Yesterday while mowing my lawn (which I love doing, btw), my thoughts suddenly turned to Leon. Leon was our “yard man” when I was growing up. Like many wonderful people, he was flawed, somewhat tragically, but he was indeed a wonderful person and I feel blessed to have known him. He was a tall, strong black man, originally from Detroit. He worked hard, perhaps all the more so because my father worked alongside him. Together they built stone walls, bridges over our little creek, and took care of all the other things to keep up the 7 acres where we miraculously lived inside the Atlanta city limits. He sang when he mowed the lawn, and whistled when he was tasked with things like raking the pebble driveway.

Leon was quick with a joke (as was my father), and had a booming laugh. We would hear them laughing out back sometimes, two deep voices carrying over the different levels of the land running down to the creek. He teased and argued with our maid Ethel at lunchtime, getting her all riled up and then cackling with joy. He put ketchup on everything – everything, even soup – which drove Ethel crazy after she had worked to make him lunch. I looked forward to Saturdays to hang out around him, and he was kind as well as funny. He adored all our animals, which at that time amounted to 2 dogs and 8 to 10 cats. I loved Leon. He was a part of our family.

Which is why, countless times, my father would answer a late night call and go bail Leon out of jail for another drinking binge. He would get “the DTs” and act crazy, or get into fights (often over women, as he was a womanizer par excellence). One time my father drove down to Macon from Atlanta, because somehow Leon had gotten himself into trouble down there. Would anyone do that these days? I wonder if it were today if he could have gotten help. In the 60s most people didn’t really talk about alcoholism, they just called someone a drunk. And Leon was a spectacular, irreverent, harmless, tragic drunk. And he knew it.

Which is why, when I left for college and my parents moved to Savannah in 1976, Leon begged to go with them. I don’t know all the details, but I know my parents discussed it a long time. He didn’t know anyone in Savannah, and I suspect they didn’t want to take him out of the community of church and neighbors here that did in some ways support him. I know, because I know how my parents were, that the decision was not taken lightly.

So although they said they would give him a job if he chose to move to Savannah, they would not take him with them. So we all said goodbyes, and Leon declared that he would move back to Detroit and reconnect with family there. I remember that everyone cried when the moving vans arrived.

Leon was dead within a month after moving to Detroit, shot in a bar. No “what ifs” could bring him back.

And so now I finally pay tribute to that joyful, kind, marvelous, flawed man. Leon, I hope you are singing in a place with green fields and running dogs. And ketchup. I love you.


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Why I Roo (or, How an Otherwise Sensible Middle-Aged Mom Rocks Out)

On the eve of yet another Bonnaroo, some of my friends are wondering WHY a 50-something me is actually going – not only willingly but excitedly – again. I first Rooed in 2007, taking my daughter, her boarding school roommate and her boyfriend. I love to camp (and admittedly that alone sets me apart from most of my girlfriends). I’ve taken my kids camping since they were 3 and 5, from “car camping” to more wilderness hike-in-to-a-campsite mode. Taking three 17-year-olds camping with 100,000 other people is a little different. From anything I could have imagined.

It began inauspiciously enough. I had the brilliant idea to set out from Atlanta at midnight Thursday morning to get a prime camping spot. We arrived in Manchester, Tennessee, at about 4 am. There was a line. A line of cars to get in! At 4 am! They were checking cars for illegal substances. I guess seeing a tired, slightly alarmed mom driving the car — with “what-am-I-getting-into” written all over my then 40-something face — led them to immediately give us a bye. We eventually pulled into our area at the very, very furthest end of the field farthest away from anything – I thought by then we were probaby actually in Kentucky. Everyone was hooting and yelling “Bonna- rooooooo!” and playing guitar and otherwise partying, as we pitched our two tents. This was, remember, after 4 a.m. They were still making said noise when we finally collapsed to sleep.

The first thing you learn about Bonnaroo mornings is that as soon as the sun comes up, it is literally as hot as hell. So after a couple of hours of sleep that first night, we started baking in our tents and groggily climbed out. It was then that we discovered just how far away we were from the music venues. But we soon discovered that portapotties (very well monitored) were closeby, as were wash-up stations and good food and drink. And we learned the routes to Centeroo and the lay of the land. Because I had a notion that I could actually keep an eye on three 17-yr-olds — plus ensure that they were hydrated, eating ok, and not getting lost — I walked at least 5 miles each day that first year. There’s no way to ease into Bonnaroo (not at the general admission camping level anyway), you have to jump right in.

Once I settled into the idea that this mass of dusty, grinning humanity would be my home for a few days, something magical happened. I relaxed. I felt at home. My own wards were ecstatic, bubbly and cheerful about everything, and kept in touch as much as possible. Random kids talked to me during our walks to Centeroo (where the music is) – me, a mom! – and asked me about my musical tastes, what bands I was going to see, gave me suggestions – and cared about what I said! When I started picking up bottles along the way in, kids helped me and started talking to me about the environment. They thought it was cool that I work for EPA. One kid said that he could tell I was into a mystical vibe, and suggested I catch a singer I had never heard of before, but who remains one of my favorites now. Back at the campsite, everyone made friends. Our neighbors, old hands at Rooing, offered water, juice, snacks, advice, and played the Byrds and the Decemberists (another great discovery that year). I discovered soon that I wasn’t the only mom there, nor the only one in my age range — although of course the majority are in their 20s or early 30s, there are a fair number of aging rockers every year. But really, age isn’t a big deal. Everyone is chill. Other years when I’ve gone to Roo with other 50-somethings, no longer were we stressed-out doctors, lawyers & architects with schedules and clients — we were just us, still up at 2 and 3 am, sitting on the ground eating yogurt & fritters and talking about bands. No worries.

I first went to Roo for the music — duh! Honestly, this is what it is about. Seeing the Police was what pushed me over the edge to buy tickets. An incredible calibre of acts, variety of music, and intensity of performances are common at Bonnaroo. That first year, I was standing just feet from the stage and Sting. (The 20-somethings must have noticed me swooning.) Flaming Lips put on an incredible trippy show, for which my daughter and her roommate were first row while her boyfriend and I watched from further back. I heard the genius of White Stripes, the karma-rich Michael Franti, and the dark intensity of the Decemberists. Other times I listened to Stevie Wonder as he brought songs up from the depths of my memories (I knew the words to every one); Springstein in his first festival appearance; the always amazing Dave Matthews. I dance more at Bonnaroo in 4 days than at any other time or anywhere else. (And if you just can’t stop dancing, the “Silent Disco” allows everyone to dance til dawn under a tent wearing headphones — passersby can’t hear the music, but can just see the synchronized movements of the crowd.)

Also amazing have been the bands and singers I never knew before — because I think it’s pretty scientifically proven that, famous or unknown, everyone gives their best performances at Bonnaroo. They are up, psyched, energized, empowered. And not infrequently, the bands themselves are bowled over by the experience, and it’s not just the size of the crowds. I’ve heard bands from newsomers to the Staples Sisters gush appreciation for the crowd. And Buffalo Springfield (yes, Neil Young et al) noted it was the largest audience they had ever played for! And they looked like they were having a blast.

Collaboration and jamming are hallmarks of Roo at its best. There are planned jams, but there are also surprise invitations by one band to another, or guys just show up and hop on stage (particularly in the wee hours). But the musical triumph of Roo is the diversity of the genres. I’ve heard some old Roo experts decry the commercialization as the festival has gotten bigger and more formal, and that may be valid compared with the earliest years — but in one festical I danced to Robert Plant, Loretta Lyn, Greg Allman and Eminem, not to mantion Preservation Hall Jazz Band and alternative Mumford &Sons. There’s country and bluegrass and southern rock and rock and electronica and rap and everything until the music itself starts to defy definition. Tearing down the walls separating genres, Bonnaroo just immerses us in the vibe, the beat, the spirit of live music. And that’s something you don’t get from going to a regular concert. It’s Music with a capital M.

So the music is why people go to Roo. But there’s so much more. Of course there are booths and food and all that. There is a whole area called Planet Roo devoted to environmental causes and discussions. It’s not just that the festival has become increasingly green, now recycling and composting an impressive volume of wastes from some 90 – 100 K people over the 4 days. Each year I have signed petitions, spoken with groups about their current projects, made friends. I participated in an invigorating and intuitive drum circle with some 20 or so others, accompanied by two dancers. I’ve made recycled art with old cardboard and paint, where each of us was given one color and told to share, encouraging discussion and artistic expression. I’ve decorated banners. I’ve joined others in early morning outdoor yoga, learned about organic gardening and worms, watched a tutorial on earth-building and learned about the construction of the Bonnaroo post office, a recycled tire and earth building. Did I mention I got free (Ben & Jerry’s) ice cream?

But the reason I go back is the community. The calls of “Bonna- ROOOOOOO” particularly ring out in the first 24 hours, as the tribe reaffirms itself and settles in. Roo is a small town of folks thrown together with common interests & a shared fondness of place. That aspect of Bonnaroo is what makes me sad to leave on the last day. (When I went with guys my age, one had been, off and on, mildly complaining each day about the heat, the walking, the dust, etc. Yet as we packed up Sunday evening, he suddenly realized he didn’t want it to end, either.) In our day to day lives, it’s not just that we have pressures of work and responsibilities for our families – we have insular lives. Despite families, friends and coworkers, and despite contact with the world through media every waking moment, we are not really in touch. Our days and our contacts are controlled and managed. We drive our cars along the same routes, meet with specific people on specific tasks, know what days we have to pay the phone and power bills.

At Roo, there are few walls – literal or figurative – between us. We are surrounded by each other with no goals except to hear and see and be. We don’t know who we will be standing next to at the next show. And everyone is pretty happy — it’s like the crowd at the Super Bowl, but with no losing team. Camping neighbors offer tips, food, and friendship. We talk to each other, we help each other, we enjoy each other. If it’s sunny and hot, you feel it and seek out shade, water and ice cream. When it rains, you get wet. When I return to the city and drive to the train station the first day after Bonnaroo, I notice the stark contrast to the Roo ritual of walking alongside these fellow townspeople to the venues in the morning.

What would our cities and towns be like if we walked a mile to work each morning, walking with and passing hundreds of our neighbors every day, and talked to each other? Would we be so polarized in our politics if we had danced with our adversaries the night before? And would it be so easy for some to ignore the need to protect and preserve our air, land and water if they were living in a small tent, hauling water from down the road, and feeling the dust of drought or the stickiness of humidity? Would some of us be less judgmental of people of different ages and backgrounds if we saw them applauding and singing with our favorite music, and if we tried to listen to their favorites too?

I can be accused of romanticizing Bonnaroo, but this is my experience. There are lots of reasons why I return to Bonnaroo year after year — the relaxation of a vacation, the music itself, the other experiences and learning that take place — but key is the sense of community in this quirky, temporary town populated by a mixed-up tribe of dusty but happy music-lovers, whether they are young or just feel young. And that’s why this week I will travel again to the middle of Tennessee, pitch my tent and my solar shower, get too much sun and too little sleep, and feel totally alive. Bonna-Rooooooooooo!

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Summertime and AC

I heard a discussion the other day on NPR on a new book by science writer Stan Cox,”Losing Our Cool”  http://www.amazon.com/Losing-Our-Cool-Uncomfortable-Air-Conditioned/dp/1595584897/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1279418307&sr=8-1, which deals with our current addiction to air conditioning.   Just a few days before, I had heard a news story reporting a local family’s ire at having been without AC for a few days and threatening to sue the manufacturer.  At the time I was more than amused, I was struck by how soft and spoiled that sounded.  Didn’t they even realize how ridiculous they were?  Unfortunately, probably not.   

Growing up in Atlanta in the 60s was hot and steamy, but that was the norm.  There was some AC, but when I visited my father in his office in the William Oliver Building downtown, the windows were all open and fans kept the secretaries cool.  I’m sure that wasn’t ideal for anybody.  We were past the days already when the fathers in Atlanta used to go home after lunch for a cool nap in the heat of the day, then return to the office til 6 or 7 on summer evenings.  Atlanta was already becoming a busy city.  My father wore a seersucker suit,  and I remember him commenting on being pretty “damp” when he got home.   But it was just life, along with the ding of typewriters and the clunk of the elevator down the hall.  

There’s no doubt it was hot, and we were bothered.  As the youngest of 8 kids, I was at the mercy of brothers and sisters to take me to the soda fountain up the street or down to the neighborhood pool.  We warded off the heat with cold Cokes, ice cream bars, and searching out cool concrete or stones to lie on in the shade.  I remember my clothes moldering in the drawers sometimes, and how my shirt would stick to me when I was out playing in the woods, and the sound of the attic fan droning on at night (which I imagined was muffling  all kinds of wild animal and monster noises as they crept into our house).  I’d fall asleep listening to the bugs hit the screens at night and watching the lightning bugs, which lit up the night back then.   When we first got a window unit in the “new room”  — an addition like a family room — we kids would run in and line up in front of it and just not even speak.  It felt like heaven. 

But we have gone past the use of AC to stave off the swelter, to overcooling our interiors to not only the detriment of our health but also our environment.  I went camping in June for 4 days in Manchester, Tennessee (with about 90,000 friends – Bonnaroo – but that’s a different story) and it was, honestly, hot as bloody hell.  Over 100 heat index every day, and I was pretty sweaty and gross, as were all other said 90,000 people.  We all learned to drink tons of water, stand like cows under available trees or in other shade, dress minimally, and enjoy the breezes that came.  The evenings were wonderful, as I felt the wind growing cooler as the shadows gathered.  The air was soft and gentle.  It felt real. 

On my way back at 3 AM, I stopped into a 7-11 for a Coke, and I felt like I’d stepped into a meat locker.  It was so freezing!  As I shivered, I asked the cashier if she wasn’t frozen with the AC on so high, and she looked at me like I was crazy.  It didn’t occur to me until I was back on the road that my body had simply acclimated to normal summer heat over that 4 days. 

As a review of Stan Cox’s book explains, “the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price. We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often — and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global  warming.”   http://tinyurl.com/32nhqwr   We spend as much electricity in the US for air conditioning to supply the entire continent of Africa with power for a year.  We have to get smarter about energy.  It’s one thing to buy CFLs and plug insulation gaps in our houses, but we have to also change our mindsets.  Although AC has gotten much more efficient over the past 20 years, it has also become more prevalent. 

It’s not just that Georgia Power is burning coal (mined in horrible fashion from the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky) and producing climate-changing carbon emissions in the dirtiest power plants in the country.  All that does mean a lot to me, and I cry when I see the videos of the coal companies blowing up the mountains, fouling the creeks and ruining forever both  human history and wildlife habitat.  The first 6 months of this year are now officially the hottest on record.  The poles are losing their ice, the glaciers are melting, polar bears are drowning — all of which also makes me cry.   

But it’s not just that.  It’s also that we are drowning.  The money we send to the power companies for AC is our time, and at 52, I can feel time’s winged chariot hurrying by, big time.   If I had half the power bill, could I take more time off?  Or could I then afford a week at the beach or another week camping?  When I think about it that way, it becomes a more imperative question.  

And even beyond that, what I’m coming to understand now is that less perceptible change in my connection to my surroundings, which realization came crashing down on me in that 7-11 at 3 AM.  I live in Atlanta because I love the place. I love the land, the river, the people, the food, the birds, the fact that I live 15 minutes from downtown but I have 60 foot pines towering over my back yard.  And while I would fight anybody that purported to separate me from those things I love, I’m just now seeing that I have myself inserted this artificial separation between myself and my place.   Its name is AC.  And I have to figure out how to change this.  

In the words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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Working with nature

A theme to be continued in this blog, working with nature seems like a no-brainer, but so many of our environmental and societal woes are due to working in direct contravention to the ways that nature has dictated for smooth sailing.  I was reminded of this just this morning. Driving through Chastain Park, I saw a large group of people, kids and adults, busy on the MLK holiday in a public service project to help this oft-used public park.  Noble gestures!  But among them were two guys with gas-driven blowers, hard at work at scouring the ground bare by removing the leaves, which others were busy bagging up to be taken away.  Why is there a misconception that leaves are bad??  Bare ground is prone to erosion, and the loss of topsoil in this country’s developed areas is an epidemic.  Healthy topsoil takes years to build, and erosion washes it into streams, where it smothers small plants and animals and clogs waterways.  Without the buffer of a mulch layer to slow the passage of rainfall, creeks become scoured by the increased speed and volume of runoff.  Bare soil allows seeds to wash right off instead of getting nestled down in mulch to have a chance to sprout and grow, and the bases of plants are left exposed to the elements — which right now are pretty unkind to growing things (hard freeze, 20s expected tonight).  You wouldn’t want to be standing out there tonight naked, why would you subject the roots of bushes and trees to the same fate?  The falling of leaves is part of the cycle of carbon and other nutrients to rejuvenate the ecosystem — when you remove a part of that budget, there is a lack.  The leaves provide cover to shield permanent growth from harsh winter conditions, and in the meantime the nutrients slowly break down into forms that can be assimilated by plants come spring for new growth. Remove that cover, and plants are weakened — remove the nutrients, and the plants will be further weakened unless the nutrients are replaced with fertilizers.  Don’t bag and remove leaves!  On grass, the best solution is to mow with a mulching mower to shred the leaves for easier breakdown and slow fertilization of the lawn or field.  If you must remove the leaves from the grass, move them as short a distance as possible and use them to shield plants and add to the nutrient budget.   But leaves are our friends!  Bare ground is not a good thing!   Nature abhors a vacuum, and doesn’t like bare dirt either!   When in doubt, work with nature!

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Hello world!

We’re at a tipping point on environmental awareness and action, particularly on climate change/global warming issues. With a new administration nearing and so much information flying around, how is a regular person supposed to know what’s real and what’s hype, and moreover — how can one person make a difference? That’s where SustainableSuburbia comes in! Even though, theoretically, I would personally love to pack up, leave civilization behind, and live off the land, somewhere, wherever that is, that’s not going to happen — I’m a mom, my kids are in highschool and applying to college, my 87-year-old mother lives nearby, I have friends I want to be close to, my kids want to be near their friends and not too far from Starbuck’s, and let’s face it, I like being 5 minutes from the grocery store and a few more from the movies. And my home, where I was born and raised, is Atlanta, the city that serves as the poster-child of sprawl. So if we’re stuck in suburbia, are we all doomed? I don’t think so! So in the framework of terminal optimism, but guided by a lifetime of learning about and serving the public on environmental matters, let’s give Sustainable Suburbia a go! Let’s consider this a grand adventure, and work together to reduce our waste, our carbon footprints, and all the other ways in which we adversely impact this beautiful planet — and let’s figure out some ways to actively help it as well.  I’ll cover topics as diverse as what difference do plastic bags make to insulating your home, to getting teenagers to see the (compact fluorescent) light.  Join me! And please feel free to share not only comments but your own experiences! Thanks for visiting, hope to see you again soon!

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