Ugly Small-Town Politics

A couple weeks ago I had a friendly and helpful conversation about how to get my trailer’s propane tanks filled at G & K Propane in Yucca Valley. G & K is “the place to go for propane around here” according to my dad, who knows about these things, and I’d say he’s right, based on my experience there. They were clearly looking to help, not just make a buck off me, and I really appreciated it.

As I was about to leave, I noticed a bumper sticker prominently displayed in their lobby, the clever if mystifying “I’LL KEEP MY GUNS, FREEDOM & MONEY.. YOU CAN KEEP THE ‘CHANGE’” with Obama’s logo in a red “no” circle. I have a funny mix of irritation and admiration at businesses who put their mouth where their money is like that. Usually it’s a business advertising in some way that they really only want Christians to come into their store, and I think, “Wow, it’s actually more important for these people to not have to be around heathens than to make money. That’s taking a stand.”

Underneath this bumper sticker was scotch-taped a handwritten note reading, “YA FILTHY ANIMAL!” I was upset enough by this that I’m still thinking about it. The bumper sticker is a way to voice one side of a political debate. “Filthy animal” is not. “Filthy animal” is an expression of total contempt, disgust, and hatred. You can kill a filthy animal with impunity, maybe even with satisfaction or pride. I remembered the manager of a restaurant I worked at, stomping a rat to death in the kitchen.

It reminded me of how afraid I was that Obama would be killed–lynched, really–for the crime of having come into so much power in America. How many people in this country would kill the president if they had the chance? Is the person who wrote that one of them? I seriously doubt it, but “YA FILTHY ANIMAL” is a way of aligning with that group.

All this was going through my mind as I decided what to do. I tend to be outspoken when confronted with racism, once even debating a self-avowed racist barber as he cut my hair. I think of it as one of the more useful things I do. In the case of the barber, for example, I got to hear and be sympathetic about this man’s struggle growing up around LA gangs, how scared and angry he was all the time, how members of his family had been hurt. He got to hear and eventually allow some credibility to my ideas about how it was poverty and oppression rather than skin color that made the people he interacted with as a kid so dangerous.

I imagine there is a similar encounter to be had here, but this case, I just left. I was running late and that was enough of an excuse to get out.

Still, I have a decision to make. When I need to refill my propane tanks, do I go back? Do I say, “I’d like to refill my tanks, but first I need to talk to the person who wrote that note on your wall”? Or do I go somewhere else, possibly driving way out of my way, to find propane people who put less offensive things up in their lobby?

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape as “Thoughts and Inaction about Ugly Small-Town Politics” on October 27, 2012.]

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Transitioning from Humid Country Back to the Desert

The transition back to Joshua Tree from a wetter climate can be rough. For me, the worst was returning in December 2000 after a year on Maui. It was so cold and dry it felt like I was living on the moon. It took a couple weeks to acclimate.

I just spent 10 weeks traveling and camping for Not Back to School Camp, almost all in wet areas. The last few weeks were in Vermont, with humidity hovering around 99%. The damp started to get to me. And the cold, and the rain. It was really nice in a lot of ways–I love the staff and campers at NBTSC like crazy, and the fall foliage was spectacular when the sun would occasionally break through the clouds–but I was definitely looking forward to my dry, sunny, warm home.

Now that I’m here, I remember that it can take a while before dry, sunny, and warm seems as pleasant as it sounds. My skin feels dry. My lips and mucous membranes feel dry. It’s hard to keep hydrated. The sunlight seems harsh and temperatures I normally call warm, like 85F, feel unpleasantly hot. I’m no longer used to sweating. I notice the dust more, too.

I know I’ll feel better in a few days, and mostly it is just a matter of waiting it out. There are some things that can help, though:

1) Drive or take overland transport of some sort. (Reanna suggests walking to really slow things down.) Flying makes the transition more abrupt and uncomfortable.

2) Use a humidifier for a while, especially at night.

3) Drink more water than is comfortable. Remember that you are exhaling water vapor each time you breathe.

4) Cover up in the sun. Lily-white skin burns quickly

5) Take it easy for a while. Rest it out.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, October 11, 2012.]

Keeping Cool in the Desert: “You might say the secret ingredient is ‘water.’”

Because it is so dry in Joshua Tree, water is great for cooling off. According to my calculus-free, 200-level physics education, this works because a tiny bit of the heat energy stored in our bodies is used up every time a water molecule evaporates. It’s almost like the water molecule uses our body’s heat to achieve escape velocity, to become a gas. A lot of water evaporating creates a significant cooling. This is how sweating cools us, if we’re lucky enough to be in a dry area.

So when it is hot, which is every day in the summer, we get wet a lot. Inside, we have spray bottles handy so we can spray each other whenever someone starts complaining about the heat.

Above the stove is the handiest place for the spray bottle.

Outside, we often hose each other off. A good drenching keeps us cool even on the hottest days, until we are dry. Granted, that might only be for 15-20 minutes on a really hot day, but comfort is worth taking breaks that often.

If we’ve stored up some heat from a bike ride or forgetting to hose off, we also have a stock tank in the yard for dunking ourselves:

Reanna, cooling off.

The water stays cool even on the hottest days, also because of evaporation, so it is always refreshing to take a dunk. I built the little platform so when we drain the tank, we can water our plants.

12-inch dirt-filled stock-tank platform with screen lid and hose outlet. This photo was taken before I put plank decking on each side of the platform so we don’t get our feet dirty getting in and out.

We also got a “swamp cooler” from our friends Mike and Sarah. It wasn’t big enough to cool their house, but it’s good for our trailer. Reanna sewed a sleeve to funnel the air into our back window, so we didn’t have to cut a big hole in the wall.

Swamp cooler, on home-made platform

Reanna’s sleeve, held to swamper with a drawstring

Sleeve, inside window, held open by a wire frame

It makes a huge difference. A swamp cooler is simple and effective: A pump pulls hot, dry air from outside through wet sponges, creating cool, moist air inside. The physics involved is similar to sweat-cooling, except the heat energy used to turn the water into a gas is drawn from the air itself.

It requires simple enough plumbing that I could handle it myself:

A splitter where our (lead free) hose feeds the trailer, fitted with a compression joint to attach copper tubing. You can kind of see the copper-tube cutter (red) at the bottom of the frame.

Another compression joint, feeding the float valve that lets water in when the level gets low.

Swamper, inside: The float valve (blue) lets water in. The water pump (green) pulls it up and pours it down the three sponges in the left, right and back (removed) walls. The fan (drum at top) pulls the air in through the sponges and pushes it into the trailer. Simple!

The most fun way to use water to cool off, of course, is swimming. My mom got Reanna and me a month’s pass to the pool at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center (AKA Mentalphysics) as a wedding present, and we used that quite a bit. It was awesome. Thanks, Mom!

Reanna at the JT Retreat Center. Note luxuriously empty pool.

Reanna & Rob at the Joshua Tree Inn’s Hacienda Pines pool.

Matt at JT Inn pool.

Backstroke race at the Yucca Valley High School pool, also open to the public in the summer.

Kids in Ken & Katie’s blowup pool.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, August 22, 2012.]

Keeping Cool in Joshua Tree: Dressing for Yard Work

Joshua Tree is in the Mojave Desert and hot in the summer. The average high is 100 degrees. That’s not Sonora Desert hot, but it’s still hot. My subjective thermometer of summer temperatures is something like this:

70s: Nice. Rare.

80s: Warm. Still nice.

90s: Hot. The sun is hot.

100s: Baking Wall of Heat. The sun is hot, but the air is also hot.

One option for dealing with this is not dealing with it: Stay inside with the swamp cooler on. If I spend most of the day in the office, my moments spent outside feel refreshing, a warm-up.

Another is dressing for it. If you can avoid the sun, say in a hammock under a tree, I advise being as naked as you can get away with. Bare skin is pretty good at keeping cool via sweat evaporation, at least in the dry of the desert. If you can’t avoid the sun, it’s more complicated. Here’s my yard-work costume:

1) Straw hat with a wide brim, loose enough for ventilation, but not loose enough to blow off in a breeze. I think the sun is good for us, but getting sunburned is not. I get sun on my skin every day but avoid burning. The hat helps with that.

2) Polarized sunglasses. I also think unfiltered sunlight is good for our eyes, and I get a fair amount every day, but hours in this kind of intense light makes me feel like I’ve sunburned my retinas.

3) My best white dress shirt. My wife Reanna was appalled at this sacrifice, but this is how I justify it: a) I do way more yard-work than I do dressing up, so it gets more use. b) It fits really well, so it’s comfortable, doesn’t restrict my motion, and doesn’t get tangled in the saw or drill or plant-to-be-pruned. c) It’s bright white, so reflects the sun really well. d) It has long sleeves, so I don’t have to wear sunscreen on my arms, but I can roll them up when appropriate. e) It has a collar which I can turn up to protect my neck. When the sun is low, my hat doesn’t do the trick for my neck. Again, less sunscreen. f) It buttons up, so I can button or unbutton, as needed, for venting. Most often I have only the second-to-top button fastened for maximum venting plus protecting the skin of my upper chest, which received more than its share of sun damage in my youth. g) Once it has some paint and a few tears, neither of us will feel remotely precious about it.

4) White work gloves. Sometimes gloves are not appropriate to the work I’m doing, but when they are, I wear white cloth gloves with rubberized palms and fingers. They save sunscreen and save my delicate musician hands from injury.

4) Shorts to the knee. Protects my thighs from sun while allowing leg-venting. This does leave my calves vulnerable to sun. In the middle of the day they get somewhat shaded by my body. At other times I can often find a shadow to fall on them. If not, sunscreen or sunburn. I find the trade-off worthwhile.

5) White socks. This is the part I’m most conflicted about. I generally eschew socks when I can get away with it, but in this kind of heat my feet can sweat and get stinky and uncomfortable. Plus, socks help make having sand in your shoes less uncomfortable. And they protect your ankles from sunburn.

6) Light, vented shoes. I wear Nike Free 3s, the most comfortable shoe yet created. They do not protect feet from dropped tools or lumber but, cross my fingers, so far it’s worth it.

Here are a couple photos of the costume, taken by Reanna, missing only socks and gloves:

(This post was originally published as “Keeping Cool in the Desert: Dressing for Outside Work” on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

Two More Carbon-Footprint Calculations

posted earlier about my first carbon-footprint calculation attempt, on carbonfootprint.com and thought I’d try another couple calculators to see how they compared.

First, I tried The Nature Conservancy‘s calculator. They gather a lot less detailed information than carbonfootprint.com, but also ask some new questions, like how often I check my truck’s air filter and tire pressure. They also have a way to be clear that I’m getting my individual carbon footprint, not that of my household, which was not so clear with carbonfootprint.com. They calculated my carbon footprint as much bigger than carbonfootprint.com, though, at 17 metric tons of CO2 per year: 17.8% on home energy, 64.6% on driving and flying, 2.8% on waste and recycling, and 14.9% on food and diet.

They also provide an opportunity to offset my entire carbon footprint and calculated the cost for me to do was $255: $15 per metric ton. That’s pretty cheap. I’ll have to look into carbon offset schemes and see if they are convincing.

Second, I tried footprintnetwork.org. They try to calculate how many planet earths it would take to support a population living my lifestyle–an interesting way of thinking about it. They gather a lot of the same information as the other sites, like how local is my food and how much I fly and drive. In some areas they gather more details, like how often I eat each of several kinds of animal products, how often I buy new clothes, furniture, appliances, and computer gear, and what kind of siding my house has.

This site estimates that if everyone lived like I do, we would need 3.5 planet Earths to sustain us. They suggested several ideas that would decrease my footprint: .1 of an Earth if I half my animal product consumption, .2 of an Earth if I “pledge to use less packaging,” .1 of an Earth if I use public transportation once a week, and .1 of an Earth if I do not fly this year because I chose “a local vacation.”

If I did all of these things we would need only three Earths to sustain us all at my standard of living. Half of an Earth’s savings is nothing to scoff at, but doesn’t really get us there. Plus, I already use very little packaging, and do not often fly for vacations.

They estimate how many “global acres of the Earth’s productive area” my lifestyle requires:  7 acres “energy land,” 2 acres “crop land,” 1 acre “grazing land,” 2.5 acres “forest land,” .5 acres “built up land,” and .25 acres “fishing grounds.”

They also calculate my “ecological footprint” percent by category: 52% in services, 11% in goods, 12% in mobility, 4% in shelter, and 16% in food.

Something is wrong about these calculations, but I’d need more details to know what. Half of my land-use is for energy, but half of my footprint is in “services.” What are these services that are using so much energy?

Still, a picture emerges. I have estimates of 10.41, 13.7, and 17 metric tons of CO2 per year, approximately 3-5 times as much as an ethical target. I probably create the most CO2 by burning fuel, driving and flying.

(This post was originally published here on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

Prickly Pears from Elise & Wolf

Reanna and I picked up a truckload of prickly pear pads of several kinds from our friends, Elise and Wolf. They are not a kind of prickly pear that is native to this part of the desert, but they grow well here. They said to plant them with the bottom pad about half underground and to water them for the first month. After that, they shouldn’t need water. And we can look forward to them growing quickly and producing yellow and salmon flowers, plus edible fruits. The rounder ones grow up a couple feet but stay close to the ground. The longer ones (like just to the right of Reanna) grow taller, six feet or so.

Reanna Planting Prickly Pear
(This post was originally published as “Planting Prickly Pear From Elise & Wolf” on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.)

Hello world!

Featured

This blog is an experiment in niche blogging. I have been writing an all-subject blog called Nathen’s Miraculous Escape in the styles of my friends Jeannie Lee and Ethan Mitchell for several years now. I love that format but imagine it might shed readers who are only interested in only one of the topics I tend to write about. A psychology student, for example, might lose interest after a few posts on my family life, ecology, epistemology, or some other random rant (though they might enjoy my other experiment in niche blogging here). A Joshua Tree local, family friend, or fellow desert-sustainability explorer will almost certainly tire of my deconstructions of the DSM or various essays about theories and practices of psychotherapy. That’s who this blog is for.

I live on 2.5 acres of north Joshua Tree with my wife, Reanna (and very close to much of the rest of my family) in a 24-foot, recently renovated travel trailer. I am a family therapist at Morongo Basin Mental Health’s Military Family Support Program, a songwriter and record producer, a psychology and philosophy enthusiast, staff at Not Back to School Camp, and aspiring family man. Reanna and I are also on a quest to live sustainably here in Joshua Tree, and that is what this blog is about: what we learn, on our own and from our friends and family, as we set ourselves up.

A Quick Foray Into Carbon Footprint Calculation: 10.41 Metric Tons of CO2

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from June 15, 2012.)

On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.

A Couple Things About Gas Mileage

(Reblogged from Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, from May 28, 2012.)

I heard a segment recently on NPR about gas prices and it reminded me of the link between driving speed and gas mileage. According to the story, driving over 60 miles per hour is equivalent to paying $.25 more per gallon for each five miles an hour faster. So if you paid$4.00 for a gallon of gas, but burn it at 65 miles an hour, it’s like having paid $4.25. Seventy miles an hour makes it $4.50, etc.

It seems funny that it’s very easy to imagine Americans complaining about the price of gas, but very difficult to imagine them driving the slightest bit slower in order to save that same money. In fact, I can easily imagine an American burning a 70-mile-per-hour gallon of gas to go out of their way to save $.25 cents per gallon at the pump. (It could be a good economic decision to do so, I suppose, depending on how many gallons of gas you need to buy, and how much your time is worth, but it still seems funny.)

If I remember my physics correctly, I think the loss of efficiency is actually not that linear, that a 75-mile-per-hour gallon probably costs significantly more than the $4.75 that NPR’s equation predicts. It has to do with the amount of force each particle of air hits the front of our car with–it’s the same principle we (if we are from the desert) use to remember to drive slowly or stop during a sandstorm, to save our windshields from getting sandblasted. Any physicists in the audience care to explain the mechanics of it?

In his excellent lecture “Climate Change Recalculated,” engineer Saul Griffith tells about how he gave an intern this incredibly boring job: Drive his wife’s Honda Insight in 100 mile stretches around a runway at constant speeds, twelve 5-mile-per-hour increments from 20 to 75 miles per hour. Seventy-five miles per hour was the worst, obviously, at about 40 miles per gallon, and the most efficient speed, at about 85 miles per gallon, was 30 miles per hour.

That’s pretty slow, but three times as fast as the average driving speed for large urban areas, he points out. I’ve been thinking about making my next trip to Portland at 30 miles an hour, to see how little gas I can use to get there. It’ll take 4 hours to get there, so I’d better bring some good company.

Causes Cancer in California

In my time working on construction crews in Oregon, one persistent joke was, upon reading the ubiquitous warning “known to cause cancer in the state of California” on a material we were about to use, was announcing, “good thing we’re not in California!” Everyone would laugh and then go ahead using the pressure-treated lumber, or whatever it was, as usual. I was generally alone in taking precautions in these situations, and actually caught significant flack for being paranoid and/or anal retentive. This was not improved by my careful explanation that California was where the lawsuits and legal actions happened which resulted in these warnings, not where the cancer cases were confined!

The bottom line was that precautions (not to mention using less toxic materials) slow down the process for bosses and often seem unnecessary to the crew, so they were not taken. Many of the crew reasoned that since they already smoked and drank, how much could inhaling some fume or touching some chemical really increase their chances of getting cancer?

This was frustrating to hear but is actually an excellent point. Without information about base rates, how can we make good decisions about toxicity exposure? We need specificity and statistics to make good decisions.

For example, Reanna pointed this sign out to me last night:

It is posted on the side of the RV we have been living in during our renovation project. Of what use is this supposed to be? If I was on the fence about whether or not to buy an RV this might be somewhat helpful, but only by increasing a vague sense of fear, possibly to the point that I wouldn’t make the purchase. I want to know by doing what (driving it? sitting in it? licking the walls?) for how long (minutes? years?) and in what circumstances (engine running? after the RV’s a certain age? at certain temperatures?) will increase my chance of developing what cancer by what statistical rate? With that information, I could make a decent decision about how to interact with this RV. Or construction material.

It’s unfortunately true that construction worker and RV buyers (as well as doctors, lawyers, and Americans in general) do not understand statistics, and so for many this information might not be helpful. But it could hardly be less helpful than it is now.

[First published April 28, 2012 on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape.]