Just Not Made that Way

Madeline Holler at Salon has a rather cute essay about her failures at becoming a radical homemaker. On my first quick skim through it (it was sent to me by several readers, so thanks!), I was inclined to give it a total pass, because I found myself rather liking Holler, and sympathizing to an extent.

At least she was trying to live on a comparatively lower income. At least she made the yogurt. If she really hated it, well, at least she was sort of trying to live up to her principles - something all of us have a tough time doing. I may make my own bread, but I have my own hypocrisies.

My family's $36,000 was tight and did not include a garden -- or France. I marveled at the fact that we managed. Also? I sort of hated it.

I hated the insecurity, that we weren't funding our retirements, or college or savings.

I hated being left behind. By then, our friends had settled into careers, started families, entered escrow. While they drove new hybrids all over town hunting down backsplashes for new Viking stoves, I was loading up on two-for-one gallons of milk or racing to the zoo before 9 a.m., where I had heard the parking lot attendant would wave me in for free.

In the drop-off line at preschool, tiny mothers climbed like mountain goats into SUVs the size of K2. Our lifestyle came off as quaint or quirky, and these moms sweetly waved down to me in our '97 Nissan Altima, the difference in altitude fitting.

Which is a terrible attitude for a borderline radical.

I left it up on my screen, though, for a few minutes, and happened to read back through it again, and the second time it troubled me more. Yes, it was cute. Yes, she gets some credit for trying. And yes, few of us can fully separate ourselves from the status issues we've been inculcated with, and confessing that is ok, even good. There's no reason for all of us to be walking around pretending that we don't sometimes feel crappy when we look poor.

And yet, where have I heard this one before? Why does this part sound so familiar to me?

Not exactly. What I am is ambivalent. In the last few years, even mainstream culture has been all about green living, hyper-locavorism, Michael Pollan and his five ingredients. Even the biggest corporations attempt to tread lightly on the planet -- BP being a notable exception. Really, there's never been a less embarrassing time to drive a '93 Ford Festiva, which I sometimes do. The economic meltdown has made frugal living fashionable, purposeful and much less quaint. But go radical? I just can't.

I wasn't raised on a farm (Hayes was), and I've never kept a basil plant alive from one caprese salad to the next. I don't trust myself with a bread starter, much less livestock. Imagining total reliance on a backyard farm makes me cry for my starving children. I am comforted by our growing 401K. And I can't help it: A little piece of me dies when I notice the baby sitter drives a nicer car than us.

Hayes has an answer for my reluctance: Radicalizing one's homemaking is a process. First, you renounce (Satan's not the boss of me! Fuck Crate and Barrel), then you reclaim (you learn how to can). Finally, you rebuild, which means convincing others to radicalize, too. No one gets there overnight. Or, in my case, ever. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Like a majority of Americans, I'll always prefer direct deposit to getting paid in chicken eggs. I'm comfortable with the smile-and-wave relationships I have with most of my neighbors. While I share the Radical Homemakers' family, environmental and social justice values, the way they propose bringing about change requires too much of the kind of work I frankly don't want to do. I'm fine giving up stuff. But I can't imagine spending afternoons rendering fat and lacto-fermenting cucumbers. That would be too much like shoveling rocks, even if it wasn't for Satan.

Oh, wait, I remember. I've heard it from assorted guys over the years, who just grin and shrug and say "I'm just not good at doing laundry." Or "I never get the diapers changed properly, they always leak, so my wife does it." It reminds me of an ex of mine who, when I asked when it would be his turn to clean the toilet he said "I just don't notice the toilet and you do." Mmmmhmmmm...

But this isn't just about men. This is about privilege - and privileged women do it too. "Oh, I just never get the floors as clean as Maria does!" "I don't have the patience to be with my kids all the time, plus I didn't spend so many years in graduate school to wipe noses all day."

There's a kind of willful incompetence that is endemic in our society, and it is the territory of privileged folks who characterize basic, functional human work as something you need a special gift for. And this serves them well As long as you don't know how to do something, and can naturalize your "flaws" as just "how you are made" you don't have to apologize for the fact that you are sticking someone less privileged with your work. In fact, you can totally sympathize with them, and totally care about justice for people just like them - at the same time that they get paid badly or treated badly for doing work you could do too.

If these are innate personality factors, there's no reason to ask the question, why is it that Mrs. Sen is always so much better than you at wiping behinds, and why it is your wife doesn't have the same problem with diaper leaks?

In a society that in no way stigmatizes most kinds of manual incompetenece, these naturalized categories manage to reinforce divisions of class and race and social justice. Thus, Madeline Holler can totally share Shannon Hayes's values and take full credit for that sharing.

The problem is that she's just not radical enough in her makeup - she just can't help dying inside because someone has a better car than she does. But she's a really good person and wishes she was different - she really, really cares. And presumably, even though she can't actually lactoferment cucumbers, her caring extends, then to the industrial food worker (probably not white) who will lactoferment the pickles she eats. She presumably cares about that person's class and social standing, and justice for them - just not enough to do anything about it.

And as long as this is purely an issue of personality, of hating or loving a particular kind of work, and the right to only mostly do things you just love, that's cool. But this only works because you leave out all the context, and all the things that can be conveniently unsaid. After all, she tried making the yogurt. She didn't enjoy it. It wasn't as good, and that's where her responsibility stopped. .

Except that not liking domestic labor does not mean your family stops making use of domestic labor - in fact, all of us use a whole lot of it. And it always has to get done by a person - there are no robot maids. Holler would rather die than lactoferment her own cucumbers, but there's no evidence that she and her family don't eat pickles. She doesn't want to make bread, but she presumably eats it. She can't keep a basil plant alive, but she speaks of salad caprese in way that suggests she likes to eat basil.

By framing this as a purely personal issue "some people are just made in a pickle-making kind of way" and as a matter of competence "I couldn't possibly grow a cucumber, that must be the territory of other people, raised on farms, whose social status is already determined..." we led implicitly to assume that the pickles that she then eats will be grown and made by people who just love growing cucumbers and making pickles - that there is a natural sorting into "pickle people" and "nonpickle people" in the world, and that this is good and just and everyone is happy. Except, of course, that's bull.

Maybe Holler is one of the rare people who is sufficiently affluent to buy every single thing she owns ethically. Maybe she gets her bread from the local craftsman-baker and the pickles from the farmer's market where there's someone who lovingly grows and makes them - those people exist. Maybe she gets everything that way - fair trade and ethically produced and local. The problem is that the pickle maker and the craftsman demand a fair prices for their labor, and that's hard. It is hard when you also have to buy a more expensive hybrid, pay the Nanny social security, make sure the lawn guy gets a living wage from the service... Living fairly is pricey if you are going to pay someone else to cover all your domestic labor.

The thing is, most people don't have that kind of money, but there's nothing magical about our lives that made the hard domestic work go away - we still eat, we still use the toilet, we still have to get things cleaned, managed, taken care of. So we pay people to do this work - but almost none of them make a truly living wage. Maybe we make our choices in one place, buying the good bread, but then we cut corners in another, not paying a full wage to the Nanny or buying the cheap mayo. We spend a lot of time pretending that the whole industrial system isn't fully of poorly paid people less privileged than people like Holler, and that we're not participating fully in it.

So what happens if Holler's family has money issues (which she leads us to believe she does) and not enough millions to pay everyone fully and fairly - like most of us. Will her pickles be made by people who love pickle making and are innately talented at growing them?

Well, maybe. But odds are not. Holler's family's pickles will probably be grown and picked by migrant laborers working for virtual slave wages in the hot sun. They won't get paid for any that don't fit the precise specifications of the pickle factory, even if they do the work of picking them. They also can't miss work, often have inadequate sanitation, can be fired for being sick and often deported for being them.

The pickle pickers get exposed to pesticides and get physical injuries from squatting in the field, always under high pressure to harvest more and more for the pickle companies. It may well be that these folks (it is entirely a coincidence that they are not white, of course) always and only dreamed of being migrant laborers, and think that's what they are best at, and dream of for their children. It may also be the only kind of work they can get, even though they are not innately talented at it - maybe even less talented than Holler is at this.

The pickles will be made by poorly paid food workers who stand for many hours sorting cucumbers or with their hands deep in brine that causes sores and makes their skin break out in rashes. They will get repetetive strain injuries from sorting cukes. It is possible, of course, that they love this work and dreamed their whole childhood of being a pickle maker, of the pride and status that comes with doing that for a major corporation. It is also possible, of course, that they didn't.

Again, it will be totally a coincidence that the people who do this are poorer and often not white. And total coincidence that they get paid so very poorly, and probably drive worse cars than Hollers - after all, they should have been born the kind of people who hate pickle making and feel ashamed of their cars!

Now again, we know that Holler shares the values that Shannon Hayes has, the goals that she articulates in her book about trying to achieve a more just society. We know this because Holler says so. In fact, Holler presumably believes deeply in them. And she's willing to keep believing just as hard as she can that these values are really important. She's definitely out there caring, all day long, and even spends some time each day feeling bad when she hears about injustice, I'm sure. And because she's done the hard, exhausting work of caring and feeling bad and believes that things should be better, she totally should get a pass from the fact that she's not actually doing anything to deal with issues of the environment or social justice. Anyone who feels that hard should definitely get the credit!

Now radical homemaking is not the only possible solution to the problems of the world, but it is one part of one - a way of taking responsibility for your own consumption and your own messes. If you are not affluent enough to pay people fairly for their work, if you are not going to be able to buy the pricey hybrid, maybe you can still do something besides waiting for your lottery number to come up so you will then be able to save the world. You could make your own pickles. You could drive less. You could scrub the coop toilets. It might not always make you feel good. You might not always like it, or feel that it was work worthy of your august self. And yet, it might still be the right thing to do.

Moreover, it might not be an issue of competence, personality or affluence at all. Sometimes it is a matter of right and wrong For example, I don't like to sew. Given a choice, frankly, when my kids rip a pair of jeans, I'd like to throw them out and buy a new one, rather than spend fussy hours repairing them. But those jeans came from cotton, grown in the third world, heavily sprayed by chemicals that contaminate the soil. They were made by shop workers who were also tired, and also put in long hours. If I go buy another one, I support the industry, I support the cotton spraying and the child labor and the sweatshops. I know that. So let's think - whose pain and suffering is more important, mine or the 15 year old girl in the sweatshop? Mine or the peasant farmer in Benin spraying toxics without even a mask? I might have to spend a whole half hour doing something I really hate - obviously, it is me who needs liberation. Besides, I suck at sewing.

Of course, that's because I'm allowed to suck at sewing - this isn't rocket science, but because no one ever made me learn (ok, I'm pretending that I never had my seventh grade home ec teacher, bless her), it is just too hard for me. Never mind that there are plenty of things that I'm not particularly talented at that I've somehow managed to learn to do over the years. Never mind that we assume that everyone, barring a disability, regardless of mathematical talent, needs to learn things like arithmetic and basic algebra, and that even people with disabilities that make it hard for them need to learn to read and write. We never ask "are you talented at these things, honey...no, ok, pass."

I'm sorry, but any idiot can grow a basil plant. Any idiot can make pickles. Any idiot can bake a loaf of bread. Any idiot can repair a seam. You may not like these things. You may find it frustrating and difficult to master the skill set, and you may hate being bad at them for the time that it takes to get good. Trust me, I'm right there with you. You may not choose to do them because you may find other ways to live ethically in the world than doing them yourself. But you do not get to pretend that they are just too hard for you. You do not get to pretend that you are just not the kind of person who loves picking cucumbers, and that the people who do it for you do it from love and joy. You do not get to pretend that those people are not fully real, you do not get to erase the environmental, personal and economic harm you do in the system because you don't want to do something.

Willful incompetence and the framing of these issues as trivial ones of personal taste and choice masks the real and deep issues that underly our "personal choices." Hayes makes very clear in her book what these issues are - and offers an out. Holler seems to have missed that part of the book, along with the part that talks about domestic equity. There's never any mention of the possibility that her husband could have made some yogurt or planted a basil plant. He's there only as the inadequate breadwinner, making it hard for her. But that's not the kind of marriage - or the kind of homemaking Hayes is proposing, nor what I propose when I talk about creating a real home economy. It is a full participant project - and both of you can grow the basil, or even do it together.

Holler gets a pass here from most people because she's free to fail - we've managed to conceal the environmental costs of our "personal choices" so well that we don't really think very clearly about them. We carry a cloth bag and crank up the a/c at the same time. These are, after all, just statements of who we are - we're both environmentally conscious and terribly heat sensitive.

Holler can lament how hard the work is to find a coffee table on Craigs List or scrub the potties at her coop preschool - because we are not required to think about who will scrub the toilets at a school she sends her kids too where all she has to do is drop a check. We are not required to ask whether the wood in the Crate and Barrel coffee table came from tropical rainforests being deforested, or whether the people who assembled it were treated fairly or even adults. If we care about those things, those too are just personal choices of ours - we're identifiable as having a set of cool values, being part of the cool environmentalist crowd. But we could just as easily choose to be the kind of person who cares, but doesn't do jack - and that's ok too. There's no real hard moral choices here, no right, no wrong, no good, no bad in this view. Of course, that's a lie. But it is a common and persuasive lie.

I'm ok, you're ok, and why are those poor people working so very hard? Why don't they just pay someone else to clean their toilets, take care of their kids and make a salad caprese? Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that you've outsourced your domestic labor to them and pay them badly? I'm picking on Holler here, but only because her essay is such good evidence of the fact that we've erased all moral qualities, all right and wrong, and vast inequities into the culture of personal choice.

I tried, says Holler, and those like her. I cared, says Holler. I just wasn't good at it. It takes a special person to both give a shit and try and live their convictions, and I just wasn't made that way. But if I was, I totally would do it, and so I should definitely get the credit for almost caring.



More like this

You have made some excellent points.

By Christopher Gwyn (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

Yes. So very much yes.

This mirrors arguments I've been having with the boyfriend: "but I'm not good at this!" is no excuse to:
a) ignore work that needs to be done (from dishes to floor cleaning to fixing bikes to making bread)
b) get out of doing any of the above
c) remain ignorant

Sometimes, sure, there's a question of time: there are so many hours in a day, and you can't do everything, so prioritizing what you value and use is logical. But the idea of saying "I'm not good at this, so I'm going to pass the buck and remain ignorant", and doing that voluntarily... eek. no.

(Also, learning to make yogurt isn't rocket science. Nor is maintaining bread starter, cooking from scratch, canning, preserving and drying food, or using simple wood tools. Or keeping a basil plant alive, assuming access to sunshine and water. And this comes from a mid-20s professional living in a very small urban apartment with no yard.)

I am old enough to remember when being capable at something outside your paid work gave you a little extra status.

The woman who knitted her own sweaters or grew a beautiful garden, the guy who could get your car to run or fix your TV..( that sounds very gender stereotyped, but that was the reality) they were admired for their abilities.

Sometime ago that changed; I'm not sure why. It seems people are not only comfortable with ignorance but oddly proud of it.

And so ... when meat is sold for $ 0.29 / pound they never ask just what was that poor animal fed so that 3 or 4 people are still making a profit.

This has interesting timing for me. Because I've just been feeling guilty over getting distracted from searching for property and putting together a farm business plan, by the summer preserving season... I have been feeling guilty for wanting to can and preserve. Come to think of it, I have taken a great deal of grief from friends and family for years for my canning, cooking, baking and preserving. They like the food, but they call me crazy. Except dear husband, who, returning from a work trip this morning, brought home Oregon grapes as a gift for me, so we could make jelly. I do love that man's appreciation of the household arts.

There simply aren't enough hours in the day for me to point a morally accusative finger towards people who defend a business as usual lifestyle. Ultimately, striking an outraged tone and trying to make them feel guilty for their sins doesn't accomplish much. People just dig in their heels and get defensive.

Getting on the moral high horse just doesn't play on main street! Ultimately it all boils down to cost. Water kind of seeks its own level, you know? When you have money, you tend to spend it towards time-saving comfort and conveniences. When you don't, you adapt. The frog needs to boil in the pot.


Good one. I like it when you send out the burn.

That is almost the reverse from round here where the stigma is attached to getting someone else to do stuff. Unless you are elderly or ill, you are expected to do all the home things yourself. Anything else is seen as lazy (always excepting the odd high powered job).

There has been a creeping fast food issue in poor areas and convenience food has made a fairly big impact but my yuppyish sister still makes all her own pickles and a lot of preserves as well as clothes and lots of diy round the house - along with my brother in law!

I'm not good at clothes making but I will mend them until they are unmendable. I haven't done yogurt but I do bread some of the time and all meals and cleaning etc. It's part of our joint effort house management. I wouldn't be seen dead using stuff made by poorly paid slaves because I've been there and it isn't good even at local and more generous rates and hours.

Basically, the economy has to work for everyone properly or it just isn't worth supporting.

Oh and I make a mean line of tomato relish/apple jelly:)

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

Thank you I am now going to go and fix the hole in the fence the pig keeps escaping through that I was leaving for my husband because he fixes fences better and quicker than I do.....yikes looking in that mirror made me squirm ;)

"...any idiot can grow a basil plant" ---- ?

I've ALWAYS had good luck growing basil, but now the stakes have been raised IMPOSSIBLY high.

There were a lot of great reader comments appended to Holler's essay as well.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink


I won't argue the social issues you raise.

At the individual level, though, what Holler faces is mostly about fear - fear of change.

The Tarot card deck depicts change as disaster (the Lightning Struck Tower), or a "little death" as the life that went before is cleared away, to make room for the new life to follow. I say that change -- such as learning, revising life choices, or overcoming obstacles and impediments -- is measured in pain or discomfort.

People are inherently repetitive. We tend to persist in our ways. Whether you call persistence a work ethic, stick-to-it-ive-ness, addiction, habit, vice, or following your muse or dream, we tend to repeat what we are doing unless we encounter something that causes us to change. A cause for change may be a compelling idea or argument, or a physical disruption of our resources.

One of the science fiction authors I (re)read recently (Mike Shepherd? David Weber? Elizabeth Moon? Sharon Lee and Steve Miller? I don't recall.) mentioned that "some are born to greatness, some rise to greatness, and greatness is thrust upon some." I think the truer expression of that, is that some choose to change, some change to meet opportunity, and for others -- change is thrust upon them, will he, nil he.

Holler is dabbling in change. She encountered the common issues of change -- it was uncomfortable, her first untrained attempts were barely successful or unsuccessful -- so she quit. There may be class issues creating social pressures that affect what makes her uncomfortable, the arguments about what her choices -- and failure to master the changes and the skills they require -- mean in a larger social or ecological sense are side issues. She stopped because change, including growth and learning, is measured in pain. And she flinched.

It would be easy to say that she acted in an immature fashion. Children resist learning and resist change that is imposed from without (I seem to remember something about unschooling and learning efficiency). We associate maturity with accepting authority, with accepting the vagaries of fate that lives throws our way, of doing what we find must be done. That is, we learn to accept the discomfort and reluctance of change. Possibly the privileged are more prone to flinch at a bit of discomfort. But I doubt that the privileged are any more resistant to change than the poor or middle class. Some proportion master change as if born to it, some rise to the test when they encounter it - and others are dragged kicking and screaming when necessity exists.

Behavioral inertia - fear of change - is a potent force. Merely factual arguments that fail to adequately move a given person will be ineffective. The argument won't be persuasive, until it actually motivates the listener to overcome the inertia of persisting in today's choices and actions. The alcoholic, the smoker, the overeater, those raised in an era of cheap energy - merely factual analysis and argument won't accomplish much. What is required, for those avoiding the thrust of a need for change, is to address that fear of change that binds them to where they are today.

The corollary is that at the macroscopic level, that of our society, we're also wilfully incompetent.

We'd love to give up our addiction to oil/cars/iGimmicks, but we can't quite get ourselves to do it.

"Defiantly incompetent" might be a better term for it.

Interesting read, thanks. I'm sure there's a reason why references to pickles are so frequent (I can't stand them, gross)... but am grateful for a thought provoking post nonetheless.
It's actually inspired me to chuck some pumpkin seeds in the ground and just see if this idiot can grow them.

"There's a kind of willful incompetence that is endemic in our society, and it is the territory of privileged folks who characterize basic, functional human work as something you need a special gift for."

You hit the nail on the head, Sharon!

By Audrey Gerkin (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

I'm learning to spin (purely as a hobby), and I see exactly the same thing with that. People are utterly convinced that some bizzare spinning gene is needed for a skill that most pre-industrial women learned in toddlerhood. Yes, it takes time to get good. Yes, it requires concentration. No, I'm not the possessor of magical craft powers.

In fact, it's rather insulting to have the effort you make to learn a skill and get good dismissed as innate (and thus lucky) talent.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

"any idiot can grow a basil plant" - even when the alternative is buying basil cheap at the supermarket?

No. the existence of an easy out, takes growing basil plants out of the "any idiot" category.

Sure the "easy out" entangles us in all kinds of racism, classism, dependency and other problems. But that IS HOW OUR CULTURE WORKS.

You can't stop being racist overnight, because you wake up and realize it is wrong. It takes long term continual moral effort. Same thing with classism or dependence on affluence. You make it sound like a matter of simple choice, when it is far closer to an addiction.

I think that's what worries me about the moral tone of your attack on Holler. It's like "any idiot can not smoke a cigarette." Why is she whining about it being hard to live up to her convictions? Why is she making excuses when she backslides? Because she is trying to break a powerful addiction, and addiction to "getting other people to do the hard work for you cheap and not even feeling guilty about it, because its all hidden behind a lot of reasonably opaque economics." And its an addiction that SOOOO many Americans share, that even TRYING to break it is seriously swimming upstream. But if she whinges about it, she gets called a moral baby, by a skilled mistress of snark who'd rather hold the higher ground.

Most of the time I feel more like Holler than like Sharon. We (my wife and I) are really trying to change our lifestyle, and we are really only making slow progress with plenty of backsliding and failures. We certainly don't have anything like Sharon's level of success, and I usually envy her. Perhaps that means I'm guilty of willful incompetence, but that's not quite right. I was raised for decades, by parents, schools, and society to develop competences in earning money in a morally bankrupt society. I have plenty of competences. But I don't have many morally clean competences.

Any idiot can bake a loaf of bread ... well, but not to the quality level available cheap in our culture. If you grew up on industrial bread (full of added HFCS BTW, and not that much like what a home baker can produce), then you might be deeply disappointed by what you can do yourself in comparison. Addiction to Affluence? Yup, but recognizing it doesn't make the problem go away.

Are billions of people raised in ways VASTLY less affluent than Americans, some in third world poverty, some in better conditions than that but still much less wealthy than us. Sure. But I'M "just not made that way" maybe with decades of work to undo the decades I've spent adapting to American affluence I can live more like less affluent people do. But it will take decades, and I'm going to whinge, and you can just lace into me too if you want Sharon.

I remember long ago when Barbie said "Math is hard" and all the fury it created. You know what? "Trying to live a moral lifestyle in a profoundly immoral culture is hard." I'm not giving up on fighting my addiction to affluence, but I'm a lot like Holler. I tried, I cared, I'm not very good at it. It DOES take a special American to both give a shit and try to live their convictions, look at how few Americans are trying, and how many fewer are succeeding. Voluntarily giving up affluence because of your convictions is a different thing than being forced into it. Voluntarily growing basil when you could easily buy it cheap is a very different thing than just plain growing basil.

Excellent post!

It is about time that the terms of this discussion change from choice to privilege. I often forget why my family is choosing to try living with less and growing more of our food. We so often assume that the easy options will always be available for us, and that our choices have no impact on others. Re-framing the discussion so that everybody affected by our choices is included at least gives us a chance to make an informed decision about buying or making pickles!

Acknowledging the costs of our privileges does not mean we have to give all of them up! I am not prepared to give up owning a car just yet ... it allows my family to do many things that we otherwise could not. But we do try to minimize our use of it because owning a car is a huge privilege.

"A little piece of me dies when I notice the baby sitter drives a nicer car than us." When/why did so many Americans begin to admire those who go into debt? It's a trap--in this case, a trap for posers. Most of My Fellow Americans are Nutz.

Another one of your REALLY annoying posts. :-) You know, the ones that make me want to haul you off in a corner and REALLY discuss it.

Just two additional points. The quest for "status" is a deep seated primate thing; and is not going away. As far as I know, 100% of primate social behavior studies show them struggling to establish the pecking order; and being higher up on the pecking scale DOES have ramifications of the success of the offspring. Children of higher status parents have higher status in their own circles; better access to food, less stress, and on and on.

That piece of it is going to be very difficult to change. What we have to do is confer real, broadly recognized status for things not associated with material wealth. So far, we suck at it.

Two; the stigma attached to physical work is now deeply embedded in our culture. I think it IS cultural, not biological; but that does not mean it's any easier to change.

My example; our theoretically most trained and skilled thinkers; professors in academia; still have a completely unexamined primary goal in their research; to reduce the amount of physical labor all humans must do. "This research of mine could result in a significant reduction in the hours of onerous work needed to accomplish this goal!" they still crow; and they're quite sincere in thinking that's a good thing. Just a few of them have recently admitted "This is really cool. It IS a disruptive technology, which investors love, since profits tend to be very large. It will result in the elimination of some thousands of jobs, permanently."

Re-directing all of Academia (ok, quit rolling on the floor) to work towards a world with more personally rewarding lives for us proles out here, instead of a world with less and less "onerous work" we have to do- is a really huge iceberg to push on.

See? Now we need to talk about that. :-)

"I am old enough to remember when being capable at something outside your paid work gave you a little extra status. "

I remember being with someone once who was irritated by how much time I spent talking with others, usually labourers of one kind or another (a mechanic, an electrician, a few carpenters, a gardener) and how many questions I would ask and how much attention I would pay to them. Those who worked w their hands obviously weren't as clever as he was. (He was somewhat clever - but not very bright.) And they were older, younger, poorer, whatever - not worth spending so much time with them.

Finally in frustration I said "LOOK at what they do. LOOK at how good they are at it!" "So?" "So, besides the fact I'm simply interested, that this is a chance for me to learn something completely outside my realm of experience, they are obviously competent at what they do. And competence is sexy."

I didn't really realise until that moment how true it is (for me). I find competent people attractive. The more areas in which they are capable, the more attractive they are - and the areas can be anything. One of the kindest, most patient, most prayerful person I know is one of the most attractive to me.

And b/c of the level of importance I attach to them, I find myself wanting to be worthy in their eyes, and it encourages me to constantly better myself. Not to the point of one-up-manship or even competition, but so that I can learn what makes them tick and have have some common ground with them.

To someone who grows all the produce for the year, perhaps if I learned to grow some basil :) or tomatoes in a pot it would be a start. For a carpenter, learning about different kinds of woods, their properties, how to care for them. For a mechanic, understanding a little more of inner workings and when something doesn't work perhaps not being afraid to take it apart and tinker.

Each little thing is a clue to how this life works, how to connect with another person, makes me a slightly better, slightly more competent, (slightly more attractive?) person, and helps me to understand a bit more of what must be done to produce a given result. Learning there is more to eating pickles than opening a jar. :)

By (: Sunshine :) (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink


You're a bit of a judgmental prick.

What an excellent post, it made my day!!!

This is an obnoxious post. Really Sharon.

What you completetely FAIL to talk about, but what is going on under the surface here is a class war issue. This reminds me very much of the pissed off Chinese bureaucrats who say "You rich Americans now want us to reduce our carbon emissions even though when you were at our stage of development you have free reign with the stuff? Umm, NO."

You have CHOSEN your lifestyle and you seem to think that gives you the moral highground. You feel better than Holler because you and your family CHOSE to give up wealth. Your husband has a DEGREE FROM MIT. Do you know how many of us do not know a single person with that level of education? Do you know how many people don't know a single person who has graduated from college? You have the OPTION of saying "screw it, I want my husband to give up this life and go get a corporate job so we can save for a McMansion." Many people do not have that as an option under any cirucumstances.

Finally, for those who grew up in true poverty (not the overeducated-we-chose-this-because-we're-uber-conscious) the objective of your entire life becomes, how do *I* get a piece of the American dream? How do I HIRE a cleaning lady instead of BEING one? How can I EAT in fancy restaurants, not clean dishes in one? How I get a reliable car for myself, not wash them? I don't remember what you degree from college is in...but between you and your husband, housekeeper, car washer, dishwasher, have NEVER been your only career choices. You two live a life of the mind which is good for us, because I, for one, am a consumer of your intellectual content. Getting on your moral high horse with folks who never had such options and chastising people who very much want a better life for themselves when they finally get the level of education and/or money they need to do so is just wrong .


By Tina Cipolla (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

I have a gift for killing basil. Rosemary, lemon trees, pepper plants, rhubarb, raspberries, spinach- all fine. Basil withers and dies within a week or two, or gets infested with something.
It's probably some important thing that I consistently do wrong- level of watering or temperature or something.

Jockeying for status through displays of affluence- ugh.

I'm sorry, but any idiot can grow a basil plant.

Proving once again that I am not just any idiot, I killed the basil. (In my own defense, this is my first attempt at completely indoor gardening.) I didn't quit and I didn't (quite) cry. I planted some new basil and will try again. Brian might not get it but the fact that I could just "buy it cheap" is more of a motivation than it is an argument against doing it. I could very, very easily just give up. That is exactly why I won't.

Thanks Sharon for a good post, I think you got it right.
It occurs to me that part of why Madeline Holler is having such a hard time at her 'sustainability' practice is that she is doing it for really wrong-headed reasons, even if she really does care about justice, the environment & all that.
It is the same thing that struck me false about the Martha Stewart lifestyle when it was popular. It is nice when rich people make their own curtains & tarts, but that is not the same as a domestic economy. It seems to me that its a luxury hobby that gives you something useful to do, and brings your consumption down a notch on the food chain. Middle class people pretending to be rich people who make their own curtains & tarts strike me as striving for a boost in class or something.
Why is it that we don't hear so much about nice middle class people hanging out with the Mexican grandmother around the block and learning to make tortillas & tamales?
(disclaimer: I'm a middle class white male)
I think it comes back to status. If you remain fully invested in the business as usual economy, you will want to pursue status in that economy by behaving like the people who are above you in that order. If, like me you have given up on any advancement in the monetary economy (even if like me you still have a decent job), and most of your friends are scraping by gardening and dumpster diving, then your values and actions will shift. To the point that I am a little shy to admit to some of my friends that I just paid $20 for a flat of apricots from the woman who grew them, when I could have gotten a bunch for free from the tree across town.
So thanks for your voice in the wilderness. Things will change, they have to. Though very slowly, I have a feeling.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

And one more thing...

Don't discount the pressure of family elders in the conversation either. You of all people ought to understand this.

When I told my mother and father (who are in their mid-80s and were born during the late stages of the depression) that I spent a week picking, pitting, stemming and canning 55 lbs of sour cherries you know what their reaction was?

What? Are you serious? Why would you DO such a foolish thing? Your grandparents sacrificed so you wouldn't ever have to waste so much time canning! Just go out and buy cherries like normal person!

No amount of explaing my reasons was going to sink in. To their mind such sacrifices have already been made FOR ME by prior generations, and for them, to go backwards--which is how they see it--is a giant slap in the face.

By Tina Cipolla (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

Reality check:

The author's premise is no-one should have to work a low paying difficult job. But, most successful people have job histories which include any number of low paying, difficult entry level jobs. Hence the premise is wrong.

The issues really involved in our persistent underclasses are the following:

1. Too much wealth is tied up in the hands of a small percentage of people. Twenty years ago people could leave entry level jobs and find high paying jobs due to the rich having less wealth. Our rich need to lower their greed either by choice or force to open up opportunities.

2. Way too many poor people see having scads of children as a great hobby. Our poor need to be more responsible about birth control to prevent depletion of resources and over-supply of people willing to work for next to nothing.

Notice who really doesn't need to change much? Our middle class. So why are we seeing so many articles about how we middle class types need to downsize, grow our own crops, etc.? Well, the rich won't change without a revolution and even decades of starvation in many areas hasn't stopped the poor from relentless child production. So the burden to save the world falls on the backs of the middle class. IF we fall for it. We may vote for massive tax increases on the rich and less support for the poor who don't control their populations.

Sophia: "2. Way too many poor people see having scads of children as a great hobby. Our poor need to be more responsible about birth control to prevent depletion of resources and over-supply of people willing to work for next to nothing."

I have an alternative explanation for you to consider. Having babies at 16 and having too many may actually be a form of subliminally intentional self destructive behavior. Identical, really, to using tobacco or heroin.

Every kid who smokes knows damn well it will kill him. It's a direct challenge to the grownups- "Do you care enough about me to make me quit?" And when the answer is no- their belief that no one cares about them is vindicated. So. Why not? There will be severe penalties. So what? You don't give a shit; why should I?.

Babies are the result of unprotected sex. Same thing; forbidden activity with serious consequences. Particularly in the throes of the moment, the thought of "Why not? If we do get knocked up- THAT would really piss off my parents!" and similar thoughts for those having too many- is easy, easy. I've got nothing to lose; it will hurt me, and maybe it will hurt those who are supposed to care about me, but don't- why not?

Sharon, you make some good points, but I think you are much too rough on Holler. You know, in reality, each person has to make their own choices and figure out what works for them. It's also a process, which really does begin with thinking and caring about these issues, rather than with wholesale turning your life upside down.
Here's my question for you and other advocates of "radical homemaking." Are you really against division of labor in general, or trade in general?
I know plenty of couples where one person does the cooking and the other does the cleanup, for example. What's wrong, really, with one person scrubbbing the toilet and the other cleaning the gutters or the cat littler boxes, if that fits their inclinations? Or perhaps one person is better at gardening and another is better at sewing? Does everybody really have to do everything? Why?
Similarly, beyond the household, why should every family be growing their own food, baking their own bread, making their own pickles, sewing their own curtains? Making their own pottery? Why not have a bakery and a potter and a curtain-maker in the town, wouldn't that be more efficient? Why not sell eggs to your neighbor and buy carrots from them, rather than everybody trying the do everything?
Now, this means the baker or potter might not have time to make all their own clothes or pickles. But so?
The same idea extends to towns and nations. If Venice has developed expertise in making mirrors, and Tuscany is a center of great pottery-making, should they both be trying to do both things, or would it be better to trade? (They were trading, of course -- long before the Internet, electricity, oil, or modern banking or capitalism) In the modern world, a few nations have gotten good at making, e.g., cars. Should every nation be trying to make cars? Why?
I work at a company that makes life-saving medical devices. Many of these, believe it or not, are made mostly by hand -- in some ways, it's more of a skilled craft process than an industrial process. Should I try to set up in my garage to make products like these? It would be hard to set up a sterile environment in my garage, and I'd have to evict the guy who rents my garage as a work-and-storage place. He's also a skilled craftsman, and he makes less money than I do -- on average, though not necessarily in any given month. Of course, I wouldn't be any good at making these devices -- it's more complicated than growing a basil plant. And if everyone were making sophisticated medical devices at home for their own household (or neighborhood, say), then most of them wouldn't work, plus which the people who presently have jobs making them would be out of work.
If I'm no good at gardening (which I seem to be), then why not spend the same amount of time earning some money by doing artwork (which I am good at), and then buy some lettuce at the farmer's market?
It's all very well to say people should give up their attachment to a paycheck, and to health insurance, but actually, that's just nuts. People need to pay the rent or mortgage, and medical bills! You know, most of the people working in the pickle or yogurt (or medical device) factory might want to keep their jobs! Even if they didn't dream of being pickle-makers when they were kids. It's a bit like a social crusader who tries the close a strip bar, causing consternation and panic among the strippers -- "why are they trying to destroy our jobs??" Talk to them first (or to the people at the pickle factory), and you will find they'd rather not be thrown out of work, though they might well like better working conditions.
Suppose if Neil Gaiman were making or growing all his own food, clothes, etc. Do you think we would be able to read his books? Personally, I'm happy that he has a personal assistant to help him with his beekeeping and so on, so that he has time to write. Extrapolate this to any writer you love. I think it's good that they can buy organic yogurt or pickles at the their local food co-op, made by an outfit that is set up to make that product well, rather than amateurishly (and provide jobs to people who would like to have those jobs) -- so that the writer can spend their time doing what they are good at.
Each person has to work it out for themselves. But do we want a world where nobody has a job making things for others, and everybody is frazzled, frustrated and exhausted at home trying to do household-scale versions of a bazillion jobs -- making their own towels, kitchen utensils, mirrors, animated movies, god knows what else?
I don't eat many pickles, so I'd never make them OR buy them at the co-op -- but, is it unethical to order a pickle on the side at a deli? I do that. So sue me! :-)

By Mike Cagle (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

My friends know how I feel about peak oil, unsustainable farming practices and all the rest. Many of them lead lives of conspicuous consumption and sound a lot like this woman who can't grow her own basil. Yet we remain friends. Sometimes I feel like you do Sharon, that they're being whiney and letting themselves off the hook, rather than taking responsibility for their actions and the actions of their ancestors. Sometimes they think I'm a self righteous prick who will never stop making them feel guilty. Mostly, we help each other out, and enjoy spending time together, grounded in our long friendships. You can't make people do what they're not going to do. The only thing we can really control is ourselves. Sharon, you're out there being the change you want to see in the world. That's so awesome. I totally admire what you do. There's not much really to do about Mrs. Black Thumb Basil. I wouldn't worry about it.

I understand the sentiments, Sharon, but wow ... you threw everything at poor Madeline except the kitchen sink! Remember all she did was report on her experiences. Your response is way out of proportion.

Three specific points:

1. If one is concerned about low-wage workers, then political activism is much more effective at changing the situation than making pickles. There are good reasons to make pickles, but I don't think this is one of them.

2. Living simply and self-reliance are not all-or-nothing propositions. During some parts of our lives (e.g. if working at corporate jobs), it is much harder than at other times (e.g. at retirement). Some tasks are much more rewarding and effective than others. Getting around by foot and bicycle, for example, has many benefits. Sewing one's own clothes is not worthwhile, unless you really love the process. My sister, who is a master at low-income living, having raised three boys by herself, points out it is much easier to buy used clothes or get hand-me-downs from friends.

3. The real bugaboo to simple living, which both you and Madeline touch upon, is how it affects one's social status. I've lived simply for 40 years, and it is not the inconveniences or work that have ever bothered me. It is the raised eyebrows, exclusions and nasty comments I've experienced. They really hurt.

So I applaud anyone who makes the effort, no matter how far they get. I say hooray Madeline, and hooray Sharon. Let's support each other because bucking the culture is not easy.

Bart / EB

Amen, Sharon! I have no patience with self-indulgence reframed as inescapable destiny or a sly kind of virtue. Just the merest hint of Victorian attention to duty and obligation wouldn't hurt this generation a bit.

I just powered through your three books in a week and am a faithful, evangelical disciple. Keep up the good work.

Hi Sharon,

I think you are absolutely right; and I do not think you were too hard on Holler. I think I'd have been harder on her, as a matter of fact. Of course, she was deliberately writing to be provocative. (At least, I think she was.)

I see that some men have said you were too hard on her; I wonder a little bit about that. Is there possibly a male/female difference here? I've known men who were 'just incompetent at cleaning toilets', etc. Or they 'just didn't see the dirt' or 'just didn't know how to cook' etc. Hmmmmm.....

On the other hand, I've also known women who thought it was cute to be incompetent. :) Maybe not so much any more, but quite a few women my age (antiquated!) were/are like this. So I guess it strikes both sexes.


Bart, in response to your points, I don't agree with any of them actually. In fact, I don't think I've ever disagreed with you so totally - and we've had some lively debates here.

To start with, I don't think all she did was report her experiences - I think the article was a particular kind of writing, a way of using her experiences to shape a particular argument about the value of a social trend. I do that kind of writing myself sometimes, and read a lot of them, and I do her the basic credit of assuming she's a good enough and thoughtful enough writer to actually be responsible for the implications of her words.

I read a lot of writing that is just the reporting of experience, and I don't throw anything at people who say "oh, I tried this, I failed, I don't think I'm going to do it again." I don't criticize or judge people who are trying to explore new ways of life. This is somewhat different - which is why it is appearing in Salon. I think she gets a pass precisely because her writing is cute and self-deprecating - and that the style is at least partly intentional, designed to engender that reaction.

Re: your other comments:

1. How effective has all the social activism to reduce class differences over the last 40 years been? I don't see it - I see class stratifications that have become more extreme, rather than less. I think that failed activism is no more effective than refusing to give corporations your money, at a minimum. I also don't buy the it is political when you go to the demonstration, it isn't political when you stop sending your bucks to the corporation idea. That's a false distinction.

2. Sure, not every change is equally effective or useful - I don't make my own clothes either (although I don't throw away clothes that are reparable, which is all I discuss here). I never suggested it was - and Holler is pretty much rejecting every element of radical homemaking. She doesn't want to drive the inexpensive car, she doesn't want to make the yogurt, she doesn't want to shop at Target (much less used clothing stores which aren't even mentioned), she doesn't want to work at the coop. So I'm not quite sure how that's even relevant to the larger point.

3. Yes, it is - or rather, that's the real bugaboo for affluent people. For the people who already endure the stigma of being poor, and can't get out of that situation, the problem is living with the stigma. The difficulty I have is the framing of this issue not as "I really had trouble looking poor" but "I'm just the kind of person who has trouble looking poor and I can't do it and won't do it - but I share the values someone who will do it does, up until the point I actually have to live any of those values." That's an important distinction. The one is an acknowledgement of how hard it is to live in this society and deal with class issues and simplification, the other is a naturalization of class divisions. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we don't know what we really believe until we live what we believe.

I think that to be blunt, hooray Madeline, hooray Sharon is totally fatuous - and it would be totally fatuous if I was the one on the receiving end of this criticism. This is not a "lookee me, I'm a better person than she is." In many ways I'm probably not. This is an attempt at engagement - and I think it was one on her part - with the larger question of what we have to do to live up to our principles. Frankly, if it were me who had written this piece, I'd be more insulted by your defense than my critique, because you seem to be assuming that there's really nothing there other than her saying "look, I really tried."


Tina, I respect your comments, but I don't quite get the sense that you read this piece that carefully. Holler isn't a low income person struggling with these issues and with her desire for something she's not had access too - she's a writer for Salon married to an academic with a Ph.d who was earning over 100K before he took a scholarly job. Of course I know how privileged I am - and my criticisms are directed at someone who is similarly affluent and privileged in almost exactly the same ways and who has written a piece critiquing a movement that has at its root, an attempt to actually undermine some of those basic class differences by getting the kind of women who read books to actually do their own work, to actually make economic and environmental choices that are less harmful.

No offense, but I didn't grow up affluent - my husband did, in a measure, but my Mom grew up on a reservation and trailer parks and my family grew up eating government cheese. Neither of my sisters has a college degree. So yeah, I know how unusual my status is, and that I have other choices. And the first time you actually hear me say in criticism of a working class families or low income single Moms that they should be making their own pickles, you can jump down my throat with my goodwill. But that's not Holler, and that's not what her essay, or mine is about.


Mike, first of all, I'm not per se an advocate of "Radical Homemaking" - I think Hayes's book is really interesting, I think her writing is thoughtful, but I don't particularly call my self a radical homemaker, nor do I agree with her on every premise. What bothered me about Holler's essay is that she doesn't seem to have really even read the book. As I say, I don't claim that radical homemaking is the best or only solution to the dilemmas created by our systems - what I object to is the subsumption of the real issues into something much shallower.

Second of all - am I opposed to all specialization? Of course not - and I never said I was. What I'm opposed to is the kind of intellectual dishonesty that implicitly erases real distinctions between kinds of work. If you make enough money that you can afford to pay a housekeeper to scrub your toilets so that you can make medical devices, and pay her fairly, a real living wage on which she can support her kids, with benefits that roughly parallel your own, there's no real issue. If you can afford to buy the good pickles, made by people who are well treated and work in good, safe conditions and get to unionize if they want to, and with cucumbers picked honestly by other people, fabulous. Specialize with my good will. I do it too - I buy stuff, I trade stuff, I specialize. I don't write all the kinds of writing I read, grow my own tropical fruits or make my own vodka, among many other things.

But because almost none of us can afford to pay fairly and honestly for what we do buy, we end up making hard choices. And that's necessary - some people don't have any options in that regard, they have to take what they can get, because they don't have the ability or wealth or options of making choices - they have to buy industrial meat because that's all they can afford, or get to, they have to pay under the table because they can't afford to pay honestly.

But Holler isn't in that situation - she has the ability to make ethical choices, and what she's done is take the ethics out them - in her framing it doesn't really matter which one you do, that this is a matter of personality. So there are no ethical issues in pickle making - it is just about who you are.

Yes, I think people can and should specialize - but they also bear moral responsibility for the results of their choices, and more responsibility when they have more choice. If you can't specialize ethically - if you can't afford to pay fairly to have someone else clean your toilet, to create a job for them that isn't destructive and permanently impoverishing, you need to change something. One option would be radical homemaking, in which you take responsibility for your own food, your own messes. Another one would be to cut back on something else so you can. There are tons of others. But you have to do something. For Holler, you don't have to do anything, you just have to specialize.


Brian, I guess I feel more like Holler than what you think is me most of the time too. My first reaction to this essay as I said was "ok, good." I don't think its bad to say "this is hard." I don't think it is bad to say "I don't like this." I read a lot of good writing that says those things. I also don't think it is bad to say "I don't want to be a radical homemaker and here's why." I'm not sure I do - I have some issues with Hayes as well that maybe I'll write about one of these days.

And you are right - we are acculturated, we are addicted, the process is hard, the process makes you feel like crap some of the time. Everyone is entitled to some time spent whinging about this, IMHO, and I've certainly taken mine over the years. Everyone is entitled to fail, frankly - and people will. Sometimes the price of doing the right thing is too high, the reality too hard - for me too.

But I don't think your cigarette analogy holds up here - this isn't like someone saying "I wanted to quit smoking, I tried, I failed, I wish I hadn't." I think the tone of Holler's article is very different than that. And that might be ok in some contexts.

It is reasonable when faced with an overwhelming addiction to get to the "fuck it, I don't care if I'm going to die, I like smoking, get the hell out of my face about it." In fact that's normal, and you can even write an article about that - probably a good one. I wouldn't trash it, I'd think it was an important expression - because it acknowledges the moral and health issues, acknowledges, if implicitly, the difficulties, and takes a contrary position that is primarily about the self, not an advocacy position. There's nothing unethical there.

What you don't get to do is write an article that implicitly says "Look, I tried, I failed, you probably will too and that's totally ok, there's no moral issues here, no imporatnt complexities, no need to even open the car windows when the kids are there if you find it too hard." Look at her language - when she invokes "most Americans" she's not just rejecting radical homemaking for herself, she's rejecting it for normal people.

Moreover, she's erasing the moral issues that Hayes raises explicitly and pretending they aren't there. If Hayes didn't make the issues explicit in her analysis, I'd have to give Holler a pass, because she might just be clueless - but she can't be if she actually read the book she's writing about. Of course, I suppose it is possible she hasn't actually read most of it, if that's the case, she deserves a diferent, snarkier post, frankly.


I still don't think that perfecting ourselves is going to change the world because there just aren't enough of "us". You say that the last forty years of activism have not improved social conditions but that ignores the decades before that when unions were formed and contributed to vast improvements in peoples lives. The last forty years have been a losing battle against entrenched industrialists and financiers who have bought our politicians and demonized labor. Similarly, environmentalists have been marginalized and ridiculed to the point of denying science. There has been no meaningful mass activism since the Vietnam War. Sure, I hang out my laundry, bake my bread, make my yogurt and grow my basil but that will never be enough.

But what I reject, Diane, is the false distinction. It isn't an either/or thing - you don't fix anything buy buying the pickles made by near-slaves and then waving signs at the corporation, either. The corporation would like you to love them, but they want your money more than your love. Enough people don't buy the pickles, they stop paying slave wages. Social justice activism when separated out from personal responsibility ends up being vacant - and that's one of the reasons that there's almost no meaningful social activism - precisely because we have emptied social activism out, so you stop at McDonalds in your SUV on the way to the middle east peace demonstration.


Not fair, Sharon. I said that I lived my ideals. No SUV, no crap, no money. I just said that that isn't enough because there aren't enough of us.

Sorry Diane, you mistook a general "you" for a specific one, but that's my fault, I should know better than to use that in comments. I didn't mean "you personally did it" I mean "a great number of people did so" - but I could have said "they" or "we" without the risk of your misunderstanding, and just wasn't thinking. My apologies.


I bear a measure of guilt for my high-consuming lifestyle, and my willingness to pay others to do the gruntwork. However, I'm confident that no child of mine will bear the same guilt, because I have no child and have made sure I never will. The buck stops here.

May we presume that intentionally radical homemakers with children expect that their offspring will live the same way? It will be interesting to hear from them in another 50 years.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, parents (at least those with the luxury of choosing) are ethically responsible not only for their own footprints, but those of their children, and their children's children, unto the last generation of their lines. That's too much prospective guilt for me to accept, but good luck to the parents among you.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think the main thing that bothers me about this exchange is the somewhat silly emphasis on pickles. Pickles are a luxury. Few calories (mostly from sugar) and no protein, yet loaded with sodium.

Yes, they taste good but I wouldn't put a lot of time or effort into growing cucumbers for making pickles if I was focusing on feeding a family. Pickling is a worthy method of food preservation, but pickling cucumbers uses more calories than it provides. It's a waste of time. Eat them raw and fresh for dietary benefit.

I'd grow and pickle squash, beets, okra, and peppers rather than cucumbers. But I'd do this only after I'd grown and preserved enough peas, beans, tomatoes, squash, beets, corn, onion, garlic, and peppers for the year.

Picking on someone not enthused with pickling, especially accompanied by any moral judgement, is simply silly.

I grew up the way you are trying to imitate. I have many relatives still raising and growing a substantial amount of their own food and I am fortunate to share in their bounty.

Those who have pointed out that it takes a substantial amount of "privilege" to do so now (vs 50-100 years ago) have a valid point.

Just to clarify a couple things -- I don't make medical devices (I'm neither a production worker nor the owner of the company) -- I just have a job for a company that does. (Among other things, I make pictures explaining how they work, for the benefit of doctors, patients, regulatory agencies, and sales reps.) And I certainly can't afford to hire anyone to do my domestic labor. I scrub my own toilet and all that stuff (to the extent that it gets done -- which sadly, is very little -- usually reading Casaubon's Book is a higher priority!) Well, I do eat out, so then someone is cooking for me.
Now, I have had friends who could afford to pay someone to clean their house -- and I've had other friends who cleaned houses for money. As far as I know, this was always done for a mutually agreed-on fee.
"Enough people don't buy the pickles, they stop paying slave wages." -- That would be terrific! But doesn't it seem more likely, if sales were falling, that they'd lay people off, or maybe go out of business? Unintended consequences.

By Mike Cagle (not verified) on 03 Jul 2010 #permalink

I've read this article a few times, and I've tried to make some sense out of it, but I just can't. As near as I can tell, you seem to be saying that if I like pickles, but don't like *making* pickles, I should just go make them anyway, despite the fact that thousands of years of cultural progress have made it possible for me to get all the pickles I want in exchange for a very small amount of my labor. I think I earn enough to buy a nice jar of pickles every ten minutes or so. (A habit I got into in my minimum wage years, to help me get through the day, was to work out how much I could buy with each 15 minute or half hour block of work... a hamburger, a movie ticket, etc.). So instead of trading 10 minutes of work for a jar of pickles, I should spent hours and hours of time (which could be spent doing any number of much more fun and interesting things) to get those pickles, because this will (and here's where I completely lose the thread of the logic) somehow help the person whose only choice in life is to work in the pickle fields (well, the cucumber fields), because if I *stop* buying pickles, then no one is going to pay him or her to pick cucumbers, so then he or she will... uhm... what, exactly? Somehow be given the rewarding, personally fulfilling, rich, and full life he/she was denied? How will that work, precisely? How does our former cucumber picker go from being paid a substandard income for backbreaking and dismal labor to living much better when being paid nothing since there's no longer any need for his/her skills? It's not as if they could have been an artist, a doctor, a philosopher, etc, if only they hadn't been drafted and forced to work in the pickle farms. Whether their lack of other options comes from a lack of skill or simply a lack of opportunity -- no education, no options, no training, class/race/ethnic prejudice, whatever -- new opportunities won't simply appear because you're all busy making your own pickles. (And let's be clear here, unless you're rich enough to spend your entire day doing nothing but rote labor, anything you do is going to be purely symbolic, because you'll still be getting virtually everything you use via the same system you're not getting your pickles from. If the goal is to make yourself feel really good about what a caring, compassionate, connected, Earth-loving, green-thinking, progressive person you are, then, yay, mad props to you, but if the goal is to actually accomplish anything meaningful, you might just be wasting a bit of time. Why not simply calculate how many hours you'd spend making pickles -- planting the cucumbers, weeding them, performing the pickling, and so on -- then work out how much money you'd earn in those hours at your day job, then DONATE that amount of money to some decent, honest, well-run charity that helps migrant workers, or whatever this week's cause happens to be? The workers actually benefit, you get pickles, AND you have all those hours back to do something you LIKE to do, such as find new ways to be more self-righteous than your neighbors.

PS: So where do the pickling jars come from? Blow your own glass? How about the hoe you used? Did you mine, smelt, and forge your own metal? I could go on forever, but I think you get the point. The mere fact you are capable of reading this message on an internet connected computer -- even if you're doing it at a library or other "free" access point -- means you are so enmeshed in the vast web of industrial society that no amount of homemade pickles will ever get you out. If you don't want to live like the Unabomber, you might as well stop kidding yourself about how you're "living simply". It's just an exercise in pure narcissism. (I do not in any way object to narcissism, mind you, but it's good to be honest about it.)

In your 14 March post you argued that raising chickens (and thereby not buying factory farmed eggs) is not political, but here you argue that making your own pickles *is* political. Surely both cannot be true.

@Brad K

Have never to my knowledge read any of the authors you refer to (Mike Shepherd, David Weber, Elizabeth Moon, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller) but the quote (or infact slight misquote)"some are born to greatness, some rise to greatness, and greatness is thrust upon some." is Shakespeare.

It comes from Twelfth Night Act II Scene V "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon 'em".

By cornish_k8 (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

How is Holler's article not just another volley in the Mommy Wars? She's funny, she's smart, she's read this Badinter woman, and she's freelancing some pickles onto the table with her writing. Couldn't that also describe both you and Sharon Astyk?

I've given up paid work to look after children. I struggle daily to master tasks that the women of my grandmother's generation (and beyond) could do when they were half my age. The tedium of the actual tasks (most of which I enjoy) is nothing compared to the fact that there is not a single other person on the planet who has any appreciation for what I do. Accomplishment is, in our culture, most often measured by a paycheck, and I don't have one of those. What I've got instead are children who complain throughout dinner, who "won't eat" the homemade yogurt, who balk at the veggies from the garden. I find that, when I tell people I am a stay-at-home mom, the folks who are the most supportive of that "decision" are people with whom I have not a shred of political sympathy. Maybe Holler would have felt more successful if she had had better friends or more support in her family for what she was doing. Just making your own pickles does not mean that you have automatically joined a friendly, like-minded pickle-making community.

Lacking such community, I settle for inhaling deeply when I'm sitting on the toilet that I have just cleaned and enjoying, for a moment at least, the fact that it doesn't smell like pee. I might be inclined to work off some of the frustration I feel by writing a book myself, if Betty Friedan hadn't already done it for me.

By auntieintellectual (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

Oops! I meant "You and Shannon Hayes;" I might have remembered her name better if I had actually read her book, but it's proving difficult to acquire through our local library, so I haven't yet.

By auntieintellectual (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

From someone who recently spent some time milking and caring for a number of cows: Whosoever doth not shovel the shit, neither shall they suck the teat!

Sorry, Sharon. I think you've lost perspective and your personal reactions are overpowering your good sense.

What are the huge differences and issues here? I don't see it.

We are arguing about something that 95% of the rest of the population could care less about, in fact, thinks that all of us are nuts.

It reminds me of the fierce battles between tiny religious and political sects. The smaller they are, the more heated the rhetoric.

Here's a hypothesis. Disagreements like this break out when groups feel powerless and marginalized. In the last year I've witnessed a number of angry disagreements that shouldn't have happened. People taking out their frustration on each other -- it happens in every movement.

Sharon, I get the feeling we just didn't read the same article.

You say she tried doing morally correct things because they were morally correct, discovered she didn't like them and then decided it didn't matter.

The article I read had her scrimping because her income had dropped, not liking it, discovering that Shannon Hayes had written a book about what she was doing and called it radical - and still not liking it. She proposed that most people wouldn't like it either, which is entirely plausible.

At least she was trying to live on a comparatively lower income. At least she made the yogurt. If she really hated it, well, at least she was sort of trying to live up to her principles - something all of us have a tough time doing. I may make my own bread, but I have my own hypocrisies.

You have a totally different reading of this article than I. She may be living to principles, but they are not social justice principles, anti-consumption principles, etc. She's not trying to live ethically and failing and giving up. The two principles she's living with are "my spouse should be able to do the work of their choosing even if it means less income" and "we shouldn't use daycare if it doesn't make financial sense to have a second job in the family".

Canning and home-yogurt-making are things she's doing as she works within a smaller income than she's previously had, and she's discovered that there is a movement afoot that does them by conscious and deliberate choice rather than by financial constraints. She's unhappy with the unintended financial consequences of her choices, and is seeking some way to be more happy - how about trying on a suit where ethical happiness will buoy her through the yogurt-making? She tries on the suit, and it doesn't fit her, because she doesn't actually believe in the fundamentals.

She uses the term "borderline radical" but I don't believe that's because of any ethical beliefs on her part - it's just a function of finding herself butting up against those who are, by the reality of their lives. I'm a borderline fundamentalist Christian - judging by the similarities I have with so many other women who housewife and homeschool - but it doesn't make me any less of a feminist-atheist.

USAmericans and those of other cultures in the rich world are suffering from a deficit of, well, suffering. My generation and my parents' boomer generation haven't had much to go on in the ways of austerity and self-sufficiency, any lessons being taught and lost, or not taught and lost. I have the full complement of beliefs about social justice, and still struggle because of the less conscious beliefs about privilege. I'd love to find and read an autobiography of a consciously racist civil rights worker, because I think it would give me so much insight - someone who intellectually and spiritually was focused on moral work, but who confronted every day the realities of their own inner prejudice and privilege which had been nurtured in them from birth.

There is no way to erase what is already in our minds and in our souls, what has been engraved there since our first breath. All the comments above about addiction have it right, and any recovering addict will tell you that the work is incredibly hard, and that you never stop being recovering, it's a permanent process. The work never stops - but the work becomes easier. Last year I grew my first really significant/large garden, and I had troubles galore with the process - how to eat the food, how to tend the garden regularly, etc. - because I was bulling through the process by sheer willpower and not because I enjoyed doing it or wanted to do it on any level other than intellectual ethics. But despite backsliding and many degrees of failure, I learned a lot and gained some ground. This year, my garden is better, bigger, and I'm making headway on the issues that I struggled with last year - and this year, I actually miss my garden as I'm away from it for 20 days, having left it under the care of a gardensitter. Last year, I had the gardensitter, but I didn't care as much.

Holler isn't making yogurt because she cares - she's making yogurt because she has to. And she doesn't like it, not because she isn't made that way - but because she doesn't believe that way. And she doesn't persevere to greater success, because really, she'd rather that they brought in more money so it wasn't an issue. She's pretty unhappy and can't figure out which way to go.

All of these movements - radical homemaking, permaculture, transition town, urban homesteading - they're recognizable by the same fingerprint of white privilege, people who could be doing something else but are choosing to go a different path. And I think that's okay - I *am* white and privileged, after all, I can't take myself to a different social place no matter what I do. So I might as well do what I can.

By Christina (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

The major point I saw in Sharon's post is that Holler decided she "wasn't good at" the radical homemaking aspects she tried so gave up. This attitude of "I can't do it" seems prevalent today...It seems our nation is filled with people who don't feel they should give up the time it takes to learn something new or to exert themselves in the effort of changing their habits or way of thinking.

I agree with Sharon that our current culture seems to condone not being immediately good at something as a reason to not do it. Perhaps this is a trait found in many other current societies or in older, different cultures...I don't know. But I do know very few people do things well the first time they attempt it. Most skills require practice to achieve even a very basic standard. I think immaturity and/or lack of strength of character or commitment can cause a person to give up trying something when the results aren't immediately satisfying, and this is a result of our culture, too. But I can't help but see these as excuses, not valid reasons for giving up on something you believe is right (or say you do) or something you care about.

I like to believe that persisting in trying to accomplish something challenging and difficult will eventually bring rewards of some kind, even if it's only the strengthening of one's power of will. Not fighting against our cultural addictions to ease, displays of wealth, and wastefulness because we "aren't good at" doing things differently seems like a cop-out.

I'm so competent that my old boss once told me that I was too intimidating for the interns and they were afraid to tell me their stupid ideas. I thought "problem solves itself", but tried to slow down how fast I would show them how incompetent their college education was ( at least until the company hired them for peanuts).
This is not a gift in today's world. I am pretty tired of being the mule that can pull the cart no matter how overloaded Mediocrity makes it.
You nailed the problem well. Thanks.
Also, too,,,classic example of how we use money as our compass, even as we try not to.

By Auntiegrav (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

Well I certainly agree with Sharon that I don't like the tone of Holler's article, but I haven't quite put my finger on exactly why, and I'm not sure Sharon has quite yet either, but I think she and I are both in the ballpark.

It isn't just the "poor me I'm not cut out for this." Any one as affluent as Holler and "staring down their 40s" as probably been acculturated so that they aren't cut out for it. Likewise, SHE isn't playing the "I'm just addicted to American affluence" card, quite, although I think that line of thinking is lurking in the background of her article and nearly surfaces several times.

Also I don't think this article is trying to implicitly say "there's no moral issues here, no imporatnt complexities."
Holler's tone is just self-depreciating enough, that I'm not convinced she is really trying to ask for a "bye" or argue that all affluent Americans get a bye, because real work is too hard. Maybe Sharon is right, that that's what she's saying, but I don't think so. She is using plenty of moral language, even though she doesn't want to claim that SHE did it for moral reasons (as Cummins points out). Look at her last line "That would be too much like shoveling rocks, even if it wasn't for Satan." I think she knows and admits there are moral issues and complexities here. I think she's trying to critique Radical Homemaking on the "it-won't-work-because-it-is-too-much-work-for-affluent-Americans-to-stick-with-it-past-trendy-exploration-even-if-its-heart-is-in-the-right-place" front, and using herself as exhibit A. That might even be a fair critique.

Certainly part of it is she seems used to a level of affluence which annoys me, and I want to yell at her to Suck it up, or think about families that have never earned 100,000$ a year shoveling rocks for Satan.

I'm full time homemaker now, and it does strike me that this is more about the "Mommy wars" than it is about localism. I haven't Read Hayes yet, so I don't know if she's butchering it. But I can tell that she's looking at Hayes in the context of Badinter, Hischman, Friedan, and Belkin. The only other localist ever mentioned is Michael Pollen.

Maybe what irks me is that this is a volley of attack from a strain of Feminism I particularly detest; the kind of pro-business, pro-affluence Feminism that says, women ought to be affluent enough to boss around underlings too (well at least upper class women), rather than the kind of Feminism that wants to emphasize dignity for all and tear down specific barriers aimed at women. But I'm a male, so that's all tricky territory. I think Holler's trying to set herself up as an American Badinter, and I disagree with Badinter. But that's not quite what bugs me either...

So much of the project of trying to imagine a livable, humane, low-energy society is about recapturing what was best about the lives our grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived. But I can see how a certain kind of very privileged Feminist could look at their lives and say, didn't we spend a generation of work trying to escape that fate? Don't take me out of the office and make me go back to the pickle-mines! Hell no! Never again shall I have my soul-crushed by having nowhere to shop for a fancy new shirt other than Old Navy and Target even if it is for the sake of my "family, environmental, and social values" that's what decades of Feminism (and cheap oil) has bought me!

Disdain for the lifestyles of my grandmother and great-grandmother, (and of many people in other parts of the world today) just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe that's it.

Alison, Christina, fair point, but it isn't me shoehorning her into Hayes' book, but her. I agree that her motivations aren't radical homemaking motivations - and that too would be fine, except that she's trying to use it to discredit an analysis.

Bart, 95% of everything anyone who is even remotely environmentally aware is something most people don't give a damn about. That doesn't make it all irrelevant, though, or mean that it never matters how we get through an idea, or whether we're being racist, sexist or classist.

I almost never get criticism from you, except when I criticize someone else - and the general gist of things is that you don't think I should be critical of other people in the movement. I don't think we're going to agree on that.

Actually, Nic, I didn't say it wasn't political - I said it wasn't a political out, as the author was claiming, from the feminist trap.

AuntieIntellectual, why do you think I blog ;-).

Donna, I think my attempt to pick one of the many things she says she doesn't want to do may have gotten distracting. Pickles are a metaphor. I could just as easily have focused on the driving a cheap car, not buying the coffee table, making the bread, growing the basil. The point is that every one of those acts that requires time and effort also means that in order to act ethically, someone has to do the domestic labor, and be paid fairly for it - or do it themselves.


I had very mixed feelings about this article... on the one hand, I applaud the sentiment that just because you're not very good at doing something, that's not a free pass to avoid it (especially since my partner has mastered this excuse, leaving me with far too much of the housework) but on the other hand, I don't think that Holler's attitude is really the biggest problem out there.

I know that we have to change our actions and reduce consumption much more than she has done, but at least she believes that this is a good and important thing to do. Sometimes it's easy to forget, hanging out with generally like-minded people, that millions of Americans don't care. At all. Today I talked to my Father, who drives back and forth from Ohio to his condo in Florida in his giant SUV every couple of months, wants to buy a Hummer, and (naturally) doesn't believe in man-made climate change. I'd much rather deal with Holler, who at least supports voluntary simplicity and puts at least some of her money (and her votes) where her mouth is, than with my Father (and a number of other relatives and former neighbors) who think I'm insane because I'm happy living with my partner in a 380 square foot cottage, growing my own veggies, and tinkering with solar cookers.

I suppose you could make the case that my family is less "sinful" than Holler because they're acting from utter ignorance, whereas Holler knows what to do and isn't doing it. In that case, I'm as worthy of condemnation as Holler... I drive too much, put the clothes in the dryer when I'm in a hurry, and occasionally eat meat that wasn't locally, ethically raised. I know it doesn't make one bit of difference to the planet that I feel guilty about my lapses, but at least I continue to make small improvements and reduce my consumption.

I suppose a great many of us are caught in the middle, viewed by half the country as Dirty Barefoot Hippies because we grow organic veggies and spin our own yarn, and viewed as the Scourge of the Planet by many in our own part of the ideological spectrum because we drive cars to the farmer's market, eat meat sometimes, and use toilet paper. (Sharon, that's not directed at you-- I wouldn't follow your posts if you were that harsh.) I'm not really sure where the balance lies.

Ellen, I guess what I haven't done a good job of here is distinguishing then, between my criticisms of what Holler is *writing* from what she's *doing.* The point is not to sit in judgement of her actions, but of her article, and the way she uses her article to undermine the idea of radical homemaking. As I said, I don't spend any time judging anyone else on their choices - what bothers me is the way Holler uses her power as a writer.


Lizard (comment 46)

Your response to this post was simply perfect. I'd be curious to know if Sharon disagrees with what you've written (I assume she does) and, if so, on what possible grounds?

An excellent article with much food for thought.

Actually, I was ignoring Lizard's comment because it is the kind of comment I answer all the time. And it is the kind of comment that is really only possible if you are ignoring a whole bunch of stuff. But if I must.

Notice that in Lizard's comments, there is no hope of any social justice solutions - there's slave labor and starvation, and no choice to pay people a living wage - no chance of using the money you save by doing a whole bunch of things (not excluding pickles) to pay farmers and food workers fairly. Notice also the total absence of energy resource use here - by not making pickles or doing any other form of domestic labor (remember, the pickles are a stand in for all if it), all we are losing is time and money - the energy of taking cucumbers in a field in Florida to a factory in Michigan, turning them into pickles with complex machinery, shipping them to a store in New Jersey and driving there to pick them up is erased, as is all the other energy used in the system to make the money so that lizard can buy a jar of pickles every 10 minutes. And, of course, all the climate gasses and other resources used in this system.

As I've written about many times, our climate emissions and energy use mirror the degree to which we move everyone into the formal economy and out of the informal one - the costs in climate change and energy use are high, as are the costs of high degrees of specialization to a lot of people - mostly the working class. Only if you erase the consequences in the system do you get Lizard's story of progress - and only for some people.

As for the rest - no I don't blow my own jars, but I also don't buy new ones. I have canning jars that are 70 years old, and there's a nigh-infinite supply of old jars - both official canning jars and the glass jars that have the same qualities that are used in commercial food processing. We're a long time from running out.

And yes, I use a computer, and yes, I'm enmeshed in an industrial system. I also measurably uses about 15% of the energy resources that the average American household uses. The "oh, well, you aren't perfect so it doesn't matter what you do" argument is silly - does anyone really believe that everything would be just the same if we could cut energy use by 80 or 90%? Duh.


Shorter Lizard: "Suppose we should rise up tomorrow and emancipate, who would educate these millions and teach them how to use their freedom? They would never rise to do much among us." --St Clare, Uncle Tom's Cabin

Simone, I don't know what Sharon opines on the subject, but I share Harriet Beecher Stowe's opinion on the matter: "I know it was so with me, till I saw that it was my duty to overcome it; but, I trust that I have overcome it; and I know there are many good people...who in this matter need only to be taught what their duty is, to do it...I am not uncommonly good. Others would, if they saw things as I do."
--Miss Ophelia

And @ Tina: Thank you for sharing your experience. Mine was that my grandmothers and aunties were gratified that my education had not spoilt me and made me think I was "too good" to do what they considered the natural duties of any adult. Not every working class family wants their progeny to get more education or more money than them; some value carrying on tradition more highly, even if that tradition means a life of near-poverty and hard work. Wouldn't it be a funny old world if we were all the same?

I tend to agree with Christina, Holler simply had no clue what living on $36k/year was going to be like, and was trying to put her mind in a happier place. Be that as it may, she sounds an awful lot like I did when I was about eight years old and complaining to my grandmother that "Kirsten's mom buys her new clothes twice a year!" and "Megan doesn't have to pick greenbeans!" And in the responses, you see the various forms of parental instinct:
-It's OK Precious, Daddy will buy you an ice cream. Precious shouldn't have to pick greenbeans. Her lickle fingers are made for more delicate tasks, like ruling fairy kingdoms.
-Well, at least you gave it the ol' college try, here's an A for effort. Now you may have ice cream.
-You be grateful for those greenbeans, young lady. There are starving children (wherever) who haven't got any greenbeans.
-Quit being rude to your auntie who busted her butt to grow those greenbeans. If you keep up this behavior, young lady, you will go to your room without any dinner at all, got it?

I'm a bit curious to know her husband's take on the issue, actually. I mean, if and when I ever complained to my hubby about lack of income, I'd get my own earning potential thrown right back in my face.

Ok, Lora, I nominate you to answer all of my questions.


***In a society that in no way stigmatizes most kinds of manual incompetenece, these naturalized categories manage to reinforce divisions of class and race and social justice. Thus, Madeline Holler can totally share Shannon Hayes's values and take full credit for that sharing.***

Incompetence is spelled wrong in that paragraph!

I'm loving the article but I want it to be respected and it needed someone to proofread it.

>>>We spend a lot of time pretending that the whole industrial system isn't fully of poorly paid people less privileged than people like Holler, and that we're not participating fully in it.<<<

It looks more that that should say full of, instead of fully of.

So, you're volunteering to proofread for Sharon? She might take you up on it. Though you'd kind of have to be available 24/7. :-)

My co-radical homemaker honey told me about this article and the Salon.com one. He has glowing words for you. :) Indeed, thank you for a great response...I would also like to say that the woman really did miss the point. She's operating from 'poverty mentality' and saw chains where the rest of us radical homemakers see freedom--for ourselves, our neighbors and the planet.

We know about that poverty mentality--only from having been very poor as children (not phD 6-figure chicks 'staying-home' with a kid and her hubby teaching--in fact $36,000 sounds REALLY good to us--it'd have been our goal in the rat race!), going on to try to 'break the cycle' and then realizing there had to be more.

I humbly submit my blog post on your rebuttal and the original column. Thank you so much Sharon, though, you saved me a lot of words with your great reply!


Donna, pickling, like other forms of canning & preserving food, is a time-honored practice involving 'putting up' food for the future. Simply put, it is a method for taking produce during its ripe peak and preserving it in edible & nutritious form for a time of year when said produce is not available (remember when food had seasons? before supermarkets?). Brining and/or preserving in vinegar is an especially old technique for preserving many kinds of fruits & vegetables, including pickles. You may not LIKE pickles, but that doesn't mean that they aren't a viable and historic food source, nor does it make them a meal of the 'privileged class.'

Oh and by the way, 'privilege' is spelled without a 'd.'


Laurel. :)

I think Sharon's comment in number 60 above, about writers' responsibility to what they write, is the key thing in all of this (I admit I've not read the original and only skimmed the post and comments so far, I'm just catching up after several days away from the computer and/or home, I'll read everything more carefully later). But the responsibility of a writer to what she writes weighs heavily enough on me that I haven't started a blog, or written a book for publication. I have been really conscious of the power of words to shape a worldview and, through them, actions, and that power is just what keeps me from taking up the pen (or keyboard, these days) more than the bit that I have. Criticism of the worldview implied by articles like the one Sharon is criticizing is relevant, in fact needed. And it's just as relevant to criticize Sharon, and me, and anyone else when it's needed.

This is a very interesting topic. I've been involved with sustainable agriculture for the past 10 years or so. I keep telling people that, I think, the only way to ultimately deal with the various environmental and social problems caused by conventional food production is for everyone to start growing some of their own food and for all of us to start buying more of our food from our local foodshed (and paying more for it too). The idea of a foodshed is analogous to a watershed, for those who are not familiar with it.

Anyhow, people always say, "well, but not everyone likes/I don't like to garden" and my response was always an optimistic and probably delusional "that's ok, there are enough of us who do like it to make things work and if more people were exposed to it, they'd probably find they like it too."

Lately though I've changed my mind. Instead I think people just need to suck it up because taking responsibility for supporting the true costs of your lifestyle, whatever that lifestyle is, should not be morally optional. As has been pointed out, this doesn't mean that everyone literally has to garden (that's just an example for the purposes of illustration, like pickles) but that specialization in our economy and our ability to externalize costs has gotten way out of hand.

So it's so interesting to read this b/c I've been trying to figure out how to express this idea. It's a really really hard thing to say to someone. It is nearly impossible for people to hear and they react strongly b/c this idea competes directly with the powerful ideologies of capitalism and the American dream. This essay and subsequent conversation has helped me think about how I can change my explanation so it makes more sense. I think this is what I'll try:

My lifestyle/standard of living requires a certain amount of labor (and resources but I'll leave that out for now). I believe we all generally deserve to have similar choices about how we live our life. In other words, while it's difficult to describe what the minimum standard is for "good options", no one deserves to be poor and have little or no options. (Incidentally, I think this is the hard part to sell b/c indeed many many people do believe that there are those who deserve to be poor). So, lets assume that everyone deserves a living wage and I either have to do the work that supports my lifestyle myself (grow the cucumbers, make the pickles) or pay someone else to do it (buy the pickles), and obviously the sum of the labor I contribute plus what I pay can only possibly equal how much time and money I have. If the amount I pay plus the labor I perform is less than what it takes to support my lifestyle then either I have to ratchet down my standard of living or I take advantage of someone else and making their life worse. I used to have such moral relativism but I think it needs to be said: it is not ok to take advantage of others. It is immoral to externalize the costs of your lifestyle. Certainly there are plenty of people who's standard of living can not contract further, or who's quality of life is already low. But, for those of us who can, we need to take a very hard look at that equation and see if we have a surplus (there is time/money left over after we take responsibility for the externalized costs of our lifestyle) or a deficit (we're taking advantage of others to support our lifestyle). Right now I have a deficit. And while I think that explanation is more clear and thorough than how I used to express this, I don't think it's as easy to say as "suck it up, grow your own cucumbers, and stop taking advantage of people".

Well, I agree with her, it's definitely a process. But even if you can't do it perfectly (and I sure can't, I live in an apartment and am dependent on lots of things that are less than ideal), you don't just utterly give up on it.

Thanks Sharon, for once again being extremely eloquent about something that's been vaguely floating around in the back of my brain.

"I can see how a certain kind of very privileged Feminist could look at their lives and say, didn't we spend a generation of work trying to escape that fate? "

At least as far back as Harriet Beecher Stowe, and probably back to the Beguines, actual radical feminists have been arguing that an advantage of greater freedom for women would be better and more competent home-making and child-rearing because it would be done by people for whom it was both a decent career and an avocation. So lots of them came down in favor of specialization and pay-for-work; in the local metaphors, in favor of buying the union-made pickles at the coop.

I really liked the summary indictment

"these naturalized categories manage to reinforce divisions of class and race and social justice."

although I would like a vulgate version for a T-shirt.

THANK YOU!!! I got into a discussion about the high cost of eating organic on a parenting board and I said if we couldn't afford it we often times went without (I'll admit when we ran out of home canned tomatoes early in the winter I started buying tomatoes at the store. I wanted them. I bought on the vine canadian grown ones but I'd have bought em from anywhere. This year we'll can twice as many) and people said they couldn't go without.

Couldn't go without corn chips or ketchup, or drinking boxes? Couldn't?

No! It is wouldn't. Admit that and I don't have an argument with you. But don't pretend you're somehow so different from the rest of the world that you NEED these things.

What I found most horrifying about her article (it and the Brain Child article whining about how we're being brainwashed into the current fashionable "Get children out in nature" push werre my rage reading last week) is that she really was dismissing environmental concern as "fashionable" and as such what she was really saying is that it doesn't matter now and certainly won't in the future.

What ever happened to "try and try again?" I guess it takes too much effort. I'm gobsmacked by people's willingness to shirk responsibility. You kill a basil plant. You try again. You don't just quit. How will we possibly solve the myriad of problems we have today with that kind of attitude? The author basically concludes, "Ah f@@k it. It's too much work." Honestly, how pathetic. The problem is this attitude seems endemic to a culture that watches on average four hours of tv a day. We can watch season 65 of American Idol but we can't bother to make dinner let alone grow a plant. I fell into the category of conspicuous consumer but have recently had a wake up call and I'm trying damn hard to change my ways (cilantro plant, take two ). It takes work. Buck up people or we will get nowhere.

A good, strong post, Sharon. Holler's sly, pseudo-virtuous "I just can't, I'm too weak" is typical of the strategy that many are using to escape the choice of change. She may live long enough to come smack up against the necessity of real change. It will hurt a lot more then, when there's not much fall-back.

I'm sickened not only by Holler's excuses, which are equal parts hand-waving and upper class liberal hand-wringing, but also by the sheer number of comments defending her and her pathetic attitude.

I have news for you: our grandchildren are not going to care if Holler tried hard to become a "radical homemaker" or if she was a good person for trying. They're not going to care about her guilt for various injustices endemic to the system of industrial capitalism, or the depth of her internal psychodrama. That touchy-feely stuff is all irrelevant to a perspective that takes into account the seventh generation.

What our descendants are going to care about is the state of the land we're leaving them, and the skills we impart to them for surviving in a post-petroleum, climatically unstable future. That is all that matters. Not our eff-ing "feelings". An intact physical and social ecology. That's the whole goddamned point.

And I'll tell you what, if we all adopt Holler's attitude toward this we will most certainly be leaving them with an entirely trashed biosphere and no skills for surviving in the "real world" (you know, the one that exists outside of the comfortable bubble we've constructed on cheap and easy oil, the one which is destroying the biosphere and which is rapidly disappearing). You'll excuse me if I care more about that than the delicate state of Holler's feelings when she sees somebody's automobile, and that if I and others don't consider her delicate little excuses sufficient in the face of impending ecocide and social collapse.

Holler needs to grow the hell up, as do most of us. We need to remember what's most important, what's real and to cast and equally critical eye on our efforts at sustainable living. Think about your excuse of "But I don't like pickling! I broke a nail!" is going to fly with the human beings who come after us. Maybe it will put some things in perspective.

The real issue here, of course, is one of empathy, being able to actually get outside of one's own narrow and selfish interests and actually identify with other human beings, both those who are alive now and those hypothetical ones who will be alive. Please note that genuine empathy is distinct from the cloying "feel your pain" language of upper class liberals like Holler, which has more to do with preserving their own self image and assuaging a guilty conscience than it does with any actual solidarity.

I have another, but similar complaint that the writer might find the opportunity to explore sometime. Someone once said to me that she wished she could send her child to me to teach her all the things I'm doing. I responded that, while I considered that a compliment, I could teach HER so she could teach her child and then she would have the skills too. That was not what she had in mind. My neighbors have periodically wanted to send their children over to learn to tend my bees and chickens or learn gardening. I My issue with this is that so many times life skills are considered children's lessons: demonstration vegetable gardens are often the kiddies' garden, farm days are to entertain the children, survival skills are a bit like museum entertainment. Then the experience is dumbed down to kiddie level and there is no meaningful demonstration for adults. I love what I do and think it is challenging, stimulating, novel, creative and rewarding for me as an adult. I wish people would stop implying that it's child's play.

By Betsy True (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

Time for a bit of a rant.
People such as Holler are the ones who expect me to sell my hand-raised, grassfed, all-natural beef to them for $1 a pound. They don't want to pay the $8 a pound that the expensive supermarket charges, but they believe that I should sell to them at below cost because "You love to raise animals and I just can't do it."
Or they would like my sons--who are indeed whizzes at automotive repair--to fix their cars for them because "The car repair shops are SO expensive!" Well, yes, they are. That's why my sons learned how to do it. Better yet, they can repair farm machinery. That costs $100 an hour.
I'm all for sharing. My neighbors grow bush beans and I grow pole beans. We're eating their beans now, and they'll eat ours later when theirs are gone. But really, some folks are absurd. One of my neighbors called and asked if she could have some blueberries. "Certainly!" was the answer. "Pick all you like." "Oh," she said."I thought that you could pick some for me, because you're picking them anyway." She never did get any.
If you want me to bake bread, fine. Then pay for it. You made the choice to go for bucks. And for every dollar that you spend, you need to earn at least $1.50, to cover the taxes. I'll take the home, the food, and, of course, the wonderful sons!

I'm just seeing this post now, and... wow, what a fucking self-righteous asshole you are.

There is nothing inherently wrong with paying someone else to do a job for you. We pay people to do our taxes. We pay people to remodel our houses. Why, precisely, is child-raising or food-making or house-cleaning any different?

Don't tell me it's just the non-living wage. It's because it's "women's work." And you're a so-called "radical housekeeper" -- as if you're really stickin' it to The Patriarchy by staying home in the kitchen and popping out spawn. So you derive the bulk of your self-esteem from being Teh Bestest Mommie 'n' Homemaker In Teh Wrold111eleventy!

And, of course, from casting aspersions on other women's domestic skills. Yeah, how dare we, how very dare we, all not make our own bread and jam and pickles and clothes from scratch! WON'T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE WOORRRRKKKUURRRRRZZ?!

I cook pretty damned well. I garden a little. And you know what? Your foaming screed makes me want to go out and fill my fridge and freezer with prepared gourmet foods, just to spit in your eye.

First, great article! Spot on!
Second, that last comment by "b.g."! How can someone not even see what is so obvious here? Massive fail on their part.
Well, b.g., there's nothing inherently wrong with paying people to do things for you. That's so not what this is about!! The issue is paying for things that support a rather horrifying system of oppression and despair. IF you are able to repair your clothes, thus not contributing more to the sweatshop system, why not do that? Why would you throw away clothes that you can easily spend 15 minutes repairing? THAT is what this is about!!
Read all the comments here if you don't "get" the article above... Be it pickles, jeans or whatever, we need to be more aware of what exactly goes into the products and services we purchase and then decide if we need them, and if we can grow, create, build them on our own. It's rather simple really.
It's people like you that are driving this planet into despair. Keep it up! Your entitlement is more important than the poor or oppressed. YOU are more important than my family's health. Thank you, and keep being a jerkoff!