherry blossoms seduce our bees and we witness them drinking nectar, gathering pollen, helping to ensure that my family will eat fruit from our own yard this summer. With the bees’ help, there will even be a surplus, and I will remember them as I preserve the plums and berries, storing away sweetness for the winter months.

And I’ve come to respect the bees for their inherent selflessness. The bee does not live for the bee. The bee lives for the colony. They don’t share our self-absorption, don’t fret over how to spend their limited days, over how to balance family time and me-time. They serve. That’s all.

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The queen is in the middle.

When I travel now, I look for honeybees, and am surprised and relieved when I find them. Seeing a bee perched on a lavender plant in Waltham, Massachusetts, or on an ocotillo in Phoenix, Arizona tells me: this place has been bee-approved. Wherever you smell the thick scent of wax and heat, nectar and propolis, you are home.

As it turns out, honey is a minor perk compared to the gifts the bees have delivered to my world: their steady hum, their motion, their treatment of beauty as a purpose, not to conquer, but take and give at once.