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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

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Photo credit: …Weather the Weather via photopin (license)

I am sloth incarnate.

I sit alone in a wing chair in the corner of my living room. The seat is an old friend and knows my shape by memory. It has already gone noon, but I remain rooted here, as I have done since early this morning, still clad only in a housecoat and slippers.

Like an animated, picture-perfect Christmas card, the snow is falling gently outside the living room window opposite me. Shrouding the landscape, the bare branches and the evergreen sentinels that comprise my view, in the tenderest of soft, white embraces. Except for the sound of the furnace engaging every now and again, and the metronomic constancy of the dining room clock calling out the passage of the seconds to me from around the corner, all is peace. The placid, untrammelled presence of early winter in the countryside.

It is the final day of my two-week Christmas break. I had plans aplenty to fill this day (as well as those that preceded it). Useful and vigorous schemes to “get things done around the house,” given that that I was going to have some extended “down time.” Now, however, there is only the complacency of my arse on a soft cushion. A tall stack of partially-read books rests companionable beside me, amongst which I flit like a busy, inconstant bee, drawn from one pretty, intoxicating bloom to the next. There appear to be some promising new releases on Netflix, as well. And, within reach, there’s a fresh, steaming cup of coffee…

And a lingering unease that it’s all slipping away too quickly. That I’ve used up these days of light and freedom far too indiscriminately. But I also know I must let such unease pass me by with nary a hint of recognition. For only if I am truly committed to wasting this final day will it, in turn, capitulate and reward me by offering up access to the depths of the recumbent, tranquil treasures it has in store.

The snow continues to fall. My books await. Tomorrow, sitting on a very different chair, in front of a screen straining under the burden of an inescapable digital avalanche, this peace will be a dim, unlikely memory.

I am sloth… 

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Down the Drain: You, Your Toilet and the Looming Water Crisis

Photo credit: jessicareeder via photopin cc

Photo credit: jessicareeder via photopin cc

My well pump died last Sunday which (a) left me with no water; and (b) left me reflecting — as I found myself sending my son next door to the neighbour’s to fill up an assortment of plastic water jugs every couple of hours or so — on how much fresh water it takes to run a modern, Canadian household. The result? Shock and awe.

I’ve always been a bit of a “tree hugger”. Granted, at this point in my life, it might be argued that I’m more of an environmental “self-identifier” than an “active fundamentalist”, but still, when all is said and done, the fact remains that I much prefer Mother Nature to Father Mammon.

As an architect, especially, I have always tried to pay close attention to how best to seek to limit the expenditure of scare resources, like energy and water, in the construction and operation of the structures I help to design and build. But it’s not always an easy sell, mostly because “greener,” more efficient buildings cost more money to build and nobody’s particularly thrilled about that initial, sometimes quite significant, up-front cost. The other part of the problem is that we aren’t typically in a position to understand or observe how wasteful we are with our resources in any meaningful or viscerally instructive way.

This hit me — personally — like a ton of bricks several years ago when my wife and son and I stayed at my wife’s parents’ house for a few days while they were out of the province. When we arrived and let ourselves in we soon realized there was some issue with their well pump and that we were going to be stuck without water until we got it fixed (like us, they live in the country so their water came from a drilled well rather than a piped municipal water supply). Luckily they also lived just across the street from a small country convenience store so I marched right over and bought a half a dozen of those big, four litre plastic jugs of water and lugged them — unless you do it every day, you don’t really appreciate how heavy it is to schlep bulk water — back to the house where I figured we’d now have enough water for at least a day or so and mentally assigned three or four of the jugs for on-going toilet flushing and a couple for drinking, cooking, making tea, brushing teeth, etc.

Very quickly, however, I realized the disconnect in my “mental math.” Even though the water I carried over from the store was really heavy and took up a lot of room on the kitchen counter, and even though as an architect I knew — intellectually — that the standard, older-style toilets in my in-law’s house were 13-litre per flush models rather than the newer-style, six-litre flush models that were just starting to find their way into the marketplace, it wasn’t until I physically stood over the toilet and poured three full, four-litre bottles of fresh drinking water in to the reservoir tank to flush a few hours of my family’s bodily waste down the drain that I had to stand back and think “WTF?”

For some reason, which I image had to do with the fact that a four-litre jug seemed like a lot of water (and weighed a fair amount), I had just assumed that each container would easily provide at least one complete flush. Four jugs, four flushes. If, as a family, we were judicious with our flushing, four flushes should easily get us through the day.

The problem, I suppose, is that toilet flushing, for those of us who are lucky enough too live in the “developed” world, is nothing short of magic — especially in as much as there’s a bunch of stuff going on in the background that we don’t usually perceive or pay conscious attention to. We push a lever and, WHOOSH, several ounces of urine, of which we have just rid ourselves, is neatly whisked away. But through what twisted, mind-dead scenario did we ever determine that it made good sense to use 13 litres of scarce, fresh drinking water to flush a few ounces of pee?

And, yeah, sure, I’ll grant you that the newly-required, code-mandated six-litre flush models have helped to cut water consumption for toilets by more than half (and the dual-flush models that also allow you to use a limited three-litre flush for liquid-only waste have minimized total consumption even further), but still, even using as little as three litres of water to flush away an average “urine event” of 0.207 litres (i.e. nearly a gallon to flush away 7 ounces) still seems like a poor use of a valuable, diminishing resource. Like trying to kill a mosquito with a sledge hammer.

I know I'm being emotionally manipulative here, but imagine having to look these boys in the eyes and tell them you waste at least 10,000 litres of drinkable water a year by simply urinating / dedicating into it. (Photo credit: US Army Africa via photopin cc)

I know I’m being emotionally manipulative here, but imagine having to look these boys in the eyes and tell them you waste at least 10,000 litres of drinkable water a year by simply urinating / dedicating into it. (Photo credit: US Army Africa via photopin cc)

And what lots of folks may not realize — ‘cuz unless you’re a plumber, who really gives this stuff much thought — is that the water that you flush your toilet with is exactly the same water that comes out of your taps and you use to drink and cook with. Potable (i.e. drinking) water enters your house via a single supply line and is then routed either to taps or toilets. But do we really need to use drinking-quality water to flush our toilets?

So, the next time you polish off a two litre bottle of pop, set it aside. Then finish a second one and set it aside. Then a third. When they’re all empty, fill them with water, carry them around the house for a bit, and then set them on your countertop. That’s how much water it takes to flush less than a cup of urine. Now multiply this by the more than 1,500 or so times a year you use the toilet in the run of a year. And multiply that by the more than 528 million people who live in North America.

Worried yet?

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz…

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The Yard by Philip Jefferson

It’s one of those wonderful late spring days here in my neck of the woods. Except for the fact it would be nice to see just a little more blue in the sky, it’s damn near perfect.

It’s not, for instance, so hot or humid yet as to have become uncomfortable. The temperature today is essentially non-temperature. It fits one’s body so comfortably and un-self consciously that you’re not sure where the breeze ends and your skin begins.

The birds are singing like they’ve rediscovered Eden and all the flora on my little one-acre homestead is ridiculously lush and verdant. In the full ripeness of its ultimate summer capacity. The giant, mature fruit trees in my front yard are slowly winding down from last week’s expansive flowering display; the delicate pink petals of the magnolia likewise, only just beginning their short freefall to earth.

The lilac, on the other hand, fragrant and old fashioned, is coming on strong now. Purpling up nicely. And even though I didn’t take nearly as much care as I should have to put my roses to bed for the winter last fall, they too are reaching for the sun. Even the Ingrid Bergman — my favorite — which I thought was a goner, is showing new growth.

The grass is freshly cut (and shows no signs yet of yellowing, which it will before August is through). Four of my eight perennial beds are weeded and partially mulched already (though I fear my few strawberry plants have become dangerously weed-infested this year and I haven’t had a chance to get to them yet). My white slat fence is newly painted and I’m a a third of the way through the edging on the stone walk-way to my front door.

As for myself, I’ve just had my first couple of lobsters of the season (yeah, living in Atlantic Canada, we’re a little spoiled when it comes to lobster). I’ve got a nice summer-time beer (with a hint ‘o lime) in hand, and I’m about to recline on the couch for a couple of hours — overlooking the tranquility of my freshly manicured front yard — reading The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (who I’ve only just discovered) and munching on super-soft, sour jujubes.

This is the kind of day I only ever encounter a couple of times a year (though I do often meet its “siblings” over the course of the remaining three seasons — check out A Walk in the Back Fields, for example). Later in the summer, as I have already noted, the grass will lose it’s emerald luster. And even by June some of the leaves will already start to die off for the year. By August, the foliage that surrounds my house will still be generally green, but it won’t shine like it does today. My crisply-edged, neatly-mulched flower beds will soon start to weed over again and any number of mundane work-a-day crises will prevent me from getting back to them in quite the timely manner in which, from the vantage point of June 2, I still hope to be able to tend to them.

Even for me, as of June 2, the summer still holds out its alluring promise of redemption. It hasn’t yet slid away without me logging a respectable number of weekly jogs, riding my bike to work on a regular basis or playing innumerable games of tennis with my son. But it will, as it does every year, and I’ll be kicking myself I didn’t take more advantage of it when I had the chance. As surely as tomorrow is Monday and it’s back to work.

But, for today, the birds are chirping in the background and my chesterfield awaits.

Enjoy your Spring.

The Calm Before the Post: Stalking my Inner Luddite

Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Photo credit: Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Consider this a pre-post. A teaser of sorts. Or a trailer, as they refer to it in the movie biz — though why they continue to call something they show before the movie starts a “trailer” still eludes me.

There’s a bunch of subject-specific stuff zooming around in the old noggin at the moment, but I’m not quite willing to generate a final post on it yet. It’s all still whirling — airborne, malleable, coalescing. I gotta wait for it to stop shifting and for the dust to settle on it for a bit yet.

What’s got me all in a lather? Kids and technology. Or, more specifically, I suppose, kids and their dependence on addiction to technology.

A couple of weeks ago I caught the tail end of a documentary on PBS that argued that being brought up with a strong connection to nature generally helps kids fare better later in their lives. The underlying theory, of course, is that having a reasonably sustained, direct exposure to the natural world — finding your way amongst the flora and fauna, appreciating the vicissitudes of the weather, learning how many tree trunks you need to nail that 2”x4” to before you can use it to support the floor of your tree-house, etc. — teaches you transferable, real-world, problem-solving-type skills that will be hugely valuable in your future life as an adult.

At this point, not pausing to analyze the premise too critically, I would have to say I’m in general agreement.

I stumbled upon the program when it was nearly over; when the teens in the show — urban and suburban kids who had been brought out to the “wilderness” to experience it first-hand for several weeks for probably the first time in their lives — were playing at ambushing each other with home-made bows and arrows, swimming in the the nearby streams and sitting companionably around the camp fire. Idyllic sylvan frolicking all around. Many of them were a little homesick, and a few of them generally thought the whole exercise was “stupid” and sorely missed the conveniences of their “real” lives, but these certainly aren’t foreign emotions to any kid who has ever left home for summer camp.

It was when the kids returned to the bosom of their families, however, that things started to go south for me. Upon returning home, one of the remaining challenges the filmmakers wanted the group to undertake was a “technology fast,” to see how long they could fare without jumping right back on the “virtual” bandwagon where they had left off. It was voluntary, so some agreed to go ahead with it and some didn’t. Those who declined to participate in the fast walked in the door of their homes and were soon once more stationary in front of one type of screen or another, once more cresting the horizons of their digital frontiers.

Of those who agreed to participate in the fast I’m not sure that anyone lasted more than a day (maybe two days, tops) without being overwhelmed by their addiction and having to return to their smart phones and computers in fairly short order. And it was one young girl’s “video diary,” after only a single day back in the “world,” that ultimately sent me reeling. This poor young thing, who, ironically, was one of the kids who actually seemed to have some fun out in the woods, was nearly trembling with withdrawal symptoms as she spoke into the camera about how she absolutely had to get back to her cell phone. That she just couldn’t hold out any longer. My heart nearly broke. This child — our children — have become literal technology junkies.

I remember experiencing a similar feeling of desperation about six months ago after stumbling upon a blog in which a mother was describing how upset she was at having to develop an arsenal of new strategies to talk with her young daughter about many of the things the daughter was seeing other girls post on Facebook relating to “cutting” themselves. I think the daughter was 10- or 11-years old. I can’t for the life of me remember what series of random clicks would have ever brought me to such a web page to begin with, but what I can remember thinking about at that point was what kind of parents would let their child have their own Facebook accounts at that age in the first place? Hello?

But here’s where it gets complicated. I’m a huge fan of technology — always have been. I love gadgets and gaming and blogging and essentially having the entire world available to me at my fingertips via the internet (though I hate texting and despise Facebook, but that’s probably fodder for a whole ‘nother blog). I couldn’t earn my daily bread without a computer and a cell phone (though millions of architects have in the past!) and, truth be told, I also frequently turn to technology to soothe my weary soul via streaming entertainment in some form or another.

But when it comes right down to it, my relationship with technology is probably very similar to my relationship with, say, booze. Like most folks, I enjoy a drink every now and then — maybe even several, given the right occasion and venue — but no one I know, by any stretch of the imagination, could ever call me an alcoholic. I’m an adult. I know when enough is enough. On the other hand, I think it’s damn near impossible these days to find a kid who’s not a “technoholic,” who even begins to comprehend what “enough” means.

Where I live the drinking age is 19-years old, and, for the most part, this limitation seems to do a reasonable job of preventing those who are still honing their emerging decision making skills from becoming mindless drunkards. Maybe we need something similar where technology is concerned. Maybe we need to establish an age of “digital” majority. All things being equal, maybe we’d be better off helping our kids learn to experience, appreciate and contend with real life before letting them escape down the rabbit hole of virtual life.

I dunno. Like I said at the start of this post, I got this issue stuck in my head and I’m simply trying to think / write my way through it. What I do know, however, is that pretty soon my son’s probably going to be the only teenager in junior high school without a cell phone and that any minute now my in box is probably going to start filling up with hate mail from every kid on the internet who thinks a digital age of majority is probably the worst idea since some sadistic old fart invented school in the first place.

Am I serious? I’m not sure yet. Is such an approach simply little more than a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater? Might I actually be a Luddite in techie’s clothing? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

Feel free to weigh in.

A Walk in the Back Fields

The Path by Day. (Photo: Philip Jefferson)

The Path by Day (Philip Jefferson)

I’m restless tonight.

The sun’s long gone, but it’s not fully dark yet. The snow — almost a light sleet — races earthward through the glow of my back porch light with a neat, linear verticality. I need to be in it. Moving through it.

Coat, boots, cap. I’m out the door, and a minute up the country road on which I live, turn onto the tractor lane leading to the back fields. Now that I’m away from the house lights, it’s darker than I thought. The trees and hedgerows merely vague outlines against the lighter canvass of snow. Their edges marginally distinct against the creeping night, blurred by the gauze mask of the snow further obscuring the fading vistas spread out around me. I can feel the tender needlepoint of the crystalline precipitation brush my cheeks, but otherwise I discern the flakes as little more than a whispered presence, carried to me on the breeze.

I love this short path back to the fields. Two wheel ruts in the red earth, separated, then flanked, by ridges of tall grass. The grass verge, in turn, flanked by a copse of trees — a ragtag mixture deciduous and coniferous — on either side. Verdant and full in the spring and summer, and cut through with a vein of crisp copper accents in the fall. Tonight however, there is only the glow of the fresh snow forging a gentle arc through the line of trees, themselves radiant under a generous dusting.

I pause, as I always do, and and feel the instinctive pull of the path’s distant vanishing point accentuated by the enclosure of the branches forming a natural arbour above me. The wind — more of a heavy breeze really, stiff and companionable, hardly out to confront or overwhelm — is at my back. The scene is perfect, as only such snowscapes can be. The world at once luminous and strangely muted, as if there is only you — there has only ever been you — alone within this crisp embryo of nature.

Other images race to my mind — they’re simply impossible to control. Robert Frost “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” with “…miles to go before I sleep.” Or Thoreau, hiking back to Walden through a darkening winter’s night in the Concord countryside. I can know these men through instants such as this. The veil of time falls away and they are here, beside me.

And I shiver, because perhaps Washington Irving is here with me as well. It’s hardly Hallowe’en, but this is certainly a horseman night — and it’s definitely a horseman path. And I marvel at the fact that my adult mind can still play these tricks on me. That darkness and solitude and exposure can still stir some faint primal unease — long-buried beneath the detritus of modernity — and generate a tremor more spine-tinglingly thrilling than any celluloid slasher flick.

I trudge forward to the end of the path, then down the edge of the first long field to the sparse hedgerow at the end. Pause for a breather and look out over the expanse of the next field. Then I turn my face into the wind and hunch forward a little, preparing for my return.

With the snow blowing toward me now, I keep my head down, peaked cap pulled low above my eyes. A more contemplative passage for the homeward leg. Trudging in reverse against my previous footfalls, thoughts turning inward as my perspective is constricted to a narrow slice of track in front of me. So busy inside my head — doing little more than trying not to think of anything — that I’m back to where the path starts through the trees again in no time.

And I stop. And wait. Because I don’t want what I’m feeling out here to end. I turn my back to the wind once more and lift my head to face the fields where night has now taken hold. The tickling of the snow against my cheeks is like the dance of innumerable, stark pinpricks of life. I close my eyes to to try to imprint these sensations, these emotions, in my mind. I feel the night against the delicate, sensitive skin of my eyelids, and the sound of my world is stillness.

Try as I might, its impossible to carry such peace back to the house with me.

Words fall short, but they carry a map of sorts. That’s probably as much as we can hope for.