Archives for September 2012

Podcast: Singer and Zen Mama Tara MacLean

The now-defunct website SweetMama.ca once named me its “Best Teacher of Zen Motherhood”. I should have gotten a screen cap so that I could prove this, but since it’s now gone you’ll have to take my word for it. Since I often feel less-than-zen, I found this both flattering and a little bit surprising. But today on the Strocel.com podcast I’m thrilled to share an interview with one seriously zen mama, Tara MacLean Grand. Tara is most famous as a singer/songwriter. She’s worked as a solo artist and as part of the group “Shaye”. She’s also been part of a Canadian reality TV show. She’s toured internationally, appeared on Conan, and signed with some major record labels. And then she had babies, and she switched gears.

Strocel.com Podcast Tara MacLean GrandIn speaking with Tara, I discovered someone who really embraces life, and jumps in to new experiences. In addition to being a singer/songwriter she’s a doula, the prenatal consultant to her husband’s company Moksha Yoga, and an ordained minister. As someone who tends towards being overcautious, I find the way that Tara follows her passions to be inspiring. Former podcast guest Christine Pilkington agrees, which is why Tara MacLean will be a video presenter at the Leading Moms event in Vancouver next week. If you’re in the area, you may want to check it out.

During our conversation Tara and I talked about music, motherhood, yoga, suffering, childbirth and the meaning of life. Tara leaps from profound truths to humour, and I think maybe that really is what makes her a model zen mama. She knows what matters, and she also knows not to take it all too seriously. We could all use a little bit more of that, I think.

Whether you’re a musician, a mom, or you could just use a little inspiration, I encourage you to listen to the podcast:

Next week I’ll be sharing an interview with another zen mama, Danielle Mika Nagel. She’s a meditation and yoga teacher, and she’ll be talking about the benefits of mindfulness both for us and for our kids. Subscribe to my podcast in iTunes and you won’t miss a minute!

Leading Moms 2012 Vancouver

Disaster, Climate Change, Survival and Revolution

It’s Enviro-Mama Thursday here on Strocel.com. Today I’m exploring survivalism, which is a movement that many environmentalists embrace. They’re concerned that environmental issues like climate change will lead to a widespread disaster, which in turn will create food shortages and other issues. I’m not sure I can get on the survivalist bandwagon, though.

I have a soft spot for any television show involving J.J. Abrams. I watched Alias and Lost. I adore Fringe. I checked out Alcatraz, and I even watch Person of Interest regularly. When Revolution – the new show he’s producing – recently premiered, of course I tuned in. And so far, I’m enjoying it in all its sci-fi glory. The storyline is intriguing and the mystery has me hooked. But I find that I’m having to suspend my disbelief rather a lot.

The premise of the show is that for some reason, 15 years ago, the power went out all over the world. Anything that relied on electricity ceased to function. Even batteries don’t put out power anymore. Cars, computers, planes, cell phones and so on all turned off in an instant. The world descended into chaos. Governments collapsed. At the time the show starts people live in small agricultural communities, travel on foot or by horse, and avoid cities. There are lots of shots of famous buildings, vehicles and so on, overgrown with plants. No one knows why this happened, and that’s the mystery.

Power lines

This is a TV show, so I can accept the underlying premise that the laws of physics are no longer operating as they should, and electricity is no more. I’ll grant them that. My question has more to do with what happens after that. Would society completely cease to function within a matter of weeks? Would we be killing each other for food, rioting and looting? Would we almost immediately revert to the stone age?

Another one of my guilty TV pleasures is the show Doomsday Preppers. It profiles survivalists, who are preparing for disaster by stockpiling food, moving to remote locations, learning to forage, building bunkers and so on. The people on the show are worried about different things and prepare in many ways, but most of them share the same underlying concerns that within 72 hours after a disaster, panic will set in and social niceties will start to dissolve. This idea is reinforced by movies and TV shows like Revolution.

There’s something about this statistic that 72 hours without electricity will cause people to start killing each other that I can’t get behind. For one thing, we’ve only had electricity for about 100 years. Throughout the vast majority of human history, we didn’t have computers or telephones or refrigerators or light switches. While I for one certainly prefer life with those things, Revolution seems to be willfully ignoring alternatives to electricity. For example, at the turn of the century people relied heavily on steam technology. It powered trains and ships and the entire Industrial Revolution. Why wouldn’t we revert to that if electricity failed?

Power outage

Now, you could argue that we’ve become so dependent on electricity, that we really would have no idea what to do without it. Society would devolve completely. It would get so bad that we’d be unable to work together to create infrastructure. For instance, before we had electricity people largely carried cash, or visited a bank that kept paper records. Today it’s all electronic, so if we lost power we’d lose all our money, and we’d have no way of obtaining goods and services. Once again, we’re back to the idea that in the face of disaster, we all fall apart.

There’s research that shows that our preconceived ideas about how people behave in disasters are actually false. For example, when something bad happens, panic doesn’t generally ensue. Instead, we all start looking at each other and trying to figure out what’s going on. In fact when the planes hit the buildings on 9/11 people headed for the exits far more slowly than expected, which caused backlogs on the stairways. The larger the group, the longer it took them to leave, because they spent more time discussing what was happening and deciding what to do. If you doubt that, think about what happens when a fire alarm goes off. Do you get up and run, or do you look at your coworker and ask each other if there’s really a fire?

There are, apparently, a lot of common misconceptions about human behaviour following a disaster. Research shows that rather than turn on each other, we’re more likely to band together. In many cases, crime actually goes down. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions, but actual evidence suggests that we probably won’t revert to tribalism and chaos shortly after disaster occurs.

Our squash harvest

Of course, emergency preparedness is important. If something bad happens, you want to have a first aid kit, clean water, flashlights, food and so on. If you’re very concerned about environmental disaster it may also make sense to learn basic skills like gardening, so that you can be more self-reliant in the event that the grocery store shelves aren’t as full as one would hope. But you probably don’t need to worry about your neighbours turning on you a few days after the Big One hits. Although I guess the storyline the power went out, and people learned how to live without it doesn’t make for good TV.

I wonder what you think. If we lost power, would the world descend into chaos? Are you concerned about natural disasters, disease, climate change or Armageddon? Do you have an emergency plan? And if you’ve seen Revolution, what do you think? Please share!

Learning Things the Hard Way

As a parent, I view it as my job to share my wisdom with my children. You see, I’ve learned a few things in over three and a half decades on this planet. I believe that if I share these lessons with my offspring I’ll be able to save them some time and grief, because they won’t have to learn it all for themselves. I’ll be a superstar parent, and my kids will be all happy and healthy and well-adjusted and stuff, because their mother is so very wise.

It’s a lovely picture. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, though. As any parent can tell you, there are some things that kids simply insist on learning the hard way. You can talk and warn until you’re blue in the face, but they need to experience those natural consequences in order to really get it. And when they do experience those natural consequences, you have to swallow the urge to say I told you so, and soothe their grief. Because, as it turns out, learning things the hard way is hard.

Trying on Granny's glasses

Here are some of the things my own children have insisted on learning the hard way, in spite of my attempts to warn them:

  • If you let go of your balloon outside, it will very quickly disappear up into the sky, and you won’t be able to get it back.
  • If you show a dog your ice cream cone / peanut butter sandwich / cookie, the dog will eat it.
  • Once you cut hair off, there’s no putting it back on.
  • If you leave the lids off all your markers, they will dry out and you won’t have any good markers left.
  • If repeatedly chase the cat, and pull her fur, she will scratch you, and it will hurt.
  • If you throw your electronic toy in the bath, it will never work the same way again.

I’m sure my kids aren’t the only ones who sometimes insist on learning things the hard way. What lessons have your kids learned on their own, in spite of your warnings?

Should we all Take Parenting Classes?

I was recently listening to a debate on CBC radio on the topic of whether parents should be allowed to spank their children. I have already made my thoughts on spanking clear. I don’t do it, and I don’t think it’s the best way to teach kids, but that’s not what this post is about. You see, as I was listening to the debate, at one point the two debaters came to an agreement around parenting classes. While they don’t see eye-to-eye on whether or not spanking is appropriate, they both agree that most parents can benefit from having some extra parenting tools in their arsenal.

Every parent knows that children don’t come with an instruction manual. Most of us are pretty much flying blind, doing our best to get through the day. We hope that in spite of the fact that we fail constantly, our children won’t be too damaged, and it will somehow all work out in the end. We rely on a hodge podge of tools, from medical advice to suggestions from friends and family to pure instinct. We might read some books, or turn to Google, in search of answers. But very few of us take classes.

Going Home!
Bringing my first baby home – I had no idea what I was doing

I tried to find numbers for how many people do take parenting classes, and I couldn’t. But based on anecdotal evidence I’d say the numbers are pretty low. I have never seriously considered it myself. I have, however, taken prenatal classes and breastfeeding classes and first aid classes and yoga classes. I’m no stranger to classes. And yet, while I’ve read a whole library of parenting books, it has never occurred to me to actually sign up for some lessons. My kids are okay, why would I have to?

It turns out there’s some pretty convincing evidence for the benefits of parenting classes. The research indicates that parent training can result in lower stress levels in parents. It also results in improved cognitive development in children, including an increase in child language, IQ, memory and attention. If so many of us feel at a loss, and there’s evidence that we can have less stress and our kids can be smarter, why don’t we take parenting classes?

Resting together
In the hospital with my second baby – I had no idea what I was doing

I think there are a few big reasons we don’t sign up for training as parents:

  • There’s a stigma in saying you need help with parenting
  • We may feel that our kids are all right, so things must be fine as they are
  • Classes mean time and expense
  • Few of us have any idea which classes are good and which ones aren’t

The truth is that as controversial as the spanking debate I listened to was, telling parents that they should sign up for classes may be an even hotter topic. While I have been an avid reader of parenting books since my first child was born, not everyone takes the same approach. I know many parents who say that they prefer to rely on their own innate instincts. They feel that no book or class can possibly have inside info on their child, so the information is of limited value. And honestly, I can understand where they’re coming from. While I read the books, it’s very rare that I agree with every point an author makes. Kids are individuals, and there’s not single best way to parent them.

At Whatcom Falls
Last weekend with my kids – I still have no idea what I’m doing

In spite of the research around parenting classes, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not signing up for one myself – at least not yet. But I wonder if maybe they should be more widely offered to new parents. Many expectant parents take prenatal classes. I certainly did. There were a few minor points of newborn care covered in the curriculum, but by and large the focus was on labour and delivery. And yet, pregnancy only lasts nine (ish) months, while you’ll be parenting your child for years. Wouldn’t it make sense to shift the focus more towards what happens once the baby’s on the outside?

I wonder what you think. Do you think parenting classes should be recommended for all parents? Would you take them, knowing what the benefits are? Or do you think they’re just for parents who are obviously struggling? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Monkey Bars, Blisters, and Determination

My seven-year-old Hannah has recently mastered the monkey bars. Now, it’s all that she wants to do. This month I’m making a concerted effort to have regular outside time, and Hannah is spending most of that time dangling. I remember doing the same thing at her age. It was heady, finally being able to swing by your hands from one end of the bars to the other. Then pushing yourself to skip bars, and working at it until you mastered that.

MonkeyHannah’s determination with the monkey bars reminds me of other times in her life when she’s shown determination. I remember when she decided that she would really walk, instead of crawling. She fell down, and got back up. And she fell again, and got back up. And again, and again, and again. Lather, rinse, repeat. She kept at it and at it until she stopped falling altogether. Then she started walking faster, and running, and jumping, and skipping. She was always pushing herself that little bit further.

The thing is, when you’re first learning to do something, there are often growing pains. There’s the falling down. There are the sore muscles, the bruised shins, and the blisters. And oh, the blisters you get from the monkey bars. So. Many. Blisters. I remember having them myself, until eventually callouses formed. But they didn’t stop me. Now Hannah has them, and they’re not stopping her, either.

Monkey bar handsI’m no longer seven years old myself, so I find the blisters alarming. I worry about things like infection. I suggest to my daughter that maybe she should take a break to let her hands heal. She swears up and down that they don’t really hurt though, and she gets back out there. Hand over hand. Back and forth. Swinging her legs and pushing herself further every time.

Somewhere along the way in the last three decades I learned to play it safe. I learned how not to fall down, and I decided that not falling down was better than pushing myself and maybe getting hurt. It’s not all bad, actually. Someone has to be the adult (real or otherwise). Someone has to set a good example, and be waiting on the sidelines to kiss the booboos and make it all better. That’s me. I’m the one who plays it safe so that my kids don’t have to. I get it.

But every once in a while I sort of miss it. I miss the feeling of the wind in my hair. I miss the single-minded dedication that comes with working to physically master something. I miss the elation when I can go just that little bit further. And I even miss the feeling of heat in my hands, as soft skin rubs against hard metal until blisters form. It’s the feeling of possibility, and life, and iron-willed determination. I remember that it felt good.

Do your kids ever keep at something until they injure themselves? Have you seen monkey bar hands in person, too? I’d love to hear your stories!

Podcast: Chatting with the Pretirement Ladies

Strocel.com Podcast Pretirement LivingIs work-life harmony really possible? It’s a hot topic for a lot of moms, myself included. This week on the Strocel.com podcast I’m sharing an interview with two moms, Shannon Ward and Diana Stirling, who say that harmony is possible. They decided that they didn’t want to wait until they were retirement age to get out and do the things they really wanted to do, so they founded Pretirement Living.

The Pretirement site chronicles Shannon and Diana’s journey to re-make their business in a way that allows them to travel, work from anywhere, and be present with their kids while they’re little. Shannon and Diana have also recently released a book to help others create their own Pretirement lifestyle. Babyproofing Your Business shares tips for creating work-life harmony, whether you’re a seasoned entrepreneur or you’re just starting out.

Strocel.com Podcast Pretirement LivingI was excited to speak with Diana and Shannon, to find out how genuine this really is. It certainly sounds good, but is it really possible to spend four months driving across New Zealand while also running a successful business? The Pretirement ladies say that it is, and in fact Diana has done just that. Shannon, meanwhile, spends three months every year in Costa Rica. She first went there for the surfing, and she liked it so she just keeps going back. Sounds pretty good, right?

According to Diana and Shannon they created their own Pretirement lifestyle by completely re-vamping the business they were running. They focused on the clients who brought them the greatest return for the least amount of effort. They got rid of their fancy downtown office, and hired people who value flexibility and want to work from home or from the local cafe. They used technology, and they relied on each other and their partners for support. They told me all about it during our podcast.

If you like the idea of creating a location-independent lifestyle that allows you the freedom to do the things you really want to do, you’ll want to listen to the podcast:

Shannon and Diana will be speaking in Vancouver at the Leading Moms event on October 3, 2012. If you’re in the Vancouver area, and you’d like to soak up a whole lot more inspiration, this is a great event to check out.

Next week I’ll be sharing an interview with singer/songwriter Tara MacLean. She has three full-length solo albums, two recordings with the group “Shaye”, and she was even part of a Canadian reality TV show. After speaking with her I can also say that she may be the most zen mama I have ever interviewed. Whether you want to hear about the twists and turns of her musical journey, or you’re looking for insight to help you make your own life a little bit more intentional, you’ll want to tune in. Subscribe to my podcast in iTunes and you won’t miss a minute!

Leading Moms 2012 Vancouver

Cowpower: Exploring an Energy Alternative

Every year our family visits the PNE, which is the big annual fair here in the Vancouver area. While we wandered around the exhibits, I came across one that caught my eye, for Cowpower. It’s a project that takes manure and other agricultural waste and turns it into electricity. As you may recall, my One Green Thing for September is converting a portion of my natural gas use into renewable natural gas. This seemed to be in the same vein, and was intrigued. I sent an email to the company asking if there was someone I could speak with. I ended up connecting with Matt Dickson, the founder.

“Cowpower was launched at the end of January at this year,” Matt explained. “I’ve had the idea for several years, and just kind of needed the right time and the right funding to develop and launch it.” He’s partnered with a local farm (the EcoDairy I visited a couple of years ago), which has an anaerobic digester. The digester takes the waste and, using microorganisms, breaks it down into methane and digestate. The methane is used for power. The digestate is handled to separate the liquids and the solids. The solid is a fluffy, fibrous material that farmers use for the cow’s bedding. The liquid is a high-quality fertilizer.

cowpower bc jacob

Jacob checks out the Cowpower booth

Matt outlined what makes the fertilizer so great. “One of the major benefits around anaerobic digestion is most dairy farmers spread raw manure on the fields. The nutrients in the raw manure are in these long chain molecules. The plants have to first break down those long chains before they can absorb the nutrients. When the manure’s gone through a digester those long chain molecules have already been broken down. When you put it onto the field crops find it much easier to absorb the nutrients. The nutrients sit on the land for a much shorter period of time. If you were to spread raw manure and the next day it were to rain heavily, all those nutrients could end up in rivers, streams, lakes. When you spread the liquid fertilizer on the field, even if it rains the next day, all those nutrients have already been absorbed. It’s much, much less impactful to water bodies.”

One of the things I saw at the EcoDairy is that the cows are all kept indoors. I asked Matt if this would work as well if cows were out grazing in the fields, and he said it would not. However, he cited a study from UBC that found that most cows prefer to be indoors. He says that even when farmers allow their cows outside, most of the time at least 80% of the manure ends up in the barn, where it can be collected. Organic farms are the exception. To be certified organic, cows must spend a minimum amount of time outdoors. Those farms would likely not be suitable candidates for the Cowpower program. The best farms will be larger farms, with 200 cows and up, producing conventional milk. Matt says that there are about 50 and 100 dairy farms locally that could build a digester in the next 10 years, with the right incentives.

One of my biggest questions for Matt was why they were using the methane they were harvesting to generate electricity, rather than heat. Since I had recently looked into using renewable natural gas for my home, it seemed like that would be the more efficient way to go. What Matt explained to me is that Cowpower is meant to work alongside the program from my gas company. It turns out that in order to feed natural gas into the system, you need to be located close to the pipeline. And not just close to the pipeline – you need to be upstream. You can be right on top of the pipeline, but if you’re at the end, you’re not going to be able to feed gas in, since it only flows one direction. Electricity, on the other hand, can be fed into the grid far more easily from any location.

The last thing that I really wanted to find out was how Cowpower compares to hydroelectricity. The vast majority of electricity here in British Columbia comes from hydroelectricity. It’s a carbon-neutral, sustainable form of energy generation. Given that we have so much water to generate clean energy, why would we turn to Cowpower, which is fairly expensive to develop? Matt explained that Cowpower is actually carbon negative.

cowpower bc

Hannah checks out the Cowpower booth

“When you build an anaerobic digester you get greenhouse gas reductions in two places. First of all you’re producing a carbon neutral energy source, which goes onto the grid. On the front end, imagine a dairy farm currently. It scrapes the manure into a pit, and that manure is applied to the field a few times a year. While it is in that pit it is producing methane, and that methane is getting released into the atmosphere. When you build a digester, you capture all that methane, and then when you burn it you convert the methane to carbon dioxide.” Since methane is more than 20 times more impactful as a greenhouse gas than carbon, you’re significantly reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from the farm. And that carbon dioxide is considered neutral, because it comes from the plants the cows eat, which extract carbon dioxide from the air.

The other big upside to using an anaerobic digester is odour reduction. I grew up in farm country, and I am all too familiar with the smell when farmers spread manure on their fields as fertilizers. That odour is nearly completely removed during the digestion process. Matt quoted a farmer from Vermont, who said, “Since I installed a digester, my neighbours wave at me with all five fingers.” That would definitely make breathing much more pleasant. By putting a price on the benefits like cleaner waterways, odour reduction, nutrient management and carbon offsets, as well as energy production, Matt is hoping to make anaerobic digesters more affordable to farmers.

After speaking with Matt, I’m sold on the benefits of Cowpower. I haven’t signed on myself yet, just because it’s quite a lot more expensive than renewable natural gas from my gas company. However, I’m definitely considering it, and I’ll be keeping an eye on my monthly budget to see if I can swing it.

I wonder what you think – would you be willing to pay a premium on your electricity bill to support a program like this? And do you think this is the type of thing that governments and energy companies should be investing in? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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