Sunday 8 July 2012

Fertilizing the Present with the Manure of the Past

(My city friends will find that an unappetising post title but we talk manure a lot in the country.  When we say nothing gets wasted, we mean nothing.  Yesterday's chicken feed becomes tomorrow's vegetable garden fertiliser.  The circle of poo.)

Yesterday I explained how some women are becoming so disillusioned with life in the 21st century that they are leaving the workforce and becoming traditional housewives.  In some cases, it is the man who becomes the homemaker but the vast majority of the time it is the woman.  I talked about the impetus for this trend as well as why it is dangerous for women's rights if we go backward and embrace traditional gender roles.  Today I begin parsing out exactly what we are nostalgic for and how we can recapture it without women losing the right to vote or own property.

We miss:  Salespeople who are polite, friendly, helpful and actually know their business and their merchandise.
How we can bring it back today:  Avoid big box stores and shop at independent businesses and farmers' markets whenever possible.  Before supermarkets and other chains took over, and town centres became vacant, shoppers walked to the green grocer, the butcher, the baker, the florist, the dry goods store, the milliner, the dressmaker, the tailor, etc.  Each merchant knew his or her business, and shop assistants were taught it before they were allowed to interact with customers.
Why it is challenging:  Many Main Streets are lined with vacant store fronts, chains in strip malls on the outskirts of town having driven them out of business.  Some people live in suburbs that are purely bedroom communities, with no proper town centre at all and no stores other than chains.  These suburbs often lack sidewalks, making it impossible to walk safely to the shops.  Also, independent businesses tend to close earlier than chains and have shorter weekend hours, making it difficult for working people to get there.  The biggest challenge, of course, is cost.  With the economies of scale enjoyed by chains, independent merchants cannot offer such obscenely low prices on goods and services.  Which brings us to the next point....

We miss:  Quality goods that last, emblematic of a less disposable culture.
How we can bring it back today:  Buy less!  Mend and repair and make do.  Instead of paying less for an item that will wear out shortly, pay more for a better quality one that will last.  Think of each household purchase as permanent, an investment in an item that you will maintain for the rest of your life.  Look for items that are made locally, where you can contact the manufacturer for parts and repair. Look for items made by independent businesses, where the maker of the item is likely to take some pride in their work.  Look for items made under humane working conditions, where the workers are likely to care more about doing a good job.  Take pride in making items last rather than in having the latest and greatest.  If something breaks, try to repair it before replacing it.  If it cannot be salvaged, do research before buying a new one.  Find the sturdiest one available, utilising reviews and recommendations from unbiased sources.  Don't buy things you know you will only use once or that are meant to be disposable (e.g. disposable cameras, faddish toys, party items).  If you want to explore a new hobby or cooking technique, try to borrow or rent the equipment before buying something that may gather dust in your cupboards.  Think of the health and environmental implications of EVERY purchase.  Ask yourself:  Do I need this?  Why do I want this?  How long will this last?
Why it is challenging:  They really don't make things like they used to.  Most items manufactured today have a planned obsolescence; they are made to be disposable, so it can be difficult to repair them or prevent them wearing out.  Few items are made locally or even in the West.  Even if you are willing and able to pay more for a higher quality item, you may not be able to find it.  Do your best.  If no-one buys cheap crap, stores will no longer sell it.

We miss:  Home-cooked meals, eaten together at leisure and without distraction
How we can bring it back today:  The number one benefit cited by couples where one spouse is a full-time homemaker is meals taken together.  The rush for both spouses to get to work, get in a run or other morning work-out, and, if you have kids, to get them to school, precludes a sit-down breakfast for most modern families.  But breakfast together allows families to connect, to confirm plans for the day, and to start the day with proper nutrition and hydration.  Lunch is trickier to eat as a family.  Men used to come home for lunch if they worked close enough, and children sometimes came home from school, but this meal was the most likely to be eaten separately before the family came back together for dinner, to re-connect and recount their day for one another and eat a balanced, healthy meal without interruptions or distractions.

Of all the suggestions on this list, this one is the easiest to implement.  It takes commitment, and a desire to make it work, from each member of the household.  There may be resistance at first but, once each family member reaps the benefits and the new schedule becomes routine, it will become second nature. First, agree upon who will cook breakfast, set the table, and clean up—it may be the same partner each day or it may vary with work schedules or individual preferences.  Agree on a time when all family members can be present with enough time to sit and eat before they must be on their way to work or school.  This will mean getting up and going to bed at an earlier time.  For family members who work out in the morning, they may have to start their run in the dark, but play with your morning routine and see what works for your family.  Next, banish all electronic devices from the table—no TV, mobiles, eReaders, etc.  The only exception may be a hard copy of the newspaper, if your family still subscribes offline, as the news of the day can be a legitimate topic of breakfast table conversation.  Dress for meals—no coming down to breakfast in pyjamas or dinner in sweatpants.  Instill in your family the idea that meals are a time for conversation and interaction, to pay attention to their food and to one another.  Finally, make the meal worthy of your family's attention.  Put nothing on the table in its original container, and nothing in plastic—e.g., pour milk into a jug, don't set the carton on the table.  Put fresh flowers in the center of the tablecloth, use cloth napkins, and cook from scratch.  Eat local foods in season, growing as much of your own produce as possible.
Why it is challenging:  Getting everyone on the same schedule, with long commutes, shift work, extracurricular activities, etc., can feel overwhelming.  It is easier with kids because as the parent, you make the rules, and you can require them to be present at meals.  Not as easy to wheedle a spouse who would rather warm something up in the microwave and play video games in his precious free time after work.  Start with insisting that the family gather for one proper meal together per day, and add on from there.  If it is difficult to coordinate schedules, relax the rule about dress to maximise the opportunity for family members to be present at the table at the appointed time.  The effort required to cook and clean up meals before and after a long day at work is the biggest impediment to the two-income family from enjoying the traditional sit-down meal together.  The only shortcuts here are to alternate which partner takes on this duty, get older children involved in helping, and to plan meals in advance, cooking things at the weekend that can be reheated on the night.  I realise this won't help two-lawyer families where both spouses are trying to make partner and working 12 hour days but there are no perfect solutions here.  Either one spouse is a full-time homemaker or they split these duties, each shouldering some of them in addition to their paying job.

We miss:  People who take pride in their appearance and do not look sloppy.
How we can bring it back today:  Just like dining together as a family, this is another change that requires time and discipline to implement.  If you are feeling nostalgic for an era when men wore hats and well-pressed bespoke suits, with polished shoes, and women were always perfectly coiffed and turned out, with lipstick, hats, gloves, and stockings, then take advantage of all of the information available on retro hair, make-up, and wardrobes.  People used to own far fewer items of clothing, which they mended to extend their life.  Ignore the cheap, trendy clothing in the chain stores; invest in fewer, higher quality pieces.  Make older children save up for some of their own clothing to encourage them to think carefully before they buy.  Find and build a relationship with a tailor or seamstress.  Have clothing made, or at least altered, to fit you well.  You will feel more confident in clothing that fits you better and flatters.  Unless you are at that moment engaged in exercise, banish sweat clothing and trainers from your wardrobe.  Wear nothing "distressed" or with holes, rips, and tears, no matter how strategically placed.  Wear nothing shapeless or baggy.  Keep your shoes polished.  Choose a flattering, classic cut for your hair that does not take too long to style in the morning.  Shave, wax, pluck, exfoliate and moisturise—this goes for both sexes!  Update your make-up seasonally and don't go down to breakfast without it.  Dress with self-respect and take pride in being well-turned-out every day.  Look for hats, gloves, scarves, and incorporate them into your daily outfits.  Carry handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, and a beautiful refillable pen instead of disposable ballpoints.  Put these into a clean, structured bag, not a shapeless sack.  Carry a full-size umbrella, not a telescoping one.  Plan a week's worth of outfits in advance, with accessories, so you do not have to worry about what to put on each morning.  At the very least, have your closet and accessories well-organized so you can choose your outfit quickly and without stress in the morning.  If you have children, insist that they dress well.  You do not have to indulge their desire to wear sloppy, casual or trendy clothes.  Reclaim your authority as a parent!
Why it is challenging: Everyone dresses so casually these days, even at events that used to require a bit of effort to dress up (I cry when I see people in jeans at the opera, and just try to tell myself that at least they are there), that you may feel self-conscious, and attract comments, when you are better dressed.  Ignore the comments.  Smile serenely and thank people for compliments.  If they ask you why you are so dressed up, tell them it makes you more confident and makes the world a more pleasant place.  Tell them it is a sign of respect, for yourself, for them, and for the occasion.  I know that bespoke clothing and footwear, and quality ready-to-wear items that will not be out of fashion next season, are expensive.  If you cannot afford to replace a casual wardrobe all at once, invest in new pieces as you can afford them, with an eye towards wearing them as long as possible, not discarding them when fashions change.  Or learn to sew and make clothing for yourself and your family.

We miss:  Fewer choices.  No, really!  Hear me out.  I do not mean fewer life choices based on sex or race, nor fewer choices in health care, nutrition, education, or anything like that.  What I mean is that the choices we face in everyday life are so overwhelming that people are starting to implement self-imposed limitations in order to bring back a sense of control and reduce stress.  It is one reason that people fall prey to organised religion and fad diets—they provide an externally-imposed list of rules that creates boundaries, limitations that help filter the overwhelming number of choices we face every day.
How we can bring it back today:  Since it is not the actual number of choices that we want to limit, but the stress that they cause, set your own rules to filter choices.  I find the handiest filters are health and environment.  If you only buy goods produced in an environmentally-sound manner, that automatically rules out much of the crap that is for sale.  Buy nothing produced in a sweatshop or by child labour.  Likewise, if you decide that your family will eat nothing with artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners, or preservatives, you will look at the grocery store in a whole new way.  Instead of a bewildering array of choices, there will be very little that you can eat.  Limiting your food choices to what is locally-produced and seasonal takes that a step further.  If you decide, as I did many years ago, not to use toothpaste with artificial sweeteners or colouring, suddenly there will be only a few brands that you can choose amongst rather than fifty.  If you only buy clothing made with natural fibres or linens dyed with non-toxic dyes, you will find your options for clothing and bedding reduced dramatically.  If you decide that your next car must get over 40mpg, that eliminates most vehicles on the market.  If you decide to only use native plants in your garden, selecting annuals and perennials from the nursery is suddenly a much less overwhelming task.  Try it.  Remember, you are not limiting your choices based upon arbitrary rules, or rules imposed externally by superstition but, rather, looking after your own and your family's health, and the environment.
Why it is challenging:  We are bombarded with advertisements and coupons, urging us to try new products or choose what is on sale, regardless of whether it meets our health and ethical criteria.  Even with our self-imposed restrictions, it can still be overwhelming to look at a shelf of 100 different deodorants and have to read all the labels, and research online, to find the ones without toxic ingredients.  But it gets easier.  I know now that there are only a handful of items sold by a conventional supermarket or chemist that are natural enough to fit my health and environment criteria, so I don't see the choices that are on the shelves as choices anymore.  They simply don't exist for me.

If you implement all of the foregoing suggestions, you will be able to recapture some of what we are nostalgic for in an earlier era, without becoming a full-time homemaker and risking your financial independence.


  1. Since I am moving abroad in a few weeks, I had a similar revelation as you describe about all the low-quality crap I have accumulated over the years. This has been brought about by trying to figure out what is actually worth the price of shipping. So, I resolved to only take high quality items with me. Since I am going to business school and appearances will be important, this filter is especially important for clothing. In this process of weilding my "Crap Ax" (as I call it in my head), I realized my closet only contains a very small number of truly high quality items.

  2. I love the term "Crap Ax". When I moved abroad in 1996, I thought it would be permanent, and I purged everything with an American plug. By the time I moved back, technology had marched on & I wouldn't have wanted any of those appliances anyway. That's kind of sad. Now I only buy things I intend to keep forever, no matter how technology evolves. When my Swedish friend came to college in the U.S., she wore blazers to class at first until she realised how sloppily American students dress. They are still a bit more formal, thank goodness. Good luck with the purge!