Blabbings about family, community, sustainability and life from Frederick, MD.

Bad News Tuesday June 19, 2007

Filed under: Children,co-housing,Community,devolution,Environment,Sprawl,transit — tobymurdock @ 4:54 pm

Some bummers today in the Washington Post.

First, all of the moron energy convened in Fairfax County yesterday as they decided definitively to have the Metro line in Tyson’s Corner to run above ground.  To the defense of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, I think they would have all preferred a tunnel, but complexities regarding federal-state-local government dynamics (oh, how we need devolution!) prevented it. The end result is that hideous, pedestrian-repellent, ugly, post-modern, unlivable abomination that is Tyson’s today will remain . . . a hideous, pedestrian-repellent, ugly, post-modern, unlivable abomination. It is obvious: the contrasting results of the Orange line in Arlington County (below ground) and Fairfax County (above) is a famous case study.

Anyhow, there is another article in the Post about how the current generation of kids spends so much time indoors that they have no connection with Nature.  Oh Jesus. What could be worse. There’s much one could say here about the need for conservation, open space. That’s the obvious part.

But the more subtle and interesting part is on the parenting side. First is the need to have kids’ lives not so scheduled so that they have the time to experience Nature in an unstructured, spontaneous way (how pathetic to even have to describe it that way). More challenging is the need to have the courage to allow kids to roam about–the neighborhood and in Nature–in an unsupervised way. This takes faith in your kids, instruction, and the development of neighborhoods where everyone is keeping an eye on everyone’s kids: something that is becoming a relic (oh, how we need co-housing!). But it is the only way that kids can get out of their programmed, indoor existence and have a relationship with Nature: remembering that “Nature” is not some other category of life, but rather that it IS life, it is everything we come from, live on, and return to.


Photo on Flickr from zuki12


Summertime Perfection June 18, 2007

Filed under: Children,Community,family,frederick — tobymurdock @ 12:35 pm

Many of our friends and their kids camped out at Greenbrier State Park this weekend. With Noelle coming, we didn’t spend any nights there, but we were there from 10am to 8pm on Saturday.

What a day! Sunny, pleasant in the upper 80s.  Canoeing. Guitar and singing. Hanging out on the beach.

My best memory of it was heading across the lake on the canoe towards the end of the day. Breeze had died down and the water was smooth and glassy. The image of the mountains that ring the like was reflected in the water.

Awesome! I’ll take that one with me all week. And just 20 minutes from home. Thanks Frederick County!


The Book of Our Future April 20, 2007

Deep Economy, Bill McKibben’s new book, does the best job of laying out the social and environmental ills of our day and the path to fixing them. Put another way, it is hard to think of a more important book.

“Social and environmental ills” is a poor phrase. The word “Environment” is often thrown around in the context of political issues, like “Transportation” or “Education.” We’ve become so abstracted from our natural existence that “the Environment” seems to sit appropriately lined up side by side those other “issues.”

However we distance ourselves from it, the reality remains that we are creatures living on a planet, depending upon that planet and one another for our existence. And in that context, the environment and our society is EVERYTHING: it is our lives themselves and the existence of our species and fellow living creatures. And it is at that profound level that McKibben looks at our ills.

McKibben begins by explaining how for all of human existence, MORE has always meant BETTER. More warmth, more shelter, more nourishment, more resources always rightly meant a better life. Humans used their minds to generate MORE, and certain principles of economy, efficiency and capitalism became the best ways to organize and operate to produce MORE.

The invention of the steam engine in 1712, the first industrial use of fossil fuels, marked a profound change in humanity’s ability to produce MORE. The solar energy of eons, stored in fossil fuels, was unlocked for human use.

After three centuries of fossil fuel use, however, things have changed–at least for the industrialized world. For the first time MORE does not necessarily mean BETTER. In fact, no only do we have more than ENOUGH, but MORE is more and more yielding WORSE. Specifically MORE is:

  1. generating more social inequity
  2. destroying our planet and our existence upon it. Global warming is the attention-grabber here, but it goes beyond that. Modernity’s use of fossil fuels and other natural resources is simply unsustainable.
  3. breaking the bonds between one another, hollowing our communities and our humanity. Interdependence is a good thing, and we’ve lost it.

The problem is that the correlation of MORE to BETTER is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is it unfathomable to break the connection. So we go on, building houses that are TOO big and TOO far apart, driving our cars TOO much, working TOO much, eating TOO much food that is TOO processed, living in TOO mobile, TOO global of a economy and society. I’ve read many books on the destruction of the environment or on the dearth of community in our day, but I’ve never before read a book that ties the two together so eloquently, tracing it all to the excesses of fossil fuels and the pursuit of MORE.

McKibben of course recognizes that capitalism and democracy are the best ways to organize society. In fact, many detractors, hoping to see McKibben as some freakish communist, would be surprised to know McKibben to be a Sunday school teacher (liberalism and Christianity can co-exist; they can even thrive–consider the radical Christ was in his day). The solution that he proposes is “localism” — living in smaller communities, within regional economies, in a life that is somehow a little less competitive and a lot less fossil fuel dependent.

While some Vermont antecdotes paint a nice picture of what localism might look like, how this occurs exactly is a question he does not fully answer–he never gets much beyond the construct of a farmer’s market. It makes me think of latter 20th century Latin American economies that tried to become “localized,” to stay capitalist but be entirely self-sufficient with huge tariffs. That was a huge flop. To turn your back to global competition seems like a bad idea.

So figuring out this balancing act–reducing the scope of our economy, the scope of our lives to something more human in scale, while recognizing that competition and openness are the best drivers of beneficial cooperation in our society–is a question left unanswered. It will continue to be pondered here.

An easy answer is peak oil. The global economy can only function because of cheap, abundant energy. If the supply of fossil fuels tightens and the the prices rises dramatically, getting our TV’s from China (that contains parts shipped in from Holland, Brazil and Indonesia; built by workers fed on food from the U.S., Canada and Russia) no longer works that well. Localism would be forced upon us.

But such a calamity is not to be wished upon the world. Instead of a shock, let’s hope such a transition happens gradually over a long period of time. But while the delay would prevent economic disaster, our souls and environment will continue to rot. Somehow we all need to see the benefits of a more localized society and voluntarily move toward it.

Reading Deep Economy would be a good start. I hope you do it.


Driving Ourselves Crazy March 5, 2007

Filed under: Children,Community,modernity,Sprawl — tobymurdock @ 2:00 am

There was a good editorial in the Washington Post today about American life by Susan Coll. She talks about the stresses she and her family endures in the college admissions process specifically and in the competitiveness of upper middle class life in general. She says:

we glide right over the structural changes in society that have created a new culture of child-rearing, and some of the ways we respond are not entirely within our control. In other words, there may be something in the water supply that is turning us into nuts.

How much hovering does it take to qualify as a helicopter parent, and how many extracurriculars does it take to land you in the realm of the clinically extreme? It seems that at least part of the answer has to do with sprawl. Our suburban existence and our car-centric culture means that a disproportionate amount of time and energy is devoted to each activity: The joy of watching your kid kick a soccer ball is eclipsed by the dread of an I-270 commute to the Germantown SoccerPlex; the drum lesson becomes a logistical nightmare of rush-hour traffic and no place to park. And then, when lacrosse practice runs late, the already fragile scaffolding collapses as someone is stranded at a flute lesson, and dinner becomes an afterthought around the time that stomachs begin to growl.

Modern life whizzes by so fast. And our blind faith in technological and economic progress makes it hard for us to question or even perceive the changes that roll by.

But what do we really want out of life? And how do the patterns of modern life, the “structural changes” deny us from what we really want? So much is available to us in our incredibly prosperous society. The challenge is to decide to do less when prevailing culture always insists on doing more.

There is “something in the water” in my mind. The upper-middle class status quo  in modern America is nuts. The lives that that status quo expects one are exhausting and lame. The strain comes from the high financial achievement that is expected. And, worst of all, most participants in it all don’t even realize how nuts it all is.

Somehow we need to realize how well we can all live with less, and with focusing our resources on collective goods instead of private ones.  We’d be left with a lot more time and energy left for what really matters.


Christine Belonging January 11, 2007

Filed under: Community,frederick,Friends — tobymurdock @ 4:19 pm

My friend Christine just wrote a post about belonging in life and how she’s found that in Frederick. It was very well written. A great articulation of what’s been a big issue in my mind and soul for a long time. And similarly Kita and I have found a great sense of community and of belonging in Frederick just like Christine and Jim.

Needing to belong, needing to having community is a universal impulse, I believe. In fact is is really the most important thing in life in my mind and heart. In our country we are, without really realizing it, eroding our ability to achieve such community. It is horrible. In Frederick we have a little outpost, a little bulkwark against the trend. Hopefully from here we’ll take a stand and reverse the tide.

Christine ends by talking about looking to bring other friends into her Frederick community. I’m always hassling my remote friends on the same topic. Hopefully by reading Christine’s post they’ll see that others echo my claim’s of Frederick’s wonderfulness and my pitches will have more credibility.

Photo of Frederick’s ’06 “In The Street” by 2ndHalf on Flickr


Busy Christine December 12, 2006

Filed under: Community,frederick,Friends — tobymurdock @ 4:58 pm

Christine: despite being male, I relate alot to your post. Part of why I like living in Frederick is that we avoid lots of the pressures that make our lives complex. I think that we all do a pretty good job of making things simple. One of the biggest elements, in fact, is how compact our lives our here. I think that time spent driving around is one of the great time drains in America, and we are all quite fortunate to avoid that.

I think that business is also generated through isolation. There is so much that we do individually that we could accomplish much more efficiently if done collectively. Again, I think that our community does a better than average job with this, but we could do better. Co-housing is the next step. 🙂

At the end of the day the challenge is entirely inside ourselves to weed out the distractions. It is all about prioritization. But it is a great challenge for everyone.


A Great Day for Frederick November 8, 2006

Filed under: Community,Environment,frederick,Sprawl — tobymurdock @ 2:20 pm

Today 4 smart growth candidates won seats in the 5-member Frederick County Commission. This pushed out a developer-funded majority, and will reverse a trend in the county of out-of-control development. A wonderful day!

One of the victors, Kai Hagen, a friend of mine, took the picture above of Chimney Rock on Catoctin Mountain in Frederick County. Our county is a wonderful place and was in danger of losing its beauty and special way of life. This victory reverses that.

I’ve been very involved in the campaign for over a year. It has been a great experience fo me to be so closely involved: the volunteering is enjoyable and the connection makes the victory all the sweeter. I spent yesterday morning and evening electioneering at the polls. A wonderful thing about local politics are their accessibility. You can so readily get involved and be a part of it. In addition to Kai I’ve gotten to know Jan Gardner and David Gray, two other winners, as well. It will be great to have that personal relationship with them as they now go forward on a majority-controlled board.

My wife thoughts this morning that the day was very affirming for one’s faith in our democracy. Indeed it was.

And it will make for many more great days over the next four years, as this wonerful place, Frederick County, remains beautiful and special, and becomes only more so!