reading list

At Home

All Joy No Fun

I approach parenting the same way that I approach most topics: with thorough, research-y methodology, and much reading of non-fiction.  The nerd in me leads the way, always.  So when this book appeared, I was happy to see it, and eager to read it.  It is meant to be read as a survey of how parents are doing in modern times; it is descriptive, not prescriptive.  It was a great read; I finished it in less than a week.  It tugged on my heartstrings, while also satisfying my need for data.  I was especially tickled that much of it was located in two parts of the country with which I am intimately familiar: Houston and Minneapolis.

At Home

French Kids Eat Everything

I am not French, nor is my husband.  As a result, our child is also not French.  My husband and I do, however, have significant experience with French culture.  In spite of that, when I was living there in college, I failed to realize how much calmer, healthier, and more standardized their national approach to food was than ours.  

I noticed the lack of snacking, the late dinners, the lack of eating on the run, and the noticeable difference in eating habits between French students and North Americans.  I saw college kids cook meals together in the dorm kitchen and sit down together at a card table in the hallway.  I felt crusty looks from severe baristas at cafes, if I asked to have my coffee in a go cup.  Not only did they not have paper cups to offer, but they were disgusted by the idea of it.  In France, delicious food and beverages are meant to be savored, shared and enjoyed.  While seated.  To the French, eating while traveling, walking or alone is unpleasant, messy and sad.

Migrate: Read About It

Moving to places that don't make it onto ten-best lists, and trying to embrace what makes them tick, was the impetus for starting this blog.  It's easy to love a place where the priorities of the community match mine.  Thriving and finding happiness in places where people don't share my values has required developing new mental and emotional muscles, along with a willingness to more accurately identify priorities.

As mentioned in recent posts, in recent weeks my husband and I have been working to decide our next step.  For a period of time, maybe the last month or two, heading for a home base in Minnesota seemed both sure and sure-fire.  In the last few days, the pendulum has swung back to a grey area as we learn more about possibilities that exist if we remain in Houston, and I'm also feeling unsure about signing up for another immediate upheaval.  The benefits of taking our time heading home in order to make the most of the opportunities right here, mixed with an uneasiness about committing to separation for fifty percent of our time (which basing our lives in Minnesota would require), have risen to the surface of our planning efforts.  In all honesty, I'm stumped by this decision.

In this era, it is amazing to even have multiple good choices, so while I remain truly confused, I don't want to sound ungrateful.  Still, it feels like a true chicken-egg conundrum.  It feels like I am required to choose between a better relationship with my husband, or one with a large portion of my friends and family network.  A significant body of sociological research reflects both the value of a dense and supportive friend/family network, and the value of mobility, which serves as a tool for improving both the quality of our lives and our economy.  My husband and I have lived the ramifications of both of these notions.

At times I have worried that it would be impossible to ever feel happy while living almost entirely without roots.  But I have just finished reading a book that was so full of amazing coping mechanisms, that I feel far more empowered, and even more optimistic about not only remaining on the no-plan plan about where we live, but also about having a family of our own.

The Immigrant Advantage, by Claudia Kolker, culls some of the best coping mechanisms that new members of our nation use to not only survive, but thrive, here.  It is not a book that troubles itself about whether immigration is right or wrong; it stays firmly within the boundaries of how immigrants from all over the world use cultural tools from their backgrounds to improve the quality of their lives here.  I swear it is apolitical, and even more exciting, it is full of great ideas that people from any culture would benefit from reflecting on in a quest to improve the quality of daily life.  Additionally, the author lives in my neighborhood, and I feel that she has captured in this book some of the feeling of diversity in Houston that I think is one of its best features.

When I taught English to refugee and immigrant students, I often felt compelled to defend them to those who had harsh words for their existence here.  Many people feel uncomfortable with immigration right now, and it was hard to explain to them how if they knew my students like I did, they wouldn't feel as upset.  They would see people working hard, supporting themselves, and making excruciating daily decisions in order to improve the quality of the lives of their families.  They were doing exactly what Americans have always done.  What amazed me about my need to defend them is that by and large, my students had much more conservative values than mine or most of my other American, middle-class, well-meaning peers.  Immigrants often show examples of being better at saving, less likely to use services, more connected to faith, and more committed to taking care of their families than American caucasians are turning out to be.  Obviously, there are bad seeds in all groups, and clearly breaking laws to do these things is still problematic and burdensome.

But in the meantime, read this book.  It makes me more optimistic than anything I've read in a long time.  And if it feels compelling, follow it up with the Summer 2012 issue of Good magazine, which is also devoted to the topic of migration and how it's affecting the world.

Stitching Time

There is little to report, but a nice calm before the next life hurricane is cause for celebration, not consternation.

Texas continues to entertain, although I haven't been struck with my usual urge to dissect local absurdities.  My mind has not been altogether here.  I had a nice visit to Minnesota, where I enjoyed the hot commodity of fresh air and open windows.  We didn't buy the land that I thought we would, and that was the right decision for the time being.  I'm still waiting for news on the dream job, which also has my mind one foot out the door, as slim as those chances are.  As per usual chez LaCasse, champagne chills in preparation for either an invitation to interview, or the inevitable thanks-but-no-thanks email.

I finished my classes, and am grateful to have no more homework.  My final illustration project left me with many ideas and with more work to do on my own this summer, which is, to me, the sign of a class worth taking.  So now, I'm doodling and stitching, organizing and plotting, drafting and resting, and alternating between feeling wonderfully relaxed and intermittently antsy.  I continue to sew by hand, even when I know I should switch to a machine...sewing by hand costs me time, but makes me happy and brave, so for now it dominates.

I have disassembled my wedding dress in order to examine the fabric for its reincarnation into the anniversary dress.  I have begun sewing a dress that I envisioned in my final illustration project.  And I really need to be making lightweight tanks and sundresses, because the Texas heat is upon me and I forgot how serious it is.

Reading continues on the history of cotton and it is an amazing story.  Vaguely familiar parts of our nation's history are coming to life in a much more vibrant way for me through the lens of the story of this challenging fiber, and its links to this part of the country.

Big Cotton: Light Reading

I've been reading about cotton, and it has a fascinating story.

Here are some of my surprising discoveries so far:

  • Cotton was referred to as "vegetable wool" by the armies of Alexander the Great, during a time when the dominant sources of clothing were related to animal fibers and materials.
  • Even though Eli Whitney made the cotton industry unimaginably profitable (and indeed, possible) with the invention of the cotton gin, his net profit from his invention never amounted to more than a few thousand dollars, due to ill-advised business decisions, piracy of his invention, and the resulting legal battles.
  • The four varieties of cotton which evolved to produce cotton lint originated in present-day Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa, coastal Chile/Peru, and Central American/Mexico.
  • Cotton originally grew in a variety of colors, but after the invention of the cotton gin, only the white-ish colored cotton was selected for production, in order to simplify sorting and manufacturing.
  • Upland cotton, or Gossypium Hirsutum, accounts for ninety-five percent of all cotton grown and used around the world.
  • The cotton gin revitalized the waning institution of slavery by greatly reducing the hours required to prepare cotton for textile manufacturing and therefore making it again worth the cost of feeding and housing a labor force.
  • Seventy percent of early textile mill workers died of respiratory illnesses caused by cotton lint inhaled in the poorly ventilated factories, whose windows were often nailed shut in order to keep humidity levels high enough to prevent thread breakage during production.

In Partial Defense of Polyester

In an earlier post (Miracle of Modern Clothing), I described some concerns I have about the cozy relationship our closets have with oil production.  My understanding of sustainable clothing, and of ways to improve our system of clothing production is amateur, ongoing, and limited at best.  However, in my continued quest to deepen my understanding, I have recently finished reading a book right about fast fashion and our cultural appetite for it (To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? by Lucy Siegle).

Siegle offers some facts which remind me, again, how nothing is simple.  Most specifically, I'm forced to admit that cotton and other natural fibers are not automatically better than synthetics like polyester (a fact which somehow makes me feel optimistic and pessimistic  at the same time).

Here are some fiber and material tidbits that may be surprising:
  • textile production has more than doubled in the last thirty years (a fact reiterated during a recent webinar I participated in)
  • the textile industry uses 3.2% of all water available to the human race each year (somewhere between six and nine trillion litres of water), and 1,074 billion kilowatt hours of electricity
  • approximately 1.6 lbs coal is used in order to prepare 1 lb of fabric (in this fact I could not ascertain exactly what it means to "prepare" the fabric; likely it is the spinning, weaving/knitting, dyeing, washing and prepping)
Siegle devotes a significant portion of the book writing about a variety of natural fibers and materials, and while addressing the conditions in which these fibers are produced, she enumerates significant reasons for me to reconsider my former position of natural-equals-good, synthetic-equals-bad.

Additionally, I am also forced to offer some anecdotal life praise for synthetic technology in clothing.  I like to run outdoors in winter weather, preferably when it is chilly and even snowing lightly.  A run like this is made exceedingly more comfortable by fleece-lined moisture-wicking cozy polyester-based goodness.  When my husband is on a rig, or at a well-site, he wears gear which protects him by retarding flame and repelling toxic materials.  Good old natural fibers do not generally offer that same level of protection.  My mom lives somewhere very cold, but finds the touch of wool on her skin intolerable; a fiber like acrylic, which offers warmth but it soft, provides a solution for her and many others like her.  Also for much of our swimwear, yoga wear, and anything with elastic and stretch, we currently require petroleum products.

Siegle's book is written in an unfortunately fashionista manner, with a tone that can sometimes feel silly or superficial, but on the other hand, she does significant legwork and cites a plethora of sources.  In the end, the research presented is compelling and the book is a much-needed call to reflection people that love clothes but hate the waste created by ceaseless faster-cheaper-ever-more-disposable trend chasing.

Siegle's work reinforces my own hunch regarding how to shop and dress responsibly, which amounts basically to "it's complicated."  Neither natural fibers or synthetics are perfect; and all must be used carefully instead of casually.  Textiles derived from synthetics can't be a permanent solution; as oil supplies continue to deplete, they will price themselves out of the cheap and easy range anyway.  Regardless of how available they are now, we will do well to begin forming other habits now so as to not suffer massive sticker and pollution shock with regard to our closet at the same time as we are solving our coming transportation challenges.

Future (of) Fashion: White Papers

Some years ago, after I started cleaning up my diet a bit and trying to remove some of the processed stuff that I leaned on too hard, it wasn't long before I started eyeing my closet nervously.  If I was concerned about toxic food, shouldn't I also be investigating the ramifications dyes, processes and chemicals used in finishing fabrics and leather?  I was scared to know the answer, because I have always loved clothes and shoes, but I had to be honest with myself.  When I wore a shirt, it was touching my body just as much as the organic food beauty products I sought.

When I removed a shirt from its regular rotation in my closet, it often went to goodwill.  There is no way that all items given to Goodwill always get used by other people, so many of them probably still go into the ground, whether or not I put my shirt directly into the bin.  Patagonia is a company that has been a leader in thinking about the impact, and the afterlife, of their clothing, with their "Footprint Chronicles" and their Common Threads Initiative, and even their recommendations that we buy less and use what we buy longer.  But I struggle with the sporty style; it does not come naturally to me.  So what to do?

At the time I began thinking about this, there was not very much information available about the supply chain of clothing companies.  I read everything I could find, but was often disappointed; most fashion people are not authors; they are visual people, not necessarily into crafting the written word, or researching the science behind a textile.

I have recently finished a book that does bridge this gap.  Business owners and academics weighed in, back in 2007, as it turns out, but it took me a little while to find it.  Future Fashion White Papers is well-written, with articles by business owners, professors, and other fashion industry professionals.  

It contains information about fibers, production methods, business models and regulatory systems for the supply chain that people are working on in order to clean up the toxic wake left by the fashion industry. It speaks honestly to the flaws in our over-consumptive system, without leaving the reader hopeless or guilty.  It's a strong resource for anyone interested in tracing the timeline of their clothing, especially if you are curious what happens after you give your shirt to Goodwill.

Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman

I wasn't sure about this book at first.  The author's professional background is not in fashion or textiles, or even research, which is not the end of the world, as it's hard to find fashion writing which is engaging at an intellectual level.  However, the tone in the book is light; a little bit "Watch what happens now", almost like you find on a wild animal taming program or a bloopers video show.  However, he completely won me over by writing a balanced and accessible book about people and factories that produce our clothes.

He tracks his four favorite items of clothing all the way to the factories that made them, and the people working in those factories.  He assumes nothing and remains open-minded and fair.  He describes garment production in Bangladesh, Cambodia and China, and gives reasons for supporting it, and proceeding cautiously as we do so.  Without giving it all away, I will say this: as with most things, it's complicated.  It's not as simple as boycotting a brand, although he concludes, as I have, that digging for information about companies is worth it, and that selective and thoughtful purchasing, with communication to companies, is also worth it.

Read Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes and let me know what you think.

Also check out (But the book is better, so read that).

"Kuwait on the Prairie"

As far as we can tell, there is no oil in Minnesota.  Mostly, as we observe what having oil can do for and to a community, we have been grateful that the place that we call home would not be used and abused by the boom and bust cycles which plague the modern oil economy.  During visits home, I have been happy about the lack of random derricks and rusted out equipment lingering in fields.  I have felt grateful that prices of food, fuel and housing do not feel as artificially inflated resulting from oil companies temporarily pouring money and people into a place.

On the other hand, there is the Bakken formation, in western North Dakota.  Growing up, all I knew of North Dakota was Fargo, where my parents were born and raised.  I knew that it was cold, even colder than where I had lived in Minnesota, and that many people I knew from the area around our cabin lived in Fargo during the times they were not enjoying the Minnesota lakes, where we all spent as much time as possible.

My life with my husband's work has been largely separate from my life at home.  If we are home visiting,  the language and rhythms and energy of oil production feel distant and far away, a separate existence.  However, a few weeks ago, there was an article about western North Dakota oil production in my favorite magazine, The New Yorker.  I read The New Yorker not because I care about New York, which I don't particularly, but because it is consistently some of the best writing around.  The articles are detailed, relevant, thorough, intriguing, and help me feel connected to the world.  I read about the Arab Spring, the development of an American art museum by the Walmart family, the history of cancer, the possible viability of insects as a viable source of protein for developed nations, and all manner of other random things which I would normally only catch headlines for.  And on that day, I read about places and a topic already partially familiar to me.

I had recently made the drive between Minnesota and Calgary, and had been comforted to see the physical space between those two places.  It made me much less homesick to understand that in one day, propelled by forces mostly within my control, I could traverse the chasm between our oil-soaked life in Calgary and our family life in Minnesota.  During that drive, I was also comforted, for the first time, by the presence of an oil industry.  I saw with my own eyes residue of oil and gas world linked to a place that was very close to home.  It struck me as a possible long-term way home for us, and have thought of it frequently since that trip.

Work: Choosing It

My professional journey (read: meandering route to find work that I not only don't hate, but actually kind of like) has what I consider to be uncommon breadth and somewhat lackluster depth.  I'm not sure, but I suspect it is unusual to have worked in one state capitol, two travel organizations, a financial company, four public school systems, and a clothing company in a product development capacity.  Not to mention five different retail settings, three restaurants, one bakery, one legal advocacy job, one non-profit consulting project, at least two unpaid internships and one administrative position.

All of the sudden, just now, while I was making that list, I started to feel like Miranda, in Sex and the City, making her list of who she had to call.  In reviewing what I've written, I suddenly feel shame with regard to my number.  I'm batting 1.2 jobs per year.  I'm a little horrified.  While I claim responsibility for the post-college, pre-marriage path, I have to say that the moving since I got drafted by the evil empire (five cross-country moves in five years) has amplified the repercussions of my predisposition to career about-faces.

In summary, I'm good at recognizing when work I'm doing feels like a bad fit.  I have not historically been as good at developing a clear understanding ahead of time what certain jobs would be and if they were really right for me.  I have focussed on getting the job, not planning the career path.

At some point on this journey a couple of years ago, I picked up a book called The Anti 9-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube.  The writing is fun and readable, and the advice is practical.  I did not end up working through it cover-to-cover immediately, but it is something that I go back to periodically, and it is something I have been revisiting this week.  I really like some of the suggestions for how to get to the bottom of what you want.  It has also been fun to look at it again now that two years have passed since I first examined it and my path.  Some of the interests that appealed to me when I first picked up the book have stayed the same, and others have fallen away after some exploration.  It is satisfying to see progress when I do the brainstorms and complete the questionaires.

There is a possibility brewing of a full-time job offer at work, and suddenly I'm a little panicked at the idea of giving up my free-agent status.  I want to be clear on what I want from it before I say yes, if they make the offer.  Since my industry has a very limited presence in Calgary, I can't be too picky.  On the other hand, what is the tangible value of freedom?  Somewhere in this puzzle, there is a magic number and/or set of circumstances, that make it worth losing my ability to travel freely (thereby drastically limiting my contact with friends and family) and also worth limiting my currently unlimited time to build my creative skills at home on my own.

Aside from my first teaching job, this is the hardest I have ever worked to land a job.  And last week went really well, so I feel pretty good about this one, when I weigh all of the factors.  But still, as I'm packing today to go home, I'm wondering if it will be the last time for a while that I have time to take a long road trip.