Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, January 31, 2011

On what is good in life – Part II.

On my cross-country flight last Friday, I started perusing the airline magazine (Sky, January 2011).  Page after page, there were ads for steakhouses and trendy high-end restaurants, cosmetic dentistry, jewelry, art, MBA programs, shows in Las Vegas, casinos (not in Las Vegas or Atlantic City) and Disney vacations.  (What? No ads for professional matchmakers in this issue?!)  The themes of the “articles” (consisting only of a few lines of text and lacking creativity or depth) were sports, the latest IT gadgets, teen idols –now and then (this was at least somewhat humorous as it took me back in time), volcano boarding, what is hot in music, movies and fashion, book descriptions (two-liners, not reviews), chic hotels in exotic destinations (big  cities) around the world, and pop culture.
Is this really what our culture is all about?  Sigh.  I am so out of touch.  Or maybe I just don’t know what is truly good in life!
Another turn of the page, and surprisingly, there was an article about a bee researcher who had recently received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award.   Something of substance, and science-related, no less!  And then, another—an article entitled “Our World Now: The People, Places and Things that made us Happy in 2010.”  What a coincidence, I thought, given the theme of my spring course that prompted this blog.  And then I realized the article focused on TV celebrities and shows, viral videos, and the iPad.   Who wrote this list?  At least the rescue of the Chilean miners was mentioned.  The list also included stories of charity and assistance after the Haitian earthquake.  While global generosity is a good thing, it is too often limited to times of tragedy.  And there isn’t very much “happy” about conditions in Haiti now or before the earthquake.
This was followed by an article on the “Happiest Places in the World”.  Of the four listed, one was Singapore with its 40 mile long island of 5.1 million people (think about how crowded this is) and 250 plus shopping malls.  Sigh.  I have been to Singapore.  Everything is artificial, even the waterfalls in the parks.  Beautiful, but fake. They have a bird park with an extraordinary collection of exotic birds from around the world.  I saw my first and only fish eagle there – chained to what looked like a dog house.  The hornbills were in cages.  Does this make people happy?  Or is it only the shopping?  When I was there, our hosts were all very proud of all the neon-lit shops that sold electronics, fashionable clothes, and expensive gifts of various sorts, including gold-plated orchids made into jewelry.  An orchid pin made my mother happy for her birthday that year.  Our hosts told us that for leisure, people shopped.  They were curious about the concepts of leisure time in the U.S.
What the magazine articles described as things that made people happy was in stark contrast with the lists that I had from friends, family, colleagues and social network acquaintances in response to my inquiry about what makes them happy and what they couldn’t live without (described below).  Admittedly, this is a subset of the population – biased by the fact that most share interests in conservation or science or work in education.  To simplify things, I arbitrarily combined the responses into categories that seemed to me to be related.
The category with the most tick marks in response to both questions: “What makes you happy” and “What couldn’t you live without” was family.  The next general category related to food; some simply said food (which, of course, we can’t live without) and some listed specific types ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to pizza.  Other things we eat like chocolate and coffee were mentioned but I am not sure if this qualifies as food!  A number of people said they really enjoyed the process of cooking.  I wonder how many have read about the Slow Food Movement.
Food was followed closely by friends and nature or spending time outdoors.  People also specifically talked about taking walks in the woods, birding, gardening and even farming (as a hobby).  Most respondents said something about having a satisfying occupation.  This was expressed in a variety of ways including specific mention of having a job that keeps them challenged, loving to teach, of having a steady income or financial stability, the good feelings that result from doing hard physical work, or having an experiment go well.  In fact, if I were to lump all of these under a single category, this would actually have more “votes” than family!
Another high vote getter was the category characterized by words such as having the opportunity for intellectual challenge, life-long learning and/or access to information.  Almost an equal number of people mentioned books and reading as things that made them happy or things that they couldn’t live without.
Several responses were tied for the next highest number:  shelter or home, pets, doing good for others (or having a sense of purpose or volunteering), faith, children (their own or children in general) and good health (and the drugs that help keep them healthy).  And right behind these were hearing about stories of hope or inspiration, electronic gadgets (computers, cell phones, etc.) and music.
Other responses included travel, sports, movies, every breath, retirement, binoculars, exercise, time for hobbies, having a circle of supportive people, clean water, freedom, heat (it has been a rather cold winter), stimulating conversation, and curiosity.  Some of these could probably be lumped with other categories above.
Two things about the responses caught my attention.  First, the list is not heavily focused on material goods (and as I noted above is quite different from the list of things focused on in the airline magazine).  Instead interactions with people, knowledge, nature, and less tangible things are most important.  Second, when people included a “vice” in their response, they went out of their way to apologize, explain, or provide a rationale for this answer (like they had tried to give up chocolate, but it didn’t go well)!  I am curious as to why so many people felt guilty about having something like this on their list!
So, I sit here stranded in Dulles airport (the return trip) less than happy that my 10:15 p.m. flight has a departure time of 1:50 a.m. now.  It is going to be a really long day tomorrow at work and, here I had been worried about the jet lag coming from the west coast.  At the moment, sleep and being home with my family would make me happy.  I have run out of steam and my eyes are blurry, so the summary of my student responses will have to be in Part III and this entry will be posted when I have an internet connection tomorrow (or actually later today).  (O.K. – I didn’t include this in my list in Part I.  I really like being connected to the world, to incomprehensible amounts of information, data, and literature, and to friends via social networks.  I could live without the Internet, but I wouldn’t be as happy!) 
p.s. The flight left at 3:15 a.m.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On what is good in life – Part I

After being on sabbatical, it is a bit tough to settle back into the routine of a college semester.  And this semester has had a particularly hectic start as our department immediately started bringing in candidates for interviews, we had a new staff member start, and we have had some messy winter weather leading to school closings and delayed openings for the boys.  Kind of throws a monkey wrench in best-laid plans.  Thus, only 10 days into this semester, I was really looking forward to today – a day with no classes to teach and relatively few meetings.  A chance to slow down and catch my breath.

My husband drove the boys to school, so I had the chance to stay behind and take Revi the dog for a long leisurely walk.  This is something I rarely get to do on a weekday morning during the semester (at least this time of the year when it is still dark when I normally leave the house).  The morning was particularly nice since it was “balmy” – close to 30 degrees rather than in the single digits as we had just been experiencing.  The forecast was for a storm starting in late afternoon and already the flurries had started.  The steady but lazily falling snowflakes made our woods look like we were inside of a snow globe.

As I have mentioned on this blog before, I truly love walking through the woods with a retriever and after the bitter cold days we had just gone through, Revi was particularly enjoying this jaunt.  As we reached the section of our property that opens up into a savanna-like area, we were greeted by a ruffed grouse flying out of a white pine.  There are not many left in this part of Pennsylvania, although we see them on our property from time to time.  So this was a treat. 

These birds are notorious for startling hunters and hikers due to the loud noise they make when they take to flight.  I haven’t hunted them in years but my instincts were still there and I followed the flight of this bird as if I were lining it up in the sights of my shotgun.  The moment brought me back to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where I grew up – where flushing grouse in the woods was common.  My young retriever hasn’t seen very many game birds, but he instinctively stopped and watched, assuming that he must be expected to do something.  “Did she throw a stick?  Am I supposed to retrieve something?  Where did that noise come from?”

Just this past weekend, I had also been thinking of “home” – as I had the opportunity to go cross country skiing and eat pasties on Sunday.  Both are activities characteristic of growing up in Upper Michigan.  Fond memories.  Plus the Green Bay Packers won the division playoffs.  I am not a football fanatic, but this is the first team I ever followed as a kid.  Dad likes to watch football and he likes the Packers.  Like father, like daughter.

Revi and I continued along both tuned into the array of tracks and trails in the snow.  I was fascinated with how many different tracks and patterns there were.  His nose was close to the ground and seemed equally fascinated with the vast number of scents.  With his gaze and attention so focused on the ground, I sometime wonder how he can go through the woods without crashing into a tree! 

At one point along the way, there was a small downed tree that had snapped off recently.  All around the remaining trunk were fresh “wood chips” and rabbit tracks.  Clearly, someone was having fun grinding down their teeth.  Rabbits, squirrels, deer, mice, voles, fox and bird tracks were crisscrossing throughout the woods as if they were creating a graphic design.  Collaborative artwork.  Interesting concept.

All of a sudden, Revi stopped and was attentively watching something in the woods that I couldn’t see at first.   As he started to cautiously walk off the path into the woods, I saw two stunningly beautiful red fox darting around the trees.  It looked as if they were playing tag.  But then they saw the dog and decided to split, running in different directions.  An amazing dose of nature’s gifts this morning, and, of course, no camera in my hands!


I recently asked my students and social network acquaintances what makes them happy and what couldn’t they live without.  I am compiling the responses to post a summary, but I suppose it is only fair that I share a bit about what is important to me.

Like many, my family comes first on the list.  I am so blessed to have 3 wonderful guys in my life and home, including two sons who (despite being teens) are incredible.  They are smart and funny and have big hearts.  And still give me hugs. What more could I ask for?  I have a husband who is an amazing father, my sounding board, my best friend, a colleague, and incredibly patient with me.  Again, what more could I ask for?  I only wish I didn’t live 1000 miles from my parents and my brother and his family.

Another thing on the top of my “what is important to me” list (and that I couldn’t live without or at least I wouldn’t be a very nice person) is nature.  I need the silence of walking in the woods – it calms me.  I am blessed to live in a place where I can walk out my back door and see red fox playing in the snow or see a red-bellied woodpecker or intensely vibrant bluebirds from the window as I work on the computer.  I have a gorgeous view of the Appalachian Mountain Ridge (known locally as Blue Mountain or the Kittatinny Ridge) from the house – at least when it isn’t hidden by clouds.  It takes on different personalities depending on the season or weather.  Recently, it has been glistening with ice-coated trees. 

I am in awe of nature – whether it is my Lake Superior (which I have written about previously), the intricate details of a flower, or the amazing complexities of the biochemical processes of cells.   I am truly fortunate in having a career that allows me to constantly study and teach about such marvels.

The changes of the seasons are miraculous allowing us to look forward to the rebirth and renewal of spring, while at the same time appreciating the crisp beauty of a clear blue sky over ice-encrusted berries and branches on the shrubs and the sense of purity after a fresh snow (at least until the salt and mud and slop discolor everything again).  And oh, the colors and smells of fall.  I don’t think I could live in an area that doesn’t really have four seasons.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love warm tropical breezes and rainforests when I visit areas to the south.)

I love the giggles of children.  I have been fortunate to learn first-hand that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world; the smiles and giggles of young children can warm hearts anywhere.  Traveling and learning about other cultures and places is important to me.

I need my quiet time, a chance to read (I love books), and the opportunity to continue to learn.  I love to cook - especially baking with fresh fruit from the farm and the happy faces on my boys when a pie comes out of the oven.

And finally (at least for this posting), I need my regular dose of good news stories, stories of hope.  It can be something as simple as the family about an hour away that is keeping their feeder and heat lamp going to help an Anna’s Hummingbird stay alive.  This poor tiny creature somehow ended up in the wrong part of the country at the wrong time of year.  But this family cares enough to try to save it.  It might be the rescue of the Chilean miners – mentioned again in our President’s State of the Union speech last night.  It might be stories of people who sacrifice much to give to others less fortunate as my friends in Ecuador are doing as I type this.  Or it might be stories of restoration of a contaminated mountainside.  What is important is that there are so many positive stories despite what one reads in the paper or hears on the news.   So much to be thankful for.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Back online and interested in your thoughts

I have been way-sided for several weeks by a major ecological assessment report and the holidays.  My truly wonderful (but busy) sabbatical has come to an end and I am back teaching and being department chair.
Tomorrow I begin teaching my new pilot course entitled "Redefining Prosperity: Moving Toward a Culture of Sustainability".  This is a rather intimidating (and exciting) endeavor as I will be stepping way outside of my teaching comfort zone and area of expertise.  (I am a biochemist by training who has gradually been venturing further into ecological restoration and conservation work.)  You will hear more about this course as the semester progresses.

It is my intention to pose questions to my students each week (and to friends, acquaintances, and others through social networks) and compile the responses into entries for this blog.  This is an experiment in itself; I have no idea of how this will work!

This week's questions:

- Reflect on what makes you happy/what is good in your life
- List 5 to 10 things that you can’t live without

I welcome your responses to these questions.  I will compile the responses that I receive from others and post.  I am particularly interested in the categories that responses fall into.