Human Composting

I really love living in Washington State. Very often, we are on the cutting age of change for the better. It makes me proud.

This state was the second to legalize medical aid in dying, which means we now give our humans as much dignity as we do our pets, and yet star chambers haven’t been formed to kill off all our senior citizens against their will. Washington was also the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and yet we haven’t been overwhelmed with drug addicts at every turn. And now, we are the first state to legalize human composting. I know this is weird, but I’m so excited.

The conundrum of how to deal with dead bodies has been fraught with emotion for as long as humans have walked the earth. I’ve long known that I didn’t want to be pumped full of formaldehyde and sealed in a big box somewhere. The formaldehyde would turn me in to hazardous material, contaminating the ground water. That’s not how I want to end up. That, and those boxes take up space that could be better used by the living.

For a long time I thought I’d be cremated, but burning the average body releases about 350 lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere. Again, that’s not the legacy I want to leave behind me. I mean, jeez, hug a tree, people. But at least I’d take up less space.

I also thought for a time that I’d donate my body to the The Boneyard at the University of Tennessee for anthropological/forensic research, but the carbon footprint of transporting my body across the country, plus the emotional distress it might cause my family, wondering if my corpse was participating in a simulated hanging or stabbing or heaven knows what else, made me change my mind.

Now, I’m torn between aquamation, where your body is pretty much dissolved and your bones are crushed to powder, and human composting. So imagine my joy to discover that my body wouldn’t have to be lugged across a state line to be disposed of in a green way. Washingtonians are the first Americans to be able to say that.

According to this article, with human composting, your remains are put into a body length barrel, along with wood chips, protozoa, bacteria and fungi. It’s heated with solar panels. It’s occasionally rolled, just like normal compost bins are. There are a few other gross but green processes, and then after a few weeks, you become enough usable compost to fit into four 55 gallon drums.

This is the only way you can be legally buried in your own backyard in Washington, by the way. But if your family doesn’t want the remains, the company will gladly scatter them in the forest for you. Either way, you’re returning to the earth, renewing life, and not taking up space.

I love that idea. I really, really do. Not ashes to ashes or dust to dust. Instead you become living, breathing soil which nurtures plants, trees and wildlife. Yes, please. I’ll see you in the wildflowers as I commune with the bees.

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What to Cook When You Hate to Cook. Recipe 9: Watergate Cake

The following recipe was handed down to me from my mother, who claimed it was a cake created by the Watergate Hotel. I hope it’s true. It would be nice to think that place is known for something other than a gigantic political scandal. (And incidentally, in the course of doing research for this post, I found out that you can still stay in the scandal room, and even have drinks with the original arresting officers, for the bargain price of $2500 a night. Imagine.)

Watergate cake is my favorite cake of all time. It’s fluffy and flavorful, and comes out a surprising light green. I recently made it for my husband’s birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe with you. It’s super easy. It makes a double layer cake, and I like to use fluffy, white frosting on it, but that’s up to you. It’s actually such a flavorful cake that it doesn’t really need frosting.

Watergate Cake

  • 1 package white cake mix

  • 1 package pistachio instant pudding mix

  • 3 eggs

  • ¾ cup oil

  • ½ cup of finely chopped nuts (optional)

  • 1 cup club soda (NO SUBSTITUTE)

Mix everything together and pour evenly into two buttered cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Frost when cool if the spirit moves you.

Simple. Delicious. Try it!

watergate cake

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Traffic Lights. Who Knew?

Fun fact: The first three-colored traffic lights were installed in 1920. No one seems to have written down the exact day that these ubiquitous devices arrived on the scene, but it was sometime before October, at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward Avenues in Detroit. Happy 100th birthday sometime before October, traffic light! You’ve been annoying commuters ever since!

Actually, according to Wikipedia,

“The world’s first traffic light was a manually operated gas-lit signal installed in London in December 1868. It exploded less than a month after it was implemented, injuring its policeman operator. Earnest Sirrine from Chicago patented the first automated traffic control system in 1910. It used the words “STOP” and “PROCEED”, although neither word was illuminated.”

But the one the majority of us see today (and every other day of our lives, like it or not) is 100 years old. Before traffic lights, humans were placed at intersections to direct traffic. What could possibly go wrong? I can’t imagine a more tedious or more irritating job on earth, and this is coming from someone who opens drawbridges for a living.

Between the exploding gas light and our current tried and true one, several designs were tried out throughout the world, some with semaphore flags, which weren’t particularly effective at night. No two were alike, it seems, and that must have caused no end of confusion. I’m impressed that society survived.

The idea to control multiple intersections at once, and do so automatically, didn’t come about until March, 1922, in Houston, Texas. Traffic lights were not introduced to South India until 1953, and it seems they’ve been ignored ever since.

I also happen to know from personal experience working with the Department of Transportation that while most lights used to be encircled in black tubes to reduce glare and increase visibility, most locations have gotten away from that because birds would use them as nesting sites and block the light. Now if anything, most lights have a shade cover across the top for glare reduction and to reduce water intrusion.

While doing research for this post, I came across this article that discusses why the colors red, green and yellow were chosen for traffic lights. Basically, red is the color with the longest wavelength, so it can be seen from a greater distance than other colors. It was used to indicate danger long before traffic signals became a thing.

There’s no indication as to why green has been used for Go. Blue is on the opposite side of the color wheel from Red, and that’s the color Japan used for many years, but the rest of the world hopped on the Green bandwagon. Yellow was chosen because it has a shorter wavelength than red, but not as short as green.

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about traffic lights but were afraid to ask. You’re welcome.

Traffic lights

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Grass

Isn’t nature awesome? It never ceases to amaze me. The natural world is capable of so much more than we mere humans are.

Case in point: Grass. I recently watched my back yard get covered in 9 inches of snow, and it remained in place for a week. While it was beautiful, I couldn’t help wondering what was going on beneath it.

Imagine being covered in a thick, cold, wet, smotheringly heavy blanket. Imagine being plunged into temperatures below freezing for days on end. Imagine not being able to see the sun during that entire period.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. Stick a fork in me. I’d be done.

And yet, once the grass was exposed again in a thaw that is still making slow but steady progress even as I write this, it was as green and perky as ever. Incredible. Dare I say it? Miraculous.

Okay, yeah, I get it. There is a scientific explanation for it. I have every confidence that this phenomenon can be accounted for. But I’d much rather just gaze at my intrepidly green back yard and consider myself lucky that it is content in its beauty and comfortable in its role in the overall scheme of things. Because if it had a union, it would probably rule the world.

Grass and Snow

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What Does God Think of Climate Change?

Always supposing you believe climate change is real (and I do), I have a thought experiment for you. If you believe in God, then what do you think God thinks about what we are doing to our planet? I mean, we’re taking this amazing gift, and we’re basically pooping all over it. My guess is she or it or he would be mighty disappointed in us. If I were God, I’d be totally rethinking this whole “free will” thing. Because we are definitely screwing things up.

Or maybe the old testament got it right, and what we have is a vengeful, fear-inducing God. If that’s the case, then climate change is some form of punishment, and we better start paying attention. The time for basking in our blissful ignorance is long past.

Here’s an even bigger thought experiment for you: Even if you don’t believe in God and/or climate change, please explain to me why it doesn’t make sense to live a green and clean life? What are the disadvantages?

If our actions just boil down to laziness, selfishness, greed and a basic resistance to change, then God doesn’t even need to be in this equation. We should all be disappointed in ourselves.

climate change

Lemons as Jet Fuel, or Why I Haven’t Given Up on the Environment

It’s really easy to despair at the state of the environment. Global climate change becomes increasingly impossible to deny with each passing day. But our government seems to be doing everything in its power to maintain our outmoded culture of fossil fuelishness.

And yet, even in this sea of pervasive ignorance and selfishness and greed, there are little islands of hope. We have made scientific inroads, and this progress seems to be exponential. We are discovering better ways to live in the world.

Just getting rid of our old fashioned light bulbs, for example, has made an undeniable impact. And a zero emissions trolley just rolled past my window. We are learning more effective ways to recycle. We are even coming up with methods of getting energy from our landfills. (You don’t often hear of anything positive coming from a landfill.) Our solar cells and batteries are becoming much more efficient, and wind power is gaining a foothold. We are starting to actually grasp how dangerous pipelines and fracking are.

Just the other day, I stumbled upon this intriguing article from the University of Queensland. A researcher there is coming up with a way to mass produce limonene, the chemical that gives citrus its smell, with the end goal of using that to produce a clean, renewable jet fuel. Now how cool is that?

Dr. Claudia Vickers maintains that it would be impossible to produce enough limonene from lemon peels, but she’s working with yeast that may create a synthetic form of it in larger quantities. I find this fascinating. And it gives me hope for the future.

Discoveries such as this are why we need to encourage our youth to embrace science. We need researchers and physicists and biologists and chemists and mathematicians if we are ever to pull ourselves out of this downward spiral that we have brought upon ourselves. Science doesn’t have to be hard or boring or geeky. It can be amazing and rewarding and heroic.

The bottom line is that science is our only hope. And we should never give up hope.

lemon

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Want to Defeat ISIS?

Every paramilitary organization on the face of the earth is only as powerful as its bottom line. Without money, there are no bullets for guns, gas for tanks, or food for soldiers. Without money you are simply throwing a tantrum in the wilderness.

It is now estimated that ISIS makes up to 3 million dollars a day selling oil on the black market. That’s a lot of freakin’ loot. You could do a lot with that much filthy lucre.

So what do we do about it? Some would say we should cut off their ability to sell their oil on the black market. Yeah, good luck with that. That’s like trying to keep water from pouring out of a colander. There are always too many holes to plug. People are so greedy for oil that if they can get it for 30 dollars a barrel rather than 100 dollars a barrel, they’ll do so, and to hell with where that money is going. Greed trumps morality every time.

We may not be able to control greed, but we can control need. If we drastically reduce our dependence on oil, then ISIS will be left holding a lot of greasy black real estate in a bomb-blasted wasteland. If we really want to fight ISIS, rather than panicking about the occasional terrorist that slips through an ocean of desperate and innocent immigrants, what we need to do is go green.

Solar and wind power are the great equalizers. No nation or region or insane extremist can corner that market. Energy can even be created from the mounds of refuse that we Americans seem so hellbent on producing on a daily basis.

We have the ability to drastically reduce our dependence on oil, and that would cut ISIS off at the knees. And it would have the added benefit of maybe saving the planet so that our progeny won’t be waging war over air and water. What a concept.

I dream of the day when oil is as unnecessary as whalebone corset stays. But you know, it’ll never happen. We’d rather have ISIS if it means we get to keep our SUVs. Think about that next time you press your gas pedal.

Oil_barrel___2044182a
[Image credit: thesun.co.uk]

Environmental Pragmatism

I care about the environment very much. I recycle. I conserve whenever I can. I turn off lights. I try to have as little impact on the planet as possible. If I could afford a hybrid car, I’d definitely have one. My purchases are green ones whenever that option is available and within my means. I have no doubt whatsoever that global warming exists, and that scares me silly.

But I do drive a car. I live in a big city. I consume. I rely heavily on infrastructure. I struggle to reduce my consumption of meat. My refrigerator is running even as we speak. I’m willing to bet that yours is, too.

There is a certain amount of damage one does simply by virtue of the fact that one is a modern human being. This saddens and frustrates me, but there you have it. This attitude is why I could never be considered environmentally radical.

I genuinely think that while we have a long, long way to go, we are trying. Every day at work I look down at the ship canal that cuts through the center of Seattle and I marvel that it’s so crystal clear. I’m sure that wasn’t the case in the 50’s.

I love that we have invented more energy efficient lightbulbs and appliances. I think it’s wonderful that our sewage doesn’t run in the streets like it did in the 1800’s, but make no mistake, the sewage still exists. At least now it gets treated, for what that’s worth.

I’m glad that we’ve taken lead out of gasoline and house paint. When I enter a modern building I don’t worry about asbestos. We have, at the very least, learned from some of our massive mistakes.

So I’m not bitter about the environment. I’m worried about it. I believe we all have a very important part to play in conserving it. But I haven’t given up hope.

[Image credit: eurocontrol.int]
[Image credit: eurocontrol.int]

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The first time I heard Kermit the Frog sing that song when I was a little girl, it made me cry. And I have to admit it still chokes me up to this day. That’s because I’ve felt green my whole life.

In this case, “green” means different from everybody else, and yet somehow not particularly special. I feel green when I hear coworkers getting all enthusiastic because we’ve got a new hire and “she’s gorgeous” (as in, “what a refreshing change.”) I feel green when my intellectual friends start speaking computer-ese, and I suddenly feel as though I should be chewing bubble gum. I feel green when I share my unique perspective and am met with blank stares.

In America, we claim to prize individuality, but most people seem to want to be popular and accepted and understood. “Cool” seems to mean trendy, but it has to be trendy enough to where everyone wants to follow that trend. You’re expected to stand out in a crowd, but only as a leader of that crowd, not as someone who is on the sidelines, alone.

Boy, Kermit wasn’t kidding. It’s not easy. Not even a little bit. Sometimes it hurts like hell.

But because I’d start blubbering the minute he started to sing, I seem to have missed the point of the whole song. If you listen to it all the way through, you realize that what Kermit is trying to say is that, yes, it’s not easy. But it’s important. We all have a role to play. We all matter. We need to accept ourselves and love ourselves for who we are. Because, after all, green is a fundamental part of the color spectrum. This world would be a lot more ugly without green.

jim-henson-kermit

Thanks, Jim Henson, for being green.

Color Me Surprised

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia that I recently picked up from God knows where: The English language didn’t have a word for the color orange until the 1540’s. That’s about the time when the fruit started becoming available to Europeans. That fascinates me. And it also answers a question that I’ve had for decades. Why are redheads called redheads when their hair is so obviously orange? It must be because the hair color predates the word.

This also reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who used to live in Japan. Apparently they see blue and green differently than we do. They describe the traffic light that indicates “go” as blue.

And I’ve often noticed a gender distinction in color perception. Guys invariably describe my hair as black when it’s clear to every female I speak to that it’s brown. I can even stand beside an Asian with black hair, and guys still can’t seem to see the difference. (Soon it won’t be an issue, as I’m rapidly going grey.)

I’ve bumped into this problem with men in all areas of the color spectrum, frankly. I used to think this was pure laziness or disinterest, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a genuine difference in color concepts or perception.

All these thoughts sent me scurrying off to what I like to call the font of all human knowledge: Wikipedia. In an article entitled “Distinction of blue and green in various languages” I learned a lot of interesting things. For example, many languages have one word for both blue and green, and you just have to sort it out by context. These include Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tswana and Mayan languages. In Pashto it’s one word, and they’ll then ask, “Green like the sky or green like plants?”

Some cultures don’t distinguish between blue and black. In various cultures, dark skinned people are described as green, blue, black or dusky. In Serbo-Croatian, blonde hair is called blue.

Some languages consider various shades, hues and intensities to be distinct colors, while others consider them a variation on one color. Some simply have suffixes or prefixes to add to color words to make them “light blue” or “dark red”. Interestingly, quite a few cultures distinguish turquoise and teal from other blues.

I like how the color problem is solved in Swahili. It seems they don’t have color words. When they want to describe a color, they do just that. “That shirt is the color of grass.” “Your eyes are the color of the sky.” Every conversation must sound like poetry.

Another interesting Wikipedia article was about the book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. The authors seem to distinguish the level of a culture by the number of basic color terms it possesses. All cultures distinguish between black and white. Then, as they become more sophisticated, they apparently follow the same order the world over. They’ll add red, then either green or yellow, then both green and yellow, then blue, then brown, then purple, pink, orange or grey. English is supposedly the most sophisticated, with eleven basic color terms.

Points to ponder:

  • If we as a species can’t even agree on the way to look at or describe color, is there any hope for universal understanding?
  • How can any book, let alone the Bible, be taken literally when it’s been filtered through so many languages and cultures that see the world in fundamentally different ways?
  • How can we ever know if the blue I see is the same as the blue you see?

Fractal Collage--Braid water

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