Tuesday, April 13, 2010

 10. No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

Warning: I loved this book/the way ideas were presented in it, so this will mostly be overflowing praise. But not without criticism, I swear!

The About:

Beavan, a middle-class family man and an author who is vaguely discontent with his life decides to embark on an experiment, where he will consume as little new products in a year as possible, while also attempting to cut down the possible negative impact his life might have on our planet. This he decides to record in a blog and write into this book. He begins by baby steps: always selecting stairs instead of an elevator, and taking his own, reusable cup to a coffee shop. He struggles with the urge to consume with often hilarious results: when he decides to begin to take his own tote bags to the store, he gets obsessed about finding and buying a French fish net shopping bag, scavenging the entire New York in his attempt of finding one. Then he realizes that he has a house full of absolutely fine canvas bags to use as a tote - the idea of buying new stuff to accomplish something simple is just so ingrained in us that we can't even think about taking a walk without automatically thinking, 'Hey, I think I need new shoes that are specifically designed for walking!'.

This prompts him to question why we are so into Stuff, and how much happier we actually are with Stuff. According to surveys, Americans had less money and less Stuff in the 1950s than right now, but the rate of Happiness has not increased (see the book for more information on these "happiness rate" surveys). Basically, not only does he want to see whether a single person could (if enough single persons would join him) have a positive impact on the environment, he also wants to see whether learning not to get instant gratification from Things would make him happier.

Beavan begins the project by asking his family to not throw away any of their garbage, but instead collecting it in bags at home for a couple of weeks. This is just to get an idea of how much stuff they throw away. Besides the obvious food scraps and food wrapping, the shocker comes from items that are designed to be used for 5 seconds and then thrown away: paper napkins, paper towels, those little wooden sticks you stir your coffee with, plastic straws, plastic cups. It's easy not to pay attention to them because they are so small and so fleeting, but when you realize that you easily fill a garbage bag with them within a week, it makes you pause. An aside: this made me pay attention to such items that I used only today, and the tally so far is: 3 paper napkins along with food/drinks, paper napkins to blow my nose on. I was so horrified with this (and the idea that I waste at least that much probably every single day) that I refused to use a disposable, plastic spoon at a cafe to spoon up the milk froth from my cappuccino, and used a fork instead, probably puzzling the staff.

Before getting into the book, some reactions from other people:
Beavan's simple actions cause interesting reactions, and I'll get back to that in a second. This was evident in the documentary about the No Impact Man (which we watched yesterday - streaming on Netflix!) where the criticism went from "who is this bourgeoisie guy doing this only for a year - some do it all their lives! What a jerk" to "you can't call yourself a No Impact Man if your wife works for a company that promotes consumerism and trees are killed with every single magazine they print".

It's like a competition. Either you do it our way or you have failed. Either you do everything imaginable, or you are just a phony who nobody should listen to. And at the center of it all is Beavan, ready to admit that he is not perfect, and all he is promoting is to see how his family can reduce the garbage they create and hope that other people get inspired by it, too. He is not out to tell people who live miles away from the nearest grocery store to stop using their cars.

You may groan, but I'll say it nevertheless: he should be called a Huge impact man, because I can't look at plastic stuff the same way again, or the way I not only buy junk but use it.

This is, hands down, the best book I have read about the pros of environmentalism and what it actually means in a human being's everyday life. We all know what we should be doing, because we see those lists everywhere from Cosmo to CNN: change your light bulbs to be more energy efficient, drive less, eat locally produced foods - you know the drill. But people are kind of messed up: when others tell us what we should do, we usually find a ton of excuses not to do it or we get offended, because we feel that there is an underlying accusation there of "I am a better person for doing all these things, and you, let's face it, suck." So it's easier to find an excuse why not to use energy efficient light bulbs ("they give off an ugly light and don't go well with my decor!") rather than evaluate the information given objectively. Which, I know, is difficult, when there are also people who don't think we should be doing anything to improve our life on this planet, thinking that people are not to blame for disappearance of animal species, pollution, you name it.

But back to the book. What Beavan does is genius: he admits with a blush that he is one of those people who chastise Americans for driving too much while he himself drives to work/goes by subway. His experiment is for one full year to put his money where his mouth is. If he thinks that Americans should drive less, he should drive less. If he thinks that people use too much stuff made out of plastic he should stop buying stuff himself first and see, how easy it is to find alternative ways to create items that are sold in wrapping (soap, laundry detergent, washing liquids).

He is not doing this to prove himself as a better human being than the rest of us; he's doing it to see with how little he and his family can survive without endangering anyone's health or general well-being. He is willing to have it rough for a full year, and if something still feels rough after a year, they are willing to go back to their old ways. But not without trying.

My reading experience went from one extreme to another. It began with "awww, Americans are so endearing" when Beavan is marveling at how easy it is to bike to work and wondering why more people are not doing it, or coming to the miraculous conclusion that you can take your own bags to stores and fill one up instead of coming out of the store with 5 flimsy plastic bags that are barely reusable because they get holes punctured into them by a cucumber. It ended with "wow, are you serious???" when Beavan's family shuts off electricity at their Manhattan apartment, dreading the winter and long, dark days because the solar panel they have will not produce enough electricity to run his computer (for his work) and lights.

Of course, the premise is not without its problems: he is, after all, a fairly well-to-do person (with a wife who grew up in the world of yachts, country clubs and mink furs), so he can easily change some of his habits. It is no problem for him to start buying items that are only locally produced, or get his ingredients directly from the farmers - that's mainly a problem of directing your ample amount of cash somewhere else. He lives in the middle of Manhattan, which means that using anything else to get around is easier than using a car. 

With that said, this book is not about whether he is the perfect example for environmentalism, or whether he WINS by doing things THE HARDEST WAY. It's all about how a single person changes from what he is used to to what he really needs. He is preaching to people like himself, who are most likely the people who also consume the most and create the most trash - which then affects the lives of everyone, regardless of their income levels.

On his blog he behaves almost guru-like: when people ask him, "what should I do first, where to begin?" he replies with "What would you like to do first?" And when the person responds, "Well, I'd like to start biking to work" he asks, "What's stopping you from doing that?" He does not want to be some almighty adviser, because we all have to pick our battles. He doesn't know how much money I have, where I live or how physically fit I am - he has no authority to tell me that I need to live my life exactly like he does. And that's what he acknowledges, which makes this project so beautiful. It makes you think about whether you could replicate what he does and if not, what are you able to do?
Even if the change you make is to never pick up a plastic bag from a store again, it is still a change, even if it feels small. As a result, you are still consuming and wasting less than what you did before.

 11. Mariposa by Greg Bear

This is the latest installment from Greg Bear, the most charming and unintimidating sci-fi author of the Seattle area. I had the pleasure to hear him give a reading of his previous book, and I was delighted when the reading turned out to be more a lecture on why reading is important and how reading and stories affect our daily lives.

The Plot shortly before I start rambling about the reading experience
Something is horribly wrong with the future United States of America. The Vice President brutally murders his wife without apparently any remorse, and this scares the whole country poopless: were we about to have a homicidal psycho as president? How could this have happened? FBI agent Rebecca Rose is called in to investigate the connections of a CEO of a Talos corporation to a possible plot to bring down the government, only to find that the reality awaiting for them is more sinister than she has expected.

Then the rambles

Mariposa affected me with dread. I have to say that I have been reading this book on and off since late December, which is the result of owning a book and then pushing it further and further down the reading list because you still keep on getting library books, or borrowing books from friends... So Mariposa was definitely a victim of this, and I apologize, because it is a fine book. What mostly stayed with me after reading it was a feeling of dread. It's not a nice book. It's kind of like what might happen if the Baudelaire trio from Snicket books grew up to work in government jobs. Even a happily-ever-after ending would have a silent question at the end... "or did they?"

The book is a sequel to Quantico, which I have not read yet. I wonder if my understanding of Mariposa would have been easier if I had. With Mariposa, I had a terrible time with names: I simply could not remember which character was which, and I had to leaf back many a time to check who this person was now. There are two reasons for this: 1) me reading the book over a long period of time, and hence not really even remembering always what was happening, so I had to re-read bits anyway and b) because to me, the behavior of, say, Nathaniel, on the page did not seem all that different from the behavior of the Silent Man. They all kind of read like the same character to me after a certain point: determined and vaguely paranoid. Not only that, but there is not a single narrator: although Rebecca Rose is brought in as a prominent character, we have at least two others who speak with the authority of a person that the readers should be concerned about, and all of them are involved with the collapse of the United States in one way or another - and all in different operations, under cover or otherwise under the radar. Throw in a plot about imprisoning and giving a death sentence to a kid of an FBI operative to possibly tarnish the name of the institution, and there is a puzzler for ya!

I had a hard time following this book, so I might need to give it another go now that I know what's happening in it. I ended up reading the first 50 pages again because I had no clue of what was going on and who was doing what. Maybe my brain cells are dying from reading too much Cute Overload daily... Nah, Cute Overload, I still wuw ya! Still, this should not be held against Greg Bear, but rather my ability to read the book in my current state of mind. Will try it again!

12. The F-word by Jesse Sheidlower

As the name suggests to many people, this is about the word fuck. Yup, I just wrote it there. Does that mean I have to now put some kind of a disclaimer for my blog that this is not viewable for eyes under the age of 18?
Anyways! Or if you're me, you thought upon seeing the title "Oh, there's a second book out?"

Basically, The F-word is for you if you are interested in the etymology of the word fuck, but you don't have access to the OED. It lists the word as used in compound words, as a verb, adjective, adverb - you name it. Of course as with any slangy and/or expletive expressions, the usage changes quickly because people do get very inventive with language, and therefore this book probably needs an update every now and then. Sheidlower states, which phrases have been taken out because there has not been enough evidence for a wide-spread use, and which terms have included although they are still fairly new (guess whether MILF made it).

The preface to the book is interesting, as it tracks down the first instances of the word, the urban legends revolving around the word's origins, and then naturally, the legal cases that have involved the usage of the word in public places. Fuck is still a word that cannot be uttered in public radio, or basic cable - even if it's past kids' bed time.

I wish there would be an accompanying book that delves more into the arguments for and against letting "indecent" words to be published. The preface of the book already shows that both of the main arguments are wrong: "It's just a word - why are you so afraid of it?" and "It's indecent - we should never make our kids hear it!"

The first is of course absolutely stupid. If words were ever just words, I would not get into trouble if I told a friend that she has a big nose and she wears horrible clothes (and now I can imagine all of my friends going, "is she talking about me...?" NO! This is a fictional example, people). Words are never just words - they express our intent. And the intent of, say, the word fuck depends on the social context. If society at large has deemed that it is an improper word, I can shout the word till my head falls of and people will still think of me as an asshole - no matter how I say that it's "just a word".

The second argument is equally stupid. A word is indecent if we use it indecently or decide collectively that it is such. What is indecent depends on the cultural context, and apparently nowadays anything relating to sex is. Sure, it's right that nowadays the word fuck is censored, so in that sense the argument is right... But the whole "protect our children from seeing it in a dictionary" is quite stupid. First of all, most kids have heard it in one context or another, probably uttered by a family member of a younger age, by the time they turn 13. And the book gives a good argument for including the word in the dictionary: it is in wide usage, and nobody will ever accidentally find it - you have to know what you are looking for. Unless, of course, you are a freak who reads a dictionary like a novel, one entry at a time.

To me the most compelling reason to include the word fuck in dictionaries is that if we don't, later generations will not know how people actually spoke - whether we agree with their way of speaking or not. I find it sad that I might not ever find out how people really spoke in the Victorian era, because most of the curse words (and other, blood-pressure raising terminology) has been banned from written texts. That is, unless you were a clever chap and used puns or foreign languages to convey the meaning. I'm not saying that everyone should be saying the word fuck constantly, but as it is part of the nation's vocabulary, it should not be banned from institutions who keep track of our languages.

I'm not a frequent user of the word myself, which I find funny because I used to use similar curse words in Finnish quite a lot. In English, I hardly ever do. If I say fuck, I'm suddenly transported out of my body, and I see myself as an actor in an American sitcom, or in something like Beverly Hills 90210. I think this is because I personally relate the word to the language of youth, but I did not grow up using it although I knew of its existence - mainly through contacts to English-speaking cultures. If I say fuck or any variants thereof, I want to giggle because I feel like I'm acting American. Does this make any sense?

Next stop: a book about ESL speakers and how they use the dreaded F-word!
Thank you, Wasabi Prime, for the book! (And for the one below, too!)

13. F U Penguin by Matthew Gasteier

Appropriately, a second book whose idea revolves around the word fuck but who is unable to print it out full on the cover. Interesting!

This all started out as a web page called Fuck You Penguin, where this guy Matt insults cute animals who apparently act too pompous for their own good. Obviously, this is a reaction to Cute Overload, where pictures of cute animals are gushed over with cutesie-wutesie language.

Thing is... the website is pretty funny. Mostly because it gets updated often, and it doesn't matter if the insult of the day is just two words, because you probably have time to read only two words during your lunch break from work (because the rest of the time is spent on Facebook). If you don't find something terribly funny, you can always scroll to the next one.

As a book... it was funny, but a bit odd. There is one page that has a picture, and then the insult is either a caption to it or a paragraph on the next page. Then you are done with it and there will be no new picture or caption to replace it once you are done. So, the reading experience is not quite as pleasurable as on the web. Kind of like if The F-word was on the web - I wouldn't enjoy reading it from a glowing screen at all, but I like it as a book.

A good conversation starter for sure, though... That poor penguin! 

Oh no. Why do I always end up, unintentionally, reading things in themes! I have Wetlands waiting for me, courtesy of my friend Saara... I'll try to read it on the bus on my way to work today, and hope no one notices, hehe.

No comments:

Post a Comment